For more than two years it has been widely reported that the U.S. invaded Iraq because of intelligence failures. But in fact it is far more likely that the Iraq war started because of an extraordinary intelligence success—specifically, an astoundingly effective campaign of disinformation, or black propaganda, which led the White House, the Pentagon, Britain's M.I.6 intelligence service, and thousands of outlets in the American media to promote the falsehood that Saddam Hussein's nuclear-weapons program posed a grave risk to the United States.Several current and former government officials, whose names I find quite familiar, have come forward to point out that these documents were part of a "a disinformation operation," others as "black propaganda," "black ops," or "a classic psy-ops [psychological-operations] campaign."
The Bush administration made other false charges about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (W.M.D.)—that Iraq had acquired aluminum tubes suitable for centrifuges, that Saddam was in league with al-Qaeda, that he had mobile weapons labs, and so forth. But the Niger claim, unlike other allegations, can't be dismissed as an innocent error or blamed on ambiguous data. "This wasn't an accident," says Milt Bearden, a 30-year C.I.A. veteran who was a station chief in Pakistan, Sudan, Nigeria, and Germany, and the head of the Soviet–East European division. "This wasn't 15 monkeys in a room with typewriters."
In recent months, it has emerged that the forged Niger documents went through the hands of the Italian military intelligence service, SISMI (Servizio per le Informazioni e la Sicurezza Militare), or operatives close to it, and that neoconservative policymakers helped bring them to the attention of the White House. Even after information in the Niger documents was repeatedly rejected by the C.I.A. and the State Department, hawkish neocons managed to circumvent seasoned intelligence analysts and insert the Niger claims into Bush's State of the Union address.
The officials are Bearden; Colonel W. Patrick Lang, who served as the D.I.A.'s defense intelligence officer for the Middle East, South Asia, and terrorism; Colonel Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell; Melvin Goodman, a former division chief and senior analyst at the C.I.A. and the State Department; Ray McGovern, a C.I.A. analyst for 27 years; Lieutenant Colonel Karen Kwiatkowski, who served in the Pentagon's Near East and South Asia division in 2002 and 2003; Larry C. Johnson, a former C.I.A. officer who was deputy director of the State Department Office of Counterterrorism from 1989 to 1993; former C.I.A. official Philip Giraldi; and Vincent Cannistraro, the former chief of operations of the C.I.A.'s Counterterrorism Center.Wilkerson has been extremely critical of the Bush Administration.
"This is really a very inept administration," says Wilkerson, who has credentials not only as an insider in the Bush I, Clinton and Bush II presidencies but also as a former professor at two of the nation's war colleges. "As a teacher who's studied every administration since 1945, I think this is probably the worst ineptitude in governance, decision-making and leadership I've seen in 50-plus years. You've got to go back and think about that. That includes the Bay of Pigs, that includes -- oh my God, Vietnam. That includes Iran-contra, Watergate."Ray McGovern has been a lightenrod for his questioning of Donald Rumsfeld.
QUESTION: So I would like to ask you to be up front with the American people, why did you lie to get us into a war that was not necessary, that has caused these kinds of casualties? why?Karen Kwaitkowski on her Pentagon experience leading up to the War on Iraq.
RUMSFELD: Well, first of all, I haven't lied. I did not lie then. Colin Powell didn't lie. He spent weeks and weeks with the Central Intelligence Agency people and prepared a presentation that I know he believed was accurate, and he presented that to the United Nations. the president spent weeks and weeks with the central intelligence people and he went to the american people and made a presentation. i'm not in the intelligence business. they gave the world their honest opinion. it appears that there were not weapons of mass destruction there.
QUESTION: You said you knew where they were.
RUMSFELD: I did not. I said I knew where suspect sites were and -
QUESTION: You said you knew whe
re they were Tikrit, Baghdad, northeast, south, west of there. Those are your words.
