The Niger Yellowcake Story: The Italian Version
With the Joe Wilson story hitting the news again, I ask you to read the following article by Carlo Bonini and Giuseppe D’Avanzo published in the Rome newspaper, La Repubblica, on July 16, 2003. It's long, but do it*!
You will see why the Bush administration will stonewall on the Plame Affair. You see, Mrs. Plame's CIA role may have been revealed to reporters by her counterparts inside British or Italian intelligence keeping tabs on WMD in central Africa. That's right, from our own "Coalition Partners." Behind the Karl Rove and Plame Affair is a plot by three heads of government, Bush, Blair and Berlusconi, to deceive their nations, international institutions and world public opinion for their own cynical and immoral aims. Worse than Suez, worse than Gulf of Tonkin, worse than the Plain of Jars, worse than Watergate and worse than Iran-Contra.
Here It Is, Explained for You: the Phony Niger Dossier
This story, like a mundane spy thriller, begins with a burglary--the fifth-floor apartment in No. 10 Via Antonio Baiamonti in Rome’s Mazzini Quarter. The thick steel-plated door defends the offices of the Embassy of Niger. A gloomy corridor runs from the offices of the political attaché from that of the ambassador. On a night sometime between 29 December 2000 and 1 January 2001, the usual “persons unknown” are frantically searching for something, turning the embassy inside-out. Papers are strewn everywhere and file cabinets have been opened. When early on January 2, the Second Secretary for Administrative Affairs, Arfou Mounkaila, reports the theft to the Carabinieri in the Trionfale precinct, he admits that the burglars behaved bizarrely. A lot of ado and trouble for nothing. With the exception of a steel Breil watch and three small vials of perfume, the “thieves” took nothing. Or so it seemed. Today, if you stop by the embassy and ask a few questions about the curious theft, a courteous woman with a big smile will tell you this: It all began here, it all started with that break-in.
With the burglary in Via Baiamonti begins an affair which will end 24 months later--on 23 January 2003, with sixteen words pronounced by George W. Bush in his State of the Union address: …The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa … These words will suspend Bush over the Iraqgate abyss...or Nigergate, if you prefer. Either way, it is an affair which began in Italy, because it is in Rome where four events take place which will steer Bush in the direction of those rash words:
- 1) It is SISMI [Servizio per le Informazioni e la Sicurezza Militare] (Italian Defense Intelligence Agency) that between October and November 2001 comes into contact with an African diplomat, who sells them the forged documents (six sheets) concerning the contraband of 500 tons of pure uranium each year, to be consigned by Niger to Iraq in two installments.
- 2) It is in Rome that MI-6, British counterintelligence, comes into possession of these documents.
- 3) It is SISMI, which, following the routine procedure, informs the Italian Prime Minister (through CESIS) [Comitato Esecutivo per i Servizi di Informazione e di Sicurezza, Executive Advisory Council on Military Intelligence and Security] and the Farnesina Palace [home to the Italian Foreign Ministry] (via confidential communication to the person of the Foreign Minister).
- 4)It is the director of SISMI, Genereal Niccolò Pollari, who in November 2002 confirms to the Parliamentary Intelligence Oversight Committee that The service is in possession of documentation which provides evidence of the trade of pure uranium between a central African country and Iraq.
These probes make a big stride forward between the last days of October 2001 and the beginning of November. A SISMI source tells the La Repubblica that within that time, an African country with an embassy in Rome contacted SISMI and offers a folder of documents which he deems will be extremely useful to our work. Inside the folder there are codebooks and correspondence concerning a shipment of uranium to Iraq by cargo ship via Lomè (Togo) from Cotonou in Benin (where the entire quantity of 2,900 tons of pure uranium extracted in 2000 from the Arlit and Akouta mines in Niger is stockpiled) and, most important, diplomatic documents:
- 1) A telex dated 1 February 1999 from the Nigerois Ambassador in Rome, Chekou, to the Foreign Ministry in Niamey;
- 2) A letter dated 30 July 1999 from the Foreign Ministry to the Embassy of Niger in Rome.
- 3) A letter dated 27 July 2000 addressed to the President of the Republic of Niger.
- 4) A “memorandum of understanding” between the governments of Niger and Iraq “concerning the supply of uranium as agreed on 5 and 6 July 2000 in Niamey”. The memorandum has a 2-page addendum entitled “Agreement.”
