Double-Dealers and Dilettantes--
the Men Behind Nigergate Were All Italians
Carlo Bonini and Giuseppe d'Avanzo
October 26, 2005 - 1:24pm.
Source: La Republica via Nur al-Cubicle
The military intervention in Iraq was justified by two revelations: Saddam Hussein attempted to acquire unprocessed uranium (yellowcake) in Niger (1) for enrichment with centrifuges built with aluminum tubes imported from Europe(2). The fabricators of the twin hoaxes (there was never any trace in Iraq of unprocessed uranium or centrifuges) were the Italian government and Italian military intelligence. La Repubblica has attempted to reconstruct the who, where and why of the manufacture and transfer to British and American intelligence of the dodgy dossier for war.
They are the same two hoaxes that Judith Miller, the reporter who betrayed her newspaper, published (together with Michael Gordon) on September 8, 2002. In a lengthy investigative piece for the New York Times, Miller reported that Saddam could have built an atomic weapon with those aluminum tubes. These were the goods that the hawks in the Bush administration were expecting.
The "war dance" which followed Judith Miller’s scoop seemed like "carefully-prepared theater” to an attentive media-watcher, Roberto Reale of Ultime Notizie (The Latest News).
Condoleezza Rice, who was then White House Security Advisor, said on CNN: We don’t want the smoking gun to look like a mushroom cloud. A menacing Dick Cheney told Meet the Press that We know with absolute certainty that Saddam is using his technical and commercial capacities to acquire the material necessary to enrich uranium to build a nuclear weapon. This was the beginning of an escalation of fear.
26 September 2002: Colin Powell warns the Senate: The Iraqi attempt to acquire uranium is proof of its nuclear ambitions.
19 December 2002: The information on Niger and the uranium is included in the three-page President’s Daily Briefing prepared each day by the CIA and the Department of State for George W. Bush. The ambassador to the United Nations, John Negroponte, added his stamp of approval: Why is Iraq dissimulating its purchase of Niger uranium?
28 January 2003: George W. Bush pronounced the 16 words, which amountd to a declaration of war. The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.
The beans in that bag are Roman
In the general haze of events which precede the invasion of Iraq, Italian involvement is prefigured by a single, grotesque protagonist: Rocco Martino, son of Raffaele and America Ventrici, born in Tropea (Province of Catanzaro) on September 20, 1938.
Unmasked by the British press (The Financial Times, The Sunday Times) in the summer of 2004, Rocco Martino spills the beans: It’s true, I had a hand in the dissemination of those (Niger uranium) documents, but I was duped. Both Americans and Italians were involved behind the scenes. It was a disinformation operation.
An incomplete confession but close to the truth
Martino conceals the identify of the architects behind the “operation” and appears to be merely a pawn, like his partners in crime. So who is the puppeteer pulling the strings behind their sordid adventure? To find out, we’ll start with that funny-looking fellow who came to Rome from Tropea...
Rocco Martino is a dishonest cop and a crooked spy. He’s got the aura of a rogue about him even if you don’t know his background. A captain of politico-military intelligence between 1976 and 1997, he was let go for “conduct unbecoming”. In 1985, he was arrested for extortion in Italy. In 1993, he was arrested in Germany in possession of stolen checks. Nevertheless, according to a Defense Ministry official, Martino worked for SISMI until 1999 as a double agent.
Martino rents a place at No. 3 rue Hoehl in Sandweiler, Luxemburg. He gets a fixed salary from French intelligence and uses a consulting firm as cover: Security Development Organization. In other words, he also works for French intelligence. Serving two masters, Rocco tries his best. He sells information on the Italians to the French and information on the French to the Italians. That’s my job. I sell information.
In 1999, the pleasure-seeking Rocco is running out of cash. When he’s down to his last dime, he hatches a plot of his own. He's convinced that he’s got a brilliant and risk-free idea. What illuminates the light bulb is the problem the French are encountering in Niger.
In brief, between 1999 and 2000 the French realize that someone is working abandoned mines to generate a brisk clandestine trade in uranium. Who is purchasing the smuggled uranium? The French are looking for an answer and Rocco Martino senses an opportunity.
