THE NIGER FORGERIES
How Did Allegations from Discredited Documents End Up in a State of the Union Speech?
By Richard Sale, Intelligence Correspondent
DOUG FEITH’S BACKCHANNEL
In December 2001, there was a secret meeting in Rome attended by Michael Ledeen, a paid consultant to Panorama, the Italian magazine that first broke the story of the Niger documents and Defense Department official, Larry Franklyn, since indicted for passing classified information to Israel, the classified documents outlining US policy towards Iran and US activities in Iraq.
Harold Rhode, another DOD official was there, and, like Franklin, was from the office of Doug Feith, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy.
Also attending was Iran-Contra figure Manducher Ghorbanifar, an Iranian fabricator of intelligence about whom the CIA had issued a "burn notice" that the man and his information were not reliable and to avoid employing him.
According to former and serving US intelligence sources the secret meetings between Pentagon officials and associates of Ghorbanifar in Europe had been going on for almost two years, a full year longer than the Bush administration acknowledged.
Ghorbanifar told Laura Rozen of the Washington Monthly of three meetings, but US intelligence officials have confirmed to this reporter that while the Pentagon originally told the Washington Post that Rhode had simply run into Ghorbanifar in Paris in June 2003, Ghorbanifar told Rozen that the two men spent weeks planning the meeting.
Further, US intelligence officials said that the Italian military intelligence organization, SISMI, provided logistics and security for the December 2001 Rome meeting.
In fact, the head of SISMI, Nicolo Pollari, as well as the Italian Defense Minister, Antonia Martino, attended the meeting. Martino, it should be noted, is a member of JINSA, the hard line, right-wing pro-Israeli organization. Since Ledeen is a also member of JINSA and has often been a keynote speaker, the link is not unimportant.
According to Rozen, who confirmed details with this reporter, Ghorbanifar told her he had had fifty meetings with Michael Ledeen since September 11th, 2001 and that he had given Ledeen "4,000 to 5,000 pages of sensitive documents" concerning Iran, Iraq and the Middle East, "material no one else has received."
Ghorbanifar, speaking to Rozen by telephone from France, says those meetings took place abroad because he has been refused a US visa the last two times he has applied. Ghorbanifar also told Rozen that he had meetings with an assortment of US officials whose identities have not yet been determined. Former senior US intelligence officials told this reporter that the secret meeting took place at a SISMI safe house in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna. While Pollari told Rozen that Ghorbanifar was not present, US intelligence officials told this reporter that he was. Later officials from Feith’s office would claim that the Pentagon officials who attended the meeting did not know in advance that Ghorbanifar was going to be there and were surprised by his presence).
Here are some excerpts of Rozen’s interview with Pollari:
Pollari: "It’s true, we organized the meeting in Rome with the Iranians, but Ghorbanifar wasn’t there. We didn’t know these Iranians. One of them even asked us how to write his name. Anyway, the meeting. This is how it went. A minister calls me up. Who? No names. He tells me that the Pentagon wants to organize a meeting with some Iranians. They’ve got some information about matters concerning our national security. So I get to work. I keep an eye on things through two of my men. But all they talk about is tripe. But above all, oil contracts. ENI [Italian State Petroleum]. Concessions for new exploitation. Lines of credit for tens of millions of dollars… As if the Sismi is some sort of hawkers’ mart where you buy and sell. I decide to alert the government. I spell out my misgivings about our institutional role… I want to avoid any future misunderstandings.
THE WILSON MISSION
The Plame controversy began when Vice President Dick Cheney learned from a CIA briefer about the Niger documents and demanded to know more about the Niger Embassy break-in of Jan. 2 2001 during which the documents had been seized.
The briefer went back to the agency and there was a meeting at the CIA of the Counter proliferation division with Valerie Plame, the wife of former diplomat JOE WILSON, in attendance. Plame was approached by a senior agency official and asked if her husband would be willing to investigate allegations made in the Niger documents that Saddam Huseein was attempting to purchase 500 tones of yellow cake uranium.
The CIA official thought Wilson a good choice to send to Niger since he was a former Ambassador to Gabon and a US Embassy official in Iraq during Gulf War.
In any case, it was Plame’s boss and other senior agency Counter proliferation officials who okayed the trip, putting Wilson on a per diem. In a June 10, memo written by the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, a five-page long classified memo was sent to Marc Grossman. In it was a line (one line) referring in passing to the Wilson mission, mentioning *a CIA meeting apparently convened by Valerie Wilson.
* This was in error.
But no one asked for a correction because no one at the time ever thought that Plame’s name would be leaked and also because the document was classified. Wilson met in Niger in Niamy with Ambassador Owens-Kirkpatrick and a 3-star Army Gen. Fulfer from a senior commander of Eurcom. Fulfer came to believe the Niger story to be horseshit just as Wilson did. Wilson returned to Washington in early March and met with various people in the agency and intelligence community including the State Department’s African Affairs Bureau to report on is findings.
On March 9, CIA cabled Wilson’s doubts to the Intel community and passed a memo with his comments to White House, according to former senior CIA officials. But the chief point is that Plame did not have the authority to initiate any mission regarding the Niger charges. She was, after all, under cover, and her identity was classified. On July 7, the INR memo was readdressed to Colin Powell. But the first version, five pages and classified, was sent to White House communications and forwarded to Air Force One where it was received by Ari Fleisher. The special prosecutor has subpoenaed the Air Force One phone records.
