I’ve been putting together a chronology of the Niger Uranium Disinformation Scheme, drawing on numerous Plame Affair timelines available online. As the question of who outed Plame leads to the question of who invented the yellowcake purchase story in the first place, the chronology has to include material on the Rome embassy break-in, Italian investigations, British reports on an African uranium purchase, CIA statements in response to those reports, officials’ public statements alleging a uranium deal, the establishment of bodies within the U.S. government to prepare for and explain the assault on Iraq, conversations between reporters and administration officials about Plame, investigations into the “prewar handling of intelligence,” prewar yellow journalism, the Fitzgerald investigation, etc.
As an historian, this is what I try to do -- think chronologically. The compilation of a chronology is the most rudimentary form of historical writing. From the time the Sumerians compiled their king-lists, the historian has organized facts in sequential order, then sat back and tried to figure out the general principles and causal relationships residing in those facts. In most societies, centuries separate the mere chronicle from the interpretive history. But even now, the interpretive history rests on the bare bones of a straightforward listing of events. So whatever topic I study, I wind up with a lengthening chronology on my screen, and occasionally when I add in a detail and consider again the events above and below it I attain some insight. I conclude, “Ah, so that led to that. Makes sense.” It’s all about causality over time.
My chronology-in-progress, which I’ll post when done, plainly indicates that the infamous 16 words in President Bush’s January 2003 State of the Union speech, and similar statements by Rice and Powell earlier that month, were caused by many months of discussion between U.S., British and Italian officials about alleged efforts by Iraq to obtain yellowcake from Niger; months of activity by Michael Ledeen in concert with Italian friends culminating with his input into the Office of Special Plans; months of Judith Miller’s reporting on Iraq’s supposed nuclear program; and months of disputation between neocon proponents of the uranium story (backed up conveniently by British intelligence) and CIA skeptics. The evidence on which the statement rested was debunked by the IAEA even before the attack on Iraq began, but the administration and its supporters continued to argue that there was intelligence aside from the discredited documents linking Iraq to Niger uranium. One little item left out of all the timelines I’ve seen is an article by Con Coughlin in the December 14, 2003 issue of the British newspaper, the Daily Telegraph.
The paper, according to the report, had “exclusively” obtained from the Iraqi “coalition government,” in which CIA operative Ayad Allawi served, a copy of a memo written to Saddam Hussein by Tahir Jalil Habbush al-Tikriti, the former head of the Iraqi Intelligence Service, dated July 1, 2001. Allawi had confirmed its authenticity. The memo detailed a three-day “work programme” undertaken by none other than chief 9-11 hijacker Mohammed Atta, in Baghdad the previous month at terrorist Abu Nidal’s base near the city. It included a section entitled “Niger Shipment,” which referred to an unspecified delivery (“believed to be uranium” according to the Telegraph, citing believing Iraqi officials who remained unnamed) that had been transported to Iraq via Libya and Syria.
In the same issue of the Telegraph, Coughlin published a commentary, which began: “For anyone attempting to find evidence to justify the war in Iraq, the discovery of a document that directly links Mohammed Atta, the al-Qaeda mastermind of the September 11 attacks, with the Baghdad training camp of Abu Nidal, the infamous Palestinian terrorist, appears almost too good to be true.” He noted that “it is almost impossible to ascertain whether or not the document is legitimate or a clever fake.” (This is what we call “covering your ass.” The journalist abetting the dissemination of bullshit can thus later say, “Look it’s not my fault. Best information we had at the time. Other people believed it too.”) He acknowledged that Iraqi officials won’t say where they got it. But he assures us that certain (unnamed) top officials are “convinced of the document’s authenticity.” He adds another intriguing quotation from the memo. Habbush calls the product shipped from Niger “the fruit of your excellent secret meeting with Bashir al-Asad on the Iraqi-Syrian border,” thus specifically linking the Syrian president with Iraq’s supposed nuclear program. (Your excellent secret meeting? Who writes this stuff?)
“It is entirely conceivable,” Coughlin concludes, “that Atta secretly made his way to Baghdad to undertake training with Abu Nidal a few months before the September 11 attacks. But as long as Saddam and his senior intelligence operatives remain at large, it is impossible to assess just how much they knew about, and were involved in, the planning and execution of the September 11 atrocities.” Actually, Saddam was captured just as Coughlin’s pieces appeared, and of course it’s no clearer today than then that Saddam ever knew anything at all about 9-11. In all probability he didn’t. What has become clearer is the fact that journalists are sometimes used to peddle disinformation serving the interests of the neocons, who believe that the propagation of “noble lies” is necessary for wise statecraft and the restructuring of the planet.
After reading the first article (I only noticed the second one later) I wrote a little piece for Counterpunch modestly titled, “The Neocons’ Dream Memo, Featuring: the Latter-Day Hitler, Saddam Hussein; His Intelligence Chief, Habbush al-Takriti; Palestinian Terrorist, Abu Nidal; 9-11 Mastermind, Mohammed Atta; and a Mysterious Shipment to Iraq from Niger.” The gist of that column was that this Habbush memo was in all likelihood a forgery designed to at one fell swoop confirm a collection of discredited allegations about Saddam’s links to al-Qaeda, maintenance of terrorist training camps, and efforts to acquire yellowcake from Niger, while also contributing to the demonization of the Palestinians, Libya and Syria. The Habbush memo story wasn’t to my knowledge carried in most newspapers or mentioned on CNN. It was highlighted on the other hand by Fox News, where Bill O’Reilly groused that it wasn’t “getting much traction” elsewhere.
