- Peter Eisner
veteran foreign correspondent. He is currently an editor at The Washington Post. He is co-author of The Italian Letter: How the Bush Administration Used a Fake Letter to Build the Case for War in Iraq.
- Carlo Bonini
investigative journalist with La Repubblica newspaper of Rome. He is co-author of Collusion: International Espionage and the War on Terror.
In his January 2003 State of the Union address, President Bush declared the infamous 16 words: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” The claim was central to the administration’s claims that Saddam Hussein was seeking weapons of mass destruction and served as a basis for launching the Iraq invasion less than two months later. Bush’s declaration was based on an intelligence document that provided evidence about Iraq’s purchase of uranium from the African country of Niger. But there was one problem: The document was a fake. In a Democracy Now! broadcast exclusive, we speak with the authors of two explosive new books. Carlo Bonini is the Italian reporter who broke the Niger story. His new book is called “Collusion: International Espionage and the War on Terror.” Peter Eisner is a veteran foreign correspondent and is currently an editor at The Washington Post. His new book is “The Italian Letter: How the Bush Administration Used a Fake Letter to Build the Case for War in Iraq.” [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: It was one of the key justifications for the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.
AMY GOODMAN: President Bush made the statement in his January 2003 State of the Union address. Those 16 words were central to the administration’s claims that Saddam Hussein was seeking weapons of mass destruction and served as the basis for launching the Iraq invasion less than two months later. Bush’s declaration was based on an intelligence document that provided evidence about Iraq’s purchase of uranium from the African country of Niger.
But there was one problem: The document was fake.
Bush’s smoking gun evidence would quickly unravel and ignite a political firestorm that reached the highest levels of the U.S. government. The story behind the forged document stretches from Italy to Niger to Iraq and deep into the corridors of the U.S. intelligence community and the White House itself. The document played a key role in the chain of events that led to the conviction of Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, in the CIA leak case.
And its effect continues to reverberate today. Congressmember Henry Waxman, the chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, recently formally requested Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to testify before a committee hearing next week regarding the false Iraq-Niger claims.
Today, in a Democracy Now! broadcast exclusive, two explosive new books. Carlo Bonini is the Italian reporter who broke the story. His new book is called Collusion: International Espionage and the War on Terror. He is an investigative journalist with La Repubblica newspaper of Rome. He joins us in our firehouse studio. Peter Eisner is a veteran foreign correspondent. He’s currently an editor at The Washington Post. His new book is called The Italian Letter: How the Bush Administration Used a Fake Letter to Build the Case for War in Iraq. He joins us from Washington, D.C. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!
I want to begin with Carlo Bonini. When did you first learn about this story?
CARLO BONINI: It was summer 2003, where there had been at the time few —- I mean, few reports from U.S. that probably the smoking gun regarding the weapons of mass destruction was some way fabricated in Italy. And all of the sudden in the summer of 2003, we got these documents, these fake documents, and we found -—
AMY GOODMAN: How did you get these fake documents?
CARLO BONINI: Well, a search gave us these documents. We had the chance to see how the documents were badly faked. And the most surprisingly thing was that we had the chance to identify the person who had a main role in faking the documents. And the name of this guy was Rocko Martino, a former Italian SISMI agent.
AMY GOODMAN: SISMI?
CARLO BONINI: SISMI is the Italian CIA. It’s the secret service, the counterintelligence service. And Rocco Martino made his way, and his documents made their way to the White House and to the 16 words.
AMY GOODMAN: How? First, did you know him before?
CARLO BONINI: No. No. This guy came out of the blue. I mean, at least we never — I mean, we didn’t know the existence of him. But it was quite clear after a while that Rocco Martino didn’t act by himself. I mean, the Italian job was not only by him. Rocco Martino could count on the complicity of the Italian SISMI. It was thanks to the Italian SISMI that at the beginning the content of the fake documents could be shared with the CIA, and it was because of Rocco Martino’s old friendship with an Italian reporter that the documents in the fall 2002 could be shipped to U.S. through the U.S. Embassy in Rome.
AMY GOODMAN: Peter Eisner, can you take it from there? And also place this in the context of when this happened in relation to President Bush uttering those 16 words.
