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Conversations with Machiavelli's ghost: Denials mark neoconservative's account of past and present scandal

Larisa Alexandrovna
Published: March 7, 2006

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Demystifying Intrigue

Neoconservative Michael Ledeen is no stranger to intrigue. In the second part of our conversation with the occasional Pentagon advisor, RAW STORY asks about Iran Contra, the Niger forgeries, and perhaps the most fascinating allegation, that Ledeen may have been somehow involved or affiliated with P2.

P2, or Propaganda Due, was a scandal in the early 1980s involving an Italian bank, the Vatican, a neo-fascist Masonic lodge and Opus Dei, a cultish movement within the Catholic faith. Truly better than fiction, the tale of P2 and its ties to false flag operations in which Italian government agents committed acts of terror and violence against their own country for political reasons, has become the stuff of legend. Of the alleged P2 lodge members, the most important ones are the current Prime Minister of Italy, Silvio Burlusconi, Vittorio Emanuele IV, the “Prince of Naples,” and a bevy of prominent South American, European and US politicians, journalists, and bankers.

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(Read more about P2 here and here on the BBC.)

Ledeen denies any involvement with P2, saying “There’s no truth to the P2 charges.”

Ironically, the bizarre tale of P2 and the Vatican banking scandal was deeply entwined with a better known American scandal called Iran Contra, in which Ledeen was involved. Allegedly, members of P2 helped agencies in the US sell arms to Iran to help divert money to the South American Contras, a group of far right guerilla fighters in Nicaragua, in apparent violation of federal and international law.

Ledeen’s role in the Contras scandal had him playing the part of a carrier pigeon on behalf of Robert McFarlane, then National Security Advisor to President Reagan, various members of Israel's leadership and the CIA, and vouched-for Iranian arms dealer, Manucher Ghorbanifar.

Part one in this series of interviews, The Democratic Revolutionary, focused on current US foreign policy and how it relates to the neoconservative world view, as well as how such a policy can be seen against the backdrop of history.

Rome to Rome

Raw Story's Larisa Alexandrovna: Looking back at your career and over the many controversies, the allegations that you were tied to P2 were the most intriguing. Is there any truth to this? Did you know Francesco Pazienza?

Michael Ledeen: There’s no truth to the P2 charges. In fact I didn’t believe in its existence, even though various Italians, including Pazienza, were pushing me to interview Licio Gelli, who was the head of it. I was New Republic correspondent at the time, and it probably would have been a good story, but I thought it was just another of the endless conspiracy theories that one ran into every day. Probably I should have talked to Gelli, then you’d have another suspicious connection…

Raw Story: I am not accusing you or attempting to locate suspicious connections. I am simply asking about allegations. How did you meet current SISMI chief Nicollo Pollari? You are good friends, no?

Ledeen: Pollari isn't a good friend; he's a person I met occasionally, at bridge games in Rome.

RS: When we have talked in the past you have indicated that you did indeed do some work for [Italian Intelligence] SISMI around 1980. What was the nature of the work?

Ledeen: I think in the late seventies, when I was invited to participate in a desktop exercise dealing with how to communicate with friendly countries. What to ask, what not to ask; who to ask, who not to ask; how to ask, how not to ask. An exercise in bureaucratic communication.

RS: Diplomacy work? Or training on counterterrorism? Let me re-ask this differently: When you say “what to ask” and “what not to ask” do you mean interrogation techniques? I don’t think I fully grasp “how to communicate with friendly countries” in this context. Were you not a reporter at the time?

Ledeen: It’s just what I said – communication between governments – it had nothing to do with interrogation. There were problems for the Italians because there was no extradition treaty at that time, and our Justice Department was very reluctant to provide the Italian Government with information about Italians in the U.S. I had looked into those problems – I was by then in Washington – and they thought I could be helpful. I was happy to try to help.

RS: Let’s flash forward to 2001 quickly to address a meeting or series of meetings that we had once discussed already. How did you come to be in Rome in December of 2001 and for what purpose were you there?

Ledeen: I was in Rome – at my own expense, as a private citizen – for meetings between American officials from the Pentagon (Larry Franklin and Harold Rhode) and Iranians who had information about the mullahs’ plans to attack Coalition forces in Afghanistan.

