'Urban Myth' ? or Treason?
The Niger uranium forgery cover-up unravels
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December 5, 2005
The War Party certainly has its party line down pat. In response to allegations that he had deliberately misinformed the Americans about Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction" and alleged links to al-Qaeda, Ahmed Chalabi recently declared:
"The fact that I misled the U.S. is an urban myth."
The same phrase popped up when an aide to Vice President Dick Cheney denied that his boss was the recipient of bogus "intelligence" in the run-up to war, or is in any way beholden to the neocons:
"'That's an urban myth,' said this aide, who declined to be identified."
This is a longtime favorite theme song sung by government officials who would rather not even discuss an inconvenient issue, and it often works, but not so well these days. The stench of fraud ? and worse ? is rising over Washington so that the whole city seems permeated by a permanent miasma, a poisonous cloud so thick that denials seem to stick in the throat even before they are uttered. A majority of Americans believe this administration lied them into war, and the parents of our fallen soldiers remember that as they mourn. What must they be thinking? The voters, too, will remember ? and our newly awakened mainstream media is unlikely to let them forget.
Amid all the lies ? the nuclear centrifuges that didn't exist, the links to 9/11 that were strongly implied but never proven and later denied ? one in particular stands out: the by now famous "16 words" that crept into the president's 2003 State of the Union address, in which he stated that Saddam was trying to procure uranium from "an African nation" as a preliminary step toward creating a nuclear weapon.
This falsehood leaps out at one in its brazenness, to begin with, because it was based on a cache of forged documents: not mistaken intelligence, but a deliberate attempt to deceive. Secondly, these documents fell into the hands of the U.S. government under highly suspicious circumstances and arrived in Washington ? and found their way into the president's crucially important speech ? via a circuitous and highly suspect route.
Furthermore, distinguishing itself from the many tall tales spun by Chalabi, and dressed up to look half credible by the neocons, this particular one takes on special importance because it stands at the center of a scandal that already threatens the War Party at its very core: the burgeoning investigation by special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald into top officials in this administration, including but not limited to I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.
It was former ambassador to Gabon Joseph C. Wilson, after all, who was sent to the African nation of Niger to investigate what turned out to be bogus reports of an attempt by Saddam to ship uranium from that country: and it was his wife, CIA agent Valerie Plame, who was exposed by a White House cabal acting under the direction of Libby and possibly others. As the special counsel looks into the matter and prepares what many anticipate as fresh indictments, the question of who outed Plame has taken center stage. However, the real underlying crime here is something much bigger and much more dramatically illustrative of how government officials doctored intelligence in order to make the case for war.
Who forged the Niger uranium documents? This is the most intriguing mystery surrounding the murky "intelligence" that lured us into the quicksands of Iraq. It continues to fascinate for the simple reason that here is the smoking gun, the plainly conclusive evidence that it wasn't all just a great big mistake, another unfortunate "massive intelligence failure" like the one that made 9/11 possible, but was instead part of a covert campaign of deception that succeeded magnificently ? which is precisely why its authors are so reluctant to take "credit" for it.
When the scientists over at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced the whole thing was a hoax, and that the documents finally handed over to them were crude forgeries, the FBI went through the motions of launching an investigation. That inquiry, apparently, never got off the ground ? because, as Joshua Marshall long ago pointed out, they never attempted to interview a key figure in the case. In any event, just about a week or so ago the FBI announced that their nonexistent investigation had reached its conclusion: the forgeries, they said, had been a financial scam pulled off by the man they had never bothered to interview: one Rocco Martino, an international flimflam man, in league with the mysterious "La Signora," a Mata Hari type who had access to Rome's Niger embassy like you or I might have access to our own boudoir.
Case closed. Move along, nothing to see here...
It wasn't long, however, before the case was mysteriously reopened, and ? as far as I'm concerned ? with quite a flourish. As the Los Angeles Times reports:
"The FBI has reopened an inquiry into one of the most intriguing aspects of the pre-Iraq war intelligence fiasco: how the Bush administration came to rely on forged documents linking Iraq to nuclear weapons materials as part of its justification for the invasion. ...
"The FBI's decision to reopen the investigation reverses the agency's announcement last month that it had finished a two-year inquiry and concluded that the forgeries were part of a moneymaking scheme ? and not an effort to manipulate U.S. foreign policy.