PETER EISNER: Well, in fact, Amy, the CIA and other members of the intelligence community had heard from SISMI in the first few days after 9/11, which was saying that there was information that they didn’t specify about possible uranium purchases or attempts to buy uranium in Niger, and the CIA solicited more information from SISMI. And by early 2002, they actually had a version of one document saying that this had taken place.
Many parts of the CIA, from the outset, as early as September and October of 2001, simply did not believe that Iraq, for various reasons, was attempting to buy uranium or, in fact, trying to restart its nuclear program — didn’t need to buy uranium in Niger, because it already had uranium. Second of all, SISMI was not providing the source. It was not saying how it was getting the information. And third of all, they tended to doubt SISMI, in any case, because it’s got a reliability problem among Western intelligence agencies. So, well before, more than a year before President Bush’s State of the Union message, it was gravely doubted by key members of the intelligence community that it could have been that Saddam Hussein was trying to buy uranium.
AMY GOODMAN: Would you agree, Carlo Bonini, with this assessment of SISMI having a problem with credibility in Western intelligence?
CARLO BONINI: I do agree. I do agree, and I think that the Nigergate story, as well as other stories, can prove it. Also, what Peter was saying, the problem with SISMI was that also — I mean, along this complicated story called Nigergate, SISMI played a very untrusty role. We heard before that Bush relied on British intelligence. The problem is that it was the same hand feeding different mouths. I mean, Rocco Martino was feeding the British, was feeding the Americans, was feeding the French. That is the problem. I mean, the SISMI didn’t ring the bell when it was the time to ring the bell. SISMI simply let the story go ’til January 2003, when it was too late.
AMY GOODMAN: Peter Eisner, talk more about who Rocco Martino was.
PETER EISNER: Rocco Martino was a failed former policeman, Italian policeman, a sometimes agent — and that is, outside the house of SISMI — who sometimes was able to provide nuggets of information to journalists and certainly was also working as a freelance for other intelligence agencies, even the French, or working for or providing them information for a stipend.
Rocco Martino approached a journalist named Elisabetta Burba at the Milan news magazine Panorama on October 7, 2002, and said he had some great material, a hot tip about Iraq and uranium, if she was interested. And that was how he first surfaced in this story. Elisabetta Burba and others at her magazine had heard of Martino before. They had gotten information from him before. They had paid him before. And she took a look at his documents, had immediate doubts, brought it into her editors, and started investigating.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break. When we come back, her response when President Bush gave that State of the Union address in 2003 and talked about Saddam Hussein trying to get uranium from Niger. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. We’ll be back with these two reporters who have both documented these stories in two explosive books: Peter Eisner’s The Italian Letter, Carlo Bonini’s The Collusion. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are two reporters, now authors. Carlo Bonini wrote with Giuseppe D’Avanzo the book Collusion: International Espionage and the War on Terror. Peter Eisner, together with Knut Royce, has written the book The Italian Letter: How the Bush Administration Used a Fake Letter to Build the Case for War in Iraq.
So we’re back to the day that President Bush made his statement within the State of the Union address about Saddam Hussein’s attempt to get uranium from Africa. Peter Eisner, what role did the CIA play in this statement?
PETER EISNER: The CIA actually had attempted to block the statement by President Bush relating uranium purchases in Niger. And, in fact, three months before the State of the Union message, on October 7, 2002 — strangely, the same day that Rocco Martino handed over the documents to Elisabetta Burba — President Bush was scheduled to deliver a speech in Cincinnati, and the draft of that speech said pretty much what he ended up saying in the State of the Union message. That was, that the British had found that Iraq had attempted to buy uranium in Africa.
The CIA was given routinely a copy of that text in advance and argued that that sentence about uranium should be removed. There was quite an argument between the lower CIA officials and White House staff, including Stephen Hadley, at the time the assistant national security adviser, now the national security adviser, once Condoleezza Rice became secretary of state. Finally, George Tenet, the head of the CIA, had to intercede on October 7 and demand that the White House remove the sentence describing uranium purchases in Niger. It was quite a dust-up.
