Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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In Washington today, at a session with members of the Italian press, PM Silvio Berlusconi said, "Lo stesso Bush mi ha confermato che gli USA non hanno avuto alcuna informazione dai servizi italiani." That loosely translates to "Bush himself confirmed to me that the USA did not have any information from Italian agencies." And the answer was reference to whether the United States had gotten any of the Niger intelligence from Italy.

The claim here is simply a lie. US suspicions about Niger and Iraq began with intelligence reports from Italy in October 2001. Those reports were based on the forged documents. Did President Bush really say that? Berlusconi must know this is false.

Question of the day.

Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi is in Washington today.

Later this week Berlusconi's intelligence chief will be questioned before a closed session of a committee of the Italian parliament about allegations he was responsible for using back channels to funnel the Niger uranium forgeries to the White House.

Last week a top White House official was indicted on five counts stemming from the Niger scandal.

Please let us know if any journalist in Washington today puts a question regarding Italy's role in the Niger caper to Bush, Berlusconi or spokespersons for either man.

It won't be as easy as it might have been: their scheduled joint press conference was cancelled and reporters were not permitted to ask questions after the two gave brief statements today at the White House.

The White House doesn't want to answer any questions about this story; and few reporters seem inclined to press the point.

Just out from the veep's office ...

The Vice President today appointed David S. Addington of Virginia to be the chief of staff to the Vice President. The Vice President also appointed John P. Hannah of the District of Columbia as the Assistant to the Vice President for National Security Affairs.

Mr. Addington has served in the position of Counsel to the Vice President since January 20, 2001. In prior Federal service, Mr. Addington served at the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense, the White House, and four congressional committees. In the private sector, he headed a multicandidate political action committee, practiced law with two firms, and headed the law department of a trade association. Mr. Addington is a graduate of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and the Duke University School of Law.

Mr. Hannah has served on the national security staff in the Office of the Vice President since March 2001 and is currently the Principal Deputy Assistant to the Vice President for National Security Affairs. In prior Federal service, Mr. Hannah served at the Department of State. In the private sector, Mr. Hannah practiced law in Washington, D.C. and served as a senior official of a Washington-based foreign policy research organization. Mr. Hannah is a graduate of Duke University and the Yale Law School.

Circling the wagons.

The Italian Connection, Part I

(ed.note: At various points over the last two years, I've discussed here at tpm reporting I've done on the origins of the Niger forgeries. I've never put all the reporting in one place; and until now there was still a good bit of information I wasn't at liberty to report. This is the first of a series of installments I'm going to publish here at TPM in which I will lay out the story as I understand it based on my own reporting and research.)

On March 7th, 2003, on the eve of the Iraq War, Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told the UN Security Council that documents purporting to show that Iraq had purchased uranium ore from Niger were in fact forgeries. The documents had been provided to the IAEA by the United States. "Based on thorough analysis," said ElBaradei, "the IAEA has concluded, with the concurrence of outside experts, that these documents - which formed the basis for the reports of recent uranium transactions between Iraq and Niger - are in fact not authentic."

As the world would soon learn, the documents had first emerged in Rome in October 2002 when an unnamed ‘security consultant’ had tried to sell them to Elisabetta Burba, a journalist working for the Italian magazine Panorama. From there, the documents made their way to the American Embassy in Rome and finally back to Washington. In early 2003, the IAEA had demanded that the US provide whatever evidence it had to support its claims that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program. And in response the US handed over copies of the documents.

Ever since ElBaradei’s revelation, the story had been one that interested me greatly, as it did many others. And my interest only grew that summer when renewed controversy erupted over the claims retired Ambassador Joe Wilson made about his fact-finding trip to Niger. But the following winter, two streams of information opened up to me which suggested that the forgeries story went well beyond this unnamed Italian ‘security consultant’ and that the US government appeared less than interested in discovering the identities of either the forgers or those who had used the documents to deceive the American people.

One stream of information came from sources within the US government itself.

