DSM Sequel: Roots of a Scandal
As Washington awaited news of possible indictment of Bush administration officials in connection with the leaking of a CIA operative's name, a sensational series in an Italian newspaper was laying bare the roots of the scandal.
Three stories published by the left-leaning La Repubblica (in Italian) suggest why the Bush White House was so determined to discredit the operative's husband, Joseph Wilson, a former-diplomat-turned-war-critic. Wilson was attacking the administration on a point where it was vulnerable: the origins of its allegations about Iraq's nuclear activities in Africa.
The Repubblica series advances the story of the Downing Street Memo story first reported by the Times of London last May.
Like the DSM story, La Repubblica's series tells a tale of a European spy chief who came to Washington in the summer of 2002 as the Bush administration was putting in motion plans to remove Saddam Hussein from power, a plan to be justified by the Iraqi dictator's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction.
In the DSM story, British intelligence chief Richard Dearlove told his principals in London that he had met with National Security Council policymakers in July 2002 and that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy" of smashing Saddam Hussein's dictatorship and installing a secular capitalist democracy in Iraq.
The La Repubblica series tells what happened a few weeks later when Dearlove's counterpart from the Italian military Intelligence agency, known as SIMSI, came to Washington. (You can read what seems to be a decent English translation of the Repubblica series on the blog Nur-al-Cubicle, which specializes in "news accounts unpublished by the US press." Here are Parts One, Two and Three.)
Like Dearlove, SIMSI chief Nicolo Pollari was a career intelligence officer working for a government whose prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, supported Bush's intention to invade Iraq. And like Dearlove, Pollari found himself meeting with Washington policymakers who were convinced that the Hussein regime was actively seeking to acquire nuclear weapons and were looking for intelligence to firm up their case for war.
According to La Repubblica, Pollari was providing the false information, specifically a batch of forged documents concerning alleged Iraqi efforts to purchase nuclear material in the African country of Niger. The documents, rejected as genuine by the CIA and State Department earlier in 2002, were fed to a "parallel intelligence conduit" created by Vice President Dick Cheney and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. Reporters Carlo Bonini and Giuseppe d'Avanzo say officials working for Cheney and Wolfowitz were "determined to produce the evidence for 'regime change' in Baghdad." President Bush then used the information to make the case for invading Iraq.
At the heart of the story is a secret meeting between the chief of Italian military intelligence and then-deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley on Sept. 9, 2002. A National Security Council spokesman confirmed the Hadley-Pollari meeting to the American Prospect on Tuesday. (Today, the NSC spokesman told the New York Times that the meeting was "a courtesy call" and that no documents were provided.)
At the time of the Hadley-Pollari meeting, the Niger documents were already well-known in U.S. intelligence circles. Italian intelligence reports on Iraq's nuclear activities had been circulating in Washington since October 2001.
La Repubblica's account suggests the forged documents were the product of an Italian government eager to curry favor with President Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks. They were originally produced by a rogue cop on the payroll of both French and Italian intelligence services, the newspaper reported. The French wanted to follow up on reports from the late 1980s that Iraq had bought nuclear material in Niger, so the cop, in need of money, sold them the phony documents.
After Sept. 11, the Italian intelligence service showed the documents to the CIA without disclosing their dubious origins, according to La Repubblica. Berlusconi met with President Bush in the White House on Oct. 15, 2001. In what La Repubblica concedes might be a coincidence, the CIA started circulating the forged Niger documents to other Washington agencies the next day.
Later in 2001, Italian operatives passed the same documents to British intelligence via Richard Dearlove, the Italian paper says.
By the summer of 2002, Pollari knew the documents were forged and the credibility of their source dubious, according to La Repubblica, but never said anything to his British and American counterparts. As The Post reported in July 2003, the International Atomic Energy Agency concluded in March 2003 that the documents were forged.
Seeking to verify the reports, U.S. government officials asked Wilson, who had served in Africa, to go to Niger in early 2002 to check out claims of Iraqi activity. Wilson reported that the claims were unfounded.
In September 2002, Pollari came to Washington for meetings with CIA Director George Tenet. He also met with Hadley, who was active in the Bush administration's campaign to build public support for an invasion of Iraq.
La Repubblica notes that the Hadley-Pollari meeting immediately preceded the Bush administration claims that it had proof Iraq was pursuing nuclear weapons.
That same week, reporters from the Italian weekly magazine Panorama, owned by the Berlusconi family, reviewed the documents leaked them by an intelligence source and concluded they were false. But a front-page story based on them was published anyway on orders of the publisher, a Berlusconi crony who was "enthralled with possibly having found -- as he told his staff -- a 'smoking gun' on Saddam Hussein."
The Bush administration also embraced the "evidence." In late September 2002, Secretary of State Colin Powell cited Iraq's alleged activities in Niger as proof of Hussein's nuclear ambitions. In December, the story of Iraq's alleged dealings in Niger appeared in President Bush's daily briefing. In his 2003 State of the Union address, Bush declared that British intelligence had "learned" that Saddam Hussein had been seeking to buy nuclear material in Africa.
When invading U.S. troops found no evidence of an Iraqi nuclear program, Wilson went public with the story of his Niger trip in a July 2003 newspaper column. Seeking to discredit him, White House officials told reporters that his trip to Africa had been arranged by his wife, Valerie Plame, an undercover CIA operative.
Italian officials deny any involvement in disseminating the Niger documents, saying this is old news discredited by two previous government investigations. Il Giornale (in Italian), a Rome daily owned by Berlusconi's family, quotes one official saying that the Italian secret service did not have "even the slightest role in this story."
The Niger dossier, they assert, was actually a hoax designed by French intelligence to embarrass the Americans. A parliamentary probe of the matter is scheduled to begin in Rome on Nov. 3.
There is one important difference between the DSM and La Repubblica stories. The Downing Street Memo itself did not identify the U.S. officials with whom Dearlove met in the summer of 2002. The La Repubblica series is more specific. It raises the question of whether Hadley deliberately circulated false information about Saddam's nuclear activities after his meeting with Pollari in September 2002.
Hadley, now the national security adviser, has taken responsibility for the inclusion of the Niger claims in President Bush's 2003 State of the Union address, saying he had forgotten warnings about the documents.
For Americans, the question raised by the La Repubblica series is the same question raised by the Downing Street Memo: Did U.S. officials intentionally "fix" intelligence reports with false information as a way to hype the danger of Iraq to the American public? And more specifically, did Stephen Hadley do the fixing?
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