Monday, August 2, 2004

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The five W's and Nigerien yellowcake

Josh Marshall has a long post up detailing some of his investigation into the sourcing of the Nigerien yellowcake documentation: "[T]he Italian middle-man who provided the notorious Niger uranium documents to Italian journalist Elizabetta Burba (she later brought them to the US Embassy in Rome, you’ll remember) was himself given the documents by the Italian military intelligence service, SISMI."

Read the whole thing, and then read Tom Maguire's critical take on one section of Marshall's post.

For me, this is the key part of Marshall's post:

The Financial Times article lead (sic) to a surge of articles and commentary suggesting that the forged documents were only a minor part of the case for the alleged Iraq-Niger uranium transaction. But, as we've noted earlier, that's a willfully misleading account, one which both the Butler Report and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report helped to further.

Contrary to arguments that there was lots of independent evidence of uranium sales between Iraq and Niger, US government sources have told us that almost all of the important evidence derived from the phony documents. Specifically, it came from summaries of the documents Italian intelligence was distributing to other western intelligence agencies -- including those of the US, Britain and France -- in late 2001 and 2002.

The US has long known that the Italians had the forged documents in their possession at least as early as the beginning of 2002. And what we've uncovered is that at the same time Italian intelligence operatives were surreptiously funnelling copies of the documents to this document peddler with the knowledge that he would sell them to other intelligence services and likely to members of the Italian press.

Marshall and Maguire are hashing out the "what?" question of journalism. My big question is why? Assuming Marshall is correct on the sourcing (and he posted this because the Sunday Times of London also has the story), what, exactly, was SISMI's motive in forging the documents and then passing them on to other western intelligence agencies?

posted by Dan on 08.02.04 at 12:03 PM


Dan asks

"what, exactly, was SISMI's motive in forging the documents and then passing them on to other western intelligence agencies?"

To which which the best response comes from Sullywatch:

conspiracy theorists may be interested in exploring any possible connections to Opus Dei and/or the P2 Masonic Lodge.

posted by: P O'Neill on 08.02.04 at 12:03 PM [permalink]

The Sunday Times article indicates that the middleman was motivated to "manufacture" evidence around the yellowcake issue because there was a growing market in Europe (and the West in general) for information on this front.

Could it not be at least one factor that there was pressure emanating from various sources (elements in US intelligence among them) to establish a link between Iraq and WMD-related activities, and this drove the "market" in such information ?

posted by: Suresh on 08.02.04 at 12:03 PM [permalink]

Isn't Berlusconi the European ruler who comes closest to being a bona fide fascist, with associates who are the real thing? Wouldn't he and his associates be more than willing to resort to forgery, and not scruple to be at all sophisticated about it? Whatever their exact motive (curry favor with Bush, garner support for the war at home), is there anything surprising in members of this regime engaging in fraud?

posted by: JustAsking on 08.02.04 at 12:03 PM [permalink]

Its possible that the documents were originally meant to be disinformation, and they somehow got back into the system as supposedly real information from a supposedly different source. That wouldn't be the first time thats happened.

Why would such disinformation be released ? The most charitable explanation is that it was intended to flush out real information. Another possibility is that it was intended to disinform France and other European intelligence agencies (agencies always play these games). Or heck, maybe it wasn't SISMI after all, but some sort of loosely affiliated group trying to make money,

We there are only 3 motivations for anything. Its unlikely that sex was involved here (James Bond aside). The 2nd is money, the 3rd power. My guess is 2 + 3.

posted by: erg on 08.02.04 at 12:03 PM [permalink]

Yeah, that's the big question - why would Italian intelligence agents spread forged documents about Iraq and uranium? And why would those same agents simultaneously spread forgeries purporting to describe a sinister international conspiracy involving both Iraq and Iran?

