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October 30, 2005 -- 11:45 PM EDT

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. "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 the episode became still more notorious 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 identity of the forgers or the identity of those who had used them 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 were included in a CIA briefing of Vice President Cheney received in early 2002. And it was that briefing that prompted Cheney's request for more information on the Iraq-Niger sale. And that requesting led in turn to the CIA's decision to dispatch Joe Wilson on his trip to Niger.

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 much later when the 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 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.

-- Josh Marshall