I had observed that many of the neoconservatives in the Pentagon not only had limited military experience, if any at all, but they also advocated theories of war that struck me as rejections of classical liberalism, natural law, and constitutional strictures. More than that, the pressure of the intelligence community to conform, the rejection of it when it failed to produce intelligence suitable for supporting the “Iraq is an imminent threat to the United States” agenda, and the amazing things I was hearing in both Bush and Cheney speeches told me that not only do neoconservatives hold a theory based on ideas not embraced by the American mainstream, but they also have a collective contempt for fact.
So clearly, this isn't exactly the George Bush Booster Club, but neither are they crazed tin-foil hat Liberals. Many are Republicans and have worked extensively within Republican Administrations.
In addition, Vanity Fair has found at least 14 instances prior to the 2003 State of the Union in which analysts at the C.I.A., the State Department, or other government agencies who had examined the Niger documents or reports about them raised serious doubts about their legitimacy—only to be rebuffed by Bush-administration officials who wanted to use the material. "They were just relentless," says Wilkerson, who later prepared Colin Powell's presentation before the United Nations General Assembly. "You would take it out and they would stick it back in. That was their favorite bureaucratic technique—ruthless relentlessness."Following a complex series of back and forth events - the documents in question fell into the hands of the Italian Secret Service following a break-in at the Niger embassy.
Shortly after New Year's 2001, the break-in took place at the Niger Embassy. Martino denies any participation. There are many conflicting accounts of the episode. According to La Repubblica, a left-of-center daily which has published an investigative series on Nigergate, documents stolen from the embassy ultimately were combined with other papers that were already in SISMI archives. In addition, the embassy stationery was apparently used to forge records about a phony uranium deal between Niger and Iraq. The Sunday Times of London recently reported that the papers had been forged for profit by two embassy employees: Adam Maiga Zakariaou, the consul, and Montini. But many believe that they, wittingly or not, were merely pawns in a larger game.
According to [Italian Secret Service Officer Rocco] Martino, the documents were not given to him all at once. First, he explained, SISMI had La Signora give him documents that had come from the robbery: "I was told that a woman in the Niger Embassy in Rome had a gift for me. I met her and she gave me documents." Later, he said, SISMI dug into its archives and added new papers. There was a codebook, then a dossier with a mixture of fake and genuine documents. Among them was an authentic telex dated February 1, 1999, in which Adamou Chékou, the ambassador from Niger, wrote another official about a forthcoming visit from Wissam al-Zahawie, Iraq's ambassador to the Vatican.
The last one Martino says he received, and the most important one, was not genuine, however. Dated July 27, 2000, it was a two-page memo purportedly sent to the president of Niger concerning the sale of 500 tons of pure uranium per year by Niger
The essential allegation being suggested here by Vanity Fair is that the theft at the Nigerian embassy didn't actually produce the key document, but instead stationary obtained during that theft was used to create the key documents needed to fuel the disinformation campaign by former Reagan NSC member Micheal Ledeen (who had a direct hand in various illegal and quesionable activities including Iran-Contra) and his long-standing associates at SISMI just prior to the start of the incoming Bush Administration in January of 2001. The Niger forgeries just might have been the work of Ledeen working as a rogue/independant U.S. Intelligence Operative.
The forged documents were full of errors. A letter dated October 10, 2000, was signed by Minister of Foreign Affairs Allele Elhadj Habibou—even though he had been out of office for more than a decade. Its September 28 postmark indicated that somehow the letter had been received nearly two weeks before it was sent. In another letter, President Tandja Mamadou's signature appeared to be phony. The accord signed by him referred to the Niger constitution of May 12, 1965, when a new constitution had been enacted in 1999. One of the letters was dated July 30, 1999, but referred to agreements that were not made until a year later. Finally, the agreement called for the 500 tons of uranium to be transferred from one ship to another in international waters—a spectacularly difficult feat.Eventually the documents made their way to several journalists at La Repubblica and over the next two years - America.
"It was the Italians and Americans together who were behind it. It was all a disinformation operation," Martino told a reporter at England's Guardian newspaper. He called himself "a tool used by someone for games much bigger than me."A plan with well entrenched roots.
