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2005-10-27

Italian Media Reveals U.S. Officials Met With Italian Intelligence Officials To Discuss Fake Documents Citing Niger Nuke Sales to Iraq

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As the country waits to see whether indictments will be handed down to top White House officials in the CIA leak case, reports are breaking that Italian intelligence and Bush administration officials met in connection with the forged Niger documents that were used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq. We get the latest from law professor Scott Horton and journalist Laura Rozen. [includes rush transcript]

Rumors continue to fly in Washington over whether any top White House officials will be forced to resign for their involvement in the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame. On Wednesday special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald presented a summary of his case to the grand jury, which could hand down indictments today or tomorrow. According to the Washington Post, Karl Rove’s legal team has been engaged in a furious effort to convince Fitzgerald that Rove did not commit perjury. The D.C.-based newspaper Roll Call reporter Fitzgerald was spotted Wednesday at the offices of Rove’s attorney.

Meanwhile on Tuesday a member of Fitzgerald’s team interviewed former White House press aide Adam Levine about conversations he had with Rove on July 11 2003 — just days before Plame’s name first appeared in the press. The grand jury is set to expire on Friday but there has been speculation that Fitzgerald might try to extend the grand jury’s term.

On Wednesday White House press secretary Scott McClellan was questioned about the impact the investigation has had on the White House.

  • Scott McClellan: "First of all, there’s a lot of speculation going around, and I think there are a lot of facts that are simply not known at this point. It remains an ongoing investigation, and we’ll let the special prosecutor continue to do his work. And I’m sure he will have more to say in due course. In terms of the White House, this White House is focused on the priorities of the American people. We’re working on the priorities that the American people care about. The President has had a very busy day. He started his morning focused on the highest priorities facing this country by — which is winning the war on terrorism protecting the homeland."

To discuss the latest news about the CIA leak investigation and to explain how grand jury indictments work we are joined by:

  • Scott Horton, chairman of the International Law Committee at the New York City Bar Association. He is also an adjunct professor of law at Columbia University where he lectures on international law and international humanitarian law.
  • Laura Rozen, a journalist who covers national security and foreign policy issues. She is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect and she edits the widely read blog warandpiece.com.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan was questioned about the impact the investigation has had on the White House.

SCOTT McCLELLAN: First of all, there’s a lot of speculation going around, and I think there are a lot of facts that simply are not known at this point. It remains an ongoing investigation, and we’ll let the special prosecutor continue to do his work, and I’m sure he will have more to say in due course. In terms of the White House, this White House is focused on the priorities of the American people. We’re working on the priorities that the American people care about. The President has had a very busy day. He started his morning focused on the highest priorities facing this country, which is winning the war on terrorism and protecting the homeland.

AMY GOODMAN: That was White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan speaking Wednesday. To discuss the latest news about the C.I.A. leak investigation and to explain how grand jury indictments work, we’re joined by two guests. Laura Rozen is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist, senior correspondent for the American Prospect, frequently writes about national security and foreign policy issues on her blog, WarAndPiece.com. And we are joined in our New York studio by Scott Horton, Chair of the International Law Committee at the New York City Bar Association; he’s also Adjunct Professor of Law at Columbia University where he lectures on international law and international humanitarian law. Laura Rozen, let’s begin with you. Can you tell us the latest at point of this broadcast?

LAURA ROZEN: I’m afraid I can’t. I was really preparing to speak more on these Niger forgeries, and I —- -—

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.

LAURA ROZEN: I’m not up on latest from over night really on the leak investigation. I apologize.

AMY GOODMAN: No, that’s fine. Why don’t you talk about exactly what you’re referring to when you talk about how Niger fits into this story?

