Nur al-Cubicle

A blog on the current crises in the Middle East and news accounts unpublished by the US press. Daily timeline of events in Iraq as collected from stories and dispatches in the French and Italian media: Le Monde (Paris), Il Corriere della Sera (Milan), La Repubblica (Rome), L'Orient-Le Jour (Beirut) and occasionally from El Mundo (Madrid).

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Eight Nigergate Questions in Search of an Answer

Today Italy’s Parliamentary Intelligence Oversight Committee will hear testimony from SISMI Director Nicolò Pollari and Undersecretary of State Gianni Letta (delegated by Silvio Berlusconi to monitor Italy’s clandestine services). The hearings may clarify Italy’s role in intelligence gathering on Saddam’s WMD and in the fabrication (at the hands of the Italians) in Rome of the phony dossier for which SISMI vouched to British and American allies as proof of an Iraqi purchase of 500 tons of uranium ore, together with a “Memo of Understanding (also bogus). What was the role of Italian clandestine services? Who were the officials involved--from the intelligence services to the the nation's leadership? Who within the government followed the “agenda” with Washington and in Washington?

These are the fundamental questions in the so-called Nigergate affair, which also led to CIAgate and to the indictment of Lewis Libby, aide to Dick Cheney.

As we know, Palazzo Chigi has indignantly rejected any responsibility in the imbroglio, denying any direct or indirect involvement in the manufacture and distribution of the forged Niger uranium dossier. SISMI is prepared only to admit that on October 15, 2001, in a one-and-a-half page letter, it confirmed to the CIA that “intelligence data” on the attempt by Iraq to buy yellowcake in Africa provided by one of the agency’s “creditable sources”, La Signora, who in the past had also passed Niger encryption pads and embassy records to Forte Braschi [the Italian equivalent of Langley—Nur].

According to the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero, the CIA admitted its doubt on the credibility of the intelligence. In black and white, Pollari shared those doubts. But for a year SISMI keeps the matter on the back burner and gets involved again only after October 9, 2002, when Panorama Magazine forwards the phony dossier, obtained through a former member of the clandestine services, Rocco Martino, to the United States Embassy in Rome.

Although the who, how and when of the acquisition of the phony dossier are unclear, Panorama’s Editor-in-Chief denies that is through SISMI. Nicolò Pollari’s agency begins to tail the vendor of the dossier. He is photographed in the company of a French agent. When the snakeoil salesman turns up at the British Embasy in Brussels (and by now it is spring 2003 and Bush has already made his Mission Accomplished speech), SISMI informs MI6 that Rocco Martino is “a con man.”

Then there is the sorry ass-covering reconstruction by SISMI. The French are accused. It was the French, says Pollari, who had vouched for and distributed the forged documents. Doh! Of course! We should have known! So in a November 22, 2002 meeting at the Department of State in Washington, it was the French Foreign Ministry’s Director of Counterproliferation who claimed that Paris was in possession of information on an attempt by Saddam Hussein to buy uranium in Niger. So it was a French clandestine services report which claims that that Iraqi attempts to buy yellowcake go back to 1999.

SISMI’s ass-covering has the curious deficit of having expunged the crucial events of an entire year: October 2001 to October 2002. Briefly, over those twelve months eight events occurred which lead to questions that Nicolò Pollari must be compelled to answer today:

1. The forged dossier is assembled by Rocco Martino (SISMI agent), La Signora (SISMI asset), Antonia Nucera (SISMI colonel in the employ of Italy’s clandestine services at least until the beginning of 2002, if a story in the newspaper L’Unità is correct). What did Italy’s intelligence officials know of this activity (former SISMI director Admiral Gianfranco Battelli, current director Nicolò Pollari)? The dossier that the con man puts together included stale intelligence from the 1980s. How and by whom was this information removed from the SISMI archives at Forte Braschi? Was there an internal investigation? Were there any conclusions? If no such investigation was opened, then why?

2. On October 15, 2001, SISMI claims that La Signora is a “creditable source” but then it turns around and questions the information which she passes to them. How can a source be “creditable” if it passes only dubious information? What kind of checks and verifications did SISMI perform on La Signora’s reliability and the trustworthiness of the intelligence which she gathers? Did Colonel Antonio Nucera have a hand in the operation, assuming he was there? What were the results?

3. In Februay 2002, an interested Dick Cheney pressures the CIA to find out more concerning the “Italian dossier”. The Vice President of the United States relies only on the October 15 report. Were there other communications received from SISMI? What were they?