Because the Niger break-in happened before Bush took office, La Repubblica and many others assume that the robbery was initiated as a small-time job. "When the story began, they were not thinking about Iraq," says La Repubblica's Bonini. "They were just trying to gather something that could be sold on the black market to the intelligence community."
But it is also possible that from its very inception the Niger operation was aimed at starting an invasion of Iraq. As early as 1992, neoconservative hawks in the administration of George H. W. Bush, under the aegis of Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, unsuccessfully lobbied for regime change in Iraq as part of a grandiose vision for American supremacy in the next century.
Once the information reached the U.S, things started to become interesting.
After September 11th, with Bush's approval ratings through the roof at 90% - despite being informed that the 9-11 attack had come from Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, the time came to focus on Bush and the neo-cons long term goal. Iraq and Saddam.
To many W.M.D. analysts in the C.I.A. and the military, the initial reports sounded ridiculous. "The idea that you could get that much yellowcake out of Niger without the French knowing, that you could have a train big enough to carry it, much less a ship, is absurd," says Larry Wilkerson, Colin Powell's former chief of staff.
"The reports made no sense on the face of it," says Ray McGovern, the former C.I.A. analyst, who challenged Rumsfeld about the war at a public event this spring. "Most of us knew the Iraqis already had yellowcake. It is a sophisticated process to change it into a very refined state and they didn't have the technology."
"Yellowcake is unprocessed bulk ore," explains Karen Kwiatkowski, who has written extensively about the intelligence fiasco that led to the war. "If Saddam wanted to make nuclear bombs, why would he want unprocessed ore when the best thing to do would be to get processed stuff in the Congo?"
"When it comes to raw reports, all manner of crap comes out of the field," McGovern adds. "The C.I.A. traditionally has had experienced officers…. They are qualified to see if these reports make sense. For some reason, perhaps out of cowardice, these reports were judged to be of such potential significance that no one wanted to sit on it."
Now the Niger operation went into overdrive. The details of how this happened are murky. Accounts from usually reputable newspapers, the United States Senate Intelligence Committee, and other sources are wildly at variance with one another. In October 2001, SISMI, which had already sent reports about the alleged Niger deal to French intelligence, finally had them forwarded to British and U.S. intelligence. The exact dates of the distribution are unclear, but, according to the British daily The Independent, SISMI sent the dossier to the Vauxhall Cross headquarters of M.I.6, in South London. The delivery might have been made, Italian reports say, by Rocco Martino. At roughly the same time, in early October, according to La Repubblica, SISMI also gave a report about the Niger deal to Jeff Castelli, the C.I.A. station chief in Rome. According to a recent broadcast by CBS's 60 Minutes, C.I.A. analysts who saw the material were skeptical.The erroneous report that just wouldn't die.
In December 2001, Greg Thielmann, director for strategic proliferation and military affairs at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), reviewed Iraq's W.M.D. program for Colin Powell. As for the Niger report, Thielmann said, "A whole lot of things told us that the report was bogus. This wasn't highly contested. There weren't strong advocates on the other side. It was done, shot down."
By early 2002, career military and intelligence professionals had seen the Niger reports repeatedly discredited, and assumed that the issue was dead. But that was not the case.
"These guys in the Office of Special Plans delighted in telling people, 'You don't understand your own data,'" says Patrick Lang. "'We know that Saddam is evil and deceptive, and if you see this piece of data, to say just because it is not well supported it's not true is to be politically naïve.'"
Not everybody in the C.I.A. was of one mind with regard to the alleged Niger deal. As the Senate Intelligence Committee report points out, some analysts at the C.I.A. and other agencies considered the Niger deal to be "possible." In the fall of 2002, the C.I.A. approved language referring to the Niger deal in one speech by the president but vetoed it in another. And in December 2002, analysts at WINPAC, the C.I.A.'s center for Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation, and Arms Control, produced a paper that chided Iraq for not acknowledging its "efforts to procure uranium from Niger."
Enter Darth Cheney.