As a result of that, the White House, burned, decided that in the interim it would not provide advanced text of presidential speeches to the CIA to avoid having to withdraw information that it didn’t want to withdraw. So, the day before the State of the Union message, no one at the CIA had seen the text of the State of the Union message, until the night before. Someone just mildly passed a draft text to George Tenet during a meeting, which was not the normal procedure for vetting a document. And basically everyone at the CIA was surprised when President Bush uttered that statement, which had already been excised three months earlier. The response by the White House staff was, “Whoops! We forgot.”
AMY GOODMAN: And yet, what happened? This was still before the president’s address?
PETER EISNER: Well, in effect, George Tenet, the head of the CIA, the day before, received the text, handed it off to an aide, and nobody took a look at it. It could have been stopped, but usually, you know, days before, as the text is being prepared, written, analyzed, someone would look at it. In this case, they didn’t, although the Bush administration did have allies elsewhere in the CIA that were kind of giving them cover to be able to make this statement, while a vast majority, I would say, of the intelligence community in the United States did not believe for an instant that Iraq was trying to buy uranium or that Iraq was trying to restart its nuclear program.
AMY GOODMAN: Where did Joe Wilson fit into this picture, the former ambassador to Iraq during the Gulf War?
PETER EISNER: There we have to roll back about six or eight months earlier. On February 5, 2002 — that’s before anyone had seen the documents in the United States; this was a dossier of documents including the Italian letter, which was a letter from the president of Niger to Saddam Hussein, forged document — on February 5, another document was transcribed, and a version, which was called a verbatim text of this document, was sent to the CIA, the first actual text the CIA had about this supposed sale that SISMI was claiming to have taken place in the year 2000 between Niger and Iraq. A rather complicated story. But this particular document was an endorsement, supposedly, by the supreme court of Niger, saying that they approved the sale of uranium to Iraq.
Now, when this arrived at the CIA, it had basic mistakes, and if anyone had bothered and taken the document, gone to the Internet, done a Google search, they would have seen that the people named as members of the supreme court were no longer members of the supreme court, that what was described as the state court of Niger had gone out of existence. It was now, in fact, called the supreme court. So, in a supposed official document from Niger was replete with basic mistakes. The problem was that the CIA already didn’t believe this information and cast it aside.
Interestingly, the Defense Intelligence Agency, ultimately controlled by the Pentagon under Donald Rumsfeld, picked up this document, wrote a version of what it said, took out any sense of doubt, any sense of questioning the information, and prepared a document of its own and placed it on Dick Cheney’s desk one week later, February 12, 2002. Dick Cheney responded with animation, going to the CIA, his CIA briefer, and saying, “You’re not doing a good enough job. We need more information. This is hot. We want to find out about Iraq and Niger.”
At that point, the CIA panicked, looked for information that was nonexistent, because it had already discarded the story. But to do something, they turned to Joe Wilson, with the help of Valerie Plame, his wife, and Wilson was dispatched within days to Niger to reinvestigate what had already been discarded. Wilson came back a week later and once again said there is no evidence and no probability that Iraq had tried to purchase uranium in Niger.
So it was really Dick Cheney receiving a document that was based on obviously fraudulent material that pushed the envelope, and that led to us finding out later about Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame and eventually Scooter Libby. If the CIA had done a basic Google search, it could have really put an end to the entire story at that moment.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to play a clip of Vice President Dick Cheney. Despite the growing skepticism, Vice President Cheney continued to assert that Iraq sought to acquire uranium from Niger, as a justification for the invasion. In September of 2003, he was questioned about the claim about Tim Russert on NBC’s Meet the Press. This was Vice President Cheney’s response.
VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: I had heard a report that the Iraqis had been trying to acquire uranium in Africa, Niger in particular. I get a daily brief on my own each day before I meet with the president to go through the intel. And I ask lots of questions. One of the questions I asked at that particular time about this is, what do we know about this? They take the question. He came back within a day or two and said, “This is all we know. There’s a lot we don’t know. End of statement.”
And Joe Wilson, I don’t know who sent Joe Wilson. He never submitted a report that I ever saw when he came back.
