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8/03/2004

Rocco Martino and Uranium from Niger

There is a lot of new information on the "Niger connection." None of it is favorable for the administration. Josh Marshall was apparently scooped when the Sunday Times of London reported that the source of the forged documents was Italian intelligence. Juan Cole has discussed the role of Rocco Martino, the Italian information peddler, in spreading the misinformation to France.

It looks like the same paid informant disseminated false intelligence, planted by the Italians, to the British, French and American intelligence agencies. The British are still completely mum on their "corroborating" evidence.

Summaries and Excerpts from the subscription-only stories:

On Monday, August 2, Mark Huband of the Financial Times reported:

A French intelligence operation to safeguard Niger's uranium industry and prevent weapons proliferation, inadvertently led to the forging of documents relating to an apparent clandestine uranium trade with Iraq, western intelligence officials say.

The operation, begun in 1999, reflected concern among several intelligence services that rogue states may have been trying to procure uranium. France was also concerned about the security of its own uranium supplies from Niger, as well as the security of the two French companies that control Niger's uranium industry.

Rocco Martino, an Italian businessman who has admitted that he has made a career out of "selling information", has held regular meetings with French intelligence officials in Brussels since at least 1999.

According to senior European officials, in 1999 he provided French officials with genuine documents which revealed Iraq may have been planning to expand "trade" with Niger. This trade was assumed to be in uranium, which is Niger's main export. It was then that Mr Martino first became aware of the value of documents relating to Niger's uranium exports. He was then asked by French officials to provide more information, which led to a flourishing "market" in documents.

He subsequently provided France with more documents, which turned out to have been forged when they were handed to the International Atomic Energy Agency by US diplomats.
Huband refers to the Sunday Times article, excerpted below, regarding Martino's claims that Italian intelligence, SISMI, was behind the forgeries.
The Italian government yesterday strongly denied it had played any role in the forging of the documents or their dissemination, saying the accusations are "completely false".

Its statement also implied Mr Martino's claim to the Sunday Times that the documents were forged to justify the decision to invade Iraq is highly dubious as the market in documents - real or forged - was established several years before the war was discussed.

Intelligence experts also say that if the documents had been forged by a national intelligence service the quality would have been better and there would not have been discrepancies in them that led to them being exposed by the IAEA as fake.
On Sunday, August 1, Nicholas Rufford and Nick Fielding of the Sunday Times (London), reported:
In 2002 he [Giacomo, aka Rocco Martino] hawked around documents purporting to show that Saddam Hussein had tried to obtain uranium ore from the Saharan state of Niger. The 17 documents were a collection of telexes, letters and contracts, stamped and signed and masquerading as an agreement by Niger to supply Iraq with 500 tons of ore, enough to make several bombs.

The papers were a convincing mixture of genuine and fake. Giacomo says he did not forge them and can prove that the Italian government was behind the plot.
This guy is obviously a huckster. He wants to be paid to clear his own name. That Italian, Franch, British and American intel would all rely on him is troubling beyond words.
He [Giacomo] is angered by the suggestion that he knowingly passed fake documents and insists that he was himself hoodwinked by Sismi in a plot designed to discredit Iraq. He claims that he has taped and documentary evidence to prove it.

Corroborating his claims is difficult because he wants money for the full story of how he got the documents -the evidence on the CD-Rom and the tapes -which The Sunday Times is unwilling to pay.
The following is easily misread, in that black market uranium would be raw ore, rather than yellowcake. Casual readers may not notice the difference. The black market theory has never made much sense, since Zahawie was allegedly negotiating with (and the false documentary evidence refers to) the Nigerien government. There is no reported evidence of the Nigerien government being involved in any black market uranium sales.
Niger (population 11m) was one of the poorest countries in the world, landlocked and prone to extended droughts. It exported little more than a few agricultural products -and uranium yellowcake ore. The yellowcake came from two mines controlled by French companies. Their output was closely monitored, but local people also dug ore from abandoned or unofficial workings to sell on the black market.

In February 1999, Wissam al-Zahawie, Iraq's ambassador to the Vatican, arranged a trip to Niger and three other countries in west Africa. According to Zahawie, his mission was to invite their leaders to Baghdad, trying to muster support over UN sanctions that were crippling Iraq.

"I had no other instructions and certainly none concerning the purchase of uranium," he now says.

According to sources at Sismi, however, Zahawie's mission was not just diplomatic.

A "credible source" informed them that Iraq was looking for black market uranium in Niger. The source spoke of contacts, proposals, deals and dollar transfers. The source specified that no deal had been fully concluded.
Following is just some necessary background. It has been reported elsewhere, most comprehensively in James Bamford's Pretext for War.
The case went quiet until January 2, 2001 when staff at Niger's embassy in Rome reported a break-in. Papers were strewn about the building, but only some perfume and a watch appeared to have been stolen.

Shortly afterwards documents began to circulate in the intelligence community. Some referred to the visit of Zahawie to Niger and were clearly genuine. Others, which purported to be an agreement between Iraq and Niger for the supply of uranium yellowcake, were fakes.
Josh Marshall has confirmed that a Niger embassy employee, who was also a SISMI asset, provided the forged documents to Giacomo/Martino.
Without being precise about dates, he said: "I received a call from a former colleague in Sismi. 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. Sismi wanted me to pass on the documents but they didn't want anyone to know they had been involved.
***
He claims that his taped material includes conversations with the woman at the embassy, who was Italian.
Apparently Italian intelligence has a knack for dirty tricks.
The documents above, purporting to show that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger, were a mix of real and fake and are now suspected of being planted by Italian intelligence -which has been embroiled in dirty tricks before.

Sismi, the Italian counterpart to MI6, and Sisde, the counterpart to MI5, were implicated in the notorious case of "God's banker" Roberto Calvi, the former head of Banco Ambrosiano, who was found hanged under Blackfriars Bridge in London in 1982.

Three Italian intelligence chiefs were known to have been members of the notorious P2 masonic lodge of which Calvi was a member. One of the intelligence chiefs was found to have given other P2 members access to sensitive files on thousands of prominent Italians.

Individual officers in the past have been accused of blackmail, involvement in politics and lying in court.

Italian co-operation with Britain and America on intelligence matters goes back a long way. In the 1960s it emerged that Sismi had bugged the Italian president's palace and the Pope's library in the Vatican as a favour to the CIA.
From James Bamford, a Pretext for War: "The letters were obviously a blend of several genuine older documents, possibly obtained during the earlier break-in, which were used to masquerade the counterfeit newer ones. The purpose of the phony documents was to creat the impression that the true purpose of the Iraqi ambassador's trip to Niger in 1999 was to secretly arrange a large shipment of uranium to Iraq in 2000 and that he may have had something to do with the attacks of 9/11." [302]

Bamford's notes include a list of "likely genuine" documents: A letter from the Iraqi Ambassador to the Nigerien Embassy in Italy confirming the visits, and two letters from the Nigerien Embassy in Italy to the Nigerien Foreign Affairs Minister. 402-403.

 

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