Collusion International Espionage and the War on Terror
By Carlo Bonini Giuseppe D'Avanzo
Melville House Copyright © 2007 Carlo Bonini and Giuseppe D'Avanzo
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-1-933633-27-5
Chapter One THE YELLOWCAKE FOLLIES
When he discusses the topic today, Hans Blix is still overwhelmed with bitterness and disbelief. The Swedish professor led the United Nations inspectors in Iraq. It was his job to tell the world whether Saddam Hussein did or did not have weapons of mass destruction.
His voice cracks at the memory. To keep his anger under control, he pauses for a moment. He chooses the correct words, the least resentful ones. He says:
The Italian documents concerning Nigerien yellowcake were the most spectacular evidence used to justify the war in Iraq. Combined with other information about the aluminum tubes, which were to be transformed into centrifuges to enrich uranium-another lie-that dossier was the key to the Anglo-American military intervention. It was only the Italian documents that backed up Bush's celebrated sixteen words.
January 28, 2003. The president of the United States delivers his State of the Union address. The occasion is a solemn one.
George W. Bush informs the American people, and the West: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." They are sixteen words worth going to war over.It's a short sentence, which effectively splices together a pair of misleading statements.
As Blix recalls, "In January 2003, the American administration already knew that the yellowcake information was false. Fully conscious of the risk they were running by making the information public, they chose to attribute it to the British. It was a way of covering their back, or at least sharing responsibility for what they were saying."
The truth was that from almost the first moment it was clear that there was no proof that the Iraqis were seeking uranium-also called uranium oxide or oxidized uranium-in Niger. The documents that supposedly confirmed Saddam Hussein's shopping expedition were patent forgeries.
The British had not even, in fact, vouched for that dossier. They couldn't: They had only a second-hand acquaintance with it, because it came from a "foreign intelligence agency."
The revelation that Saddam Hussein had been attempting to obtain 500 tons of crude Nigerien uranium (or, as the jargon would have it, yellowcake) emerged, rather, from doctored information assembled by an Italian intelligence snitch. It was SISMI-the Italian military intelligence service, an Italian equivalent of the CIA-that vouched for the information, both in the United States and Great Britain. If the desire for a preemptive war can be traced to Washington, and to the acquiescence of Downing Street, the ace in the hole that George W. Bush was seeking-the evidence he needed to win the hearts and minds of the West-actually came from Rome, courtesy of Silvio Berlusconi's intelligence service.
This is the first tale in this book, and this is the first place the full story has been revealed.
The involvement of the Roman government in these contradictory events, which preceded and legitimized the invasion of Iraq, has a strong whiff of caricature. Indeed, the Italian presence in the affair borders on the grotesque. It's a statement better understood once we meet the key figure in our tale: an Italian named Rocco Martino, the offspring, we've discovered, of "Raffaele and America Ventrici, born in Tropea, Catanzaro, on September 20, 1938." His astonishing role in the whole mess reeks of precinct-house tomfoolery, yet Martino's schemes had far-reaching consequences.
From Rocco Martino to George W. Bush. The leap may, at first, appear impossible, but we'll soon discover that it's neither reckless nor rash. It's merely the result of a coherent (if acrobatic) chain of events, which dishonors the political leadership on both sides of the Atlantic.
ROCCO MARTINO always tries to appear elegant, tidy. No affected style. The right fabrics, in discreet colors-nothing extravagant. In the summer, he wears linen suits, tropical blue or Havana brown; classic herringbone tweeds and gray flannel slacks in the winter; madras and worsted wools in the spring and early autumn. His ties, always of pure silk, are never loud. Blue or white shirts. Italian loafers, quite expensive. Sometimes, he'll wear the more economical French oxfords.
This correctness in his wardrobe must spring from the nature of his work, the manner in which he carries it out, the vicissitudes and catastrophes he has encountered. Above all, Martino wants to appear trustworthy. He believes that his soft white hair, his eye-catching, snow-white, exquisitely maintained mustache, and his plain, non-bureaucratic speech-all badges of the "old-fashioned gentleman"-help him in this ambition. Needless to say, they don't.
Rocco Martino looks like what he is. A lackluster ex-carabiniere. A failed spy. Encountering him, you sense the aura of a grifter, even without knowing his history. And once you've had a chance to study his career, the instinct is confirmed.
Rocco Martino was officially employed by was the forerunner to SISMI-the SID, Servizio informazione difesa-for just 18 months, from January 1976 to July 1977. The organization soon showed him the door. According to his record, he was "dismissed for lapses in behavior, having piled up big debts in his dealings with industrialists in Lazio." Best to get rid of such an untrustworthy character, the spymasters seemed to say.