Based on this recommendation, management at CPD interviewed Plame's husband, Ambassador Joe Wilson, and decided to send him to Niger to use his contacts to dig around about the story.
Cheney gave the Niger claims new life. "The [C.I.A.] briefer came in. Cheney said, 'What about this?,' and the briefer hadn't heard one word, because no one in the agency thought it was of any significance," says Ray McGovern, whose job at the C.I.A. included preparing and delivering the P.D.B. in the Reagan era. "But when a briefer gets a request from the vice president of the United States, he goes back and leaves no stone unturned."
The C.I.A.'s Directorate of Operations, the branch responsible for the clandestine collection of foreign intelligence, immediately tasked its Counterproliferation Division (CPD) with getting more information. According to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report, just hours after Dick Cheney had gotten the Niger report, Valerie Plame, who worked in the CPD, wrote a memo to the division's deputy chief that read, "My husband has good relations with both the PM [prime minister] and the former Minister of Mines (not to mention lots of French contacts), both of whom could possibly shed light on this sort of activity."
It's at this point that the serious marketing campaign to "take care of Iraq' began.
A few days later, Wilson returned from Niger and told C.I.A. officials that he had found no evidence to support the uranium charges. By now the Niger reports had been discredited more than half a dozen times—by the French in 2001, by the C.I.A. in Rome and in Langley, by the State Department's INR, by some analysts in the Pentagon, by the ambassador to Niger, by Wilson, and yet again by State.
But the top brass at the C.I.A. knew what Cheney wanted. They went back to French intelligence again—twice. According to the Los Angeles Times, the second request that year, in mid-2002, "was more urgent and more specific." The C.I.A. sought confirmation of the alleged agreement by Niger to sell 500 tons of yellowcake to Iraq. Alain Chouet reportedly sent five or six men to Niger and again found the charges to be false. Then his staff noticed that the allegations matched those brought to him by Rocco Martino. "We told the Americans, 'Bullshit. It doesn't make any sense.'"
The opening salvo was fired on Sunday, September 8, 2002, when National-Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told CNN, "There will always be some uncertainty about how quickly [Saddam] can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."
The smoking-gun-mushroom-cloud catchphrase was such a hit that Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld all picked it up in one form or another, sending it out repeatedly to the entire country.
Let's just remember that the French were in control of the Nigerian mines in question, and that they were later called things like "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" for not backing Americas eventual decision to invade Iraq -- maybe they had good reasons, eh? Just like Germany, who also opposed the war and had in their custody "Curveball" the one and only source for continuing allegations that Saddam still possesed WMD's, except that the Germans knew - and told us - he was totally full of crap.
But the problem was regardless of the French calling "Bull" and the Germans saying "Curveball is full of shit", the White House just didn't care. They already had an agenda - the "facts were clearly being made to fit the policy."
Meanwhile, the C.I.A. had finally penetrated Saddam's inner sanctum by "turning" Foreign Minister Naji Sabri. Tenet delivered the news personally to Bush, Cheney, and other top officials in September 2002. Initially, the White House was ecstatic about this coup.So we have the Niger claim shot down repeatedly, a member of Saddam's inner circle - a credibel source - saying "They have no WMD's".
But, according to Tyler Drumheller, the C.I.A.'s chief of operations in Europe until he retired last year, that reaction changed dramatically when they heard what Sabri had to say. "He told us that they had no active weapons-of-mass-destruction program," Drumheller told 60 Minutes. "The [White House] group that was dealing with the preparation for the Iraq war came back and said they were no longer interested. And we said, 'Well, what about the intel?' And they said, 'Well, this isn't about intel anymore. This is about regime change.'"
But what about the aluminum tubes that Iraq really was trying to buy?
The harmlessness of the tubes was later confirmed by the Energy Dept, (a fact that was hidden by Hadley and Rove during the 04 elections). That's when the President joined the Marketing Campaign, and the CIA directly tried to stop him.
