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The Italian Job Timeline: First Course

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A proper Italian lunch features three courses (plus dessert) and lasts no less than three hours (followed, of course, by a nap). Don't spoil your appetite, 'cause the portions are family-style!

Your First Course today is based on Nur al-Cubicle's masterful translation of the October 24, 2005 article (1st of 4 in a series) by Carlo Bonini and Giuseppe D'Avanzo published in Italy's La Repubblica regarding the origins of the phony Niger Yellowcake documents.

UPDATE: Second Course here.

Translation is hard work. Especially translating the baroque sentence construction, hyperbole and countless idiomatic expressions contained in the original Repubblica articles. Nur does an excellent job. I think I have another blog-crush.

The articles are very dense with information that is not always arrranged sequentially. Chef Shystee untangles the spaghetti for you and puts things in chronological order for easier digestion.

For those of you on a diet, this first article is the story of an Italian "International Scumbag of Mystery" (Rocco Martino), who cooks up the fake Dodgy Niger-Saddam Dossier to earn a few bucks. He sells it to the French Intelligence Agency which promptly recognizes it as crap and throws it in the trash.

But, later on, when word gets to Italy that the Bush Administration is looking for excuses to go after Saddam, Berlusconi tells his Intelligence chief, Nicolo' Pollari, to find something, anything. So the Dodgy Dossier gets re-gifted to the Brits and the Americans.

Present Day

-- Rocco: I'm a Patsy

Unmasked by the British press (The Financial Times, The Sunday Times) in the summer of 2004, Rocco Martino spills the beans: It’s true, I had a hand in the dissemination of those (Niger uranium) documents, but I was duped. Both Americans and Italians were involved behind the scenes. It was a disinformation operation.

An incomplete confession but close to the truth.
Martino conceals the identity of the architects behind the “operation” and appears to be merely a pawn, like his partners in crime. So who is the puppeteer pulling the strings behind their sordid adventure?


-- Rocco Martino, This is Your Life!

-- Rocco Martino, You're a Scuzzbucket!

Rocco Martino is a dishonest cop and a crooked spy. He’s got the aura of a rogue about him even if you don’t know his background. A captain of politico-military intelligence between 1976 and 1997, he was let go for “conduct unbecoming”. In 1985, he was arrested for extortion in Italy. In 1993, he was arrested in Germany in possession of stolen checks. Nevertheless, according to a Defense Ministry official, Martino worked for SISMI [Italy's Intelligence Agency] until 1999

Late 1980's

-- Italian Intelligence Tracks Saddam's Agents

-- Rocco's "Compare" (Partner, Buddy, "Goombah" in Italian-American pronuciation) Antonio Nucera works in (SISMI) Italian Intelligence's WMD division

A Carabinieri (cop) like Rocco, Antonio [Nucera] is the Deputy Chief of the SISMI center in viale Pasteur in Rome. He’s chief of the 1st and the 8th divisions (weapons and technology transfers and WMD proliferation counterespionage, respectively, for Africa and the Middle East.

This section is very busy at the end of the 1980s tailing the many agents whom Saddam has deployed around the world prior to the invasion of Kuwait. “With some success”, according to an Italian intelligence official who at the time worked for the division. The official recalls: We succeeded in getting our hands on Niger code books and a telex from Ambassador Adamou Chékou to the Niger Foreign Ministry informing Niamey that Wissam al-Zahawie, the Iraqi Ambassador to the Vatican, would be coming to Niger as a representative of Saddam Hussein.

But that wasn’t all. We confiscated maraging steel (ultra-high strength steel) in the port of Trieste. We thought it was destined for a series of centrifuges used to separate uranium. We exchanged information on Iraqi nuclear proliferation at the end of the eighties with the British of MI6—the cream of the crop.