In 1985, Martino was arrested for extortion. As was so often the case, the man was short of money, and he dreamed up the looniest of schemes. First, he asked for a meeting with a branch director at the Banco di Santo Spirito. When that gentleman ushered him into his office, Martino told him that he was a member of Unità, a communist guerrilla group, and that he was there for the money. If the bank didn't pony up, there would be trouble. The director pretended to take the bait. He made a show of being frightened, although he was mainly determined to pay back his visitor in spades. He went off to get the money-and returned with the police. Rocco Martino left the building in handcuffs with his fake beard, donned to disguise himself, hanging askew.
To judge from this episode, Martino doesn't seem to have things together, but it's not mere foolishness (not entirely, anyway) that plagues him. It's that the guy is often overwhelmed by his debts and squeezed by his creditors. So he keeps making desperate moves, which repeatedly land him in hot water or in jail.
Later, in 1987, he was recruited by an official from SISDE-an Italian equivalent of the FBI-to work "on a trial basis" on industrial counterespionage and the Middle east. In 1992, he went into business with an Iraqi of Palestinian origin, now a naturalized Italian, whose brother was an Iraqi arms trafficker. The idea was to start a company that could "keep the products pouring into Iraq, circumventing the embargo."
A year later, Martino was arrested in Germany. In his wallet were some checks that had been stolen during a mugging in Sicily. Five years after that, he was stopped by the police while he was skulking around the Moroccan embassy in Rome. When he was searched, officers found documents pertaining to the internal affairs of Syria, Iran, and Libya. He ended up being tried for political and military espionage on behalf of a foreign power. Eventually he was acquitted, but, according to our sources, "SISDe management quashed every official report."
Rocco Martino's checkered resume must have convinced everybody that the approach taken by SID in 1977-that is, firing the little busybody-was the only way to get him out of your hair. Stay away, keep your distance, cut all ties: the only possible option.
But in the shadow world inhabited by spies, that's not what happened. Even a feckless bungler like Rocco Martino was able to find a place in the sun. In 1977, SID turned into SISMI, and Martino continued to work as an "informant" for the intelligence services-until 1999, according to officials in the Italian Ministry of Defense.
1999. It's an interesting year. The end and the beginning of a millennium: a symbolic date. Many expect excitation from the world's numerous crazies. And the paranoiac labors of intelligence services around the world suggest that there is indeed reason to fear the new millennium.
In Italy, Admiral Giuseppe Grignolo runs Department 1 of SISMI. That makes him head of the divisions devoted to arms traffic and trade in illegal technologies. He's also in charge of weapons of mass destruction-WMD-counterproliferation in Africa and the Middle east. He remembers 1999 as the year in which he and other SISMI officials "went around to all the intelligence services, insistently asking for a large-scale collaboration to fight every form of terrorism." It was the era of Y2k, and Osama bin Laden was a hot topic of discussion. Grignolo later recalled that "terrorism was certainly a top-level priority."
Around this time, according to Grignolo, SISMI began "getting a certain number of tips and reports almost every day, especially from our stations in North Africa, Tunisia, Morocco, Turkey, and Libya, about possible attacks. Also, there was talk of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in areas like Iran, Libya, and Iraq."
There was also solid intelligence, from a solid source-including a now famous intercepted telex from the Nigerien ambassador in Rome.
The intercepted message was "Telex #003/99/Abnu/Rome." Nigerien Ambassador Adamou Chékou sent the telex to his Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Niamey, the capital of Niger. It read:
I have the honor of informing you that the Iraqi embassy to the Holy See [the Vatican] has notified me that His excellency Wissam al-Zawahie, Iraqi Ambassador to the Holy See, will undertake an official mission to our country on behalf of Saddam Hussein, president of the Iraqi Republic. His excellency Zawahie will arrive in Niamey on Friday, February 3, 1999, at around 6:25 pm, on Air France Flight 730, originating in Paris. I would be grateful for any arrangements you can make in connection with this visit.
SISMI officials didn't rack their brains over the actual purpose of Zawahie's visit to Niamey. In Niger, the world's poorest country after Sierra Leone, there are only four commercial products: goats, garbanzo beans, onions, and uranium. There was no need for goats, beans, or onions in Mesopotamia. Therefore, Saddam must be trying to get his hands on some Nigerien uranium. That was enough for SISMI officials to start contacting allied intelligence agencies around the world, sounding a "call to arms" against the threat of Arab terrorism. We know for sure that the telex was shared with Britian's MI6.
In Italy, one person at SISMI who is known to have learned about the telex is Antonio Nucera. At the time a colonel at SISMI, Nucera's knowledge of the telex is important because he is a known friend and comrade of our key player, Rocco Martino. It's been established that in 2000 Martino turned to Antonio Nucera to help put together one of his bungled schemes, the one of crucial importance to our story.
