Vanity Fair Roundtable
The War They Wanted, The
Lies They Needed
Bush administration invaded Iraq
claiming Saddam Hussein had tried to buy yellowcake
uranium in Niger.
As much of Washington
knew, and the world soon learned, the charge was
false. Worse, it appears to have been the cornerstone
of a highly successful "black propaganda"
campaign with links to the White House
a crisp, clear winter morning in Rome.
In the neighborhood between the Vatican
and the Olympic Stadium, a phalanx of motor scooters
is parked outside a graffiti-scarred 10-story apartment
building. No. 10 Via Antonio
Baiamonte is home to scores
of middle-class families, and to the embassy for
the impoverished West African nation that was once
a French colony.
it may be unprepossessing, the Niger Embassy is
the site of one of the great mysteries of our times.
On January 2, 2001, an embassy official returned
there after New Year's Day and discovered that the
offices had been robbed. Little of value was missing—a
wristwatch, perfume, worthless documents, embassy
stationery, and some official stamps bearing the
seal of the Republic of Niger. Nevertheless, the consequences of
the robbery were so great that the Watergate break-in
pales by comparison.
few months after the robbery, Western intelligence
analysts began hearing that Saddam Hussein had sought
yellowcake—a concentrated form of uranium which,
if enriched, can be used in nuclear weapons—from
Niger. Next came
a dossier purporting to document the attempted purchase
of hundreds of tons of uranium by Iraq.
Information from the dossier and, later, the papers
themselves made their way from Italian intelligence
to, at various times, the C.I.A., other Western
intelligence agencies, the U.S. Embassy in Rome, the State Department, and the White House,
as well as several media outlets. Finally, in his
January 2003 State of the Union address, George
W. Bush told the world, "The British government
has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought
significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
months later, the United States invaded Iraq,
starting a conflict that has killed tens of thousands
of people, cost hundreds of billions of dollars,
and has irrevocably de-stabilized the strategically
vital Middle East.
Since then, the world has learned not just that
Bush's 16-word casus belli was apparently
based on the Niger
documents but also that the documents were forged.
a source with intimate knowledge of the Niger
affair has warned me that powerful people are watching.
Phones may be tapped. Jobs are in jeopardy, and
people are scared.
the sixth floor at Via Baiamonte,
a receptionist finally comes to the door of the
nondescript embassy office. She is of medium height,
has dark-brown hair, wears a handsome blue suit,
and appears to be in her 50s. She declines to give
her full name. A look of concern and fear crosses
her face. "Don't believe what you read in the
papers," she cautions in French. "Ce n'est pas la vérité." It is not the truth.
who was behind the forgeries? Italian
operatives? The woman tilts her head toward
one of the closed doors to indicate that there are
people there who can hear. She can't talk. "C'est
interdit," she says. It is forbidden.
Classic Psy-Ops Campaign"
more than two years it has been widely reported
that the U.S. invaded Iraq because of intelligence failures.
But in fact it is far more likely that the Iraq
war started because of an extraordinary intelligence
success—specifically, an astoundingly effective
campaign of disinformation, or black propaganda,
which led the White House, the Pentagon, Britain's
M.I.6 intelligence service, and thousands of outlets
in the American media to promote the falsehood that
Saddam Hussein's nuclear-weapons program posed a
grave risk to the United States.
Bush administration made other false charges about
Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (W.M.D.)—that
Iraq had acquired aluminum tubes suitable for centrifuges,
that Saddam was in league with al-Qaeda, that he
had mobile weapons labs, and so forth. But the Niger claim, unlike other allegations,
can't be dismissed as an innocent error or blamed
on ambiguous data. "This wasn't an accident,"
says Milt Bearden, a 30-year C.I.A. veteran who
was a station chief in Pakistan,
Nigeria, and Germany, and the head of the Soviet–East
European division. "This wasn't 15 monkeys
in a room with typewriters."
recent months, it has emerged that the forged Niger
documents went through the hands of the Italian
military intelligence service, SISMI (Servizio per le Informazioni e la
or operatives close to it, and that neoconservative
policymakers helped bring them to the attention
of the White House. Even after information in the
Niger documents was repeatedly rejected by the
C.I.A. and the State Department, hawkish neocons
managed to circumvent seasoned intelligence analysts
and insert the Niger claims into
Bush's State of the Union address.
the time the U.S. invaded Iraq, in March 2003, this
apparent black-propaganda operation had helped convince
more than 90 percent of the American people that
a brutal dictator was developing W.M.D.—and had
led us into war.
trace the path of the documents from their fabrication
to their inclusion in Bush's infamous speech, Vanity
Fair has interviewed a number of former intelligence
and military analysts who have served in the C.I.A.,
the State Department, the Defense Intelligence Agency
(D.I.A.), and the Pentagon. Some of them refer to
documents as "a disinformation operation,"
others as "black propaganda," "black
ops," or "a classic psy-ops
[psychological-operations] campaign." But whatever
term they use, at least nine of these officials
believe that the Niger documents were part of a covert
operation to deliberately mislead the American public.
officials are Bearden; Colonel W. Patrick Lang,
who served as the D.I.A.'s defense intelligence officer for the Middle East,
South Asia, and terrorism; Colonel Larry Wilkerson,
former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin
Powell; Melvin Goodman, a former division chief
and senior analyst at the C.I.A. and the State Department;
Ray McGovern, a C.I.A. analyst for 27 years; Lieutenant
Colonel Karen Kwiatkowski, who served in the Pentagon's
Near East and South Asia division in 2002 and 2003;
Larry C. Johnson, a former C.I.A. officer who was
deputy director of the State Department Office of
Counterterrorism from 1989 to 1993; former C.I.A.
official Philip Giraldi;
and Vincent Cannistraro,
the former chief of operations of the C.I.A.'s
addition, Vanity Fair has found at least
14 instances prior to the 2003 State of the Union
in which analysts at the C.I.A., the State Department,
or other government agencies who had examined the
Niger documents or reports about them raised serious
doubts about their legitimacy—only to be rebuffed
by Bush-administration officials who wanted to use
the material. "They were just relentless,"
says Wilkerson, who later prepared Colin Powell's
presentation before the United Nations General Assembly.
"You would take it out and they would stick
it back in. That was their favorite bureaucratic
of which flies in the face of a campaign by senior
Republicans including Senator Pat Roberts, chairman
of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence,
to blame the C.I.A. for the faulty pre-war intelligence
on W.M.D. Indeed, the accounts put forth by Wilkerson
and his colleagues strongly suggest that the C.I.A.
is under siege not because it was wrong but because
it was right. Agency analysts were not serving the
White House's agenda.
followed was not just the catastrophic foreign-policy
blunder in Iraq but also an ongoing battle for the future
intelligence. Top officials have been leaving the
C.I.A. in droves—including Porter Goss, who mysteriously
resigned in May, just 18 months after he had been
handpicked by Bush to be the director of Central
Intelligence. Whatever the reason for his sudden
departure, anyone at the top of the C.I.A., Goss's
replacement included, ultimately must worry about
serving two masters: a White House that desperately
wants intelligence it can use to remake the Middle East and a spy agency that is acutely sensitive to
having its intelligence politicized.
a disinformation campaign is no easy task. It means
entering a kingdom of shadows peopled by would-be
Machiavellis who are practiced
in the art of deception. "In the world of fabrication,
you don't just drop something and let someone pick
it up," says Bearden. "Your first goal
is to make sure it doesn't find its way back to
you, so you do several things. You may start out
with a document that is a forgery, that is a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy,
which makes it hard to track down. You go through
cutouts so that the person who puts it out doesn't
know where it came from. And you build in subtle,
nuanced errors so you can say, 'We would never misspell
that.' If it's very cleverly done, it's a chess
game, not checkers."
who have entered this labyrinth often emerge so
perplexed that they choose not to write about it.
