by Patrick Bahzad
In the weeks and months preceding "Operation Iraqi Freedom", a number of stories made the headlines that seemed to prove the US administration's contention about Iraq. The case for Saddam's WMD programmes was widely publicized and backed by a wealth of information, only to be proven wrong later on and have a dubious light shed on the intelligence work done prior to the invasion.
In the full-scale media offensive that was launched to bolster President Bush's claims, two scandals now stand out: the "Curveball" affair, named after the Iraqi informant who was the source for the "mobile bio-labs" lie that Secretary of State Colin Powell presented in his famous speech to the UN Security Council, and the "yellow cake" uranium deliveries from Niger To Iraq, which ultimately led to the leaking of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity. The fact of the matter has been narrated since and the "Plamegate", as it has been called, has been analysed extensively by US media. However, the baseline that was told American audiences over the years only reveals one side of the story. This piece is an account of the other one...
Why the full story was never disclosed to the American public is a bit of a mystery. Maybe people weren't interested in hearing a truth that showed how gullible they had been. Maybe the media didn't want to hear embarrassing questions about their own failing in the build-up to the Iraq war, or maybe journalists in the US simply lacked credible foreign sources that could have given them an insight into how it all started.
The Presidential briefing of September 2002
From a strictly US point of view, the chain of events began with CIA Director George Tenet briefing the President about some alarming news the Agency had received in September 2002. Aluminium rods on their way to Iraq had been intercepted and diagnosed as possible spare parts for centrifuges used in the enrichment of uranium. Additionally, it appeared that Saddam had attempted to obtain hundreds of tons of uranium ore (called "yellow cake") from the African country of Niger between 1999 and 2001. Both pieces of information taken together made for a worrying scenario: Iraq was trying to restart its nuclear weapons programme.
The information seemed so convincing that even Colin Powell mentioned its contents two days later during a hearing by the Senate's Committee on Foreign Relations. Two weeks later still, Congress passed a resolution authorizing the President to use the US armed forces against Iraq, in order to put a stop to the alleged WMD programmes. The collective hysteria that seemed to have taken hold of D.C. didn't stop there. In December of the same year, the State Department itself – up until then a stronghold of sceptics against the Neo-Con led charge – published a statement listing Niger as a provider of uranium to Iraq. And finally, the cherry on top of it all, in his "State of the Union address” of January 2003, George W. Bush again made reference to the aluminium rods and the "yellow cake" that had been mentioned in the CIA briefing by George Tenet.
The only word against the impeccable case the US administration had built came from the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammed el-Baradei. What a claim it was ! It should have hit the Bush administration like a bomb, but instead it made less noise than a dud. Not many observers in the US paid attention to the IAEA director's statements. Anything even vaguely related to the UN had already been discredited in America at the time, with the implicit help of a press and media that were only too willing to pick-up the bread crumbs of fabricated intelligence that had been thrown at them. El-Baradei didn't mince his words: the evidence on which the CIA based its report of September 2002 had been forged.
A fabrication gone unnoticed
That evidence, which had been hard to come by, consisted in just about half a dozen letters, supposedly exchanged between the governments of Iraq and Niger. The forgery however was obvious and crude: one letter had been signed by a Nigerien Minister who hadn't been in office since 1989. In another one, the signature of the President of Niger had been falsified. However, the IAEA inspector who had shed light on these fabrications was a French national and the US administration had no trouble convincing the political establishment in DC, as well as the press, that this was probably the sign of an attempt by the French government – at that time not exactly on good terms with US policy – to discredit the strong case built against Saddam.
And so "Operation Iraqi Freedom" went ahead without almost nobody back home daring to defy the Presidential word. The media campaign orchestrated by some of the President's top advisors had been very effective. By March 2003, 75 % of Americans believed Saddam had something to do with the 9/11 attacks and many more were convinced the Iraqi dictator had an ongoing WMD programme that needed to be stopped. As a close advisor to the President said, America couldn't wait until it saw a "mushroom cloud" over one of its cities.
That the whole war was launched under false pretences – erroneous information at best, lies and fabricated intelligence at worst – is now commonly accepted. How exactly these pieces of dubious information found their way into the most sensitive briefings, and the most solemn speeches, is a story in its own right, which started way before 9/11, and involved a country whose fries would later be called "freedom fries" as payback for the lack of support and open hostility to the toppling of Saddam.
Back to the beginning
Sometime in the year 2000, the French intelligence post in Brussels was contacted by an Italian national they knew quite well already. Rocco Martino, an ex-Carabinieri and former operative of Italy's military intelligence SID (later SISMI), had worked with French DGSE in the 1990s, liaising between French and Italian authorities on issues related to the ongoing civil war in the former Yugoslavia. He had been dismissed from SISMI in 1999 and was working as a "freelancer", selling information and intelligence to whoever was interested in what he had to offer.
