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BILL MOYERS: All week we have seen Democrats and the president wrangling from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other, over how and when to get out of the war in Iraq without taking the blame if the worse comes to worst.

But there's still controversy over how we got into the war in the first place. Let's listen again to those sixteen words in the President's State of the Union Address in 2003, just weeks before he ordered the invasion of Iraq:

PRESIDENT BUSH: The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

BILL MOYERS: Well, it wasn't true. Saddam Hussein had not gotten his hands on any quantities of uranium from the African nation of Niger or from any other country. The information was based on a forgery. How this forgery made its way into the state of the union has remained a mystery.

But a new book tells the story of the forgery and how that fiction helped start the war.

Collusion, by Italian journalists Carlo Bonini and Giuseppe D'Avanzo, takes you to the streets of Rome, where the fake documents were cooked up by a motley band of conspirators whose scheme revolved around SISMI, the Italian equivalent of the CIA.

SISMI had a mole inside the tiny apartment in Rome that is the Niger embassy-- it was the first stop on a trail that would lead reporters to what Carlo Bonini calls "junk intelligence."

BILL MOYERS: Junk has to be made by somebody. When you set out to find out who made the junk, where did the trail lead?

CARLO BONINI: For sure, the documents were cooked up and put together in Rome. There is no doubt about it. We had a chance to get these documents. We know where these documents came from. And we had a chance to knock at the door of the Niger Embassy in Rome, which is a tiny apartment in the center of the city. And the lady who opened the door was the lady you find in the story we reported. La Señora we call her.

BILL MOYERS: She was working for the Niger Embassy. But she was working —

CARLO BONINI: As a secretary, yeah. But she was a, she was a mole of SISMI inside the Embassy.

BILL MOYERS: The Italian intelligence agency.

CARLO BONINI: These documents has the fingerprints of La Señora, and has the fingerprints of a former police officer, a former SISMI agent named Rocco Martino.

BILL MOYERS: A rather shadowy, underworld character, right?

CARLO BONINI: Absolutely. In 2001, basically, a freelance agent in the shadow world of spies selling information, no matter if true or false.

BILL MOYERS: You mean he would make up information and sell it because he knew —

CARLO BONINI: If necessary. You know, it's one of those guy that probably, you know, I mean, he's trying to make his life at the end of the month. And so he simply — I mean, at the time, he aspired to be — we could report at the time, he was just going from Rome to Brussels to Paris to London to — just, you know, trying to figure out how to get some thousand Euros from pieces of information.

BILL MOYERS: But you say in the book he worked with Italian agents.

CARLO BONINI: That's the case. I mean, he told —

BILL MOYERS: What was their motive?

CARLO BONINI: Well, you know —

BILL MOYERS: Why would they want to deceive the American government?

CARLO BONINI: You know, you have to think of October 2001.

BILL MOYERS: A month after 9/11.

CARLO BONINI: A month after September 9/11— September 11. SISMI had a new director at the time. He took the post on October 15, 2001. So a new director is just nominated by Silvio Berlusconi.

BILL MOYERS: The Prime Minister.

CARLO BONINI: Prime Minister at the time. Berlusconi had won the general elections five months before. He was eager, and he was pushing for strict, direct relationships with President Bush. The intelligence about Niger was a wonderful opportunity in terms of — I mean, politically speaking, it was a wonderful opportunity for SISMI to please the government, the Italian government. It was a wonderful opportunity for the Italian government to please the White House. And probably what happened was that no one at SISMI would ever thought that the story could go so far.

BILL MOYERS: So your speculation is that this guy was trying to make some money. Some Italian agency, SISMI agents, realized that they could make Berlusconi happy if they could give him information that he could bring to Washington and convince President Bush that he was on the President's side.

CARLO BONINI: Absolutely correct. That's basically — I mean, that's not what I believe. That's what facts that we've been reporting.

BILL MOYERS: When Prime Minister Berlusconi came to the White House with the story, do you think he knew the documents had been forged? Do you have any evidence that he knew?

CARLO BONINI: I don't have any evidence. But what I know, what I do know is that, as soon as the story took off, there is no chance, no chance that the government didn't ask the Secret Service for a full account of what was going on.

BILL MOYERS: I remember those pictures of Berlusconi coming to the White House, the coverage of it. He seemed a very happy man.

PRIME MINISTER BERLUSCONI: And here with a friend with a country that is the best friend of my country.

PRESIDENT BUSH: Well thank you. Your English is very good.

CARLO BONINI: Absolutely. I would have died to be up there in a corner listening at that meeting.

BILL MOYERS: He gave the President something the President needed to make a case?

CARLO BONINI: Absolutely. And it was more than a smoking gun. It was a mushroom cloud. I mean, back in October, 2001, and early winter, 2002, the White House had what it had been looking for for months. The final evidence that Saddam was restarting the nuclear program.

BILL MOYERS: By looking for this yellow cake?