"The chances of being manipulated are very
high," says Claudio Gatti,
a New York–based investigative reporter at Il
Sole, the Italian business daily. "That's
why I decided to stay out of it."
such obstacles, a handful of independent journalists
and bloggers on both sides of the Atlantic
have been pursuing the story. "Most of the
people you are dealing with are professional liars,
which really leaves you with your work cut out for
you as a reporter," says Joshua Micah Marshall,
who has written about the documents on his blog,
Talking Points Memo.
far, no one has figured out all the answers. There
is even disagreement about why the documents were
fabricated. In a story by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker, a source suggested that retired
and embittered C.I.A. operatives had intentionally
put together a lousy forgery in hopes of embarrassing
Cheney's hawkish followers. But no evidence has
emerged to support this theory, and many intelligence
officers embrace a simpler explanation. "They
needed this for the case to go to war," says
Melvin Goodman, who is now a senior fellow at the
Center for International Policy. "It serves
no other purpose."
and large, knowledgeable government officials in
the U.S., Italy,
and Great Britain
are mum. Official government investigations in Italy,
and the U.S.—including
a two-year probe into pre-war intelligence failures
by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence—have
been so highly politicized as to be completely unsatisfying.
the ongoing investigation by Special Prosecutor
Patrick Fitzgerald into the Plamegate
scandal bears promise. However, it is focused not
on the forgeries but on the leaks that were apparently
designed to discredit former ambassador Joseph C.
Wilson and that outed his wife, former C.I.A. agent Valerie Plame, after Wilson revealed
that the Niger
story was false. I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby,
the former chief of staff for Vice President Dick
Cheney, has already been charged in the case, and
President Bush's senior adviser, Karl Rove, has
been Fitzgerald's other principal target. But, with
the dubious exception of an ongoing F.B.I. inquiry,
there is no official probe into who forged the Niger documents, who disseminated
them, and why, after they had been repeatedly discredited,
they kept resurfacing.
from Rome to Washington, and countless points in between,
politicians, and intelligence agents are pondering
the same question: Cui bono? Who benefits?
Who wanted to start the war?
Stuff of Conspiracy Fantasies
seems like an unlikely setting for a black-propaganda
plot to start the Iraq war, it is worth remembering
that Et tu,
Brute is part of the local idiom, and Machiavelli
was a native son. Accordingly, one can't probe Nigergate
without examining the rich tapestry of intrigue
that is Italian intelligence.
emerged from World War II with a strong Communist
Party, domestic politics had elements of a civil
war, explains Guido Moltedo,
editor of Europa, a center-left daily in Italy. That meant
ultra-conservative Cold Warriors battled the Communists
not just electorally but through undercover operations in the intelligence
world. "In addition to the secret service,
SISMI, there was another, informal, parallel secret
says. "It was known as Propaganda Due."
by a neo-Fascist named Licio
Gelli, Propaganda Due, with its penchant for exotic covert
operations, was the stuff of conspiracy fantasies—except
that it was real. According to The Sunday Times
until 1986 members agreed to have their throats
slit and tongues cut out if they broke their oaths.
Subversive, authoritarian, and right-wing, the group
was sometimes referred to as the P-2 Masonic Lodge
because of its ties to the secret society of Masons,
and it served as the covert intelligence agency
for militant anti-Communists. It was also linked
to Operation Gladio, a
secret paramilitary wing in NATO that supported
far-right military coups in Greece and Turkey during the Cold War.
1981 the Italian Parliament banned Propaganda Due,
and all secret organizations in Italy,
after an investigation concluded that it had infiltrated
the highest levels of Italy's judiciary,
parliament, military, and press, and was tied to
assassinations, kidnappings, and arms deals around
the world. But before it was banned, P-2 members
and their allies participated in two ideologically
driven international black-propaganda schemes that
foreshadowed the Niger Embassy job 20 years later.
The first took place in 1980, when Francesco Pazienza,
a charming and sophisticated Propaganda Due operative
at the highest levels of SISMI, allegedly teamed
up with an American named Michael Ledeen,
a Rome correspondent
for The New Republic.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Pazienza
said he first met Ledeen
that summer, through a SISMI agent in New
York who was working under
the cover of a U.N. job.
end result of their collaboration was a widely publicized
story that helped Ronald Reagan unseat
President Jimmy Carter, whom they considered too
timid in his approach to winning the Cold War. The
target was Carter's younger brother, Billy, a hard-drinking
"good ol' boy" from Georgia who repeatedly embarrassed his
sibling in the White House.
began after Billy mortified the president in 1979
by going to Tripoli at a time when Libya's leader, Muammar Qaddafi, was
reviled as a radical Arab dictator who supported
terrorism. Coupled with Billy's later admission
that he had received a $220,000 loan from Qaddafi's
regime, the ensuing "Billygate"
scandal made headlines across America
and led to a Senate investigation. But it had died
down as the November 1980 elections approached.
in the last week of October 1980, just two weeks
before the election, The New Republic in
Now magazine in Great
a story co-authored by Michael Ledeen
and Arnaud de Borchgrave,
now an editor-at-large at The Washington Times
and United Press International. According to the
story, headlined "Qaddafi, Arafat and Billy
Carter," the president's brother had been given
an additional $50,000 by Qaddafi, on top of the
loan, and had met secretly with Palestine Liberation
Organization leader Yasser
Arafat. The story had come dramatically back to
life. The new charges were disputed by Billy Carter
and many others, and were never corroborated.
1985 investigation by Jonathan Kwitny
in The Wall Street Journal reported that
the New Republic article was part of a larger
disinformation scam run by Ledeen
and SISMI to tilt the election, and that "Billy
Carter wasn't the only one allegedly getting money
from a foreign government." According to Pazienza, Kwitny reported, Michael
Ledeen had received at
least $120,000 from SISMI in 1980 or 1981 for his
work on Billygate and
other projects. Ledeen
even had a coded identity, Z-3, and had money sent
to him in a Bermuda
bank account, Pazienza
told the Journal that a consulting firm he
owned, I.S.I., worked for SISMI and may have received
the money. He said he did not recall whether he
had a coded identity.
was subsequently convicted in absentia on
multiple charges, including having used extortion
and fraud to obtain embarrassing facts about Billy
Carter. Ledeen was never
charged with any crime, but he was cited in Pazienza's
indictment, which read, "With the illicit support
of the SISMI and in collaboration with the well-known
Michael Ledeen, Pazienza
succeeded in extorting, also using fraudulent means,
information … on the Libyan business of Billy Carter,
the brother of the then President of the United
an interview with Vanity Fair, Ledeen
denied having worked with Pazienza
or Propaganda Due as part of a disinformation scheme.
"I knew Pazienza,"
he explained. "I didn't think P-2 existed.
I thought it was all nonsense—typical Italian fantasy."
added, "I'm not aware that anything in [the
Billygate] story turned
out to be false."
if he had worked with SISMI, Ledeen
told Vanity Fair, "No," then added,
"I had a project with SISMI—one project."
He described it as a simple "desktop"
exercise in 1979 or 1980, in which he taught Italian
intelligence how to deal with U.S. officials
on extradition matters. His fee, he said, was about
1981, Ledeen played a
role in what has been widely characterized as another
disinformation operation. Once again his alleged
ties to SISMI were front and center. The episode
began after Mehmet Ali Agca, the right-wing
terrorist who shot Pope John Paul II that May, told
authorities that he had been taking orders from
the Soviet Union's K.G.B. and Bulgaria's secret
service. With Ronald Reagan newly installed in the
White House, the so-called Bulgarian Connection
made perfect Cold War propaganda. Michael Ledeen was one of its most vocal proponents, promoting it
on TV and in newspapers all over the world. In light
of the ascendancy of the Solidarity Movement in
the Pope's homeland, the Bulgarian Connection played
a role in the demise of Communism in 1989.
was just one problem—it probably wasn't true. "It
just doesn't pass the giggle test," says Frank
Brodhead, co-author of The Rise and Fall of the Bulgarian Connection. "Agca, the shooter, had been deeply embedded in a Turkish youth
group of the Fascist National Action Party known
as the Gray Wolves. It seemed illogical that a Turkish
Fascist would work with Bulgarian Communists."
only real source for the Bulgarian Connection theory
was Agca himself, a pathological liar given to delusional proclamations
such as his insistence that he was Jesus Christ.
