TD Blog Interview with Knut Royce

Knut Royce is a journalist who was a major contributor to three Pulitzer Prize winning stories for such publications as Long Island’s Newsday before joining the Center for Public Integrity as a Senior Fellow. He has won numerous journalism awards, and the Washingtonian named him one of the two best investigative print reporters in the nation’s capital. He is the co-author (with Peter Eisner) of “The Italian Letter“, the first book providing a detailed journalistic account of the background of the forged documents that linked the African nation of Niger and its yellowcake uranium to Iraq (care of the Italian intelligence service) and which was one of the justifications used for the Iraq war (as well as the underlying subject of “the 16 words” in the 2003 State of the Union address and eventually of L’Affaire Plame). On April 11, 2007, I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Royce by telephone; what follows are my interview notes, as corrected by Mr. Royce where appropriate.
The Talking Dog: I frequently ask this question first, for a variety of reasons… could you tell me where you were on September 11th? Can you tell me where you were on January 29, 2003 when the President was delivering “the 16 words” in the State of the Union address of that year? At what point did you first become aware that “the 16 words” presented an issue of untrustworthiness?
Knut Royce: I was driving into work with a colleague at Newsday in Washington, D.C. We heard that the first plane hit, and we drove on. I was thinking that it was a commercial plane that lost control or an accident or otherwise nothing Earth shattering. When the second plane hit, my first words were “Al Qaeda”. Two planes could not have accidentally hit the World Trade Center and it did not take a genius to figure out that Al Qaeda was going to be the prime suspect.
As to that State of the Union Address, at that time I was working at the Center for Public Integrity. I recall reading transcripts of the speech. The 16 words themselves did not stand out, because, quite frankly, I was already very skeptical and there were many things in that speech that I did not take at face value– I interpreted that speech as meaning we were already preparing for war.
The Talking Dog: Your book documents how Elisabetta Burba of the Italian magazine Panorama through how she was contacted by information peddler/SISMI operative Rocco Martino and provided with a dossier of documents that included “the Italian letter” and other documents used by the Bush Administration to support its contention that Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq was seeking to reconstitute its nuclear weapons program. Did you have an opportunity to interview Mr. Martino? Do you believe that he knows who forged the documents? Do you believe that anyone you have spoken to knows who forged the documents, and/or why?
Knut Royce: We went to Italy to work on the book. We spoke to Martino’s attorney; he told us that at that time, Martino had “gone deep down”. The Italian elections were coming up then, and this was a very hot issue there; he didn’t want to talk to us, though he had talked to reporters earlier. We don’t know if Martino knows who forged the documents. He knows that a group of SISMI (Italian intelligence) officers were involved. They were also involved in setting up an operative at Niger’s embassy in Rome (staffed by “La Signora”), which provided key documents, including otherwise legitimate documents, used to create the forgery. Martino had reconstructed what happened and told his friends and others… he believes that he was set up by particular SISMI officers, although the forgeries themselves were not a SISMI directed official operation by any means.
Mr. Rossella was certainly close to Berlusconi– he was editor of a major Berlusconi owned paper, for one thing. But there is no evidence he was in on some kind of grand conspiracy. According to both Burba, and to Rossella himself when we spoke to him, he was simply close to officials at the American embassy, and actually believed they would be helpful in providing a clear-eyed analysis of the documents… of course, things didn’t work out that way.
The Talking Dog: Do you have any doubt that if either the Italian forgeries (the relevant documents were in the French language, interestingly) had never existed, that the Bush Administration would have either highlighted other strands of information, such as the famous aluminum tubes that it claimed were intended for centrifuges to process uranium although all the evidence suggests that they were to be used for Iraq’s existing artillery rockets, or the purported meeting between Mohammed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence official in Prague, or perhaps something else, even some other strand that was otherwise discounted, would have been highlighted instead, Judith Miller would have played her part, opposition to the war would have been duly ridiculed by the usual news outlets, and we surely would have gone to war in Iraq anyway, pretty much no matter what? If that’s the case, could you tell me the particular significance of this particular forgery– or is it more significant as a larger paradigm?
Knut Royce: No question, that the context of all this was that the Administration had already decided it was going to go to war, and the issue for it was how to make that decision palatable to the American public, and palatable to Congress… so, the Administration was trying to make its case as compelling as possible. Overall, that’s a hard question. The Administration would probably have used other intelligence sources– the nuclear issue was obviously the scary one– maybe it would have made more of the aluminum tubes, but uranium is appealing for presentation purposes because it’s not technical. As to the Mohammad Atta meeting with a supposed Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague, that was certainly played for as much as it could be, though the CIA and the FBI both expressed serious doubts about it having really happened as early as June of 2002.
