"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
By relying on documents that could not be absolutely authenticated from a blind source to make the otherwise irrefutable case that George W. Bush shirked his National Guard duties in the early 1970s, CBS anchor Dan Rather dealt the credibility of journalism a “body blow,” according to Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler. But just how damaging was that blow?
One measure of the debacle is a “60 Minutes Wednesday” segment that millions of viewers now will not see: a hard-hitting report making a powerful case that in trying to build support for the Iraq war, the Bush administration either knowingly deceived the American people about Saddam Hussein’s nuclear capabilities or was grossly credulous. CBS News president Andrew Heyward spiked the story this week, saying it would be “inappropriate” during the election campaign.
The importance that CBS placed on the report was evident by its unusual length: It was slated to run a full half hour, double the usual 15 minutes of a single segment. Although months of reporting went into the production, CBS abruptly decided that it would be “inappropriate to air the report so close to the presidential election,” in the words of a statement that network spokeswoman Kelli Edwards gave the New York Times.
The real reason, of course, was that because of CBS’s sloppy reporting on the Bush National Guard story, the network’s news executives believed they could no longer report credibly on the heart of the Iraq nuclear issue, involving another set of completely forged documents: those purporting to show that Iraq had purchased yellowcake uranium from the African country Niger.
Salon was given the videotape by CBS News on the condition that we report on it only shortly before it was to air. But after the network effectively spiked its own story (which was reported by Newsweek online and by the New York Times), we sent an e-mail late last week to CBS stating that we believed that the embargo no longer applied. We received no reply and therefore feel free to report.
How the fake Niger documents surfaced was at the heart of the “60 Minutes” report by veteran correspondent Ed Bradley. Originally set to air Sept. 8, but now postponed indefinitely, Bradley’s report was bumped by Rather’s “scoop” on the memos allegedly written by the late Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, who had been Bush’s Texas Air National Guard squadron commander in Texas. Rather producer Mary Mapes had rushed the records onto the air, convinced they offered proof that Bush had been allowed to duck his duties because of political connections. By the time Rather conceded that he felt uncertain about the veracity of the documents, the network’s once-proud news division was in full, head-hanging retreat. The network appointed former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, a Republican, and retired Associated Press executive Louis D. Boccardi to conduct an independent review of its reporting procedures.
Had Bradley’s piece aired, millions of Americans would have seen it in the heat of the presidential campaign. The Nielsen ratings put the Wednesday version of “60 Minutes” regularly in its top 20 most popular shows.
A source close to CBS said Bradley was furious with the decision to spike the report and angry that the reputation of the “60 Minutes” Sunday program has suffered because of the missteps of the Wednesday version of the show. Bradley did not return phone calls seeking comment. On Tuesday, his assistant said the correspondent was “swamped” after returning from a trip to the Middle East.
The report contains little new information, but it is powerfully, coherently and credibly reported. It features the first on-camera interview with Elisabetta Burba, the Italian journalist who received the fake Niger documents in 2002 and passed them on to the U.S. embassy in Rome. Burba tells how she traveled to Niger and concluded that Iraq could not have purchased uranium from the tightly controlled French-run mines in Niger and that therefore the documents must have been faked.
According to Newsweek, CBS also interviewed Burba’s source for the documents, a shadowy Roman businessman named Rocco Martino with reputed connections to European intelligence agencies, especially Sismi, the Italian intelligence service. The producers flew Martino to New York for an on-camera interview, but footage of the interview was not included in the final version of the report. It is unclear why Martino was cut; perhaps it was because, as Burba told Newsweek, Martino had lied to her in the past and was not someone she considered reliable.
According to a knowledgeable source, the lead producer of the report, David Gelber, had toyed with using Martino to delve into another intriguing angle: why has the Federal Bureau of Investigation apparently done little to fulfill a request by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, for an investigation into the origins of the forged Niger documents? Martino, a central figure in the affair, should be of keen interest to the FBI. But, as of late last week, investigators had still failed to interview him. A U.S. law enforcement source told Newsweek the bureau was waiting for the Italian government to grant permission.
