P8kice8zq6szrqrmqxag

Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

And off the plank he goes. CNN is running breaking news that CIA Director George Tenet is taking "responsibility for incorrect information in State of the Union address about alleged Iraqi attempts to obtain uranium in Africa."

This may not be good public policy or accountability. But I will say this: it'll make for a great absurdist novel. (And since I'm casting around for a book idea I'm taking serious note. Where's Joseph Heller when you need him?)

Here's the deal, one which will be fairly familiar to anyone who has been reporting on this story for the last eighteen months. Broadly speaking, the internal battles which have gone on in the executive branch over Iraq have pitted the career intelligence bureaucracy against more ideological types -- often political appointees. There's been a lot of overlap between that division and one between the CIA and State Department on the one hand and the Pentagon and the Office of the Vice President on the other, with the CIA and State having a much more skeptical take on the WMD/terrorism case against Iraq and the OVP and Pentagon having a much more maximal one.

The maximalists pushed like crazy to get this Niger-uranium charge and other dubious charges into the president's speech and into the argument for war generally. Now, we hear that it's the CIA's fault for not having insisted strenuously enough that the White House not retail bogus information to the American people.

Like I said, the absurdist novel.

Ken Pollack captured some of this in his interview with TPM last week ...

But in deference to my old friends at CIA ... they were in a position where they felt so beaten down by this administration that I don't think they were feeling terribly charitable. And I think that to any low-level CIA officer, the idea of going out, kind of out of channels to say, hey, this big story that you guys thought you had on Niger uranium, it's false. You know, I think by that point in time they just felt like if I do that those guys in OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense] are going to beat the hell out of me. And why do I need this? ... I think the truth of the matter is that the larger problem was just this more general day-to-day of beating up the Agency for any assessments that weren't sufficiently alarmist. And, again, not doing anything illegal, just making the lives of the analysts so miserable that they didn't want to keep writing this kind of stuff while simultaneously cherry picking intelligence to try to put together the most alarming case you could in this shop over at the Pentagon and using that as an alternative set of analyses that was given just as much --- what's the word I'm looking for? --- attention and credibility as what the CIA and the other intelligence agencies were coming up with in these high-level meetings.
Now Tenet has come forward and said, essentially, that his agency did not stand firm enough in the face of the White House's insistence on using intelligence reports that almost everyone in the intelligence community believed were bogus. (Bear in mind that everything that is being said about Tenet applies equally to Powell.) Frankly, I think he's right. They didn't. No one resigned. No one went to the mat over this.

But what does that mean exactly?

Let's look at what Tenet said in his statement ...

Officials who were reviewing the draft remarks on uranium raised several concerns about the fragmentary nature of the intelligence with National Security Council colleagues. Some of the language was changed. From what we know now, agency officials in the end concurred that the text in the speech was factually correct that the British government report said that Iraq sought uranium from Africa. This should not have been the test for clearing a presidential address. This did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for presidential speeches, and CIA should have ensured that it was removed.
Again, I think Tenet is right. Going with the British say-so for an intelligence judgment that the CIA and other US intelligence agencies believed was bogus "did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for presidential speeches." That's a huge understatement, I'd say. He probably should be canned.

But who suggested hanging the allegation on the Brits? According to Rice and Tenet, the CIA was uncomfortable with including the allegation in the first place. Did they suggest the British angle? Not likely.

Here, frankly, is what I think happened. The White House wanted to include this charge in the State of the Union address. The CIA, as Pollack makes clear, had been getting beaten over the head for more than a year for intelligence assessments that, in Pollack's words, "weren't sufficiently alarmist." But including an allegation in the State of the Union which they more or less knew to be false was just further than they could go. They balked.

The White House and folks from the Agency then started a negotiation over what was okay to put in the speech. At this point, someone suggested hanging the charge on the Brits. Again, I think it's very hard to believe that this suggestion came from the CIA folks. And in fact we have both NPR's and CBS's reporting saying that the suggestion came from the White House side. Saying that the British said this was technically true. Thus the speech was technically true.

The problem was that it was willfully misleading since the CIA believed the Brits were wrong. The people on the Agency side seem to have decided that the White House had made their objections to such unhelpful information very clear. They felt they'd acquitted themselves of their minimum responsibility but getting the statement into the technically true category. And they relented.

That was a terrible decision. No one had the guts to resign over this or really make a stink. Maybe heads should roll at the Agency. Maybe it should be Tenet's.

But all of this begs the obvious and singularly important question: the charge is that CIA didn't push hard enough to keep bogus information out of the president's speech. Who was pushing on the other side? Who was pushing to keep the bogus information in? And why?

If you think the White House doesn't have a plank with George Tenet's name on it, read this.

