WHY THE NIGERGATE
The first page of the Nigergate papers
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The curious episode that world media have tagged Nigergate refers to an report on the presumed acquisition of uranium for a presumed Iraqi nuclear program. The Nigergate papers became one of the cornerstones in the building of a foundation for the war in Iraq, one of the "smoking guns" regarding the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Baghdad. On January 28, 2003, the then-US President George W Bush stated that Saddam Hussein had recently sought to buy large amounts of uranium from Africa. It was a lie, but within two months' time, that lie would serve to justify the US invasion of the country. In order to understand how the Nigergate files were fabricated, one must contextualize the episode first.
The Axis of evil
After the terrorist attack against the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, the USA decided to strike back against the organizations and nations that they deemed to be involved in international terrorism. Apart from Osama bin Laden, self-proclaimed mastermind of the attack, Washington set its aims on Afghanistan, because it harbored the leader of Al Qaeda, and on Iraq, without a real reason.
Saddam Hussein immediately became the emblem of the Axis of evil and was accused - wrongly - of being implicated in international terrorism. Saddam, in fact, for decades at the helm of a secular dictatorship, did not see the religious world with a good eye. He was on the one side countered by a Shiite opposition supported by Iran, and on the other he faced the hostility of the Sunni religious world, supported by Saudi Arabia. Saddam had never had any business with Osama bin Laden or with Al Qaeda. These were things that did not belong to his world or to his way of thinking or acting.
Yet Saddam had become evil incarnate. He was accused of involvement in a nuclear program. The claims were that he was seeking to build a nuclear weapon. There were requests for international inspections, threats and sanctions. To these Saddam Hussein often answered negatively, not because he wanted to hide his WMD's (which nobody ever even saw), but because of national pride and because of his brutal and nationalistic approach to all things. Another character flaw of Saddam's derived from the scarce understanding of the surrounding world, from the influence that international public opinion had on him to the need to make international friends or to wage media battles against his enemies.
His first mistake was that of attacking and invading Kuwait in August 1990. He could have obtained control over the Emirate with more subtle means - a coup d'etat or by giving weapons and money to the opposition - rather than sending his tanks on a full blown invasion. The power relationship between Iraq and Kuwait was so disproportionately in favor of Iraq, that any other alternative to the military invasion could have been easily applied.
The Kuwaiti Emir Ahmad al Jaber al Sabah did not have a good reputation in the Arab world, he was thought to be rich and arrogant. So much that during the invasion, the populations of Palestine and Jordan began celebrating the Emir's ousting in the streets.
In 2001-2003 Saddam Hussein's only fault was that of having held on to power after the first Gulf war. He had lost the war in 1991 against the USA and its allies, his country was occupied by the allied troops, but George Bush Sr. (or rather, George Herbert Walker Bush) had prevented the troops from invading Baghdad. A strategic blunder. Perhaps he thought that such a sound defeat would have automatically caused the downfall of Saddam.
Saddam Hussein thus remained in power, while George Bush Sr., also because of his error in judgment on Iraq, lost the 1993 presidential elections.
Dreams of glory
Back to 2001: On January 20 of that year George Bush Sr.'s son, George W. Bush, aka George Bush Jr., was elected President of the USA. The World Trade Center was destroyed and Bush Jr. would spend his entire presidential mandate waging what he called the war on terror. He again pointed his finger at Saddam Hussein, saying that Saddam was involved in international terrorism. Emotionally speaking (behind a country's policies there is a man, with weaknesses and resentment) Bush probably acted mainly because Saddam had contributed to the downfall of his father's career.
It is at this point that the work to build a framework of evidence and hints that could help the US President justify a war against Iraq begam. And it is in this context that Italy came into the picture with the Nigergate story. At that time Italy was closely tied to the United States, also because of the friendship - a well documented and publicized one - between President Bush Jr. and the Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi, whom had just been re-elected in 2001.
Here came into play a third person, the new head of the SISMI, the Italian intelligence service that operates abroad, Niccolo' Pollari.
Pollari was designated at the head of the Italian military intelligence service by Berlusconi - whom was not thoroughly convinced of his loyalty - on October 15, 2001. He was given full powers to fight international terrorism. The SISMI (which has now been renamed AISE after a reform) was an organization that operated under the responsibility of the Prime Minister and that generally designated and delegated, for all issues of control and coordination, an undersecretary.
