The Italian Job

Rome --

In this ancient city, just as in Washington, the origins of the infamous Niger yellowcake forgeries -- the documents purporting to prove that Iraq was contracting to purchase vast quantities of uranium and cited by George W. Bush in his 2003 State of the Union address as a pretext for war -- continue to bemuse political observers. So often do such intelligence scandals erupt and recede in the operatic world of Italian politics that the public knows the surface story is almost never the truth -- especially with a hard-fought election campaign scheduled to conclude in April.

Rather than an honest investigation, the Silvio Berlusconi-linked media machine has orchestrated a series of disinformation campaigns, accusing the journalists who have investigated the Niger forgeries of joining an international conspiracy to discredit Berlusconi. The conspiracy theories are Byzantine in detail and rhetorically overheated.

In early February, the Italian Parliament's intelligence committee issued a bland, 59-page report that rubberstamped the ongoing cover-up of the forgeries scandal by the Military Intelligence Security Service, known by its Italian acronym as SISMI.

Yet many of the relevant facts were revealed last October by Rome's independent, left-leaning La Repubblica newspaper. Behind the scheme were three individuals connected with SISMI -- Rocco Martino, a former Italian secret agent turned freelance intelligence peddler; Colonel Antonio Nucera, a recently retired deputy chief of SISMI's counter-proliferation division; and a woman code-named “La Signora,” a longtime SISMI asset working as a secretary at the Niger embassy in Rome -- who came together sometime in 1999 or 2000. Their collaboration resulted in the distribution of forged documents to foreign intelligence services and to at least one reporter at a Berlusconi-owned magazine.

No one in the U.S. government has denied that SISMI was the source of two reports to the CIA, in October 2001 and February 2002, about alleged Iraqi attempts to acquire yellowcake uranium from Niger. The second, more detailed February 2002 report turned out to be almost an exact transcription of information contained in documents that in March 2003, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) swiftly determined were “crude forgeries.” Incredibly, the Italian government still denies that SISMI was the source of those reports while U.S. intelligence officials roll their eyes.

“The Italians gave the report to us, knowing its quality,” says Wayne Wight, former deputy director of the Middle East bureau of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research. “The thing that continues to fascinate me is why the whole issue of the Niger documents ever became important. I hardly even watched it when it [the Niger yellowcake claims] first came up. To some degree I was naively thinking it would be of no importance, since the country [Iraq] already had vast quantities of yellowcake which were regarded as insignificant by the IAEA because Iraq didn't have the industrial ability to do anything with it.”

While the Bush administration's reasons for accepting the claim behind the forgeries are all too obvious, the motivation of those who created and circulated them remains mysterious. Speculation has ranged from disgruntled CIA spooks seeking to embarrass the Bush administration (a theory noted by journalist Seymour Hersh); to French intelligence acting on anti-American animus (promoted by neoconservative Michael Ledeen and SISMI); to crooked Italian spooks seeking a buck (also floated by SISMI); to American neoconservatives conniving to justify the invasion of Iraq (favored by many on the left). But recent interviews in Washington, D.C., as well as Rome and Milan indicate that the most plausible explanation may also be less sensational.

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The story begins in late 1999 or early 2000. Rocco Martino was a freelance “security consultant” conversant with the Arabic and Francophone diplomatic corps in Rome and Brussels. A former carabinieri and Italian intelligence officer, he was in occasional contact with his former police colleague, Colonel Antonio Nucera. Nucera tells Martino that he should meet with an Italian woman who works in the Niger embassy in Rome, a longtime asset code-named “La Signora.” She has something for you, said Nucera.

When Martino met La Signora, he arranged to pay her for documents, which he would then sell to his clients. These curios included a Niger diplomatic codebook (circa 1967) and copies of diplomatic cables organizing an Iraqi diplomat's trip to Niger in 1999.

La Signora also gave him the forged contracts and cables supposedly proving Iraq's purchase of 500 tons of yellowcake uranium from Niger. Until now, press reports have indicated that La Signora concocted these documents in the Niger embassy with the help of an official from Niger. But new evidence suggests she got them from officers within SISMI itself.

The Prospect has independently confirmed that Martino identified two other SISMI agents, along with Nucera, who were involved in the forgery scheme from the beginning. According to a source who checked out the names Martino provided with SISMI contacts, the second agent “was a major in the [Italian] Army, and he is now a SISMI branch chief,” and the third was brought to SISMI from the Guardia di Finanzia [fiscal police] by SISMI director Nicolo Pollari. “Because of this, he can do no wrong,” this source said. Nucera and a second SISMI official involved in the Niger scheme work in SISMI's eighth directorate on weapons-of-mass-destruction counterintelligence, while the third SISMI official works in the agency's first directorate.