I guess the intriguing thing, Tim, on the whole thing, this question of whether or not the Iraqis were trying to acquire uranium in Africa, in the British report — this week, the committee of the British Parliament, which has spent 90 days investigating all of this, revalidated the British claim that Saddam was in fact trying to acquire uranium in Africa, what was in the State of the Union speech and what was in the original British white paper. So there may be a difference of opinion there. I don’t know what the truth is on the ground with respect to that, but I guess —- I don’t know Mr. Wilson. I probably shouldn’t judge him. I have no idea who hired him. And it never -—
TIM RUSSERT: The CIA did.
VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: Yeah, but who in the CIA, I don’t know.
AMY GOODMAN: The CIA sent Joe Wilson to investigate the uranium claim and found it highly unlikely. One month after President Bush declared major combat operations were over in Iraq, Wilson wrote a stinging op-ed piece in The New York Times called “What I Did Not Find in Africa.” That was written in July 2003. In it, he said he told the CIA long before the president’s State of the Union that the British reports were suspect. This set off a firestorm around Bush’s address. Joe Wilson came to our studio in May of 2004. He spoke about what he had written in the New York Times article.
JOSEPH WILSON: What it catalogued was a trip out to Niger at the request of the CIA, acting in response to a question by the vice president to check out allegations that Iraq had attempted to purchase significant quantities of uranium from that country. Now, it was a very important question, because, after all, Iraq would have only one use for uranium, and that would be nuclear weapons programs. And that would have been the one piece of incontrovertible evidence that he was attempting to reconstitute nuclear weapons programs, which would have lent some credence to the notion that the smoking gun might be a mushroom cloud.
I came back. I said there was nothing to this. Mine was one of three reports in the files of the U.S. government that said there was nothing to this, which should have been reassuring to those who had sent us out, including the vice president and the national security adviser.
Instead, of course, the president makes a statement in the State of the Union address, and as it turns out, he referred to British intelligence, which happened to be the same information. But he referred to British intelligence, because the CIA wouldn’t clear his making that claim unless it was caveated by going through a third intelligence service. So there was real active deception there. This was not just an accident. This was not a slip of the tongue. These were people who wanted to put something in there that was actually deceptive to the U.S. Congress and to the American people.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Joe Wilson speaking on Democracy Now! in May of 2004. Our guests are Peter Eisner, who’s co-author of The Italian Letter, and Carlo Bonini, investigative reporter with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. He co-authored the book Collusion: International Espionage and the War on Terror. Your response to Joe Wilson and again hearing Dick Cheney?
CARLO BONINI: Well, I think that a — it’s absolutely clear and it’s undoubtful that in the summer 2002, the U.S. administration knew for sure that there were no evidence corroborating the content of the fake documents. According to Alain Chouet, the former number two of the French intelligence that I met and I interviewed for the book, in the summer 2002, the French intelligence was asked by the CIA to dispatch a group of intelligence officers in Africa to double-check what — the hints provided by the documents. And in the summer 2002, the French intelligence deftly ruled out the credibility of the documents. Quite interestingly, the summer before, in the summer 2001, the French had checked the evidence the first time, because, as Peter was remembering before, the first hint about the uranium and uranium trade was back in the summer/fall 2001. So, in 2001 and in 2002, the French double-checked the evidences. So it was clear at the beginning of the fall 2002 that there were no evidences.
It’s quite interesting that Dick Cheney in September 2003 is still saying that probably there are different opinions. I mean, the problem here is not opinions. The problem here are facts, and the facts are very solid: no evidence of a trade-off between Iraq and Niger regarding uranium.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what competitive intelligence is, Carlo.
CARLO BONINI: Competitive intelligence is what we have just saw. You have a single swindler in a remote country, Italy, trying to sell faked information. The informations are exactly what policymakers are looking for to sell a policy, an important political decision. In competitive intelligence, you can — the point is to go through the channel, the official channel of the intelligence, a disinformation, a piece of disinformation. And what is important is to channel the disinformation in different channels. In this case, we have the Italians selling the disinformation to the Brits, the Italians selling the disinformation to the Americans. And then you have the Americans looking for confirmations, and the confirmations is from the Brits. This is competitive intelligence. You have disinformation sold through different channels and turned into something different from the origin. Something that is false at the beginning became true at the end.