When eight men were later tried in Italian courts
as part of the Bulgarian Connection case, all were
acquitted for lack of evidence. One reason was that
Agca had changed his story repeatedly. On the witness stand,
he said he had put forth the Bulgarian Connection
theory after Francesco Pazienza
offered him freedom in exchange for the testimony.
He subsequently changed that story as well.
later, Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs,
who had initially believed the theory, wrote that
"I became convinced … that the Bulgarian connection
was invented by Agca with
the hope of winning his release from prison. … He
was aided and abetted in this scheme by right-wing
conspiracy theorists in the United States and William Casey's
Central Intelligence Agency, which became a victim
of its own disinformation campaign."
which Americans might have been behind such a campaign?
According to a 1987 article in The Nation,
Francesco Pazienza said
Ledeen "was the person
responsible for dreaming up the 'Bulgarian connection'
behind the plot to kill the Pope." Similarly,
according to The Rise and Fall of the Bulgarian
Connection, Pazienza claimed that Ledeen had
worked closely with the SISMI team that coached
Agca on his testimony.
Ledeen angrily denies
the charges. "It's all a lie," he says.
He adds that he protested to The Wall Street
Journal when it first reported on his alleged
relationship with Pazienza: "If one-tenth of it were true, I would not
have security clearances, but I do."
long before his death, in 2005, Pope John Paul II
announced that he did not believe the Bulgarian
Connection theory. But that wasn't the end of it.
In March 2006 an Italian commission run by Paolo
Guzzanti, a senator in
the right-wing Forza Italia
Party, reopened the case and concluded that the
Bulgarian Connection was real. According to Frank
Brodhead, however, the new conclusions are based
on the same old information, which is "bogus
at best and at worst deliberately misleading."
the wake of Billygate
and the Bulgarian Connection, Ledeen
allegedly began to play a role as a behind-the-scenes
operative with the ascendant Reagan-Bush team. According
to Mission Italy, by former ambassador to
Italy Richard Gardner, after Reagan's victory, but
while Jimmy Carter was still president, "Ledeen and Pazienza set themselves
up as the preferred channel between Italian political
leaders and members of the new administration."
Ledeen responds, "Gardner
was wrong. And, by the way, he had every opportunity
to raise it with me and never did."
Reagan took office, Ledeen
was made special assistant to Alexander Haig, Reagan's
secretary of state. Ledeen
later took a staff position on Reagan's National
Security Council and played a key role in initiating
the illegal arms-for-hostages deal with Iran that became
known as the Iran-contra scandal.
1981, P-2 was outlawed and police raided the home
of its leader, Licio Gelli. Authorities found a
list of nearly a thousand prominent public figures
in Italy who were
believed to be members. Among them was a billionaire
media mogul who had not yet entered politics—Silvio
1994, Berlusconi was elected prime minister. Rather
than distancing himself from the criminal organization,
he told a reporter that "P-2 had brought together
the best men in the country," and he began
to execute policies very much aligned with it.
those Berlusconi appointed to powerful national-security
positions were two men known to Ledeen.
A founding member of Forza Italia, Minister of Defense Antonio Martino was a well-known
figure in Washington
neocon circles and had
been close friends with Michael Ledeen
since the 1970s. Ledeen
also occasionally played bridge with the head of
SISMI under Berlusconi, Nicolò Pollari. "Michael Ledeen is connected to all the players," says Philip
Giraldi, who was stationed in Italy with the C.I.A. in the 1980s
and has been a keen observer of Ledeen
over the years.
Rocco Martino. An elegantly attired man in his 60s
with white hair and a neatly trimmed mustache, Martino
(no relation to Antonio Martino) had served in SISMI
until 1999 and had a long history of peddling information
to other intelligence services in Europe, including
France's Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (D.G.S.E.).
2000, however, Martino had fallen on hard times
financially. It was then that a longtime colleague
named Antonio Nucera offered
him a lucrative proposition. A SISMI colonel specializing
in counter-proliferation and W.M.D., Nucera
told Martino that Italian intelligence had long
had an "asset" in the Niger Embassy in
a woman who was about 60 years old, had a low-level
job, and occasionally sold off embassy documents
to SISMI. But now SISMI had no more use for the
woman—who is known in the Italian press as "La
Signora" and has recently been identified as
the ambassador's assistant, Laura Montini.
Perhaps, Nucera suggested,
Martino could use La Signora as Italian intelligence
had, paying her to pass on documents she copied
or stole from the embassy.
after New Year's 2001, the break-in took place at
the Niger Embassy. Martino denies any participation.
There are many conflicting accounts of the episode.
According to La Repubblica,
a left-of-center daily which has published an investigative
series on Nigergate, documents stolen from the embassy ultimately were
combined with other papers that were already in
SISMI archives. In addition, the embassy stationery
was apparently used to forge records about a phony
uranium deal between Niger
The Sunday Times of London
recently reported that the papers had been forged
for profit by two embassy employees: Adam Maiga
Zakariaou, the consul,
and Montini. But many
believe that they, wittingly or not, were merely
pawns in a larger game.
to Martino, the documents were not given to him
all at once. First, he explained, SISMI had La Signora
give him documents that had come from the robbery:
"I was told that a woman in the Niger Embassy
in Rome had a gift for me.
I met her and she gave me documents." Later,
he said, SISMI dug into its archives and added new
papers. There was a codebook, then a dossier with
a mixture of fake and genuine documents. Among them
was an authentic telex dated February 1, 1999, in
which Adamou Chékou, the
ambassador from Niger,
wrote another official about a forthcoming visit
from Wissam al-Zahawie,
ambassador to the Vatican.
last one Martino says he received, and the most
important one, was not genuine, however. Dated July
27, 2000, it was a two-page memo purportedly sent
to the president of Niger
concerning the sale of 500 tons of pure uranium
per year by Niger to Iraq.
forged documents were full of errors. A letter dated
October 10, 2000, was signed by Minister of Foreign
Affairs Allele Elhadj
Habibou—even though he
had been out of office for more than a decade. Its
September 28 postmark indicated that somehow the
letter had been received nearly two weeks before
it was sent. In another letter, President Tandja
Mamadou's signature appeared
to be phony. The accord signed by him referred to
the Niger constitution
of May 12, 1965, when a new constitution had been
enacted in 1999. One of the letters was dated July
30, 1999, but referred to agreements that were not
made until a year later. Finally, the agreement
called for the 500 tons of uranium to be transferred
from one ship to another in international waters—a
spectacularly difficult feat.
however, says he was unaware that they were forgeries.
He was merely interested in a payday. "He was
not looking for great amounts of money—$10,000,
$20,000, maybe $40,000,"
says Carlo Bonini, who
co-authored the Nigergate
stories for La Repubblica.
director Nicolò Pollari
acknowledges that Martino has worked for Italian
intelligence. But, beyond that, he claims that Italian
intelligence played no role in the Niger operation.
[Martino] the use of an intelligence asset [La Signora]—no
big deal, you understand—one who was still on the
books but inactive—to give a hand to Martino,"
Pollari told a reporter.
Martino, however, said SISMI had another agenda:
"SISMI wanted me to pass on the documents,
but they didn't want anyone to know they had been
should we believe? Characterized by La Repubblica
as "a failed carabiniere
and dishonest spy," a "double-dealer"
who "plays every side of the fence," Martino
has reportedly been arrested for extortion and for
possession of stolen checks, and was fired by SISMI
in 1999 for "conduct unbecoming." Elsewhere
he has been described as "a trickster"
and "a rogue." He is a man who traffics
the other hand, operatives like Martino are highly
valued precisely because they can be discredited
so easily. "If there were a deep-cover unit
of SISMI, it would make sense to use someone like
Rocco," says Patrick Lang. "His flakiness
gives SISMI plausible deniability. It's their cover
story. That's standard tradecraft with the agencies."
other words, Rocco Martino may well have been the
cutout for SISMI, a postman who, if he dared to
go public, could be disavowed.
who is the subject of a recently reopened investigation
by the public prosecutor in Rome,
has declined to talk to the press in recent months.
