It's a crisp, clear winter morning in Rome. In the neighborhood between
the Vatican and the Olympic Stadium, a phalanx of motor scooters is
parked outside a graffiti-scarred 10-story apartment building. No. 10
Via Antonio Baiamonte is home to scores of middle-class families, and
to the embassy for the Republic of Niger, the impoverished West African
nation that was once a French colony.
Though it may be unprepossessing, the Niger Embassy is the site
of one of the great mysteries of our times. On January 2, 2001,
an embassy official returned there after New Year's Day and
discovered that the offices had been robbed. Little of value was
missing—a wristwatch, perfume, worthless documents, embassy
stationery, and some official stamps bearing the seal of the
Republic of Niger. Nevertheless, the consequences of the robbery
were so great that the Watergate break-in pales by comparison.
A few months after the robbery, Western intelligence analysts
began hearing that Saddam Hussein had sought yellowcake—a
concentrated form of uranium which, if enriched, can be used in
nuclear weapons—from Niger. Next came a dossier purporting to
document the attempted purchase of hundreds of tons of uranium
by Iraq. Information from the dossier and, later, the papers
themselves made their way from Italian intelligence to, at
various times, the C.I.A., other Western intelligence agencies,
the U.S. Embassy in Rome, the State Department, and the White
House, as well as several media outlets. Finally, in his January
2003 State of the Union address, George W. Bush told the world,
"The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently
sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
Two months later, the United States invaded Iraq, starting a
conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people, cost
hundreds of billions of dollars, and has irrevocably
de-stabilized the strategically vital Middle East. Since then,
the world has learned not just that Bush's 16-word casus belli
was apparently based on the Niger documents but also that the
documents were forged.
In Italy, a source with intimate knowledge of the Niger affair
has warned me that powerful people are watching. Phones may be
tapped. Jobs are in jeopardy, and people are scared.
On the sixth floor at Via Baiamonte, a receptionist finally
comes to the door of the nondescript embassy office. She is of
medium height, has dark-brown hair, wears a handsome blue suit,
and appears to be in her 50s. She declines to give her full
name. A look of concern and fear crosses her face. "Don't
believe what you read in the papers," she cautions in French. "Ce
n'est pas la vérité." It is not the truth.
But who was behind the forgeries? Italian intelligence? American
operatives? The woman tilts her head toward one of the closed
doors to indicate that there are people there who can hear. She
can't talk. "C'est interdit," she says. It is forbidden.
"A Classic Psy-Ops Campaign"
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.
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
By the time the U.S. invaded Iraq, in March 2003, this apparent
black-propaganda operation had helped convince more than 90
percent of the American people that a brutal dictator was
developing W.M.D.—and had led us into war.
To trace the path of the documents from their fabrication to
their inclusion in Bush's infamous speech, Vanity Fair has
interviewed a number of former intelligence and military
analysts who have served in the C.I.A., the State Department,
the Defense Intelligence Agency (D.I.A.), and the Pentagon. Some
of them refer to the Niger documents as "a disinformation
operation," others as "black propaganda," "black ops," or "a
classic psy-ops [psychological-operations] campaign." But
whatever term they use, at least nine of these officials believe
that the Niger documents were part of a covert operation to
deliberately mislead the American public.
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
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
All of which flies in the face of a campaign by senior
Republicans including Senator Pat Roberts, chairman of the
Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, to blame the C.I.A. for
the faulty pre-war intelligence on W.M.D. Indeed, the accounts
put forth by Wilkerson and his colleagues strongly suggest that
the C.I.A. is under siege not because it was wrong but because
it was right. Agency analysts were not serving the White House's
What followed was not just the catastrophic foreign-policy
blunder in Iraq but also an ongoing battle for the future of
U.S. intelligence. Top officials have been leaving the C.I.A. in
droves—including Porter Goss, who mysteriously resigned in May,
just 18 months after he had been handpicked by Bush to be the
director of Central Intelligence. Whatever the reason for his
sudden departure, anyone at the top of the C.I.A., Goss's
replacement included, ultimately must worry about serving two
masters: a White House that desperately wants intelligence it
can use to remake the Middle East and a spy agency that is
acutely sensitive to having its intelligence politicized.
Unraveling a disinformation campaign is no easy task. It means
entering a kingdom of shadows peopled by would-be Machiavellis
who are practiced in the art of deception. "In the world of
fabrication, you don't just drop something and let someone pick
it up," says Bearden. "Your first goal is to make sure it
doesn't find its way back to you, so you do several things. You
may start out with a document that is a forgery, that is a
photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy, which makes it hard to
track down. You go through cutouts so that the person who puts
it out doesn't know where it came from. And you build in subtle,
nuanced errors so you can say, 'We would never misspell that.'
If it's very cleverly done, it's a chess game, not checkers."
Reporters who have entered this labyrinth often emerge so
perplexed that they choose not to write about it. "The chances
of being manipulated are very high," says Claudio Gatti, a New
York–based investigative reporter at Il Sole, the Italian
business daily. "That's why I decided to stay out of it."
Despite such obstacles, a handful of independent journalists and
bloggers on both sides of the Atlantic have been pursuing the
story. "Most of the people you are dealing with are professional
liars, which really leaves you with your work cut out for you as
a reporter," says Joshua Micah Marshall, who has written about
the documents on his blog, Talking Points Memo.
So far, no one has figured out all the answers. There is even
disagreement about why the documents were fabricated. In a story
by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker, a source suggested that
retired and embittered C.I.A. operatives had intentionally put
together a lousy forgery in hopes of embarrassing Cheney's
hawkish followers. But no evidence has emerged to support this
theory, and many intelligence officers embrace a simpler
explanation. "They needed this for the case to go to war," says
Melvin Goodman, who is now a senior fellow at the Center for
International Policy. "It serves no other purpose."
