The current issue of Vanity Fair features an in-depth article by Craig Unger about the Niger Yellowcake forgeries, which asks the question I’ve wanted to know since the documents were first discounted. Who made the forgeries? It’s always struck me as bizarre that the media was willing to accept the documents were forged, but had no interest in finding out who was behind one of the biggest scams used to justify the war in Iraq. I’m glad Craig Unger, and Vanity Fair, are trying to find out. Unger writes:

For more than two years it has been widely reported that the U.S. invaded Iraq because of intelligence failures. But in fact it is far more likely that the Iraq war started because of an extraordinary intelligence success–specifically, an astoundingly effective campaign of disinformation, or black propaganda, which led the White House, the Pentagon, Britain’s M.I.6 intelligence service, and thousands of outlets in the American media to promote the falsehood that Saddam Hussein’s nuclear-weapons program posed a grave risk to the United States.

As I’ve often argued, many so-called intelligence failures can be viewed, from a darker point of view, as successes. I recently argued with a reporter about how I believed the assassination of President Kennedy was one of the great intelligence success stories, seen from the conspirators’ point of view. There are some who call it a massive intelligence failure, which is certainly true from the public’s point of view. But which is the more accurate way to paint it?

This same dichotomy holds true in Iraq. The war shows how a few covert operators, who can keep secrets to their grave, were able to build a false case for war. Who are these people? What was their ultimate motive?

In Italy, a source with intimate knowledge of the Niger affair has warned me that powerful people are watching. Phones may be tapped. Jobs are in jeopardy, and people are scared.

On the sixth floor at Via Baiamonte, a receptionist finally comes to the door of the nondescript embassy office. She is of medium height, has dark-brown hair, wears a handsome blue suit, and appears to be in her 50s. She declines to give her full name. A look of concern and fear crosses her face. “Don’t believe what you read in the papers,” she cautions in French. “Ce n’est pas la vérité.” It is not the truth.

But who was behind the forgeries? Italian intelligence? American operatives? The woman tilts her head toward one of the closed doors to indicate that there are people there who can hear. She can’t talk. “C’est interdit,” she says. It is forbidden.

We don’t talk about disinformation much, in America. It too appears “forbidden.” But it’s all around us. Every day, and in mainstream news sources. Does the journalist know the story isn’t true? Not likely. They are fed disinformation by people they trust, people who have given them truthful information in the past, scoops, in fact. Why isn’t it talked about? Because most of the time, it’s impossible to prove. As Unger explains:

Unraveling a disinformation campaign is no easy task. It means entering a kingdom of shadows peopled by would-be Machiavellis who are practiced in the art of deception. “In the world of fabrication, you don’t just drop something and let someone pick it up,” says Bearden. “Your first goal is to make sure it doesn’t find its way back to you, so you do several things. You may start out with a document that is a forgery, that is a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy, which makes it hard to track down. You go through cutouts so that the person who puts it out doesn’t know where it came from. And you build in subtle, nuanced errors so you can say, ‘We would never misspell that.’ If it’s very cleverly done, it’s a chess game, not checkers.”

Reporters who have entered this labyrinth often emerge so perplexed that they choose not to write about it. “The chances of being manipulated are very high,” says Claudio Gatti, a New York-based investigative reporter at Il Sole, the Italian business daily. “That’s why I decided to stay out of it.”

Despite such obstacles, a handful of independent journalists and bloggers on both sides of the Atlantic have been pursuing the story. “Most of the people you are dealing with are professional liars, which really leaves you with your work cut out for you as a reporter,” says Joshua Micah Marshall, who has written about the documents on his blog, Talking Points Memo.

Buried among the many books on my shelf is a quote I’m too lazy to retrieve verbatim – you’ll get the drift. It was from a CIA memo, explaining that once a disinformation campaign has been launched, it can be put back into play at any time. Because even after something has been discredited, new people come along who haven’t heard the lie exposed, and believe the original lie all over again. You can fool all of the people, some of the time. And that’s why disinformation works. You never have to fool them all at once.

The more you read about covert operations, the more you will understand how it works. Start with this article. It helps reveal the difficulties in navigating in the world of professional liars. You can see why reporters don’t want to get involved in these stories. Which is why people like me, or Jeff at Rigorous Intuition, or Booman at Booman Tribune, feel the need to explore matters some deride, ignorantly, as sillly conspiracy theory. But finding out who forged the Niger documents matters. Finding out who killed Kennedy matters. Because if we can start to expose even one of these operations in full, we begin to understand the patterns of deception so that we’re not fooled by the next operation. In fact, if we can learn to expose disinformation in its formative stages, maybe we can avert the next castrophe (Iran!)

There was a guy in the military stationed overseas who tried to warn that Kennedy was about to be killed. He could tell from the stories in the paper Stars & Stripes that disinformation was being laid down, in advance, to explain away the event he believed was about to take place. Had people believed him at the time, we might be living in a very different world now.

You can’t fool all of the people all of the time. But you can fool most easily those who believe the New York Times or the Washington Post wouldn’t allow something to get in the paper that wasn’t true. And don’t blame the reporters, entirely. Some of them really would pursue the truth, wherever it led, if their organizations would give them the time and resources. Without that, the reporter is forced to stand by the safer story, the government version. And that’s a tragedy for us all.

Can our nation survive on a steady diet of disinformation? I fear we’re going to see the ugly answer to that question in my lifetime if people don’t wake up and deal with the realities of conspiracies and deliberate deceptions that are all too much a part of the world in which we live.

Crossposted from the Real History Blog.

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