LAURA ROZEN: Yes. You know, the outing of Valerie Plame is kind of the end of this long process that began with these documents, these forged documents that came into the possession of the U.S. government that purported to show a contract for Iraq to purchase vast quantities of yellow cake uranium in the African country of Niger. So, in Italy this week, an investigative reporting team has made great headway in actually identifying who were the people who actually set this whole forgeries in motion that, you know, the Bush administration cited as one of the reasons they thought that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons. And it turns out to be various current and ex-officials from the Italian military intelligence organization, SISMI. And that’s quite interesting, because, you know, the Italian prime minister was very supportive — is a supporter of President Bush and was one of the few European allies to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq. And they kept, through various channels, trying to channel this false intelligence to the U.S. and British intelligence.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Many Americans here are not familiar with this angle, this Italian angle to the entire situation here of the false information given out about the — about Niger and nuclear weapons. Could you talk about — a little bit about the La Repubblica articles? And exactly what is the connection between the officials in the Bush administration and the — this Italian — the forgeries that originated there?

LAURA ROZEN: Right. Well, Vice President Cheney asked his C.I.A. briefers in February 2002, that says that he had heard something about this Niger yellow cake claim and asked them to find out more. They sent Joseph Wilson on the trip to Niger. He didn’t — Cheney’s office apparently didn’t know anything about this. You know, seven, eight months later, September 2002, just as Andy Card is saying, you know, now is the time for the White House to make its sales pitch to the country for the war, and, you know, Vice President Cheney is going on TV saying — talking about Iraq reconstituting its nuclear weapons, now we find out that the head of Italian military intelligence came to meet with a White House official, which is very unusual. He met with Steve Hadley, who has also been someone who has been identified as part of a kind of alleged conspiracy in the White House to eventually out Joseph Wilson’s wife to the media as a C.I.A. operative, kind of as retaliation for Joseph Wilson pushing back on these false Niger uranium claims. Does that tie the two things together? Does that make clear how the leak investigation is tied in some ways to these documents?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes. But also, in terms of Hadley’s then role in the Bush administration putting out this information?

LAURA ROZEN: It’s not clear. He was Deputy National Security Adviser at the time. He’s National Security Adviser now. He met with the head of Italian military intelligence, September 9, 2002. The N.S.C. spokesman told me, you know, that meeting’s not necessarily secret, it’s just that Hadley’s schedule is not public. On the Italian side, my colleagues at La Repubblica tell me that the head of Italian military intelligence doesn’t admit to having met with Hadley.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, you have —- Hadley goes to Italy -—

LAURA ROZEN: No, no. Pollari comes here.

AMY GOODMAN: He comes here. They have the meeting.

LAURA ROZEN: They have the meeting.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain again how this information then got out in the Italian publication and the connection of that Italian publication to Berlusconi.

LAURA ROZEN: The other thing — right. The other thing — so then a month after Hadley and the head of Italian military intelligence meet in September 2002, a reporter for an Italian magazine owned by the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gets passed by a shady middleman in Italy a bunch of documents that turn out to be the Niger forgeries. And her editor who is kind of the favorite in the Berlusconi media empire tells her, "Take these immediately to the U.S. embassy in Rome," which she does, and they get cabled back to Washington. So, even though the C.I.A. originally dismissed these whole Niger uranium claims at several points, as had the State Department, as being unsubstantiated, and Joe Wilson went on his trip to Niger and also found the claims to be unsubstantiated, you find the President, you know, in January 2003 citing Iraq’s alleged efforts to acquire uranium in Niger as being one of his — you know, in his State of the Union address.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Scott Horton, you have this story of a top Bush administration official meeting with Italian intelligence, and then soon a publication owned by the prime minister of Italy, Berlusconi, who is a close Bush ally, publishes this information that Saddam Hussein is getting 500 tons of yellow cake uranium from Niger; the significance of this?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, it’s actually a bombshell, because it shows this entire investigation doubling back and coming to the very beginning, to the original case of the yellow cake forgeries. People have been asking for a long time, "Why is it that people in the Vice President’s staff were so concerned about Ambassador Wilson and his debunking of the yellow cake forgeries?" I mean, many people have thought that it just doesn’t make sense that they would be so deeply engaged. Of course, one thing we know from the investigation, what’s come out from it to date, is that they were very deeply involved from the top of the staff to the bottom of it. And this shows the first glimmers of a real explanation for that by linking key figures from the White House and what Colonel Wilkerson has called the "cabal" around Vice President Cheney to the forgeries themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: Wilkerson being the former Chief of Staff of Powell.