But before going silent, he gave interviews to Italian,
British, and American journalists characterizing
himself as a pawn who distributed the documents on behalf of
SISMI and believed that they were authentic. "I
sell information, I admit," Martino told The
Sunday Times of London, using his pseudonym, Giacomo. "But I sell only good information."
the next two years, the Niger
documents and reports based on them made at least
three journeys to the C.I.A. They also found their
way to the U.S. Embassy in Rome, to the White House, to British intelligence,
to French intelligence, and to Elisabetta
Burba, a journalist at
Panorama, the Milan-based newsmagazine. Each
of these recipients in turn shared the documents
or their contents with others, in effect creating
an echo chamber that gave the illusion that several
independent sources had corroborated an Iraq-Niger
was the Italians and Americans together who were
behind it. It was all a disinformation operation,"
Martino told a reporter at England's Guardian
newspaper. He called himself "a tool used by
someone for games much bigger than me."
exactly might those games have been? Berlusconi
defined his role on the world stage largely in terms
of his relationship with the U.S., and he jumped
at the chance to forge closer ties with the White
House when Bush took office, in 2001. In its three-part
series on Nigergate, La
that Berlusconi was so eager to win Bush's favor
that he "instructed Italian Military Intelligence
to plant the evidence implicating Saddam in a bogus
uranium deal with Niger."
(The Berlusconi government, which lost power in
April, denied the charge.)
break-in happened before Bush took office, La
Repubblica and many
others assume that the robbery was initiated as
a small-time job. "When the story began, they
were not thinking about Iraq," says
Bonini. "They were
just trying to gather something that could be sold
on the black market to the intelligence community."
it is also possible that from its very inception
the Niger operation was aimed at starting an invasion
As early as 1992, neoconservative hawks in the administration
of George H. W. Bush, under the aegis of Secretary
of Defense Dick Cheney, unsuccessfully lobbied for
regime change in Iraq
as part of a grandiose vision for American supremacy
in the next century.
era, the neocons persisted
with their policy goals, and in early 1998 they
twice lobbied President Clinton to bring down Saddam.
The second attempt came in the form of "An
Open Letter to the President" by leading neoconservatives,
many of whom later played key roles in the Bush
administration, where they became known as the Vulcans. Among those who signed were Michael Ledeen, John Bolton, Douglas Feith,
Richard Perle, Donald
Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz,
and David Wurmser.
to Patrick Lang, the initial Niger Embassy robbery
could have been aimed at starting the war even though
Bush had yet to be inaugurated. The scenario, he
cautions, is merely speculation on his part. But
he says that the neocons wouldn't have hesitated to reach out to SISMI even
before Bush took office. "There's no doubt
in my mind that the neocons had their eye on Iraq," he says. "This is
something they intended to do, and they would have
communicated that to SISMI or anybody else to get
the help they wanted."
Lang's view, SISMI would also have wanted to ingratiate
itself with the incoming administration. "These
foreign intelligence agencies are so dependent on
us that the urge to acquire I.O.U.'s
is a powerful incentive by itself," he says.
"It would have been very easy to have someone
go to Rome and talk
to them, or have one of the SISMI guys here [in
Washington], perhaps the SISMI officer in the
Italian Embassy, talk to them."
scenario rings true to Frank Brodhead. "When
I read that the Niger break-in
took place before Bush took office, I immediately
thought back to the Bulgarian Connection,"
he says. "That job was done during the transition
as well. [Michael] Ledeen
… saw himself as making a serious contribution to
the Cold War through the Bulgarian Connection. Now,
it was possible, 20 years later, that he was doing
the same to start the war in Iraq."
is not alone. Several press outlets, including the
San Francisco Chronicle, United Press International,
and The American Conservative, as well as
a chorus of bloggers—Daily
Kos, the Left Coaster, and Raw Story among them—have
raised the question of whether Ledeen was involved with the Niger documents. But none have found
any hard evidence.
in the summer of 2001, about six months after the
break-in, information from the forged documents
was given to U.S. intelligence for the first time.
Details about the transfer are extremely sketchy,
but it is highly probable that the reports were
summaries of the documents. It is standard practice
for intelligence services, in the interests of protecting
sources, to share reports, rather than original
documents, with allies.
many W.M.D. analysts in the C.I.A. and the military,
the initial reports sounded ridiculous. "The
idea that you could get that much yellowcake out
without the French knowing, that you could have
a train big enough to carry it, much less a ship,
is absurd," says Larry Wilkerson, Colin Powell's
former chief of staff.
reports made no sense on the face of it," says
Ray McGovern, the former C.I.A. analyst, who challenged
Rumsfeld about the war
at a public event this spring. "Most of us
knew the Iraqis already had yellowcake. It
is a sophisticated process to change it into a very
refined state and they didn't have the technology."
is unprocessed bulk ore," explains Karen Kwiatkowski,
who has written extensively about the intelligence
fiasco that led to the war. "If Saddam wanted
to make nuclear bombs, why would he want unprocessed
ore when the best thing to do would be to get processed
stuff in the Congo?"
it comes to raw reports, all manner of crap comes
out of the field," McGovern adds. "The
C.I.A. traditionally has had experienced officers….
They are qualified to see if these reports make
sense. For some reason, perhaps out of cowardice,
these reports were judged to be of such potential
significance that no one wanted to sit on it."
was a former French colony, French intelligence
was the logical choice to vet the allegations. "The
French were managing partners of the international
consortium in Niger,"
explains Joseph Wilson, who eventually traveled
to Niger to investigate the uranium claim.
"The French did the actual mining and shipping
Alain Chouet, then head
of security intelligence for France's
D.G.S.E., was tasked with checking out the first
Niger report for the C.I.A. He recalls
that much of the information he received from Langley was vague, with the exception of one
striking detail. The agency had heard that in 1999
the Iraqi ambassador to the Vatican, Wissam al-Zahawie, had made an unusual visit to four African countries,
Analysts feared that the trip may have been a prelude
to a uranium deal.
soon found that the al-Zahawie
visit was no secret. It had been covered by the
local press in Niger at the time,
and reports had surfaced in French, British, and
American intelligence. Chouet had a 700-man unit at his command, and he ordered an
extensive on-the-ground investigation in Niger.
we've always been very careful about both problems
of uranium production in Niger and Iraqi
attempts to get uranium," Chouet
told the Los Angeles Times last December.
Having concluded that nothing had come of al-Zahawie's visit and that there was no evidence of a uranium
deal, French intelligence forwarded its assessment
to the C.I.A. But the Niger affair had
few weeks later, on September 11, 2001, terrorists
struck the World Trade
and the Pentagon. The neocons
had long said that they needed another Pearl Harbor
in order to realize their dreams of regime change
in Iraq. Now it had
taken place. According to Bob Woodward's Bush
at War, C.I.A. director George Tenet reported
to the White House within hours that Osama bin Laden
was behind the attack. But by midday Secretary of
Defense Donald Rumsfeld had already raised the question of attacking Saddam.
Likewise, four days later, Deputy Secretary of Defense
Paul Wolfowitz advised President Bush not to bother going after
Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan
but to train American guns on Iraq
the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Bush's approval
ratings soared to 90 percent, the all-time high
for any U.S. president. This was the perfect
opportunity to go after Saddam, except for one thing:
the available intelligence did not support the action.
Ten days after the attacks, Bush was told in a classified
briefing that there was no credible evidence linking
Saddam Hussein to the attacks.
operation went into overdrive. The details of how
this happened are murky. Accounts from usually reputable
newspapers, the United States Senate Intelligence
Committee, and other sources are wildly at variance
with one another. In October 2001, SISMI, which
had already sent reports about the alleged Niger
deal to French intelligence, finally had them forwarded
to British and U.S. intelligence.
The exact dates of the distribution are unclear,
but, according to the British daily The Independent,
SISMI sent the dossier to the Vauxhall Cross headquarters
of M.I.6, in South London.
