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Context of 'July 15, 2003: Western Diplomat Says IAEA Believes Britain’s Iraq Uranium Claim Based on Forged Nigeran Documents'

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Intelligence reports suggesting that “rogue states” are trying to obtain uranium spark concern within the French government about the security of the two French consortiums that control Niger’s uranium industry. [Financial Times, 8/2/2004] France has reportedly learned that uranium is being extracted from abandoned mines and being sold on the international black market. [La Repubblica (Rome), 10/24/2005] The French consortium, Cogema, controls the only two mines in Niger and transports all the ore to the port of Cotonou in neighboring Benin. From there it is exported to France, Spain, and Japan. [Los Angeles Times, 2/17/2004]

Entity Tags: France

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

Wissam al-Zahawie, Iraq’s ambassador to the Vatican, sets off on a trip to several African countries as part of an effort to convince African heads of state to visit Iraq. Saddam Hussein hopes that these visits will help break the embargo on flights to Iraq and undermine the UN sanctions regime. Zahawie’s first stop is Niger, where he meets with the country’s President Ibrahim Bare Mainassara for one hour. Mainassara promises that he will visit Baghdad the following April. (He is assasinated before he has an opportunity to do this.) [Sunday Herald (Glasgow), 7/13/2003; Independent, 8/10/2003; Time, 10/2/2003; New Yorker, 10/27/2003] In early 2002, the Italian military intelligence service, SISMI, will allege in a report (see February 5, 2002) sent to the US that the motive behind the visit is to discuss the future purchase of uranium oxide, also known as “yellowcake” (see October 15, 2001). [New Yorker, 10/27/2003] However, no one at this time suggests that the trip’s motives have anything to do with acquiring uranium. Zahawie’s trip is reported in the local newspaper as well as by a French news agency. The US and British governments are aware of the trip and show no concern about Niger, which is actively seeking economic assistance from the United States. [New Yorker, 10/27/2003] In 2003, al-Zawahie will tell British reporters: “My only mission was to meet the president of Niger and invite him to visit Iraq. The invitation and the situation in Iraq resulting from the genocidal UN sanctions were all we talked about. I had no other instructions, and certainly none concerning the purchase of uranium.” [Independent, 8/10/2003]

Entity Tags: Wissam al-Zahawie, Ibrahim Bare Mainassara

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

Rocco Martino, an Italian information peddler and former SISMI agent, will later tell reporters that he provides French officials with documents suggesting that Iraq intends to expand its “trade” with Niger. He does not say from where he obtains these documents. The French assume the trade being discussed concerns uranium, Niger’s main export. At French intelligence’s request, according to Martino, he continues supplying them with documents. [Sunday Times (London), 8/1/2004; Financial Times, 8/2/2004] However Martino’s account is disputed by French intelligence official Alain Chouet who insists that France’s first contact with Martino takes place in June 2002 (see Late June 2002). [La Repubblica (Rome), 12/1/2005]

Entity Tags: Alain Chouet, Rocco Martino, SISMI

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

Antonio Nucera, deputy chief of the SISMI center in Viale Pasteur in Rome and one of Italy’s foremost experts on WMD, telephones Rocco Martino, an Italian information peddler and former SISMI agent. Nucera tells Martino of a SISMI intelligence asset working in the Niger Embassy in Rome who is in need of money and who can provide him with documents to sell. [Sunday Times (London), 8/1/2004; Financial Times, 8/2/2004; Il Giornale (Rome), 9/21/2004; La Repubblica (Rome), 10/24/2005; Il Giornale (Rome), 11/6/2005] According to Martino, “SISMI wanted me to pass on the documents but they didn’t want anyone to know they had been involved.” [Sunday Times (London), 8/1/2004; Financial Times, 8/2/2004] Martino, who left the agency in 1999, has a long history of peddling information to other intelligence services in Europe, including France’s DGSE. He is weathering financial difficulties, and Nucera’s proposal may be a lucrative one. Nucera tells Martino about a longtime Italian “asset” in the Nigerien embassy in Rome, a woman of around 60 with a low-level position there. The woman will later be dubbed “La Signora” by the Italian press, and be identified as Laura Montini, the Nigerien ambassador’s assistant. Nucera suggests that Martino can possibly use her as SISMI had, paying her to pass on documents stolen or copied from the Nigerien embassy (see January 2, 2001) and March 2007). [London Times, 8/1/2004; Unger, 2007, pp. 207]