SCOTT HORTON: Exactly right. I mean, there’s no evidence that has come out that suggests that these people uttered the forgeries, but it does suggest they had a great interest in them. They knew about them from a very early date, and they knew they were forgeries from very early on and nevertheless showed great interest in getting these documents out and into the public. And there was a very, very high level complicity between White House figures and Prime Minister Berlusconi and senior confidants of his.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to break, and then we’re going to come back. Laura Rozen, thanks very much for being with us. And your website, your blog, WarAndPiece.com, writing for The American Prospect. Scott Horton, I’d like you to stay on to talk also about Vice President Dick Cheney, the Washington Post editorial yesterday saying "Vice President for Torture," Maureen Dowd saying "Just say vice."

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Scott Horton, who is a law professor here in New York City. Scott Horton, the issue of this grand jury. What — it has been impaneled for how long? Who are they, and what happens now?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, we have 23 citizens from the District of Columbia, who are serving, and they have been in session now for a very long time. I think more than a year.

AMY GOODMAN: Full-time?

SCOTT HORTON: No, it’s not full-time. They meet several times in the course of a month. I think this grand jury has been meeting pretty regularly on Fridays in the afternoon. But it’s a tremendous amount of service that they’re providing. And Friday is the last day of their scheduled term; or is it? That’s one of the questions we have got, because what happened yesterday that has attracted a lot of interest from lawyers is that the special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, had a 30 to 45-minute meeting with Chief Judge Hogan.

Now, why would he have had that meeting? It could have been a courtesy call. That’s not terribly likely. More likely, he was either seeking to arrange special meeting times for the current grand jury, seeking to extend its term or seeking to have indictments that have been voted or about to be voted put under seal. And that suggests very strongly that the investigation is, in fact, not completely wrapped up now. We may have charges announced today, but that there’s an important slice of it remaining to be completed.

JUAN GONZALEZ: From the perspective of the Bush administration, would it be better for this grand jury to be extended, for this to drag out, or would it be better for them to have — if these indictments are going to come down, have them come down now and begin the process of adjustment into the new conditions?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, I think, surely, they would like to get this behind them, and having an open portion of it is going to create an ongoing public distraction. I think most commentators looking at the White House in the last month see it as nearly incapacitated by this scandal. I mean, you already referred earlier in the broadcast to withdrawals and reversals, the Miers nomination is floundering. This is a political low point for the White House, no doubt about it.

AMY GOODMAN: So, could you have some indictments handed down today, others announced later?

SCOTT HORTON: Absolutely. And we could have a number of indictments handed down today that won’t be announced.

AMY GOODMAN: Sealed?

SCOTT HORTON: They will be under seal.

AMY GOODMAN: For what reason?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, there are a number of reasons why you would put — it’s a rather unusual process, putting indictments under seal. We should state that up front. The most traditional cause for it is that — is to not let slip the fact that someone’s going to be indicted so they can be apprehended. You’re afraid that they’re going to flee. That doesn’t make sense when we are dealing with public officials, frankly. What would make sense with public officials is that the fact of the indictment would tip people to the fact that they and people who are working with them are targets of the investigation. And, you know, and I think, obviously, of all the things we’ve seen, the Italian side of this is the most intriguing. I think it’s most likely that that part of the investigation hasn’t been finished. But this is just speculation.

AMY GOODMAN: Can a vice president be indicted?

SCOTT HORTON: Well, vice presidents have been indicted. In fact, Aaron Burr was indicted twice and Spiro Agnew was indicted. But there is a question of executive immunity. And how far does executive immunity go? And on that issue, actually, the leading authority is probably Robert Bork, a former judge and Yale Law professor who wrote quite in great detail about this, saying that the vice president does not have immunity, that that’s really limited to the president. But that’s not really a settled question.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But how would it be possible to have sealed indictments? Would the actual people indicted be notified, or even they would not know that they had been indicted?

SCOTT HORTON: They would not be notified of the fact that they’d be indicted, and neither would the public.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Scott Horton, who is the Chair of International Law Committee at the New York City Bar Association, also Adjunct Professor of Law at Columbia University.

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