FBI could talk to source of forged Niger papers. I did

Why haven’t we found out yet who was behind the forged Niger-uranium documents caper?

One big reason is that the FBI — which is supposed to be investigating the case — has really never tried.

Back in March 2003, Sen. Jay RockefellerJohn (Jay) Davison RockefellerSenate GOP rejects Trump’s call to go big on gun legislation Overnight Tech: Trump nominates Dem to FCC | Facebook pulls suspected baseball gunman's pages | Uber board member resigns after sexist comment Trump nominates former FCC Dem for another term MORE (D-W.Va.), vice-chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, asked the FBI to investigate the matter. It was on the basis of that supposed investigation that the committee later decided not to look into anything about the forged documents before they showed up at the U.S. Embassy in Rome in October 2002. (See Page 57 of the committee report.)

But, despite claims to the contrary, the FBI hasn’t made any serious efforts to find out who was behind the scam.

There are many reasons to believe that the FBI’s investigation has been at best perfunctory. But let me describe one of the clearest.

One of the obvious places to start such an investigation would be with Elisabetta Burba, the Italian journalist who got copies of the documents and later turned them over to the American Embassy in Rome.

The obvious question would be: Who gave you the documents?

FBI agents did do a cursory interview with Burba not long after Rockefeller asked for an investigation. And they made a pro-forma request for her to contact her source to see if some arrangement could be devised under which they could speak with him.

But after that, they didn’t follow up with her for months to find out what the answer was. And when they did finally do so, it was mainly because one agent was passing the matter on to someone else.

To this day, they’ve never made contact with the guy who tried to sell Burba the documents.

One might speculate that Burba’s just kept mum. And there’s no way to unravel the mystery of the guy’s identity. But that’s not even close to true.

Here’s why.

My colleagues and I have known the guy’s name since late spring. And at least three European intelligence agencies knew who he was well before we found out. In fact, twice this summer we brought him to New York for interviews.

Both times he traveled under his own name, Rocco Martino.

The first time was in June; the second time was in August. And it’s the second time that’s more telling.

By the time we brought Martino to New York in early August, he had already been identified by name in the Italian and the British press as the man who tried to sell Burba the forged documents.

In fact, when we whisked him out of the country, he was already under very active and conspicuous surveillance by Italian authorities in Rome. He flew to New York under his own name and stayed for several days.

One of my colleagues and I actually had a friendly bet about whether FBI agents would be waiting for Martino when he came through Customs in New York, since his role at the center of the case and his name had just been published in the Financial Times — a paper you can find on many street corners in Washington, D.C.

I told my friend I didn’t think they were even looking for him. And if they were keeping tabs on him, I really doubted they wanted to make contact. He was a hot potato. Everything we’d learned reporting on the Niger uranium case told us that this was a story the U.S. government did not want to get to the bottom of.

Needless to say, nothing happened.

Perhaps in Italy there might have been some jurisdictional issues that could have made the bureau leery of questioning Martino. But if the case were really a serious priority, you’d think they might have tried to make contact with him when he showed up in New York right after his name had been plastered across a bunch of European newspapers.

(The Italians were keeping a close eye on him as he departed. And through leaks to the press in Italy, they let it be known that Martino had again gone to the United States.)

But Martino came, spent several days in New York, and then left. And no one from the FBI or any other American law-enforcement or intelligence agency made any attempt to contact him in any way.

Nor have they done so since.

If the FBI is serious about getting to the bottom of this mystery, why haven’t they made more effort to talk to the guy at the center of it?

Marshall is editor of talkingpointsmemo.com. His column appears in The Hill each week. E-mail: jmarshall@thehill.com