"Those findings concerned some members of the Senate Intelligence Committee after published reports that the FBI had not interviewed a former Italian spy named Rocco Martino, who was identified as the original source of the documents. The committee had requested the initial investigation."
The Times piece goes on to cite Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.), and the concerns of others on the Senate committee, as if this is what motivated the reopening of the investigation, but that may not be the case, as indicated further on in the piece:
"Federal officials familiar with the case say investigators might examine whether the forgeries were instigated by U.S. citizens who advocated an invasion of Iraq or by members of the Iraqi National Congress ? the group led by Ahmed Chalabi that worked closely with Bush administration officials in the buildup to the war.
"But the senior federal official said, 'I don't expect the results to be any different. I think the answer is going to be that [Martino] wasn't acting in behalf of any government or intelligence agency. This guy was trying to peddle this to whoever he could.' ...
"A senior FBI official said the bureau's initial investigation found no evidence of foreign government involvement in the forgeries. But the FBI did not interview Martino, a central figure in a parallel drama unfolding in Rome."
This startling information ? that American citizens, working in tandem with an unnamed foreign power, who wanted war and were willing to pass off forgeries as authentic intelligence to achieve their ends, may have been behind the Niger uranium scam ? is fed to the reader with a big dollop of official denials, but let's focus on the facts, not the spin, and ask: what new evidence points in the direction of a U.S.-based cabal of forgers?
First they tried to explain it away as the prank of a few Italian fraudsters, in it for the money, and now perhaps they want to blame Chalabi and the Iraqis ? who are conveniently beyond the reach of the law. It won't be long now before they're dismissing the whole matter as yet another "urban myth." I would note, however, that the FBI doesn't just reopen an investigation on Sen. Rockefeller's say-so: they must have some fresh leads, some new information that implicates these unnamed "U.S. citizens" as being somehow involved in the scheme.
I would also note that, for the first time, this affair ? which has always smelled to me like a covert action carried out by professionals ? is being framed as an investigation into an attempt to skew U.S. intelligence-gathering by agents of a foreign power. We are talking, here, about espionage.
Why reopen the investigation now, when they just closed it a short time ago? What new evidence do the Feds have ? and what (or who) is their source?
We probably won't know the answers to the first two questions for at least a while, but we can credibly speculate about the third. There are, to be sure, several possible sources of fresh leads in the Niger uranium forgery case, but two of the most obvious are the Plame investigation and the lesser-known but just as important upcoming trial of Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, two high officials of AIPAC facing charges of spying for Israel. Their co-conspirator, the Pentagon's former top Iran expert, a man by the name of Larry Franklin, has already pleaded guilty to charges of handing Rosen and Weissman highly secret information: the AIPAC duo are charged [.pdf] with handing those vital U.S. secrets over to Israeli embassy officials.
The Plame investigation is the more high profile, albeit less likely, possible source, if only because Fitzgerald's investigation is part and parcel of the Niger uranium saga. Even if the scope of Fitzgerald's probe is limited to what actions were taken against Plame-Wilson, it would hardly be surprising if, in the course of his investigation, Fitzgerald came upon evidence of other crimes ? especially the central, underlying crime at the center of Niger-gate.
The AIPAC case, however, seems the more likely source, in part because its central figure ? Larry Franklin ? pops up in the Niger uranium narrative at a highly auspicious point in the timeline: according to the Italian daily La Repubblica, he was present at a December 2001 meeting in Rome with the head of Italian military intelligence and two Americans, Michael Ledeen and Harold Rhode, both of whom might be called "instigators" when it comes to the invasion of Iraq ? a meeting previously reported in The Washington Monthly.
La Repubblica goes into much more detail, however, describing the origins of the forgery as a composite project that evolved over time, and pointing to the Rome conclave as the point where the various elements came together. Passing through multiple channels (SISMI [Italian military intelligence], Martino, and Elisabetta Burba, an Italian journalist, and then to the American embassy) until their true origins were lost in the mists and murk, the documents were cleaned up and filtered in the form of "intelligence" reports by Ledeen, who acted as the conduit to Washington via the infamous Office of Special Plans ? one of those end-running ad hoc agencies set up by the neocons to bypass the normal intelligence vetting process, which has itself lately become the subject of an investigation.