The Talking Dog: Perversely, isn’t the fact that (1) the Bush Administration didn’t see the need to plant WMDs in Iraq or (2) plant other forgeries or other “intelligence” in the debate… somehow reassuring? While the Administration (particularly Vice President Cheney) may be grossly negligent, even criminally incompetent, at least the notion that there was a grand conspiracy has been somewhat debunked… notwithstanding that the intelligence it relied on was of poor quality, at least, as far as we know, the Bush Administration officials who actually made the decisions believed they were real– or at least, could have… it’s more a matter of bad judgment rather than bad faith… or am I missing something? Is there any evidence whatsoever that PM Berlusconi ordered the forgery to help out his friends in the Bush Administration, or perhaps even ordered it at their request?
Knut Royce: I think you’re right about that. They wouldn’t have planted WMDs– that was far too dangerous a proposition, and would have involved far too many people. And they didn’t have to fabricate forgeries– they already had Ahmad Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress and its team of professional fabricators already on board. The bogus bits of intelligence they generated– even as the CIA was skeptical of them– made their way into reports..
The Talking DogDid this include the famous “defector”, I believe known as “Fastball”?
Knut Royce: That’s Curveball, actually, and no, Curveball was not an INC fabricator, or even part of INC… but someone German intelligence had picked up. The INC certainly did provide intelligence that was used, such as the mobile germ warfare labs, or the Iraqis supposedly training terrorists how to hijack airplanes.
We found no evidence that Italian intelligence was prodded in any way or directed from the outside to manufacture documents. The Italians actually manufactured bogus packages of documents… beginning in the 2000 time frame– even before Bush was elected– they continued to try to sell these packages and disseminate them through Martino, and were doing so for a two year period.
What they were doing, of course, was freelancing phony documents for money! Rogue SISMI agents are actually legendary for this kind of thing! In other cases, they have generated fake evidence of illicit arms sales, or illegal telephone intercepts for politicians.
While Berlusconi publicly supported Bush, he actually didn’t want us to invade Iraq… he privately didn’t believe that Saddam had WMDs or that we should invade… so there is no evidence of Berlusconi’s direct involvement in any of this.
The Talking Dog: Your book identifies two incredible missteps by the widely-believed-to-be-sainted Joe Wilson: (1) he inadvertently kept the Iraq-Niger uranium connection story alive by alluding to a conversation in 1999 between Niger’s President Tandja and an Iraqi diplomat, incorrectly believed to be Wissam Al-Zahawie and in fact it was foreign minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf (aka “Baghdad Bob” or sometimes “Comical Ali”), and (2) he believed that Vice President Cheney had personally seen the report he prepared for the CIA. Can you further elaborate on the effects that each of those missteps by Wilson had on the overall story of the Italian letter and how it was used to fix American intelligence and justify attacking Iraq?
Knut Royce: Well, one of those, of course, was not necessarily a misstep, so much as Wilson doing his job, but it certainly became an issue. This was the issue that Wilson learned that Niger’s former President Mayaki had met with “Iraqi businessmen”… there was speculation because the only thing Niger had that Iraq might want was uranium and goats… so MAYBE they wanted to talk about uranium. But of course, it never happened. But in order to make his report complete, Wilson said that Mayaki had speculated that the Iraqis might have wanted to talk about uranium. They never did. The word unranium never crossed their lips. The CIA decided this was of some significance, and indeed, in mid-2003, the White House had a press conference on this… then deputy NSC head Steven Hadley even used this as a justification that the White House “was not totally wrong” in believing there was a Saddam- Niger uranium connection, as after all, “even Joe Wilson” alluded to it!
The one that really was Wilson speaking out of turn was his insistence that Cheney “must have read” his report. There was a credible context in that Cheney was most definitely interested in this kind of intelligence, but Wilson had no knowledge that Cheney had actually seen his report (and at that time, he hadn’t). That misstep was in turn used by Wilson’s detractors as evidence of his duplicity– that Wilson himself was some kind of fabricator, in a further effort to discredit him.
The Talking Dog: As the Bush Administration launches on again and off again public relations offensives seemingly designed to justify military action against Iran, do you see any analogies in the “intelligence” being used to justify that potential action?
Knut Royce: The White House leadership has clearly learned that it had better not go half-cocked in public with weak intelligence, while everyone is watching! An illustration of this was the briefings by military officers in Baghdad claiming that Iran was providing improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to the Iraq insurgency… the briefing was in the works for weeks, and was supposed to be presented at certain dates, but kept being postponed.
Several agencies assessed this intelligence, and one of the briefers was read the riot act by Washington when he speculated that the IEDs must have been provided by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard with the knowledge and approval of the regime itself. The Administration and the intelligence community are not sure about that. At least for public dissemination purposes, they are now more careful than they were before the run-up to the Iraq war.
Of course, there is clearly a psy-ops, or psychological warfare going on with Iraq, and the Administration is still trying to instill fear in the Iranians.
