|Waging war with competitive intelligence
As a new book details how a petty theft at Niger's embassy in Italy
provided convenient, forged justification for the war in Iraq, the need has
never been greater for checks and balances on competitive intelligence.
by Eric J Lyman in Rome for ISN Security Watch (16/05/07)
New information uncovered in Italy
shows that the case for waging war
in Iraq probably dates back a full nine
months before the history-changing
events of 11 September 2001, to
what at the time appeared to be a
petty robbery at a minor embassy in
The case is a simple one: Thieves
broke into the apartment-sized
embassy of Niger, located on the
northern cusp of Rome's historical
center, while the staff was away the
day after New Year's in 2001. The intruders made off with a few seemingly
unimportant items that included a few sheets of stationary and a stamp with the
country's official seal.
More than two years later, the case for taking the US-named War on Terror to Iraq was
made based on forged documents made from those items - the falsified information
behind US President George W Bush's now famous 16-word State of the Union claim
that "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought
significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
That Iraq never sought uranium from Africa is now well known. But the tale of how the
claim came to be made still offers new and relevant lessons.
The case is detailed in a new 250-page book - "Collusion: International Espionage and
the War on Terror" - written by Italian investigative journalists Carlo Bonini and
Giuseppe D'Avanzo. The book points a finger at disgraced former Italian secret agent
Rocco Martino who allegedly forged the documents and sold them for cash to his
former bosses with the Italian intelligence agency SISME, with no idea how important
they would become.
Also to blame is Silvio Berlusconi, who in 2001 was Italy's newly elected prime
minister eager to curry favor with Washington and its allies. Berlusconi's government
passed the information on to London and from there it made it to the White House. It
was not thoroughly checked out at either stop.
"It would not have been difficult to figure out at any point that the information was
fabricated, but it was not because it was too convenient for it to be considered true,"
Bonini told ISN Security Watch in a recent interview. "Nobody wanted to know the
truth at that time."
The larger problem, according to Bonini, is that the case involving Martino and the
forged documents is not unique or even unusual. He uses the term "competitive
intelligence" to reference the growing number of situations where demand for certain
types of information is so high that what had once been standard precautions to
determine accuracy are de-emphasized or pushed aside. This competitive
intelligence, Bonini said, has become common since 9/11.
"The correct role for intelligence is to help formulate policy," he said. "But in this
environment, intelligence is often used as an instrument to justify actions, a way to
support steps that have already been decided upon."
No country can be singled out for blame. Though the documents from Martino
originated in Italy, Rome was no more at fault for failing to adequately verify the
information than London or Washington. But the situation helps to justify bad
policymaking, and the consequences of that are felt far beyond the borders of the
countries playing an active role.
What is more frightening is to consider that while the root causes of this case were
uncovered, many other cases of false or faulty intelligence used as a basis for policy
almost surely pass through undetected and without.
Can the trend toward competitive intelligence be curbed? It seems unlikely that
governments themselves will take the steps needed to do so as long as the chances
of being discovered are slim and as long as the flawed intelligence can still be used
to justify the kinds of policy decisions that governments want justified.
For his part, Bonini sees a growing role for the media in the political process. It is the
Fourth Estate, he said, that must provide the kind of check against abuses that once
came from within governments themselves.
"One of the lessons to be learned from this is that journalism matters," Bonini said.
"You have competitive intelligence, you have policy-makers, and then you have the
press corps. Without this triangle, without these checks and balances, the victim
becomes the truth, and, of course, faith in government and public opinion."
Eric J Lyman is ISN Security Watch's correspondent in Rome.
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the
International Relations and Security Network (ISN).