La Repubblica confirms what Antiwar.com has been reporting, in part, specifically the key role played by Ledeen. It also confirms what the blogger known as eRiposte over at The Left Coaster has meticulously documented: that certain U.S. government officials must have known the Niger uranium documents were bogus.
Now we are learning that, not only did they know, but they also continued the process of cleaning up the forgeries so as to make them more credible to the IAEA. The Left Coaster reports that Private Eye, a British magazine, has blown this case wide open in a piece that reveals the complicity of U.S. officials, and gives us the money quote:
"When the US State Department finally gave international weapons inspectors its 'evidence' that Saddam was trying to buy uranium from the African State of Niger in 2003, they held back the one document even their own analysts knew was 'funky' and 'clearly a forgery.' Experts at the International Atomic Energy Agency quickly discovered that all the papers were fake, but they did this by spotting errors that had slipped passed the State Department and CIA: The fact that the U.S. government handed over the whole bundle of what became known as the 'Niger Forgeries' except the one paper they recognized as a hoax suggests they were trying to pass off documents they knew were phony as the real thing."
This story is breaking fast: La Repubblica has come out with yet another story on this, one that points in the same direction: the journalistic team of Carlo Bonini and Giuseppe D'Avanzo shows that the latest tack of the forgers and their enablers, which is to blame it all on the French ? even going so far as to accuse Martino (the designated fall guy) of being in the pay of Paris ? is nothing but a serio-comic diversion, another attempt to blow smoke in the faces of their pursuers, who are by now numerous and increasingly insistent. What the War Party needs to worry about at this point is that some of their nemeses may possess subpoena power.
La Repubblica reveals not only the utter absurdity of the "theory" that this was all a French setup, and that the evil anti-Americans of Paris cooked up a scheme to embarrass their American rivals and tormentors ? a contention for which there is not a lick of evidence ? but also reports that the Americans had the forgeries (or summaries of them) much earlier than previously believed, in the summer of 2002: the Americans came to the French with the forgeries for verification and were told they were bogus. As for the photos submitted to the Italian parliamentary committee investigating the matter and published in the Italian media, which show Martino meeting with his "French connection" in Brussels, La Repubblica conveys the amusement of the French counterintelligence chief, Alain Chouet:
"I'm laughing because these photos prove the opposite of what Sismi says. Let me explain. This photo proves:
"a. Sismi was shadowing Rocco Martino in the summer 2002, therefore they already knew who he was, what he was doing or what he was trying to do.
"b. Rocco Martino's 'contact' was Jaques Nadal. Well. Do you know when Jaques Nadal was posted to the Brussels station? I appointed him between April and May 2002. Therefore, if you want to claim that Nadal was Rocco's 'French contact', which is true according to the photo, the contact dates back to the summer 2002. Not before. (nor later, of course, in 2003, when all the world knew that those documents were a forgery and the meeting would have been meaningless). The photo, in short, proves the exact contrary of what it was meant to prove, that is that the French were behind Rocco."
Chouet's testimony is extremely damaging to the forgers and the cabal that passed their handiwork up to the highest reaches of the U.S. government, where their fraud became fodder for George W. Bush's cadre of neocon speechwriters. It blows their alibi to smithereens, because Chouet shows that everything they're saying about the forgeries ? in Washington, as well as in Rome ? is a lie.
The cover-up is unraveling. This crew, which believes in lying ? for a "noble" cause ? as a matter of high principle, is about to meet a richly deserved fate ? that is, if the FBI and Congress will take off their blinders and confront what is staring at them ? and the rest of the country ? in the face. I don't place much hope in the latter ? for obvious reasons ? so that leaves us with law enforcement. The crime here is knowingly passing false intelligence to U.S. policymakers, including the president, possibly violating several laws in the process ? up to and including certain sections of the Espionage Act [.pdf], which criminalizes:
"Whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully make or convey false reports or false statements with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the military or naval forces of the United States."
Surely the injection of lies into the U.S. intelligence stream, which poisoned our ability to make judgments about the decision to make war on Iraq, interfered with the normal operation of the U.S. military ? which was, at the time the deception was carried out, not yet mired in what Gen. William Odom calls "the greatest strategic disaster in United States history."
They lied us into a disastrous war ? you can't "interfere with the operation or success of the military" much more than that. And if a foreign intelligence service was involved, and the Los Angeles Times is right about the direction of the FBI investigation, then what we are talking about here is nothing less than treason.