SISMI's War in Iraq: A Matter of Belligerence
Part II: Rome knew in early 2003 that Saddam possessed no WMDs.
Italian intelligence knew that Iraq had no unconventional weapons.
With its intelligence team already on the ground, Italy enters the war.
ROME: The terrace of the Hotel Eden in via Ludovisi is flooded with sunlight. The SISMI official narrates the story of secret operations conducted on the ground in Iraq on the eve of war by a team of twenty SISMI agents from three agency departments: Military Intelligence, Operations and Counterterrorism. When we began to enter into contact with Iraqi generals, regular army officers and Ba’ath officials to invite them to defect, we were dealing with desperate men. They were prepared to bargain away their wealth of information in exchange for their physical and political survival after the war. We were able to pass on the intelligence they gave us in realtime which turned out to be decisive in the theater of operations. Just to give you an example, we were working the night before the invasion—or rather, at dawn--when the smart bombs and Tomahawk missiles began to rain down on Baghdad at around 5:30 am on March 20th.
Allied Command expected an immediate reply, which would have been normal. But the Italians were already on the ground with “eyes” to take things in. Our sources are inside Saddam’s General Staff and they tell us that missile batteries around Basrah have been activated. Saddam intended to strike Kuwait City. But the batteries were put out of commission. In places where Italian intelligence has no reach, sources inside the Shi’ite network are at work—which helps us greatly. Our SISMI man become very serious and swells with pride as if he wants to ensure that we are paying attention.
It was an information war. And this time we had good, direct and first-hand information because we were actually there. Important information, too, collected by our own men and confirmed by the Shi’ites--that the mined bridges in Baghdad would not be destroyed. And more detailed information, such as the number of armored columns deployed from Kirkuk towards Baghdad. And essential information, such as the whereabouts of Abu Abbas (The Palestinian who lead the Achille Lauro hijacking. Abbas was arrested in 2003 and died inside a US prison camp in March 2004.) in Baghdad. They Americans are overjoyed. They did not expect such penetrating and effective work from us inside Saddam’s military. We are the pride of Washington. The Pentagon wrote a letter full of praise to Berlusconi….
What this cabinet official does not say—what he cannot say— is that our military intelligence service--and therefore the Italian Government (similar to, Iraqi National Congress—and therefore the Pentagon), knows for certain as early as the month of January 2003 (and probably in December 2002) that there are no WMDs in the arsenals of Saddam Hussein. There are no nuclear weapons. There are no long-range missiles. There is no possibility of arming missile warheads with chemical or biological agents. There is only a military which does not want to engage the enemy and a General Staff waiting to surrender to the highest bidder.
And this is the most valuable information which the SISMI agents, integrated into SCIRI’s Shi’ite underground intelligence network led by Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Akim and Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress web of spies given to Coalition Unified Command in Doha. The Iraqi army is made out of paper- mâché and poorly armed—even for a small-scale conventional war, the consequences of the drawn-out war with Iran, the invasion of Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War, the long-lasting imposed no-fly zones, the embargo and the sanctions. In conversations between Italian agents and the Iraqi officers trained in Italian military academies, at Finmeccanica [an Italian defense company] and at Selenia [a defense communications company] who eventually became generals, demolishes any hypothesis of Saddam’s WMD with a sneer and a dismissive wave of the hand.
The Iraqi officers explain how their tanks and armored carriers are relics of the 1980-88 war with Tehran and lack spare parts. They are basically unusable pieces of junk. They reveal to our agents that Saddam’s Armed Forces, from the lowliest regiment to the General Staff, are completely demoralized, inadequately equipped and shoeless. This is decisive information. Coalition command can now order the invasion without the slightest concern of taking 37,000 casualties, as predicted by a statistical model of conventional warfare (15 per cent of a 250 thousand-man force).
As the specter of chemical and biological weapons is dangled before the world, even as late as March and April 2003, the military campaign is conducted with the certainly that no such arms exist. Their existence is merely invented through the miracle of propaganda and disinformation.
