Dennis Hans: Mama Mia, What a Con!
Mama Mia, What a Con!
How the Italians — perhaps with U.S. neocon help — suckered the Brits into believing and promoting the African-uranium fable
By Dennis Hans
Did neonconservative elements in U.S. intelligence, perhaps at the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans (OSP), use the Italian military intelligence agency, known as SISMI, to con British intelligence into believing what most U.S. experts considered far-fetched at best — that Iraq sought uranium from Africa for use in a nuclear weapons program? Is that the “back story” behind this discredited assertion — “there is intelligence that Iraq has sought the supply of significant quantities of uranium from Africa” — in the Brits’ ballyhooed September 2002 dossier, which Bush cited in his 2003 State of the Union address?
At this point, there is substantial circumstantial evidence against Italy’s SISMI, less so for a U.S. role in the plot — if a plot is what it is. It strains credulity that SISMI would, on its own, con the Brits into believing and hyping the uranium allegations. But one thing this strange, complex story has revealed time and again is that credulity-straining things happen all the time.
So with that caveat out of the way, we turn to our attempt at a coherent narrative of this convoluted tale.
The Brits Received “Summaries,” Not Forgeries
British officials vehemently deny that they knew anything about the forged Iraq-Niger correspondence and “memorandum of agreement” for the sale of 500 tons of uranium oxide when they published their September dossier. They insist that their assertion was based on other evidence that their government had obtained from at least two western (but non-U.S.) intelligence services.
I believe the Brits. Their position is supported by an important story in the March 22 Washington Post ( http://commondreams.org/headlines03/0322-04.htm). Paraphrasing an official of the U.N. shortly after that body’s International Atomic Energy Agency exposed the forgeries, the Post reported that “a Niger diplomat turned the letters over to Italian intelligence, which provided summaries of the information to Washington and London.”
The key word is “summaries.”
On July 9, a Reuters dispatch ( http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/24by7panews/page.cfm?objectid=13157652&method=full&siteid=50143) made the same basic point:: “Italy's intelligence service circulated reports about the Niger documents — not the documents themselves — to other Western intelligence services in early 2002, and that was apparently how the British and U.S. intelligence services learned of them, U.S. government sources said.”
Note the carefully worded Italian denial, issued July 13 ( http://www.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/europe/07/13/sprj.irq..italy.uranium.ap/index.html): “The news reported by various information organizations, national and foreign, concerning Italy's claimed transmission to other intelligence organizations of documents of Niger or Iraqi origin, conveying evidence relative to uranium transactions between Niger and Iraq are without any foundation.”
The key phrase in the non-denial denial is “documents of Niger or Iraqi origin.” What SISMI transmitted were of ITALIAN origin — they were SISMI “summaries” based (how loosely we don’t know) on the info in the actual documents.
Why the Brits Believed
The Brits found the allegations in the “summaries” credible BECAUSE they never received the actual documents. If the efforts of the Iraqis to acquire uranium in Africa are described in a report provided by a trusted ally that was not at all eager to attack Iraq, and if the reader of that report is unaware the allegations are based on obvious forgeries, he might well be inclined to believe the allegations. He would not have his guard up while reading the summaries/report, and unless someone provided a darn good reason for skepticism, he would likely consider the Iraqis guilty until proven innocent. He would not be inclined to search for evidence that would clear the Iraqis.
SISMI went out of its way to lend credibility to the summaries/report by flattering the Brits and playing up what we might call Italy’s own “special relationship” with Britain: They were two European allies who, unlike the Bush administration cowboys chomping at the bit, did not believe in early 2002 that war was the only solution to Iraq. SISMI also boxed the Brits by insisting they not compare intelligence notes with the Yanks. British officials concede as much, without specific reference to SISMI, in an important article by Richard Norton-Taylor in the July 14 Guardian ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq/Story/0,2763,997704,00.html):
“British intelligence sources said yesterday that MI6 had separate information [distinct from the forgeries] to back the claim. MI6 was provided the information by a third party which insisted that neither the source nor the intelligence could be passed on. . . . Whitehall officials suggested yesterday that the claims came from a ‘close ally’ but one which did not want Britain to give it to the US as a further pretext for war.”
That sound you hear is SISMI playing MI6 like a violin. But who composed the tune? SISMI? Berlusconi? An ally in the western hemisphere? Who wanted the Brits to believe in a uranium crock?
Is Italian “Intelligence” Idiotic or Insidious?
