Spy Games

Collusion: International Espionage and the War on Terror by Carlo Bonini and Giuseppe D'Avanzo (Melville House, 245 pages)


After intelligence officials ignored CIA Paris Station Chief Bill Murray's numerous reports that Iraq had not attempted to purchase uranium from Niger, Murray reportedly wrote an exasperated cable back to Langley: "Do you want me to send a weekly report that the Eiffel Tower is still standing as well?"

In their new book, Collusion, Carlo Bonini and Giuseppe D'Avanzo put Murray's frustration in context. The Italian journalists outline how bogus intelligence based on forged documents was repeatedly discredited, and then re-circulated throughout British, French, and U.S. agencies.

Hans Blix recalls to the authors, "The Italian documents concerning Nigerian yellowcake were the most spectacular evidence used to justify the war in Iraq... It was only the Italian documents that backed up Bush's celebrated sixteen words" [in the January 2003 State of the Union address]: The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

While many people heard Bush speak those words, most probably aren't aware that the Italian intelligence service, known by its acronym SISMI, was the engine that drove the shoddy information on Niger. Collusion finally gets beneath the headlines, revealing how Rocco Martino, a failed Italian spy, tried to make a buck by selling fake intelligence. Bonini recounts how Martino was manipulated by higher-ups in SISMI seeking to get in the good graces of White House leadership.

I asked Bonini about Martino, and about the rest of his new book, during his recent trip to New York.

Who is Rocco Martino?

He's like the stereotypical swindler in a movie. He was born in 1938 in a small town in the south of Italy, and he started his career in the carabinieri -- they are one of the two police law enforcement agencies in Italy. He then joined the intelligence service, but was basically thrown out soon after because he was considered so bad and so unreliable. Just to give an idea of his character, when he served as an intelligence officer, he tried to rob a bank. He was arrested but, because he was an intelligence officer, he didn't have too many problems. After he was thrown out, he kept doing the same kind of work. He became a freelance agent.

What were the fake yellowcake documents based on?

The documents were completely forged except for one piece of truth. That was the document the former Iraqi ambassador to the Vatican sent to the Niger government in May announcing his trip to the country. The Rome Niger embassy had a copy of this telegram. It was 1999. The trip of the ambassador itself didn't mean anything. When they decided to cook up the documents, they took this telegram and then completely faked this deal between the Niger government and the Iraqi government for a supply of 500 tons of uranium ore.

How believable were the documents and how was Italy behind the propagation of these false documents?

The stamps were clearly fake. The name of one of the foreign ministers was incorrect. It was absolutely clear that it was junk material. Rocco's main partner in crime was Laura Montini, known more widely as Signora Laura. Rocco was introduced to Signora Laura by a SISMI officer. She was a SISMI mole in the embassy and had been for some time. As soon as Rocco and Signora Laura start to cook up this Italian job, this unbearable piece of intelligence with the hopes of selling it to intelligence organizations, SISMI took over. Signora Laura's handler was a SISMI officer. From the very beginning, you see the shadow of SISMI in the background. Once the documents are made, SISMI comes into play. In October 2001, SISMI decides to exchange the information with US intelligence. They knew the documents were badly forged, so they didn't exchange the actual documents, they simply passed along the content of the documents.

How was it that such obviously flawed intelligence gained footing in U.S. and British intelligence?

Because for a long time, the U.S. intelligence as well as British intelligence didn't see the documents. They only knew the content. They were relying on SISMI's word. SISMI kept feeding U.S. intelligence with this information. On three separate occasions -- September 2001, October 2001, and February 2002 -- they passed along this same information based entirely on the forged documents. The same happened with the British. SISMI exchanged the information regarding uranium with the British between March and April of 2002. When the U.S. intelligence decided to double-check the information with the British intelligence in the spring of 2002, the U.S. intelligence thought that they had their first confirmation.

There is a general non-disclosure rule between intelligence agencies that you never reveal your source of information. When SISMI was caught in this story and it started to turn sour, SISMI tried to backpedal by claiming that they never provided the U.S. intelligence with the fake documents, and that they didn't even know about the existence of the documents until they were published in the newspapers. When that didn't work, they claimed that it was not them, but the French intelligence agency that provided the U.S. intelligence with the documents. That's because Rocco Martino, a freelance agent, was working for the French at the time.

That was the disinformation campaign under which SISMI tried to step out from this mess. Unfortunately for SISMI, the French were steadfast throughout the process in confirming that this was nothing more than a lie. Alain Chouet, the number two at the French intelligence agency, was able to give a precise timeline of what the French intelligence had been doing throughout the saga with the fake documents. This timeline was later confirmed by CIA officers.

Collusion reveals how falsified information becomes widely disseminated through competitive intelligence. Can you explain what that is and how its uses have evolved?