The truth does not escape the warfare experts. Short of an admission on the part of US generals and politicians that they were incompetent or insane or criminal, says General Fabio Mini, author of "War in the Aftermath of War", Einaudi (2002). If there had been a real risk of WMD deployment, then operations planning and tactics would have been far different.
A series of chemical or biological attacks, even if limited, would have produced very high casualties. Other protective gear would have been necessary, in addition to gasmasks, and more efficient, modern equipment would have been required by the NBC (Nuclear, Biological and Chemical) brigades. Operational, logistical and medical planning would have been far different and we would not have seen the compact columns of trucks and tracked combat vehicles which ventured out into the desert from Day One.
Given the conditions in which Coalition troops were seen facing combat or on the move (personnel seen riding atop tanks, heads poking out of turrets with no protective gear as they traveled in immense columns with little or no clearance between vehicles), it was clear that a missile or heavy artillery-delivered WMD attack was, a priori, an impossibility from a military standpoint. In those conditions, even a grenade attack would have been just as damaging.
General Mini concludes: From a strictly military point of view, the commanders had to have been certain that Iraqi possessed no WMD or the vectors to deliver them or that any WMD and associated vectors were destroyed before the war. Even so, the Coalition knew perfectly well that if indeed the Iraqi military had possessed all that, it would not have used it.
Ascertain and inform that no danger was present. That was the work in SISMI’s invisible war. The Iraqi army did resist because it did not want to fight another hopeless war. Even if there were some determined “hotheads” with the will, they would have not possessed the means. So this was the war against Iraq: an information war in which the fragile enemy auctioned itself to the highest bidder without resistance--with Italy playing a role. And by all rights Italy was among the vanguard of the coalition, right behind the USA, Great Britain and Australia.
Before he convinced himself that he had never desired war with Iraq (as we have witnessed in the last few days), Silvio Berlusconi had indeed gone to war, discretely and secretly. On April 23, 2003, Berlusconi did not deny that Italy had fought in the the front lines of the Coalition. In fact, he boasts about it. The Prime Minister is in Protorotondo when SISMI’s role in the war is reported in the pages of La Repubblica.
It’s true, and I believe that we performed a useful function for the Western democracies. Our participation in the Coalition was never in doubt and our intelligence people collaborated with the allies.Unambiguous words which support two solid facts: that we were a part of the coalition fighting in Iraq for regime change and that our participation through intelligence-gathering, rather than troops on the ground, was very helpful.
Silvio Berlusconi can behave like a boisterous pratfall comedian. But he is occasionally honest. With two sentences, he blows the architecture of political double-cross and institutional imbroglio, which marked the role of Italy in the Iraq crisis, out of the water. The statute of non-belligerence adopted by Italy after some hesitation permitted only political support for America’s war--without direct participation in military operations.
Was SISMI’s invisible, covert work on the ground in support of invading troops belligerence or non-belligerence? Is it warfare or, with a bit of extrapolation, merely political support? Unless you’re a Pharisee, it’s hard to harbor any doubt. From the moment they first sat down at the table to hammer out the pretext, this war has been one giant disinformation and intelligence campaign. SISMI agents worked under an assumed identity in Baghdad for four months, mediating the treason by Saddam’s senior hierarchy, evaluating the country’s defenses and verifying the absence of WMD. That is combat. It means we were on the front lines.
To deny it is to deceive the country. It smacks of the same disingenuousness with which our institutions and our Government dissimulated its violation of Articles 10 and 11 of the Italian Constitution and of the tall tales which allowed Parliament to substitute a military mission for a humanitarian and peace (peace- keeping, peace-making, peace-enforcing) mission voted at the end of hostilities, which today continue in the form of terrorism, insurgency and civil war.
SISMI fought in Iraq. But any political debate on this has fallen by the wayside. We can only examine the previously unexplored paths made available to our Government and to Italian intelligence during this extraordinary victory over truth for which the price will be paid in the marring of our democracy.
