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Tuesday, February 10, 2004

The Forged Documents

Josh Marshall hints that he is on to something big. The journalist-blogger first quotes an intriguing tidbit from Monday's Washington Post story on the Valerie Plame investigation:
A parallel FBI investigation into the apparent forgery of documents suggesting that Iraq attempted to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger is "at a critical stage," according to a senior law enforcement official who declined to elaborate. That probe, conducted by FBI counterintelligence agents, was launched last spring after U.N. officials pronounced the documents crude forgeries.
Sy Hersh's "stovepiping" story reported that the Niger story dates to just after 9/11:
In the fall of 2001, soon after the September 11th attacks, the C.I.A. received an intelligence report from Italy’s Military Intelligence and Security Service, or SISMI, about a public visit that Wissam al-Zahawie, then the Iraqi Ambassador to the Vatican, had made to Niger and three other African nations two and a half years earlier, in February, 1999. The visit had been covered at the time by the local press in Niger and by a French press agency. The American Ambassador, Charles O. Cecil, filed a routine report to Washington on the visit, as did British intelligence. There was nothing untoward about the Zahawie visit. “We reported it because his picture appeared in the paper with the President,” Cecil, who is now retired, told me. There was no article accompanying the photograph, only the caption, and nothing significant to report. At the time, Niger, which had sent hundreds of troops in support of the American-led Gulf War in 1991, was actively seeking economic assistance from the United States.

None of the contemporaneous reports, as far as is known, made any mention of uranium. But now, apparently as part of a larger search for any pertinent information about terrorism, sismi dug the Zahawie-trip report out of its files and passed it along, with a suggestion that Zahawie’s real mission was to arrange the purchase of a form of uranium ore known as “yellowcake.” (Yellowcake, which has been a major Niger export for decades, can be used to make fuel for nuclear reactors. It can also be converted, if processed differently, into weapons-grade uranium.)
I'm sorry for quoting so much of this, but Hersh draws a link from Italy to the US intelligence agency, to the Vice President's office.
The SISMI report, however, was unpersuasive. Inside the American intelligence community, it was dismissed as amateurish and unsubstantiated. One former senior C.I.A. official told me that the initial report from Italy contained no documents but only a written summary of allegations. “I can fully believe that sismi would put out a piece of intelligence like that,” a C.I.A. consultant told me, “but why anybody would put credibility in it is beyond me.” No credible documents have emerged since to corroborate it.

The intelligence report was quickly stovepiped to those officials who had an intense interest in building the case against Iraq, including Vice-President Dick Cheney. “The Vice-President saw a piece of intelligence reporting that Niger was attempting to buy uranium,” Cathie Martin, the spokeswoman for Cheney, told me. Sometime after he first saw it, Cheney brought it up at his regularly scheduled daily briefing from the C.I.A., Martin said.
Hersh points out that the administration started publicly claiming that Iraq was acquiring materials to restart its nuclear program in January 2002. In February, Ambassador Wilson was contracted to go to Niger. Later in the year, the British "dodgy dossier" apparently relied upon the SISMI report to assert that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger.

The forged documents themselves apparently emerged in October 2002, about the time the administration started talking about mushroom clouds and Iraq. This is from Hersh's story in the New Yorker:
At that moment, in early October, 2002, a set of documents suddenly appeared that promised to provide solid evidence that Iraq was attempting to reconstitute its nuclear program. The first notice of the documents’ existence came when Elisabetta Burba, a reporter for Panorama, a glossy Italian weekly owned by the publishing empire of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, received a telephone call from an Italian businessman and security consultant whom she believed to have once been connected to Italian intelligence. He told her that he had information connecting Saddam Hussein to the purchase of uranium in Africa. She considered the informant credible.
Berlusconi, remember, supported the war.

Hersh then describes the photocopied documents received by the reporter, complete with codebook so as to interpret them. Burba turned the documents over to the American embassy in Rome on October 9, 2002. Hersh advances several theories about the forgeries. One is that SISMI fabricated them, another is that former CIA agents produced them to prove how intelligence was being mishandled by the adminsitration. Burba, incidentially, like Wilson travelled to Niger and fairly easily established that they were false. Inside the US they were also apparently discredited -- until they got to the Pentagon and Office of Special Plans.

Let's now consider Marshall's suspicions, which he acknowledges are based on circumstantial evidence. First, the circumstances, which Marshall wrote about in late October 2003:
The US and UK start a major roll-out on the nuclear claims. But the response is generally disappointing. There’s major push-back from the IAEA and, secretly in the US, from the CIA.