AMY GOODMAN: Peter Eisner, I wanted to raise Sir Richard Dearlove’s statement. This was in the summer of 2002. He was the head of MI6, British intelligence. He said the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. And this goes to the whole Downing Street memo.
PETER EISNER: Yes, indeed. He came back after meeting with members of the Bush administration. We have to remember that the British intelligence for decades has been so close to CIA, it would be hard to recognize any separate piece of information that the British might have that the CIA doesn’t have. He came back to Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street and said, “The war is going to take place. This is going to happen.” And just as in the United States, members of the intelligence community gave up, on some level, in trying to convince the administration that the evidence wasn’t strong enough. They said, “It’s going to happen anyway.”
Once Dearlove came back and said that, the British intelligence services fed the political policy of helping sell the concept and propagandize the concept that Saddam Hussein was a clear and present danger. That led to a shocking British white paper in the fall of 2002 that, in turn, as Carlo points out, fed CIA’s intelligence reporting that said that this sale had likely taken place, and not only that, in a preface to the white paper, Prime Minister Tony Blair made the misstatement that Saddam Hussein would be able to launch an attack of weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes, which was an absolute distortion that shocked members of his own intelligence community, but which was quickly picked up by the United States and repeated by the United States, although U.S. intelligence officials also knew that there was no basis. So, once again, dealing with circular intelligence, with a foundation that was less than meager, it was almost nonexistent.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk about the role of the press in all of this, but we’re going to go to break. And when we come back, I’m going to play a brief excerpt of an interview I had with Michael Gordon, who co-wrote that infamous piece, September 8, 2002 — it appeared in The New York Times — written with Judith Miller, once again laying out the administration’s case for war: weapons of mass destruction. We’ll be back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: On September 8, 2002, The New York Times published the now-infamous article alleging Iraq attempted to purchase aluminum tubes towards developing nuclear weapons. The piece was used by the Bush administration to help make the case for invading Iraq. It was co-authored by reporters Judith Miller and Michael Gordon. The New York Times later singled out the article as part of its editor’s note, apologizing for its inaccurate coverage of Iraq and weapons of mass destruction.
Well, Michael Gordon appeared on Democracy Now! a little over a year ago. During our interview, I asked him about his reporting in the lead-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
MICHAEL GORDON: There was no agency in the American government that said Saddam was not involved in WMD. You know, the State Department, although it’s turned out to be correct, certainly on the nuclear issue, did not turn out to be —- you know, didn’t challenge the biological case, the chemical case, and I’m going to offer you this last thought, and I’m happy to respond to any questions you have, but, you know, there are a number of complicated WMD issues -—
AMY GOODMAN: Let me just ask something on that. Are you sorry you did the piece? Are you sorry that this piece —
MICHAEL GORDON: No, I’m not. I mean, what — I don’t know if you understand how journalism works, but the way journalism works is you write what you know, and what you know at the time you try to convey as best you can, but then you don’t stop reporting.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me, let me —
MICHAEL GORDON: Can I answer your question, since you asked me a question?
AMY GOODMAN: Well, no, I wanted to get —
MICHAEL GORDON: No, wait a second, if you ask me a question — I’m happy to answer all your questions, but what I’m trying to explain to you is one thing. That was what I knew at the time. It’s true that it was the key judgment. It’s the same information they presented to Colin Powell, by the way, and it’s what persuaded him to go to the United Nations and make the case on the nuclear tubes. I wrote the contrary case, giving the IAEA equal time. They disputed it. I don’t have a dog in this fight. I didn’t know what was the ultimate truth. When the IAEA came out in January and disputed it, I reported it.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Gordon, let me just respond. We don’t —- we have limited time in the program, but I just -—
MICHAEL GORDON: Well, then you should let me answer your questions.
AMY GOODMAN: I did.
MICHAEL GORDON: No, you haven’t let me answer your question.
AMY GOODMAN: Are you sorry then, that The New York Times was sorry that this piece appeared as it did on the front page of The New York Times.
