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Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The origins of Niger-gate, continued

Here (courtesy of Nur al-Cubicle) is a translation of the second part of the La Repubblica investigation.

I feel guilty reprinting the fine work of another blogger, but -- as I've demonstrated! -- I have never been to Italy and I do not know Italian, and thus could not do this work myself. (That didn't stop me from altering Nur's translation slightly: To avoid confusion, I've put back quotation marks that appeared in the original. I also corrected a few obvious typos and added some paragraph breaks to increase readability.)

You should read part one (scroll down) before jumping into this piece. I know the articles are lengthy. But the story is genuinely fascinating. Yes, our old "pal" Michael Ledeen finally shows up on stage...!

Part Two of the investigative series by Carlo Bonini and Giuseppe d'Avanzo of La Repubblica.

INVESTIGATION / SISMI Director General Nicolò Pollari travels to the States to corroborate the purchase of nuclear material by Saddam Hussein.

Pollari travels to Washington to present his version of "the truth":
The Yellowcake Dossier was not the work of the CIA.


For SISMI Director Nicolò Pollari, the rules of his profession are unequivocal. He tells La Repubblica: "I am an intelligence chief and my only institutional partner in conversation following 9-11 was CIA Director George Tenet in Washington. Obviously, I held conversations solely with him." But is it really true that our cloak-and-dagger people worked solely with the CIA? Or did they work as part of the clandestine effort undertaken by the parallel intelligence agency created by Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz within the Iraq War Group, the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans and the office of the National Security Advisor -- all determined to produce the evidence for "regime change" in Baghdad?

It is a known fact that on the eve of the war on Iraq and under the supervision of Palazzo Chigi Diplomacy Advisor Gianni Cestellaneta (today Italian Ambassador to the United States), SISMI chief Pollari arranged a meeting in Washington with the staff of National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. La Repubblica has documented the double ruse engineered by the Italian government and Italian intelligence. At least one of the very non-institutional encounters covered, according to intelligence agents, the creation of a network involving government, intelligence and information sharing.

Brief synopsis: Pollari’s SISMI wants to give credence to the story of acquisition of uranium ore in order to build a nuclear bomb. The scheme is transparent. The "authentic" papers concerning an attempt to acquire uranium in Niger (stale Italian intelligence left over from the 80's) are a legacy of a former SISMI Deputy Chief in Rome, Antonio Nucera. They are bundled up together with other worthless documents assembled helter-skelter after a simulated burglary of the Niger Embassy (embassy letterhead and stamps are taken). The documents are exhibited by Pollari's men to the CIA Station Chief in Rome while SISMI's "postman," a certain individual by the name of Rocco Martino, delivers a copy to Richard Dearlove’s MI6 in London.

That's the baseline snapshot. We'll now provide the second chapter of the Great Italian Yellowcake Scam orchestrated in Italy to provide the pretext for the invasion of Iraq. We reintroduce Greg Thielmann, former director of the US Department of State's intelligence bureau, who encounters the Italian report on the uranium. He does not recall the precise date.

Thielmann recounts the events of autumn 2001 in generalities. But the precise date may prove revealing: it is October 15, 2001. On that day three events are woven together to produce an astounding coincidence: Nicolò Pollari is appointed to head SISMI by the Italian government on September 27, after serving as Number Two at CESIS (a coordinating intelligence agency at Palazzo Chigi). Silvio Berlusconi is finally invited to the White House by George W. Bush. October 15 marks the date of the first CIA report on the evidence assembled by the Italians.