The delivery might have been made, Italian reports
say, by Rocco Martino. At roughly the same time,
in early October, according to La Repubblica,
SISMI also gave a report about the Niger
deal to Jeff Castelli,
the C.I.A. station chief in Rome. According to a recent
broadcast by CBS's 60 Minutes, C.I.A. analysts
who saw the material were skeptical.
addition, on October 15, 2001, Nicolò
Pollari, the newly appointed chief of SISMI, made his first
visit to his counterparts at the C.I.A. Under pressure
from Berlusconi to turn over information that would
be useful for America's Iraq-war policy, Pollari met "with top C.I.A. officials to provide a SISMI
dossier indicating that Iraq had sought to buy uranium
in Niger," according to an article by Philip
Giraldi in The American
to the Senate Intelligence Committee, the analysts
saw Pollari's report as "very limited and lacking needed
detail." Nevertheless, the State Department
had the U.S. Embassy in Niger check out
the alleged uranium deal. On November 20, 2001,
the U.S. Embassy in Niamey, the capital of Niger,
sent a cable reporting that the director general
of Niger's French-led consortium had told the American
ambassador that "there was no possibility"
that the African nation had diverted any yellowcake
December 2001, Greg Thielmann,
director for strategic proliferation and military
affairs at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence
and Research (INR), reviewed Iraq's W.M.D. program for Colin Powell.
As for the Niger
report, Thielmann said,
"A whole lot of things told us that the report
was bogus. This wasn't highly contested. There weren't
strong advocates on the other side. It was done,
Ledeen waves an unlit
cigar as he welcomes me into his 11th-floor office
at the American Enterprise Institute, in Washington. Home to Irving
Kristol, Lynne Cheney,
Richard Perle, and countless other stars in the neocon
firmament, the A.E.I. is one of the most powerful
think tanks in the country. It has sent more than
two dozen of its alumni to the Bush administration.
17 years at the A.E.I., Ledeen
is the institute's Freedom Scholar and rates a corner
office decorated with prints of the Colosseum
in Rome, the Duomo
in Florence, and
other mementos of his days in Italy. Having served
as a consultant at the Pentagon and the State Department
and on the National Security Council, Ledeen
relishes playing the role of the intriguer.
In the Iran-contra scandal, Ledeen won notoriety for introducing Oliver North to his friend
the Iranian arms dealer and con man Manucher
Ghorbanifar, who was labeled "an intelligence
fabricator" by the C.I.A. Ledeen
has made his share of enemies along the way, especially
at the C.I.A. According to Larry Johnson, "The
C.I.A. viewed Ledeen as
a meddlesome troublemaker who usually got it wrong
and was allied with people who were dangerous to
such as Ghorbanifar."
of such views, Ledeen,
no fan of the C.I.A., responds, "Oh, that's
a shock. Ghorbanifar over the years has been one
of the most accurate sources of understanding what
is going on in Iran. … I have
always thought the C.I.A. made a big mistake."
and balding, the 65-year-old Ledeen
makes for an unlikely 007. On the one hand, he can
be self-deprecating, describing himself as "powerless
… and, well, schlumpy."
On the other, one of his bios grandiosely proclaims
that he has executed "the most sensitive and
dangerous missions in recent American history."
props his feet up on his desk next to an icon of
villainy—a mask of Darth Vader. "I'm
tired of being described as someone who likes Fascism
and is a warmonger," he says. "I've said
it over and over again. I'm not the person you think
you are looking for. … I think it's obvious I have
no clout in the administration. I haven't had a
role. I don't have a role." He barely knows
Karl Rove, he says. He has "very occasionally"
had discussions with Cheney's office. And he denies
reports that he was a consultant for Douglas Feith's
Office of Special Plans, the division of the Pentagon
that was famous for cherry-picking and "stovepiping"
intelligence that suited its policy of invading
"I have had no professional relationship with
any agency of the federal government during the
Bush Administration," Ledeen
later clarifies via e-mail. "That includes
there is considerable evidence that Ledeen
has had far more access than he lets on to the highest
levels of the Bush administration. Even before Bush
took office, Rove asked Ledeen
to funnel ideas to the White House. According to
The Washington Post, some of Ledeen's
ideas became "official policy or rhetoric."
As for Ledeen's role in
the Office of Special Plans, Karen Kwiatkowski,
who worked in the Pentagon during the run-up to
war, has described Ledeen
as Feith's collaborator
and said in an e-mail that he "was in and out
of there (OSP) all the time."
his ties to Rove and Deputy National-Security Adviser
Stephen Hadley, Michael Ledeen
was also wired into the White House Iraq Group,
which was charged with marketing an invasion of
claims, as he told the Web site Raw Story, that
he had strongly advised against the plan, saying
that the invasion of Iraq
was the "wrong war, wrong time, wrong way,
wrong place." But
the truth is somewhat more complicated. Ledeen
had urged regime change in Iraq since 1998, and
just four hours after the 9/11 attacks he posted
an article on the National Review Web site
urging Bush to take "the fight directly to
Saddam on his own territory."
was just one part of a larger war. As he later told
a seminar, "All this talk about first we are
going to do Afghanistan,
then we will do Iraq
… that is entirely the wrong way to go about it."
He urged Americans not to try to "piece together
clever diplomatic solutions to this thing, but just
wage a total war against these tyrants."
January 2003, two months before the war started,
he wrote, "If we were serious about waging
this war, we would, at an absolute minimum, support
the Iranian people's brave campaign against their
tyrants … and recognize an Iraqi government in exile
in the 'no fly' zones we control. … If we don't,
we may well find ourselves facing a far bigger problem
than Saddam alone."
repeatedly urged war or destabilization not just
but also in Iran, Syria,
even Saudi Arabia.
"One can only hope that we turn the region
into a cauldron, and faster, please," he wrote.
"Faster, please" became his mantra, repeated
incessantly in his National Review columns.
about war week after week, Ledeen
became chief rhetorician for neoconservative visionaries
who wanted to remake the Middle
East. "Creative destruction is
our middle name, both within our own society and
abroad," he wrote after the attacks. "We
must destroy [our enemies] to advance our historic
must be "imperious, ruthless, and relentless,"
he argued, until there has been "total surrender"
by the Muslim world. "We must keep our fangs
bared," he wrote, "we must remind them
daily that we Americans are in a rage, and we will
not rest until we have avenged our dead, we will
not be sated until we have had the blood of every
miserable little tyrant in the Middle East, until
every leader of every cell of the terror network
is dead or locked securely away, and every last
drooling anti-Semitic and anti-American mullah,
imam, sheikh, and ayatollah is either singing the
praises of the United States of America, or pumping
gasoline, for a dime a gallon, on an American military
base near the Arctic Circle."
Old Friend of Italy"
2001 drew to a close, such positions seemed decidedly
outside the mainstream. Career military and intelligence
professionals saw the relatively moderate Colin
Powell and George Tenet, a Clinton
appointee, reassuringly ensconced as secretary of
state and director of central intelligence, respectively.
"George Tenet had been there for a number of
years," says Larry Wilkerson. "He knew
what he was doing. He was a professional. What did
he have to do with Douglas Feith?
It didn't seem possible that someone like Douglas
Feith could exercise such
influence." But a schism was growing between
the cautious realism of analysts in the C.I.A. and
the State Department, on one side, and the hawkish
ambitions of Dick Cheney and the Pentagon, on the
for Ledeen, how much clout
he carried with the administration is a matter of
debate. But one measure of his influence may be
a series of secret meetings he set up—with Hadley's
approval, he claims—in Rome in the second week of
December 2001. During these meetings, Ghorbanifar
introduced American officials to other Iranians
who passed on information about their government's
plans to target U.S.
soldiers in Afghanistan.