We noted yesterday that Colin Powell told reporters that the Niger uranium charge "was not standing the test of time" and thus dropped it from the presentation he gave the UN on February 5th. We further noted that given the timing of the State of the Union speech and the preparations for the UN presentation, that the time span over which the evidence didn't stand up stretched from January 29th to February 1st. Now The New Republic's Spencer Ackerman is reporting that the State Department's intelligence bureau, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, sent Powell a detailed memo in March 2002 stating that the Niger-uranium charges were, in its opinion, false. (They came to this judgment without seeing Joseph Wilson's report which, separately, helped scotch the story at the CIA.) "We knew it was important," an analyst who worked on the I&R report tells TNR. "The [Niger] issue might have traction, and so we wanted him to know what our opinion was."

Look, I'm as big a Star Trek fan as the next guy. And I try to think outside the box. But I was assuming that the test of time referred to linear time.

A couple days ago, Andrew Sullivan clipped this damning passage from a new Vanity Fair article on Howell Raines ...

Worse, Raines would not let facts get in the way of a story he had ordered up or a point he decided to make. "Howell wanted a thought inserted high in one of my stories," says a metro reporter. "The only problem was, it wasn't true. Mind you, this was on my beat, a beat he didn't really know about. I said to the editor who was the message-bearer that it wasn't true, and it didn't belong in the story, period. A while later he came back to me and said, 'Well, you're right, but Howell wants it anyway.' It became clear that the editor had not fully conveyed my arguments to Howell, because he was afraid to. I said, 'F--- that -- I'll tell him myself.' And he literally seized my arm and said, 'You don't want to do that.' And ultimately the editor-intermediary and I compromised on a version of what Howell wanted that was just vague enough not to mean much, but still close enough to a falsehood to make my very uncomfortable."
Remind you of anyone?

An apt observation from &c, The New Republic's blog ...

WHEN YOUR ZONE GOES BONE DRY: We've taken our fair share of shots at Howell Raines. But say this for the former New York Times executive editor: You'd certainly be able to tell from reading his paper that the Bush administration was embroiled in its first major foreign policy scandal. By contrast, the Times' actual coverage of the Niger uranium hoax has been virtually non-existent under interim executive editor Joe Lelyveld--save for a single David Sanger piece earlier this week, written mostly on the basis of an Ari Fleischer press conference. Pretty much the only place you can consistently read about that scandal in the Times these days is in the paper's the op-ed pages. Is it too much to ask that the paper put a single investigative reporter on the beat? (Or, if there already is one, then how bout an investigative reporter who produces a piece every once in a while?) Under Lelyveld the paper seems to have lapsed into its prior stupor as the official, but barely readable, paper of record.
Too true ...

The president's partisans can't seem to decide whether the CIA didn't tell them what they knew or whether what they knew was bogus. Along those lines, here's Cliff May's opening salvo in the smear-Joseph-Wilson campaign in National Review Online. May's final line reads: "In other words, Wilson is no disinterested career diplomat — he's a pro-Saudi, leftist partisan with an ax to grind. And too many in the media are helping him and allies grind it." In response to May, Wilson tells TPM: "So those are the talking points. Good to know. Not worth responding to. The article stands, the administration has made the acknowledgement. The story is not, and never was about me. It is and has been about who put the statement in the State of the Union. I am not going to rise to bait that is clearly designed to resurrect the notion that I am the story. I am not. The story is the story."

A reader points out to me this passage in Colin Powell's Thursday press briefing which I'm embarrassed to say I hadn't yet noticed. A momentary, but revealing departure from message ...

I think the President in the State of the Union address had this sentence in there and it talked about efforts on the part of Iraq to obtain uranium from sources in Africa. There was sufficient evidence floating around at that time that such a statement was not totally outrageous or not to be believed or not to be appropriately used. It's that once we used the statement and, after further analysis and looking at other estimates we had and other information that was coming in, it turned out that the basis upon which that statement was made didn't hold up. And we said so. And we've acknowledged it and we've moved on. [emphasis added]
Holding people to momentary, extemporaneous phrasings is often unfair. But in this case I think Powell's first characterization was probably closer to his true views. The uranium charges cleared the "not totally outrageous" bar, but not much more than that. Powell wanted to apply a higher standard. Now he's holding the bag.

I have to tell you that I'm stunned by how pointed and personal this Niger-uranium controversy is becoming, and so quickly. Condi Rice gave a fifty-minute briefing on Air Force One today in which she explicitly sought to pin the blame for the entire matter on CIA Director George Tenet.

Those are strong words, I grant you. But I don't think there's any other way to characterize what she said. Her comments are the sort that make it difficult, though by no means impossible, for a DCI to remain in the government's employ.

Here are a few clips from the AP's version of the story ...

Bush's national security adviser specifically pointed to the CIA and said it had vetted the speech. If CIA Director George Tenet had any misgivings about that sentence in the president's speech, ''he did not make them known'' to Bush or his staff, said national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.

...

Rice said ''the CIA cleared the speech in its entirety.''

