Italian secret services warned the United States months before it invaded Iraq that a dossier about a purported Saddam Hussein effort to buy uranium in Africa was fake, a lawmaker said Thursday after a briefing by the nation’s intelligence chief.
“At about the same time as the State of the Union address, they (Italy’s SISMI secret services) said that the dossier doesn’t correspond to the truth,” Sen. Massimo Brutti told journalists after the parliamentary commission was briefed.
Brutti said the warning was given in January 2003, but he did not know whether it was made before or after President Bush’s speech. Brutti, a leading opposition senator, said SISMI analyzed the documents between October 2002 and January 2003.
The United States and Britain used the claim that Saddam was seeking to buy uranium in Niger to bolster their case for the invasion, which started in March 2003. The intelligence supporting the claim later was deemed unreliable.
Italian lawmakers questioned Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s top aide and SISMI director Nicolo Pollari about allegations that Italy knowingly gave forged documents to Washington and London detailing a purported Iraqi deal to buy 500 tons of uranium concentrate from Niger. The uranium ore, known as yellowcake, can be used to produce nuclear weapons.
Pollari requested the hearing after the allegations were reported last week by the daily newspaper La Repubblica. Pollari and Cabinet Undersecretary Gianni Letta were questioned by members of a parliamentary commission overseeing secret services.
The closed-door session lasted about four hours, and commission members spoke with reporters after it ended.
La Repubblica, a strong Berlusconi opponent, alleged that after the Sept. 11 attacks Pollari was being pressured by Berlusconi to make a strong contribution to the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The Italian leader is a staunch U.S. ally.
Berlusconi’s government has denied any wrongdoing, and the premier has personally defended Pollari amid calls for his resignation.
Berlusconi, in an interview with the conservative daily newspaper Libero published Thursday, said Italy had not passed any documents on the Niger affair to the United States. He added that La Repubblica’s allegations were dangerous for Italy because “if they were believed, we would be considered the instigator” of the Iraq war.
Brutti said the commission was told that the documents were forged by Rocco Martino, whom he described as a former SISMI informant. Both Brutti and commission chairman Enzo Bianco quoted Pollari and Letta as saying no SISMI officials were involved in forging the dossier or in distributing it.
The Niger claim also is at the center of a CIA leak scandal that has shaken the Bush administration, leading to last week’s indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby.
Libby was charged with lying to investigators about leaking the identity of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame, the wife of Bush administration critic Joseph Wilson. Libby pleaded not guilty Thursday.
Wilson accused the administration of covering up his inquiry into whether Iraq was trying to obtain uranium from Niger after he found the claim had no substance.