As Fitzgerald nears the end, are the Niger forgeries on his radar?

An Italian newspaper says the trumped-up tale of a uranium deal landed in the hands of Stephen Hadley.

Published October 25, 2005 8:56PM (EDT)

Over the weekend, Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison said she hoped that if Patrick Fitzgerald indicts anyone for anything, it will be for a real crime and not "some perjury technicality." Is it possible that she'll get her wish?

The internets are alive today with speculation -- fueled by clues from UPI and a report in an Italian newspaper -- that special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is investigating not just the leak of Valerie Plame's identity and the coverup that may have come after it but the way in which forged documents led to Joseph Wilson's trip to Niger and became a part of the Bush administration's case for war.

The CIA dispatched Wilson to Niger after Dick Cheney asked for more information about a Defense Intelligence Agency report indicating that Iraq had struck a deal to purchase 500 tons of "yellowcake" uranium from Niger. That intelligence report was based, in large part, on what was said to be the "verbatim text" of Iraq's agreement with Niger.

The problem: No such agreement ever existed, and the documents from which the "verbatim text" appeared were obvious forgeries written on stationery that was apparently stolen from the Nigerien Embassy in Rome. The questions: Who forged the documents, and how did the text from them find its way into the hands of insufficiently skeptical Bush administration officials? The intriguing possibility: Are the forged documents and the way in which they were used a part of Fitzgerald's probe?

As we noted yesterday, NATO sources have told UPI's Martin Walker that Fitzgerald requested and received an unpublished report of the Italian parliament's investigation into the forged documents. Now, as Josh Marshall and the American Prospect are noting, the Italian newspaper La Repubblica is running a series of articles examining how the text of the forged documents made its way from Italy to the United States. The paper says that Nicolo Pollari, the chief of Italy's military intelligence service, may have known that the underlying documents were fakes, but that he shopped the story of them around Washington until he found someone willing to take them seriously -- then Deputy National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley. The American Prospect has confirmed that Pollari and Hadley met on Sept. 9, 2002.

As the Prospect explains, Pollari's direct contact with a senior member of the president's national security staff suggests one reason why the president included those famous -- and famously wrong -- 16 words about Niger in his 2003 State of the Union address over the objections of the CIA and the State Department. It may also explain why White House officials were so sensitive about Joseph Wilson's efforts to debunk the Niger claim that they revealed the identity of his wife as a way to discredit him.

Evidence from Italy may help Fitzgerald with questions of motive and intent. But can we be sure that Fitzgerald is looking directly at the question of the Niger forgeries and the way in which the Bush administration used them? No. It's not at all clear that Fitzgerald has made the forgeries a significant part of his investigation or even that he has the authority to do so. But as we all go about opining, speculating and generally hyperventilating, you might as well feed this into the buzz machine: On his blog the other day, former CIA officer and counterterrorism expert Larry C. Johnson said that Hadley has told friends that he expects to be indicted.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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