According to US government sources I spoke to in the course of my reporting, there was far more tying the forgeries to Italy than the mere fact that they had first emerged in Rome in October 2002. Almost a year earlier, US suspicions about an illicit uranium trade between Iraq and Niger had begun with intelligence reports from Italy. Soon after the September 11th attacks, the Italian military intelligence agency SISMI sent its first report to the US government including details of an alleged Iraqi purchase of 500 tons of lightly-processed uranium ore from Niger.

Details of this and a subsequent SISMI report formed the basis of a reference to alleged Iraq-Niger uranium sales which was included in a CIA briefing Vice President Cheney received in early 2002. It was that briefing that prompted Cheney's request for more information on the Iraq-Niger sale. And that request led, in turn, to the CIA's decision to dispatch Joe Wilson on his trip to Niger. The Italian reports had set the whole process in motion.

But there was another key detail: The reports out of Italy were not a separate source of intelligence from the forgeries. They were the forgeries. To be precise, the intelligence reports from Italy were actually text transcriptions and summaries of the forged documents. The reports from Italy and the forgeries were one and the same. The distinction is rather like saying you haven't seen the PDF of a letter only the text from the letter that someone copied down from the PDF. The fact that the Italian reports came from as-yet-to-be-revealed forgeries of course could not be known at the time. That only became clear to intelligence officials much later when these post-9/11 Italian reports and the forgeries were compared. But looking back in retrospect, it was clear that the whole Niger uranium canard seemed to lead back to those forgeries.

Just what that meant for Italy's role wasn’t clear. Indeed, it still isn’t entirely clear. What was quite clear, however, was that the Italian government would be a key place to start to get to the bottom of the forgeries’ mystery.

And there was more.

I also learned of the existence of a Joint State Department-CIA Inspectors General report on the “16 words” and the Niger forgeries which was produced in the fall of 2003. Much of the report detailed information later revealed in the Senate intelligence committee report. But there were other briefly noted but intriguing details.

For instance, the State-CIA IG report briefly noted a murky story about contacts between SISMI and the CIA in the summer of 2002. That summer SISMI had approached the CIA about an operation they intended to run against the Station Chief of Iraqi intelligence in Rome. The plan was to send disinformation about the Iraqi Station Chief back to Baghdad via a third country. And the subject of the disinformation was to be trade between Iraq and Niger. (The Americans did not object but declined to participate.)

That was certainly interesting.

Later, from other US government sources, I learned another detail. When the forgeries arrived at the US Embassy in Rome in October 2002, the first reaction of the CIA Station chief was to wonder whether this wasn’t the same story the Italians had suggested using against the Iraqi only months before.

As you can see, quite a lot of information seemed to suggest that the Italian government played a large role in the story of the Niger forgeries, even if it might be an innocent or unwitting one. Yet neither the CIA nor the FBI, a knowledgeable source told me, seemed intent on getting to the bottom of what had happened.

In addition to these clues, there was one more piece of information. And here is where the two streams of information I noted above flowed together. A US government source pointed me toward a series of suspicious points of overlap between the forgeries story and a series of unauthorized meetings between Italian intelligence figures, two Pentagon employees working under Doug Feith, other Americans and the disgraced Iran-Contra figure Manucher Ghorbanifar. These meetings were the subject of an article ("Iran-Contra II?") I published with Laura Rozen and Paul Glastris in the Washington Monthly in early September 2004. Around the same time, another source -- this one outside the US government – told me a murky series of details about the meetings which purported to connect them to the emergence of the forgeries in Rome in October 2002.

These were the details -- some quite specific and solidly-sourced, others murky but intriguing -- that led me to start reporting on the Niger forgeries in earnest in early 2004. In the second installment, how the Washington Monthly, Laura Rozen, and finally 60 Minutes came into the picture, and new information pointing toward the role of Italian intelligence.

From the current version of the Gellman article in today's Washington Post ...

On July 12, the day Cheney and Libby flew together from Norfolk, Libby talked to Miller and Cooper. That same day, another administration official who has not been identified publicly returned a call from Walter Pincus of The Post. He "veered off the precise matter we were discussing" and said Wilson's trip was a boondoggle set up by Wilson's wife, Pincus has written in Nieman Reports.