4. What takes place between February and September 2002? On September 9, 2002, Pollari is in Washington with the Italian WMD team. He meets Condoleezza Rice and Stephen Hadley “for fifteen minutes,” but what meetings were held prior to or after this “courtesy visit”? Is it right, given that the Italian WMD team was present, to think that uranium and enrichment centrifuges were discussed? Did SISMI publish the results of an investigation of La Signora? Did it perform any checks on the reliability of the intelligence collected by the woman? Has any new evidence amassed over time confirmed doubts or reinforced convictions? During what mission was intelligence exchanged with the CIA? Was it only intelligence? If so, what information was in that "intelligence"?

5. On September 12, 2002, Panorama publishes a story on an Iraqi shopping trip to Africa (to buy 500 tons of uranium) and to Europe (to buy centrifuges). Is it reasonable to believe that the careful reporters at the magazine phoned SISMI for confirmation? Did our clandestine services confirm or deny that information? What intelligence backed up or discredited the information?

6. In October and November of 2002, SISMI director Nicolò Pollari informs an Italian Parliamentary committee that he possesses documentary proof of the purchase uranium ore in a central African republic and nuclear centrifuges in Europe. This sudden certainty contradicts the doubts of the year before. What happened in the meantime? What documents back up the claim? Were the documents shared with Washington and London?

7. We are now on the 9th of October 2002. Somehow SISMI enters into possession of the phony dossier handed over by Rocco Martino to Panorama and by Panorama to the United States Embassy in Rome. Why did SISMI not inform Washington of the forgery as the French did on February 4th, 2003, two weeks prior to the invasion of Iraq.

8. Sometime after October 9, 2002, a team of SISMI agents are ordered to keep Rocco Martino under close surveillance [in the manner of, apparently, Christ Stopped at Eboli). [Note: Christ Stopped at Eboli is the story of a Italian Jewish intellectual who is exiled to a rocky hilltop village in southern Italy where his every act is observed by Fascist police.—Nur] Why was no surveillance memo or report issued to judicial investigators on Rocco Martino, who is investigated by the Rome Public Prosecutor’s office in 2003, until the fall of 2004? Why did SISMI not inform the FBI when Martino flew to the United States to give an interview to CBS? Did SISMI tail the con man to his rendezvous with the CBS journalists?

There is one more essential matter which must be addressed during the Oversight Committee’s session today: the actions of Italy’s clandestine services “on the ground” in Iraq, despite Constitutional non-belligerence, sanctioned by Parliament, as contained in Articles 10 and 11? It is a matter which directly calls into question the Italian Government (and specifically Undersecretary Gianni Letta) regarding its policies, protagonists and covert and overt actions. On precisely what intelligence-gathering operations in a “theater of war” did Palazzo Chigi monitor and report on to the Parliamentary Intelligence Oversight Committee? Members of the oversight committee say that they were never informed of any such thing. There are also a few more questions to be answered:

1. What motivated Italian Defense Minister Antonio Martino to vouch for Michael A. Ledeen (persona non grata in our country) to the director of SISMI? Who in Washington sponsored Ledeen’s missions?

2. Who were the attendees at meetings organized by Ledeen and SISMI? Why were such meetings held? Which of those meetings were held in Italy?

3. Why in the summer of 2002 did SISMI break off relations with Ledeen and why did Pollari claim that the “American friend” vouched for by Defense Minister Martino took our clandestine services for an intelligence supermarket? Who was contacted by Pollari both in Italy and the United States to prevent Ledeen from acting inside Italy?

4. What was the role of Palazzo Chigi Diplomatic Advisor Gianni Castellaneta in the planning of intelligence exchange between Rome and Washington? Why was Undersecretary of State for Intelligence Gianni Letta not informed? Were Castellaneta’s various “missions” directly authorized by the head of government? To whom did SISMI report concerning its activities in Iraq to “buy off” Saddam’s hierarchy?

5. On the eve of war, what mission did Berlusconi assign to SISMI? As Marco Minniti said in the pages of La Repubblica, who could possibly believe that the role of Italy on the eve of the invasion was limited to “a handful of technicians".

What begins today before the Parliamentary Intelligence Oversight Committee, chaired by Enzo Bianco, is an examination of relationships between political and intelligence officials. In other words, to what extent is intelligence politicized—both in Italy and the United States? It is an affair which implicates not only SISMI and its actions but the Government and its decisions.

Giovanni D'Avanzo, La Repubblica, 3 November 2005


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