Among those in attendance were Harold Rhode and
Larry Franklin of the Office of Special Plans. (In
a separate matter, Franklin
has since pleaded guilty to passing secrets to Israel and been sentenced to 12 years
in prison.) "That information saved American
lives in Afghanistan,"
other accounts suggest that Ledeen
may have used his time in Italy
to reactivate old friendships that played a role
in the Niger affair.
to La Repubblica,
Nicolò Pollari had become frustrated
by the C.I.A.'s refusal
to let SISMI deliver a smoking gun that would justify
an invasion of Iraq. At an unspecified
date, he discussed the issue with Ledeen's
longtime friend Minister of Defense Antonio Martino.
Martino, the paper reported, told Pollari
to expect a visit from "an old friend of Italy,"
namely Ledeen. Soon afterward,
according to La Repubblica, Pollari allegedly
took up the Niger
matter with Ledeen when
he was in Rome. Ledeen denies
having had any such conversations. Pollari
declined to be interviewed by Vanity Fair,
and has denied playing any role in the Niger
affair. Martino has declined to comment.
early 2002, career military and intelligence professionals
had seen the Niger reports
repeatedly discredited, and assumed that the issue
was dead. But that was not the case.
guys in the Office of Special Plans delighted in
telling people, 'You don't understand your own data,'"
says Patrick Lang. "'We know that Saddam is
evil and deceptive, and if you see this piece of
data, to say just because it is not well supported
it's not true is to be politically naïve.'"
everybody in the C.I.A. was of one mind with regard
to the alleged Niger deal. As
the Senate Intelligence Committee report points
out, some analysts at the C.I.A. and other agencies
considered the Niger deal to be "possible."
In the fall of 2002, the C.I.A. approved language
referring to the Niger
deal in one speech by the president but vetoed it
in another. And in December 2002, analysts at WINPAC,
the C.I.A.'s center for
Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation, and Arms
Control, produced a paper that chided Iraq
for not acknowledging its "efforts to procure
uranium from Niger."
the C.I.A. had enough doubts about the Niger claims
to initially leave them out of the President's Daily
Brief (P.D.B.), the intelligence updates given each
morning to President Bush. On February 5, 2002,
however, for reasons that remain unclear, the C.I.A.
issued a new report on the alleged Niger
deal, one that provided significantly more detail,
including what was said to be "verbatim text"
of the accord between Niger
In the State Department, analysts were still suspicious
of the reports. But in the Pentagon, the Vulcans
pounced on the new material. On February 12, the
D.I.A. issued "a finished intelligence product,"
titled "Niamey Signed an Agreement to Sell
500 Tons of Uranium a Year to Baghdad,"
and passed it to the office of Vice President Dick
gave the Niger
claims new life. "The [C.I.A.] briefer came
in. Cheney said, 'What about this?,' and the briefer
hadn't heard one word, because no one in the agency
thought it was of any significance," says Ray
McGovern, whose job at the C.I.A. included preparing
and delivering the P.D.B. in the Reagan era. "But
when a briefer gets a request from the vice president
of the United States,
he goes back and leaves no stone unturned."
C.I.A.'s Directorate of
Operations, the branch responsible for the clandestine
collection of foreign intelligence, immediately
tasked its Counterproliferation
Division (CPD) with getting more information. According
to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report,
just hours after Dick Cheney had gotten the Niger
report, Valerie Plame,
who worked in the CPD, wrote a memo to the division's
deputy chief that read, "My husband has good
relations with both the PM [prime minister] and
the former Minister of Mines (not to mention lots
of French contacts), both of whom could possibly
shed light on this sort of activity."
husband, as the world now knows, was Joseph Wilson,
who had served as deputy chief of mission at the
U.S. Embassy in Baghdad
and as ambassador to Gabon
under George H. W. Bush. Wilson
approached the task with a healthy skepticism. "The
office of the vice president had asked me to check
this out," Wilson told Vanity Fair. "My skepticism
was the same as it would have been with any unverified
intelligence report, because there is a lot of stuff
that comes over the transom every day."
arrived in Niger
on February 26, 2002. "Niger
has a simplistic government structure," he
says. "Both the minister of mines and the prime
minister had gone through the mines. The French
were managing partners of the international consortium.
The French mining company actually had its hands
on the product. Nobody else in the consortium had
operators on the ground."
personally knew Wissam al-Zahawie, the Iraqi ambassador
to the Vatican,
whose visit to Niger
had raised suspicions. "Wissam
al-Zahawie was a world-class opera singer, and he went to the
Vatican as his last post so he could be near the
great European opera houses in Rome,"
says Wilson. "He was not
in the Ba'thist inner
circle. He was not in Saddam's tribe. The idea that
he would be entrusted with this super-secret mission
to buy 500 tons of uranium from Niger
is out of the question."
March 1, the State Department weighed in with another
cable, headed "Sale of Niger Uranium to Iraq
Unlikely." Citing "unequivocal" control
of the mines, the cable asserted that President
Tandja of Niger
would not want to risk good relations with the U.S.
by trading with Iraq,
and cited the prohibitive logistical problems in
such a transaction.
few days later, Wilson
returned from Niger and told
C.I.A. officials that he had found no evidence to
support the uranium charges. By now the Niger
reports had been discredited more than half a dozen
times—by the French in 2001, by the C.I.A. in Rome
and in Langley, by
the State Department's INR, by some analysts in
the Pentagon, by the ambassador to Niger,
by Wilson, and yet again by
the top brass at the C.I.A. knew what Cheney wanted.
They went back to French intelligence again—twice.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the second
request that year, in mid-2002, "was more urgent
and more specific." The C.I.A. sought confirmation
of the alleged agreement by Niger to sell 500 tons of yellowcake to Iraq. Alain Chouet reportedly sent five or six men to Niger and again
found the charges to be false. Then his staff noticed
that the allegations matched those brought to him
by Rocco Martino. "We told the Americans, 'Bullshit.
It doesn't make any sense.'"
this point, the American people had been largely
oblivious to the Bush administration's emerging
policy toward Iraq. But in August 2002, just as
Douglas Feith's Office
of Special Plans formally set up shop in the Pentagon,
White House chief of staff Andrew Card launched
the White House Iraq Group to sell the war through
the media. The plan was to open a full-fledged marketing
campaign after Labor Day, featuring images of nuclear
devastation and threats of biological and chemical
weapons. A key piece of the evidence was the Niger
began in August, with Cheney and his surrogates
asserting repeatedly that "many of us are convinced
that Saddam will acquire nuclear weapons fairly
soon." Making Cheney seem moderate by comparison,
a piece by Ledeen appeared
in The Wall Street Journal on September 4,
suggesting that, in addition to Iraq,
the governments of Iran,
Syria, and Saudi Arabia should be overthrown.
the real push was delayed until the second week
of September. As Card famously put it, "From a marketing point of view, you
don't introduce new products in August."
The first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks was perfect.
opening salvo was fired on Sunday, September 8,
2002, when National-Security Adviser Condoleezza
Rice told CNN, "There will always be some uncertainty
about how quickly [Saddam] can acquire nuclear weapons.
But we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom
smoking-gun-mushroom-cloud catchphrase was such
a hit that Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld
all picked it up in one form or another, sending
it out repeatedly to the entire country.
the C.I.A. had finally penetrated Saddam's inner
sanctum by "turning" Foreign Minister
Naji Sabri. Tenet delivered the news personally to Bush, Cheney,
and other top officials in September 2002. Initially,
the White House was ecstatic about this coup.
according to Tyler Drumheller,
the C.I.A.'s chief of operations in Europe
until he retired last year, that reaction changed
dramatically when they heard what Sabri
had to say. "He told us that they had no active
weapons-of-mass-destruction program," Drumheller
told 60 Minutes. "The [White House]
group that was dealing with the preparation for
war came back and said they were no longer interested.
And we said, 'Well, what about the intel?'