One letter, dated October 10, 2000 [The article’s editor at La Repubblica identifies this as the "memorandum of understanding" between Niger and Iraq] was signed with the name of Allele Habibou, a [Niger] Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, who had been out of office since 1989. Another letter [Editor’s note: dated 27 July 2000][...] had [...] a text with inaccuracies so egregious [...] that 'they could be spotted by someone using Google on theInternet.And it might also be added that 500 tons of pure uranium is a quantity so enormous that it would have arroused the suspicions of anyone familiar in any with that country and its ore. Then there was the letter dated 30 July 1999 which refers to a deal struck in Niamey 29 June 2000! Finally, the 27 July 2002 letter to the President of Niger is stamped and signed—by him!
When play is halted, one can be seen where the foul occurred. The diplomat who sells the documents is perfectly aware of eavesdropping (phone calls, fax, telex) by Italian intelligence at the Embassy of Niger. He therefore inserts as the first document in the bundle which he is to sell, telex No. 003/99/ABNI/Rome, addressed to the Niger Foreign Ministry. The telex reads:I should like to bring to your attention that the Iraqi Embassy to the Holy See informs me that His Excellency Wissam al- Zahawiah, Iraqi Ambassador to the Vatican, will make an official visit to our country in his capacity as the personal representative of Saddam, President of the Republic of Iraq. His Excellency will be arriving in Niamey….
The telex in question (which was intercepted) is already in the Niger dossier at SISMI headquarters in via Forte Braschi in Rome. The circumstance confirms to Italian intelligence agents that “the stuff is sound” –more or less reliable. Thus, the rest of the documents are considered “sound” as well, meaning the message dated 30 July requesting an “answer on the supply of uranium”, the confidential message of 27 July certifying the purchase agreement ((n[b0] 381-NI 2000) for 500 tons of uranium and, of course, the memorandum of understanding between the two governments seem to close the circle with an air of certainty--Baghdad has succeeded in obtaining uranium from Niger needed for the construction of weapons of extermination.
So now, back to Via Baiamonti at the offices of the Embassy of Niger, to ask the question: “Who fabricated the phony dossier?”
A number of circumstances suggest an initial answer. In winter 2002, the Ambassador of Niger to Rome, Chekou, is recalled to Niamey “for consultations.” He is expected to return to Italy but instead never sets foot in Italy again. Chekou is relieved of his post and on 2 December 2002 he is replaced by Mrs. Hadjio Abdoulmoumine, serving as chargé d’affaires and head of the Counselor Section. Is this a routine changeover? Or is it—as Repubblica’s intelligence source hints, the result of the discovery by the Government of Niger the some wrongdoing in its Rome embassy has occured? Niamey is convinced that the bizarre robbery of January 2001 was, in reality, merely the cover necessary for the removal of the stationery from Via Baiamonte needed to compile the phony dossier?
Back in Washington US intelligence, quoted yesterday [July 2003] by ABC television, is convinced that the Niger Embassy in Rome is behind the forgery. A low-level diplomat, says the interviewee on ABC, fabricated the phony dossier at the embassy then sold it to SISMI for a few thousand dollars. The same conviction is voiced on 22 March 2003 by a United Nations official interviewed by The Washington Post. The letters concerning the uranium trafficking were handed over to the Italians by a Nigerois diplomat.
Mrs. Hadjio Abdoulmoumine, who today is in charge of the Niger diplomatic mission in Rome, says it’s all fantasy: No member of the Niger diplomatic corps in Rome is behind the forgeries. It was Niger President Tandja Mamadou himself to convey a categorical denial to President Bush last week.
Be that as it may, two facts are certain: That it all began with a burglary in Via Baiamonti and that on 21 December 2002, not even two weeks after the changing of the changeover at the embassy, that the Niamey Government issues a stern communiqué concerning the suspicions that its government was engaged in uranium trafficking with Iraq: The American allegations amount to defamation. We have never considered selling uranium to Iraq. There was never any contract.
This brings us to a point in time between the end of 2001 and the first days of 2002--two decisive months. SISMI is familiar of the dossier and MI-6 is in possession of it. The British acquired the document bundle without inspection—says a source at Forte Braschi--but the origin was said to be trustworthy. No one should be surprised by the events surrounding that dossier. It was within the normal course of information sharing between allies. It was only to be expected that the material in question should lead to increased cooperation and intelligence-sharing with the British. There were several meetings, at the highest level, almost all of them in London. Despite this climate of facilitation, we do not know if it was the British who passed the stuff on to the CIA. It is highly likely. Custom has it that the British are under no obligation to tell us to whom they give the intelligence they share with us.