By and large, knowledgeable government officials in the U.S.,
Italy, France, and Great Britain are mum. Official government
investigations in Italy, the U.K., and the U.S.—including a
two-year probe into pre-war intelligence failures by the Senate
Select Committee on Intelligence—have been so highly politicized
as to be completely unsatisfying.
Only the ongoing investigation by Special Prosecutor Patrick
Fitzgerald into the Plamegate scandal bears promise. However, it
is focused not on the forgeries but on the leaks that were
apparently designed to discredit former ambassador Joseph C.
Wilson and that outed his wife, former C.I.A. agent Valerie
Plame, after Wilson revealed that the Niger story was false. I.
Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the former chief of staff for Vice
President Dick Cheney, has already been charged in the case, and
President Bush's senior adviser, Karl Rove, has been
Fitzgerald's other principal target. But, with the dubious
exception of an ongoing F.B.I. inquiry, there is no official
probe into who forged the Niger documents, who disseminated
them, and why, after they had been repeatedly discredited, they
Meanwhile, from Rome to Washington, and countless points in
between, journalists, bloggers, politicians, and intelligence
agents are pondering the same question: Cui bono? Who benefits?
Who wanted to start the war?
The Stuff of Conspiracy Fantasies
If Italy seems like an unlikely setting for a black-propaganda
plot to start the Iraq war, it is worth remembering that Et tu,
Brute is part of the local idiom, and Machiavelli was a native
son. Accordingly, one can't probe Nigergate without examining
the rich tapestry of intrigue that is Italian intelligence.
Because Italy emerged from World War II with a strong Communist
Party, domestic politics had elements of a civil war, explains
Guido Moltedo, editor of Europa, a center-left daily in Italy.
That meant ultra-conservative Cold Warriors battled the
Communists not just electorally but through undercover
operations in the intelligence world. "In addition to the secret
service, SISMI, there was another, informal, parallel secret
service," Moltedo says. "It was known as Propaganda Due."
Led by a neo-Fascist named Licio Gelli, Propaganda Due, with its
penchant for exotic covert operations, was the stuff of
conspiracy fantasies—except that it was real. According to The
Sunday Times of London, until 1986 members agreed to have their
throats slit and tongues cut out if they broke their oaths.
Subversive, authoritarian, and right-wing, the group was
sometimes referred to as the P-2 Masonic Lodge because of its
ties to the secret society of Masons, and it served as the
covert intelligence agency for militant anti-Communists. It was
also linked to Operation Gladio, a secret paramilitary wing in
NATO that supported far-right military coups in Greece and
Turkey during the Cold War.
In 1981 the Italian Parliament banned Propaganda Due, and all
secret organizations in Italy, after an investigation concluded
that it had infiltrated the highest levels of Italy's judiciary,
parliament, military, and press, and was tied to assassinations,
kidnappings, and arms deals around the world. But before it was
banned, P-2 members and their allies participated in two
ideologically driven international black-propaganda schemes that
foreshadowed the Niger Embassy job 20 years later. The first
took place in 1980, when Francesco Pazienza, a charming and
sophisticated Propaganda Due operative at the highest levels of
SISMI, allegedly teamed up with an American named Michael Ledeen,
a Rome correspondent for The New Republic. According to The Wall
Street Journal, Pazienza said he first met Ledeen that summer,
through a SISMI agent in New York who was working under the
cover of a U.N. job.
The end result of their collaboration was a widely publicized
story that helped Ronald Reagan unseat President Jimmy Carter,
whom they considered too timid in his approach to winning the
Cold War. The target was Carter's younger brother, Billy, a
hard-drinking "good ol' boy" from Georgia who repeatedly
embarrassed his sibling in the White House.
It began after Billy mortified the president in 1979 by going to
Tripoli at a time when Libya's leader, Muammar Qaddafi, was
reviled as a radical Arab dictator who supported terrorism.
Coupled with Billy's later admission that he had received a
$220,000 loan from Qaddafi's regime, the ensuing "Billygate"
scandal made headlines across America and led to a Senate
investigation. But it had died down as the November 1980
Then, in the last week of October 1980, just two weeks before
the election, The New Republic in Washington and Now magazine in
Great Britain published a story co-authored by Michael Ledeen
and Arnaud de Borchgrave, now an editor-at-large at The
Washington Times and United Press International. According to
the story, headlined "Qaddafi, Arafat and Billy Carter," the
president's brother had been given an additional $50,000 by
Qaddafi, on top of the loan, and had met secretly with Palestine
Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat. The story had come
dramatically back to life. The new charges were disputed by
Billy Carter and many others, and were never corroborated.
A 1985 investigation by Jonathan Kwitny in The Wall Street
Journal reported that the New Republic article was part of a
larger disinformation scam run by Ledeen and SISMI to tilt the
election, and that "Billy Carter wasn't the only one allegedly
getting money from a foreign government." According to Pazienza,
Kwitny reported, Michael Ledeen had received at least $120,000
from SISMI in 1980 or 1981 for his work on Billygate and other
projects. Ledeen even had a coded identity, Z-3, and had money
sent to him in a Bermuda bank account, Pazienza said.
Ledeen told the Journal that a consulting firm he owned, I.S.I.,
worked for SISMI and may have received the money. He said he did
not recall whether he had a coded identity.
Pazienza was subsequently convicted in absentia on multiple
charges, including having used extortion and fraud to obtain
embarrassing facts about Billy Carter. Ledeen was never charged
with any crime, but he was cited in Pazienza's indictment, which
read, "With the illicit support of the SISMI and in
collaboration with the well-known American 'Italianist' Michael
Ledeen, Pazienza succeeded in extorting, also using fraudulent
means, information … on the Libyan business of Billy Carter, the
brother of the then President of the United States."