Confirmation of the connection between Nucera and Martino comes from an authoritative source. According to Nicolò Pollari, who spoke to us on the record while director of SISMI, "It's true, in 2000 Rocco Martino was ready to take the gas pipe, ruined, on his last legs. He was in debt, his reputation was shot everywhere. He turned to Nucera because an idea crossed his mind and he needed help."
Pollari is talkative, generous with details, and often hints at various facts. Usually he's rather reticent and wary, but when we spoke to him on the morning of August 5, 2004, he made an effort to smile as he tosses off a few witty phrases. "I've got plenty to say and your notebook is tiny. Here, take a few sheets of paper, because you've got a lot of writing to do."
On this particular morning, the SISMI chief appears to have barricaded himself behind his desk in the Baracchini Palace. He tips forward on his armchair, his chest jutting out over the desk, his large elbows and hands always in motion amidst the papers organized in folders in front of him.
Pollari is incapable of telling a simple story. He suggests, alludes, skittering from one subject to another without any coherent linkage. At first, it's not clear what he wishes to discuss with such unaccustomed urgency.
In this fog, a folder labeled Rocco Martino finally appears in Pollari's hands, and the reason for his anxious efforts becomes evident. Today, the SISMI chief wants to dig a wide moat between himself-meaning the organization he runs-and that scam artist and his colleagues. He keeps insisting that this guy, this Rocco, is bad news, a loose cannon employed by the French secret service. Martino gets a monthly check from Paris, he says, but he's basically a harmless dunce, so ineffectual that he can't be bothered to notice whether a document is authentic or counterfeit. And it's true, he says, that this hapless muddler was able to convince an old comrade-in-arms-such as Colonel Antonio Nucera-to give him a hand. But this was simply a matter of obtaining some stuff, which Martino would sell to the French in order to justify his salary. Nothing of real consequence to Italy, he insists. It's obvious that Pollari, with his dubious, mumbling spiel, wants to shove Rocco Martino into the arms of the French-but without harming him, without irritating him, offering him a dignified exit.
On December 5, 1998, Rocco Martino left Italy and took up residence in Luxembourg, at 3 Rue Hoehl, Sandweiler. He hadn't gotten out of the game, says Pollari. Although he was supposedly employed by a security firm as a consultant, he was actually working for French intelligence, with a monthly salary of 4,000 euros. (Martino's stipend may have varied, of course, but this was the sum named by Pollari for the period under discussion.) It's probably more accurate to say he was also working for French intelligence at this time, as the thread connecting him to SISMI was still substantial. Indeed, Martino was going great guns. Serving two masters, he sold the French information about the Italians (or information "handled" by the Italians). He sold the Italians whatever he could collect about the French. "This is my profession," he would assert in August 2004. "I sell information." That's the kind of guy he is. He's never too concerned about doing the right thing.
Rocco was short of cash, Pollari says. As he so often did when his pockets were empty, he dreamed up a scheme. The idea seemed brilliant to him: promising, and above all, risk-free. The spark that lit up in his head had to do with some difficulties the French were experiencing in Niger.
A little background. The French control the extraction of uranium in Niger's open-pit mines. The two mining companies, Cominak and Somair, are owned by a giant French enterprise called Cogema (which is owned in turn by the French government). Between 1999 and 2000, an embarrassing fact emerged. The International Atomic energy Agency, the IAeA, announced that the Libyans possessed 2,600 tons of yellowcake uranium. But although Niger was the major supplier of the mineral to Libya, its official records indicated that less than 1,500 tons had been delivered. Who, then, was smuggling the extra yellowcake out of the country? It turned out that additional yellowcake was extracted from certain mines in Niger that the French had abandoned because they were no longer productive. For Cogema, this was reason enough to abandon them. Nonetheless, somebody had resumed work in the mines in order to launch a prosperous clandestine operation. obvious questions followed: To whom were the smugglers selling the uranium? To Libya only? or to other countries-and if so, which ones? The French were looking for some answers.
At that point, Rocco Martino asked his friend Antonio Nucera for a helping hand.
Can't you give me something? he must have said. A piece of information, a good contact, an inside track at Niger's Italian embassy? Anything will do. The French will lap this stuff up. They have a holy fear of being tricked in their own backyard by some operator who will then leave them exposed for the whole world to see. Just think-Martino must have assumed the French were thinking-What if some lunatic in the Middle east puts together an atomic bomb with the uranium smuggled out of Niger? Because the French are desperate to find out who is buying "their" uranium under the table, perhaps they're willing to pay a bundle.
We don't know whether Martino was already aware of the intercepted telex from Ambassador Adamou Chékou. Probably it was something he had heard about via the grapevine. In any case, he would learn about it soon enough, because Martino's friend
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