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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

At the Washington Post online yesterday, Jeff Morley raised the possibility that last year's Dan Rather/National Guard papers scandal may have prevented CBS's 60 Minutes from airing a story on the origins of the Niger forgeries. Referring to Elisabetta Burba, the Italian journalist who was offered the forgeries in October 2002, Morley writes ...

Burba "has also been interviewed by the CBS investigative show '60 Minutes ' for a piece on the documents that was pulled in the wake of the problems that brought down Dan Rather," according to the LAT.

But after suffering a major black eye last year for relying on forged documents for a story about President Bush's National Guard service, CBS would risk controversy if it aired a story about how the Bush administration allegedly relied on doctored intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war. CBS's coverage would seem to be handcuffed, at least temporarily, by Rather's 2004 election mistake.


This account is incomplete and substantially incorrect. But that's no criticism of Morley because the actual story has never been publicly aired.

Allow me to explain.

By the late spring of 2004, 60 Minutes had interviewed Burba, the Italian journalist, Rocco Martino, the 'security consultant' who had attempted to sell her the documents in October 2002, and the SISMI asset (the female Italian national) who works in the Nigerien Embassy in Rome. The interviews implicated Antonio Nucera, a colonel from the Italian intelligence service SISMI, as the immediate source of the documents. After an initial conversation, Nucera himself refused all contact with the reporters working on the story.

After this, a string of problems delayed the airing of the story.

First, given the nature of the story, CBS, understandably, felt it was necessary to have an administration official interviewed to provide the administration's side of the story. Yet after initial arrangements had been made to interview mid-range administration officials for the story, they later declined to be interviewed. Eventually, it became clear that no Bush administration officials would agree to be interviewed for the story.

That delayed the story. But eventually, Sen. Roberts (R-KS), chairman of the senate select committee on intelligence, himself agreed to provide an interview. His only condition was that he would only speak on camera after the senate intelligence committee issued its report that summer.

That necessitated a further delay. But it also appeared to clear the way for the airing of the story mid-summer. The story was held until the senate report was released.

However, after the senate intel report appeared in early July, Roberts first equivocated and then finally withdrew his promise to provide an interview for the story.

Again, the story was held up because there was no administration official or Republican congressional figure who agreed to be interviewed. And that is where the matter stood late in the summer of 2004.

Over the next two months, in response to the interviews noted above and other reporting implicating SISMI, a series of leaks began to emerge out of SISMI that were picked up in sympathetic Italian dailies as well as the Financial Times and the Daily Telegraph. In response to these reports and, for the first time, the publication of his name, Martino again travelled to the United States for another round of interviews.

Eventually, a version of the Niger story was produced. But it had the interviews with Martino and the SISMI asset who works in the Nigerien embassy removed. While the segment provided a compelling narrative of the story of the infamous "sixteen words", it contained little or no information that had not already been reported in major newspaper coverage of the story. The reporting implicating the Italian government and SISMI were set aside for a possible follow-up report.

The produced segment was scheduled to be aired on Wednesday, September 8th, 2004. Several days before the airing, however, the possibility was raised that the Niger story would be bumped in favor of Dan Rather's segment on President Bush and the National Guard. As late as the day of airing itself, a final decision had yet to be made on which segment would run.

Once the scandal over Guard memos erupted, CBS decided that it could not run a story about forged Niger memos while it was embroiled in a scandal about forged National Guard memos. Later, CBS announced it would not run the story because it was too soon before the November election. After the election was over, no plans were made to run the piece, either in the expurgated or complete form.

Italian PM Berlusconi distances in advance of trip to Washington on Monday.

"I tried many times to convince the American president not to go to war ... I tried to find other avenues and other solutions, even through an activity with the African leader (Libya's Colonel Muammar) Gaddafi. But we didn't succeed and there was the military operation."

Yesterday we noted items #22 and #23 on page 8 of the Libby indictment, which read ...

22. On or about July 12, 2003, LIBBY flew with the Vice President and others to and from Norfolk, Virginia, on Air Force Two. On his return trip, LIBBY discused with other officials aboard the plane what Libby should say in response to certain pending media inquiries, including questions from Time reporter Matthew Cooper.