The Talking Dog: How do you feel the media in general has handled to whole issue of pre-war intelligence? (Feel free to blast Judy Miller and the Times, or anyone else you feel appropriately worthy of attention on this subject!)
Knut Royce: Overall, there was insufficient skepticism by the press. As the war drums started, they made people more jingoistic. The media were no exception. We didn’t have enough skepticism. We have to respond to daily opressures of the daily news story. If the President or Vice President makes any statement, it gets page one coverage.
I must say that the Washington Post was quite good– it got a number of stories that questioned the allegations of the Administration. The problem was presentation– often those stories were in the middle pages of the first section. They didn’t get prominence, and later, the Post expressed regret for this.
But reporters in general don’t have that much time to check out the backgrounds of these stories– to find the basis for challenging them. I myself wrote a few stories in Newsday, after I left the Center, questioning a lot of the Administration’s intelligence.
The New York Times was certainly not as aggressive in its skepticism. Newsweek did a pretty decent job coverning this. But overall, the media did not show proper skepticism.
The Talking Dog: Please discuss the role of the British in this… particularly since the SOTU speech itself referred to the British government? To what extent do you believe the famous and supposed American reliance on expensive high tech gadgets vs. the British reliance on “human intelligence” contributed to this?
Knut Royce: The British had no different intelligence than we did. They had quite decent technical intelligence gathering capabilities of their own, by the way. But the issue with the Italian letter was a human intelligence matter. They got it from SISMI, just like we did. The CIA tried to warn them off from including the Italian letter and other intelligence in Britain’s discredited September 2002 public white paper on Iraq . But the CIA told MI 6 — this intel is weak and we recommend against using it. The CIA itself did not include the Niger claims in its own white paper published a few weeks later .
But the British are different in that MI-6 is much more of an instrument of 10 Downing Street than the CIA is of the White House– there is some level of brick wall between the CIA and White House… much less so for MI-6.
I did talk to U.K. officials and confirmed that the Brits had nothing beyond the same SISMI stuff… but they elected to go with it anyway.
The Talking Dog: Could you discuss any basis you have to believe Colin Powell and Richard Armitage were intentionally involved in trying to leak Valerie Plame’s identity and/or in discrediting Joe Wilson?
Knut Royce: There is no information indicating that Powell himself was involved. And I personally do not believe he was. We quote Powell’s former chief of staff speaking in hindsight that he had a suspicion about Armitage possibly being involved in this, but I don’t think that’s the case either.
There was no love lost between Armitage , Powell and the White House… indeed, Armitage was opposed to the Iraq policy. But Armitage has a reputation as a blowhard and a gossip… he told Woodward about Plame, as an apparent aside!
Still, it was extraordinarily strange for him to be calling Bob Novak, for an interview… there was no indication he even had personal contacts with Novak before that… so it is still strange. And yet it didn’t impress Patrick Fitzgerald enough to bring any charges.
The Talking Dog: Do you have any inkling as to why Dick Cheney (and hence, Scooter Libby) were so hot to trot on finding a justification for this war (including destroying all of its critics)… and I am specifically asking about a monetary incentive, but do you have any inkling for that or any other basis?
Knut Royce: That’s a fair question because of Halliburton and Cheney’s relationship to it. But I don’t think so. They were motivated– as Paul Pilar observed in our book– by an ideological desire to rearrange the Middle East into something economically and politically more palatable to the West — to instill an open economy in line with Western standards, to make a Middle East more democratic and friendly to the United States and nicer to Israel. This rearranging the Middle East was an extremely risky gamble, and our GIs are now paying the bill on that bet.
The Talking Dog: Is there anything else my readers, or the public needs to know on this subject, or any questions I should have asked you but didn’t?
Knut Royce: To me, the big issue is the lesson learned– if you get a combination of bad intelligence and users of intelligence who stretch it past the breaking point, on war and peace issues, you can create enormous dangers.
It’s easy enough to blame the Administration for how it used and mutilated bad intelligence. But Congress had access to much or virtually all of the intelligence. The famous National Intelligence Estimate was prepared at the behest of Congress in October 2002– and yet only 3 or 4 members of Congress even bothered to read it! IF they are going to vote to send American troops to fight and taxpayers to fund a war, you’d think the least they could do was read it… the intelligence was caveated all over the place– there were cautionary flags throughout! Maybe they would have still voted for the war– but at least they would have known the doubts the intelligence community had.
The Talking Dog: People need to be reminded, in my view, that the majority leader at that time was Democrat Tom Daschle… of course, who knows how he was affected by receiving anthrax-laced mail!
Knut Royce: Congress didn’t do its job. Both the Republicans, willing to rubber-stamp the Administration, and the Democrats, who were just plain chicken about showing any backbone on this.
The Talking Dog: I join all of my readers in thanking Mr. Royce for that informative and fascinating interview, and readers interested in the subjects discussed here should check out The Italian Letter.