In an interview with Vanity Fair, Ledeen denied having worked
with Pazienza or Propaganda Due as part of a disinformation
scheme. "I knew Pazienza," he explained. "I didn't think P-2
existed. I thought it was all nonsense—typical Italian fantasy."
He added, "I'm not aware that anything in [the Billygate] story
turned out to be false."
Asked if he had worked with SISMI, Ledeen told Vanity Fair,
"No," then added, "I had a project with SISMI—one project." He
described it as a simple "desktop" exercise in 1979 or 1980, in
which he taught Italian intelligence how to deal with U.S.
officials on extradition matters. His fee, he said, was about
The Bulgarian Connection
In 1981, Ledeen played a role in what has been widely
characterized as another disinformation operation. Once again
his alleged ties to SISMI were front and center. The episode
began after Mehmet Ali Agca, the right-wing terrorist who shot
Pope John Paul II that May, told authorities that he had been
taking orders from the Soviet Union's K.G.B. and Bulgaria's
secret service. With Ronald Reagan newly installed in the White
House, the so-called Bulgarian Connection made perfect Cold War
propaganda. Michael Ledeen was one of its most vocal proponents,
promoting it on TV and in newspapers all over the world. In
light of the ascendancy of the Solidarity Movement in Poland,
the Pope's homeland, the Bulgarian Connection played a role in
the demise of Communism in 1989.
There was just one problem—it probably wasn't true. "It just
doesn't pass the giggle test," says Frank Brodhead, co-author of
The Rise and Fall of the Bulgarian Connection. "Agca, the
shooter, had been deeply embedded in a Turkish youth group of
the Fascist National Action Party known as the Gray Wolves. It
seemed illogical that a Turkish Fascist would work with
The only real source for the Bulgarian Connection theory was
Agca himself, a pathological liar given to delusional
proclamations such as his insistence that he was Jesus Christ.
When eight men were later tried in Italian courts as part of the
Bulgarian Connection case, all were acquitted for lack of
evidence. One reason was that Agca had changed his story
repeatedly. On the witness stand, he said he had put forth the
Bulgarian Connection theory after Francesco Pazienza offered him
freedom in exchange for the testimony. He subsequently changed
that story as well.
Years later, Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs, who had
initially believed the theory, wrote that "I became convinced …
that the Bulgarian connection was invented by Agca with the hope
of winning his release from prison. … He was aided and abetted
in this scheme by right-wing conspiracy theorists in the United
States and William Casey's Central Intelligence Agency, which
became a victim of its own disinformation campaign."
Exactly which Americans might have been behind such a campaign?
According to a 1987 article in The Nation, Francesco Pazienza
said Ledeen "was the person responsible for dreaming up the
'Bulgarian connection' behind the plot to kill the Pope."
Similarly, according to The Rise and Fall of the Bulgarian
Connection, Pazienza claimed that Ledeen had worked closely with
the SISMI team that coached Agca on his testimony.
But Ledeen angrily denies the charges. "It's all a lie," he
says. He adds that he protested to The Wall Street Journal when
it first reported on his alleged relationship with Pazienza: "If
one-tenth of it were true, I would not have security clearances,
but I do."
Not long before his death, in 2005, Pope John Paul II announced
that he did not believe the Bulgarian Connection theory. But
that wasn't the end of it. In March 2006 an Italian commission
run by Paolo Guzzanti, a senator in the right-wing Forza Italia
Party, reopened the case and concluded that the Bulgarian
Connection was real. According to Frank Brodhead, however, the
new conclusions are based on the same old information, which is
"bogus at best and at worst deliberately misleading."
In the wake of Billygate and the Bulgarian Connection, Ledeen
allegedly began to play a role as a behind-the-scenes operative
with the ascendant Reagan-Bush team. According to Mission Italy,
by former ambassador to Italy Richard Gardner, after Reagan's
victory, but while Jimmy Carter was still president, "Ledeen and
Pazienza set themselves up as the preferred channel between
Italian political leaders and members of the new
administration." Ledeen responds, "Gardner was wrong. And, by
the way, he had every opportunity to raise it with me and never
When Reagan took office, Ledeen was made special assistant to
Alexander Haig, Reagan's secretary of state. Ledeen later took a
staff position on Reagan's National Security Council and played
a key role in initiating the illegal arms-for-hostages deal with
Iran that became known as the Iran-contra scandal.
The Italian Job
In 1981, P-2 was outlawed and police raided the home of its
leader, Licio Gelli. Authorities found a list of nearly a
thousand prominent public figures in Italy who were believed to
be members. Among them was a billionaire media mogul who had not
yet entered politics—Silvio Berlusconi.
In 1994, Berlusconi was elected prime minister. Rather than
distancing himself from the criminal organization, he told a
reporter that "P-2 had brought together the best men in the
country," and he began to execute policies very much aligned
Among those Berlusconi appointed to powerful national-security
positions were two men known to Ledeen. A founding member of
Forza Italia, Minister of Defense Antonio Martino was a
well-known figure in Washington neocon circles and had been
close friends with Michael Ledeen since the 1970s. Ledeen also
occasionally played bridge with the head of SISMI under
Berlusconi, Nicolò Pollari. "Michael Ledeen is connected to all
the players," says Philip Giraldi, who was stationed in Italy
with the C.I.A. in the 1980s and has been a keen observer of
Ledeen over the years.
Enter Rocco Martino. An elegantly attired man in his 60s with
white hair and a neatly trimmed mustache, Martino (no relation
to Antonio Martino) had served in SISMI until 1999 and had a
long history of peddling information to other intelligence
services in Europe, including France's Direction Générale de la
Sécurité Extérieure (D.G.S.E.).
By 2000, however, Martino had fallen on hard times financially.