It was precisely at this moment (in the last days of September and the first of October) that the advocates of the Niger story were most in need of some new evidence. And it was precisely at this moment when the new evidence --- at first seemingly incontrovertible --- popped up in Rome.

And the day after the reporter gets the docs the Editor-in-Chief of her magazine instructs her to take them to the American Embassy.
Marshall provides more precise dates for all this -- take it from me that all this activity was condensed into several weeks during late September and early October 2002.

Today, Marshall wrote this on his blog:
a close look at the timeline of events in October 2002 points to the conclusion that the person who got those documents into the hands of Italian journalist Elisabetta Burba had some knowledge -- either direct or indirect -- of highly secret debates then going in between the Bush White House, the CIA and members of the Blair government in the UK.
I've been doing some digging into the timeline and likely (neocon?) connections and have arrived at some names I think Marshall means.

One is Manucher Ghorbanifar, of Iran-contra fame. Or should I say infamy? Ghorbanifar was the go-between for the US and Iranians when US arms were illegally traded for hostages. The CIA doesn't like him much:
One result of the Iran-contra scandal was a decision by the C.I.A. that it could not trust Mr. Ghorbanifar. A 1987 Congressional report on Iran-contra said that after Mr. Ghorbanifar failed C.I.A.-administered polygraph examinations, the agency issued a rare "Fabricator Notice," warning that he "should be regarded as an intelligence fabricator and a nuisance." He has been considered a con artist by the C.I.A. ever since.
Back in early December, the New York Times ran a story about meetings between Ghorbanifar and two Pentagon officials. In August, Newsday had already identified them as, "Harold Rhode, [Doug] Feith's top Middle East specialist, and Larry Franklin, a Defense Intelligence Agency analyst on loan to the undersecretary's office." Apparently, the first meetings were initiated by Ghorbanifar and occurred in Paris, December 2001. Other meetings occurred in June 2002 in Rome:
Rhode recently acted as a liaison between Feith's office, which drafted much of the administration's post-Iraq planning, and Ahmed Chalabi, a former Iraqi exile disdained by the CIA and State Department but groomed for leadership by the Pentagon.

Rhode is a protege of Michael Ledeen, a neo-conservative who was a National Security Council consultant in the mid-1980s when he introduced Ghorbanifar to Oliver North, a National Security Council aide, and others in the opening stages of the Iran-contra affair.
Who set up these meetings between Ghorbanifar and the US officials? Apparently neocon Michael Ledeen (the NYT names him as the broker as well), who is quoted directly in the more recent New York Times piece, after refusing to comment in August to Newsday.

In October 2003, Ledeen was the named source for a story in the conservative Washington Times claiming that Iraq provided Iran with uranium five years ago. He says the CIA refused to follow up the story because it was revealed in these meetings between the Pentagon officials and Ghorbanifar.
"We aggressively pursue all legitimate leads on weapons of mass destruction," chief CIA spokesman Bill Harlow said.

"It is true that we have no interest in meeting Mr. Ghorbanifar since he long ago was proven to be a fabricator and someone who sought to peddle false information for financial gain," Mr. Harlow said.
Fox News also had this story last October:
According to a leading Middle East expert, the CIA missed a golden opportunity to uncover a cache of Iraqi enriched uranium.

Michael Ledeen, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said Manucher Ghorbanifar, a figure from the Contra-hostage arms deals from the Reagan years, contacted him.

According to Ghorbanifar, a Shiite Iraqi and a former Iraqi military officer in Iraq had access to enriched uranium. The uranium was reportedly part of a cache hidden by Saddam, some of which had been smuggled to Iran by the Shiite and the Iraqi officer.
Bottom line: Ghorbanifar met with Pentagon officials and discussed uranium smuggling in Rome in 2001-2002.

I don't know if this has anything to do with Marshall's theory, but Ledeen used to live in Rome and apparently consulted for SISMI. Journalist Jim Lobe says it was Ledeen that helped expose Billy Carter's relationship with Libya. And of course, Ledeen was pretty directly involved in Iran-contra.

6/3/04 Update: More people have viewed this post than any other on my blog. Atrios linked to it back in early February and he always directs lots of readers. Now, What Really Happened has linked to it again. Thanks.

As a followup, I took note of Ledeen's daughter Simone's connections to the new Iraq on June 1, 2004.

I think the next most popular posts here concern either Laurie Mylroie or the numerous WMD lies.

7/18/05 update has linked here again. I've blogged recently about this latest wave of readers.