Did Scooter Libby, Vice-President Cheney’s chief of staff, lie to a grand jury about Valerie Plame and the leaking of her name to the press? If he did, was it retaliation aimed at her husband, Joseph Wilson, who wrote in the New York Times that the allegation that Iraq was seeking to buy uranium from Niger was false – based, it turned out, on forged documents passed on to Washington and London by the Italian military intelligence service, SISMI? How did it happen that the intelligence services of the US and the UK got the story of Iraq’s WMD so badly wrong? Carlo Bonini and Giuseppe d’Avanzo provide some clues in three articles in La Repubblica published between 24 and 26 October.
They have a source who claims that a former SISMI agent (who was paid a retainer by French intelligence) learned that the French suspected a clandestine trade in uranium in Niger, where a French company controls the uranium mines. He sensed an opportunity to make some money and asked an old colleague, responsible at SISMI for WMD counter-proliferation in Africa and the Middle East, to help. They staged a break-in at the Niger Embassy over New Year 2001 and took some headed notepaper and seals.
SISMI still has in its archives copies of intercepted Niger documents from the 1980s when Iraq really did buy uranium from Niger. So it was easy to fabricate documents by putting the old information on the modern headed notepaper. The bundle was spurned by French intelligence. The events of 11 September presented a fresh opportunity to offer it to MI6 and the CIA.
It’s a good story but it seems to me to be an attempt by SISMI to distance itself from the forgeries. I don’t think the Niger Embassy break-in had anything to do with French intelligence. It is much more likely that SISMI, having intercepted a communication from the Niger Foreign Ministry informing Rome that Wissam al-Zahawie, Iraq’s ambassador to the Vatican, was going to visit Niger in 1999, arranged the break-in to find hard evidence of that letter, which it realised might well be important. After all, why was an Iraqi ambassador visiting Niger? After 11 September, the letter served as the basis for the claim that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger; the other documents were forged by SISMI to strengthen the case.
The claim rang false from the start. Iraq had sufficient uranium for any conceivable civil or military nuclear programme: hundreds of tons of the stuff were known to the IAEA. Even in 2002 it seemed to me that the Niger story was disinformation. I thought and wrote that it might well be an intelligence sting.[*] So it has turned out. After 11 September President Bush and his neo-con advisers saw an opportunity to conclude unfinished business with Iraq. They asked all their allies for any information that could contribute to making a case for war. Silvio Berlusconi decided to ingratiate himself with Washington. Nicolo Pollari, the director of SISMI, got his orders and briefed the CIA resident in Rome on the documents. In September 2002 he visited Washington and briefed Stephen Hadley, Condoleezza Rice’s deputy on the National Security Council. The documents were sent to the US and analysed by the CIA and the State Department. The intelligence unit of the State Department was not taken in. It knew that Iraq already possessed hundreds of tons of uranium. It also knew that the French control the uranium trade in Niger and that the main uranium mine was flooded. Zahawie is not part of Saddam’s inner circle and would not be chosen for a sensitive mission: in fact he went to Niger to invite the country’s president to a trade fair in Baghdad. One of the documents, which claims that Niger, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Sudan and Libya have formed themselves into a military group to oppose the US, is an obvious forgery. The CIA meanwhile sent Ambassador Wilson to Niger to check SISMI’s information.
So why were the forged documents taken seriously? The answer was given by Sir Richard Dearlove, then head of MI6, in his note to Tony Blair which was leaked to the Sunday Times. Dearlove reported in July 2002 that ‘Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.’ That ‘intelligence’ soon became public: Mohammed Atta, the leader of the 9/11 terrorists, had met with an Iraqi agent in Prague, which showed that Saddam had a hand in the attack on the World Trade Center. Iraq had also attempted to buy 500 tons of uranium from Niger. The CIA did not believe either story. According to Robert Baer, a former CIA agent, the Atta story was a ‘blatant fabrication: we had pictures of Atta in Florida’ on the dates when he was meant to be in Prague. The source of the Atta story was the Czech intelligence agency.
So where did the Czechs and Italians learn their lines? From the Office of Special Plans: in Baer’s words, a ‘competing intelligence shop at the Pentagon’ – ‘if you don’t like the answer you’re getting from the CIA, you go somewhere else.’
Pollari arranged for the forgeries to go to the CIA, OSP and MI6. MI6 dutifully included the claim in the September dossier. The OSP gave it to Libby and Cheney. In March 2002 Cheney stated on CNN that Saddam was ‘actively pursuing nuclear weapons at this time’. He went on to repeat this charge several times in summer 2002. The Senate voted in September 2002 to allow the president to go to war.
Jack Straw even today insists that MI6 did not base its case for the Niger allegation on the forgery, but on intelligence they had acquired earlier. According to Bonini and d’Avanzo, when MI6 say ‘earlier’ they are referring to intelligence on the sale of uranium from Niger to Iraq in the 1980s.
[*] LRB, 17 October 2002