HOW HE SEES IT 'Yellow-cake forgery' is the real spy crime
By JOHN HALL
MEDIA GENERAL NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON -- The outing of a CIA officer isn't the only potential crime that occurred in the long, tortuous attempt to prove that Saddam Hussein was buying uranium from Africa. There also is the little matter of forgery.
Someone planted fake documents that helped both President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair reinforce their case that Saddam was actively seeking the raw material for an atomic bomb. It was at the heart of the rationale for invading and disarming Iraq -- that Baghdad was reconstituting its outlawed nuclear program.
The question now is whether the Justice Department's special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, will be allowed to get to the bottom of this crime. He has a reputation for looking under every stone. And the so-called "yellow-cake forgery" is directly related to the intramural scandal he is now uncovering, except that it involves substance, not personalities.
At the request of the CIA, a federal grand jury is supposed to be looking into whether the White House may have leaked the name of a covert CIA officer, Valerie Plame, to get back at her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, for blowing the whistle on the yellow-cake fraud.
Browbeating the press
So far the investigation is being used to browbeat the press. One reporter is in prison and others have been intimidated into revealing sources on an aspect of the Iraq invasion that is of great consequence to the press and the craft of intelligence, but is not of overarching importance to the nation.
Meanwhile, the forgery -- a fraud that found its way into the president's State of the Union message -- is being quietly investigated by the FBI at the request of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The Robb-Silberman Commission, which investigated what went wrong with American intelligence in the run-up to the invasion, said it was unclear who forged the documents and why. It turned over classified "factual findings concerning the potential source of the forgeries" to the FBI.
What has happened to these findings is a Washington mystery.
The commission, which was highly critical of the intelligence community, was generally open with its criticism, but it kept the forgery details confidential. It was no doubt reluctant to compromise sources and methods of the CIA.
From the inception of the yellow-cake controversy, there have been reports that foreign intelligence sources were involved. Most attention has been focused on Italy's intelligence service.
Yet, why Italy would have wanted to plant such a forged document has never been explained. Suspicions that the Italians might have done so on request have flourished.
It was the International Atomic Energy Agency that eventually found that the yellow-cake documents were forgeries. Both the British government and the United States were said to have been duped.
Although the contract and other papers in which the Iraqis appeared to be purchasing yellow-cake from Niger were fakes, they had passed muster from the nation's multibillion-dollar intelligence apparatus.
It was the IAEA, an agency that is regularly maligned as inept by this country's national-security establishment, which quickly found that the documents were riddled with flaws in the letterhead, forged signatures, misspelled words, incorrect titles for individuals and government entities and -- in one case -- a date for a meeting that said Wednesday, July 7, 2000. July 7, 2000, was a Friday.
Those who have seen these papers rule out the possibility that they could have been produced in the United States or Britain and slipped to the Italians. A first-rate Western intelligence service could never have produced such poor quality fakes.
Forgery is a crime, but what about failing to notice it when it leaps out at you like a snake? It took the U.S. intelligence community six months to evaluate the authenticity of the yellow-cake documents -- time for a major failure of the intelligence system.
As for the forgeries, the Robb-Silberman Commission apparently has a well-founded suspicion whodunit. It turned that over to the FBI. The rest of us will have to wait.
X John Hall is the senior Washington correspondent of Media General News Service.