At roughly the same time, highly placed White House sources such as Scooter Libby leaked exclusive "scoops" to credulous reporters as part of the campaign to make Saddam's nuclear threat seem real. On the same day the "mushroom cloud" slogan made its debut, The New York Times printed a front-page story by Michael Gordon and Judith Miller citing administration officials who said that Saddam had "embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb." Specifically, the article contended that Iraq "has sought to buy thousands of specially designed aluminum tubes, which American officials believe were intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium."
The next day, September 9, the White House received a visitor who should have known exactly what the tubes were for—[SISMI Chief] Nicolò Pollari. As it happens, the Italians used the same tubes Iraq was seeking in their Medusa air-to-ground missile systems, so Pollari presumably knew that Iraq was not trying to enrich uranium but merely attempting to reproduce weaponry dating back to an era of military trade between Rome and Baghdad. As La Repubblica pointed out, however, he did not set the record straight.
In early October, Bush was scheduled to give a major address on Iraq in Cincinnati. A few days earlier, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee report, the N.S.C. sent the C.I.A. a draft which asserted that Saddam "has been caught attempting to purchase up to 500 metric tons of uranium oxide from Africa—an essential ingredient in the enrichment process."
The C.I.A. faxed a memo to Hadley and the speechwriters telling them to delete the sentence on uranium, "because the amount is in dispute and it is debatable whether it can be acquired from the source. We told Congress that the Brits have exaggerated this issue. Finally, the Iraqis already have 550 metric tons of uranium oxide in their inventory." Iraq's supply of yellowcake dated back to the 1980s, when it had imported hundreds of tons of uranium ore from Niger and mined the rest itself. The C.I.A. felt that if Saddam was trying to revive his nuclear program he would be more likely to use his own stockpile than risk exposure in an illegal international deal.
But the White House refused to let go. Later that day, Hadley's staff sent over another draft of the Cincinnati speech, which stated, "The regime has been caught attempting to purchase substantial amounts of uranium oxide from sources in Africa."
This time, George Tenet himself interceded to keep the president from making false statements. According to his Senate testimony, he told Hadley that the "president should not be a fact witness on this issue," because the "reporting was weak." The C.I.A. even put it in writing and faxed it to the N.S.C.
But somehow, some magical way - the reference to Iraq and Uranium just kept popping back up.
The neocons were not done yet, however. "That was their favorite technique," says Larry Wilkerson, "stick that baby in there 47 times and on the 47th time it will stay. At every level of the decision-making process you had to have your ax out, ready to chop their fingers off. Sooner or later you would miss one and it would get in there."In additional to the skeptism of the analysts and the direct admission by Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri that "We have no WMD's", in December Saddam released a full and complete disclosure which indicated that their WMD programs were long dead - several month's before the war and even before the inspectors were returned to Iraq. Never the less, Condoleeza Rice eventually dismissed this disclosure claiming that Saddam had failed to account for the Uranium from Niger, which as a matter of fact he had never tried to buy.
For the next two months, December 2002 and January 2003, references to the uranium deal resurfaced again and again in "fact sheets," talking-point memos, and speeches. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, and Rice all declared publicly that Iraq had been caught trying to buy uranium from Niger. On December 19, the claim reappeared on a fact sheet published by the State Department. The bureaucratic battle was unending. In light of the many differing viewpoints, the Pentagon asked the National Intelligence Council, the body that oversees the 15 agencies in the U.S. intelligence community, to resolve the matter. According to The Washington Post, in a January 2003 memo the council replied unequivocally that "the Niger story was baseless and should be laid to rest." The memo went immediately to Bush and his advisers.So the President distributed a lie to Congress, one that George Tenet had tried repeatedly to have removed. Next up - The American People.
Nevertheless, on January 20, with war imminent, President Bush submitted a report to Congress citing Iraq's attempts "to acquire uranium and the means to enrich it."
At an N.S.C. meeting on January 27, 2003, George Tenet was given a hard-copy draft of the State of the Union address. Bush was to deliver it the next day. Acutely aware of the ongoing intelligence wars, Tenet was caught between the hard-liners in the White House, to whom he reported, and the C.I.A., whose integrity he was duty-bound to uphold. That day, he returned to C.I.A. headquarters and, without even reading the speech, gave a copy to an assistant who was told to deliver it to the deputy director for intelligence. But, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee report, no one in the D.D.I.'s office recalls receiving the speech.