23. On or about July 12, 2003, in the afternoon, LIBBY spoke by telephone to Cooper, who asked whether LIBBY had heard that Wilson's wife was involved in sending Wilson on the trip to Niger. LIBBY confirmed to Cooper, without elaboration or qualification, that he had heard this information too.

24. On or about July 12, 2003, in the late afternoon, LIBBY spoke by telephone with Judith Miller of the New York Times and discussed Wilson's wife, and that she worked at the CIA.


Here I've added item #24, for reasons which will become evident shortly. But, as I wrote yesterday, to my reading, two points stand out about items #22 and #23. First, before confirming Plame's identity as a CIA employee to Matt Cooper, Libby appears to have discussed whether or how to discuss her identity with other members of the vice president's staff, quite possibly with the vice president himself. Second, item #22 seems supererogatory. It has no clear relevance to the charges levied against Libby. It speaks to the complicity of others in the vice president's office.

What you really want, though, is to clear up that ambiguity about Cheney. Was he in on that strategy session about how Libby should deal with Cooper's call or kickin' back somewhere else on the plane?

TPM Reader JL points to a month old New York Times article (Johnston and Stevenson, Oct. 1st) which points very, very strongly to the conclusion that he did.

The article reports on Judith Miller's release from jail and subsequent grand jury testimony.

A short way into the article there is this passage (emphasis added) ...

A lawyer who knows Mr. Libby's account said the administration efforts to limit the damage from Mr. Wilson's criticism extended as high as Mr. Cheney. This lawyer and others who spoke about the case asked that they not be identified because of grand jury secrecy rules.

On July 12, 2003, four days after his initial conversation with Ms. Miller, Mr. Libby consulted with Mr. Cheney about how to handle inquiries from journalists about the vice president's role in sending Mr. Wilson to Africa in early 2002 to investigate reports that Iraq was trying acquire nuclear material there for its weapons program, the person said.

In that account, Mr. Cheney told Mr. Libby to direct reporters to a statement released the previous day by George J. Tenet, director of central intelligence. His statement said Mr. Wilson had been sent on the mission by C.I.A. counter-proliferation officers "on their own initiative."


That passage leaves a bit of ambiguity about whether this might be a different conversation than the one on the plane. This one further down into the article doesn't (emphasis added) ...

Mr. Libby has said he spoke with Mr. Cheney on July 12, six days after Mr. Wilson's article.

Mr. Libby said he told Mr. Cheney that reporters had been pressing the vice president's office for more details about who sent Mr. Wilson to Africa. The two men spoke when Mr. Cheney was on a trip to Norfolk, Va., for the commissioning of the carrier Ronald Reagan.

Mr. Libby said Mr. Cheney directed him to refer reporters to Mr. Tenet's statement, which said that the C.I.A. had been behind Mr. Wilson's selection for the trip.


That's pretty clear, isn't it?

Notwithstanding Libby's implausible claim that the vice president told him to refer reporters to Tenet's statement, Cheney did participate in that conversation. And Fitzgerald knows it. According to the Times, Libby testified to the fact himself.

Anyone have any insight on this graf from 'Libby Charged' article in today's Times?

Mr. Fitzgerald was spotted Friday morning outside the office of James Sharp, Mr. Bush's personal lawyer. Mr. Bush was interviewed about the case by Mr. Fitzgerald last year. It is not known what discussions, if any, were taking place between the prosecutor and Mr. Sharp. Mr. Sharp did not return a phone call, and Mr. Fitzgerald's spokesman, Randall Samborn, declined to comment.


Remember, in his capacity as president, Mr. Bush's lawyer is Harriet Miers, the White House Counsel. This is his personal lawyer. In fact, I believe Sharp was hired particularly for this case.

Thoughts?

A year later, the real Niger scandal is beginning to surface. Knight-Ridder's Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel report on the central role of the Italian intelligence agency SISMI in distributing the forged documents ...

Italy's military intelligence agency, SISMI, and people close to it, repeatedly tried to shop the bogus Niger uranium story to governments in France, Britain and the United States. That created the illusion that multiple sources were confirming the story.

...

Sept. 9 - With the White House's public campaign against Iraq in full swing, Nicolo Pollari, head of SISMI, met with then-Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley at the White House. Hadley later took the blame for including the false Niger allegation in Bush's 2003 State of the Union speech.

