Thursday, September 23


The story that didn't run.

A team of “60 Minutes” correspondents and consulting reporters spent more than six months investigating the Niger uranium documents fraud, CBS sources tell NEWSWEEK. The group landed the first ever on-camera interview with Elisabetta Burba, the Italian journalist who first obtained the phony documents, as well as her elusive source, Rocco Martino, a mysterious Roman businessman with longstanding ties to European intelligence agencies.

Although the edited piece never ended up identifying Martino by name, the story, narrated by “60 Minutes” correspondent Ed Bradley, asked tough questions about how the White House came to embrace the fraudulent documents and why administration officials chose to include a 16-word reference to the questionable uranium purchase in President Bush’s 2003 State of the Union speech.
Some CBS reporters, as well as one of the network’s key sources, fear that the Niger uranium story may never run, at least not any time soon, on the grounds that the network can now not credibly air a report questioning how the Bush administration could have gotten taken in by phony documents. The network would “be a laughingstock,” said one source intimately familiar with the story.

Although acknowledging that it was “frustrating” to have his story bounced, David Gelber, the lead CBS producer on the Niger piece, said he has been told the segment will still air some time soon, perhaps as early as next week. “Obviously, everybody at CBS is holding their breath these days. I’m assuming the story is going to run until I’m told differently.”

The delay of the CBS report comes at a time when there have been significant new developments in the case—although virtually none of them have been reported in the United States. According to Italian and British press reports, Martino—the Rome middleman at the center of the case—was questioned last week by an Italian investigating magistrate for two hours about the circumstances surrounding his acquisition of the documents. Martino could not be reached for comment, but his lawyer is reportedly planning a press conference in the next few days.

Burba, the Italian journalist, confirmed to NEWSWEEK this week that Martino is the previously mysterious “Mr. X” who contacted her with the potentially explosive documents in early October 2002—just as Congress was debating whether to authorize President Bush to wage war against Iraq. The documents, consisting of telexes, letters and contracts, purported to show that Iraq had negotiated an agreement to purchase 500 tons of “yellowcake uranium from Niger, material that could be used to make a nuclear bomb. (A U.S. intelligence official told NEWSWEEK that Martino is in fact believed to have been the distributor of the documents.)

Burba—under instructions from her editor at Panarama, a newsmagazine owned by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi—then provided the documents to the U.S. Embassy in Rome in an effort to authenticate them. The embassy soon passed the material on to Washington where some Bush administration officials viewed it as hard evidence to support its case that Saddam Hussein’s regime was actively engaged in a program to assemble nuclear weapons.

But the Niger component of the White House case for war quickly imploded. Asked for evidence to support President Bush’s contention in his State of the Union speech that Iraq was seeking uranium from Africa, the administration turned over the Niger documents to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Within two hours, using the Google search engine, IAEA officials in Vienna determined the documents to be a crude forgery. At the urging of Sen. Jay Rockefeller, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the FBI launched an investigation into the Niger documents in an effort to determine if the United States government had been duped by a deliberate “disinformation” campaign organized by a foreign intelligence agency or others with a political agenda relating to Iraq.

So far, the bureau appears to have made little progress in unraveling the case. “The senator is frustrated by the slow pace of the investigation,” said Wendy Morigi, the press secretary for Senator Rockefeller, who was recently briefed on the status of the FBI probe.

One striking aspect of the FBI’s investigation is that, at least as of this week, Martino has told associates he has never even been interviewed by the bureau—despite the fact that he was publicly identified by the Financial Times of London as the source of the documents more than six weeks ago and was subsequently flown to New York City by CBS to be interviewed for the  “60 Minutes” report.


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