-- Rocco, now a double agent and International Scumbag of Mystery, works for both French and Italian Intelligence

-- Rocco is straight outta Lo-Cash

-- The French think someone is smuggling "their" Niger-ian uranium

-- Rocco gets an idea for making some Cash-Fu

Martino rents a place at No. 3 rue Hoehl in Sandweiler, Luxemburg. He gets a fixed salary from French intelligence and uses a consulting firm as cover: Security Development Organization. In other words, he also works for French intelligence. Serving two masters, Rocco tries his best. He sells information on the Italians to the French and information on the French to the Italians. "That’s my job. I sell information."

In 1999, the pleasure-seeking Rocco is running out of cash. When he’s down to his last dime, he hatches a plot of his own. He's convinced that he’s got a brilliant and risk-free idea. What illuminates the light bulb is the problem the French are encountering in Niger.

In brief, between 1999 and 2000 the French realize that someone is working abandoned mines to generate a brisk clandestine trade in uranium. Who is purchasing the smuggled uranium? The French are looking for an answer and Rocco Martino senses an opportunity.


-- Nucera decides to Help his brotha Rocco out, by helping him "cook up" some intelligence about Niger that the French might pay for

-- Nucera has documents from SISMI's archives he can contribute

-- The two plot The Italian Job

Nucera decided to give a hand to his old friend, Rocco. Rocco quickly briefs him on the job. Isn’t there anything you can give me—Info? A good Niger contact? I’ll take anything you have! The French are as dry as people lost in the desert. They want to know who is buying their uranium under the table. I’m prepared to pay well to find out.

In the archives of Nucera’s SISMI division, there are documents that could be useful in pawning off a half-baked frittata and making a few bucks. There’s the telex from the Niger ambassador.


-- Nucera arranges for Rocco to meet "La Signora", a SISMI asset working at the Niger embassy in Rome

-- La Signora enlists the help of Zakaria Yaou Maiga, a Niger national also working at the embassy

SISMI director Nicolò Pollari [no less] confirms to La Repubblica: Nucera wanted to help out his friend. He offered him the use of an intelligence asset—no big deal, you understand--one who was still on the books but inactive--to give a hand to Martino. The asset worked at the Niger Embassy in Rome. She was in bad shape. She barely eked out a living in the back of the espionage shop. She didn't get a monthy sum from Italian intelligence. In other words, she was a contractor.


With the blessing of Nucera, Rocco and La Signora, a pair of clever snake oil vendors, conclude a bargain. There would be a few sheets of paper available for sale. But the help of a Niger national was needed. La Signora points him to the right man. He’s First Embassy Counselor Zakaria Yaou Maiga.

January 1, 2001

-- Rocco and Crew stage a fake break-in at the Niger Embassy in Rome

-- Stolen letterhead goes unnoticed

Rocco Martino, La Signora, Zakaria Yaou Maiga. Nucera retreats into the shadows. They wait for the embassy to close its doors for New Years 2001. They simulate a break-in and burglary. When on January 2, 2001, bright and early, the Second Secretary for Administrative Affairs Arfou Mounkaila reports the burglary to the Carabinieri of the Trionfale station, he has to admit with a grin that the burglars were half asleep. A lot of trouble and effort for nothing. Mounkaila is unable to report missing what he doesn’t know is gone: Letterhead, and official stamps. In the hands of the snake oil vendors, useful stuff with which to assemble a dodgy dossier.


-- Dodgy Dossier is assembled

-- Dodgy Dossier is handed over to French Sécurité

-- Rocco gets Paid in Full

-- the French store the Dodgy Dossier in the Round File

Old documents are extracted from the SISMI division’s archives where Nucera is deputy chief of section: code books, letters, contracts and a memorandum of understanding between the government of Niger and Iraq “concerning the supply of uranium on 5 and 6 July 2000 in Niamey”. The memorandum has a 2-page attachment entitled “Agreement”. Rocco hands over the “package” to agents from the French Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure. They hand him some banknotes which he spends in Nice. Rocco loves the Cote d’Azur.

