More on the Niger Memos

Laura Rozen’s story in the American Prospect today, about Italian intelligence and Niger uranium forgeries, has a lot of twists and turns, but here’s the quick version. In late 2001 the CIA had rejected as “suspect” memos peddled by Italian intelligence, SISMI, that suggested that Iraq was trying to acquire uranium from Niger. (The memos are now known to be forgeries.) The Italian government, desperately trying to prove its relevance to the U.S., then tried to get these memos directly to the White House. In September 2002, SISMI chief Nicolo Pollari met with Stephen Hadley, then assistant to Condoleeza Rice and now Bush’s National Security Adviser, in Washington. The Niger memos showed up in the U.S. one month later. Rozen gets at why this all matters:

What may be most significant to American observers, however, is the newspaper’s allegation that the Italians sent the bogus intelligence about Niger and Iraq not only through traditional allied channels such as the CIA, but seemingly directly into the White House. That direct White House channel amplifies questions about a now-infamous 16-word reference to the Niger uranium in President Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address — which remained in the speech despite warnings from the CIA and the State Department that the allegation was not substantiated.

Moreoever, the Hadley meeting came only a month before Bush’s speech in Cincinnati, in which he claimed that Iraq had been caught trying to purchase 500 tons of uranium from Africa. The CIA had told Hadley to strip out the line, and he did, but the White House received the memos on October 9th, and the uranium claim reappeared later on, most infamously in Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address. Meanwhile, there’s the all-important question of where the memos came from in the first place. Did SISMI really push them on the White House in order to make themselves “relevant,” and did the middleman who acquired the memos from a mole in Niger, Rocco Martino, really do it for “mercenary reasons,” as is alleged? There’s also this from Rozen’s story:

According to the Repubblica account, Martino was a former carabinieri officer and later a Sismi operative who by 1999 was making his living based in Luxembourg, selling information to the French intelligence services for a monthly stipend. The story goes on to explain how Martino renewed his contacts with Sismi officer Antonio Nucera, an old friend and former colleague, who was a Sismi vice-captain working in the intelligence agency’s eighth directorate, with responsibilities involving weapons of mass destruction and counter-proliferation.

Precisely how Nucera, Martino, and two employees of the Niger embassy in Rome came together sometime between 1999 and 2000 to hatch the Niger forgeries plan is still somewhat mysterious. The newspaper’s reports that Nucera introduced Martino to a longtime Sismi asset at the Niger embassy in Rome, a 60 year-old Italian woman described in La Repubblica only as “La Signora.” Sismi chief Pollari, who granted the newspaper an interview (as he tends to do when he fears that breaking news could taint his agency), suggests that Nucera simply wanted to help out Martino, his old friend and colleague.

See here and here for more.