So he asks for help form an old colleague at SISMI: Antonio Nucera. A Carabinieri (cop) like Rocco, Antonio is the Deputy Chief of the SISMI center in viale Pasteur in Rome. He’s chief of the 1st and the 8th divisions (weapons and technology transfers and WMD proliferation counterespionage, respectively, for Africa and the Middle East.
This section is very busy section at the end of the 1980s tailing the many agents whom Saddam has deployed around the world prior to the invasion of Kuwait. “With some success”, according to an Italian intelligence official who at the time worked for the division. The official recalls: We succeeded in getting our hands on Niger code books and a telex from Ambassador Adamou Chékou to the Niger Foreign Ministry informing Niamey that Wissam al-Zahawie, the Iraqi Ambassador to the Vatican, would be coming to Niger as a representative of Saddam Hussein.
But that wasn’t all. We confiscated maraging steel (ultra-high strength steel) in the port of Trieste. We thought it was destined for a series of centrifuges used to separate uranium. We exchanged information on Iraqi nuclear proliferation at the end of the eighties with the British of MI6—the cream of the crop. A sincere friend of Italy worked there: Hamilton MacMillan. MacMillan mentored Francesco Cossiga [Interior Minister, in charge during the kidnapping and murdering of Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades] in Cossiga's introduction to the mysterious ways of espionage when he was "resident" in Rome.
Nucera decided to give a hand to his old friend, Rocco. Rocco quickly briefs him on the job. Isn’t there anything you can give me—Info? A good Niger contact? I’ll take anything you have! The French are as dry as people lost in the desert. They want to know who is buying their uranium under the table. I’m prepared to pay well to find out.
In the archives of Nucera’s SISMI division, there are documents that could be useful in pawning off a half-baked frittata and making a few bucks. There’s the telex from the Niger ambassador. Further needs might be met at the Niger Embassy at No. 10 via Baiamonte in Rome. SISMI director Nicolò Pollari confirms to La Repubblica: Nucera wanted to help out his friend. He offered him the use of an intelligence asset—no big deal, you understand--one who was still on the books but inactive--to give a hand to Martino. The asset worked at the Niger Embassy in Rome. She was in bad shape. She barely eked out a living in the back of the espionage shop. She didn't get a monthy sum from Italian intelligence. In other words, she was a contractor.
Information and cash were exchanged. It was only chickenfeed—a few hundred thousand lira notes. But that was a lot of money in 2000, when Martino was really desperate. He was on a slow slide to destitution—nothing to spy on and nothing to sell.
You should have seen her, "La Signora". Sixty years old if she was a day! A face that once was pretty—now it looked a crinkled leaf. You could call her a gofer for the Niger Embassy. She looked like my old auntie. A French accent. A complicit wink. Always spoke in a whisper. Even when she said “hello”, her voice was like a tiny, mysterious flute, ready to reveal a thousands secrets. But even "La Signora" was in need of cash.
Nucera arranged the meeting. Rocco and La Signora don’t take long. He going to get what he came for. But wasn’t Nucera her official contact at SISMI? Then why wasn’t she supposed to know that it was SISMI who wanted the favor? And why was the item useful to the Agency?
With the blessing of Nucera, Rocco and La Signora, a pair of clever snake oil vendors, conclude a bargain. There would be a few sheets of paper available for sale. But the help of a Niger national was needed. La Signora points him to the right man. He’s First Embassy Counselor Zakaria Yaou Maiga. As Pollari told us, that Maiga spent six times more than he earned.
The gang of spendthrift bunglers, short on cash, is ready to go into action. Rocco Martino, La Signora, Zakaria Yaou Maiga. Nucear retreats into the shadows. They wait for the embassy to close its doors for New Years 2001. They simulate a break-in and burglary. When on January 2, 2001, bright and early, the Second Secretary for Administrative Affairs Arfou Mounkaila reports the burglary to the Carabinieri of the Trionfale station, he has to admit with a grin that the burglars were half asleep. A lot of trouble and effort for nothing. Mounkaila is unable to report missing what he doesn’t know is gone: Letterhead, and official stamps. In the hands of the snake oil vendors, useful stuff with which to assemble a dodgy dossier.