It's impossible to say if all this is coincidence, but one cannot ignore the context: The Italians possess a burning desire score a win. After his bungling remarks on the Clash of Civilizations, Berlusconi is encountering problems in getting an invitation from the White House, under fire from moderate Arab regimes. Pollari is eager to quickly get in step with Premier and the new course of action. The new chief at the SISMI section in charge of WMD, Colonel Alberto Manenti (direct superior of Antonio Nucera), wants to put himself on the same page as the new SISMI director. It is a known fact that Bush shows the West Wing's Rose Garden to Berlusconi and the CIA acknowledges, as reported by Russ Hoyle (who has been analyzing the conclusions of the US Congressional Investigation Committee) that Italian intelligence has some neatly prepackaged information with a pretty bow. Negotiations (between Niamey and Baghdad) on the purchase of uranium have been ongoing since the start of 1999; the sale [of uranium to Baghdad] was approved by the Niger Supreme Council in 2000. No documentary evidence is offered to show that any shipment of uranium has occured. CIA analysts consider the report to be "somewhat limited" and "lacking in necessary detail." Intelligence and Research analysts at the US Department of State qualify the intelligence as "highly suspect."

The first contact with the American intelligence community is not gratifying for Pollari but still highly useful. The SISMI director, who is no fool, reconstructs the landscape and the cast members of the ongoing behind-the-scenes battle in the American Administration between those who stress caution and pragmatism (US Department of State and the CIA) and those who are looking for an excuse to start a war (Cheney, the Pentagon), which is already on the drawing board.

However, when the SISMI director returns to Italy, he perceives a similar battle underway in Rome. Gianni Castellaneta advises Pollari to look in other directions, while Defense Minister Antonio Martino tell Pollari to expect a visit from an old friend of Italy.

This old friend is Michael A. Ledeen, a veteran of American parallel intelligence networks, who had been previous declared persona non grata by Rome during 1980s. [Likely because of kidnapping of Abu Abbas, orchestrated by Ledeen and Oliver North, and the attempted "extraordinary rendition" of Abbas through Italy--Nur] Ledeen is in Rome on a mission from the Office of Special Plans, created at the Pentagon by Paul Wolfowitz to collect intelligence which would support a war on Iraq. A source at Forte Braschi [equivalent to Langley, VA, the headquarters of the CIA--Nur] tells La Repubblica: On the subject of intelligence collected on the uranium purchase, Pollari gets the cold shoulder from CIA Station Chief Jeff Castelli. Apparently, Castelli has dropped the matter entirely. Taking a hint, Pollari discusses the matter with Michael Ledeen.

No one knows what leads Ledeen to return to Washington. But at the beginning of 2002, Paul Wolfowitz convinces Dick Cheney that the uranium trail picked up by Italian intelligence should be explored in closer detail. As the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence relates, a determined Vice President makes a request to the CIA to take another look into "the possible acquisition of Niger uranium." During a meeting, Dick Cheney explicitly states that this piece of intelligence is held by "a foreign intelligence agency."

For the rest of the story, click "Permalink" below...

And here's the rest:

The parallel intelligence network over at the Pentagon distributes "new information" according to which there exists an agreement between Niger and Iraq for the supply of 500 tons of uranium per year. The technicians at the Department of State raise an eyebrow at the report -- 500 tons of uranium! An exaggerated quantity! The report is manifestly devoid of all plausibility. Every independent report ordered following the circulation of the Italian memorandum indicates that the Niger uranium mines at Arlit and Akouta can yield at most 300 tons per year.

But time is growing short. George Tenet, stung by the intelligence gaps of 9-11, grins and bears it but becomes incredibly unreceptive when State Department intelligence controverts him, recounts Greg Thielmann to La Repubblica, by saying that the intelligence collected in Rome is inconsistent, that the uranium story is phony and that a bunch of things contained in the report are fabricated.

Pollari is a very clever man, they say at Forte Braschi, and so he understands that to work the uranium story he cannot go to the CIA alone. He has to go through, suggest Palazzo Chigi and the Italian Defense Minstry, the Pentagon and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. The comment might have been meant as malicious (in the world of espionage, it's often the case), but confirmation from the "alternate channel" which Pollari opens up Washington permits us to cast a scenario and explore the details of meeting.