The actual forged documents have now appeared in the Italian and U.S. media (view them via this link: http://abcnews.go.com/sections/wnt/US/uranium030716flaweddocs.html). As ABC’s Brian Ross reported July 16, “Among the many glaring errors evident in the documents . . . are the use of obsolete letterheads, incompatible dates and poorly forged signatures.”
So what are the chances SISMI’s forensic investigators were fooled by this rubbish? Slim. It strains credulity to think SISMI could not figure out they were dealing with obvious forgeries (assuming SISMI didn’t create them itself), but it’s certainly possible.
If SISMI considered them geniune, why didn’t they include photocopies along with the summaries/report it passed on to the Brits and others? Wouldn’t that help a recipient agency conduct their own investigation to confirm or refute the allegations in the “summaries”?
If SISMI was cynically trying to persuade the Brits of an African Connection that SISMI knew or highly suspected was bogus, the smart thing for SISMI to have done is lock up those laughable letters and distribute instead neatly typed “summaries” that wouldn’t have those “glaring errors.” Had SISMI given MI6 the actual documents, it probably would have taken the Brits the same two hours it took the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to conclude they were forgeries.
Is SISMI a mostly rightwing hotbed in a rightwing government? A source within SISMI told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica (as paraphrased July 16 by the Associated Press) that “the Italian Foreign Ministry had raised strong objections about the information provided by Italian intelligence.” ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/worldlatest/story/0,1280,-2916088,00.html)
Sounds just like the infighting among the Bush administration, where the cool, competent and powerless folks in the State Department’s intelligence bureau, whose judgments look darn good in hindsight, have been repeatedly stunned by the incredible nonsense passed off as truth by the superhawk neoconservatives at the Pentagon’s OSP.
Even if turns out that the SISMI leadership is both hawkish and sneaky, and indeed passed on to the Brits allegations it new were groundless, it’s hard to believe that SISMI would do this on its own initiative.
The Brits’ and Yanks’ Mysterious “Other” Sources
So far, our focus has been on one British source, SISMI. Rest assured, SISMI was the Brits’ primary source. But we know from numerous comments by named an unnamed Brit officials that they had at least one other foreign intelligence source. It could be an agency from another country (some recent speculation centers on France), or it may simply be a different branch of Italian intelligence. Whatever the case, this other source or sources seems to have provided the merest of scraps — “fragmentary” stuff similar or identical to some odds and ends the sane branches of U.S. intelligence place little stock in.
In the weeks and months after the Niger Connection fell apart on March 7, 2003, various U.S. officials aluded to untainted evidence in our possession implicating Iraq in efforts to buy uranium from an African nation other than Niger. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) asked the Bush administration what this evidence was, and an official State Department response acknowledged that our source was a “second Western European government” (i.e., other than the British) that had “based its assessment on the evidence already available to the U.S. that was subsequently discredited” ( http://alternet.org/story.html?StoryID=16155). According to a “senior intelligence official” quoted in the July 8 Washington Post ( http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A23777-2003Jul7?language=printer), “We both [the U.S. and Brits] had one source reporting through some liaison service which said, ‘Look what we found.’ There were other [intelligence] reporting streams, but it may be that all streams are traced to the same source.”
The CIA Flubs a Chance to Clue in the Brits
In early September the CIA did warn the Brits about including the uranium allegation in their soon-to-be-published dossier. But as Foreign Secretary Jack Straw commented July 12, “the US comment was unsupported by explanation and UK officials were confident that the dossier's statement was based on reliable intelligence” ( http://story.news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&cid=1514&e=5&u=/afp/20030712/wl_mideast_afp/iraq_britain_us_africa_030712131522). So the Brits left it in, believing erroneously that they had secret evidence not privy to the Yanks! What the Brits didn’t know is that their trusty friends in SISMI provided summaries/reports to the Yanks, too. Nor did the Brits know that the U.S. had long ago conducted three separate investigations into the allegations that flowed from the forged documents, and each concluded that, for a variety of reasons, there was virtually no chance they were true. But because the CIA did not tell the Brits in early September what it new and what it had investigated and discounted, the Brits didn’t get a chance for a lightbulb moment. You know, the light switches on and the MI6 agent says, “That sounds amazingly like the allegations that we’ve been thinking are true, but unlike you Yanks, we didn’t check them out. We basically just took the word of our secret source. Please, CIA friend, tell me more.”
