The Plame Game

REPORTER: Thom Cookes

It is January 2003 and President Bush is making his State of the Union address.


It’s one of the most important speeches he makes each year and he’s using it to again build the case for invading Iraq.

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

And it was this claim that Saddam was trying to build a nuclear bomb from African uranium that was central to the case for war.

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: We will confront them with focus and clarity and courage.

It has since been revealed that the claim was based on documents that were crude forgeries. But the way these documents were used to construct a case for war was the start of a murky campaign to deceive the public and discredit anyone who stood in the way.

The story actually starts in late 2001. For more than a year before the State of the Union speech, US intelligence agencies had been receiving – and dismissing – similar reports about Iraq trying to buy uranium from Niger, in central Africa. This declassified US Senate investigation details how various agencies downplayed the initial reports, including the State Department calling them “highly suspect”.

But Vice-President Dick Cheney and his staff were looking for any fragments of information to back the case for war in Iraq. He’d taken a personal interest in the Niger reports and demanded that they be reinvestigated. In February 2002, Joe Wilson, a former US ambassador with contacts in the region, was sent to Niger.

JOE WILSON, FORMER US AMBASSADOR: Well, I went because I was asked to go by the CIA who told me a request had come in from the office of the Vice-President that they check out an allegation that was based on purported documents or a memorandum of understanding or a memorandum of sale – it wasn’t clear which – between the Niger’s government and the Iraq government covering the sale of several hundred tons of uranium yellow cake.

Ambassador Wilson reported back to the CIA that there was no evidence whatsoever of any uranium deal.

JOE WILSON: My report was one of three reports from the field. There was also a report from our Ambassador on the ground. We have an ambassador on the ground and have had one virtually since independence. And the third report was from a Marine Corps four-star general who travelled down there also to look into this allegation and came away with essentially the same conclusions that I had.

So by early 2002, the claims had been comprehensively dismissed, but still the story would not die.

ELISABETTA BURBA, JOURNALIST ‘PANORAMA” MAGAZINE: So they wanted to show that the Iraqi ambassador had gone to Niger also in 2001…

Later that year Elisabetta Burba, an Italian journalist at ‘Panorama’ magazine in Milan, received an intriguing phone call from a source, claiming he had documentary proof of the uranium purchase.

ELISABETTA: It was the beginning of October 2002, and a former source of mine called me, saying that he knew which African country was giving uranium to Iraq.

To Niamey, the capital of Niger, and OK, we have also here a telex and here another telex.

The source offered to sell the documents for 10,000 euros, claiming that they came from within the Niger embassy in Rome.

ELISABETTA: Potentially it was a big story but, at the same time, it was a dangerous story because what I had in my hands could have been the smoking gun that everybody was looking for. I’d like the viewers to remember that it was October 2002, and that there was this big search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

So all of a sudden the proof arrives in my hands. I mean, it was too good to be true.

But Elisabetta was sceptical of the documents, and convinced her editor to send her to Niger to check the claim personally.

REPORTER: When you went to Niger, what did you find?

ELISABETTA: Well, I didn’t find anything. I added some elements to my suspicion because there were many, many, many reasons to be doubtful about this supposed traffic.

Deciding that the documents were just not plausible, Elisabetta and her editor dropped the story. But not before passing the documents on to the US embassy in Rome.

ELISABETTA: They could not say neither that the documents were false nor that they were authentic.

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: And we will answer every danger and every enemy that threatens the American people.

Despite the doubts surrounding the documents, the claims had apparently already found a willing audience in President Bush’s office.

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

REPORTER: When you heard about President Bush’s State of the Union address in 2003, when he was talking about uranium, what did you think when you heard that?

ELISABETTA: I jumped on my chair. I said “Oh, my God!

JOE WILSON: When it became apparent that that assertion was substantiated only by these purported documents, which later turned out to be… ..determined by the International Atomic Energy Agency to have been forgeries, it became apparent that the US Government had misled the American people and the Congress of the US and indeed the world.

Joe Wilson was so incensed that he went public, revealing his secret mission to Niger for the CIA. He wrote an article in the ‘New York Times’ highly critical of the Bush Administration, accusing it of burying his report and lying about the case for war.

As we will hear later, it was this article that led to his wife being disclosed as a covert CIA officer and eventually to the scandal now engulfing Washington. But the forged documents themselves raise many intriguing questions, like who forged them, and why did they receive the credibility that the State of the Union speech gave them?

This is Rocco Martino, the man who tried to sell the documents to Elisabetta Burba in Rome. He’s a former Italian policeman and spy, and makes a living peddling information to the highest bidder across Europe. He’s been on the payroll of various European spy agencies, including SISMI, the Italian secret service.

REPORTER: What can you tell me about Rocco Martino?

