In recent days there have been a run of stories about the byzantine, or rather sovietological, new twists and turns in the Plame investigation. And whenever this story pops up into the news, thereâs a rush of speculation about that other investigation.
That, of course, would be the investigation into just who forged the notorious Niger-uranium documents that purported to show that Iraq had purchased uranium from Niger --- the underlying issue that led to the Plame investigation in the first place.
Itâs even been suggested in the press that the two investigations might have been consolidated into one.
The truth, though, the dirty little secret, is that thereâs never been any real investigation into where those documents came from. Don't look for status updates on it because it doesn't exist.
Yes, back in March 2003, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), vice-chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence asked the FBI to investigate the matter. And it was on the basis of this supposed investigation that the Committee decided not to investigate anything about the forged documents before they showed up at the US Embassy in Rome in October 2002. (See page 57 of the Committee report.) But again, despite claims to the contrary, the FBI hasnât made any serious effort to find out who was behind the scam.
I say this for several reasons, which Iâll be discussing over the next few days -- some are based directly on my reporting on the case and others from inferences I've drawn from what I've observed. But let me start with one.
One of the obvious places to start such an investigation would be with Elisabetta Burba, the Italian journalist who got copies of the documents and later turned them over to the American Embassy in Rome. And the obvious question would be, Who gave you the documents?
FBI agents did do a cursory interview with Burba not long after Rockefeller asked for an investigation. And they made a pro-forma request for her to contact her source to see if some arrangement could be devised under which they could speak to him.
But after that, they didnât follow up with her for months to find out what the answer was. And when they did finally follow up with her, it was mainly because one agent was passing the matter on to someone else.
To this day theyâve never made contact with the guy who tried to sell Burba the documents.
Now, on the surface you might say, âWell, maybe sheâs just refused to name her source. And maybe sheâs the only one who knows who the guys is. So what can they do?â
But that excuse falls apart pretty quickly.
My colleagues and I have known the guyâs name since late spring. And at least three European intelligence agencies knew who he was well before we found out. In fact, twice this summer we brought him to New York for interviews. Both time he travelled under his own name, Rocco Martino.
The first time was in June; the second time was in August. And itâs the second time thatâs more telling.
By the time we brought Martino to New York in early August, he had already been identified by name in the Italian and the British press as the man who tried to sell Burba the forged documents. And when we whisked him out of the country he was under very active and conspicuous surveillance by Italian authorities in Rome (a point we'll return to later). He flew to New York under his own name and stayed for several days.
A colleague of mine and I actually had a friendly bet about whether we'd have any problems getting Rocco through Customs in New York the second time or whether FBI agents would be there waiting to talk with him since the word was out about who he was, what he'd done, and that he was coming to the US.
I told my friend that I doubted they were looking for him. And if they were, the last thing they'd want would be for it to be reported in the press that they'd questioned Rocco or taken him into custody. He was a hot potato. Everything we'd learned reporting on Niger uranium case told us that this was a story the US government did not want to get to the bottom of.
Needless to say, nothing happened.
Now, perhaps if the case werenât that high a priority or if there were some jurisdictional issues, it might be understandable if the FBI made no effort to contact him in Rome. But if they were on top of this case or interested in getting to the bottom of it, youâd think theyâd try to speak with him if he arrived in New York right after his name was plastered across a bunch of European newspapers --- including one, the Financial Times, which you can pick up at any decent newsstand in the United States. (The Italians were keeping a close eye on him. And through leaks to the press in Italy, they let it be known that Rocco had again gone to the US.)
But he came, spent several drama-filled or tragicomic days, and then left. And no one from the FBI or any other American law enforcement or intelligence agency made any attempt to contact him in any way. Nor have they done so since.
Now, there are other reasons why this information about Martino would have been easy for the Bureau to get a hold of. But once it was publicly known who he was and that he was traveling to the US under his own name, it seems pretty clear that they really just werenât too interested in talking with him.