This is the scenario. Pollari is in Washington. He arranges a meeting with George Tenet and, as happens frequently, his presentation is to be given in a reserved conference room at a hotel close to Langley.

An attendee at the meeting tells La Repubblica: "Pollari's English must not have been very polished, so a female interpreter is used between him and Tenet. There's an embarrassing upshot. In the course of exchanging pleasantries, George reveals some information from al-Qaeda concerning Italy which the Agency has gathered from prisoners at Guantanamo. Tenet expects at least a smile or even a nod of gratitude. A stony face glares back at him. If at first he found Pollari unpleasant, now he considers him untrustworthy. What what strikes everyone seated around the conference table is the extreme marginalization of Pollari's station chief in Washington."

This bizarre behavior is intriguing. In 2002, the SISMI station chief in Washington is Admiral Giuseppe Grignolo. He possess extensive background in WMD, an excellent relationship with the CIA and the respect of CIA Number 2, Jim Pavitt. A source at Forte Braschi recalls: "The truth is that we did not want to keep the CIA out of our business, but Pollari distrusted Grignolo -- whom he believed was too cozy with Langley -- so he blocked Grignolo's every move. He forced him, so to say, into the useless task of background checks on SISMI new hires, who might have spent some time in the United States.....During those months, serious contact took place elsewhere -- through Condoleezza Rice, through Ledeen and through the Office of Special Plans run by Paul Wolfowitz and Doug Feith. It is Castellaneta who arranges a meeting for Pollari in the offices of the National Security Advisor at the White House."

When did they meet and what did they say? "What did you expect them to be talking about in the summer of 2002? Weapons of mass destruction!" When did the meeting take place? "That’s my business...but all you have to do is to is check the visitors' roster and flight plans between Ciampino [Rome’s military airport--Nur] and Washington."

Here in Rome, it’s difficult for us to access those flight plans. We had better luck in Washington. An Administration official told La Repubblica: "I can confirm that on September 9, 2002, General Nicolò Pollari met with Stephen Hadley, deputy to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice."

As with October 15, 2001, September 9, 2002 was a day marked by many coincidences. On that day, the Italian magazine Panorama was coming up on the editorial deadline for its 12-19 September issue. As one might expect from Rocco Martino (the SISMI "postman" in the yellowcake affair), he contacts a reporter from the magazine (Carlo Rossella was Editor-in-Chief at the time) in October to sell him the phony dossier. No one seems to remember that in the 12-19 September 2002 issue, coinciding with Pollari's meeting with Hadley, Panorama published an international scoop entitled War with Iraq? It has already begun.

The Panorama article mentions "a delivery of half-ton of uranium... The men of Mukhabarat, the Iraqi intelligence agency, acquired the ore through a Jordanian middleman in far-away Nigeria, where a few traders succeeded in smuggling it after stealing it from a nuclear depot in a republic of the former USSR. The cargo containing 500 kilograms of uranium was then docked at Amman and afterwards shipped overland in a 7-hour journey to its final destination: the al-Rashidiyah plant 20 km north of Baghdad, recognized as a site for the production and processing of fissile material." And further along in the article: "The alarm concerns Germany, where in the past Iraq had attempted to purchase technology and industrial parts from the firm, Leycochem....and even the much sought-after aluminum tubes for gas centrifuges."

Although there is a discrepancy in the location (Nigeria and not Niger -- a lapsus calami?) and the story is somewhat of a fairy-tale (contraband from the USSR is transported all the way to Africa by truck), what is essential here is to notice that in the Panorama article, the recipe (so to speak) has all the right ingredients needed for war: 500 tons of uranium, which make its way from Africa to Baghdad, and aluminum tubes for nuclear centrifuges. One could reasonably conclude that the scam churned in Italy could be accurately superimposed on the allegations made in the CIA-gate/New York Times affair. The government has but to ask and the media gets on the stick. The government then confirms what's in the media. It’s an old disinformation technique from the Cold War: Exaggerate the danger posed by the enemy. Terrorize and influence public opinion. And with Italy involved as an accessory. The magazine that spreads the poisonous disinformation is owned by PM Silvio Berlusconi, who controls intelligence in Italy and who wants to become the close ally of George W. Bush, who wants to go to war.

