Before Bombing Syria, Read "The Italian Letter"

Posted on by Laurie Garrett

As Congress debates whether President Bashar al-Assad’s apparent use of sarin gas to kill some 1,400 fellow-Syrians merits retaliatory American military action, many are recalling the “weapons of mass destruction” rationale used to justify U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Though Secretary of State John Kerry has been at pains in recent days to underscore the caliber of intelligence supporting the Obama administration’s claims of Assad genocidal use of nerve gas, there is public doubt.

We’ve been here before, and Americans are weary not only of war, but also of con artists in positions of power.

Much of the language used to describe the Syrian situation is reminiscent of phrases and claims utilized by the George W. Bush administration to garner intervention backing from the United Nations Security Council, a long list of allies, and the United States Congress. So it is inevitable that nine years later, amid chatter of U.S. cruise missile launches to take out Syrian government military stockpiles I should revisit the sorry history of Bush’s drumbeats of war.

The Italian Letter is my choice for a brilliantly researched, jaw-dropping book that ought to be on every politician’s reading list this week.


Published in 2007 by Rodale, The Italian Letter is a spectacular piece of investigative journalism penned by the dynamic ex-Newsday duo of Peter Eisner and Knut Royce, both of whom contributed to Pulitzer Prize-winning projects during the course of their long careers. I read this book when it was published, and reread it as soon as President Obama turned to Congress over Labor Day Weekend, asking for its approval for military action. Within days the president received bipartisan backing. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican normally known for his anti-Obama vitriol, called on his GOP colleagues to back the White House.

"America's credibility is on the line," Cantor said on September 3. "A failure to act when acting is in America's interest and when a red line has been so clearly crossed will only weaken our ability to use diplomacy, economic pressure and other nonlethal tools to remove Assad and deter Iran and other aggressors. It is not just an abstract theory that the Syrian conflict threatens the stability of key American partners in the region.”

Eisner and Royce have written a cautionary tale of lies, deception, conceits of power and manipulation of government and public opinion. It might be read as a how not to do pre-war analysis, and offers up what amounts to a check list, in the negative, for our time: Judge the credibility of the Obama administration’s assertions against those made by the Cheney/Bush/Blair triad in 2002 and 2003.

Eisner and Royce’s tale begins on February 1, 1999, when a Vatican-based Iraqi diplomat named Wissam al-Zahawie makes a brief trip to Niamey, Niger, hoping to solicit the African country’s support for a UN vote to lift trade embargoes issued against Baghdad after Iraq’s defeat in the Persian Gulf War. Months later Italian intelligence service officers collude with ex-cop Rocco Martino (you can’t make these names up!) to get a pile of Niger documents circulating through European police and intelligence channels. The papers are created by an Italian spy who is a plant, working in her country’s embassy in Niger. They are faxed from Niger phone numbers to enhance their authenticity, reaching French and British intelligence officers. By the end of 2000 a UK intelligence commission, drawing from the Italian fake papers, issues a report stating, “Unconfirmed intelligence indicates Iraqi interest in acquiring uranium.”

Before George W. Bush is inaugurated in 2001, Niger’s embassy in Rome is burglarized, and official stationary is stolen. And shortly before the 9/11 attacks Rocco Martino puts together a dossier of alleged “evidence” connecting Baghdad to uranium in Niger. The most crucial document, now dubbed “the Italian Letter,” was dated July 27, 2000, written in French on official Niger government stationary, stamped Confidential. Supposedly a letter from Niger’s President Mamadou Tandja to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, it reads in part:

“I have the honor of referring to accord No. 381-N1 2000, concerning the provision of uranium, signed in Niamey on the Sixth of July between the Government of the Republic of Niger and the Government of Iraq….”

The alleged letter went on to describe forthcoming shipments of 500 tons of yellowcake uranium.

Eisner and Royce detail a long list of flaws and blatant lies in the Italian Letter and accompanying Martino dossier of documents, including dated signatures from individuals that were not in the designated positions and jobs at the time the letter and documents were supposedly written. Nevertheless, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency took the dossier seriously, in part because of the prior U.K. commission conclusion. By late 2002, the Italian Letter and dossier were in circulation in national security departments from London to Washington, Beijing to Paris, and gaining traction despite increasingly clear fraud. The hapless Iraqi diplomat al-Zahawie, the supposed broker of the uranium deal, was targeted by UN investigators, grilled, and found innocent. And CIA investigators concluded that it would be impossible for 500 tons of uranium – secured inside thousands of oil barrel-sized containers – to be transported from Niger to Iraq without drawing the attention of spy satellites and hundreds of police and customs officials across Africa. Moreover, the CIA insists, Iraq doesn’t have industrial capacity to convert hundreds of tons of yellowcake into weapons-grade plutonium.

By the end of 2002 most serious intelligence investigators in Europe and the U.S. have concluded that The Italian Letter and supporting dossier are fraudulent and absurd. Yet in January 2003 President Bush delivers his State of the Union Address, featuring these remarkable sixteen words:

“The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

And a month later Secretary of State Colin Powell told the UN Security Council that, “we have no indication that Saddam Hussein has ever abandoned his nuclear weapons program….Since 1998 his efforts to reconstitute his nuclear program have been focused on acquiring the third and last component, sufficient fissile material to produce a nuclear explosion. To make the fissile material, he needs to develop an ability to enrich uranium.”

Over and again, as the drum beats of war grew louder, Vice President Dick Cheney and the Bush Administration leaders cited British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his government’s fifty-page intelligence commission report on the Niger yellowcake. Once secret, the report was published to bolster the case for war in September 2002 and featured an introduction by Blair, with his italics used for clear emphasis:

“What I believe is…the assessed intelligence has established beyond a doubt that Saddam has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons, that he continues in his efforts to develop nuclear weapons, and that he has been able to extend the range of his ballistic missile programme.”

Of course we all know how this story ended: The U.S. invaded Iraq in the spring of 2003, military and CIA personnel scoured the nation in search of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, and none were found. There was no weapons of mass destruction program. The primary rationale for the war was a lie.

If you read The Italian Letter you will learn why the Italian spies crafted this deception, who forwarded the false documents despite doubting their veracity, and how the UK Blair government was so soundly snookered.

More importantly, if you read the Eisner/Royce book you will have a to-do list for Congress: Before voting for military action make sure all parties favoring it have presented authentic, irrefutable intelligence.

Make sure there aren’t any Italian Letters.