The good reputation of the head of the Italian secret services depended largely on the positive notes that the other foreign services dispense during political bilateral contacts. This is true especially of the CIA and the Mossad. General Niccolo' Pollari knew it well and was willing to exploit the circumstance. His goal was not just to head the SISMI, he wanted to become the first Commander of the Financial Police to have actually served in that corp (the Italian law said that the office of vice-commander is as high as it gets for a member of the Financial Police, the Commanders usually come from the army). To do this the law had to be changed and Pollari was working towards this objective by supporting the election of Roberto Speciale as the new Commander of the Financial Police.
Pollari and Speciale had met when the latter was army chief of staff (1999) while the former was vice-director of the CESIS (The organization that monitored and coordinated the two branches of the Italian secret services). Their friendship will be consolidated in October 2003, when Roberto Speciale will be elected Commander of the Financial Guards contrary to the advice of the Army. Niccolo' Pollari, through his relationship with Berlusconi, had gotten Speciale in. Several exchanges of favors followed, both on a professional level (about 850 members of the Financial Police entered the SISMI) and on a personal, or rather familial one.
The "smoking gun"
Back to the events of the years 2001-2003. Berlusconi was Bush Jr.'s friend and Niccolo' Pollari wanted to become Commander and was willing to do anything to achieve his goal. This is when it becomes imperative for Pollari to please the CIA. If he helps the CIA, Berlusconi will be pleased and his career will gain momentum.
After the September 2001 attack, the US are dedicating all of their energies in the fight against terror. The CIA is allowed to carry out dirty operations such as the "extraordinary renditions", torture and secret prisons. Everything is allowed while pursuing the goal of fighting terror. This policy is supported by other countries that share the US worries over Islamic terrorism (The case of Abu Omar, aka Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, kidnapped in Milan of February 17, 2003, is an example).
Afghanistan was no doubt implicated since they harbored Osama bin Laden (whom was immediately targeted), not so Iraq. In order to find (or create) all of the circumstances that could justify an American military attack against Saddam Hussein there needed to be a perfect synergy of intelligence. The problem touched the SISMI as well, although indirectly. One had to find the so-called "smoking gun", the incontrovertible evidence of the Iraqi nuclear aims.
This is when a series of individuals began to spread disinformation, as was later shown in the journalistic investigation carried out by journalists Carlo Bonini and Giuseppe D'Avanzo on the pages of the daily "La Repubblica" in 2005.
The actors of this thriller are an unreliable source, an informer at the Nigerien Embassy in Rome, news and denials that overlap on the newspapers and in the cooperation between verious foreign intelligence services (the British MI-6, the French DGRE and, of course, the CIA), but the real protagonist of it all, with its activism, first paraded then denied (when the facts proved without doubt that it was all a lie), was the SISMI led by Niccolo' Pollari.
The recital of an international comedy - or rather, spy-story - the development of which weighed on the individual interests of the players rather than on the object of the controversy.
The media have also played their part by becoming the instrument of diffusion of this disinformation. They worked to accredit truths that were unproven but especially to spread doubts, suspicions and accusations that were also unfounded. It suffices to mention the investigation published in September 2002 by The New York Times in which journalist Judith Miller wrote of alluminum tubes that Saddam would have acquired in order to build his atomic weapon. Or the story published by monthly magazine Panorama about the presumed sale of raw uranium (yellowcake) by Niger to Iraq.
Much disinformation was also of a political nature and was geared at accusing Iraq: the US Ambassador John Negroponte during a speech at the UN, the President George Bush during the State of the Union address on January 2003 and the Secretary of State Colin Powell. Powell was in charge, during a memorable speech before the UN on February 5, 2003, of showing the world the irrefutable evidence of the involvement of Iraq in a weapons of mass destruction program.
Yet despite the gross unreliability of the files on the Nigerien uranium, all parties wanted to believe the story. Especially the two main players: the USA that want to wage war against Iraq, and Pollari, who wants to cash in as much as possible from the operation. Pollari's aim was not the CIA itself, but rather the political management that circles around President Bush and that can spend a good word for Pollari in Italy as well. Niccolo' Pollari had several options: not only the Nigergate files but also some good connections with powerful Italian and US media organizations. He is helped in this by the secret services. Pollari does not speak a word of English so he could not make use of the sophistry that support his deceitfulness alone.
