Who's Spooking Who?
How Those Niger Forgeries Started a War
A Special Report
Rocco Martino in one of the reasons I am so thankful that I no longer have to cover intelligence stories. Rocco, in case haven't heard. was the source of those forged documents that allegedly proved "Saddam was acquiring uranium from Africa."
But, if his name is new to you, it's not new to me. Rocco and I crossed paths twice during the 1980s, and he was peddling documents back then too. At the time I was trying to untangle another Bush-mess, this one by the George Bush The First. An Italian bank, BNL (Banca Nazionale del Lavoro), that had a branch in Atlanta, Georgia, had apparently lent Saddam Hussein $5 billion secured by American taxpayers. It's quite a tale and one of the most audacious and successful cover-ups in American history. But it's too long a tale to tell here. So, here, read about it, and then come back. We'll wait for you.
What a story, huh? Amazing. Simply amazing. Okay, now that you understand the BNL Affair, back to Rocco.
Here's how Rocco operated. An ex-Italian cop, Rocco briefly worked as an Italian intelligence agent. He was fired from that job and was now out in the cold. As soon as Rocco learned a reporter was poking around the BNL story he would let them know he "had documents."
Rocco was fishing for a Judy Miller, but I wasn't not biting. By that time I had already been dragged through the alleged Ronald Reagan "October Surprise" farce and later the cesspool of characters involved in the very real Iran/Contra scandal. So as soon as Rocco turned up I knew I was dealing with "one of them."
This is important, because you really can't fully understand how great nations often get themselves into great messes, messes that can kill thousands, even millions, without understanding "them," men like Rocco Martino
My co-authors and I ran into our first batch of "them" in the early 1980's while we were researching for our book, Inside Job: The Looting of America's Savings and Loans. At a handful of failed thrifts we had uncovered murky evidence that strongly indicated that money from defaulted loans there had been siphoned off into intelligence operations, mainly to support Contra logistical operations.
After considerable poking around we made contact with a retired CIA field agent. His job for agency had been to recruit and manage, "them." Remarkably, (and for reasons we still do not fully understand,) he agreed to sit down and explain to us how it works.
He said the agency scouts "them" at places like small rural airports and firing ranges. They are looking for classic "Walter Mitty types," he said. Losers who, while destined to live unremarkable lives, maintained rich fantasy lives.
"We approach them and ask if they'd be interested in serving their country," he said.
It was like dangling catnip in frong of a cat. "Be a spy! Wow. When can I start?"
Of course, they are warned, their position had to be secret and unofficial. If caught the agency would disavow any knowledge of them. While this was all too true and served the CIA's purposes, it also served to fire the recruit's already overactive imagination. (Strains of "Secret Agent Man" blared in their heads.)
He said they would be tested first by being given the assignment to spy and report back on a fellow new recruit. If they passed that test he would move them up to something riskier, something they didn't want actual CIA agents involved in. (Remember, it's illegal for the CIA conduct operations on US soil.) If one of these independent contractors got caught, he would turn that lemon into lemonade by getting him out of jail with a slap on the wrist and probation. "After that," he said, "we own the guy."
But, we argued, most of the guys we ran into who claimed to be working undercover for the CIA were, to one degree or another, a bit nuts.
He smiled broadly. "Yes," he said, "that's a key part of the profile we seek. These kind of guys have spent most of their lives lying and telling tall tales. They are known liars. That makes it easy for us to deny their story if they start shooting off their mouths to the police or the press and throwing the agency's name around."
In the years that followed I got to see just what he meant. No sooner did a story I wrote appeared in print, if it had anything to do with intelligence "they" started popping out of the woodwork; Richard Brenneke, Joe Kelso, Henrich Rupp, Farhad Azima -- the list goes on and on. There seemed to be a lot of "them" out there and, they all had-- or claimed to have -- "documents." And they were not ordinary documents. They were real attention-getting documents; telexes detailing arms shipments, gold caches, aircraft leases... stamped SECRET and TOP SECRET. They all looked real. I still have a lot of them in my files and to this day, they still look real.
There was always a germ of confirmable truth to their tales, just enough to keep a reporter digging. They were also masters of using the press to market their tales, leaking confirming information to other reporters they knew talked to each other, creating a kind of journalistic echo chamber that fed the fire and gave their information various degrees of credibilty.
While some of the documents and information they provided were real, so too were these people -- real strange. The were SO NOT 007. I just couldn't put them in the same company with the people and agencies listed on the documents.
