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Context of 'October 8-9, 2002: Italian Journalist Thinks Niger Documents Are Fakes'

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One day after receiving the Niger documents (see Afternoon October 7, 2002), Elisabetta Burba meets with her editors and expresses her concern that the documents might be fakes. She and her husband, a historian, closely reviewed the documents and noted several apparent problems; for example, that the amount of uranium specified in the documents—500 tons—is very large, and that the letters do not include details on how the uranium would be delivered. She proposes that she travel to Niger to determine the document’s authenticity. [Associated Press, 7/20/2003; Talking Points Memo, 10/31/2003; Isikoff and Corn, 2006, pp. 147] But Burba is instructed by the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Carolo Rossella, who is known for his ties to the Berlusconi government, to hand them over to the American embassy in Rome for verification. [Washington Post, 7/20/2003; New Yorker, 10/27/2003; Talking Points Memo, 10/31/2003]

Entity Tags: Carlo Rossella, Elisabetta Burba

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

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