Man Without Qualities

Monday, September 27, 2004

Funhouse Mirror Image III: More Notes from the Ironosphere

A number of readers have written noting many media claims that the British intelligence report on which President Bush relied for his famous "16 words" may have itself relied on the forged Niger document received from Italian sources. It appears that the displaced Sixty Minute II item was would have made that assertion. The assertion is an old one. For example, this old CNN article focuses on the supposed reliance of United States and British intelligence on the forged Italian Niger documents and connects them to the 16 Words. (By the way, this site claims to show the forgeries).

Seymour M. Hersh works the same angle in his New Yorker piece. The piece is a marvelously constructed house of innuendo cards. Perhaps my favorite passage: Some I.A.E.A. investigators ... speculated that MI6 - the branch of British intelligence responsible for foreign operations -had become involved, perhaps through contacts in Italy, after the Ambassador's return to Rome. Mr. Hersh also states:
What is generally agreed upon, a congressional intelligence-committee staff member told me, is that the Niger documents were initially circulated by the British President Bush said as much in his State of the Union speech.

But Newsweek reports that the fake Italian Niger documents didn't come from British intelligence, but directly from:
Elisabetta Burba, the Italian journalist who first obtained the phony documents... Burba ... then provided the documents to the U.S. Embassy in Rome in an effort to authenticate them. The embassy soon passed the material on to Washington.
Perhaps most curiously, Mr. Hersh works hard to suggest that British intelligence may have actually generated the documents as part of a "disinformation campaign." And that means the British were supplying the White House with intelligence reports based on their own disinformation. How likely is that?

In any event, Newsweek reported:
The NSC man asked if it would be all right to cite a British intelligence report that the Iraqis were trying to buy uranium from several African countries. The CIA official acquiesced. [T]he British have not backed off that claim (a British official told NEWSWEEK that it came from an East African nation, not Niger)

Did Niger figure in the British intelligence assessment? Of course it did, but not in the way the CNN's, Marshall's, Hersh's and others of such stripe claim, as this July 17, 2003 Guardian article explains:
Tony Blair insisted the UK claim was based not on the forged documents but on independent intelligence. He added that the link between Niger and Iraq was not an invention of the CIA or Britain. "We know in the 1980s that Iraq purchased from Niger over 270 tons of uranium, and therefore it is not beyond the bounds of possibility - let's at least put it like this - that they went back to Niger again."

In addition to the 16 Words, the US "reliance" on the forged Italian Niger documents CNN focuses on the US forwarding the documents to the International Atomic Energy Agency. One has to read rather far down in the CNN article to find this indication that the IAEA was actually warned that the documents had not been authenticated:
A U.S. intelligence official said that the documents were passed on to the International Atomic Energy Agency within days of being received with the comment, " 'We don't know the provenance of this information, but here it is.' "

Why would US or British authorities provide fakes to the IAEA under any circumstances - especially before verifying them? Well, the article from The Guardian suggests one possible reason:
The International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN body responsible for non-proliferation, yesterday reminded Britain it had a duty to hand over any new intelligence for verification. An IAEA spokeswoman, Melissa Fleming, said: "If there was any other evidence, it would still be appropriate for the IAEA to receive it." The forged documents were passed in February this year by the US to the IAEA, which a month later declared them to be forgeries. The IAEA has not released the documents. Ms Fleming said: "We are not able to discuss the details of classified documents or documents given to us by member states."

So it seems that the IAEA may have (and, by its reckoning, should have) demanded copies of the fake Niger documents for verification by the IAEA. If, as the Guardian article indicates, the IAEA asserts a right and a duty to obtain and itself "verify" evidence of nuclear activity, evidence such as these documents, that would go a long way towards explaining why the documents were eventually turned over to the IAEA with nothing but a warning (similar to the one the White House and the CIA received) that their provenance had not been established. It seems passing strange that after releasing and discussing exactly the details of the classified-but-fake documents that tend to protect the IAEA officials, Ms Fleming said: "We are not able to discuss the details of classified documents or documents given to us by member states." Ah, yes. Security and policy concerns begin with the follow-up questions!

By the way, everyone seems to agree that the Italian Niger documents are fake, and I take that as a given. But I note that some of the aspects of the Niger documents cited (by the IAEA and others) as indicating them to be "obvious fakes" are pretty strange. For example, one reporter relates that the IAEA noted that the signature of a high official was "childlike" and obviously not his and that dates didn't match quite right. That's not good, of course. But official documents are often generated on a nunc pro tunc basis bearing dates far earlier than the actual date on which the document was generated. And it is common for high officials to seldom, or even never, actually sign official documents the way people such as, say, Mr. Killian, sign their own memos. They let their assistants and subordinates sign their names - or even use stamps (a form of the "cut and paste," supposedly also a sign that the Niger documents were fake). Paul Johnson notes in his wonderful book Modern Times that Adolph Hitler appears to have written not one letter and signed not one official document at any time after assuming control of Germany. Does the reporter mentioned above and his IAEA contact throw away all American currency once determining that the "signatures" of the Secretary of the Treasury and the Treasurer of the United States on it are obvious facsimiles?

Mr. Hersh also includes some sketchy and highly elliptical references to the documents being later mentioned in Congress. Given the sketchiness of those references and the fact the Congress voted to authorize the Iraq war long before these documents came on the scene, Mr. Hersh seems to take no ground with this device.

Meanwhile, deep in the ironosphere,Bill Burkett is suing CBS News because Mr. Burkett says he warned CBS and CBS promised to authenticate the fake Killian memos. Nobody seems to be expressing doubt that Mr. Burkett is blameless if what he says is completely true.

Go figure.

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