And they said, 'Well, this isn't about intel
anymore. This is about regime change.'"
roughly the same time, highly placed White House
sources such as Scooter Libby leaked exclusive "scoops"
to credulous reporters as part of the campaign to
make Saddam's nuclear threat seem real. On the same
day the "mushroom cloud" slogan made its
debut, The New York Times printed a front-page
story by Michael Gordon and Judith Miller citing
administration officials who said that Saddam had
"embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials
to make an atomic bomb." Specifically, the
article contended that Iraq
"has sought to buy thousands of specially designed
aluminum tubes, which American officials believe
were intended as components of centrifuges to enrich
next day, September 9, the White House received
a visitor who should have known exactly what the
tubes were for—Nicolò
Pollari. As it happens, the Italians used the same tubes Iraq was seeking in their Medusa air-to-ground
missile systems, so Pollari
presumably knew that Iraq was not trying to enrich uranium but merely
attempting to reproduce weaponry dating back to
an era of military trade between Rome
and Baghdad. As La Repubblica
pointed out, however, he did not set the record
met with Stephen Hadley, an understated but resolute
hawk who has since replaced Condoleezza Rice as
national-security adviser. Hadley has confirmed
that he met Pollari, but
declined to say what was discussed. "It was
a courtesy call," Hadley told reporters. "Nobody
participating in that meeting or asked about that
meeting has any recollection of a discussion of
natural uranium, or any recollection of any documents
there was no need to pass documents. It was significant
enough for Pollari to have met with Hadley, a White House official allied
with Cheney's hard-liners, rather than with Pollari's
American counterpart, George Tenet. "It is
completely out of protocol for the head of a foreign
intelligence service to circumvent the C.I.A.,"
says former C.I.A. officer Philip Giraldi.
"It is uniquely unusual. In spite of lots of
people having seen these documents, and having said
they were not right, they went around them."
me there is no benign interpretation of this,"
says Melvin Goodman, the former C.I.A. and State
Department analyst. "At the highest level it
was known the documents were forgeries. Stephen
Hadley knew it. Condi Rice knew it. Everyone at
the highest level knew." Both Rice and Hadley
have declined to comment.
Ledeen, who had access
to both Pollari and Hadley, categorically denies setting up the meeting:
"I had nothing to do with it." A former
senior intelligence official close to Tenet says
that the former C.I.A. chief had no information
suggesting that Pollari
or elements of SISMI may have been trying to circumvent
the C.I.A. and go directly to the White House.
documents had been resurrected once again. Two days
later, on September 11, 2002, the first anniversary
of the terrorist attacks, Hadley's office asked
the C.I.A. to clear language so that President Bush
could issue a statement saying, "Within the
past few years, Iraq has resumed efforts to purchase
large quantities of a type of uranium oxide known
as yellowcake. … The regime was caught trying to
purchase 500 metric tons of this material. It takes
about 10 tons to produce enough enriched uranium
for a single nuclear weapon."
addition, in a new paper that month, the D.I.A.
issued an assessment claiming that "Iraq
has been vigorously trying to procure uranium ore
that month, the British published a 50-page, 14-point
report on Iraq's pursuit of weapons that said, "There
is intelligence that Iraq
has sought the supply of significant quantities
of uranium from Africa."
you are playing a disinformation operation,"
says Milt Bearden, "you're like a conductor
who can single out one note in the symphony and
say, 'Let the Brits have that.'"
September 24, Prime Minister Tony Blair cited that
"dossier of death" and asserted again
had tried to acquire uranium from Africa.
"The reports in [the Niger
file] were going around the world, and Bush and
Blair were talking about the documents without actually
mentioning them," Rocco Martino told Milan's Il
turned the television on and I did not believe my
it was time for the international media to chime
in with independent corroboration. In early October
2002, Martino approached Elisabetta
Burba, a journalist at
Panorama, the Milan-based newsmagazine. Burba
and Martino had worked together in the past, but
there may have been other reasons he went to her
again. Owned by Silvio
Berlusconi, Panorama was edited by Carlo
Rossella, a close ally
of the prime minister's. It also counted among its
contributors Michael Ledeen.
told Burba he had something
truly explosive—documents that proved Saddam was
buying yellowcake from Niger. Burba was intrigued, but skeptical. She agreed to pay just
over 10,000 euros—about $12,500—on one condition:
Martino would get paid only after his dossier had
been corroborated by independent authorities. Martino
gave her the documents.
Burba told Rossella
of her concerns about the authenticity of the Niger
documents, he sent her to Africa
to investigate. But he also insisted that she give
copies to the U.S. Embassy. "I think the Americans
are very interested in this problem of unconventional
October 17, Burba flew
to Niger. Once there,
she discovered for herself how difficult it would
be to ship 500 tons of uranium out of Africa.
By the time she returned, she believed the real
story was not about Saddam's secret nuclear-weapons
program at all, but about whether someone had forged
the documents to fabricate a rationale for invading
Iraq. But when she reported her findings
to Rossella, he called
her off. "I told her to forget the documents,"
he told Vanity Fair. "From my point
of view, the story was over."
however, thanks to Panorama, the U.S.
had received copies of the Niger
documents. They were quickly disseminated to the
C.I.A. station chief in Rome, who recognized them
as the same old story the Italians had been pushing
months before, and to nuclear experts at the D.I.A.,
the Energy Department, and the N.S.A.
State Department had already twice cast doubt on
the reports of the sale of uranium to Iraq.
In the fall, Wayne White, who served as the deputy
director of the State Department's intelligence
unit and was the principal Iraq analyst, reviewed the papers
themselves. According to The Boston Globe,
he said that after a 15-minute review he doubted
That Baby in There"
early October, Bush was scheduled to give a major
address on Iraq in Cincinnati.
A few days earlier, according to the Senate Intelligence
Committee report, the N.S.C. sent the C.I.A. a draft
which asserted that Saddam "has been caught
attempting to purchase up to 500 metric tons of
uranium oxide from Africa—an essential ingredient
in the enrichment process."
C.I.A. faxed a memo to Hadley and the speechwriters
telling them to delete the sentence on uranium,
"because the amount is in dispute and it is
debatable whether it can be acquired from the source.
We told Congress that the Brits have exaggerated
this issue. Finally, the Iraqis already have 550
metric tons of uranium oxide in their inventory."
supply of yellowcake dated back to the 1980s, when
it had imported hundreds of tons of uranium ore
and mined the rest itself. The C.I.A. felt that
if Saddam was trying to revive his nuclear program
he would be more likely to use his own stockpile
than risk exposure in an illegal international deal.
the White House refused to let go. Later that day,
Hadley's staff sent over another draft of the Cincinnati
speech, which stated, "The regime has been
caught attempting to purchase substantial amounts
of uranium oxide from sources in Africa."
time, George Tenet himself interceded to keep the
president from making false statements. According
to his Senate testimony, he told Hadley that the
"president should not be a fact witness on
this issue," because the "reporting was
weak." The C.I.A. even put it in writing and
faxed it to the N.S.C.
neocons were not done
yet, however. "That was their favorite technique,"
says Larry Wilkerson, "stick that baby in there
47 times and on the 47th time it will stay. At every
level of the decision-making process you had to
have your ax out, ready to chop their fingers off.
Sooner or later you would miss one and it would
get in there."
the next two months, December 2002 and January 2003,
references to the uranium deal resurfaced again
and again in "fact sheets," talking-point
memos, and speeches. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld,
Powell, and Rice all declared publicly that Iraq
had been caught trying to buy uranium from Niger. On December 19, the claim reappeared
on a fact sheet published by the State Department.
The bureaucratic battle was unending. In light of
the many differing viewpoints, the Pentagon asked
the National Intelligence Council, the body that
oversees the 15 agencies in the U.S.
intelligence community, to resolve the matter. According
to The Washington Post, in a January 2003
memo the council replied unequivocally that "the
story was baseless and should be laid to rest."
The memo went immediately to Bush and his advisers.
on January 20, with war imminent, President Bush
submitted a report to Congress citing Iraq's
attempts "to acquire uranium and the means
to enrich it."
an N.S.C. meeting on January 27, 2003, George Tenet
was given a hard-copy draft of the State of the
Union address. Bush was to deliver it the next day.
Acutely aware of the ongoing intelligence wars,
Tenet was caught between the hard-liners in the
White House, to whom he reported, and the C.I.A.,
whose integrity he was duty-bound to uphold. That
day, he returned to C.I.A. headquarters and, without
even reading the speech, gave a copy to an assistant
who was told to deliver it to the deputy director
for intelligence. But, according to the Senate
Intelligence Committee report, no one in the D.D.I.'s office recalls receiving the speech.