MICHAEL GORDON: I don’t think “sorry” is the word The New York Times used.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Michael Gordon, the co-author of the infamous September 8, 2002 piece, paving the way for the war. Peter Eisner, you’re with The Washington Post. You’ve written the book, The Italian Letter. How significant was this piece? And can you talk about how journalism works?
PETER EISNER: Well, the piece was quite significant. It comes in the context of a plan that had been hatched in the White House in the summer of 2002. The White House Iraq Group, which was basically a propaganda operation that realized that the one thing that needed to be done to sell the war in Iraq was to not deal with biological weapons, not deal with chemical weapons, but to deal with the fear and threat of a mushroom cloud — and the purveyors of language specifically said, “Let’s use and start hammering away the idea that a mushroom cloud is on the horizon, that we can’t wait until we have firm information, but we have information. We’ve got to act now.”
And it was decided to wait specifically until September 8, 2002, to make that claim and to make it in a public relations campaign that included appearances on television, on radio, speeches around the world by Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell and others, along with selling the story to The New York Times, which, in fact, they did.
The easiest thing in Washington is to pass along a leak and then watch it grow, and, at least unwittingly, that story had a major role, and then it was cross-referenced. Later on, on network television, Dick Cheney said, “Well, you can read The New York Times today, and you’ll see that The New York Times is saying it.” And, you know, crediting The New York Times for a story is not the stock and trade of the Bush administration, but that was a definite part of the program, so it can’t be minimized.
AMY GOODMAN: How did your colleagues fail so miserably, from The New York Times to The Washington Post? The Washington Post had its own, you know, box where they laid out their errors in covering the war.
PETER EISNER: It’s the failure of American journalism, reporting what is said and not always tracking the context and not always playing the story as prominently as it should be played. The Washington Post apologized and wished it would have been more prominent. If you take a look at story by story, eminent journalists had all of the elements of this story, and it didn’t go over the slippery slope into recognizing that when you added up all the pieces, there was fraud going on. And I think that it’s the larger question of speaking to power, how does journalism do that, and obviously journalism sometimes fails.
AMY GOODMAN: Carlo Bonini, were you surprised from your vantage point in Italy, to watch how this case was being made for war, not just by the politicians, by the people in power, but by the corporate media, the major media institutions in the United States? And was it similar in Italy? You had Berlusconi, who was a close ally of President Bush in the lead-up to the war and through it.
CARLO BONINI: It was absolutely the same. I mean, it was not only a specific American problem. The echo chamber created by the press in the upcoming months to the war was common on both sides of the ocean.
Again, on the aluminum tubes, I agree with Peter. I mean, it was a crucial point, and again you have the Italian hands here. As you can read in the book, in my book, the Italians — I mean, the aluminum tubes were bound to replace a missile model provided by the Italians back in the ’80s to the Iraqi army. So, again, the Italian secret service in the fall 2002 knew that the forged documents, that the documents on Nigergate were forged, and they knew that the aluminum tubes were not bound to be used for enriching uranium, but to replace a missile system.
AMY GOODMAN: Ahmed Chalabi played a key role here and ended up, it turns out, we now know, was a source — or he and his allies — for many of Judith Miller’s pieces. What about his role — the head of the Iraqi National Congress, INC?
CARLO BONINI: Well, I think he had a key role. I had the chance to talk to Chalabi a couple of times in London, where he used to have his headquarters. And I was impressed, because when you knocked at the door of the headquarters of Iraqi National Congress, Ahmed Chalabi, the first questions was, to every kind of reporter from everywhere in the world, “What do you need?” So that’s exactly the approach that he had to the U.S. administration: “What do you need?”
I mean, Ahmed Chalabi was an incredible fabricator of competitive intelligence. He was able to channel, through the press, through the white papers, through his network in the United States, as well as in England, as well as in the rest of Europe, lots of misleading information.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to another issue. In November 2001 — you write this at the end of your book, Collusion — there was a meeting in Italy between Iranian intelligence and the Pentagon. Talk about this meeting.