I recall a phone call I got from one of these characters in particular, Joe Kelso, He called me one day in the late 1980's as I was trying to untangle the Iran/Contra mess. The conversation went like this:
Joe: "Hi, Steve, Joe.
"Hi Joe. Where are you calling from?" (I could hear traffic in the background so I knew he was using a pay phone on the street someplace.)
Joe: "I'm using a field telephone, Steve. Don't ask where. I have documents tying the White House to this whole mess."
"And just where did you get these documents, Joe?"
Joe: (Long pause for effect) Steve, six men are sucking dirt today because they asked that same question."
Not only was it B-movie dialog but Joe never coughed up documents so I wrote him off as a nut.
A few months later I got my hands on a copy of Oliver North's handwritten desk diaries and there it was, Joe Kelso's name. He had been busted in Denver for trying to sell a ground-to-air missile an ATF undercover agent and North had called the US Attorney in Denver. Kelso was soon sprung. I called his attorney who confirmed he had represented Joe but said he had no idea who paid the bill. Joe was immediately spirited out to the country with a false passport -- a violation of his parole.
Then I got my hands on more Iran/Contra documents and there was sorry Joe once again. This time he was down in Costa Rica at a farm used by North to secretly funnel supplies to the Contras. It seems he showed up at the Costa Rican ranch of U.S.-born John Hull, who was letting North use his ranch as a major hub of illegal arms shipments. Hull learned of Kelso's arrival at his ranch because of machine gun fire. It seems Costa Rican security forces were trying to bring him in for questioning when he tried to escape. Hull rush outside and stopped the soldiers from killing Kelso in just the nick of time. Hull reported the whole affair to North in a long, classified telex which is now part of the public record. (See Hull's Telex to North Here. In it Kelso is also referred to by his passport alias, Richard Williams.")
Since being out of the country was a violation of Kelso's parole from the Denver bust, he could not come back to the US. Instead, he claims, the CIA reassigned him to Eastern Europe to feed them information on drug lords.
"Joseph Kelso - Freelance investigator/informant who revealed DEA corruption in Costa Rica which connected to CIA. Gave a 3 volume deposition in Avirgan v. Hull in So. Florida. Yet also turns up connected to CIA laundering of C-130 aircraft through the Forest Service "
(From House Hearings, Volume II of the CIA's Inspector General's Report on CIA Drug Trafficking. Expect Closed Door Hearings in June or July, 1998)
(The last I heard about Joe is he was still out there making trouble. The Russian police and Interpol were looking for him.... something about a missing Soviet-era gold cache.)
Kelso is a good example of "them." They really do exist. They are created and used by intelligence services around the world, usually only once, then discarded. But they never give it up. Everything they do after that, especially if it's illegal, is "part of a covert operation – don't ask."
Some of "them", we became convinced, walked off with taxpayer-insured deposits from failed thrifts during the 1980s. Some of that money, we believe, did indeed go to buy and transort armsfor the Contras at time when Congress had passed a law against doing so. And, while in the vault , they stole some for themselves as well. Proscuting such people proved difficult. In one such case a US Attorney in Kansas City who filed charges against one of "them" for stealing money from Indian Springs State Bank got a call for headquarters telling him to drop the case, that the guy "had a get-out-of-jail-free-card," from the CIA. (More)
(Also see a Henrich Rupp arms sale Telex and remarkable Letter to George H. Bush HERE)
Rocco Martino, the guy who came up with the forged Niger documents is one of "them." He's a dapper ex-Italian spy, now out in the cold, who used what he had learned during a short tenure as a real spy to help start a war.
Martino's covert "career" has been well-chronicled HERE. If you have been wondering how that line about "uranium from Africa" got into Bush's State of the Union address it begins with Rocco – then the French, then British, and finally into the eager and unquestioning hands of the Vice President of the United States.
As you read about Rocco understand this -- because it's the only way to understand the otherwise often inexplicable messes that flare up from time to time: Intelligence services around the world, including our own CIA, create dozens, maybe hundreds of Rocco Martino's and Joe Kelso's every year. They use them for jobs that require deniability, then jettison them. There are now an untold number of "them" rattling around out there. Some are haplessly harmless. Other's, like Rocco, are accidents just waiting to happen.
What kind of accidents? Nuclear proliferation accidents, genocidal arms sale accidents and, in the case at hand, a war accident.