The story died. It’s still out there of course, available to anyone wishing to declare, “Despite the revelation that the documents the White House showed ElBaradei in March 2003 were forgeries, we have other evidence -- published in the Telegraph, just to give one example -- that supports our claim that Iraq sought uranium from Niger.” That’s the kind of thing that Vice President Dick Cheney might say, but I think he might be a little more careful with his fibs these days as his neocon staffers come under greater scrutiny. But even if the Telegraph story echoed on Fox News never took off, we still ought to ask (as we do of the Niger documents) who produced that “Habbash memo” and why?
One possibility is that the disinformation dealers around Ahmad Chalabi cooked up this memo and set it down on Allawi’s desk. Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress provided at lot of “information” to the Office of Special Plans before the war, and has especially close ties to indicted liar “Scooter” Libby and yet unindicted liar Richard Perle. (The latter, while head of the Defense Policy Board in September 2002, told the Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore that “Mohammed Atta met Saddam Hussein in Baghdad prior to September 11. We have proof of that, and we are sure he wasn’t just there for a holiday. The meeting is one of the motives of an American attack on Iraq.”) Both Libby and Perle marched to Condoleezza Rice’s office in May 2004 to protest U.S. forces’ raid on Chalabi’s home after it was discovered that he had passed along U.S. secrets to Iran. He no doubt retains strong ties to fellow-liars in Washington.
More likely, Allawi’s own circle (the Iraqi National Accord) produced the memo. One Lt. Colonel Al-Dabbagh, an INA agent, was responsible for the report, subsequently discredited, that Iraq’s could within 45 minutes of an order from Saddam launch a WMD attack. (How do we know his identity? Because in July 2003 he gave an exclusive interview to -- guess who? -- the Telegraph!)
So maybe in December 2003 Allawi gets on the phone to Coughlin, executive editor of the Telegraph, and author of Saddam: King of Terror (2002), in which he advocated that the U.S. invade Iraq. Coughlin is fully on board the neocon program of effecting regime change in Syria and Iran as well as Iraq. On September 26, 2004, for example, he reported in the Telegraph that “American intelligence officials are concerned that Syria is secretly working on a number of WMD programmes. They have also uncovered evidence that Damascus has acquired a number of gas centrifuges -- probably from North Korea -- that can be used to enrich uranium for a nuclear bomb.” In the same article he alleges that the Syrian president has been negotiating with Iran to relocate Iraqi nuclear scientists given sanctuary in Syria to Iran in order to abet the Iranian nuclear program. A total “Axis of Evil” guy. Of course Coughlin’s going to be receptive to this exclusive blockbuster of a story that so beautifully links all the evils together. He’ll write an article and then a commentary on his article explaining why it’s all so plausible.
And you know that the newspaper itself is on your side. Didn’t a Telegraph journalist, David Blair, find those documents in Baghdad’s burned out Foreign Ministry office implicating antiwar politician George Galloway in the Oil-for-Food scandal? (Embarrassingly, the documents that turned out to be forged, and Galloway won his libel suit, and got over a million pounds in damages.) Isn’t the Telegraph owned by Conrad Black, big time Iraq War proponent and good buddy of neocon Richard Perle? And doesn’t Perle sit on the board of directors of Hollinger International, which owns the Telegraph and the pro-Likud Jerusalem Post?
Imagine you’re a neocon in December 2003, wincing at former US Ambassador Joseph Wilson’s Niger exposé and thinking, “We need more evidence for that Niger connection.” What do you do? Maybe you get on the phone to your buddies in Baghdad and ask if they can find some documents. Tell them to pass them along to some Judith Miller-like friendly journalist working for a friendly mainstream publication, and then hope the story, as O’Reilly would put it, “gains traction.” I’ll just bet you that’s exactly what happened, although the neocons were disappointed at the lack of traction. Their footing was becoming unsure. Their stumbling and reckless overreaching has resulted in the Fitzgerald investigation as well as the Larry Franklin bust, with more scandals ahead.
In Italy and the U.S. the investigation into the Niger uranium forgeries, so far implausibly attributed to one rogue intelligence officer’s desire for personal gain, continues because the Plame Affair drew attention to those particular documents. On the other hand no one’s looking at the matter of the now forgotten amazing neocon dream memo attributed to Saddam’s intelligence chief. A document that’s plainly, as its champion Coughlin puts it, “almost too good to be true” for “anyone attempting to find evidence to justify the war in Iraq” -- like himself and his neocon pals.
Who would conduct such an inquiry? Surely not the present Quisling Iraqi regime, in which Chalabi serves as a vice president. There are people in Iraq who can with official connivance forge letters attributed to Zarqawi, letters documenting the transfer of WMD to Syria, bills of sale of Iranian weapons to the resistance, what have you, at the behest of American paymasters confident that, whether or not the snow job works, they won’t be held accountable. Maybe the sham memo linking Saddam to Atta to Bashir al-Assad to Niger uranium won’t ever attract a prosecutor’s attention. For all I know it’s not a crime for American citizens to commission forgeries in foreign countries designed to justify America’s imperialist wars. But if we’re talking right now about the Niger lies, let’s not just look at what happened in Italy and at how those Italian forgeries led to a president’s misstatement. Let’s ask why government officials in occupied Iraq and an influential British newspaper (and Fox News) validated other forgeries after the first ones were discredited -- following a war supposed to prevent an Iraqi nuclear mushroom cloud over New York.
Gary Leupp is a Professor of History, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion, at Tufts University and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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