State of the Union address that was a call for war,
that desperately needed to be vetted, had been misplaced
and gone unread. "It is inconceivable to me
that George Tenet didn't read that speech,"
says Milt Bearden. "At that point, he was effectively
no longer D.C.I. [director of central intelligence].
He was part of that cabal, and no longer able to
carry an honest message."
an e-mail, a former intelligence official close
to Tenet said the charge that Tenet was "part
of a 'cabal' is absurd." The official added,
"Mr. Tenet was unaware of attempts to put the
Niger information in the State of
the Union speech. Had he been aware, he would have
vigorously tried to have it removed."
next day, despite countless objections from the
C.I.A. and other agencies, Bush cited the charges
from the fraudulent Niger documents in his speech. Later
that year, Stephen Hadley accepted responsibility
for allowing the sentence to remain in the speech.
He said he had failed to remember the warnings he'd
received about the allegations.
last-minute negotiations between the White House
and the C.I.A., a decision was made to attribute
the alleged Niger uranium deal to British intelligence.
The official reason was that it was preferable to
cite British intelligence, which Blair had championed
in his 50-page report, rather than classified American
intelligence. But the C.I.A. had told the White
House again and again that it didn't trust the British
British, meanwhile, have repeatedly claimed to have
other sources, but they have refused to identify
them. According to Joseph Wilson, that refusal is
a violation of the U.N. resolution stipulating that
member states must share with the International
Atomic Energy Agency all information they have on
prohibited nuclear programs in Iraq.
"The British say they cannot share the information,
because it comes from a third-country intelligence
source," says Wilson. "But that third country is presumably
a member of the United Nations, and it too should
comply with Article 10 of United Nations Resolution
1441." So far, Wilson says, no evidence of a third country
has come to light.
week after Bush's speech, on February 4, the Bush
administration finally forwarded electronic copies
of the Niger documents to the I.A.E.A. Astonishingly, a note was attached to the documents which said,
"We cannot confirm these reports and have questions
regarding some specific claims."
March 7, the I.A.E.A. publicly exposed the Niger documents as forgeries. Not
long afterward, Cheney was asked about it on Meet
the Press. He said that the I.A.E.A. was wrong,
that it had "consistently underestimated or
missed what it was Saddam Hussein was doing."
He added, "We know [Saddam] has been absolutely
devoted to trying to acquire nuclear weapons. And
we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear
March 14, Senator Jay Rockefeller IV, the ranking
Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, wrote
a letter to F.B.I. chief Robert Mueller asking for
an investigation because "the fabrication of
these documents may be part of a larger deception
campaign aimed at manipulating public opinion and
foreign policy regarding Iraq."
But Senator Pat Roberts, of Kansas,
the Republican chair of the committee, declined
to co-sign the letter.
on March 19, 2003, the war in Iraq began.
July 11, 2003, faced with public pressure to investigate
the forgeries, Roberts issued a statement blaming
the C.I.A. and defending the White House. "So
far, I am very disturbed by what appears to be extremely
sloppy handling of the issue from the outset by
the C.I.A.," he said.
Roberts's aegis, the Senate Intelligence Committee
investigated the Niger affair and
came to some extraordinary conclusions. "At
the time the President delivered the State of the
Union address, no one in the IC [intelligence community]
had asked anyone in the White House to remove the
sentence from the speech," read the report.
It added that "CIA Iraq nuclear analysts …
told Committee staff that at the time of the State
of the Union, they still believed that Iraq
was probably seeking uranium from Africa."
November 2005, Rockefeller and Democratic senator
Harry Reid staged a dramatic shutdown of the Senate
and challenged Roberts to get to the bottom of the
forgeries. "The fact is that at any time the
Senate Intelligence Committee pursued a line of
questioning that brought us close to the White House,
our efforts were thwarted," Rockefeller said.
far, the Republican-controlled Senate committee
has failed to produce a more extensive report.
Even Bigger Mistake
his part, Michael Ledeen
thinks all the interest in the Niger
documents and Bush's famous 16 words is overblown.
"I don't want my government's decisions based
on falsehoods," he says. "But the president
referred to British intelligence. So far as I've
read about it, that statement is true."
categorically asserts that he couldn't have orchestrated
operation, because he disagreed so strongly with
the administration's policy. "I thought it
was wrong to do Iraq militarily," he says. "Before
we went into Iraq,
I said that anyone who thinks we can march into
Iraq, overthrow Saddam, and then have
peace is crazy. I thought it was a mistake at the
time, and the way they did it." He adds, "Let's
get real. This is politics. People in office do
not like people who criticize them."
is unclear how these assertions square with the
widespread reports that Ledeen was tightly wired into the neocons
in the administration; with his long history of
ties to SISMI, as reported by The Wall Street
Journal and the court records from the trial
of Francesco Pazienza; and with Ledeen's own
all the speculation, there are no fingerprints connecting
Ledeen to the Niger documents. Even his fiercest
adversaries will concede this. "In talking
to hundreds of people, no one has given us a hint
linking Ledeen to the
Niger documents," says Carlo Bonini of La Repubblica,
which is facing a defamation suit by Ledeen
is also unclear what, if anything, the Italians
may have received for their alleged participation
in Nigergate. In 2005,
a consortium led by Finmeccanica,
the Italian arms company, and Lockheed Martin unexpectedly beat out U.S.-owned
Sikorsky to win a contract to build presidential
helicopters. Some saw the contract, worth as much
as $6.1 billion, as a reward to Berlusconi for helping
Bush on Iraq.
of who fabricated the Niger documents, it is difficult
to overstate the impact of the war they helped ignite.
By May 18, 2006, the number of American fatalities
was 2,448, while various methods of tracking American
casualties put the number of wounded at between
18,000 and 48,000. At least 35,000 Iraqis have been
killed. A new study by Columbia
economist Joseph E. Stiglitz, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2001, and
Harvard lecturer Linda Bilmes
concludes that the total costs of the Iraq war could top $2 trillion. That
figure includes the long-term health-care costs
for injured soldiers, the cost of higher oil prices,
and a bigger U.S. budget deficit.
the most important consequence of the Iraq
war is its destabilization of the Middle
East. If neoconservatives such as Ledeen
and their critics agree on anything, it is that
so far there has been only one real winner in the
conflict: the fundamentalist mullahs in Iran.
For decades, the two big threats in the Middle East—Iran
counterbalanced each other in a standoff that neutralized
both. Yet the Bush administration, despite having
a member of the Axis of Evil, proceeded to attack
its two biggest enemies, Afghanistan and Iraq. "Iran is unquestionably the biggest beneficiary
of the war in Iraq,"
says Milt Bearden.
it is not surprising that the Bush administration
is now rattling its sabers against Iran,
which has been flexing its muscles with a new nuclear
program. As a result, according to a Zogby
poll in May, 66 percent of Americans now see Iran
as a threat to the U.S. Zbigniew
Brzezinski, national-security adviser to President
Carter, has argued that starting the Iraq war was
a catastrophic strategic blunder, and that taking
military action against Iran may be an even bigger
mistake. "I think of war with Iran
as the ending of America's
present role in the world," he told Washington
Post columnist David Ignatius. "Iraq
may have been a preview of that, but it's still
redeemable if we get out fast. In a war with Iran,
we'll get dragged down for 20 or 30 years. The world
will condemn us. We will lose our position in the
Michael Ledeen, however,
Iran's ascendancy is just one more reason to expand
war to the "terror masters" of the Middle
East. "I keep saying it over and
over again to the point where I myself am bored,"
he says. "I have been screaming 'Iran,
Iran, Iran' for five years. [Those in the
Bush administration] don't have an Iran policy. Still don't have one.
They haven't done fuck-all."
is Craig Unger's third article for Vanity Fair.
He is currently working on a book based on his
article "American Rapture," which appeared
in the December 2005 issue.