A controversial neoconservative who occasionally consulted for the Bush Defense Department has confirmed that he was a contributor to the Italian magazine Panorama, whose reporter first came across forged documents which purported that Iraq was seeking to obtain uranium from Niger.
The bogus documents became the basis for the infamous sixteen words in President Bush's 2003 State of the Union Address, in which he detailed his case for war. Their origin has been one of the most persistent mysteries in how American intelligence on Iraq was so wrong.
In an email to RAW STORY, occasional Bush foreign affairs advisor Michael Ledeen confirmed that he was, "several years ago," a regular contributor to Panorama. Leeden would not provide more specificity.
While most Americans have yet to hear of Ledeen or Panorama, the confirmation of his work with the publication adds yet another dimension to the Niger forgeries scandal and possible U.S. government involvement in pre-war intelligence manipulation.
Ledeen denies that he was involved in the Niger forgeries. He says he has no knowledge of the documents or how they came to be provided to the U.S. government.
"I've said repeatedly, I have no involvement of any sort with the Niger story, and I have no knowledge of it aside from what has appeared in the press," Ledeen said in an email. "I have not discussed it with any government person in any country."
But Ledeen confirmed that he wrote for Panorama and worked with the publication's Editor-in-Chief, Carlo Rossella.
"I have no current relationship with Panorama," Ledeen said. "For a year or two I wrote an occasional column for Panorama, I would guess on average twice a month."
"That ended when the editor, Carlo Rossella, became a TV star," he added.
A closer look at the series of overlapping relationships and events, however, suggests that Ledeen may have been connected, even if inadvertently, to the Niger forgeries.
Panorama has been in the crosshairs since late 2002, when one of its journalists, Elisabetta Burba, was handed a set of documents -- including contracts -- purporting to show that Saddam Hussein had purchased 500 tons of yellowcake uranium from the African nation of Niger. These documents were critical in supporting the administration's claims that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program.
The documents were later debunked as forgeries, though not before their content had been referenced in the President's State of the Union Address. Questions remain over whether the Administration knew they were forgeries, but the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was able to discredit them in a matter of hours. The Bush administration nevertheless invaded Iraq shortly thereafter, in March of 2003.
"The thing that was so embarrassing about the episode was not simply that the documents were forgeries, but that they were clumsy forgeries, as was so quickly determined by the IAEA," Pike said. "It is one thing to be taken in, but to be so easily taken in suggests either bewildering incompetence or intentional deception, or possibly both."
While Ledeen admits to writing for Panorama, he explained that the work had been in the past, saying, "That would be a couple of years ago."
But "a couple of years ago" would be right around the time when the forgeries were delivered to Burba or sent from the U.S. embassy in Rome via backchannels to the U.S. State Department, bypassing the CIA and other intelligence agencies.
Burba says she got the documents from former Italian intelligence asset Rocco Martino. Martino handed the documents off to Burba in the fall of 2002, initially demanding money and then simply providing them.
After investigating the documents for an article and finding them to
be suspect, Burba suggested to her editor, Carlo Rossella, that she
take a trip to Niger to investigate further. Rossella diverted her to
the U.S. embassy in Rome instead. She never ran the article. Burba
dropped off the forgeries to the US embassy on Oct. 9, 2002.
But as Burba was investigating the veracity of the documents, head of Italian intelligence Nicolo Pollari
was meeting with then-Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley.
The meeting, which took place in September 2002, is alleged to be brokered by Ledeen, although the only U.S. official Pollari claims to have met is George Tenet, whom he also met in October 2001. Questioned about the meeting, Hadley has said no one involved in the meeting had "any recollection of a discussion of natural uranium, or any recollection of any documents being passed."
Burba delivered the forgeries to the U.S. embassy a month after the
Pollari and Hadley meeting.
Questions also surround Burba's attempts to authenticate the documents.
Speaking to RAW STORY, foreign intelligence sources say they wonder why she delivered documents she felt to be bogus to the U.S. embassy. These sources say there are two questions surrounding Burba's account: If she did indeed find the documents to be forgeries, why did she take them to an embassy as opposed to her own authorities -- and why did she deliver them to the U.S. embassy specifically?
It was Burba's editor at Panorama, Carlo Rossella, who allegedly told her to take the documents to the U.S. embassy, despite her own requests to travel to Niger to further investigate the claims.
It was also Rosella who intervened when Burba requested to contact the White House after hearing the infamous "16 words" in President Bush's 2003 State of the Union address, dissuading her from contacting U.S. officials.
Rosella, intelligence sources say, could have been acting on the orders of Panorama's owner, Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's equivalent of Rupert Murdoch. Berlusconi -- who also happens to be the current Prime Minister -� was a supporter of President Bush leading up to the war.
Berlusconi was not immediately available for comment.