Berlusconi’s remarks in Sardegna are perceived as over-adventurous in Rome. Palazzo Chigi rushes to make a rectification by issuing a single memo. The memo must be brief in words and wise in temper. The participation in the war must be hidden and a political warning must be broadcast--because everyone knows the score. Even if Italy’s non-belligerence has been violated or may be at least be debated, who is in a position to cast the first stone? The Prime Minister’s office confirms: As required by its institutional mandate, the Service has carried out intelligence activity but certainly no military activity. We categorically reject any suggestion of Italy’s participation in combat operations. Our work on the ground was restricted to illuminating military targets.
If one excludes that by “illuminating military targets” Palazzo Chigi means “turning on a flashlight”, or that at the seat of government no one is aware that, with the world being what it is, there is no military action without accompanying intelligence work, then the communiqué recognizes SISMI’s involvement in Iraq—and not on its own initiative, naturally. We confirm, continues the memo, that both government and the Parliamentary intelligence oversight committee are informed of the nature of the intelligence work carried out by our clandestine services.
So the Government knows and so does the Parliamentary intelligence oversight committee, chaired by a member of the opposition, the former Interior Minister Enzo Bianco. Everyone (government, the majority, the opposition, oversight committees) is aware of the country’s very Italian history of arrangements and cunning. Here’s what they say: Formally, we have no part in the war. We are non-belligerents. Our contingent is there for humanitarian purposes. But in reality, by doing an end-run around our Constitution, Italy is present on the field of battle. Not with weapons, troops and tanks (the disastrous state of our economy and our national excessive dependence on Mother would not permit it), but with penetration and infiltration by secret agents organized by the Pentagon and working in concert with the Shi’ites of SCIRI and the Iraqi National Congress.
The absolute oblivion into which, in a matter of hours, the presence of Italian military intelligence in a theater of war and the pivotal role played for the Anglo-American Coalition is cast and thereby kept from public opinion and political debate (not to mention the forged uranium dossier) is a watershed between past and future for our clandestine services and our national security policy. It’s the beginning of a new season. It’s an epiphany. You could say that mingling with the men and the means of the Pentagon has produced in Italy what has already taken place in the United States: the politicization of intelligence.
The first consequence is blured transparency in the order of command. The links to direct political responsibility are distorted (Berlusconi-Letta-Martino-Pollari). Plans made in Washington and the influence of a well-organized pressure group inside the Pentagon (Office of Special Plans) weighs on Pollari’s shoulders. Shifting means and objectives are mirrored in the frame of reference of our institutions. The Director of SISMI no longer reports to the Minister of Defense; yet the Minister informs the SISMI director when Micheal Ledeen is in town.
The SISMI director works in concert with the Prime Minister’s Diplomatic Advisor, Gianni Castellaneta, (who is the de facto head of Italian national security, with a direct line to Condoleezza Rice and Stephen Hadley). The SISMI director is at the orders, without mediation or deliberation, of a Berlusconi who is in direct conversation with Bush. To the President of the United States, the Italian Prime Minister, bragging, hands over intelligence and receives instructions which become the marching orders for our clandestine services. While Gianni Letta beguiles the opposition with the fawning of a courtier, he leads it down the path to complicity in operations of which he reveals merely the minor details.
In these days of furious debate and denials denying nothing, no one seems to be keeping an eye on the ball. Who cares about the fate of Nicolò Pollari, who is merely the mote in the eye, not the beam? Could Pollari have decided on his own to send his men to Iraq? Could he venture down the crooked path of disinformation and forged dossiers without an instruction or political cover? It suits the Government to put Pollari’s head on the block. With attention concentrated on the SISMI director and minds diverted by the pondering of his fate in eternal bureaucratic struggles (as some opposition members seem to think), who has time to investigate the preparations for war, the manipulated intelligence that justified it and the deployment of our men to the field of battle? The who, the how and the why of political responsibility can be swept under the rug. Defense Minister Antonio Martino, “National Security Advisor” Gianni Castellaneta, and Prime Minister Berlusconi. It is Italy who gets the dust thrown in her eyes.