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How Bogus Letter Became a Case for War
Martino said he had some very interesting documents to show her, and asked whether she could fly down to Rome right away.
They met at a restaurant in Rome on Oct. 7, where Martino showed Burba a folder filled with documents, most of them in French. One of the documents was purportedly sent by the president of Niger to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, confirming a deal to sell 500 tons of uranium to Iraq annually. This was the smoking gun in the package, claiming to show the formal approval of Niger's president to supply Iraq with a commodity that would in all likelihood only be used for a nuclear weapons program: Iraq had no nuclear power plants.
Though the document was in French it would later come to be known as "The Italian Letter." It was written in all capital letters, in the form of an old telex, and bore the letterhead of the Republic of Niger. The letter was dated July 27, 2000, and included an odd shield on the top, a shining sun surrounded by a horned animal head, a star and a bird. The letter was stamped Confidential and Urgent.
The letter said that "500 tons of pure uranium per year will be delivered in two phases." A seal at the bottom of the page read "The Office of the President of the Republic of Niger." Superimposed over the seal was a barely legible signature bearing the name of the president of Niger, Mamadou Tandja.
Burba listened without saying much as she took a first look at the documents. She recognized right away that the material was hot, if authentic. But confirming the origin would be difficult, she recalled thinking at the time. She didn't want to fall into a trap.
Burba and Martino made an agreement; she would take the documents, and if they checked out as authentic, then they could talk about money.
'Let's Go to the Americans'
Back in her magazine's Milan newsroom, Burba told her editors she thought it would make sense to fly to Niger and check around for confirmation. The editor of the magazine, Carlo Rossella, agreed. He then suggested they simultaneously pursue another tack.
"Let's go to the Americans," Rossella said, "because they are focused on looking for weapons of mass destruction more than anyone else. Let's see if they can authenticate the documents." Rossella called the U.S. Embassy in Rome and alerted officials to expect a visit from Burba.
On Wednesday morning, Oct. 9, Burba returned to Rome and took a cab to the U.S. Embassy, which is housed at the old Palazzo Margherita.
Burba came to a security gate and walked through a magnetometer, where an Italian employee of the embassy press department came down to meet her.
After a few formalities, an Italian aide introduced her to Ian Kelly, the embassy press spokesman. Kelly and Burba walked across the embassy's walled grounds and sat down for a cup of coffee in the cafeteria.
Burba told Kelly that she had some documents about Iraq and uranium shipments and needed help in confirming their authenticity and accuracy.