During his first meeting with French agents, he never went into any specifics. It seemed almost as if he was just interested in letting people know he was there and might have something worth looking into. It took a few more months before he resurfaced, in the beginning of 2001. Another meeting was organised, because Martino had apparently some stunning news that he wanted to share with the French: according to his sources and documents, Iraq was trying to buy uranium ore, hundreds of tons of it, from the African country of Niger.
Suspicious about something they had never even suspected, the DGSE operatives nevertheless agreed to pay off Martino in exchange for his documents. Niger and uranium were too sensitive an issue to let go of any information, however unlikely it was. Niger was a country under strict surveillance by French military and intelligence, with hundreds of French informants spread all over the Nigerien administration and government. French companies were extracting the uranium ore from Nigerien mines and were buying it to produce uranium rods for French nuclear power plants … and French nuclear weapons.
There was no way DGSE could not pay attention to Martino. Very quickly though, the analysts at DGSE headquarters near Paris realized the documents were forgeries. DGSE broke up contact with Martino and never heard of him since. The Italian freelance intelligence broker however didn't seem too bothered by this setback. Having been turned down by the French, he went right next door, to the British counterpart of DGSE and offered them the same package.
Passing on the pop-corn
He got more lucky this time. The British forwarded the documents to the CIA, which in turn got back to the French for a check-up of these alleged facts. Despite the French confirming the fabrications, the CIA insisted on an official inquiry. In June 2001, a team of French experts travelled to Northern Niger to determine whether there could be any truth to uranium shipments to Iraq. They came back with the same answer as before, but again the US asked for a more thorough investigation. The DGSE extended its search as far as Namibia, but still came up empty handed.
That is where the buck stopped, and things should never have gone any further. But then, the 9/11 attacks happened and changed everything. Almost overnight, plans that the Neo-Con clique had kept locked up in their offices re-emerged. In the midst of all the confusion, the anger and the mourning for the victims, the name of Saddam Hussein was mentioned more and more in connection with Osama Bin Laden. Theories with no real or credible basis were being presented as facts.
It was clear that Iraq and its dictator were on top of the US administration's wish list, possibly even above the capture of Al Qaeda's leader. General Wesley Clarke has made public statements in this sense, saying how surprised he was to see "Iraq" being put on the table just a few days already after the 9/11 attacks. By that time, some people in the White House and the Pentagon had decided Saddam Hussein was to be made an issue again, and the spin doctoring and media circus started.
There have been a number of now famous ghost stories that were being circulated at that time and it shouldn't come as a surprise that the non-existent "yellow cake" deliveries featured prominently among them. As with other segments of the media campaign designed to win over the American public, the mechanism was always the same. It was based on the idea that whatever info you fed into one end of the global media system, it would come out at the other end as well, i.e. in the United States, thus giving the information more credibility, as it could be traced back to foreign sources or media outlets.
These pieces of false information would start somewhere as an article or a report in the European press for example, or they would be passed on to the CIA by a friendly foreign intelligence agency, then find their way into the mainstream media back home, with almost no questions asked. The US government would pick up on it and ask for further clarification or investigation in the country where the news allegedly came from. Loops of lies were being created that way, with the same conclusions going back and forth, only to strengthen the case against an imaginary threat. Saddam Hussein didn't have an ongoing WMD programme back in 2002 and he hadn't cooperated with Al Qaeda.
The "yellow cake" story resurfaces
In the case of the fabricated uranium ore deliveries from Niger to Iraq, the first newspaper to bring up the issue again was "La Repubblica", a reputable Italian paper, which published an interesting story in October 2001. According to "La Repubblica", Italian military intelligence SISMI – the very same agency that had employed intelligence broker Rocco Martino – had sent a report to the CIA containing crucial information about a visit the Iraqi ambassador to the Vatican had made to Niger, sometime in 1999. The visit's aim was supposedly to start negotiating possible uranium sales to Iraq.
In D.C., the Italian newspaper's article was thankfully acknowledged and a new inquiry was announced. Only this time, the US wouldn't turn to the French, who had already shown first signs of "dissidence" in relation to the Iraqi case. The Bush administration also wanted to control all the ins and outs of the inquiry and not rely on any foreign intelligence, whose conclusions were foregone anyway, as nothing had changed since the previous French report.
The man who was put in charge of the investigation had to be above any suspicion. And who could be better placed than Ambassador Joseph Wilson in that regard ? A former high ranking official in the US embassy in Iraq in 1991, he knew Africa quite well and was close to the democratic party. Choosing him basically meant the administration couldn't be accused of any partisan bias. This was a man with the necessary credentials and the required skills for such delicate matters.