CARLO BONINI: The meeting, I think, is an astonishing evidence that what has been reported in America before, that at the end of 2001, the U.S. administration was ready to build a case for the war in Iraq — but it’s quite interesting, these meetings show that it’s clear that in the road up to the war, the Americans negotiated, had more than, you know, shadow diplomacy with the Iranians. And, I mean, during these meetings, the Iranians attending the meetings were not simply ex-patriots. They were from SCIRI, the Supreme Council of Revolution. They were tightly tied to the ruling Ayatollah in Tehran. So it’s quite clear that in the name of the war of Iraq in Iraq, the U.S. administration, especially the Office for Special Plans of the Pentagon, ran a shadow program, diplomacy program, with the Iranians. And I think it’s very interesting, because this administration still has to give an answer about those meetings. I mean, all the answers gained until now are groundless, and doesn’t make any — don’t make much sense.
AMY GOODMAN: Peter Eisner, do you have more to say on this point of this backroom, backdoor Iran-Pentagon link that goes back? I mean, it goes way back to Iran-Contra, secret channel to Iran to sell weapons to them and then skim off the profits and support the Contras in Nicaragua.
PETER EISNER: Yes, indeed. First of all, it was arranged by a gentleman by Michael Ledeen, who is a long-term operative in U.S. circles that goes back at least to the Iran-Contra period. Michael Ledeen is a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, the heart of neoconservatism in the United States, allied with Lynne Cheney, allied with various other people close as could be to the Bush administration. Ledeen set this meeting up. Ledeen set it up without advising the U.S. Embassy. Ledeen has a longtime relationship with Italy.
Ledeen, interestingly, very interestingly, had a relationship with the magazine Panorama, which was the target of the delivery of the Italian letter and its dossier in October 2002. As a matter of fact, Ledeen started writing a column in October of 2002 for the magazine Panorama, and yet, (a), Ledeen has been widely discredited in the U.S. intelligence community. The person that he brought to the meeting in Rome, Manuchar Ghorbanifar, has been described for years by U.S. intelligence as a serial fabricator. But Ledeen, close to the Bush administration, has said that Ghorbanifar is the most reliable and honest person that he knows. This cannot be separated from the fact that Chalabi himself is questioned as having been an Iranian agent. So there’s a whole nexus of questions here that go beyond what one can really get without a series of subpoenas.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Peter Eisner, on March 30th, the House, Government Oversight and Government Reform Committee that’s headed by headed by Waxman, Congressman Waxman, has once again formally requested Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice testify before the committee on April 18th regarding the Bush administration’s claims that Iraq had sought uranium from Niger. Condoleezza Rice, set to testify on April 18th, though she is trying to get out of it. How significant is this?
PETER EISNER: Well, it shows that at least the Democratic-controlled Congress is pointing out that the underpinnings of the war still need to be looked at. You know, to this hour, when you question key members of the Bush administration, not the least President Bush himself and Vice President Cheney, the likely answer still is: “What could we do? We acted on the basis of the intelligence that was available to us.” But we find clearly that they did not act based on the intelligence that was available to them. They acted on the basis of manipulating and cherry-picking small bits of intelligence that would best sell the war that they had already decided to carry out: the war in Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think there are grounds for impeachment here?
PETER EISNER: It’s not for me to say that, because, first of all, what do we know that President Bush himself knew about this, and what do we know the vice president knew about it? The start of an investigation is to find out what was the chain, who was receiving what.
Us watching the intelligence arrive in the United States, I can say this: The intelligence and the false information about Iraq and Niger went into the system of the intelligence community. Of all people, Vice President Cheney is not just some latter-day vice president that had no relationship to the intelligence community. He was considered one of the most minute analysts of information that was coming in. He knew more than many other people that Italian military intelligence was providing this information, and he also knew that there were highly placed doubts about all of the information, and he either did not or chose not to recognize the fact that the information was scant and questionable. So there’s a lot of investigation to be done, subpoenas to be issued, before I would know enough to talk about impeachment.
AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. Peter Eisner, co-author of the book, The Italian Letter: How the Bush Administration Used a Fake Letter to Build the Case for War in Iraq, a reporter at The Washington Post; and Carlo Bonini, who, together with Giuseppe D’Avanzo, wrote Collusion: International Espionage and the War on Terror. I want to thank you both very much for being with us.