Why did the three intelligence agents, led by Nucera, introduce the intelligence peddler Martino to their Niger informant? In 2003, as Joshua Marshall has noted, the inspectors general of the CIA and the State Department suggested a theory in their Joint Report on the Alleged Iraqi Attempts to Procure Uranium from Niger. According to that report, SISMI officers allegedly approached the CIA Rome station chief to propose a counterintelligence operation against the suspected chief of Iraqi intelligence in Rome. They apparently meant to sting him with forgeries suggesting uranium traffic.

A retired senior U.S. intelligence official told the Prospect he was briefed on SISMI's suggested sting at the time: “They were trying to get him [the suspected Iraqi spy] recalled to Iraq.” The CIA declined to be involved.

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In September 2002, Martino called an Italian journalist with whom he had done business before. Elisabetta Burba of Berlusconi's Panorama magazine was out of the country when her office relayed Martino's message. Years earlier, he had sold her sensational (and genuine) documents on the Bosnian crisis. One set showed Islamic terrorist backing of a Muslim charity working in the Balkans.

When she returned Martino's call, he asked whether she knew which African Islamic nation was trafficking uranium to Iraq, then mentioned a short September 25, 2002, article in Corriere della Sera, the right-leaning Rome daily newspaper, that floated the allegation without naming Niger. Clearly someone was trying to get the idea into circulation. Around the same time, as first reported in La Repubblica, SISMI chief Nicolo Pollari flew to Washington where he met briefly with White House Deputy National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley.

On October 7, 2002, Burba met Martino at a Rome café where he showed her the Niger documents. Some were in diplomatic code, others in French. After decoding them with Martino's help, Burba immediately doubted their authenticity. Nevertheless she brought them to her editor in chief, Carlo Rossella, a Berlusconi favorite who has since been promoted to a senior position at a television station owned by the media mogul. Somehow Rossella arranged for her to bring the documents to the U.S. embassy in Rome.

Soon after she received the documents from Martino, Burba visited the American compound. Greeting her there was an Italian government press official, who introduced her to the top U.S. press official in the embassy and two other male embassy officials. She let them make a copy of the documents.

Checking them out later on a trip to Niger, she discovered that the papers were absolute garbage. She and her editor decided to publish nothing and refused to pay Martino the 20 million Italian lira (about $10,000) he had requested.

Meanwhile, however, the documents were transmitted to the State Department where -- despite the skepticism of intelligence officials -- they became a source of fascination for the White House. Ultimately the yellowcake claims surfaced in Bush's State of the Union speech.

Martino also seems to have sold his forgeries to the French and the British as well. The British, in turn, reported to the United States separately that they had evidence that Iraq was seeking to purchase uranium in Niger. To this day the British insist they have other sources, but an IAEA spokesman says they have ignored the agency's requests to produce that evidence.

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For the lair of a world-shaking conspiracy, Niger's embassy in Rome is quite modest, located in a pleasant tree-lined neighborhood not far from the bustling Piazza Mazzini. From the sixth-floor balcony of an apartment in an unpretentious brick and faux-marble building hangs a tired orange, white, and green flag of Niger.

On a recent winter morning, a pleasant-looking Italian brunette somewhere in her 50s answered the embassy doorbell. She explained politely in French that many journalists have come by, but interviews are forbidden. Asked about La Signora, the woman looked down and replied, “She is no longer here.” Whether or not this is “La Signora” herself, she fits the description provided by a source who has met the SISMI spy.

With so little effort devoted by the Italian and U.S. governments to uncovering the origins of the Niger forgeries, it seems quite possible that La Signora has never found it necessary to quit her day job. She isn't the only one. Martino, the acknowledged peddler of the documents, continues to reside near Rome. Nucera, in his 60s, retired sometime before his name surfaced publicly but continued to consult at SISMI. Both of his SISMI co-conspirators, whose names are being withheld by the Prospect out of respect for their undercover status, still work there.

It is their bosses who must know the answer to the most important remaining question: If SISMI created the forgeries for a counterintelligence mission, why did the agency later seek to promote the information in those same forgeries in Washington on at least two occasions?

The Los Angeles Times recently reported that the FBI has reopened its probe of the forgeries, as has a prosecutor in Rome. But the political reluctance in Rome as well as Washington to clear up this troubling case does not bode well for their success.

Laura Rozen is a Prospect senior correspondent.