Ambassador Wilson goes to Niger
In February 2002, shortly before Wilson's departure to Africa, the spin-doctoring went up in gears, when rumours emerged the CIA had already confirmation that Niger had signed a deal with Iraq for the supply of tons of uranium ore. Up until then, the Agency had seemed rather reluctant and sceptic about the whole "yellow cake" story, but the pressure it was being put under started having effects on the way the intelligence work was being handled.
Joe Wilson left for Niger already aware of this CIA report, but he still was determined to lead a thorough, objective and reliable investigation, which he did. After extensive discussions and interviews with Nigerien officials and government members, he came to the same conclusion as the French: there was nothing true about the story. That finding was pretty straightforward, as Niger's uranium production is presold to its clients. France buys most of the ore, before it is even being extracted, and a smaller fraction goes to Japan. There was simply no uranium ore on the market that could be shipped or delivered to Iraq, especially not the hundreds of tons mentioned in the Italian and US intelligence reports.
Abandoned mine shafts which had been suspected of being used to provide for the Iraqi requests were also a non-starter: they were under surveillance by French companies security personnel and with hundreds of informants around the mines in Northern Niger, there was simply no way an enterprise that large could have been undertaken without at least some information being leaked.
Back to square one
Ambassador Wilson's findings didn't exactly go down well with the people in charge in D.C. Even though the relations with France were already strained, the CIA was ordered to liaise again with the DGSE for yet another investigation. A high ranking CIA official flew all the way to Paris in April 2002, to request French assistance again. In his suitcase, he had the Italian intelligence report, the one that had been the reason why ambassador Wilson was sent to Niger in the first place. The French DGSE experts were not thrilled and during the discussions that took place, they reiterated time and again that the allegations about the mere notion of "yellow cake" deliveries were highly unlikely.
The Italian report and the documents it contained however said otherwise. According to this information, the Iraqi ambassador to the Vatican had been sent to Niger not just to discuss possible uranium deliveries, but to arrange the terms and conditions of a deal with Niger's President, Mamadou Tandja. The Italians had even joined a copy of the sales contract that had allegedly been signed, with tons of Nigerien uranium being shipped through the African countries of Togo and Benin all the way to their final destination in Iraq.
To the French DGSE, these documents looked strangely familiar: they were actually very similar to the forgeries their ex-informant, Rocco Martino, had sold them one year earlier. Furthermore, the French experts on Iraq considered it highly unlikely that a deal of that magnitude would be handled by the Iraqis through a simple ambassador. In order to accommodate the US however, and probably to try and mend fences in what already was a strained relationship, the DGSE accepted to look into the whole matter again.
This time, the case was assigned to the newly formed "Service de Renseignement de Sécurité" within DGSE, a crack department led by a seasoned officer and Middle-Eastern expert, Alain Chouet, who was heading a special group of 500 agents specialized in WMD proliferation and industrial espionage. Chouet sent in a detachment of five high-level experts and a security detail from DGSE's "Service Action". But as expected, his team didn't finding anything more than the previous three investigative teams.
Another intelligence loop
Having realized there would be no more help and cooperation – if you can call it that – from the French, those within the US administration who didn't want to let go of the "yellow cake" tried again to play the media and turned to another Italian paper to stage a second press campaign, bringing up the same story all over. The same technic of intelligence loops was used again: bringing the story to a foreign paper and waiting for it to surface in the US media.
This time, it wasn't "La Repubblica" that was targeted, as they had already debunked the story as a fraud. Instead, it was the weekly paper "Panorama" that printed the allegations. Elisabeth Burba, one of the magazine's more senior reporters, was approached in October 2002 by a businessman and previous informant of hers, who up until then had always proven to be a reliable source. Probably unknown to her, the informant was also a consultant for Italy's SISMI.
The documents he provided still hadn't changed. Despite having been assessed as crude forgeries, the crooks who were trying to sell their fairy-tale hadn't even managed to improve the quality of their fabrications. Elisabeth Burba didn't fall for them either and started to investigate how such a scam had been possible. But she was quickly told to let go of it and her paper, which was asking questions about who was circulating the fake reports, was never published.
At that point, the case about the "yellow cake" deliveries had gathered that much momentum in the US media, that there was no more stopping it. Thanks to some repeated efforts, it was now considered serious enough an allegation to be mentioned in the most sensitive intelligence reports regarding Iraq, and that is ultimately how it found its way into President Bush's "State of the Union Address" in January 2003.
Those within the intelligence community who knew better were careful enough to keep their mouth shut, as everybody had realized by then, that it wasn't very healthy to question accusations made by the President himself. Ambassador Wilson however had second thoughts and shared his suspicions during a Democratic party meeting in May 2003. The invasion of Iraq was already over by that time, but things turned out not to be as easy as predicted.