That strange explanation raises the question of whether the right-wing government of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had helped manufacture evidence that his ally, Bush, could use to persuade Americans to support an invasion. Burba passed on the documents to the U.S. Embassy in Rome at the instruction of her editor at Panorama, a news magazine owned by Berlusconi. An alternative theory, floated in corners of the conspiracy-minded European press, is that Martino was working for the antiwar French, who hoped to discredit the Bush administration by getting American officials to swallow obviously forged documents.
Whatever the case, the CBS producers apparently decided to concentrate on what could be nailed down: the Bush administration had, either intentionally or with breathtaking credulity, relied on patently false intelligence to make the case for invading Iraq.
“Two years ago, Americans heard some frightening words from President Bush and his closest advisors,” Bradley said in his introduction of the now-shelved report. “Saddam Hussein, they said, could soon have a nuclear bomb. Of course, we now know that wasn’t true.” Not only did Saddam not have a nuclear program, Bradley said, but “he hadn’t for more than 10 years. How could the Bush administration be so wrong about something so important?”
The answer, Bradley was to have told viewers, “has a lot to do with a single piece of evidence: A set of documents that appear to prove Saddam was secretly buying uranium ore.” The mysterious surfacing of the forged Niger documents, Bradley said, helped “explain why President Bush and his cabinet delivered the frightening message we all heard in the early autumn two years ago.” The broadcast then cut to video clips of Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice making public statements with eerily similar wording:
“We now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons,” Cheney said in an address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Cut to Rumsfeld: “We do now know that Saddam Hussein has been actively and persistently” pursuing nukes. Then, Rice, on a television talk show, insisted: “We do know that he is actively pursuing a nuclear weapon.”
By showing the video clips in rapid succession, the television piece conveyed, in a manner beyond the printed word, how deliberate and practiced was the administration’s sense of urgency.
Bradley then interviewed Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (No one from the Bush administration or any Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee would cooperate, Bradley told viewers.) Biden said in the run-up to the war, he had been perplexed by the remarks of Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice, because nothing he knew about Iraq’s nuclear threat squared with their claims. Asked why he thought they were making such dire pronouncements, Biden said: “What’s the one way to energize the American public to go to war? The threat of nuclear weapons.”
Cut to Bush: “We cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.” The expression on Bush’s face as he speaks portentously was a look of concern. Yet, had the segment aired, the viewer would have understood that the president was not telling the truth.
The next scene: Bradley walks down a crowded sidewalk in Milan with Dr. Jafar Dhia Jafar, who had been Saddam’s chief nuclear scientist. Jafar explains that Iraq dismantled its nuclear program after the Gulf War in the face of United Nations inspections. “So what was going on?” Bradley asks. “Nothing was going on,” Jafar replies. He tells Bradley that the Bush administration was either “being fed with the wrong information” or “they were doing this deliberately.”
In a voice-over, Bradley asks: “So what information did the Bush administration have to support its argument that Saddam was rebuilding his nuclear weapons? They began hearing reports about one piece of evidence that, if true, would have been the smoking gun.”
Cut to a man leading a camel down a crowded city street and a boy playing with a tire in the dirt. We are in Niger, the world’s fourth-leading supplier of uranium yellowcake, Bradley explains, as he moves into an interview with former ambassador Joseph Wilson. The CIA dispatched Wilson to Niger in 2002 to investigate reports that Iraq had attempted to purchase uranium from the African nation. Wilson reported that he found no evidence to support the claim. But the Bush administration ignored him and the CIA. In his State of the Union address in January 2003, President Bush cited the supposed Iraqi nuclear threat, slyly attributing its sourcing to British intelligence, since discredited by the Senate Select Intelligence Committee report.