The confirmation that the British have informed Langley is found in a date. In February 2002, the ex-Ambassador of the United States to Gabon, Joseph Wilson, is dispatched by the CIA to Niger to verify the foundation of the uranium smuggling story received from the British. Wilson returns to Washington with a clear-cut answer. The story is unequivocally false.
These doubts are not conveyed to Italy, where the story still is still making the rounds. The story of Niamey-Baghdad uranium trafficking migrates from via Forte Baschi, headquarters of SISMI, to the seat of power in Rome. The analysts of the “Situation” Division (this group has contacts with foreign intelligence agencies and prepares nightly bulletins for the division chief) forwards its report on the Niger uranium. It is a concise memo: one page long, our source tells us. The memo does not indicate the how or why but includes the gist of the story (500 tons of Uranium has been purchased by Baghdad). It ends up on the CESIS desk in Palazzo Chigi [the Prime Minister’s office] and in the confidential correspondence of the Foreign Minister at Farnesina Palace. It is Farnesina Palace, says SISMI, which raises strong objections and disputes the information forwarded by Italian intelligence. The strongest misgivings are voiced by the Director of Sub-Saharan African Affairs through the highly regarded Bruno Cabras.
We are now in October and the head of SISMI, General Niccolò Pollari, testifies the first time before the Parliamentary Intelligence Oversight Committee. He’s vague. He ducks and weaves. He is intentionally taciturn on the circumstances surrounding the “uranium dossier” acquired by Rome and now in the hands of the British. He did, however, explain: We have no documentary evidence, but there are reports that a certain Central African country sold uranium to Iraq. Thirty days later the General has second thoughts. He makes a more explicit statement. He says there is “documentary evidence”. Again before the Parliamentary Intelligence Oversight Committee, he throws in a missing detail from his first testimony: We have documentary evidence of the purchase of raw uranium by Iraq from the central African republic. We also have knowledge of an Iraqi attempt to purchase centrifuges for uranium enrichment from German and possibly Italian industrial firms. Pollari does not overplay his hand. He’s prudent. He doesn’t paint a brightly colored picture of the ability of Baghdad to build an atomic weapon. The head of SISMI argues that, once having obtained the uranium and the centrifuges under the most favorable circumstances the Iraqis would need three, and probably five years, to produce a weapon of mass destruction using the enriched uranium in question.
In March of this year [The article is pubished in 2003], SISMI became alarmed. The IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, finally receives the documents constituting the “Niger dossier” from the Americans and examines the content. On 7 March, Mohamed El Baradei, Director-General of the IAEA, tells the UN Security Council: My agency, with the assistance of outside experts, has concluded that the documents in question are not authentic.
At SISMI headquarters in Via Forte Braschi, the atmosphere is hostile. Those who had viewed the documents bought from the African diplomat with suspicion and distrust begin to raise their heads after having kept them down in the aftermath the congratulations with which the intelligence was welcomed on the other side of the Atlantic. Those who had hyped the reliability of those documents begin seek an exit to escape the looming crisis on the outside which will inevitably produce a clash on the inside. As always happens in cases like this, a number of unconfirmed reconstructions seem, for the moment, to have been artfully crafted in order to raise a ruckus to deflect criticism and censure away from the intelligence services, laying the blame at the feet of political leaders.
Initial blame was cast at the role of President Berlusconi and second, at the activities of his diplomatic advisor, Giovanni Castellaneta. Let’s take a look.
According to sources at SISMI, it was the Italian Premier who confirmed the existence of a “uranium dossier” and above all, its authenticity, in a phone call to George W. Bush. On 25 January 2003 at 8:45 am (Washington time), three days before the State of the Union Address, Berlusconi had a telephone conversation with the President of the United States. It was also five days prior to a meeting in Washington where the two heads of government would agree “on the importance of disarming Saddam” but where, diplomatic sources tell La Repubblica, there would be no mention of the uranium dossier nor its authenticity. More or less along the lines of the same (poisonous) plot, there is a story circulating concerning the name of Giovanni Castellaneta. This diplomatic advisor, who is on good terms with intelligence community and is in the running to become director of CESIS, purportedly had guaranteed “political cover” to the SISMI dossier in several off-the-record meetings with CIA legmen in Rome.
When contacted by La Repubblica about this reconstruction of the affair, SISMI officials refused to answer our questions. From Palazzo Chigi, we heard this communiqué last Sunday:
Reports of the transmittal by Italy of Nigerois or Iraqi documents to other intelligence organizations is completely without foundation: the Italian intelligence services never supplied any document whatsoever.This is a statement which explains nothing and which now demands a public explanation and shouldering of responsibility, whatever the extent of involvement by our country in this affair.
*Also available at War In Context.