Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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A number of you have written in with some version of the following question. If the Niger forgeries only surfaced in Rome in October 2002, what was the earlier information that prompted the CIA/Dick Cheney to dispatch Joe Wilson to Niger earlier that year?

It's a good question. And the good answer tells you some of how the US government and the Congress have gone about misleading the American public about what really happened.

Let me explain.

Not long after the September 11th attacks, the United States received a series of liaison intelligence reports from an allied intelligence service. The reports suggested an illicit trade in uranium between Iraq and Niger.

These were the ambiguous reports that Dick Cheney asked his CIA briefer to follow up on. And that was the request that eventually led to the Wilson trip to Niger.

Those reports are discussed in the Senate Intelligence committee report from last year. And, in isolation, there is nothing odd or untoward about the fact that the name of the allied intelligence service, the country in question, is redacted in the public version of the report. But given all the rest we know, the name of the country turns out to be quite significant.

What country? Right. Italy.

Now, you might say, at least this shows there was some other basis for the Niger claims other than the forgeries. But, well, not exactly.

According to two sources familiar with the documents and reports in question, those early Italian reports were text transcriptions of what we'd later learn were the forged documents. In other words, they were the phony documents. Not facsimiles or xeroxes or whatever you want to call them. But copies of the text that the documents contained.

When US government officials say we didn't have the documents until long after Wilson's trip, you need to treat it like a Scott McClellan non-denial denial. No, they didn't have the documents, only transcriptions of the documents.

The point being, it was all fruit of the same poison tree. The phony documents was all there ever was behind the Niger canard. There has just been a lot of effort to obscure that very significant fact.

With all that appears to be coming out of Italy today about the origins of the Niger forgeries and efforts to get them directly to the White House by bypassing the CIA, don't forget that the White House in concert with Sen. Roberts (R-KS) went to great lengths last year to delay and eventually to prevent CBS from running a story which would have revealed many of these details.

To understand the key significance of the date (Sept. 9th, 2002) of the secret meeting between SISMI Chief Niccolo Pollari and then-Deputy National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, review this post from October 31st, 2003. This happened in the thick of the White House's efforts to get the Niger claims before the public, despite CIA warnings that the charges were bogus.

Also don't miss Laura Rozen's piece in the Prospect which provides additional details and context about today's revelations.

I mentioned yesterday that the Italian daily La Repubblica ran a story reporting alleged new details about the origins of the Niger/uranium forgeries. Today they followed up with a second part of their report which, if accurate in its particulars, could rock the foundations of official Washington.

Let me note first, as I did yesterday, that the article is of course written in Italian. And it has not yet had a professional translation. What I'm about to discuss comes from a conversation I had this morning with a colleague in Italy who related the substance of the article to me. I'm confident of the substance of what I'm going to describe; but I wanted to add that caveat. Keep in mind also that what I'm relating comes from this particular article. I can't vouch for it based on reporting of my own. And there are reasons to be skeptical on a few different points.

Nicolo Pollari is the head of Italian military intelligence, SISMI. The Repubblica article claims that over the course of 2002 Pollari -- knowing the documents were fakes -- made repeated attempts to get them into the DC information stream by going around the CIA, which discounted them as fakes. This was to satisfy the expressed needs of Bush administration officials who were searching for some information to validate their claims about an Iraqi nuclear program.

Remember, too, that Pollari attended the secret Rome meetings in late 2001 arranged by Michael Ledeen and attended by Manucher Ghorbanifar, Larry Franklin and Harold Rhode.

Pollari's efforts were apparently in concert with the man who is now the Italian ambassador to the United States. And, perhaps most explosively, Pollari apparently arranged a secret meeting with Stephen Hadley -- then deputy National Security Advisor, and now National Security Advisor -- to discuss the documents.

The alleged date was September 9th, 2002.

The context here is important. The source of endless suspicion about when the documents first surfaced has been the timing and how that related to what was then happening in Washington. They surfaced just after the White House and the CIA had had a roundhouse battle over whether the President could make the Niger accusation in a speech in Cincinnati, Ohio. The CIA eventually prevailed, at least winning that round. The documents surfaced in Italy a couple days later. And the president eventually succeeded in levelling the claim in his subsequent State of the Union address.

That White House-CIA argument was happening in late September 2002. The speech, if memory serves, was to be given on October 7th.

That puts the alleged Hadley-Pollari meeting only a week or so earlier.

I'll try to elaborate this timeline and add other details in a subsequent post.

Late Update: In an article just posted at the Prospect, Laura Rozen has now confirmed that the September 9th Hadley-Pollari meeting did in fact take place.

McClellan this morning on Cheney ...

QUESTION: Back in 2003, the Vice President said publicly that he didn't know who sent Joe Wilson on the Niger mission, back in June of 2003 -- or July of 2003 -- when the person who sent him's name first became public. There now seems to be contradictory evidence that, in fact, he did know. Do you know, did he know, did he not know?

SCOTT McCLELLAN: This is a question relating to an ongoing investigation, and we're not having any further comment on the investigation while it's ongoing. That is on all questions relating to the investigation.

QUESTION: But that isn't really a question about the investigation.

SCOTT McCLELLAN: It relates to the whole issue that the special prosecutor is investigating, or looking into.

