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Dennis Hans: Seymour Hersh’s Pipedream

Seymour Hersh’s Pipedream:

Niger-forgeries scoop in New Yorker article “The Stovepipe” merits a pooper scooper
By Dennis Hans

Seymour Hersh has been had by a CIA has-been. A “former senior CIA officer” has gotten him to credit and peddle a preposterous tale about the Niger-uranium forgeries.

Much of Hersh’s latest New Yorker article, “The Stovepipe” ( ), is a valuable contribution to enhancing our understanding of how the Bush administration politicized intelligence to create an alarmist picture of the purported Iraqi “threat,” so as to win public support for an invasion Bush had all but decided on more than a year before he launched the war.

But the big “revelation,” the bombshell that makes the story special, is Hersh’s account of the forging of Nigerien and Iraqi documents that purportedly proved that Iraq and Niger had agreed on the sale of as much as 500 tons of yellowcake uranium. Here’s Hersh:

He [the former senior CIA officer] had begun talking to me about the Niger papers in March, when I first wrote about the forgery, and said, “Somebody deliberately let something false get in there.” He became more forthcoming in subsequent months, eventually saying that a small group of disgruntled retired C.I.A. clandestine operators had banded together in the late summer of last year and drafted the fraudulent documents themselves.
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“The agency guys were so pissed at Cheney,” the former officer said. “They said, ‘O.K, we’re going to put the bite on these guys.’” My source said that he was first told of the fabrication late last year, at one of the many holiday gatherings in the Washington area of past and present C.I.A. officials. “Everyone was bragging about it — ‘Here’s what we did. It was cool, cool, cool.’” These retirees, he said, had superb contacts among current officers in the agency and were informed in detail of the SISMI intelligence. [SISMI is Italy’s military-intelligence agency.]

“They thought that, with this crowd, it was the only way to go — to nail these guys who were not practicing good tradecraft and vetting intelligence,” my source said. “They thought it’d be bought at lower levels — a big bluff.” The thinking, he said, was that the documents would be endorsed by Iraq hawks at the top of the Bush Administration, who would be unable to resist flaunting them at a press conference or an interagency government meeting. They would then look foolish when intelligence officials pointed out that they were obvious fakes. But the tactic backfired, he said, when the papers won widespread acceptance within the Administration. “It got out of control.”

Why This Tale Sounds Tall

In an online companion piece to the article, the New Yorker presents a conversation with Hersh (, where he describes his source’s story as “one of the most compelling theories” as to how, why and by whom the documents were fabricated.

Alas, what the article reveals is that Hersh is as prone to believing absurd, illogical tales as Cheney himself (assuming Cheney believes the stuff he says he believes). I cannot say with 100 percent certainty that Hersh was sold a bill of goods, but I’ll lay out some of the reasons why I’m 99.99 percent sure.

Hersh, in my view, is guilty of the same poor tradecraft and failure to vet intelligence as the villains of his story. His vulnerability stems from his seeming unfamiliarity with much of the public record, a vulnerability that is compounded because it afflicts the New Yorker editors and fact checkers who round out his vetting team.

Consider the alleged date of the forging: “late summer” 2002.

A report published in September 2003 by Britain’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), based on extensive interviews with senior Brit intelligence officials and a careful review of intelligence assessments on Iraq, revealed that Brit intelligence had two sources for the African-uranium claim in the dossier. Information from the first source was acquired in June 2002 and, unlike the second source, was “based on documentary evidence.” The ISC report does not go into details, nor does it name the provider, but this almost certainly refers to “summaries” provided by the Italians of the information contained in the forged documents (which in June 2002 the Italians may or may not have known were forgeries). The point is that the Brits received summaries of the info in the forged documents well before Hersh’s source says the documents were forged!

(The ISC report is available in PDF format via this link: You can avoid the PDF hassle by reading my October 20 essay “Recent Dossier-Related Revelations Blow Up in Faces of Blair and Bush” — — where I reproduce the ISC section on “Uranium from Africa” and present a great deal of additional evidence bearing on the present discussion.)

Or consider the U.S. investigations completed several months before the Brits received their summaries, conducted by Joe Wilson and, before him, the U.S. Ambassador to Niger and a four-star general. They were investigating reports of a sale, laid out in a “memorandum of agreement” that U.S. officials had not seen but had reporting on. That is, the Italians, in late 2001 or early 2002, passed along to U.S. intelligence not the documents themselves, but information about the transaction laid out in documents that the Italians said they possessed but which they were not, at that time, sharing with anyone.