It was then that a longtime colleague named Antonio Nucera
offered him a lucrative proposition. A SISMI colonel
specializing in counter-proliferation and W.M.D., Nucera told
Martino that Italian intelligence had long had an "asset" in the
Niger Embassy in Rome: a woman who was about 60 years old, had a
low-level job, and occasionally sold off embassy documents to
SISMI. But now SISMI had no more use for the woman—who is known
in the Italian press as "La Signora" and has recently been
identified as the ambassador's assistant, Laura Montini.
Perhaps, Nucera suggested, Martino could use La Signora as
Italian intelligence had, paying her to pass on documents she
copied or stole from the 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 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 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 to Iraq.
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.
Martino, however, says he was unaware that they were forgeries.
He was merely interested in a payday. "He was not looking for
great amounts of money—$10,000, $20,000, maybe $40,000," says
Carlo Bonini, who co-authored the Nigergate stories for La
SISMI director Nicolò Pollari acknowledges that Martino has
worked for Italian intelligence. But, beyond that, he claims
that Italian intelligence played no role in the Niger operation.
"[Nucera] offered [Martino] the use of an intelligence asset [La
Signora]—no big deal, you understand—one who was still on the
books but inactive—to give a hand to Martino," Pollari told a
Rocco Martino, however, said SISMI had another agenda: "SISMI
wanted me to pass on the documents, but they didn't want anyone
to know they had been involved."
Whom should we believe? Characterized by La Repubblica as "a
failed carabiniere and dishonest spy," a "double-dealer" who
"plays every side of the fence," Martino has reportedly been
arrested for extortion and for possession of stolen checks, and
was fired by SISMI in 1999 for "conduct unbecoming." Elsewhere
he has been described as "a trickster" and "a rogue." He is a
man who traffics in deception.
On the other hand, operatives like Martino are highly valued
precisely because they can be discredited so easily. "If there
were a deep-cover unit of SISMI, it would make sense to use
someone like Rocco," says Patrick Lang. "His flakiness gives
SISMI plausible deniability. It's their cover story. That's
standard tradecraft with the agencies."
In other words, Rocco Martino may well have been the cutout for
SISMI, a postman who, if he dared to go public, could be
Martino, who is the subject of a recently reopened investigation
by the public prosecutor in Rome, has declined to talk to the
press in recent months. But before going silent, he gave
interviews to Italian, British, and American journalists
characterizing himself as a pawn who distributed the documents
on behalf of SISMI and believed that they were authentic. "I
sell information, I admit," Martino told The Sunday Times of
London, using his pseudonym, Giacomo. "But I sell only good
Over the next two years, the Niger documents and reports based
on them made at least three journeys to the C.I.A. They also
found their way to the U.S. Embassy in Rome, to the White House,
to British intelligence, to French intelligence, and to
Elisabetta Burba, a journalist at Panorama, the Milan-based
newsmagazine. Each of these recipients in turn shared the
documents or their contents with others, in effect creating an
echo chamber that gave the illusion that several independent
sources had corroborated an Iraq-Niger uranium deal.
"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."
What exactly might those games have been? Berlusconi defined his
role on the world stage largely in terms of his relationship
with the U.S., and he jumped at the chance to forge closer ties
with the White House when Bush took office, in 2001. In its
three-part series on Nigergate, La Repubblica charges that
Berlusconi was so eager to win Bush's favor that he "instructed
Italian Military Intelligence to plant the evidence implicating
Saddam in a bogus uranium deal with Niger." (The Berlusconi
government, which lost power in April, denied the charge.)
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.
During the Clinton era, the neocons persisted with their policy
goals, and in early 1998 they twice lobbied President Clinton to
bring down Saddam. The second attempt came in the form of "An
Open Letter to the President" by leading neoconservatives, many
of whom later played key roles in the Bush administration, where
they became known as the Vulcans. Among those who signed were
Michael Ledeen, John Bolton, Douglas Feith, Richard Perle,
Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and David Wurmser.
According to Patrick Lang, the initial Niger Embassy robbery
could have been aimed at starting the war even though Bush had
yet to be inaugurated. The scenario, he cautions, is merely
speculation on his part. But he says that the neocons wouldn't
have hesitated to reach out to SISMI even before Bush took
office. "There's no doubt in my mind that the neocons had their
eye on Iraq," he says. "This is something they intended to do,
and they would have communicated that to SISMI or anybody else
to get the help they wanted."
In Lang's view, SISMI would also have wanted to ingratiate
itself with the incoming administration. "These foreign
intelligence agencies are so dependent on us that the urge to
acquire I.O.U.'s is a powerful incentive by itself," he says.
"It would have been very easy to have someone go to Rome and
talk to them, or have one of the SISMI guys here [in
Washington], perhaps the SISMI officer in the Italian Embassy,
talk to them."
Lang's scenario rings true to Frank Brodhead. "When I read that
the Niger break-in took place before Bush took office, I
immediately thought back to the Bulgarian Connection," he says.
"That job was done during the transition as well. [Michael]
Ledeen … saw himself as making a serious contribution to the
Cold War through the Bulgarian Connection. Now, it was possible,
20 years later, that he was doing the same to start the war in
Brodhead is not alone. Several press outlets, including the San
Francisco Chronicle, United Press International, and The
American Conservative, as well as a chorus of bloggers—Daily
Kos, the Left Coaster, and Raw Story among them—have raised the
question of whether Ledeen was involved with the Niger
documents. But none have found any hard evidence.
An Absurd Idea
Early in the summer of 2001, about six months after the
break-in, information from the forged documents was given to
U.S. intelligence for the first time. Details about the transfer
are extremely sketchy, but it is highly probable that the
reports were summaries of the documents. It is standard practice
for intelligence services, in the interests of protecting
sources, to share reports, rather than original documents, with
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
"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."
Since Niger was a former French colony, French intelligence was
the logical choice to vet the allegations. "The French were
managing partners of the international consortium in Niger,"
explains Joseph Wilson, who eventually traveled to Niger to
investigate the uranium claim. "The French did the actual mining
and shipping of it."