The search for WMDs in Iraq also turned out to be a massive fraud, with nothing of consequence being discovered in any of the locations that had been named by the administration prior to "Operation Iraqi Freedom". In July 2003 finally, Joe Wilson published an OP-ED in the New York Times, "What I didn't find in Africa", which was a real blow to President Bush and his Neo-Con advisors. That OP-ED is commonly regarded as the starting point for the Wilson-Plame scandal.
The "Plamegate" takes its course
At that point, the spin doctors in the administration went on a counter-offensive, which involved attacking Joe Wilson's credibility. They found no better way of doing this than leaking his wife's identity and occupation, Valerie Plame, a CIA operative who had worked on counter-proliferation under a "non-official cover". The rationale for leaking Plame to Robert Novak, Judith Miller and others was simple: outing her in her capacity as a CIA asset was going to raise doubts about Joe Wilson's designation as lead investigator into the Nigerien "yellow cake", thus suggesting he only had gotten the assignment through his wife and not through his qualification for the job.
The fact he was close to the Democratic party was also mentioned as one more reason his report and OP-ED should be handled with caution, given it was possibly purporting false information aimed at embarrassing the President. The rest of what became known as the "Plamegate" is common knowledge. Judith Miller finally gave up the name of the "leaker" and Lewis "Scooter" Libby was indicted and sentenced to 30 months in a federal prison ... Less than a month after his conviction however, the President commuted his sentence.
For a while though, the "Plamegate" and the identity of Judith Miller's source remained the centre of all media coverage in the US. Leaking the name of an undercover CIA agent was a serious crime, and something very dangerous to do, in particular for the people Valerie Plame has been in contact with. But the background to the case and the way things had gotten so far didn't really seem to matter that much. Almost everybody seemed to be happy with leaving that chapter in the dark. It wasn't until July 2005 that "La Repubblica", one of the first newspapers who had been targeted by the intelligence forgers, rolled up the story and tried to get to the bottom of it.
What the Italian journalists discovered is very much in line with the results intelligence agencies who had access to the fabricated documents came up with as well. The fake letters, bearing the falsified signature of the President of Niger, or the name of a minister who hadn't been in office since 1989, had been drafted between December 2000 and January 2001 at the Nigerien embassy in Rome.
Italy's military intelligence SISMI had at least one agent working in the embassy at that time. Official letter paper and stamps were used, but crude mistakes were made which put the operation at serious risk. To the trained eye, it was easy to identify the letters as forgeries, but anybody willing to accept these sources without bothering to have a second look could probably put them to good use.
That's how the fabricated letters were first handed over to Rocco Martino, the freelance intelligence broker, who offered them to the French. He then proceeded to hand them over to the British, who forwarded the package to US intelligence. That the British had been fooled by the documents is hard to believe. They were just as capable of detecting the fraud as the French. So why would British intelligence pass on something they knew or strongly suspected to be fake ? The answer to this question may hold the key to unlocking the whole case. Quite possibly, the decision to go into Iraq was already in the pipes way before 9/11. All that was needed was evidence strong enough to convince public opinion in the US, but also in the UK and other countries willing to take part in such an adventure.
If that assumption is considered a credible scenario, it made perfect sense for the organisers of that misinformation campaign to try and win over the French first. With the British almost surely on board from the outset, it would be more interesting to try and test French reactions to a possible reactivation of Iraq's WMD programme. To avoid any clue as to who was pulling the strings, the operation was sub-contracted to a less conspicuous partner in crime, i.e. Italy's SISMI, a sort of foreign branch of the CIA in many respects.
There are several theories about who was at the helm of the operation within SISMI, but two names come up time and again, in addition to "spook-crook" Rocco Martino: the most likely suspects would be Antonio Nucera, head of department of SISMI with a good knowledge of Iraq, and a former acquaintance of Martino, or further up the food-chain, the director of SISMI, Niccolo Polari, acting under direct order from the Italian government, which was very eager at the time to make friends with the newly elected US President, George W. Bush.
Whoever was behind it all, they first went to the French for very good reason. Of all the Western countries, France was the one with the best knowledge of what was going on in Niger, a former French colony. Handing the allegations over to the French was also a way of testing the water, to see how much they were willing to play ball, as they were already known to be rather hostile to the idea of further intervention in Iraq, even under a UN-umbrella.
However, the forgers had botched up their work. It took the French analysts only a couple of days to realize the whole story was just a scam. But the full extend of that scam and the number of players involved only became fully apparent in the months and years that followed. The fake "yellow cake" documents still managed to make their way through the media, through US intelligence reports and all the way into a Presidential address. It had been the work of amateurs, but still managed to evade detection because some people wanted to use it as evidence in a case that had to stick, whatever the costs. In that sense, they fully succeeded. What they may have forgotten in their self-delusion of omnipotence is that when you're working with amateurs, your bluff always gets called in the end.