The Nigergate files got Pollari in touch with high-ranked Pentagon officials and with the staff of the Secretary of National Security Condoleeza Rice. Pollari also received the support of influent US journalists. In September 2002, the head of the SISMI met with Stephen Hadley, Condi Rice's vice. Everyone was seeking the "smoking gun" and he provided it. Pollari was also supported by the then-head of the CIA, George Tenet, whom was losing consensus after the attack on the World Trade Center and needed to provide his superiors with what they wanted. The research was now totally subordinated to the private interest of the parties involved.
A house of cards
Not everything was to turn out the way Pollari wanted. There is a voice that is contrary to the accusations against Saddam. The US administration had employed a former ambassador, Joseph Wilson, to investigate on the Iraqi-Nigerien lead. In February 2002 the diplomat filed a report in which he incontrovertibly denies the allegations on the acquisition of uranium on the part of Saddam. Yet this report does not change the mind of President George W. Bush and those that follow his lead. Soon the Department of Justice would also investigate a breach of secrecy because the name of a CIA operative had been mistakenly revealed. That operative was none other than Ambassador Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame. Many think that the breach was knowingly caused by the US administration.
Niccolo' Pollari is a quite astute man: he does things but does not let it show. He moves prudently because, like all gold bricks, the Nigergate papers hide an unacceptable factor of risk to them. It is in Pollari's precise interest that the source of the papers remain uncertain. He is helped in his task by the various media outlets and foreign services that bounce the Niger story back and forth. When he is called to testify on the Niger story before the Parliamentary Committee for the Control of the Secret Services (COPASIR) he does not mention - at least in the first session - any written evidence, but only informal voices. As if to speak of rumors, unconfirmed hearsay. In other words, he shields his actions behind a barrier of semantic caution. Later, he will be more self-assured because, in his words, he will have the documented proof of the Iraqi acquisition of material for missile systems. Aluminum tubes. It's called "dual use" material. But for Pollari it has but one use: war.
Pollari's shrewdness goes well beyond words. When he does not feel secure he hides behind the tacit condescension of his superiors. He will do the same this time around and his superiors will defend him once again. When he will realize that the whole Nigergate story has become a grotesque charade that can seriously damage his dreams of glory - especially if he is accredited with the fake paperwork that triggered a war - he will feel the need to bolt. And he will do so once again by invoking the secret of state - as in the trial for the kidnapping of Abu Omar - thanks to the usual compliance of the undersecretary to the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, the uncle of Italy's present PM, Gianni Letta. Yet Pollari goes even one step further. He states, during an interview in 2004, that the French secret services are responsible for fabricating the Nigergate evidence.
This was a rather clumsy move, as it was the French DGSE (Direction Generale de la Securite Exterieure) that had doubted the authenticity of the Nigergate papers first. The French knew well that the Nigerien mines, where the French acquire 26% of the uranium to run their nuclear power plants, are administered by a French company, AREVA, and that it would be impossible for them to provide such an incredibly large amount (500 tons) of yellowcake, as hypothesized by the Nigergate papers. Furthermore, if someone had tried to transport the uranium from the Arlit or Akouta mines, people would have surely noticed.
A deadly lie
Yet all of these apparently macroscopic doubts that should have suggested caution to all those people who came in touch with the paperwork never found a listening ear.
The Nigergate story promoted the war in Iraq and a number of other consequences: a useless, wrong war that created anarchy and instability in Iraq. Even now, after 10-year's time, Iraq is a destroyed country overrun by sectary violence. There have been 4.400 American casualties, 35 Italian casualties and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi casualties, the majority of which were civilians. There remains a region caressed by the wind of a social revolt characterized by religion and Islamic terrorism that has spread exponentially.
All of this did not even export that democracy so dear to the rhetoric of the US President George W. Bush.
It was not the Nigergate papers that convinced Bush to wage war on Saddam Hussein. He had already decided. It was, however, one of the pieces used to build a framework of lies to justify the military intervention.
Yet there are those that have gained much from this intelligence scam: the person that prepared the fake papers is now a high-ranked director of the AISE; the person who provided Pollari with his contacts withing the US establishment and among Italian and foreign journalists is also an important director of the AISE.
So although Saddam Hussein paid with his life and Pollari paid with his career, there are others whom have benefited from the scam and continue to benefit from it.