Entity Tags: Antonio Nucera, SISMI, Laura Montini, Rocco Martino

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

Italian information peddler Rocco Martino agrees to pay Laura Montini, an employee at the Niger embassy in Rome, the sum of £350 per month in exchange for any documents that might shed light on rumours that “rogue states” are trying to acquire uranium from Niger (see Between 1999 and 2000). Martino wants to sell the documents to the French who are investigating the rumours. France is concerned about the security of a French consortium that controls Niger’s only two uranium mines. Martino has reportedly been on French intelligence’s payroll since 1999 (see June or July 1999). Martino learned of Montini through his friend Antonio Nucera, deputy chief of the SISMI center in Viale Pasteur in Rome (see Early 2000). Up until this point, Montini, age 60, has been working as an informant for Italian intelligence. She goes by the name “La Signora.” [Sunday Times (London), 8/1/2004; Financial Times, 8/2/2004; La Repubblica (Rome), 10/24/2005; Marshall, 11/10/2005; Sunday Times (London), 4/9/2006; Vanity Fair, 7/2006, pp. 150] One of the first documents she gives to Martino is one relating to Wissam al-Zahawie’s 1999 visit to Niger (see February 1999). Martino reportedly passes the document on to the French. [Sunday Times (London), 4/9/2006] Over the next several months, La Signora reportedly provides Martino with numerous documents—a “codebook,” a dossier including a mixture of fake and genuine documents, and then finally, a purported agreement between Niger and Iraq on the sale of 500 tons of uranium oxide, also known as “yellowcake.” [Marshall, 11/10/2005]

Entity Tags: Antonio Nucera, Laura Montini, Rocco Martino

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

An official of the Embassy of Niger in Rome returns to the embassy to find that it has been burglarized some time over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. The embassy offices are located in a large apartment and office building near the Piazza Mazzinni. Little of value seems to be missing: a wristwatch, some perfume, bureaucratic documents, embassy stationery, and some official stamps bearing the seal of the Republic of Niger. The documents and materials stolen from the embassy will be used to create forged documents alleging a secret plan for Iraq to buy uranium from Niger (see Between Late 2000 and September 11, 2001, October 15, 2001, October 18, 2001, November 20, 2001, February 5, 2002, March 1, 2002, Late April or Early May 2002-June 2002, and Late June 2002). [Vanity Fair, 7/2006, pp. 150; Unger, 2007, pp. 189-190] It appears that the people involved in the break-in also searched through and took some of the embassy’s documents and files. [Newsweek, 7/28/2003; La Repubblica (Rome), 10/24/2005] The first comprehensive report on the burglary will come from a 2005 series of reports in Italy’s La Repubblica news daily. The series is based on interviews with SISMI director Nicolo Pollari, former SISMI agent and document peddler Rocco Martino (see March 2000, Late June 2002, Afternoon October 7, 2002, and Summer 2004), and others. Martino will deny participating in the burglary himself, and will claim he only became involved after SISMI had its agent in the embassy, Laura Montini, deliver to him documents secured from the embassy. “I was told that a woman in the Niger embassy in Rome had a gift for me” (see Early 2000), he will later recall. “I met her and she gave me documents.” [London Times, 8/1/2004; Unger, 2007, pp. 207] Italian police will later suspect that the break-in was staged to provide an explanation for how a collection of mostly forged documents (which play an important role in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq) came into being. [Isikoff and Corn, 2006, pp. 88]

