Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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ThinkProgress has posted a copy of this morning's White House gaggle. And it contains this passage about the Berlusconi/Niger story ...

Q After his meeting with the President on Monday, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was asked whether the Italian government had provided the United States with intelligence on alleged Iraqi purchases of uranium, or from Niger. Berlusconi replied, “Bush, himself, confirmed to me that the U.S.A. did not have any information from Italian agencies.” Does the White House stand by that statement?

MR. McCLELLAN: Stand by what — say the statement again.

Q Berlusconi replied — he replied in Italian, this is a translation, “Bush, himself, confirmed to me that the U.S.A. did not have any information from Italian agencies.”

MR. McCLELLAN: I think I addressed that question yesterday. I responded to that. You’ve got to go back and look at exactly what I said.

Q So your answer is, “yes”?

MR. McCLELLAN: I’m sorry? I addressed that question yesterday. I responded to it.

Q So the answer is, “yes”?

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, if you’re talking about — because there have been some Italian reports about a meeting that took place here at the White House, and I pointed out yesterday that there were no documents provided relating to Niger and uranium at that meeting, much less –

Q Not just –

MR. McCLELLAN: — much less was it even discussed.

Q — no, not just at the meeting –

MR. McCLELLAN: And in terms of going back to the issue of Niger and uranium, I mean, we briefed on that and we talked about the basis for the statement in the remarks. And it was based on the National Intelligence Estimates and the British intelligence.

This is sort of maddening since the same thing happened yesterday. Reporters ask whether the president is really claiming that the US didn't get any of its Iraq/Niger intelligence from Italy -- a claim that is certainly false. Then McClellan chooses to answer a completely different question. McClellan answers by referring to their vague response to reports that then-Deputy National Security Advisor Steve Hadley discussed the Niger-uranium story with Italian intel chief Nicolo Pollari at a meeting in Washington in September 2002.

That September meeting is another part of the puzzle. But these are two completely different questions. But this funny business has allowed McClellan to duck answering the question for two days running.

The Italian Connection, Part II

In the previous installment I described early reporting I did on the origins of the Niger forgeries – reporting which pointed strongly toward an Italian government role in the Niger uranium hoax.

I started reporting on the story in earnest in January 2004, when I still had a writing contract with The Washington Monthly, where I then did most of my long-form magazine reporting. So after the preliminary reporting I described earlier, I told the magazine’s editor, my friend Paul Glastris, that I would write my next piece on the Niger story. I also asked Laura Rozen to join me in reporting the story.

Soon, however, it became clear to me that we simply wouldn’t have the clout or the resources to break open the story, either in Washington or in Italy. We were also crossing paths with various unpleasant characters as we tried to piece together clues about the identity of the man who had sold the documents -- which, honestly, isn't fun without a large news organization in the mix.

So I approached a producer at 60 Minutes who had earlier expressed an interest in working together on a project. We came up with an arrangement in which we would share sources. They would have access to the sources and leads I developed and I to theirs. They’d produce their television segment. I’d write my article. Both would be separate. Our only agreement was that we wouldn’t scoop each other. I wouldn’t write my article until their TV segment aired.

Before approaching CBS we’d already come up with the name of a man we thought might be the one who had first peddled the documents to Elisabetta Burba, the Panorama journalist who’d first gotten hold of the forgeries in October 2002. The next step was to go Burba herself and see if we were right. Only she could provide the confirmation. Only she knew who it was we were looking for.

That was in the first week of April 2004.

We talked to Burba. And we asked. And, quite simply, we were wrong. Dead wrong. It wasn’t him. A huge amount of legwork was simply a bust. I've never been sure whether the original lead about the identity of the documents peddler was just a bum steer or a fragment of the real story which we had somehow misinterpreted. Regardless, for us it was a dead end.

But things didn’t end there.

Burba proceeded to do what she’d never done before. She told us about the unnamed security consultant, without revealing his name. And she went on to describe what had happened in the year and a half since the forged documents had first come into her possession.

Ever since Panorama had established the documents were unreliable, Burba had wanted to pursue the story behind the forgeries. But her editors at Panorama decided not to publish anything.

Nevertheless, she confronted her source and demanded to know where he had gotten the documents.

In response to her demands, he began to describe a murky story involving an Italian intelligence officer and a woman working at the Embassy of Niger in Rome.

Later we learned the name of her source: Rocco Martino. Martino was an information peddler, a former member of Italian military intelligence (SISMI) who, after retiring from SISMI in the early 1980s, had worked as a supplier of information and sometimes agent-for-hire for other intelligence agencies in Europe and the Middle East. His specialty, he would later tell us, was work on Islamic fundamentalist groups around the southern Mediterranean. He recounted trips over the years to countries across the Arab Middle East and North Africa.

The story began, as Martino later told us, when a former SISMI colleague had approached him with a proposition. The man’s name was Antonio Nucera, a SISMI colonel. The two had remained in professional contact over the years since Martino had left the service.

Nucera pointed Martino’s attention to a female Italian national who worked as a secretary at the Nigerien Embassy in Rome. The woman had been a long-time source for SISMI, a SISMI asset, apparently stealing documents from the Nigeriens and possibly from others and then passing them on to SISMI. Martino would later tell us that she had once worked at the embassy of another African nation in Rome -- apparently then too as a plant for Italian intelligence.

Nucera told Martino, somewhat contemptuously, that SISMI was washing its hands of the woman. But he suggested that she could provide Martino with documents and information that he could make use of, selling to his various clients, often to the highest bidder. It was from this woman working at the Niger Embassy that he had gotten the dossier of Niger uranium documents he later tried to sell her in October 2002. Later, he would come to believe that Nucera had himself provided the dossier to the woman at the Niger Embassy .