National Security Council spokesman Frederick Jones said Thursday that the meeting was a 15-minute courtesy call and that no one could recollect talk about yellowcake.


Note the similarity there to other instances of phony WMD intelligence which were planted with various intelligence agencies in order to create the appearance of multiple and overlapping sources of confirmation.

Take a look at this post by Byron York at the The Corner. First, folks he's talking to agree that the case against Libby looks very strong. Set aside all the blah-blah about whether he should be indicting people for perjury if he couldn't get him on the underlying crime, etc. He went for a perjury and obstruction indictment. And it really looks like he has him. Second, he floats speculation that Tim Russert may have had some definitive record of his conversation with Libby, i.e., audio tapes, rather than simply a different recollection than Libby's.

What is the explanation for this passage in the indictment (page 8, items #22-23 ...

22. On or about July 12, 2003, LIBBY flew with the Vice President and others to and from Norfolk, Virginia, on Air Force Two. On his return trip, LIBBY discused with other officials aboard the plane what Libby should say in response to certain pending media inquiries, including questions from Time reporter Matthew Cooper.

23. On or about July 12, 2003, in the afternoon, LIBBY spoke by telephone to Cooper, who asked whether LIBBY had heard that Wilson's wife was involved in sending Wilson on the trip to Niger. LIBBY confirmed to Cooper, without elaboration or qualification, that he had heard this information too.


Does this not suggest that Libby discussed and planned in advance with others travelling with the Vice President (including possibly the Vice President himself) how he would respond to Cooper's questions about Wilson and his wife? After discussing the matter with colleagues in the Vice President's office he proceeded to speak with Cooper and confirm that it was indeed his understanding that Wilson's wife was a CIA employee.

So he planned what to do in advance with other members of the Vice President's staff. And what they seem to have agreed is that he would confirm Plame's identity, since that is in fact what he proceeded to do.

This afternoon Sen. Rockefeller (D-WV), ranking member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, put out the following statement ...

“It is a terrible day for all Americans when a top White House official is accused of lying and obstructing justice, made all the worse when it’s about a national security matter.

“Revealing the identity of a covert agent is the type of leak that gets people killed. Not only does it end the person’s career, and whatever assignments they may have been working on, it puts that person in grave personal danger as well as their colleagues and all the people they have had contact with over the years.

“These very serious charges go to the heart of whether administration officials misused intelligence by disclosing an undercover CIA agent. They also heighten concerns that the administration engaged in a pattern of misusing intelligence to make the case for going to war with Iraq.

“To date, Congress has completely failed to answer these critical questions. The fact is that at any time the Senate Intelligence Committee pursued a line of questioning that brought us close to the White House, our efforts were thwarted. If my Republican colleagues are not prepared to undertake a full and serious congressional investigation into the potential misuse of intelligence, then I regretfully conclude that we have no choice but to pursue an outside independent investigation. The American people deserve answers and they want the truth.”

“We must send a strong message to all the patriotic Americans in our intelligence agencies who continue to serve their country at great personal risk. Our government and our judicial system will not tolerate those who leak classified information and put the lives of others at risk.”


It's a strong statement. And the Congress has completely failed in its oversight responsibilities in this whole matter. But the question can't be avoided.

If that's all true, why did he and fellow Democrats on the intel committee sign off on last year's report?

Why has he said so little this year about the failure to pursue the promised second phase of the Senate investigation, which was supposed to look into the question of executive branch manipulation of WMD intelligence?

Why has he remained silent in the face of evidence, put before him more than a year ago, that the FBI investigation into the forgeries, which he himself requested, has never been pursued in earnest?

Accountability for the Congress's failure to pursue its oversight responsibilities in this case does not end on the Republican side of the aisle. Nor does it end with Rockefeller. He's the ranking member of the committee, with unique access and power. But he's not the only Democrat on the committee. Why stand up now when they didn't stand up before? The Republicans' behavior at least has the logic of self-interest behind it. That of the Democrats' is inscrutable.

With all the rush of news of late, I had not seen that my friend Penn Kemble died a week ago. An honorable man. I'll miss him.

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