Sunday, August 01, 2004

The Niger Uranium Documents: How Josh Marshall Got Scooped 

Regular readers of TPM will recall Josh Marshall's recent prediction that a story he was working on (with colleague Laura Rozen of War & Piece) "should shuffle the tectonic plates" under D.C.

It's a bombshell, all right -- a step-by-step reconstruction of how the Niger uranium documents were a) forged, and b) delivered into the eager hands of various intelligence outfits around the world, including our own. Unfortunately, the original publication date was postponed by a couple of months, and the Sunday Times of London today broke one of Marshall's key revelations: that the forged Niger documents peddled to journalist Elizabetta Burba by an Italian middleman had earlier been furnished to him by SIMSI, Italy's military intelligence agency.

There's much more to the story, and even the brief teaser Marshall posted today is carefully, intricately detailed. The upshot, however, is that most if not all of the "independent evidence" that Saddam pursued African uranium derived from the same old echo-chamber:
[A] surge of articles and commentary suggest[ed] that the forged documents were only a minor part of the case for the alleged Iraq-Niger uranium transaction. But, as we've noted earlier, that's a willfully misleading account, one which both the Butler Report and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report helped to further.

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

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

Now, a few more notes on the ‘security consultant’. The Financial Times story said that he “had a record of extortion and deception and had been convicted by a Rome court in 1985 and later arrested at least twice.” Several of the particulars here are incorrect. But he does have a criminal record. And I’m told by a very reliable source that he is now trying to sell his the detailed version of his story to members of the British press for 30,000 euros. Whether he's successful in doing so we'll probably find out in the next few days.

We already have his account. And needless to say, we didn’t pay him. But it’s reasonable to ask how trustworthy his account is since he seems to be someone of rather less than spotless integrity. The answer is that we’ve confirmed the key details of the story I outlined above independently.
Look for the full story in the Washington Monthly sometime in August.

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