So Alain Chouet, then head of security intelligence for France's
D.G.S.E., was tasked with checking out the first Niger report
for the C.I.A. He recalls that much of the information he
received from Langley was vague, with the exception of one
striking detail. The agency had heard that in 1999 the Iraqi
ambassador to the Vatican, Wissam al-Zahawie, had made an
unusual visit to four African countries, including Niger.
Analysts feared that the trip may have been a prelude to a
Chouet soon found that the al-Zahawie visit was no secret. It
had been covered by the local press in Niger at the time, and
reports had surfaced in French, British, and American
intelligence. Chouet had a 700-man unit at his command, and he
ordered an extensive on-the-ground investigation in Niger.
"In France, we've always been very careful about both problems
of uranium production in Niger and Iraqi attempts to get
uranium," Chouet told the Los Angeles Times last December.
Having concluded that nothing had come of al-Zahawie's visit and
that there was no evidence of a uranium deal, French
intelligence forwarded its assessment to the C.I.A. But the
Niger affair had just begun.
A few weeks later, on September 11, 2001, terrorists struck the
World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The neocons had long said
that they needed another Pearl Harbor in order to realize their
dreams of regime change in Iraq. Now it had taken place.
According to Bob Woodward's Bush at War, C.I.A. director George
Tenet reported to the White House within hours that Osama bin
Laden was behind the attack. But by midday Secretary of Defense
Donald Rumsfeld had already raised the question of attacking
Saddam. Likewise, four days later, Deputy Secretary of Defense
Paul Wolfowitz advised President Bush not to bother going after
Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan but to train American guns on
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Bush's approval ratings
soared to 90 percent, the all-time high for any U.S. president.
This was the perfect opportunity to go after Saddam, except for
one thing: the available intelligence did not support the
action. Ten days after the attacks, Bush was told in a
classified briefing that there was no credible evidence linking
Saddam Hussein to the attacks.
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.
In addition, on October 15, 2001, Nicolò Pollari, the newly
appointed chief of SISMI, made his first visit to his
counterparts at the C.I.A. Under pressure from Berlusconi to
turn over information that would be useful for America's
Iraq-war policy, Pollari met "with top C.I.A. officials to
provide a SISMI dossier indicating that Iraq had sought to buy
uranium in Niger," according to an article by Philip Giraldi in
The American Conservative.
According to the Senate Intelligence Committee, the analysts saw
Pollari's report as "very limited and lacking needed detail."
Nevertheless, the State Department had the U.S. Embassy in Niger
check out the alleged uranium deal. On November 20, 2001, the
U.S. Embassy in Niamey, the capital of Niger, sent a cable
reporting that the director general of Niger's French-led
consortium had told the American ambassador that "there was no
possibility" that the African nation had diverted any yellowcake
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."
Michael Ledeen waves an unlit cigar as he welcomes me into his
11th-floor office at the American Enterprise Institute, in
Washington. Home to Irving Kristol, Lynne Cheney, Richard Perle,
and countless other stars in the neocon firmament, the A.E.I. is
one of the most powerful think tanks in the country. It has sent
more than two dozen of its alumni to the Bush administration.
After 17 years at the A.E.I., Ledeen is the institute's Freedom
Scholar and rates a corner office decorated with prints of the
Colosseum in Rome, the Duomo in Florence, and other mementos of
his days in Italy. Having served as a consultant at the Pentagon
and the State Department and on the National Security Council,
Ledeen relishes playing the role of the intriguer. In the
Iran-contra scandal, Ledeen won notoriety for introducing Oliver
North to his friend the Iranian arms dealer and con man Manucher
Ghorbanifar, who was labeled "an intelligence fabricator" by the
C.I.A. Ledeen has made his share of enemies along the way,
especially at the C.I.A. According to Larry Johnson, "The C.I.A.
viewed Ledeen as a meddlesome troublemaker who usually got it
wrong and was allied with people who were dangerous to the U.S.,
such as Ghorbanifar."
Apprised of such views, Ledeen, no fan of the C.I.A., responds,
"Oh, that's a shock. Ghorbanifar over the years has been one of
the most accurate sources of understanding what is going on in
Iran. … I have always thought the C.I.A. made a big mistake."
Bearded and balding, the 65-year-old Ledeen makes for an
unlikely 007. On the one hand, he can be self-deprecating,
describing himself as "powerless … and, well, schlumpy." On the
other, one of his bios grandiosely proclaims that he has
executed "the most sensitive and dangerous missions in recent
Ledeen props his feet up on his desk next to an icon of
villainy—a mask of Darth Vader. "I'm tired of being described as
someone who likes Fascism and is a warmonger," he says. "I've
said it over and over again. I'm not the person you think you
are looking for. … I think it's obvious I have no clout in the
administration. I haven't had a role. I don't have a role." He
barely knows Karl Rove, he says. He has "very occasionally" had
discussions with Cheney's office. And he denies reports that he
was a consultant for Douglas Feith's Office of Special Plans,
the division of the Pentagon that was famous for cherry-picking
and "stovepiping" intelligence that suited its policy of
invading Iraq. "I have had no professional relationship with any
agency of the federal government during the Bush
Administration," Ledeen later clarifies via e-mail. "That
includes the Pentagon."
However, there is considerable evidence that Ledeen has had far
more access than he lets on to the highest levels of the Bush
administration. Even before Bush took office, Rove asked Ledeen
to funnel ideas to the White House. According to The Washington
Post, some of Ledeen's ideas became "official policy or
rhetoric." As for Ledeen's role in the Office of Special Plans,
Karen Kwiatkowski, who worked in the Pentagon during the run-up
to the Iraq war, has described Ledeen as Feith's collaborator
and said in an e-mail that he "was in and out of there (OSP) all
Through his ties to Rove and Deputy National-Security Adviser
Stephen Hadley, Michael Ledeen was also wired into the White
House Iraq Group, which was charged with marketing an invasion
Ledeen claims, as he told the Web site Raw Story, that he had
strongly advised against the plan, saying that the invasion of
Iraq was the "wrong war, wrong time, wrong way, wrong place."