Entity Tags: Laura Montini, Rocco Martino, Nicolo Pollari

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

Nicolo Pollari, chief of Italy’s military intelligence service (SISMI—see (After October 18, 2001) and September 9, 2002), responds to the CIA’s request for clarification on the alleged uranium deal between Iraq and Niger (see October 15, 2001). Pollari’s page and a half letter explains that “the information comes form a creditable source, La Signora [Laura Montini],” who has in the past “given SISMI the cryptographic codes and memorandum ledgers from the Niger Embassy.” [La Repubblica (Rome), 11/11/2005] Some time around this same date, according to La Repubblica, Pollari discusses the issue with Italy’s Minister of Defense, Antonio Martino (no relation to Rocco Martino, the document peddler—see March 2000, Late June 2002, Afternoon October 7, 2002, and Summer 2004). Martino tells Pollari to expect a visit from “an old friend of Italy,” Martino’s longtime friend and colleague Michael Ledeen (see (After October 18, 2001) and April 3, 2005). Ledeen will later deny that any such meeting with Pollari ever happened. Pollari will deny any involvement with the Iraq-Niger affair. [Unger, 2007, pp. 235-236]

Entity Tags: Nicolo Pollari, Central Intelligence Agency, Antonio Martino, Laura Montini, Michael Ledeen

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

Italian freelance information peddler and former SISMI agent Rocco Martino, surprised at the tremendous media coverage his documents alleging an Iraq-Niger uranium deal are receiving (see September 24, 2002,March 2000, Late June 2002, and Summer 2004), approaches Elisabetta Burba, a journalist for a Milan news magazine, Panorama. Martino and Burba have worked together in the past; she considers him to be a reliable source. Panorama is edited by Carlo Rossella, a close political ally of conservative Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (see October 16, 2001). Berlusconi is a close ally of the Bush administration, and is actively working with the US to promote the war with Iraq. One of Panorama’s foreign contributors is American neoconservative Michael Ledeen (see December 9, 2001). These are all considerations which may have influenced Martino’s decision to contact Burba rather than a journalist with another news outlet. He tells her that he has some documents (see March 2000) that might interest her. [Talking Points Memo, 10/31/2003; Financial Times, 8/2/2004; Unger, 2007, pp. 259-261; Washington Post, 4/3/2007]
'Let's Make This War Start' - They meet at a restaurant in Rome. Martino tells Burba that he has documents proving that Iraq made a deal to purchase hundreds of tons of uranium from Niger. “Let’s make this war start,” he says. “This is a megagalactica situation.” [Isikoff and Corn, 2006, pp. 147]
The 'Italian Letter' - Perhaps the most interesting document is a letter from Nigerien President Mamadou Tandja to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, giving his formal approval for a deal for Niger to sell 500 tons of uranium a year to Iraq. Washington Post reporter Peter Eisner will later write, “This was the smoking gun in the package, claiming to show the formal approval of Niger’s president to supply Iraq with a commodity that would in all likelihood only be used for a nuclear weapons program: Iraq had no nuclear power plants.” The letter is written in all capital letters, like an old telex, is dated July 27, 2000, and bears what Eisner describes as “an odd shield on the top, a shining sun surrounded by a horned animal head, a star, and a bird.” It is marked “Confidential and Urgent.” The letter reads in part, “500 tons of pure uranium per year will be delivered in two phases.” It bears a seal reading “The Office of the President of the Republic of Niger.” Written over the seal is a barely legible signature, apparently from Tandja. [Washington Post, 4/3/2007]
Cash on Corroboration - Martino hands over copies of the documents, totaling some 22 pages, mostly in French, and offers to sell Burba the originals. Skeptical but interested, Burba agrees to pay Martino 10,000 euros—about $12,500—for the documents if they can be corroborated by independent authorities. When Burba informs Rossella of the deal later in the day, he proposes sending her to Africa to investigate the claim (see October 16, 2002 and After), and insists she give copies of Martino’s documents to the US embassy. “I think the Americans are very interested in this problem of unconventional weapons,” he tells her. [Agence France-Presse, 7/19/2003; Reuters, 7/19/2003; New Yorker, 10/27/2003; Talking Points Memo, 10/31/2003; Unger, 2007, pp. 259-261; Washington Post, 4/3/2007]