CARLO BONINI: Absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: The President said the source was British intelligence. But you discovered it was Italian intelligence. Do you know why the President said it was British intelligence?

CARLO BONINI: Well, what happened here is what we call competitive intelligence.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean competitive? Why is it competitive?

CARLO BONINI: It means that you put a piece of raw intelligence in the circuit of the intelligence — allied intelligence agencies. And what happens is in the morning — what is false in the morning turns into true facts at night. This information is given to the US intelligence. In the meantime, the same information is given to the British intelligence. The US intelligence checks the information with the British intelligence. And the British intelligence says, "Yeah, we have the same information." The point is that the two intelligence agencies, they don't have to share their sources. So nor the Americans nor the Brits are going to say from whom they got the information. But they got a confirmation.

BILL MOYERS: So —

CARLO BONINI: Then they talk to the Italians. And the Italians say, "Oh, you had a confirmation from the British?" Rome talks to London, "Hey, you got a confirmation from Washington?" So the same piece of junk obtained in 48 hours, two different confirmations. It's a mirror game. I can say briefly when US intelligence received the information from the Italians, they — I mean, the CIA urged the DGSE, the French intelligence, the French CIA — to check the information because Niger is a former French colony. There's no better intelligence agency than the French one to double check a story like this. They worked hard on the information, and they came back saying there is nothing. This intelligence you received is simply junk intelligence. There is no evidence of such a deal between the Niger government and the Iraqi government.

BILL MOYERS: They told this to Washington.

CARLO BONINI: Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: The junkyard dealer who started this...

CARLO BONINI: Rocco Martino.

BILL MOYERS: Martino. Did you ever find out what he got paid for this junk?

CARLO BONINI: No. No.

BILL MOYERS: So, we don't know whether he took this forgery to SISMI?

CARLO BONINI: Exactly.

BILL MOYERS: The intelligence agent, or whether they came to him?

CARLO BONINI: Exactly. Rocco Martino acted in a frame that had, you know, SISMI fingerprints everywhere.

BILL MOYERS: And SISMI, your intelligence agency, had this agent, this mole in the Niger Embassy in Rome.

CARLO BONINI: Who could provide, you know, the stamps, the letters. All the stationery needed to cook up this mess. So, I mean, SISMI had, you know, a full involvement, it's absolutely clear also in making up the story. The problem is that Martino will never, I mean, it's actually his, his insurance — his personal insurance. I mean, he will never say, well, what had been promised to him, because what I know, and I remember when he we had a chance to talk to Martino. I mean, he was very frightened. I mean —

BILL MOYERS: Right.

CARLO BONINI: Yeah. I mean —

BILL MOYERS: That all this was coming out?

CARLO BONINI: Yeah. I mean, when the story finally went out of control of Rocco himself, of SISMI, of CIA, of White House, of Downing Street, everybody was scared. And you can imagine. Rocco Martino was badly scared.

BILL MOYERS: I can imagine him sitting at home with his glass of red wine watching CNN when the President.

CARLO BONINI: Yeah.

BILL MOYERS: Utters those 16 words.

CARLO BONINI: Yeah.

PRESIDENT BUSH: The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

BILL MOYERS: What does this do to you in terms of your faith in the political process?

CARLO BONINI: Well, yeah, this story made me think about my job and reporting, the press, which I think is a key point in the political process. The press behaved as an echo chamber of political communication. You have false pieces of intelligence. You have competitive intelligence. Then you have policy makers. And then you have the press corps. And in this perfect — in this triangle that we call the perfect storm, nothing is real, no check and balances. I mean, the victim is the truth. And the victim, obviously, is the public opinion.

BILL MOYERS: And the lesson is?

CARLO BONINI: And the lesson is journalism matters. In wartime your enemy is the lies, is the propaganda. No matter if it's the propaganda of your enemies, or if it's the propaganda of your government. I mean, propaganda never gets good to the people, to the army, to anybody. And, if you want, and the lesson is this one: we have to protect the public opinion, and in last instance, the democracy from propaganda.

Investigative Reporter Carlo Bonini

May 4, 2007

Carlo Bonini, investigative reporter for the Rome newspaper La Repubblica, broke the story about an Italian intelligence agency’s involvement in forging documents saying that Iraq had tried to secure yellowcake uranium from Niger. Those documents helped the White House make the case for invading Iraq — famously with the sixteen words: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” — in President Bush’s 2003 State of the Union Address. Bonini tells the convoluted tale in his book Collusion: International Espionage and the War on Terror. The forgeries have come back to haunt the administration in recent days. On April 25, 2007, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform voted to authorize a subpoena of Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice as part of an inquiry into the discredited information. The White House is expected to fight the subpoena, which followed a series of letters sent from the Committee Chairman Henry Waxman to the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State has also indicated that she will not testify on grounds of national security and her position in the Executive Branch. Interactive Timeline: Follow the fallout of the yellowcake forgeries in our timeline of pre-war media coverage Buying the War: How did the mainstream media get it so wrong? (Watch the full 90-minute documentary)

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