ELISABETTA: Rocco Martino has omitted many information in this story.

REPORTER: Did you have any suspicions about Rocco for the fact that he worked for SISMI? Did that lead you to question the documents in any way?

ELISABETTA: You mean at the moment when I received the documents? Well, I knew that he had worked for them, but it was such a long story that at the moment, I didn’t… I had a general suspicion in the story, but I didn’t put the two things together.

Several weeks ago, the Italian newspaper ‘La Republica’ did put two and two together, claiming that SISMI had played a crucial role in the dissemination of Rocco Martino’s documents.

They claimed that SISMI had been ordered by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to help the White House back the case for war in Iraq, and that the head of SISMI, Nicolo Pollari, had opened up a secret channel of communications direct to the pro-war neo-conservatives in Washington.

A spokesman for US National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley confirmed that he had met with the SISMI chief in September 2002, but he denied that uranium from Niger had been discussed.

It was Hadley who would later accept responsibility for adding the reference to uranium from Africa to President Bush’s State of the Union address.

The Italian Government has denied that its secret service is in any way involved with the forged Niger documents, and the head of SISMI is due to testify tomorrow to the Italian Parliament about his role.

REPORTER: Certainly, there has been a lot of speculation that the original genesis of the documents is the Italian Secret Service, that have been willed into creation by SISMI, by the Italian Secret Service.

JOE WILSON: And the question that one would ask is what would they stand to gain by that, what would their motive be in doing it, unless they were doing it on behalf of somebody else who did, in fact, have a motive.

And in looking at this, who really had a motive in seeing that the US went to war with Iraq? You can name half a dozen potential suspects, beginning with the neo-conservatives here in the US. They were clearly the biggest cheerleaders for this war.

The suggestion that the neo-conservatives in the administration were involved in forging documents to prosecute a case for war is clearly explosive. Although there’s no concrete evidence, in a radio interview earlier this year, former head of counter-terrorism for the CIA, Vincent Cannistraro, supported an American origin for the forgeries.

VINCENT CANNISTRARO, KPFK RADIO INTERVIEW,APRIL 3rd 2005: “The Italian intelligence service, the military intelligence service, was acquiring information that was really being handfed to them by very dubious sources – the Niger documents, for example, which apparently were produced in the United States, yet were funnelled through the Italians.”

REPORTER: What do you think the ramifications would be if it was demonstrated that there were American fingerprints on these documents?

JOE WILSON: Well, I don’t know, but I believe there probably are federal statutes that would make it a federal crime to mislead the US Government into war. I would certainly hope so.

PATRICK FITZGERALD, SPECIAL PROSECUTOR: A federal grand jury, sitting in the District of Columbia, returned a five-count indictment against I. Lewis Libby, also known as ‘Scooter’ Libby, the Vice-President’s chief of staff.

Last Friday, Scooter Libby, one of the ultimate Washington insiders, was indicted on charges of obstructing justice, lying under oath and making false statements. The charges relate to the leaking of the identity of Valerie Plame, an undercover CIA officer. This is a serious crime under United States law. Plame’s husband is former ambassador Joe Wilson.

In July 2003, he wrote in the ‘New York Times’ that the Bush Administration twisted intelligence to exaggerate the case for war in Iraq.

JOE WILSON: A week after that an American journalist, an opinion writer by the name of Robert Novak, wrote an article in which he compromised the identity of a clandestine member of the Central Intelligence Agency’s spy operation and that person happened to be my wife.

My speculation was that the article was written and was sourced back to senior administration officials, by the way.

The indictment of Scooter Libby paints a compelling picture of the Vice-President’s staffers actively digging for dirt to discredit Joe Wilson.

(MAN READS) “Libby spoke with a senior office of the CIA to ask about the origin and circumstances of Wilson’s trip, and was advised by the CIA officer that Wilson’s wife worked at the CIA, and was believed to be responsible for sending Wilson on the trip.”

But under oath Libby had claimed that he only learned about Wilson and his wife after speaking with reporters. This claim was dismissed by the prosecutor as a lie.

REPORTER: Mr Rove, what’s your mood today?

KARL ROVE: I’m going to have a great Friday and a fantastic weekend. Hope you do too.

It was also expected that key presidential adviser Karl Rove, frequently referred to as ‘Bush’s brain’, would also feature in the indictment. He’s not named but the indictment tantalisingly refers to “Official A” and his complicity in the affair.

For Joe Wilson, the whole saga reflects the White House’s obsession with muzzling its critics.

JOE WILSON: I believe it was an administration attempt to silence others who might be willing to come forward and speak about their concerns about the way intelligence had been manipulated or skewed for political purposes.

Prosecutor Pat Fitzgerald has reminded Washington that the investigation is not over yet and Scooter Libby is due in court tomorrow to be formally charged.