But the truth is somewhat more complicated. Ledeen had urged
regime change in Iraq since 1998, and just four hours after the
9/11 attacks he posted an article on the National Review Web
site urging Bush to take "the fight directly to Saddam on his
But to Ledeen, Iraq was just one part of a larger war. As he
later told a seminar, "All this talk about first we are going to
do Afghanistan, then we will do Iraq … that is entirely the
wrong way to go about it." He urged Americans not to try to
"piece together clever diplomatic solutions to this thing, but
just wage a total war against these tyrants."
In January 2003, two months before the war started, he wrote,
"If we were serious about waging this war, we would, at an
absolute minimum, support the Iranian people's brave campaign
against their tyrants … and recognize an Iraqi government in
exile in the 'no fly' zones we control. … If we don't, we may
well find ourselves facing a far bigger problem than Saddam
Ledeen repeatedly urged war or destabilization not just in Iraq
but also in Iran, Syria, Lebanon, even Saudi Arabia. "One can
only hope that we turn the region into a cauldron, and faster,
please," he wrote. "Faster, please" became his mantra, repeated
incessantly in his National Review columns.
Rhapsodizing about war week after week, Ledeen became chief
rhetorician for neoconservative visionaries who wanted to remake
the Middle East. "Creative destruction is our middle name, both
within our own society and abroad," he wrote after the attacks.
"We must destroy [our enemies] to advance our historic mission."
The U.S. must be "imperious, ruthless, and relentless," he
argued, until there has been "total surrender" by the Muslim
world. "We must keep our fangs bared," he wrote, "we must remind
them daily that we Americans are in a rage, and we will not rest
until we have avenged our dead, we will not be sated until we
have had the blood of every miserable little tyrant in the
Middle East, until every leader of every cell of the terror
network is dead or locked securely away, and every last drooling
anti-Semitic and anti-American mullah, imam, sheikh, and
ayatollah is either singing the praises of the United States of
America, or pumping gasoline, for a dime a gallon, on an
American military base near the Arctic Circle."
"An Old Friend of Italy"
As 2001 drew to a close, such positions seemed decidedly outside
the mainstream. Career military and intelligence professionals
saw the relatively moderate Colin Powell and George Tenet, a
Clinton appointee, reassuringly ensconced as secretary of state
and director of central intelligence, respectively. "George
Tenet had been there for a number of years," says Larry
Wilkerson. "He knew what he was doing. He was a professional.
What did he have to do with Douglas Feith? It didn't seem
possible that someone like Douglas Feith could exercise such
influence." But a schism was growing between the cautious
realism of analysts in the C.I.A. and the State Department, on
one side, and the hawkish ambitions of Dick Cheney and the
Pentagon, on the other.
As for Ledeen, how much clout he carried with the administration
is a matter of debate. But one measure of his influence may be a
series of secret meetings he set up—with Hadley's approval, he
claims—in Rome in the second week of December 2001. During these
meetings, Ghorbanifar introduced American officials to other
Iranians who passed on information about their government's
plans to target U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Among those in
attendance were Harold Rhode and Larry Franklin of the Office of
Special Plans. (In a separate matter, Franklin has since pleaded
guilty to passing secrets to Israel and been sentenced to 12
years in prison.) "That information saved American lives in
Afghanistan," Ledeen asserts.
But other accounts suggest that Ledeen may have used his time in
Italy to reactivate old friendships that played a role in the
According to La Repubblica, Nicolò Pollari had become frustrated
by the C.I.A.'s refusal to let SISMI deliver a smoking gun that
would justify an invasion of Iraq. At an unspecified date, he
discussed the issue with Ledeen's longtime friend Minister of
Defense Antonio Martino. Martino, the paper reported, told
Pollari to expect a visit from "an old friend of Italy," namely
Ledeen. Soon afterward, according to La Repubblica, Pollari
allegedly took up the Niger matter with Ledeen when he was in
Rome. Ledeen denies having had any such conversations. Pollari
declined to be interviewed by Vanity Fair, and has denied
playing any role in the Niger affair. Martino has declined to
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."
Nevertheless, the C.I.A. had enough doubts about the Niger
claims to initially leave them out of the President's Daily
Brief (P.D.B.), the intelligence updates given each morning to
President Bush. On February 5, 2002, however, for reasons that
remain unclear, the C.I.A. issued a new report on the alleged
Niger deal, one that provided significantly more detail,
including what was said to be "verbatim text" of the accord
between Niger and Iraq. In the State Department, analysts were
still suspicious of the reports. But in the Pentagon, the
Vulcans pounced on the new material. On February 12, the D.I.A.
issued "a finished intelligence product," titled "Niamey Signed
an Agreement to Sell 500 Tons of Uranium a Year to Baghdad," and
passed it to the office of Vice President Dick Cheney.
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
Her husband, as the world now knows, was Joseph Wilson, who had
served as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad
and as ambassador to Gabon under George H. W. Bush. Wilson
approached the task with a healthy skepticism. "The office of
the vice president had asked me to check this out," Wilson told
Vanity Fair. "My skepticism was the same as it would have been
with any unverified intelligence report, because there is a lot
of stuff that comes over the transom every day."
He arrived in Niger on February 26, 2002. "Niger has a
simplistic government structure," he says. "Both the minister of
mines and the prime minister had gone through the mines. The
French were managing partners of the international consortium.
The French mining company actually had its hands on the product.
Nobody else in the consortium had operators on the ground."