From the original version now saved in the Nexis database...

On July 12, the day Cheney and Libby flew together from Norfolk, the vice president instructed his aide to alert reporters of an attack launched that morning on Wilson's credibility by Fleischer, according to a well-placed source.

Libby talked to Miller and Cooper. That same day, another administration official who has not been identified publicly returned a call from Walter Pincus of The Post. He "veered off the precise matter we were discussing" and told him that Wilson's trip was a "boondoggle" set up by Plame, Pincus has written in Nieman Reports.

More soon.

At the Washington Post online yesterday, Jeff Morley raised the possibility that last year's Dan Rather/National Guard papers scandal may have prevented CBS's 60 Minutes from airing a story on the origins of the Niger forgeries. Referring to Elisabetta Burba, the Italian journalist who was offered the forgeries in October 2002, Morley writes ...

Burba "has also been interviewed by the CBS investigative show '60 Minutes ' for a piece on the documents that was pulled in the wake of the problems that brought down Dan Rather," according to the LAT.

But after suffering a major black eye last year for relying on forged documents for a story about President Bush's National Guard service, CBS would risk controversy if it aired a story about how the Bush administration allegedly relied on doctored intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war. CBS's coverage would seem to be handcuffed, at least temporarily, by Rather's 2004 election mistake.

This account is incomplete and substantially incorrect. But that's no criticism of Morley because the actual story has never been publicly aired.

Allow me to explain.

By the late spring of 2004, 60 Minutes had interviewed Burba, the Italian journalist, Rocco Martino, the 'security consultant' who had attempted to sell her the documents in October 2002, and the SISMI asset (the female Italian national) who works in the Nigerien Embassy in Rome. The interviews implicated Antonio Nucera, a colonel from the Italian intelligence service SISMI, as the immediate source of the documents. After an initial conversation, Nucera himself refused all contact with the reporters working on the story.

After this, a string of problems delayed the airing of the story.

First, given the nature of the story, CBS, understandably, felt it was necessary to have an administration official interviewed to provide the administration's side of the story. Yet after initial arrangements had been made to interview mid-range administration officials for the story, they later declined to be interviewed. Eventually, it became clear that no Bush administration officials would agree to be interviewed for the story.

That delayed the story. But eventually, Sen. Roberts (R-KS), chairman of the senate select committee on intelligence, himself agreed to provide an interview. His only condition was that he would only speak on camera after the senate intelligence committee issued its report that summer.

That necessitated a further delay. But it also appeared to clear the way for the airing of the story mid-summer. The story was held until the senate report was released.

However, after the senate intel report appeared in early July, Roberts first equivocated and then finally withdrew his promise to provide an interview for the story.

Again, the story was held up because there was no administration official or Republican congressional figure who agreed to be interviewed. And that is where the matter stood late in the summer of 2004.

Over the next two months, in response to the interviews noted above and other reporting implicating SISMI, a series of leaks began to emerge out of SISMI that were picked up in sympathetic Italian dailies as well as the Financial Times and the Daily Telegraph. In response to these reports and, for the first time, the publication of his name, Martino again travelled to the United States for another round of interviews.

Eventually, a version of the Niger story was produced. But it had the interviews with Martino and the SISMI asset who works in the Nigerien embassy removed. While the segment provided a compelling narrative of the story of the infamous "sixteen words", it contained little or no information that had not already been reported in major newspaper coverage of the story. The reporting implicating the Italian government and SISMI were set aside for a possible follow-up report.

The produced segment was scheduled to be aired on Wednesday, September 8th, 2004. Several days before the airing, however, the possibility was raised that the Niger story would be bumped in favor of Dan Rather's segment on President Bush and the National Guard. As late as the day of airing itself, a final decision had yet to be made on which segment would run.

Once the scandal over Guard memos erupted, CBS decided that it could not run a story about forged Niger memos while it was embroiled in a scandal about forged National Guard memos. Later, CBS announced it would not run the story because it was too soon before the November election. After the election was over, no plans were made to run the piece, either in the expurgated or complete form.