The next day, despite countless objections from the C.I.A. and other agencies, Bush cited the charges from the fraudulent Niger documents in his speech. Later that year, Stephen Hadley accepted responsibility for allowing the sentence to remain in the speech. He said he had failed to remember the warnings he'd received about the allegations.
Failed to remember numerous phone calls and faxes directly from George Tenet? Not bloody likely. And how about having some outside experts take a look at the documents?
The jig was almost up... but not quite.
A week after Bush's speech, on February 4, the Bush administration finally forwarded electronic copies of the Niger documents to the I.A.E.A. Astonishingly, a note was attached to the documents which said, "We cannot confirm these reports and have questions regarding some specific claims."
On March 7, the I.A.E.A. publicly exposed the Niger documents as forgeries. Not long afterward, Cheney was asked about it on Meet the Press. He said that the I.A.E.A. was wrong, that it had "consistently underestimated or missed what it was Saddam Hussein was doing." He added, "We know [Saddam] has been absolutely devoted to trying to acquire nuclear weapons. And we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons."
On March 14, Senator Jay Rockefeller IV, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, wrote a letter to F.B.I. chief Robert Mueller asking for an investigation because "the fabrication of these documents may be part of a larger deception campaign aimed at manipulating public opinion and foreign policy regarding Iraq." But Senator Pat Roberts, of Kansas, the Republican chair of the committee, declined to co-sign the letter.Five days later - we were at War with Iraq.
The article spends quite a bit of time looking the critical linkages between neocon Michael Ledeen and key events between the original forgery of the Niger documents and their eventually being mentioned in the 2003 State of Union - but in the end doesn't exactly succeed in pining the entire plot on his shoulders.
Despite all the speculation, there are no fingerprints connecting Ledeen to the Niger documents. Even his fiercest adversaries will concede this. "In talking to hundreds of people, no one has given us a hint linking Ledeen to the Niger documents," says Carlo Bonini of La Repubblica, which is facing a defamation suit by Ledeen in Italy.$2 Trillion dollars in a War without a valid reason? Sure, getting rid Saddam isn't entirely a bad thing, but there had to be a better way -- it certainly didn't cost this much blood and teasure to remove Slobidan Milosevic from power. Bosnia actually is a thriving Democracy now, instead of a hell-hole of War and Ethnic Cleansing during the reign of the elder (G.H.W.) Bush. But just wait - the fraud, waste and abuse of the Bush Administration isn't done yet. Not hardly.
Regardless of who fabricated the Niger documents, it is difficult to overstate the impact of the war they helped ignite. By May 18, 2006, the number of American fatalities was 2,448, while various methods of tracking American casualties put the number of wounded at between 18,000 and 48,000. At least 35,000 Iraqis have been killed. A new study by Columbia University economist Joseph E. Stiglitz, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2001, and Harvard lecturer Linda Bilmes concludes that the total costs of the Iraq war could top $2 trillion. That figure includes the long-term health-care costs for injured soldiers, the cost of higher oil prices, and a bigger U.S. budget deficit.
Perhaps it is not surprising that the Bush administration is now rattling its sabers against Iran, which has been flexing its muscles with a new nuclear program. As a result, according to a Zogby poll in May, 66 percent of Americans now see Iran as a threat to the U.S. Zbigniew Brzezinski, national-security adviser to President Carter, has argued that starting the Iraq war was a catastrophic strategic blunder, and that taking military action against Iran may be an even bigger mistake. "I think of war with Iran as the ending of America's present role in the world," he told Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. "Iraq may have been a preview of that, but it's still redeemable if we get out fast. In a war with Iran, we'll get dragged down for 20 or 30 years. The world will condemn us. We will lose our position in the world."
No, I think we'll lose America itself, our budget will be crushed, our values and long since turned into tiny grains of dusk will be - the truth.