In addition, Wilson personally knew Wissam al-Zahawie, the Iraqi
ambassador to the Vatican, whose visit to Niger had raised
suspicions. "Wissam al-Zahawie was a world-class opera singer,
and he went to the Vatican as his last post so he could be near
the great European opera houses in Rome," says Wilson. "He was
not in the Ba'thist inner circle. He was not in Saddam's tribe.
The idea that he would be entrusted with this super-secret
mission to buy 500 tons of uranium from Niger is out of the
On March 1, the State Department weighed in with another cable,
headed "Sale of Niger Uranium to Iraq Unlikely." Citing
"unequivocal" control of the mines, the cable asserted that
President Tandja of Niger would not want to risk good relations
with the U.S. by trading with Iraq, and cited the prohibitive
logistical problems in such a transaction.
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 Marketing Campaign
Until this point, the American people had been largely oblivious
to the Bush administration's emerging policy toward Iraq. But in
August 2002, just as Douglas Feith's Office of Special Plans
formally set up shop in the Pentagon, White House chief of staff
Andrew Card launched the White House Iraq Group to sell the war
through the media. The plan was to open a full-fledged marketing
campaign after Labor Day, featuring images of nuclear
devastation and threats of biological and chemical weapons. A
key piece of the evidence was the Niger dossier.
Test-marketing began in August, with Cheney and his surrogates
asserting repeatedly that "many of us are convinced that Saddam
will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon." Making Cheney seem
moderate by comparison, a piece by Ledeen appeared in The Wall
Street Journal on September 4, suggesting that, in addition to
Iraq, the governments of Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia should be
But the real push was delayed until the second week of
September. As Card famously put it, "From a marketing point of
view, you don't introduce new products in August." The first
anniversary of the 9/11 attacks was perfect.
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.
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.
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.'"
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—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
Pollari met with Stephen Hadley, an understated but resolute
hawk who has since replaced Condoleezza Rice as
national-security adviser. Hadley has confirmed that he met
Pollari, but declined to say what was discussed. "It was a
courtesy call," Hadley told reporters. "Nobody participating in
that meeting or asked about that meeting has any recollection of
a discussion of natural uranium, or any recollection of any
documents being passed."
But there was no need to pass documents. It was significant
enough for Pollari to have met with Hadley, a White House
official allied with Cheney's hard-liners, rather than with
Pollari's American counterpart, George Tenet. "It is completely
out of protocol for the head of a foreign intelligence service
to circumvent the C.I.A.," says former C.I.A. officer Philip
Giraldi. "It is uniquely unusual. In spite of lots of people
having seen these documents, and having said they were not
right, they went around them."
"To me there is no benign interpretation of this," says Melvin
Goodman, the former C.I.A. and State Department analyst. "At the
highest level it was known the documents were forgeries. Stephen
Hadley knew it. Condi Rice knew it. Everyone at the highest
level knew." Both Rice and Hadley have declined to comment.
Michael Ledeen, who had access to both Pollari and Hadley,
categorically denies setting up the meeting: "I had nothing to
do with it." A former senior intelligence official close to
Tenet says that the former C.I.A. chief had no information
suggesting that Pollari or elements of SISMI may have been
trying to circumvent the C.I.A. and go directly to the White
But the Niger documents had been resurrected once again. Two
days later, on September 11, 2002, the first anniversary of the
terrorist attacks, Hadley's office asked the C.I.A. to clear
language so that President Bush could issue a statement saying,
"Within the past few years, Iraq has resumed efforts to purchase
large quantities of a type of uranium oxide known as yellowcake.
… The regime was caught trying to purchase 500 metric tons of
this material. It takes about 10 tons to produce enough enriched
uranium for a single nuclear weapon."
In addition, in a new paper that month, the D.I.A. issued an
assessment claiming that "Iraq has been vigorously trying to
procure uranium ore and yellowcake."
Later that month, the British published a 50-page, 14-point
report on Iraq's pursuit of weapons that said, "There is
intelligence that Iraq has sought the supply of significant
quantities of uranium from Africa."
"When you are playing a disinformation operation," says Milt
Bearden, "you're like a conductor who can single out one note in
the symphony and say, 'Let the Brits have that.'"
On September 24, Prime Minister Tony Blair cited that "dossier
of death" and asserted again that Iraq had tried to acquire
uranium from Africa. "The reports in [the Niger file] were going
around the world, and Bush and Blair were talking about the
documents without actually mentioning them," Rocco Martino told
Milan's Il Giornale. "I turned the television on and I did not
believe my ears."
Now it was time for the international media to chime in with
independent corroboration. In early October 2002, Martino
approached Elisabetta Burba, a journalist at Panorama, the
Milan-based newsmagazine. Burba and Martino had worked together
in the past, but there may have been other reasons he went to
her again. Owned by Silvio Berlusconi, Panorama was edited by
Carlo Rossella, a close ally of the prime minister's. It also
counted among its contributors Michael Ledeen.
Martino told Burba he had something truly explosive—documents
that proved Saddam was buying yellowcake from Niger. Burba was
intrigued, but skeptical. She agreed to pay just over 10,000
euros—about $12,500—on one condition: Martino would get paid
only after his dossier had been corroborated by independent
authorities. Martino gave her the documents.
When Burba told Rossella of her concerns about the authenticity
of the Niger documents, he sent her to Africa to investigate.
But he also insisted that she give copies to the U.S. Embassy.
"I think the Americans are very interested in this problem of
unconventional weapons," Rossella told her.
On October 17, Burba flew to Niger. Once there, she discovered
for herself how difficult it would be to ship 500 tons of
uranium out of Africa. By the time she returned, she believed
the real story was not about Saddam's secret nuclear-weapons
program at all, but about whether someone had forged the
documents to fabricate a rationale for invading Iraq. But when
she reported her findings to Rossella, he called her off. "I
told her to forget the documents," he told Vanity Fair. "From my
point of view, the story was over."
