From the beginning, there has been little doubt in the intelligence community that the outing of CIA officer Valerie Plame was part of a bigger story. That she was exposed in an attempt to discredit her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, is clear, but the drive to demonize Wilson cannot reasonably be attributed only to revenge. Rather, her identification likely grew out of an attempt to cover up the forging of documents alleging that Iraq attempted to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger.
What took place and why will not be known with any certainty until the details of the Fitzgerald investigation are revealed. (As we go to press, Fitzgerald has made no public statement.) But recent revelations in the Italian press, most notably in the pages of La Repubblica, along with information already on the public record, suggest a plausible scenario for the evolution of Plamegate.
Information developed by Italian investigators indicates that the documents were produced in Italy with the connivance of the Italian intelligence service. It also reveals that the introduction of the documents into the American intelligence stream was facilitated by Undersecretary of Defense Doug Feith’s Office of Special Plans (OSP), a parallel intelligence center set up in the Pentagon to develop alternative sources of information in support of war against Iraq.
The first suggestion that Iraq was seeking yellowcake uranium to construct a nuclear weapon came on Oct. 15, 2001, shortly after 9/11, when Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his newly appointed chief of the Servizio per le Informazioni e la Sicurezza Militare (SISMI), Nicolo Pollari, made an official visit to Washington. Berlusconi was eager to make a good impression and signaled his willingness to support the American effort to implicate Saddam Hussein in 9/11. Pollari, in his position for less than three weeks, was likewise keen to establish himself with his American counterparts and was under pressure from Berlusconi to present the U.S. with information that would be vital to the rapidly accelerating War on Terror. Well aware of the Bush administration’s obsession with Iraq, Pollari used his meeting with top CIA officials to provide a SISMI dossier indicating that Iraq had sought to buy uranium in Niger. The same intelligence was passed simultaneously to Britain’s MI-6.
But the Italian information was inconclusive and old, some of it dating from the 1980s. The British, the CIA, and the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research analyzed the intelligence and declared that it was “lacking in detail” and “very limited” in scope.
In February 2002, Pollari and Berlusconi resubmitted their report to Washington with some embellishments, resulting in Joe Wilson’s trip to Niger. Wilson visited Niamey in February 2002 and subsequently reported to the CIA that the information could not be confirmed.
Enter Michael Ledeen, the Office of Special Plans’ man in Rome. Ledeen was paid $30,000 by the Italian Ministry of the Interior in 1978 for a report on terrorism and was well known to senior SISMI officials. Italian sources indicate that Pollari was eager to engage with the Pentagon hardliners, knowing they were at odds with the CIA and the State Department officials who had slighted him. He turned to Ledeen, who quickly established himself as the liaison between SISMI and Feith’s OSP, where he was a consultant. Ledeen, who had personal access to the National Security Council’s Condoleezza Rice and Stephen Hadley and was also a confidant of Vice President Cheney, was well placed to circumvent the obstruction coming from the CIA and State.
The timing, August 2002, was also propitious as the administration was intensifying its efforts to make the case for war. In the same month, the White House Iraq Group (WHIG) was set up to market the war by providing information to friends in the media. It has subsequently been alleged that false information generated by Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress was given to Judith Miller and other journalists through WHIG.
On Sept. 9, 2002, Ledeen set up a secret meeting between Pollari and Deputy National Security Adviser Hadley. Two weeks before the meeting, a group of documents had been offered to journalist Elisabetta Burba of the Italian magazine Panorama for $10,000, but the demand for money was soon dropped and the papers were handed over. The man offering the documents was Rocco Martino, a former SISMI officer who delivered the first WMD dossier to London in October 2002. That Martino quickly dropped his request for money suggests that the approach was a set-up primarily intended to surface the documents.
Panorama, perhaps not coincidentally, is owned by Prime Minister Berlusconi. On Oct. 9, the documents were taken from the magazine to the U.S. Embassy, where they were apparently expected. Instead of going to the CIA Station, which would have been the normal procedure, they were sent straight to Washington where they bypassed the agency’s analysts and went directly to the NSC and the Vice President’s Office.
On Jan. 28, 2003, over the objections of the CIA and State, the famous 16 words about Niger’s uranium were used in President Bush’s State of the Union address justifying an attack on Iraq: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Both the British and American governments had actually obtained the report from the Italians, who had asked that they not be identified as the source. The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency also looked at the documents shortly after Bush spoke and pronounced them crude forgeries.
President Bush soon stopped referring to the Niger uranium, but Vice President Cheney continued to insist that Iraq was seeking nuclear weapons.
The question remains: who forged the documents? The available evidence suggests that two candidates had access and motive: SISMI and the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans.
In January 2001, there was a break-in at the Niger Embassy in Rome. Documents were stolen but no valuables. The break-in was subsequently connected to, among others, Rocco Martino, who later provided the dossier to Panorama. Italian investigators now believe that Martino, with SISMI acquiescence, originally created a Niger dossier in an attempt to sell it to the French, who were managing the uranium concession in Niger and were concerned about unauthorized mining. Martino has since admitted to the Financial Times that both the Italian and American governments were behind the eventual forgery of the full Niger dossier as part of a disinformation operation. The authentic documents that were stolen were bunched with the Niger uranium forgeries, using authentic letterhead and Niger Embassy stamps. By mixing the papers, the stolen documents were intended to establish the authenticity of the forgeries.
At this point, any American connection to the actual forgeries remains unsubstantiated, though the OSP at a minimum connived to circumvent established procedures to present the information directly to receptive policy makers in the White House. But if the OSP is more deeply involved, Michael Ledeen, who denies any connection with the Niger documents, would have been a logical intermediary in co-ordinating the falsification of the documents and their surfacing, as he was both a Pentagon contractor and was frequently in Italy. He could have easily been assisted by ex-CIA friends from Iran-Contra days, including a former Chief of Station from Rome, who, like Ledeen, was also a consultant for the Pentagon and the Iraqi National Congress.
It would have been extremely convenient for the administration, struggling to explain why Iraq was a threat, to be able to produce information from an unimpeachable “foreign intelligence source” to confirm the Iraqi worst-case.
The possible forgery of the information by Defense Department employees would explain the viciousness of the attack on Valerie Plame and her husband. Wilson, when he denounced the forgeries in the New York Times in July 2003, turned an issue in which there was little public interest into something much bigger. The investigation continues, but the campaign against this lone detractor suggests that the administration was concerned about something far weightier than his critical op-ed.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA Officer, is a partner in Cannistraro Associates, an international security consultancy.