RS: Was there discussion of Iraq?

Ledeen: There was no discussion of Iraq at all.

RS: Who authorized the meeting and who was made aware of the meeting?

Ledeen: I was told that the meeting had been approved by State, Defense, CIA and the NSC, and I personally briefed our ambassador both before and after the meetings.

They were very good meetings, by the way. They produced information that saved American lives in Afghanistan.

RS: Was Ghorbanifar there?

Ledeen: Ghorbanifar helped arrange the meeting.

RS: You know the old saying of the appearance of impropriety? So imagine a regular US citizen watching this unfold. You have two highly visible Iran Contra figures meeting in Rome during a time of war. Iran is declared part of the axis of evil. Add to that that one of the members of the party, Larry Franklin, a DIA analyst, has now pled guilty for passing classified information to Israel and Iran, and possibly false intelligence on Iran to the US.

Another member of the party, Harold Rhode, working as a consultant for the Pentagon went on to have meetings with Ghorbanifar in Paris, despite being asked to stop. Add to that, the Niger forgeries began to make their rounds in the form of transcripts only a short time later. So you can understand why there is skepticism?

Ledeen: As for "looking bad," it looks pretty good to me, since it saved American lives in Afghanistan.

RS: Why were Rhode and Franklin brought along or were they assigned and if so, by whom?

Ledeen: They were selected by the Pentagon because they were very knowledgeable about Iran.

RS: Who selected them? Both worked for [Undersecretary of Defense Policy] Doug Feith, so did Feith select them?

Ledeen: I don’t know. I never discussed it with him.

RS: You said to me before that Stephen Hadley authorized your meeting, correct? Did Stephen Hadley have the authority to unilaterally assign such a meeting?

Ledeen: Obviously Hadley did not unilaterally do anything. The Pentagon paid for the expenses of the two DOD officials, and the American ambassador in Rome was fully briefed both before and after the meetings.

RS: Hadley reported to Rice at that time as her deputy. One source I have has said that if Libby is Dick Cheney’s Dick Cheney, Hadley is his right hand man. So the question begs to be asked, Hadley – because he was not authorized to unilaterally do anything – must have had to go to his direct superior. We have spoken of [Secretary of State] Rice in the past, but given the closeness of Cheney to Hadley and the friction between Cheney and Rice, my question is would Cheney had to have approved the mission abroad?

Ledeen: I’m sure Hadley discussed it with Rice. He’s a cautious lawyer, and that decision required approval from his boss. I don’t see any reason why he would discuss it with Cheney, and I don’t share your theory that Hadley and Cheney are very close.

RS: When you say "meetings" you are speaking of just the one you attended and the follow up meetings that occurred with Rhode and Franklin, without you, is that right? That is what I have in my notes from our last discussion of this.

Ledeen: I say "meetings" because the conversations were with more than one Iranian and were conducted over several days. I am not talking about presumed follow-ups, just the Rome events.

The Niger forgeries

RS: What about Panorama, the publication to which the Niger documents now known to be forgeries were delivered? You wrote for Panorama as we had previously discussed.

Ledeen: As I've told you before, these claims are nonsensical. I have no point of contact with the Niger documents, I haven't even seen them or read them. I've never met Rocco Martino, and the sum total of my "work with SISMI" consists of one half day in Rome.

RS: No point of contact with the Niger forgeries at all, as in you did not even hear of conversations regarding those documents?

Ledeen: Again, I have no involvement of any sort in the Niger forgeries. I don’t know Burba or Berlusconi, never met either one. Rosella is a good professional journalist and editor, smart and fun to be with. But it is wrong to say that I “worked for Panorama.” They published occasional columns from me. Probably 15 or so over a couple of years in the mid-nineties.

RS: In our last conversation you said it was a couple of years back that Panorama published your work. The "mid-nineties" is considerably more than a couple of years back. Have there been any columns since 2000 or 2002? Did you do any consulting work, outside of writing, for Panorama?

Ledeen: I don't think I've written anything for Panorama since 2002, and probably not since 2000, although I would have to check. My only relationship with Panorama was the sale of occasional columns.