QUESTION: Well, it relates to the truthfulness of the Vice President with the American public, too, doesn't it?

SCOTT McCLELLAN: Terry, I think you're prejudging things and speculating. And we're not going to prejudge or speculate about things.

QUESTION: Does the President have confidence in the Vice President?

QUESTION: Does the President have confidence in the Vice President?

SCOTT McCLELLAN: The Vice President is doing a great job as a member of this administration and the President appreciates all that he is doing.

Heckuva job.

Very explosive news out of Italy today on the Niger/uranium front. More soon.

Cheney, September 14th, 2003 ...

MR. RUSSERT: Now, Ambassador Joe Wilson, a year before that, was sent over by the CIA because you raised the question about uranium from Africa. He says he came back from Niger and said that, in fact, he could not find any documentation that, in fact, Niger had sent uranium to Iraq or engaged in that activity and reported it back to the proper channels. Were you briefed on his findings in February, March of 2002?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: No. I don’t know Joe Wilson. I’ve never met Joe Wilson. A question had arisen. I’d heard a report that the Iraqis had been trying to acquire uranium in Africa, Niger in particular. I get a daily brief on my own each day before I meet with the president to go through the intel. And I ask lots of question. One of the questions I asked at that particular time about this, I said, “What do we know about this?” They take the question. He came back within a day or two and said, “This is all we know. There’s a lot we don’t know,” end of statement. And Joe Wilson—I don’t who sent Joe Wilson. He never submitted a report that I ever saw when he came back.

I guess the intriguing thing, Tim, on the whole thing, this question of whether or not the Iraqis were trying to acquire uranium in Africa. In the British report, this week, the Committee of the British Parliament, which just spent 90 days investigating all of this, revalidated their British claim that Saddam was, in fact, trying to acquire uranium in Africa. What was in the State of the Union speech and what was in the original British White papers. So there may be difference of opinion there. I don’t know what the truth is on the ground with respect to that, but I guess—like I say, I don’t know Mr. Wilson. I probably shouldn’t judge him. I have no idea who hired him and it never came...


VICE PRES. CHENEY: Who in the CIA, I don’t know.

This would have been three and a half months after Cheney reportedly received a detailed briefing on just what had happened from George Tenet.

Reading over Larry Johnson's thoughts on the Times article about Libby and Cheney, I agree that it's quite unlikely that George Tenet would just have happened to mention Joe Wilson's wife's role at the CIA or her possible connection to the decision to send him on the trip to Niger.

Indeed, the Times article itself says (emphasis added) "Mr. Libby’s notes indicate that Mr. Cheney had gotten his information about Ms. Wilson from George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, in response to questions from the vice president about Mr. Wilson."

The Times article reports that the Libby notes, which record these details, are from June 12th, 2003. Thus, presumably, though we can't say definitively, the Cheney-Tenet conversation occurred only a short time earlier.

I say this because this was big time information for Cheney; and he and Libby are in pretty constant contact. Libby would likely have been the first person Cheney told. So let's say that it's quite likely, though not certain, that the Cheney-Tenet conversation occurred on the 11th or 12th of June, 2003.

The veep gets a regular CIA briefing. He can ask questions and he gets answers back. After all, that's supposedly how we got into this mess in the first place. But the DCI doesn't come back in person and talk to the vice president unless it's a very, very big deal. Or, unless the vice president went to him directly.

I'd be curious to hear from folks with some experience of protocols in such cases, to refine these points above. But this Times article leaves me very curious to learn what action Cheney took that led to that conversation with Tenet.

That's a key part of this story.

There seems to have been some unclarity on this point. So let me follow up on the previous post about the article in today's Repubblica. Repubblica, apparently, now says that the motive behind the forgeries was money. Certainly, individual players did their part for cash. But the question is, what were the aims of those who organized the whole plot, the whole hoax? Who hatched the plan? Given the history of the case and all my reporting on it, I find highly implausible the claim that those people were motivated by financial gain alone. But for the governments involved, it is a convenient theory since it walls the act off from larger political implications.

Interesting news out of Italy.

I'm told Monday's edition of the Italian daily La Repubblica has an article on Niger forgeries. And this one says the culprits are Rocco Martino, the Italian woman who works in the Niger embassy in Rome and the SISMI operative Martino named as his ultimate source. The motive, says Repubblica, was money.

I've never named the SISMI colonel whom Martino said he (indirectly) got the documents from. But now Repubblica has. So I will too: his name is Antonio Nucera.

(You see I've linked the story above. I haven't read the Italian original. I've only had the contents related to me. So let me put that small caveat to the entire post.)

My experience with this case, going back almost two years now, is that whenever damaging new information was about to come out on the forgery mystery, the Italian government-cum-intelligence agencies put out substantial new information about what happened mixed with disinformation aimed at throwing people off their trail. And when I say 'their trail', I mean the complicity of Italian intelligence in the documents hoax itself.

This fits in very well with that pattern.

Could this latest story be true? Anything could be. But I'd be highly, highly skeptical.

What I can confirm is that Antonio Nucera, the SISMI colonel, was the SISMI operative whom Martino identified from beginning as the source of the documents.

More shortly.