by de Gondi
Tue Feb 21st, 2006 at 09:19:53 PM EST
Eriposte has been breaking new ground again in the Niger forgeries case over at the left coaster for the past week. Thanks to his post yesterday (February 20th) and today (February 21st) on the missing pages in the dossier, I feel obliged to contribute what I have been putting together these past few months. I therefore throw my carefully laid plans to the wind and will now play it by ear.
In this series I'll focus on the published Niger forged documents in their print editions as well as the handling of the affair by the Italian press.
A brief overview
Translations or brief summaries of most of the pages were undertaken by authors at Cryptome back in 2003 shortly after their publication in two Italian periodicals. A first group of five pages was published on July 16, 2003, in the Repubblica in a scoop by Carlo Bonini and Giuseppe D'avanzo. The following day Repubblica sent 8 pages to Robert Windrem of NBC News via fax. Cryptome published the five pages from the Repubblica scoop on July 18th, followed by all eight pages passed to NBC on July 21st.
In their July 31, 2003 issue, the Italian weekly, Panorama, published seventeen pages related to the false Niger-Iraq uranium sale and an eighteenth page in code said to be related to a Niger-China uranium transaction. The seventeen pages included all of the Repubblica pages. Cryptome immediately posted three of the remaining pages without the duplicates of the eight Repubblica pages. On October 22 four more pages from the Panorama dossier were put up at Cryptome.
It appears that the Cryptome posts went largely unnoticed until renewed interest in 2005 by eriposte at TLC and Pat Conway. Eriposte's fundamental work on the forgeries in light of follow-up official reports (SSCI, Butler Report, etc.), leaked documents (Downing Street Memos) and new revelations (the Rocco Martino caper, for example) stands as a landmark in investigative webblog journalism.
Both eriposte and Pat Conway re-catalogued the web versions of the forged pages in order to understand and clarify the logic behind the forgeries as well as their blatant inconsistencies.
Unfortunately, neither of them appear to have had access to the full print editions of both sets of pages nor to the two original Italian scoops. The original Repubblica scoop has always been on line and was translated into English by Nur al-Cubicle on July 14th, 2005. Since I have found no links to this article I presume the translation went unnoticed. On December 19, 2005, Nur al-Cubicle translated the original Burba scoop which has been picked up by eriposte in his new series. The original Italian article is behind subscription walls.
Both articles are fundamental in understanding the Niger forgeries affair. I'll have more to say on that in the days to come.
For the moment I'd like to open and close a parenthesis:
One point that eriposte is emphasising over at TLC is just how many pages are there to the forged dossier. Hersh talked about a half a dozen pages in March 2003, which was comically maintained by Repubblica in their scoop when they already had eight pages. With the Burba scoop, the pages rose to seventeen, and were cruising at twenty two in Hersh's October article as eriposte pointed out the other day.
The IAEA definitely had much more than what Elisabetta Burba unwittingly turned over to the US Embassy in Rome.
Burba herself was disappointed for the missing sales contract. There were only two pages (here and here) known as the "Annexe 1," a legal review of the contract, worthy in itself of Alice's Wonderland trial.
We spend the evening studying the papers laid out on the kitchen table. I grasp a few things that had escaped me in the restaurant. Above all, the text of the purchase agreement is missing, there's only the cover letter. Groan.... But that's not all.
Yet there is evidence that the purchase agreement did exist. In an article that appeared in the Independent on August 10th, 2003, Raymond Whitaker interviewed the Iraqi ambassador to the Holy See, Wissam al-Zahawie who had been turned into a key figure in the forgeries, much to his surprise (bold mine):
The inspectors asked in detail what he knew of any contacts between Iraq and Niger and the visits exchanged between officials from both countries. "Then they asked me about the purposes and the details of my own visit and the meeting with the President. They even asked whether he gave me any presents. I said yes: he told me he would like to give me a camel's saddle -- a howdah....
The inspectors finally came around to the subject of documents, said Mr Zahawie, "and asked in particular whether I had signed a letter on 6 July 2000 to Niger concerning uranium. I said absolutely not, and if they had seen such a letter it must surely be a forgery.
"The questioning continued for more than an hour. They even asked about other officials working in the Iraq missions in Rome, and who kept the embassy seal. I explained that I myself kept the seal under lock and that it was used only to stamp official notes with no signature. Notes were only initialed, not signed, while letters were signed but not stamped with the seal. They did not seem to know of this standard procedure observed in all diplomatic correspondence. There was obviously something wrong with the document in their possession if it carried both the seal and a signature."
The retired ambassador was never allowed to see what documents the inspectors had, but learned the next day that the director of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, was deeply disappointed with the results of the interview: "The feeling was that I knew more than I was willing to reveal." He immediately asked for another meeting with the inspectors, at which he rejected suggestions that he was being unhelpful and demanded that they produce the document they held. They refused; he said he could sue them for libel.
"The inspectors told their Iraqi liaison officer that my denials would be better substantiated if they could obtain an original facsimile of my signature. I sent them, the next day, copies of letters that I had written when I was still in Rome. Those letters must have convinced the IAEA team at long last that the document they had was indeed a forgery."
It has since been suggested that after Mr Zahawie left the Vatican in August 2000, someone might have used his official seal in a forgery. Asked about this, he told The Independent on Sunday: "There were no Iraqi diplomats remaining in Rome after I left, so I gave the seal to the accountant of the Sudanese embassy, where the Iraqi interests section was housed, because he had a safe and could lock it up."
The only relevant forged document dated July 6, 2000, was the missing Purchase Agreement signed in Niamey. As a contract between two states, the forgers may have felt that Mr. Zahawie, seal and all, would be a fitting lawful representative of one of the parties to the agreement. After all he had negotiated the deal since 1999 according to the scenario. And just ten days before on June 30th, the forgers' Nigerien Minister of Foreign Affaires had sent a letter to their Rome Embassy asking them to contact Mr. Zahawie to hear his decision concerning their previous negotiations on the uranium transaction. (I refer to the false letter
erroneously stamped "30 Jul 1999").
So the bottom line at this point is, How did the US government get hold of the missing contract, given that they turned it over to the IAEA?
If we're to believe Ms. Burba, and we have no reason to doubt her reconstruction, she didn't pass them off to the Embassy.
As for all the other parties in this affair (SISMI and Mi6) they seem to flounder in a chronic state of denial, plausible or not.
More to follow.
Update [2006-2-22 5:6:40 by de Gondi]: Eriposte has taken up my post and spelled out its significance better than I have done in a new post.