Is it possible the Italians were merely pretending to have documents when all they really had was hearsay intelligence about documents they themselves hadn’t seen and had no way of knowing even existed? Yes, it is extremely, remotely possible. One-in-ten-thousand possible. If true, it would contradict what has already been widely reported about the Italians acquiring those documents in late 2001. See, for example, the fine reports by Michael Duffy and James Carney in Time (,9171,1101030721-464405,00.html ) and Brian Ross on ABC ( ). Incidentally, both reports suggest the Brits may have received their info from the Italians well before June 2002.

I’m the first to acknowledge that just because something appears in our mainstream news media doesn’t make it true. And certainly much remains unclear about those documents. Did the underpaid Nigerien diplomat in Rome who allegedly sold them to SISMI also produce them? Or was he merely the middle man for the actual forgers? If not produced by the Nigerien, were the documents the work of a con man? An intelligence service? Italian and U.S. intelligence working together? An independent forger in the direct or indirect pay of an intelligence agency, a faction thereof, or a neocon cabal? There are all sorts of juicy possibilities, but the remotest by far is the notion that the forgeries weren’t forged until late summer 2002 — and then by disgruntled retired American spooks.

I’ll also grant that it is assumed rather than proved that Italian intelligence had physical possession in 2001 and 2002 of the documents that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would expose as forgeries in March 2003. But for me to believe that that assumption is false will require far more than an unsupported and illogical story that made the rounds at CIA holiday parties and wound up in the October 27, 2003 New Yorker.

Hersh’s Dossier Confusion

As we know, the State of the Union brouhaha was over a single sentence, where Bush relayed what the “British government has learned” about Iraq’s alleged pursuit of uranium from Africa.

Hersh writes that “the British government issued a dossier dramatizing the W.M.D. threat posed by Iraq. . . . The dossier noted that intelligence — based, again, largely on the SISMI report — showed that Iraq had ‘sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.’ A subsequent parliamentary inquiry determined that the published statement had been significantly toned down after the C.I.A. warned its British counterpart not to include the claim in the dossier, and in the final version Niger was not named, nor was SISMI.”

Among the problems with that passage is that it leaves a clear impression that an earlier version of the dossier named both Niger and SISMI. But the first draft, dated “10/11 September,” and each subsequent draft right through to the published dossier, used the term “Africa,” and none of the drafts identified the provider of the “intelligence.”

Also, Hersh’s account of the toning down is (unintentionally) misleading. He’s right that the statement was toned down, but he leaves out the most important point, which is what was toned down: The first draft twice stated that Iraq had recently “purchased” uranium from Africa. That was based on the Brits’ reading of the documentary-based summaries they received from the Italians in June 2002. (Again, that’s before the forgeries had, in Hersh’s account, even been forged.) The “purchased” statement is presumably what the CIA objected to, though the agency didn’t explain to the Brits why it objected.

I say “presumedly” because CIA director George Tenet, in his July 11 statement ( ), indicates that the agency told the Brits that it didn’t have confidence even in the assertion that Iraq had recently sought, let alone bought, African uranium. I say “indicates” because Tenet likes to write sentences that are open to interpretation.

By the time of the next draft, September 16, the Brits had removed all references to a purchase, but it’s not clear what role, if any, the CIA warning played. It’s possible the CIA warning led the Brits to contact the Italians, but the Brits may have already done so, given that a third reference to uranium in the 10/11 September draft employs the toned-down language: “there is compelling evidence that Iraq has sought the supply of significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

Alastair Campbell, Blair’s director of communications and strategy, noticed that the “purchased” assertion had been abandoned. He commented on the change in a September 17 memo to John Scarlett, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, which was responsible for compiling and writing the dossier. “Can we say he has secured uranium from Africa,” asked Campbell, underlining the word “secured” for emphasis and leaving off the question mark in his question.

Scarlett wrote back the next day with bad news: “on the uranium from Africa, the agreed interpretation of the intelligence, brokered with some difficulty with the originators and owners of the reporting) allows us only to say that he has ‘sought’ uranium from Africa.” (Single parenthesis in the original. To read the exchange, first click here: . The actual memos, in PDF format, are numbered CAB/11/0067 and CAB/11/0071. To follow the twists and turns in the dossier lingo, see my essay “African Uranium and the Scarlett Dossier” here: . To read the different dossier drafts in PDF format, follow the links from here: .)

So there you have it. The wording wasn’t brokered with the CIA. It wasn’t fine-tuned over tea by senior British spies. Rather, Italian intelligence, the “originators and owners of the reporting,” essentially said “We’ll let you say this, but you can’t say that.”

