22 September, 2004

The other forgery

While we're taking a moment to publicly dress down Dan Rather for his shoddy journalism, let's pause and remember that other recent bit of high-profile forgery. You know, the one that led us to war?

In fact, the analogy is quite perfect: we can call one the "little forgery" and the other, the "big forgery". In both cases the identity of the forger remains obscure. I'm not sure who the little forger was - I haven't been paying enough attention and I'm frankly not all that interested. The identity of the big forger remains undisclosed but is probably known.

Sometime in 2001, according to UN investigators, an individual in Niger's embassy in Rome passed the documents on to Italian intelligence, from whence they mave have traveled to France, and later on to the U.S, and Britain. It's probable that this individual forged the documents as a way of making money, though no one is telling. The notion was apparently conceived based on a tour of Africa Iraq's ambassador to Italy took in 1999.

However, the documents have been blamed on a number of people. Iran has been blamed (based on an Iranian idiom in the forged documents), and bigots at Counterpunch asked rhetorically, "Could it be Israel?" Italy, doing a bit of CYA, even accused the French, saying that the French had probably planted them in order to make the US and its allies look ridiculous. (The US tried a similar version of that dodge a while ago - I think I even mentioned it here - when they claimed that Iran had used Ahmed Chalabi to dupe the US into getting rid of Saddam for them. Okay, chief. We'll believe you, but you have to stop using the term "intelligence services" from now on.)

The documents themselves were obvious forgeries, with a number of blatant mistakes and many subtle ones, e.g. photocopied letterhead, a postmark that preceded the date of the letter, references to non-existent agencies and the signature of an official who had been gone for a decade. The CIA was immediately skeptical and urged the British not to use it in their summaries; they qualified it in many of their reviews. Compare to the little forgery, where experts expressed doubts about the authenticity of the forged memos.

And, just like in the little forgery, the interested parties ignored these caveats and continued to present the evidence as sound. Mohammad ElBaradei, chief of the IAEA, said the documents were ridiculous forgeries. This prompted Dick Cheney to come out and baldly state, "I think Mr. Elbaradei is, frankly, wrong." Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld and Rice all made reference to "Iraqi efforts to purchase uranium from abroad". And George W. Bush made famous mention of it in his State of the Union address. Only Powell was more circumspect, omitting it from his UN speech where he detailed the case against Iraq (Tellingly, he included a lot of other total garbage in that speech, like mentioning al-Zarqawi as an Iraqi link to al-Qaida even though i) al-Zarqawi is not al-Qaida and ii) he was in the Kurdish-controlled part of Iraq at the time and could easily have been dispatched by the US).

The CIA has made it abundantly clear that it knew the document was false. They sent Joseph Wilson to Niger to verify it, and he came back and told them it was crap. On several occasions they attempted to censure it, including persuading George Bush not to mention it in a speech. So it's clear that the doubts about its authenticity were well-known to Administration officials. They were simply ignored.

Remember that this was one of the strongest arguments for going to war: the threat of an Iraqi nuclear weapons program. And that, of course, is where the little forgery and the big forgery diverge. One involved an incident of no great importance thirty years in the past. The other precipitated one of the great calamities of modern history that continues to trouble us today. Is there any doubt which should matter most in this election?


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