RS: Pollari was aware of the meetings in Rome and sent a team to monitor those meetings. As head of SISMI, he traveled to the US with Berlusconi in the fall of 2001 and then again alone in the fall of 2002. Are you saying you have never at any point met Berlusconi? Did you arrange the 2002 meeting between Pollari and Stephen Hadley?

Ledeen: I never arranged any meetings for Pollari with Hadley or with any other American, in or out of government. And again, I have never met Berlusconi.

RS: But the reports of this 2002 meeting indicate that not only did you set up the meeting (and even my own sources confirmed this to me) but that Pollari delivered documents of some sort to Hadley and used Rice’s staff to schedule his trip.

Ledeen: Your sources are wrong. I don’t know about meetings between Hadley and Pollari, so I won’t speculate about their provenance, and the same goes for the subsequent meetings. But no end of nonsense has been written about the Rome meeting, so it doesn’t surprise me that people are making false statements to you about other meetings.

RS: That is why I brought up the whole concept of “appearances” and how things look, regardless of what may or may have not happened. That said, I do apologize if my sources and other reports were wrong regarding you brokering the meeting. I will look into clarifying this with them.

Moving back to Hadley, he was asked by BBC if he had discussed uranium at that meeting, to which he responded that nobody "has any recollection of a discussion of natural uranium, or any recollection of any documents being passed." Do you find that answer odd in any way?

Ledeen: It sounds like a typical answer from a cautious lawyer.

RS: Meaning that there is no such thing as “natural uranium” per se, right? What do you make of this statement other than the non-denial denial of it? If he was not discussing the three uranium isotopes found naturally in the environment, then one can infer that he was clearly discussing enriched uranium, no?

Ledeen: That’s assuming that the “meeting” was substantive. Some reports say it was a courtesy call by a group, not a private meeting between two people.

Frankly I have always found the frantic interest in the Niger Documents story hard to explain. Every commission, whether here or in Britain, has concluded that the British Government’s belief (that Iraq was trying to purchase uranium in Africa) was solidly based, and was not connected to the Niger Documents. And that’s what Bush said.

RS: No, I would have to disagree. The dodgy dossier is called that for a reason. And on what grounds the uranium claim was based was pretty bad by all accounts. I do not remember reading that the Niger forgeries had nothing to do with the claim of uranium purchases at all. Bush’s speech, or rather those 16 words, were pulled after it was revealed that they were based on bogus sources and documents. In fact, it was because of former U.S. Ambassador to Gabon Joe Wilson’s now well known op-ed discrediting the uranium claim that both Hadley and former CIA Director George Tenet ran to take responsibility for the 16 words, after they were pulled in a panic.

Ledeen: But the anti-Bush brigade was so eager to push their “Bush lied, people died” mantra, that they kept on acting as if the Niger Documents were really important. I suppose it’s because they got hoodwinked by Wilson, don’t you think?

RS: I am not sure what you mean by “hoodwinked.” What I have found, however, is that aside from the errors made in the Phase I investigation into pre-war intelligence, and the extensive “fixing of intelligence” leading up to and after the fact by Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS), and the stalling on Phase II of the investigation into White House manipulation of intelligence, there is a great deal of evidence to support that the US was misled into war through action, not failure of intelligence, and that the president either was himself misled by those around him or knowingly misled the nation.

I don’t know who the anti-Bush brigade is, but it seems that the concerns raised by people had more to do with why we were diverting resources from chasing down Osama and instead pouring them into a war with a country that had no ties or history with Osama and was in no way involved with the attacks on our country. The other concerns people had is that intelligence provided was a sham by all accounts and where there was confusion, there also seemed to be pressure.

Iran Contra

RS: How did you come to be involved in Iran Contra and who was it that brought you in? What were your thoughts on this as it was happening in terms of legality, bypassing Congress, and so forth?

Ledeen: The origins of Iran-Contra are extensively described in my book Perilous Statecraft. In brief, while a consultant to the National Security Council, I had a conversation with a foreign intelligence chief (I'll save you the question, no, not Italian) who had just been in Iran, and he thought we should have a closer look at it, and he said that he thought the Israelis had the best information. I reported that to McFarlane and he subsequently asked me to go to Jerusalem and ask Peres if they had good intelligence and, if so, would they share it with us. That's how it started.