You could say that with the terrain prepared in advance, Pollari is able to concentrate on another essential aspect of the operation: Promoting himself and SISMI by cashing in on a year's worth of cloak-and-dagger work, and pulling the wool over the eyes of Parliament by carefully manipulating information and revelations which should have been subject to careful reconstruction accompanied by corroborating documentation -- and not by the State's wall of silence (which Italian PM Gianni Letta lamented on July 16, 2003).

Back from his secret meeting with Hadley, Pollari was debriefed by an Italian Parliamentary intelligence oversight commission. They summon him twice. In the first session, the SISMI director maintains: "We had no documentary proof; only information that a central African nation sold uranium ore to Baghdad." Thirty days later, Pollari says: "We had documentary proof of the acquisition by Iraq of uranium ore from a central African nation. We also know of an Iraqi attempt to purchase centrifuges for uranium enrichment from German and possibly Italian manufacturers."

Once out of maw of Parliament, Pollari still has the problem of conveying the dodgy dossier to Washington without leaving fingerprints. He lucks out. SISMI "postman" Rocco Martino, who has already left a package on the doorstep of MI6, contacts Panorama correspondent Elisabetta Burba and attempts to sell her the dossier. But is it the snake oil salesman’s idea -- or that of Antonio Nucera -- or is someone else behind it?

Mrs. Burba rightly double-checks the Niger information. She concocts an undercover investigation on dinosaurs -- from the Oranosaurus nigeriensis to the Afrovenator abakensis.

In the meantime, a reliable source comes along. Elisabetta does what a reporter has to do -- with rigor and tenacity. She concludes that the story is baseless and refrains from publishing a single line. But unknown to her, it's already out of her hands -- because the magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, Carlo Rossella, enthralled with the possibility of having foun (as he tells his staff) a smoking gun, has forwarded the documents to the US Embassy in Rome, which he regards as the best source of confirmation.

Does Pollari inform Berlusconi's publication Panorama, patting itself on the back over the uranium scoop, that the information is bogus? It appears that he did not. And this is how Jeff Castelli and the CIA came to find on their plate the crock of nonsense which they have been refusing to taste for nearly a year. The documents are such crude forgeries that they must be hidden from scrutiny lest they rain on Dick Cheney's parade.

The arrival of the documents in Washington occurs through the back door. They are distributed on October 16, 2002, to the various intelligence agencies by the US Department of State during a routine meeting which four CIA officials attend. But not one of them is able to recall how they came into possession of the documents or how they came to know of them. Mysteriously, the Italian forgeries are "misplaced" at Langley for three months and it is only after an internal audit ordered by the Inspector-General that they are found inside a safe in the Anti-Proliferation Section. This is the first Italian lunge-and-parry. The uranium hoax inflated with the aluminum tube chicanery. But that is another story.

To be continued...
Comments:
At the considerable risk of sounding naive myself, I'm not persuaded that the neocons (Rice and Hadley, Cheney and Wolfie) set up this con. Or even that they realized the Niger documents were forgeries and used them anyway.

It still seems more likely that Ledeen and Ghobanifar and Chalabi, in some venal mix of motivations, conspired to forge the evidence and insert it in the international intelligence stream.

That the neocons eagerly seized on the forgeries as hard proof that Iraq was about to nuke the USA is all too believeable. They are and were idealists--the worst kind of idealists, who know almost nothing of the world outside think tank walls. Not that I'm any big fan of realpolitik, but idealism like theirs is even more dangerous...

But if my view is shown wrong, I won't mind. Let them all hang--if not for stupidity, then treason.
 
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