The French take the documents and toss them in the dumpster. One of the agents remarks, Niger is a French-speaking place and we know how things are there. But nobody would have confused one minister with another they way they did in that useless piece of garbage.

September 11, 2001

-- Everything changes

-- Bush wants to get Saddam

Case closed, then? No! The burlesque imbroglio is transformed into a very grave matter—along comes September 11th and Bush immediately starts to think about Iraq and requests proof of Saddam’s involvement in the attacks.

2001, Post 9-11

-- Berlusconi looks for ways to help Bush in order to "catapult Italy to the first among US allies"

-- Nicolo Pollari, the new SISMI director, looks for ways to help Berlusconi

-- The CIA's Rome station chief presses his Italian counterparts for something on Saddam

-- Rocco and Nucera's Dodgy Dossier is just the thing to make the Americani happy

SISMI is straining at the bit. It's got room for maneuver like it’s never had before in the history of Italy. Berlusconi asks Pollari for a feat on the international stage which will catapult Italy to the first among US allies. A request along the same line comes in from the CIA station chief in Rome, Jeff Castelli. News, information, useful scraps of intelligence are needed. Now! On the double! Washington is looking for proof to use against Saddam.


A new director, Nicolò Pollari, arrives at Forte Brasco [Italy's equivalent of the CIA's Langley, VA HQ]. And Col. Alberto Manenti, the new man on the job, is placed in charge of WMD. A well-prepared officer but completely incapable of saying "No" to a superior, says a SISMI official with whom he worked. Col. Manenti had Nucera on his staff for a time and knew him well. Manenti, who knows that Nucera is about to retire, asks him to stay on as a consultant.


In that kind of climate, with their phony dossier, the snake oil salesmen of via Baiamonti [address of Niger Embassy in Rome], (Rocco Martino and Antonio Nucera) would be useful.

Fall, 2001

-- SISMI (Pollari) shows (?) - but does not give - the Dodgy Dossier to the CIA in Rome (Castelli).

-- Rocco delivers the Dodgy Dossier to MI6

Fall 2001: General Pollari’s SISMI is in possession of a phony dossier assembled by Rocco Martino and Antonio Nucera. They show it to the CIA while Rocco Martino delivers it to Sir Richard Dearlove’s MI6.


So why didn’t Rome put the lie to its ex-agent and snake oil salesman? Especially since the information in the dossier was vouched for by Pollari to Jeff Castelli, CIA station chief.

Fall, 2001

-- A CIA report about the Dodgy Dossier enters the US Intelligence stream

-- Stateside, US Intelligence only sees the report about the Dodgy Dossier, but doesn't get to see the Dossier itself

-- Greg Thielmann, Director of the State Department's Office of Strategic, Military and WMD Proliferation Affairs, receives the report from the CIA

-- Amb. Joe Wilson is sent to Niger to verify the Dodgy Dossier story

It is a known fact that a report on the bogus, made-in-Rome dossier ended up at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence—in the Office of Strategic, Military and WMD Proliferation Affairs.

Strategic Affairs is not a big place. At the time, 16 analysts worked there under the direction of Greg Thielmann. Thielmann tells La Repubblica: I received the report in fall of 2001. We thought that Langley acquired it from their field officer in Italy. The agent in the field reports that Italian intelligence permitted him see some papers documenting the attempt by Iraq to acquire 500 tons of uranium ore from Niger. So, SISMI purported the truth of documents it knew to be false to the CIA. There’s a second confirmation. At Langley, Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson was assigned the mission to verify the Italian “story” of the 500 tons of uranium.

Says Wilson: The report was not very detailed. It’s not clear if the agent who signed the report materially saw the peddled documents or whether he heard it from another source.

Clean your plate and get ready for the next course

This is only the beginning of the Great Italian Yellowcake Scam.

To be continued...

PS: Just in case nobody has before (yeah, right), I hereby claim film script rights to this story which I fully intend to share with Nur al-Cubicle and the Italian Journalists. Yo Hollywood: holla at me!

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