Entity Tags: Peter Eisner, Panorama, Rocco Martino, Michael Ledeen, Bush administration (43), Elisabetta Burba, Mamadou Tandja, Saddam Hussein, Carlo Rossella, Silvio Berlusconi

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

Italian Panorama journalist Elisabetta Burba goes to the US Embassy in Rome and gives US officials copies of the Niger uranium documents (see March 2000) that she had obtained two days before (see Afternoon October 7, 2002). [Agence France-Presse, 7/19/2003; Agence France-Presse, 7/19/2003; Washington Post, 7/20/2003; Associated Press, 7/20/2003; Agence France-Presse, 9/19/2003; New Yorker, 10/27/2003] Up till now, the embassy had only received reports of the documents. [Unger, 2007, pp. 261] It is likely that the so-called “Italian Letter,” a letter purporting to be from the president of Niger to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein confirming the Iraq-Niger uranium deal, is not in the bundle of documents Burba brings to the embassy. [ERiposte, 3/6/2006] Burba meets with the embassy’s press spokesman, Ian Kelly. Over coffee, she tells him that she has documents purporting to show that Iraq has signed a deal to buy uranium from Niger, and she needs his help to confirm their authenticity and accuracy. Kelly brings three others into the discussion—a political officer, one of his own staffers, and perhaps a US military official, as Burba will later recall—and moves the entire group into his office. The subsequent discussion is brief; Burba hands over the documents. Kelly tells her the embassy will look into the matter. The CIA station chief, Jeff Castelli, refuses to meet with Burba. [Washington Post, 4/3/2007] Castelli is told about Burba’s visit, but is not interested. As the CIA’s head of European operations, Tyler Drumheller, will later recall, Castelli says, “This is bullsh_t we don’t have time to waste on.” Castelli receives a copy of the documents but quickly forgets about them. According to Drumheller, Castelli is “not the most organized guy in the world. And his view was, ‘This is the least important thing that’s coming across my desk now.’ He just made a mistake.” [Isikoff and Corn, 2006, pp. 148; CBS News, 4/23/2006] Several newspapers cite sources (mostly unnamed, so it’s possible they are all relying on the same sources) that appear to support Drumheller’s account. [New York Times, 3/23/2003; Washington Post, 7/20/2003; New Yorker, 10/27/2003] For example, an unnamed senior CIA official will tell Knut Royce of Newsday in July of 2003 that the CIA “had serious questions about [the claims] from day one” (see July 21, 2003). The agency “had accounts (see October 15, 2001, February 5, 2002, and March 25, 2002) of them [the letters] and that was close enough. We didn’t take it that seriously to begin with.… We didn’t put a lot of stock in these reports from Niger. We didn’t rush around to get the actual documents.” [Newsday, 7/11/2003] The documents are faxed to the State Department on October 15 (see October 15, 2002), and its intelligence unit will quickly conclude that the papers are probably fakes. [Washington Post, 7/20/2003; Isikoff and Corn, 2006, pp. 148; Unger, 2007, pp. 261]

Entity Tags: Elisabetta Burba, Ian Kelly, Tyler Drumheller, Central Intelligence Agency, Jeff Castelli, Panorama, US Department of State

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

Italian journalist Elisabetta Burba flies to Niger to investigate some documents (see March 2000) she received a few days earlier (see Afternoon October 7, 2002). Not wanting to draw attention to her mission, she claims to be in Niger to investigate a newly discovered dinosaur fossil in the Tenere Desert. It does not take her long to discover just how difficult it would be to clandestinely ship 500 tons of uranium from Niger to Iraq (see March 1, 2002). [Washington Post, 7/20/2003; Associated Press, 7/20/2003; Unger, 2007, pp. 261] “They would have needed hundreds of trucks,” she reports, a large percentage of all the trucks in Niger. It would have been impossible to conceal. [Washington Post, 4/3/2007] Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh will later report: “She visited mines and the ports that any exports would pass through, spoke to European businessmen and officials informed about Niger’s uranium industry, and found no trace of a sale. She also learned that the transport company and the bank mentioned in the papers were too small and too ill-equipped to handle such a transaction.” [Washington Post, 7/20/2003; Associated Press, 7/20/2003; New Yorker, 10/27/2003] With all evidence indicating that the papers are bogus, Burba returns to Italy, ready to write a different story: not on the claims of a uranium purchase, but on the attempt to pass off forged documents to make such an explosive claim. Instead, her editor, Carlo Rossella, calls her off. “I told her to forget the documents,” Rossalla later recalls. “From my point of view, the story was over.” [Unger, 2007, pp. 261]