This “failure to communicate” is all the more astounding when one considers that a CIA officer sits on the Brits’ Joint Intelligence Committee. He or she doesn’t have full privileges, but there really is a “special relationship” between Brit and Yank spooks. Why the CIA official or officials chose not to explain to the Brits WHY they should delete the uranium reference is a matter for Congress to investigate.
And what to make of CIA director George Tenet? It’s not good to have at the top someone who’s (1) a coward and (2) easily cajoled by his smooth-talking, back-slapping pal, George W. Bush. From a professional standpoint, that’s two strikes against Tenet. Sticking strictly to uranium, his agency did ask the Brits — however ineffectively and non-specifically — to not mention it in the dossier. And a few weeks later he got a similar line stricken from Bush’s October 7 address in Cincinnati. But he also breathed life into the allegations by mentioning it, albeit with caveats, in the classified National Intelligence Estimate of October — a document put out mainly to placate Democrats who wanted more to go on than administration pronouncements. Those passages were not read in a vacuum. They were read by members of Congress who shortly before had first learned about the Uranium Connection from a trusted ally asserting in a white paper that “there is intelligence” of such a Connection. That nuclear double-shot helped to persuade fence-sitters to give Bush a green light to wage war.
The net effect of Tenet’s conflicting actions on the Uranium Connection was to give some legitimacy to allegations that deserved almost none. A less cowardly director would have driven a stake into the Connection, but such a director would never have been hired by Bush.
Questions that Require Answers
Determining the who, when, how and why of the preparation of these summaries — and whether “summaries” is a good description of what SISMI distributed — will go a long way toward determining if the Brits believed these materials or merely pretended to.
Consider “who?” The summaries presumably were prepared by SISMI agents. Did they prepare them on their own? Did any non-Italians collaborate? If so, who? What was the nature of the collaboration?
Consider “why?” Was the purpose of the summaries to accurately reflect the contents of the documents or to hype and distort them? At any point in their preparation phase did the preparers learn or suspect that the allegations were false and the documents fake?
Consider “when?” The actual documents were acquired by Italian intelligence in the late in 2001. Not till months later did the Italians distribute the summaries. After Wilson revealed in the New York Times that he conducted his Niger investigation in “late February 2002,” the British Foreign Office said that it was some time after that that the Brits received information on Iraq’s pursuit of African uranium from their sources. ( http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/politics/story.jsp?story=422729). If that British info is correct, why the delay? Why not get the documents or summaries into British, U.S. or, God forbid, IAEA hands IMMEDIATELY?
It’s not clear when the U.S. received its copy of SISMI’s “summaries.” As soon as we did, did we alert our Italian ally that it was spreading bad information so that SISMI could alert the other recipients? Apparently not. Of course, there wouldn’t be any need to do so if spreading lies was the intent and we were in on the scheme.
Bob Woodward reported in the March 23, 2003 Washington Post that, in very early 2002, Bush “signed a secret intelligence order authorizing the CIA to undertake a comprehensive program to remove Hussein” ( http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A12215-2003Mar22?language=printer). If that covert campaign was anything like past ones to topple a foreign government, a significant component would be disinformation. Did Bush authorize the intelligence community to launch an overseas disinformation campaign? Was the writing and distribution of the “summaries” part of that effort? Is this why there was such little concern, aside from career professionals at the CIA, about duping the Brits?
Did the summarizers broaden Iraq’s potential list of suppliers to include all four uranium-producing nations in Africa — perhaps to give the allegations a longer life by making them more difficult to speedily refute?
The U.S. Congress needs to put the right officials under oath and pose tough questions to determine if the Bush team used the Brits to deceive America about the nuclear threat from Iraq. The British Parliament needs to determine if British intelligence were witting or unwitting participants. The Italian Parliament needs to determine if their intelligence agents produced credible “summaries” or hyped and distorted ones; and if the latter is the case, did they do so on their own or in cahoots with elements of U.S. intelligence?
For intelligence officials in three countries, it could be a long, hot summer.
©2003 by Dennis Hans
- Bio: Dennis Hans is a freelance writer who has taught courses in mass communications and American foreign policy at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. Prior to the Iraq war he published “Lying Us Into War: Exposing Bush and His ‘Techniques of Deceit’” ( http://www.democraticunderground.com/articles/03/02/12_lying.html) and “The Disinformation Age” ( http://www.scoop.co.nz/mason/stories/HL0303/S00011.htm). He can be reached at HANS_D@popmail.firn.edu