After the war started, in March, Wilson, shocked that the discredited Niger story had appeared in Bush’s State of the Union address, wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times about the lack of evidence he found in Niger. In retaliation and in an attempt to intimidate him and any other future critic, “two administration sources gave conservative columnist Robert Novak the name of Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, a covert CIA agent, which he published in his column, published in the Washington Post. The act of revealing the identity of an undercover CIA operative is a federal felony against national security. The episode led to appointment of a special prosecutor. That probe continues. Lately, the prosecutor has hauled a number of journalists who may or may not have information in for questioning.”
Bradley interviews Wilson, who says that he found nothing in Niger to indicate that any purchase agreement had been signed or executed. Bradley then speaks with the former director of the Department of State’s intelligence bureau (intelligence and research), Greg Thielmann, who explains why he concluded that Iraq was not attempting to reconstitute its nuclear program. In March 2002, Bradley reported, the White House received Thielmann’s report, titled “Niger: Sale of Uranium Is Unlikely.”
“But the story didn’t die there,” Bradley says in a voice-over. On-screen appears an image of the White House lit at night, suggesting intrigue, and a shot of the Washington Monument in the moonlight. The camera pulls in on the spooking red lights flashing in the monument. “Then suddenly the documents materialize … in Rome.”
Burba, the Italian journalist, for the first time tells how anxious she felt when she received the Niger documents, knowing they could change the course of history, and her dismay that after she personally had investigated and debunked them, Bush could mention them again in his State of the Union address.
The former foreign minister of Niger, Allele Habibou, whose signature was on one of the forged documents, is shown next in footage from a German documentary. Wearing traditional African dress, he gesticulates dismissively. “I only found out about this when my grandchildren found this on the Internet. I was shocked,” he says. The document was dated 2000, but by then Habibou had been out of the government for 11 years.
Bradley then interviews an expert from the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, who tells him laughingly that it took only about two hours of Google searches for his staff to figure out the documents were fraudulent.
Then-CIA Director George Tenet warns the White House not to let Bush use the discredited Niger information in his speeches. “That might have been the end of it, but it wasn’t,” Bradley says. Cut to Bush delivering the fateful 16 words in the 2003 State of the Union address: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., a senior Intelligence Committee member, tells Bradley that the claim was a deliberate attempt to mislead the public. “The people who wrote that address knew that the CIA doubted the very story that they were putting into the State of the Union,” Levin says. “So instead they put the words in the mouth of the British. That seems to me so fundamentally wrong.”
“Two weeks later, the U.S. and its allies invaded Iraq,” Bradley intones. Yet no weapons of mass destruction were found, he points out, as newspaper headlines about Bush’s disputed statement in the State of the Union flash on-screen. Rice is shown in file footage bounding from a car into a television studio — one of many appearances in which she blamed the statement on the CIA. “Had there been even a peep that the agency did not want that sentence in,” she said on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” “it would have been gone.”
But this claim is implicitly contradicted by headlines stating “Officials Were Warned on Claim” (that is, warned by the CIA) that appear on the screen. Rice, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” shrugs apologetically. “This was a mistake,” she says. But Bradley observes that the claim was still made in speeches by Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Bradley returns to Jafar, the former head of Iraq’s nuclear program. After the invasion, Jafar slipped out of Iraq, and a CIA agent immediately showed up on his doorstep. “They ask me questions. ‘Do you have nuclear weapons?’” Jafar said. “I laughed him off. I said, if we had nuclear weapons, I wouldn’t be here.”
In his closing, Bradley explains how fiercely the White House fought his report. Administration officials and Republicans in Congress turned down “60 Minutes’” requests for interview. So did former Rep. Porter Goss, the Florida Republican whom Bush has appointed as the new director of the CIA.
“60 Minutes” defied the White House to produce this report. But it could not survive the network’s cowardice — cowardice born of self-inflicted wounds.
Mary Jacoby is Salon's Washington correspondent.More Mary Jacoby.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)