Now, however, thanks to Panorama, the U.S. had received copies
of the Niger documents. They were quickly disseminated to the
C.I.A. station chief in Rome, who recognized them as the same
old story the Italians had been pushing months before, and to
nuclear experts at the D.I.A., the Energy Department, and the
The State Department had already twice cast doubt on the reports
of the sale of uranium to Iraq. In the fall, Wayne White, who
served as the deputy director of the State Department's
intelligence unit and was the principal Iraq analyst, reviewed
the papers themselves. According to The Boston Globe, he said
that after a 15-minute review he doubted their authenticity.
"Stick That Baby in There"
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.
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."
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.
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.
A State of the Union address that was a call for war, that
desperately needed to be vetted, had been misplaced and gone
unread. "It is inconceivable to me that George Tenet didn't read
that speech," says Milt Bearden. "At that point, he was
effectively no longer D.C.I. [director of central intelligence].
He was part of that cabal, and no longer able to carry an honest
In an e-mail, a former intelligence official close to Tenet said
the charge that Tenet was "part of a 'cabal' is absurd." The
official added, "Mr. Tenet was unaware of attempts to put the
Niger information in the State of the Union speech. Had he been
aware, he would have vigorously tried to have it removed."
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.
Blaming the C.I.A.
In last-minute negotiations between the White House and the
C.I.A., a decision was made to attribute the alleged Niger
uranium deal to British intelligence. The official reason was
that it was preferable to cite British intelligence, which Blair
had championed in his 50-page report, rather than classified
American intelligence. But the C.I.A. had told the White House
again and again that it didn't trust the British reports.
The British, meanwhile, have repeatedly claimed to have other
sources, but they have refused to identify them. According to
Joseph Wilson, that refusal is a violation of the U.N.
resolution stipulating that member states must share with the
International Atomic Energy Agency all information they have on
prohibited nuclear programs in Iraq. "The British say they
cannot share the information, because it comes from a
third-country intelligence source," says Wilson. "But that third
country is presumably a member of the United Nations, and it too
should comply with Article 10 of United Nations Resolution
1441." So far, Wilson says, no evidence of a third country has
come to light.
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
Then, on March 19, 2003, the war in Iraq began.
On July 11, 2003, faced with public pressure to investigate the
forgeries, Roberts issued a statement blaming the C.I.A. and
defending the White House. "So far, I am very disturbed by what
appears to be extremely sloppy handling of the issue from the
outset by the C.I.A.," he said.
Under Roberts's aegis, the Senate Intelligence Committee
investigated the Niger affair and came to some extraordinary
conclusions. "At the time the President delivered the State of
the Union address, no one in the IC [intelligence community] had
asked anyone in the White House to remove the sentence from the
speech," read the report. It added that "CIA Iraq nuclear
analysts … told Committee staff that at the time of the State of
the Union, they still believed that Iraq was probably seeking
uranium from Africa."
In November 2005, Rockefeller and Democratic senator Harry Reid
staged a dramatic shutdown of the Senate and challenged Roberts
to get to the bottom of the forgeries. "The fact is that at any
time the Senate Intelligence Committee pursued a line of
questioning that brought us close to the White House, our
efforts were thwarted," Rockefeller said.
So far, the Republican-controlled Senate committee has failed to
produce a more extensive report.
An Even Bigger Mistake
For his part, Michael Ledeen thinks all the interest in the
Niger documents and Bush's famous 16 words is overblown. "I
don't want my government's decisions based on falsehoods," he
says. "But the president referred to British intelligence. So
far as I've read about it, that statement is true."
Ledeen categorically asserts that he couldn't have orchestrated
the Niger operation, because he disagreed so strongly with the
administration's policy. "I thought it was wrong to do Iraq
militarily," he says. "Before we went into Iraq, I said that
anyone who thinks we can march into Iraq, overthrow Saddam, and
then have peace is crazy. I thought it was a mistake at the
time, and the way they did it." He adds, "Let's get real. This
is politics. People in office do not like people who criticize
It is unclear how these assertions square with the widespread
reports that Ledeen was tightly wired into the neocons in the
administration; with his long history of ties to SISMI, as
reported by The Wall Street Journal and the court records from
the trial of Francesco Pazienza; and with Ledeen's own pro-war
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.
It is also unclear what, if anything, the Italians may have
received for their alleged participation in Nigergate. In 2005,
a consortium led by Finmeccanica, the Italian arms company, and
Lockheed Martin unexpectedly beat out U.S.-owned Sikorsky to win
a contract to build presidential helicopters. Some saw the
contract, worth as much as $6.1 billion, as a reward to
Berlusconi for helping Bush on Iraq.
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.
But the most important consequence of the Iraq war is its
destabilization of the Middle East. If neoconservatives such as
Ledeen and their critics agree on anything, it is that so far
there has been only one real winner in the Iraq conflict: the
fundamentalist mullahs in Iran. For decades, the two big threats
in the Middle East—Iran and Iraq—had counterbalanced each other
in a standoff that neutralized both. Yet the Bush
administration, despite having declared Iran a member of the
Axis of Evil, proceeded to attack its two biggest enemies,
Afghanistan and Iraq. "Iran is unquestionably the biggest
beneficiary of the war in Iraq," says Milt Bearden.
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."
To Michael Ledeen, however, Iran's ascendancy is just one more
reason to expand the Iraq war to the "terror masters" of the
Middle East. "I keep saying it over and over again to the point
where I myself am bored," he says. "I have been screaming 'Iran,
Iran, Iran, Iran' for five years. [Those in the Bush
administration] don't have an Iran policy. Still don't have one.
They haven't done fuck-all."
READ V.F.'s PLAMEGATE COVERAGE:
Craig Unger 's third article for Vanity Fair. He is
currently working on a book based on his article "American
Rapture," which appeared in the December 2005 issue.