THE BREAK IN
The Niger Embassy in Rome had, for decades, been a target for SISMI (Italian Military intelligence) eavesdroppers.
The Niger Embassy was broken into on Jan. 2, 2001. The place had been trashed and ransacked and Aarfou Mounkaila, the second secretry, reported the crime to the Carabinieri. However, very little was stolen except a Breil steel watch and three small vials of perfume. What were missing were documents. The agents at SISMI would receive a thick packet of documents in exchange for cash. The documents included a codebook, a series of letters laying the groundwork for a 1999 visit to Niger by Wassam al-Zahawiah, Iraq’s Ambassador to the Holy See, and few telexes, one with the heading "003/99/ABNI/Rome.".
None of this would appear to be very sinister except, one – the intelligence contained in the documents had been fabricated and found to be false and two – Michael Ledeen, a prominent neocon, was at the time, a "paid consultant" to SISMI," according to former very senior US intelligence officials. His ties dated back to the 1980s. The Italian Parliamentary Committee for Intelligence oversight, which is a single committee made up of reps from the Italian Senate and Chamber of deputies, did an investigation.
They quickly determined that the data was forged, and, not in Italy but in the United States. Ledeen’s name surfaced in the probe of the committee, which was trying to determine what role he had played, if any. Nevertheless, SISMI, whose headquarters are at Forte Braschi, had already acted. Its liaison had forwarded the details of the supposed sale of Niger yellow cake to Iraq to Britain’s MI-6 and, following a number of meetings in Rome MI-6 passed on a summary of the information to the US labeled "reliable."
The summary sent to the British was called, "Reciprocal Exchange of Information" SISMI did not in any way reveal how it had obtained the information to protect sources and methods. MI-6 forwarded the summary to the CIA where it was not given much notice. It was seen as third-hand uncorroborated information. For example, it was not included in the President’s Daily Brief (PDF.)
SISMI also sent copies of the data to Italy’s Executive Committee of the Intelligence and Security Service (CESIS) and sent a copy to the Italian Foreign Ministry and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The African Directorates in the Foreign Ministry was quick to raise "strong objections" and "reservations" about the accuracy of the information forwarded to MI-6 and the CIA. State’s INR was quick to brand the intelligence as "junk." "A whole lot of things told us that the stuff was junk," a former INR official told this reporter.
Among the telltale signs of fraud: the centerpiece of the documents was a three-page memorandum of understanding (MOU) between Iraq and Niger dated July 6, 2000. It was signed by Niger President Tandja Mamadou and Allele Habibou, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, and it spoke of a bilateral deal for five hundred tons of uranium oxide which was "legal and authorized under the Niger constitution of 1965." An accompanying letter dated Oct. 10 said it was being sent for information to the ambassador in Rome from the Niger foreign ministry.
According to the MOU, the 500 tons of uranium was to be "shipped secretly by sea" on a Gabon-flagged ship, and, at some point in "international waters," the 500-tons of uranium was to be transferred from the Gabon-flagged vessel to another ship. This was seen by experts to be a total technical impossibility, but few besides experts paid any attention to the absurdity. The yellow cake was to be shipped Aug. 28 and arrive on Sept. 11. (What a coincidence!).
An enclosed letter said, "… very good work done together with the personal emmissary of the Iraqi president," (sic) adding that "It’s understood that this information is top secret." In spite of this warning, the letter itself was stamped only "Confidential," one of the lowest orders of classification. But in the package of documents forwarded to SISMI were many signs of fabrication. For example, a letter dated July 30,1999 actually refers in the past tense to supposed deals agreed to in Niamey a year later, June 29, 2000. And the October 10 letter had a heading, "Conseil Militaire Supreme," an organization that went out of existence May 1989. The signature was that of minister of foreign affairs Allele Habibou, who had been out of office for a decade. Finally, while the letter was dated October 10, it was stamped as having been received in Rome on Sept. 28 two weeks before it was sent.
In addition, the Niger constitution of 1965, referred to in one document, had been superceded by a new constitution of Aug 9, 1999, and the presidential signature bore no resemblance to the real signature of Mamadou. The forger also used an inaccurate representation of the Niger national emblem.
The Sept. 3, 2001 document attempting to show a connection to the attacks appears identical to the document outlying the ambassador’s previous 1999 trip — the same flight and time. The only changes had been made to the top of the page. Also, by September 4, 2001, al Zahawiah was no longer ambassador, another slight problem.
The argument over the validity of the allegations was a total waste of time.
A former senior State Department official told this reporter: "If Iraq had had the yellow cake in question, it would not have advanced its ability to develop a nuclear weapon because Iraq lacked the complex industrial capacity required to refine yellow cake into anything usable in that respect.
In fact, in 1991 Iraq already had several hundred tons of yellow cake purchased in two deals with Niger in the early 1980’s that were deemed of so little value by the IAEA that they were never removed as part of the UNSCOM disarmament effort because it was of so little significance.
In fact, in the weeks after the fall of Baghdad, looters removed some of the yellow cake from its sealed drums to use the drums as containers for other materials.
"All along, since early 2003, I’ve wondered why virtually no-one said `so what? ‘" in reaction to the nuclear aspect of this entire affair."
WE MAKE GET AN ANSWER
The Special Prosecutor in the CIA leak case is known to be in possession of the Italian parliamentary report, and so the full FBI field investigation of the matter. Federal law enforcement officials told this reporter that pursing the career of the forgeries was one reason Patrick Fitzgerald asked for and obtained additional authority to broaden his probe in February of 2004.