Simply put, competitive intelligence turns false information into something true, or at least credible, by the end of the process. Competitive intelligence consists of putting a piece of normally credible but fake intelligence in the circuit. Basically, this piece of intelligence needs to get a white paper. Once the white paper reaches the top political level, then the information goes back to where it came from in order to be double-checked. It's a mirror game -- especially if you disseminate the same piece of intelligence to a place where you know that sooner or later the information will be double-checked. The same information starts circulating and re-circulating.

Competitive intelligence is a disinformation and manipulation technique with two uses. The first aim of competitive intelligence is to shape and determine the position of policy makers or to rationalize positions that policy makers have already made. The other aim of competitive intelligence is to win the hearts and minds of the public of your enemy. There was a dramatic change in its use after September 11th. The disinformation conventionally used to crack enemy intelligence was used to manipulate and reshape the general wisdom within the country.

What is the role of the press in competitive intelligence?

The press is a fundamental component. In order to shape the general wisdom within your country, you need an echo chamber. You need somebody that will go public with this information. If you have a major media outlet quoting anonymous sources assessing the same kind of information that you want to plant in public opinion and the circuit of your intelligence, you have another mirror. Imagine that you're a policy maker. You have this piece of intelligence that has just circulated throughout the intelligence agencies finding confirmation. Then you leak the same intelligence to a big newspaper. The big newspaper makes headlines of it, quoting anonymous sources. Then you can go on TV, and when you're asked if it's true, you can say, 'Yes. We all have the same intelligence.'

You write that Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress "produced intelligence required by the current policy makers," and that "this intelligence, whose source remained a secret, would be delivered to the press in order to nudge public opinion in the right direction."

This was going on even in the '90s. An example of how intelligence was siphoned through Chalabi: Scott Ritter, former UN weapons inspector, had an early experience with Chalabi in 1998. Chalabi was already connected to key players in the campaign for regime change in Iraq. At a dinner in Washington, Ritter mentioned investigations were being done to determine if a chemical agent was found in fragments of destroyed missiles, Chalabi picked up this piece of intelligence and leaked it to the Washington Post, which assumed that the information came from the Iraqi National Congress. So Scott Ritter had to read this on the front page of the Washington Post. He knew that he had passed on this information. That intelligence turned out to be false, but the damage was done.

It's clear that SISMI was manipulating Martino, but was the U.S. intelligence manipulating SISMI?

It's difficult to say. U.S. intelligence is probably too generic a term. The CIA was very skeptical of what SISMI was telling them, but the DIA was not. So there were two competitors. In February 2002 what started was a competition between the CIA and the DIA, because the DIA was eager to please Dick Cheney. Cheney was absolutely crazy about this Niger story and wanted it checked again and again until he got the answer he was looking for.

You write that the "OSP [Office of Special Plans] approached the War on Terror in the same way that a Madison Avenue ad agency would approach the launch of a new product." Did the OSP play a direct role in the false documents?

We didn't find any evidence of a direct OSP role in the documents. Probably some time just before the invasion, the Pentagon had some knowledge of the documents because in October of 2002, the documents finally made their way to Washington. Francis Brooke, the former right-hand of Chalabi who had a close relationship with the OSP office says that he definitely heard something about those documents from his friends at the Pentagon.

Many members from the OSP including Larry Franklin and Harold Rhode, were in Rome in December 2001 with the full knowledge of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, but without the knowledge of Colin Powell, George Tenet, or Condoleezza Rice. There were secret meetings with Iranian intelligence officers, SISMI officers, Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute, and Manucher Ghorbanifar [who helped Michael Ledeen launch the Iran-Contra affair]. During these meetings, the main issue that was discussed was invading Iraq. So in December 2001, just two months after September 11th, the road was already paved.

You yourself became the victim of a disinformation campaign both during and after publishing the book.

This disinformation campaign was coming from different channels, all from the center-right press, the noise machine under direct control of then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The first claim was that we were blaming SISMI for something that the French had done. The second claim was that the book was fueled by a personal vendetta -- that we weren't looking for facts, just to victimize the director of SISMI because of personal problems with him. It was an interesting pretext because as we learned later on last summer, when the Italian public prosecutor discovered the illegal surveillance program in Milan, we found out that we were under surveillance. The formal justification was that we were internal enemies of the service. Apparently, that initial argument that we were not actually investigating, but had personal reasons to attack and expose the Italian secret service was reason to put you under secret surveillance.

In addition to the yellowcake documents, you also spend some time in the book investigating two botched terrorism cases in Italy -- widely publicized arrests that ended in no convictions. Why did you choose to include these?

Both stories involved alleged plots targeting U.S. sites in Italy -- a cemetery and an embassy. It's not a coincidence that the two stories have the U.S. in the background. The two investigations were to put Italy in a position to be thanked by Washington, which is actually what happened. Through the cases, you see how manipulation can affect the war on terror.

Editor's Note: For more on the Niger forgeries, see Laura Rozen's "The Italian Job," from our March 2006 issue.