RS: Are you still acquainted with Oliver North and George H. W. Bush?

Ledeen: I was never "acquainted" with President George H.W. Bush, any more than I am acquainted with his son. I once briefed him on the Grenada documents, never about Iran. I never see North.

RS: If you had to do it again, would you and if so, why? If not, what would you do differently?

Ledeen: Would I do it again? Of course not, who needs six years of a special prosecutor and volumes of slime? Not that it would have changed anything important; I was a courier, and there were plenty of those around. A consultant at the NSC is not a policy maker. What were my thoughts? I thought what Ghorbanifar said was right: "If we get involved with the hostages, we will become hostages to the hostages." That's what happened to Reagan.

RS: I was actually going to ask if the intelligence officer was from Iran, not Italy. Was he?

Ledeen: No.

RS: Was it Ghorbanifar, the Iranian arms dealer?

Ledeen: No. I did not know Ghorbanifar at that time.

RS: When you say you would not do it again, because of the "slime" and a six year investigation, you do not comment on the actual activities. In other words, did you find anything wrong in being a courier of weapons to a country that is an arch enemy of Israel and at that time, as now, an avowed enemy of the United States?

Ledeen: I was not a courier of weapons; I carried messages and questions back and forth. I had no authority to do anything other than that.

RS: Right, I’m sorry. I forget who did what and I think that some themselves forgot who did what. But with regard to your comment on policy – No, you are right to point out that a consultant is not a policy maker, of course, but a consultant still has to operate within the confines of domestic and foreign law. Congress was entirely bypassed on this, as you know. So why is the slime of it of more concern than the actions of it?

Ledeen: I wanted to entitle my book on Iran-Contra "Worse than a Crime," from Talleyrand's great description of something as "Worse than a crime, it was a blunder." The only crimes committed during Iran-Contra consisted of making false statements to Congress, and in the case of General Secord, evading income tax, and in North's case accepting a gift (a security fence) worth more than the regulations permitted. Despite all the hullabaloo nobody was ever prosecuted for presumed crimes like violating the Boland Amendment, etc.

RS: You’re right, no one was prosecuted for violating the Boland Amendment, which barred the use of federal funds to topple the Nicaraguan government. It is amazing how a Presidential pardon provided prior to a trial will result in no convictions.

What about the money for the Contras, where did it all go?

Ledeen: I don’t know; I only dealt with the Iran half of the equation, I had no contact with the Contra side.

But if you’ll permit me, I think you should be more careful about accusing people of criminal activity. No one was ever even indicted for “violating the Boland Amendment,” so your rage at the pardons is misplaced in that case. The indictment of [Defense Secretary Caspar] Weinberger [for lying to the special counsel] was an outrage. And I have a lot of sympathy for the people who were ruined by the cost of trying to defend themselves. Don’t you think that government employees should have their legal expenses borne by the government, at least until somebody proves that they did something wrong? I’m talking about the little people here, people who can’t afford the cost – tens of thousands of dollars – of xeroxing documents, etc.

RS: With all due respect, the special prosecutor, Lawrence E. Walsh, indicated that former President Bush was the subject of his investigation and that he believed there to be a conspiracy at the highest levels of government to obstruct justice in order to protect Bush and former President Regan from charges perhaps even more serious than violating the Boland Amendment. The pardons waved a magic wand and justice disappeared. Justice to be vindicated for those you say are innocent and justice for the public who suspect them to be guilty.

Casper Weinberger, for example, was indicted for lying about Saudi involvement in illegal arms sale to Iran, among other false statements, and for destroying evidence that special prosecutor Walsh said may have "forestalled impeachment proceedings against President Reagan.”

So I would have to respectfully disagree that the indictment of Weinberger was an outrage. The outrage was that he was pardoned before he could go to trial.

The final part of Conversations with Machiavelli's Ghost will run next week and will focus on Ledeen's work on fascism, September 11, and Iran.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly mis-identified Senator Roberts' home state. We apologize for any confusion this may have caused.



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