Entity Tags: Carlo Rossella, Seymour Hersh, Elisabetta Burba

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

After months of delay, the US State Department provides French nuclear scientist Jacques Baute, head of the UN Iraq Nuclear Verification office, with the Niger documents (see March 2000). The State Department includes the following caveat with the documents: “We cannot confirm these reports and have questions regarding some specific claims.” [Independent, 7/10/2003; Washington Post, 7/20/2003] Only Baute and International Atomic Energy Agency Director Mohamed ElBaradei are authorized to view the documents. The memo about an alleged plan (see October 15, 2002) to form an anti-Western coalition is not included in the set of papers. Baute, who assumes the papers are authentic, travels to Baghdad and interviews several current and former Iraqi officials about the alleged attempt to purchase uranium from Niger. When he returns from his trip on February 17, he examines the documents and almost immediately concludes they are fakes (see February 17, 2003). [Isikoff and Corn, 2006, pp. 201-203]

Entity Tags: Mohamed ElBaradei, Jacques Baute, US Department of State

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

After the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports that the Niger documents (see March 2000) are not authentic (see March 7, 2003), the US and British governments stand behind their claim that Iraq had sought uranium from an African country. The two countries maintain that they have additional evidence—from multiple sources—but do not elaborate. Pressed by journalists and inspectors to reveal their evidence, the two governments refuse. The IAEA tells Reuters that when it asked the US and Britain whether or not they have additional evidence that Iraq had tried to procure uranium, the answer was “no.” [Reuters, 3/26/2003]
'Information Blackout' - Additionally, an informed UN official tells the Washington Post that the US and Britain were repeatedly asked for more information. Neither government, the official explains, “ever indicated that they had any information on any other country.” [Washington Post, 3/22/2003] An unnamed Western diplomat tells the Independent: “Despite requests, the British Government has provided no such evidence. Senior officials at the agency think it is involved in an information black-out.” [Independent, 7/17/2003]
British Stick With Story Even after US Backs Away - The British will hold to their story even after top US officials admit (see 3:09 p.m. July 11, 2003) that Bush should not have included the claim in his State of the Union speech.(see 9:01 pm January 28, 2003) [New York Times, 7/8/2003; Independent, 7/20/2003]
Additional Evidence Initially Believed to be French Intel Reports - The London Times will later suggest that Britain’s additional evidence consisted of reports provided by the French in 1999 alleging that Iraqi diplomat Wissam al-Zahawie’s visit to Niger (see February 1999) was aimed at securing a deal to purchase uranium. [Sunday Times (London), 11/6/2005] As one British foreign official explains to the Independent: “Niger has two main exports—uranium and chickens. The Iraqi delegation did not go to Niger for chickens.” But Al-Zahawie disputes this. “My only mission was to meet the president of Niger and invite him to visit Iraq,” he tells the Independent. “The invitation and the situation in Iraq resulting from the genocidal UN sanctions were all we talked about. I had no other instructions, and certainly none concerning the purchase of uranium…. I have been cleared by everyone else, including the US and the United Nations. I am surprised to hear there are still question marks over me in Britain. I am willing to cooperate with anyone who wants to see me and find out more.” [Independent, 8/10/2003; New Yorker, 10/27/2003]
Actual Evidence Provided by Italian Reports Based on Forged Documents - Later reporting will reveal that the main source for Britain’s Africa-uranium allegation was in fact an Italian intelligence report (see Mid-October 2001) that traced back to the forged Niger documents. [La Repubblica (Rome), 10/24/2005; La Repubblica (Rome), 10/25/2005] “I understand that it concerned the same group of documents and the same transaction,” an unnamed Western diplomat close to the International Atomic Energy Agency later tells the Daily Mail. [Agence France-Presse, 7/15/2003]