The Greatest Flaw of All

According to uncontested media reports, in October 2002 the various U.S. government departments and agencies concerned with national security and intelligence received copies of the documents from the State Department. State had received its copies from the U.S. Embassy in Rome, which received them from an Italian journalist, who got them from, in Hersh’s words, “an Italian businessman and security consultant whom she [the journalist] believed to have once been connected to Italian intelligence.” Her editor had told her to provide a copy to the documents to the U.S. Embassy to get its view on their authenticity.

So far, so good. But here’s where the story turns ludicrous:

According to the former senior CIA officer (as paraphrased by Hersh), “the papers won widespread acceptance within the Administration.” But if that was the case, the subsequent behavior of administration hawks defies common sense and everything we know about them. Here we are in the fall of 2002, with the pro-war marketing campaign in full swing, and no one is doing a thing with those damning documents.

In late November — mere weeks after the documents had supposedly won “widespread acceptance” among the Bushies — the U.N. inspectors returned to Iraq and immediately undermined much of the U.S.-British case. Inspectors visited a host of sites that supposedly were humming with proscribed WMD activity and found long-abandoned buildings at some sites and legitimate activity at others. This was widely reported in the media. For the Bushies, what better way to wipe the egg off their faces and nail the “cheat and retreat” Iraqis to the wall than by presenting to the world incontrovertible evidence that Iraq has been doing something it swears it hasn’t — seeking and buying uranium like it was going out of style?

For goodness sake, the Bushies had documents — official Iraqi and Nigerien documents — about uranium. Uranium! Sure, it’s not yet enriched to weapons-grade, but a little detail like that wouldn’t stand in the way of a frighteningly successful propaganda-and-scare campaign. If those documents had been widely or even narrowly perceived within the administration as genuine, the whole world would have seen those documents. Repeatedly. In every venue imaginable. Instead, the documents were kept under lock and key. Heck, they weren’t even leaked to the two most gullible or pretend-gullible reporters in the world: Jeffrey Goldberg of the New Yorker and Judith Miller of the New York Times, who along with their editors stood ready, willing and able to spread most any preposterous story that would build public support for war. (I just realized I may have offended the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward. He, too, would be near the top of the list for such a leak.)

Instead, U.S. officials very gingerly exploited the documents — or I should say the “information” in the documents. Rather than a concerted campaign we had occasional statements — a State Department “fact sheet,” a Powell speech overseas, a Condi Rice op ed in the “liberal” New York Times — none of which cited, let alone presented, supporting documentation in the form of official Iraqi and Nigerien papers. From what we know of the deliberations preceding Bush’s State of the Union address, not one single soul suggested that Bush buttress the uranium claim by citing or brandishing those documents.

If the documents had been believed in October, why weren’t the Pentagon, CIA, DIA, State Department and Cheney’s staff in a mad dash to see who would be first to present the documents to the International Atomic Energy Agency? Imagine the propaganda value in having the IAEA — widely respected and trusted throughout the world, particularly among populations most inclined to distrust Bush — evaluate and publicly confirm the authenticity of the documents. Instead, it took several months for the IAEA to pry the documents from the State Department, which sheepishly included a cover letter saying it really wasn’t all that sure about their authenticity.

What Hersh Needs To Do

It’s good that Hersh has scores of sources who work or formerly worked in the national-security bureaucracies. But Hersh needs a little bit more of the I.F. Stone approach — a willingness to put on his glasses and read, read, read. The more Hersh knows, the less likely he’ll be spun, whether by a deliberate spinner or an old coot who believes the fairy tale he’s passing along. One of the other seems to have happened here, though it bears repeating that most of the article is solid and contributes to our understanding of the cynical machinations of the Bush administration.

Hersh also needs a far better support team at the New Yorker. If he was unearthing the hidden truth about baseball, he could, prior to publication, run his findings by the very knowledgeable Roger Angell. But when it comes to foreign policy, covert operations and disinformation campaigns, who does Hersh turn to? Top dog David Remnick? Veteran editor Hendrick Hertzberg?

I don’t know who reviews and edits Hersh’s copy, but it could well be the same folk who reviewed and green-lighted Jeffrey Goldberg’s pre-war writings, which exhibited the very problem Hersh describes in the sane portions of his article: non-vetting of dubious sources who tell stories that they think their listener would love to hear. The dubious sources count on their listener to be too ignorant, too gullible, or too willing to knowingly participate in the hoodwinking of the American people to see the obvious holes and ask the obvious questions.

So my advice to Hersh is to get a new pair of reading glasses, retract those portions of the article that require retraction, tell the New Yorker publisher to hire competent vetters and editors, and get back to doing what you generally do so well: exposing the seamier aspects of U.S. government actions and policies.


© 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’” ( ) and “The Disinformation Age” ( ). He can be reached at

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