Old documents are extracted from the SISMI division’s archives where Nucera is deputy chief of section: code books, letters, contracts and a memorandum of understanding between the government of Niger and Iraq “concerning the supply of uranium on 5 and 6 July 2000 in Niamey”. The memorandum has a 2-page attachment entitled “Agreement”. Rocco hands over the “package” to agents from the French Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure. They hand him some banknotes which he spends in Nice. Rocco loves the Cote d’Azur.
Up to this point, a caper worthy of Stan Laurel, Goofy and Cruella deVille. But it's an innocuous swindle. The French take the documents and toss them in the dumpster. One of the agents remarks, Niger is a French-speaking place and we know how things are there. But nobody would have confused one minister with another they way they did in that useless piece of garbage.
Case closed, then? No! The burlesque imbroglio is transformed into a very grave matter—along comes September 11th and Bush immediately starts to think about Iraq and requests proof of Saddam’s involvement in the attacks.
SISMI recalls the via Baiamonti squad to into action. A new director, Nicolò Pollari, arrives at Forte Brasco. And Col. Alberto Manenti, the new man on the job, is placed in charge of WMD. A well-prepared officer but completely incapable of saying "No" to a superior, says a SISMI official with whom he worked. Col. Manenti had Nucera on his staff for a time and knew him well. Manenti, who knows that Nucera is about to retire, asks him to stay on as a consultant.
SISMI is straining at the bit. It's got room for maneuver like it’s never had before in the history of Italy. Berlusconi asks Pollari for a feat on the international stage which will catapult Italy to the first among US allies. A request along the same line comes in from the CIA station chief in Rome, Jeff Castelli. News, information, useful scraps of intelligence are needed. Now! On the double! Washington is looking for proof to use against Saddam.
The White House (in particular, Cheney) puts pressure on the CIA to hop to it. The absence of proof isn’t proof of absence, philosophizes Rumsfeld at the Pentagon. In that kind of climate, with their phony dossier, the snake oil salesmen of via Baiamonti, (Rocco Martino and Antonio Nucera) would be useful. So what do they do in the fall of 2001? Rocco Martino describes it this way: At the end of 2001, SISMI handed the yellowcake dossier to the British of MI6.
They hand over a dossier devoid of scrutiny. They claim only that they got it from “a reliable source.” Then they make a small tweak: SISMI wanted to disseminate the Niger documents to allied intelligence but at the same time, did not want its collaboration in the operation known. These are allegations which Palazzao Chigi vehemently denies. The government tells a bald-faced lie. After the war reveals the WMD chicanery, the Italian Government swears that no uranium dossier was handed over or made to be handed over to anyone, either directly or through intermediaries.
The next move was predictable. The Italian Government and SISMI build a dike between Forte Braschi and the footprints of the via Biaimonte squad. But its denial does not hold up. It is a known fact that in fall of 2001, SISMI monitored Rocco Martino’s every move in London. This is confirmed to La Repubblica by SISMI chief Nicolò Pollari. We monitored Martino and photographed his meetings in London. Would you like to see the pictures? So why didn’t Rome put the lie to its ex-agent and snake oil salesman? Especially since the information in the dossier was vouched for by Pollari to Jeff Castelli, CIA station chief. It is a known fact that a report on the bogus, made-in-Rome dossier ended up at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence—in the Office of Strategic, Military and WMD Proliferation Affairs.
Strategic Affairs is not a big place. At the time, 16 analysts worked there under the direction of Greg Thielmann. Thielmann tells La Repubblica: I received the report in fall of 2001. We thought that Langley acquired it from their field officer in Italy. The agent in the field reports that Italian intelligence permitted him see some papers documenting the attempt by Iraq to acquire 500 tons of uranium ore from Niger. So, SISMI purported the truth of documents it knew to be false to the CIA. There’s a second confirmation. At Langley, Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson was assigned the mission to verify the Italian “story” of the 500 tons of uranium.
Says Wilson: The report was not very detailed. It’s not clear if the agent who signed the report materially saw the peddled documents or whether he heard it from another source.
We'll have to modify the sequence of events:
Fall 2001: General Pollari’s SISMI is in possession of a phony dossier assembled by Rocco Martino and Antonio Nucera. They show it to the CIA while Rocco Martino delivers it to Sir Richard Dearlove’s MI6. This is only the beginning of the Great Italian Yellowcake Scam.