Entity Tags: Jacques Baute

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

An unnamed Western diplomat close to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) tells the Daily Mail that the agency believes that Britain’s Africa-uranium claim is based on the same alleged transaction referred to in the forged Niger documents (see March 2000). “I understand that it concerned the same group of documents and the same transaction,” the source says. [Agence France-Presse, 7/15/2003]

Entity Tags: International Atomic Energy Agency

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

London’s Sunday Times interviews the person it calls “a mysterious middleman who was a key figure in the notorious Niger uranium hoax before the Iraq war.” The middleman is information peddler Rocco Martino, though Martino uses the alias “Giacomo” in the interview. He claims to have been an “unwitting dupe” in the passing of forged documents alleging that Iraq attempted to buy uranium from Niger (see Early 2000). Martino confirms that he has worked as a low-level agent for the Italian military intelligence service SISMI, and says that the agency used him to spread the forged Iraq-Niger documents. “I received a call from a former colleague in SISMI,” he says. “I was told a woman in the Niger embassy in Rome had a gift for me. I met her and she gave me documents. Sismi wanted me to pass on the documents but they didn’t want anyone to know they had been involved.” Martino is referring to Laura Montini, another SISMI asset (see March 2000). He says he believed the documents were real when he gave them to various intelligence contacts and journalist Elisabetta Burba (see Afternoon October 7, 2002). [London Times, 8/1/2004; Financial Times, 8/2/2004]

Entity Tags: Elisabetta Burba, Rocco Martino, Sunday Times, Laura Montini, SISMI

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

Journalist and radio host Ian Masters asks former CIA operative Vincent Cannistraro during an interview, in reference to the question of who forged the Niger documents (see March 2000), “If I were to say the name Michael Ledeen to you, what would you say?” Cannistraro replies, “You’re very close.” After the radio show, Ledeen denies in a statement that he has any connection to the documents. [Ian Master's Background Briefing, 4/3/2005]

Entity Tags: Michael Ledeen, Vincent Cannistraro

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Neoconservative Influence, Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

Italian document peddler Rocco Martino, who first sold the forged documents purporting to prove a secret uranium deal between Iraq and Niger (see March 2000, Late June 2002, Afternoon October 7, 2002, and Summer 2004), tells the British news daily The Guardian: “It was the Italians and Americans who were behind it. It was all a disinformation operation. [I was] a tool used by someone for games much bigger than me.” [Unger, 2007, pp. 237]

Entity Tags: Rocco Martino

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

General Nicolo Pollari, the head of Italy’s military intelligence agency SISMI, identifies former SISMI agent and information peddler Rocco Martino as the disseminator of forged documents that alleged Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from Niger (see March 2000, Late June 2002, Afternoon October 7, 2002, and Summer 2004). Pollari discloses Martino’s identity in closed-door hearings conducted by the Italian parliament. Senator Massimo Brutti tells reporters that Martino is a former SISMI agent who had been “kicked out of the agency.” Brutti also tells reporters that Italy attempted to warn the US that the documents were forgeries, but then retracts the claim (see November 3, 2005). Senator Luigi Malabarba, another participant in the hearing, tells reporters that according to Pollari, Martino was “offering the documents not on behalf of SISMI but on behalf of the French,” and that Martino told prosecutors in Rome that he was in the service of French intelligence. A senior French intelligence official refuses to say whether Martino has ever been a paid agent of French intelligence, but calls Pollari’s assertions about France’s involvement in the document dissemination “scandalous.” Pollari denies any involvement in the document forging or dissemination by SISMI. [New York Times, 11/4/2005]

Entity Tags: SISMI, Nicolo Pollari, Rocco Martino, Luigi Malabarba, Massimo Brutti

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

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