And there it was, a first account of what had happened from two of the players at the center of the drama, at least a rough outline -- from Nucera, the SISMI colonel, to the woman at the Niger Embassy to Martino.

Next we would have to try to talk to these three players themselves.

(ed.note: The text above is a revised version of the post that appeared late Tuesday evening -- jmm.)

Well done. Reid forces Frist and Roberts to stop blocking the senate investigation into White House manipulation of WMD intel prior to the Iraq war. Details to follow ...

Late Update: The details I'm told involve a November 14th deadline for a report from a group of three Republican and three Democratic senators on the status of the phase two inquiry. Also, do not miss the piece Mark Schmitt just posted at TPMCafe on what this victory may mean. It's good stuff, don't miss it.

I'm told Sen. Reid has taken the senate into closed session to discuss the senate's failure to "phase two" of the Senate Select Committee on Inteligence report on the Iraqi WMD intelligence failure. Phase two, you'll remember, was to examine alleged administration manipulation of intelligence.

Click here to read the statement Reid gave before taking the senate into closed session.

The name of Stephen J. Hadley (first term Deputy National Security Advisor and now National Security Advisor) has come up again and again in the Niger-uranium story.

In early 2002 Hadley was tasked with shutting down the unauthorized meetings Harold Rhode, Larry Franklin and Michael Ledeen were holding with Iraqi and Iranian exiles, and Italian intelligence figures including the head of SISMI, Nicolo Pollari, in Rome in late 2001.

On September 9th, 2002, Hadley met with Pollari in Washington. According to the Italian daily La Repubblica Pollari was there to press the details of the Niger-uranium story. The NSC has now confirmed that the meeting took place but claims it was a brief meeting and that no one present remembers the yellowcake story coming up.

In other words, it's a quite hazy denial if it's even a denial at all.

Less than a month later Hadley and others at the NSC tried but failed to get the Niger story into President Bush's October 7th WMD speech in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Days later copies of the forgeries surfaced in Rome.

Three months later Hadley and the same colleagues at the NSC succeeded in getting the Niger story included in the president's 2003 State of the Union address.

In July, Hadley took personal responsibility for allowing the bogus claim to be included in the State of the Union address and apologized publicly to the president.

Much of what I've just laid out here has been known for some time. But Hadley is doing a press briefing tomorrow afternoon at the White House to discuss the president's upcoming visit to Latin America.

It would certainly be welcome to get some clarification directly from Mr. Hadley about just what he discussed with Pollari at that September 2002 and whether the claims contained in the La Repubblica article is in fact false.

What did the president say to Berlusconi?

From this morning's gaggle ...

QUESTION: Thank you. Any more explanation of the Berlusconi-President discussion about Italian intelligence on Iraq -- is this to say that Mr. Fitzgerald's finding that the Niger claim had its genesis in Italian intelligence was wrong?

SCOTT McCLELLAN: Mr. Fitzgerald's -- I'll have to look back at what his finding was. I don't recall the specifics of that.

QUESTION: Fitzgerald found that what we had been calling British intelligence, the document -- the forged document --

SCOTT McCLELLAN: Maybe I missed that. I don't think so. I don't think so.

QUESTION: -- alleging an Iraq --

SCOTT McCLELLAN: Okay, I don't think he did.

QUESTION: I'm wrong on this?

SCOTT McCLELLAN: Maybe I'm wrong. But I don't think he --

QUESTION: That's not ringing any bells.


QUESTION: It's not ringing any bells with other people either.

QUESTION: No, it is, it is. And I can't remember if it's Fitzgerald or somebody else, but there's this is the central issue is --

QUESTION: The central issue was --

QUESTION: -- the source of the --

QUESTION: The source of the forged document was Italy, who handed it to --

SCOTT McCLELLAN: No, the -- we actually briefed on the source of the information back in July of 2003, and the source was the National Intelligence Estimate and British Intelligence. That was the basis for the reference in the President's State of the Union address.

QUESTION: Fitzgerald found an Italian tie, and I presume this is what the discussion between the President and Berlusconi was about.

SCOTT McCLELLAN: Yes, they -- like I said they -- Prime Minister Berlusconi brought it up, and as they indicated, that there wasn't any documents that were provided to us on Niger and uranium by --

QUESTION: Wait, no documents or no intelligence?


QUESTION: The press report out of Italy is a transcription -- it's a transcription of the forged documents, not the actual documents themselves. But Berlusconi said yesterday was, no information passed from Italy to the United States.

SCOTT McCLELLAN: Yes, I think he was accurately reflecting what he indicated in the meeting.

QUESTION: So that accurately characterizes the President's position, that the United States never received any intelligence --

SCOTT McCLELLAN: Well, Prime Minister Berlusconi was reflecting that within the meeting, and we've previously said in regards to a question that came up about a meeting here at the White House that no one here has any recollection of Niger and uranium being discussed at that meeting, much less any documents being provided.

More to come.

Possible Correction: Yesterday I reported that the Bush-Berlusconi press conference had been cancelled and I suggested that it had happened because both were worried about taking questions about the brewing Niger-Uranium controversy. The two also refused to take any questions when they appeared in front of reporters before their meeting in the White House.

The report of the cancellation came out of the Italian press. But I'm now told, by a reliable source, that there was actually no press conference scheduled. I think what this means is that the decision not to hold a press conference was made before it ever made it on to the schedules handed out to reporters. So I think the underlying issue is the same. But I just wanted to clear that up.

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.