Forged Niger documents tracked to Rome

ROME – The Italian newspaper La Repubblica has published an exposé alleging that the nation’s military intelligence agency SISMI provided bogus intelligence in the run up to the Iraq war with the knowledge of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The charge follows a parliamentary report released in July concerning the forged Niger uranium documents at the heart of the CIA leak case. The documents, which purported to show a deal between Baghdad and Niger, may have been produced in the Italian capital, the newspaper claims.

The July report named four men as the likely masterminds – Michael Ledeen, Dewey Clarridge, Ahmed Chalabi, and Francis Brookes – and suggests that the plan was conceived at December 2001 meeting in Rome involving Ledeen and SISMI chief Nicolò Pollari.

Ledeen, a neo-conservative columnist and former employee of the Pentagon, State Department and National Security Council, was involved in the Iran-Contra affair. Clarridge, another Iran-Contra participant, directed the mining of Nicaragua‘s harbors and helped organize the Contras in the 1980s and was subsequently indicted for perjury and false statements. He was pardoned by Pres. George H.W. Bush.

Chalabi, leader of U.S.-funded Iraqi National Congress and primary source of misleading pre-war stories circulated by New York Times reporter Judith Miller, is current an Iraqi deputy prime minister. And Brookes was a member of the Rendon Group, a public relations body formed by the Pentagon to promote Chalabi and his organization.

In August 2004, Rocco Martino, a former Italian intelligence officer, admitted in interviews with Britain‘s Sunday Times and Financial Times to involvement in a break-in at the Niger Embassy in Rome in January 2001 that netted letterhead stationary used for the forgeries. He also acknowledged helping to pass the fake documents to French intelligence. The French realized they were bogus, but SISMI decided to share the information with Washington after 9-11.

Concerned about Ledeen’s efforts, the CIA reported him to Condoleezza Rice’s deputy on the National Security Council, Stephen J. Hadley, who instructed Douglas Feith to terminate the operation. But the talk about documents proving Iraqi attempts to revive a nuclear program continued, leading to Vice President Cheney’s request for a CIA investigation. As a result, Joseph Wilson was sent to Niger.

On Sept. 9, 2002, according to the La Repubblica expose, Ledeen arranged a meeting in Washington between Pollari and Hadley, during which they discussed the Niger documents. Two weeks later, the British government reported that "there is intelligence that Iraq has sought the supply of significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

The CIA disagreed, and director George Tenet prevented Bush from including a reference to the supposed Africa uranium purchase in an October speech. Soon afterward, however, the documents, which had previously only been summarized, were given to Elisabetta Burba, a journalist with Panorama, an Italian magazine owned by Berlusconi. Instead of writing about them, however, she turned them over to the U.S. embassy.

Berlusconi, who once supported the war, has recently changed his position, stating on Italian TV, "It would have been better to avoid military action [in Iraq]. I tried several times to convince the American president to not go to war."