Today, I asked both Press Secretary Scott McClellan and National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley about recent reports that the Italian government was involved in the Iraq-Niger hoax. For background on this issue, read Josh Marshall, who’s been writing lately about reporting he’s done, and Seymour Hersh, who reported similar findings in the October 27, 2003, issue of The New Yorker, writing:
In the fall of 2001, soon after the September 11th attacks, the C.I.A. received an intelligence report from Italy’s Military Intelligence and Security Service, or SISMI, about a public visit that Wissam al-Zahawie, then the Iraqi Ambassador to the Vatican, had made to Niger and three other African nations two and a half years earlier, in February, 1999…
None of the contemporaneous reports, as far as is known, made any mention of uranium. But now, apparently as part of a larger search for any pertinent information about terrorism, SISMI dug the Zahawie-trip report out of its files and passed it along, with a suggestion that Zahawie’s real mission was to arrange the purchase of a form of uranium ore known as “yellowcake.”
Today, both McClellan and Hadley denied the allegations.
This was my interchange with Scott at the morning gaggle:
Q After his meeting with the President on Monday, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was asked whether the Italian government had provided the United States with intelligence on alleged Iraqi purchases of uranium ore from Niger. Berlusconi replied, “Bush, himself, confirmed to me that the U.S.A. did not have any information from Italian agencies.” Does the White House stand by that statement?
MR. McCLELLAN: Stand by what — say the statement again.
Q Berlusconi replied — he replied in Italian, this is a translation, “Bush, himself, confirmed to me that the U.S.A. did not have any information from Italian agencies.”
MR. McCLELLAN: I think I addressed that question yesterday. I responded to that. You’ve got to go back and look at exactly what I said.
Q So your answer is, “yes”?
MR. McCLELLAN: I’m sorry? I addressed that question yesterday. I responded to it.
Q So the answer is, “yes”?
MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, if you’re talking about — because there have been some Italian reports about a meeting that took place here at the White House, and I pointed out yesterday that there were no documents provided relating to Niger and uranium at that meeting, much less –
Q Not just –
MR. McCLELLAN: — much less was it even discussed.
Q — no, not just at the meeting –
MR. McCLELLAN: And in terms of going back to the issue of Niger and uranium, I mean, we briefed on that and we talked about the basis for the statement in the remarks. And it was based on the National Intelligence Estimates and the British intelligence.
Note how Scott escapes from answering my more general question by focusing just on the September 2002 White House meeting.
In the afternoon, Stephen Hadley handled the briefing, and we had this exchange:
Q On September 9th, 2002, you met in Washington with Nicolo Pollari, the head of the Italian Intelligence Agency, SISMI. According to the Italian daily, La Republica, Mr. Pollari came to the meeting to discuss an alleged attempt by Iraq to purchase uranium from Niger. Is that claim false?
MR. HADLEY: We’d looked at this issue. We had both looked at our documentary record — I have — we have talked — I’ve searched my own recollection; we have also talked to other people on the NSC staff at the time who might have a recollection of that meeting. I can tell you what that canvassing has unearthed. There was a meeting in Washington on that date. I did attend a meeting with him. It was, so far as we can tell from our records, about less than 15 minutes. It was a courtesy call. Nobody participating in that meeting or asked about that meeting has any recollection of a discussion of natural uranium, or any recollection of any documents being passed. And that’s also my recollection. I have very little recollection of the meeting, but I have no recollection there was any of that discussion, or that there was any passing of documents. Nor does anybody else who may have participated in that meeting. That’s where we are.
Q Can you say what you did discuss with Mr. Pollari?
MR. HADLEY: I told you I have very little recollection of the meeting, and it was in the order of a courtesy call, getting to know a person who is going to be a colleague going forward. And you can tell that from the relative briefness of the meeting. And I think what the Italian authorities have said is very consistent with what I just said.
So, who do you want to believe? Marshall and Hersh? Or McClellan and Hadley?
Incidentally, why did Hadley say that there was no discussion of natural uranium at the meeting? Is there such a thing as unnatural uranium? Maybe uranium referred to in forged documents about purchases that never happened could be considered unnatural. Or at least spooky.