Italy: We Warned U.S. On WMD Docs

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Italian secret services warned the United States in January 2003 that a dossier about a purported Iraq-Niger uranium deal were fake, an Italian lawmaker said Thursday after a briefing by an Italian intelligence chief.

"At about the same time as the State of the Union address, they (Italy's SISMI secret services) said that the dossier didn't correspond to the truth," Sen. Massimo Brutti told journalists after the parliamentary commission was briefed. He was referring to U.S. President George W. Bush's speech in the weeks before the start of the Iraq war.

The United States and Britain used the claim that Saddam Hussein was seeking uranium in Africa to bolster their case for the war. The intelligence supporting the claim was later deemed unreliable.

Brutti said he did not know the exact date that Italy informed Washington.

SISMI chief Nicolo Pollari had requested the hearing after Rome daily newspaper La Repubblica alleged last week that Italy had given the United States and Britain documents it knew were forged detailing a purported Iraqi deal to buy 500 tons of uranium concentrate from Niger. The uranium, known as yellowcake, can be used to make nuclear weapons.

Also appearing before the parliamentary commission overseeing secret services was Premier Silvio Berlusconi's top aide, Cabinet Undersecretary Gianni Letta.

The closed-door session lasted about four hours and commission members spoke with reporters after it was over.

La Repubblica, a strong Berlusconi opponent, has alleged that after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, Pollari was under pressure from Berlusconi — a firm U.S. ally — to make a strong contribution to the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Berlusconi's government has denied any wrongdoing and the premier has personally defended Pollari in the face of calls for his resignation.

Brutti, a leading opposition senator, said SISMI analyzed the documents between October 2002 and January 2003, when the Americans were informed.

He said that the commission was told that the documents were forged by an information peddler named Rocco Martino, whom he described as a former SISMI collaborator. Both Brutti and commission chairman Enzo Bianco quoted Pollari and Letta as saying that no SISMI officials were involved in forging the dossier or in distributing it.

In an interview with conservative daily Libero published on Thursday, Berlusconi said Italy hadn't 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 war in Iraq.

The Niger claim is also at the center of a CIA leak scandal that has shaken the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, leading to the indictment last week of Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby.

Libby, who pleaded not guilty in his first court appearance in the case in Washington on Thursday, was charged with lying to investigators about leaking the identity of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame, wife of Bush administration critic Joseph Wilson.

New York Times reporter Judith Miller was jailed for 85 days for refusing to reveal the source of her information while she was reporting on WMDs. In later testimony, her first-person account was a window into the bad relations between the White House and the CIA in 2003 stemming from the fact that no weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq after the U.S. invasion. Miller at the time was speaking to Libby after being assigned to write a story about the failure to find them. A number of Miller's prewar stories bolstered the Bush administration's argument for going to war by citing intelligence that Saddam Hussein had such weapons.

Wilson accused the Bush administration of covering up his inquiry into whether Iraq was trying to obtain uranium from Niger after he found the claim had no substance.

Earlier, in July of 2004, a British report concluded that Iraq had no useable chemical or biological weapons before the war, and British intelligence to the contrary relied in part on "seriously flawed" or "unreliable" source.

But the report absolved Prime Minister Tony Blair's government and the intelligence agencies of "deliberate distortion or culpable negligence." Blair said he accepted the report's findings and accepted personal responsibility for any errors made. In a statement to the House of Commons, Blair conceded that it was "increasingly clear" Saddam Hussein had no stockpiles of illicit weapons on the eve of the war. But he insisted the U.S. led military campaign was not a mistake.