Foreign Policy

Roman Scandal

Bogus evidence from a bogus reporter


It was with perverse pleasure that I learned over the weekend that an Italian journalist named Elisabetta Burba had admitted to turning over counterfeit documents to the US embassy in Rome last year suggesting that Iraq had sought to buy uranium from Niger. It was based on these that President George W. Bush made his faulty allegation in his 2003 State of the Union address about Iraq's nuclear weapons capability.

According to wire reports, Burba, who works for the Silvio Berlusconi-owned magazine Panorama, received the documents from a source who "in the past proved to be reliable," and whose identity Burba did not disclose. She told the Milan daily Corriere della Sera in an interview published Saturday: "I realized that this could be a worldwide scoop, but that's exactly why I was very worried."

Burba went on to tell the newspaper that she traveled to Niger to verify the authenticity of the documents. She said she "was suspicious because the documents spoke of such a large amount of uranium—500 tons—and were short on details on how the uranium would be transported and arrangements for final delivery." Upon returning from her trip, Burba declared that the documents were probably fake, approving Panorama's decision not to publish them.

But then what did the "worried" Burba do? Under normal circumstances she could have published a story on the documents, asking who was behind the forgeries; or she could have put the papers through a shredder. Burba did neither. She took the documents to the US embassy where they were shown to the CIA, sent to the State Department in Washington, and later used as evidence for President Bush's claim.

Why should this story evoke personal pleasure? Because on September 11, 2001 Burba was in Beirut as the homicide attacks in New York and Washington were taking place. She later wrote a commentary in the Wall Street Journal stating that the Lebanese had applauded the attackers, observing: "The offspring of [the] great [Phoenician] civilization were celebrating a terrorist outrage. And I am not talking about destitute people. Those who were cheering belonged to the elite of the Paris of the Middle East."

In Reason and elsewhere I wrote that Burba's conclusions were based on "flimsy evidence, reliance on hearsay, and awe-inspiring laziness." In two instances, key deductions didn't come from observations at all, but from what social companions told her. One evening, for example, she heard "some loud noises" in the Christian part of Beirut and asked what these were. "Probably they are celebrating the attacks," someone responded. A surprised Burba asked, "You mean the Maronite Christians are also celebrating?" Came the reply: "Yes, they also feel betrayed by the Americans."

That wasn't news, I protested, it was the chambermaid exchanging gossip with the milkman. How Burba managed to get her article into a premier international newspaper was astonishing. It was also dangerous, because those were the days when the Bush administration was hunting for enemies, and Lebanon could have paid a heavy price for being seen as a country endorsing terrorism.

Now I feel a sense of vindication. It was a pleasure, but not a surprise, to learn that Burba betrayed her profession. Despite the fact that she and Panorama considered the Niger documents forgeries, Burba still handed them over to the Americans and then avoided mentioning the story when Bush made use of her material.

More bluntly, Burba provided forgeries to the Americans, kept quiet later on when she knew the Bush administration was using the documents to substantiate a falsehood, and is today trying to cover up the whole thing by claiming that she always doubted the Niger documents were real anyway. That's not shoddy journalism; that's Nixonian deceptiveness.

Observers will surely bring up the Berlusconi link to ask whether Panorama was doing the bidding of the Italian prime minister, its owner, when it gave the US administration evidence it was happy to later manipulate. Up to now there is no evidence of this. However, Burba's behavior hardly enhances the magazine's credibility or an impression that it is politically independent.

Then again the Lebanese expected no better from someone who pilloried them with extreme prejudice two years ago. Here we were blaming Burba for being a dreadful journalist. Now we see that she's actually a dangerous impostor.