Assuming that SISMI was the source of the forged documents, I imagine that one person who could possibly provide a bit of insight into the "why" question is Michael Ledeen. And I wouldn't be surprised if he's asked to provide that insight under oath at some point.

posted by: N V on 08.02.04 at 12:03 PM [permalink]

Suresh is almost certainly correct that the first step down the path was that a perceived 'market' (as in, demand) for that information had arisen. And of course, per erg, the disinformation leaks back into the system as 'information'; that almost certainly has to be the point, otherwise, why bother?

So, the next question is, from whence came the market demand?

posted by: Bill Skeels on 08.02.04 at 12:03 PM [permalink]

Check out Marshall's description of his source.

"The ‘security consultant’ is a small-time information peddler who buys and sells information in the netherworld of diplomatic, intelligence and media circles in Rome. His clients include foreign intelligence services and also the Italian media. He is himself a former member of SISMI."

Doesn't sound very reliable. He could just as easily have forged the documents himself and sold them.

posted by: Reg on 08.02.04 at 12:03 PM [permalink]

Since the documents were apparently obvious forgeries, it seems likely that they were intended as disinformation or as a distraction.

posted by: ATM on 08.02.04 at 12:03 PM [permalink]

An addition to my previous post - my suspicion that Michael Ledeen might know something about this affair is speculation based on bits and pieces of information that I've come across online while looking for background on the subject. Part of that information is from news articles, part from comments made by bloggers. Here are a few of the bits and pieces that I found interesting:

Start with this blog post by Laura Rozen, which is mostly about Michael Rubin, but includes some info on Ledeen's background and mentions his past ties to Italian intelligence.

Then, another post by Rozen, which discusses the somewhat bizarre claims made in a forged document that accompanied the Nigerien uranium forgeries.

Matthew Yglesias, on the same document:

Then, read this Knight-Ridder article, which isn't about forged documents, but describes a separate incident that also involves shady characters peddling dubious stories about Iraq and uranium.

A New York Times article, which discusses the Ghorbanifar meeting referred to in the Knight-Ridder article:

And finally, this post by Josh Marshall, which refers to the NYT article, and suggests that the location of the meeting in question is significant. The meeting was held in Rome.

Like I said, this is all uninformed speculation. But, if Marshall's account is accurate, there seem to be a lot of hints that point in a similar direction.

Was Ledeen, or any other prominent neocon, involved in creating the forgeries? I have no idea, and no opinion about that question. But if in fact SISMI was responsible for distributing the documents, I find it somewhat hard to believe that Ledeen was and is completely in the dark about what was going on.

posted by: N V on 08.02.04 at 12:03 PM [permalink]


Reread Marshall's post. Specifically the end, where he says: "But it's reasonable to ask how trustworthy his account is since he seems to be someone of rather less than spotless integrity. The answer is that we've confirmed the key details of the story I outlined above independently."

He acknowledges the obvious unreliability of the "security consultant" as a source and claims to have independent confirmation for the story. I guess we'll have to wait and see what that independent confirmation amounts to before passing judgment.

posted by: N V on 08.02.04 at 12:03 PM [permalink]

Mcguires comments seem pretty incoherent to me, and I think some of his commenteres essentially pointed that out. He's yelling at Josh over the use of a transition and he also seems to ignore hte fact that Josh claims to have several independant sources backing key claims of his account.

Since we are in pure speculation mode --- -- An Intel agency that could pull this kinda stunt off. Not that there's any evidence, but there is plenty of motive.

posted by: Jor on 08.02.04 at 12:03 PM [permalink]

Mcguires comments seem pretty incoherent to me...

Eye of the beholder. Willfully missing the point is not rebutting.

posted by: Tom Maguire on 08.02.04 at 12:03 PM [permalink]


I read your criticism of Marshall, and got the point. And it's totally baseless.

First, the fact that there were both genuine and forged documents has already been reported - in more than one place, and as early as October 2003.

Second, that fact doesn't at all undermine claims that analysis of the uranium related documents was negligent at best, and actually supports the idea that some sort of government malfeasance might have been involved in the fraud.

Feel free to read the comment on your page and reply.

posted by: N V on 08.02.04 at 12:03 PM [permalink]

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