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Sy Hersh on Niger Uranium Forgeries

Excerpt: Seymour Hersh, Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib [237-240]

Who actually fabricated the Niger papers? When we spoke in the spring of 2003, a few weeks after the forgery was exposed, the I.A.E.A. official told me that his agency had not been able to answer that question. "It could be someone who intercepted faxes in Israel, or someone at the headquarters of the Niger foreign ministry in Niamey. We just don't know," the official said. "Somebody got old letterheads and signatures and cut and pasted."

Forged documents and false accusations have been an element in U.S. and British foreign policy toward Iraq at least since the fall of 1997, after an impasse over U.N. inspections put the British and the Americans on the losing side in the battle for international public opinion. A former Clinton Administration official told me that London had resorted to, among other things, spreading false information about Iraq. The British propaganda program – part of its Information Operations, or I/Ops – was known to a few senior officials in Washington. "I knew that was going on," the former Clinton Administration official said of the British efforts. "We were getting ready for action in Iraq, and we wanted the Brits to prepare."

Over the next year, a former American intelligence officer told me, at least one member of the U.N. inspection team who supported the American and British position arranged for dozens of unverified and unverifiable intelligence reports and tips – data known as inactionable intelligence – to be funneled to MI6 operatives and quietly passed along to newspapers in London and elsewhere. "It was intelligence that was crap, and that we couldn't move on, but the Brits wanted to plant stories in England and around the world," the former officer said. There was a series of clandestine meetings with MI6, at which documents were provided, as well as quiet meetings, usually at safe houses in the Washington area. The British propaganda scheme eventually became known to some members of the U.N. inspection team. "I knew a bit," on official still on duty at U.N. headquarters acknowledged in March 2003, "but I was never officially told about it."

In addition to speculation about MI6, press reports in the United States and elsewhere have suggested other possible sources: the Iraq exile community, the French. One theory, favored by some journalists in Rome, is that SISMI produced the false documents and passed them to Panorama for publication.

Another explanation was provided by a former senior intelligence official. "Somebody deliberately let something false get in there," he said in March 2003, when I first wrote about the forgery. "It could not have gotten into the system without the agency being involved. Therefore it was an internal intention. Someone set someone up." In interviews in subsequent months, he said that he had been told that a small group of disgruntled retired C.I.A. clandestine operators were to blame.

[SNIP more talk about C.I.A. planting the forgeries]

On March 14, 2003, Senator Jay Rockefeller, of West Virginia, the senior Democrat on the committee, formally asked Robert Mueller, the F.B.I. director, to investigate the forged documents. Rockefeller had voted for the resolution authorizing force in the fall of 2002. Now he wrote to Mueller, "There is a possibility that the fabrication of these documents may be part of a larger deception campaign aimed at manipulating public perception and foreign policy regarding Iraq." He urged the F.B.I. to ascertain the source of the documents, the skill level of the forgery, the motives of those responsible, and "why the intelligence community did not recognize the documents were fabricated."

Months later, with the investigation still open, a senior F.B.I. official told me, "This story could go several directions. We haven't gotten anything solid, and we've looked." He said that the F.B.I. agents assigned to the case are putting a great deal of effort into the investigation. But "somebody's hiding something, and they're hiding it pretty well." What was generally agreed upon, as the former senior intelligence official told me, was that "something as bizarre as Niger raises suspicions everywhere."
Hersh is a masterful writer, but his book is about a month out of date. It's a shame that he didn't get the chance to look at Rocco Martino or the Larry Franklin spy case.


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