The agency raised only one objection to the sentence involving an allegation that Iraq was trying to obtain ''yellow cake'' uranium, she said.

...

''Some specifics about amount and place were taken out,'' Rice added.

''With the changes in that sentence, the speech was cleared,'' she said. ''The agency did not say they wanted that sentence out.''

...

If anyone at the CIA had doubts about the veracity of the uranium-Iraq allegation, Rice said, ''those doubts were not communicated to the president.''

...

''If the CIA the director of central intelligence had said 'Take this out of the speech,' it would have been gone,'' Rice said. ''We have a high standard for the president's speeches.''

Rice later made a perfunctory statement that the president still has confidence in Tenet's ability to the do the job. But, frankly, that seems hard to square with almost everything else she said.

One other point worth mentioning is that Rice seems to have conceded that Powell's doubts about the uranium story predated his UN presentation, but that he also didn't make his views known to the White House ...

Rice did say that the State Department's intelligence division considered the uranium-purchasing allegations dubious, and this was also noted in a footnote in the intelligence assessment given to Bush.

Powell, however, did not discuss his misgivings with her or anyone on her staff between the time of the State of the Union address and Powell's presentation to the United Nations, she said.

Rice's comments are flatly contradicted by several different news stories, which say that the CIA repeatedly pressed their objections, both prior to the speech and during the final sign off. However, Rice is going on the record. And that will give her version of events some added weight unless and until the unnamed sources on the other side do the same. She is as much as daring Tenet to contradict her.

At the same time, even the other reports show that the CIA did eventually cave, at least in a sense. They relented when the White House opted for the fig leaf of hanging the allegation on what the Brits were saying -- even though the CIA thought the Brits were wrong. If you read the rendition of events in last night's CBS report, the CIA still acquiesced in a version of the speech that was willfully misleading. It was only technically true because the Brits were saying that, even if our own intelligence agencies thought they were all wet, and had sought to stop them from publicly making the claim.

And this raises another question: just how much had the White House -- over a period of more than a year -- beaten down its intelligence professionals to the point where they just didn't want to stick their necks out any more? Just how much had the White House already made it very clear that it didn't want to hear any opinions or facts that got in the way of the president's Iraq policy? This is the point Ken Pollack made in his comments to TPM a few days ago. I think we're going to find that at many points and in many ways over the last year they made that message very clear.

A sad commentary, on so many levels.

From last night's Larry King with Bob Woodward ...

KING: The comments about -- that he has made concerning Iraq, where he sort of like -- well, Powell let's go to work -- Powell said first. Powell said it was a minor issue, this thing about uranium and Africa. Do you think it's a minor issue?

WOODWARD: It's got to be explained. But one of the things that's most difficult to understand is what is the basis of an intelligence report? And the CIA and the intelligence community do these things called National Intelligence Estimates. And they are big documents where they take all source intelligence, they put it together, they sit in a room, actually, and debate, do we believe this? Is this credible? Is this supported here?

They do them on things when we're not sure. You don't need a National Intelligence Estimate, for instance, on whether the Soviet Union is collapsed. We know it collapsed. But they would do National Intelligence Estimates on things like, well, what is the threat that Iraq poses? Weapons of mass destruction? And so it clearly says it's an estimate. They make judgments. I've seen some of these things. And there will be a liaison intelligence service report, say from the Jordanians, saying we have a source who says the following. There will be a satellite picture. They're little pieces, little fragments. And it's inevitable one's going to be wrong.

KING: But what makes the State of the Union? That's got to go through -- doesn't that go through a lot of checkpoints?

WOODWARD: Yes, yes, it does. And that's a serious mistake. They've backed off on it in the White House. But Bush needs to explain it. He needs to come forward and say hey, look, people accept in their human relations and in their presidents somebody who says, you know, I messed up on this, and this is how it happened. They need to do that.

KING: Were you surprised that Powell, kind of, dismissed it?

WOODWARD: Well, you know, I'm really on sound ground, here, when I say it's one little piece of thousands of pieces that get sifted when they put something like this together. And you know, I'm sure on occasion, on your show you've said something that turned out to be wrong. You've had bad information. I know in my work, it's happened. And you regret it and you step forward and say, I goofed.

KING: You don't see anything deliberate.

WOODWARD: Not at this point. Not at all. And at the same time, as Richard Nixon said, the cover-up is always worse than the offense. And if they try to not explain it, if they try to say, Oh, you know, we don't have to deal with this, or dismiss it, it's not going to work. They're going to have to come forward and say, Look, this came -- this person -- my understanding is there was some debate about it, and it may have been in one other speech earlier and got deleted and then got put in this one, so...

One little piece? De minimis deception?

I've long been fascinated by the dynamics of breaking news stories. One would imagine they move through a slow aggregation of facts. But that's seldom the case. A story can be reported by a good reporter with solid sources and nothing happens. Then the same story is reported a few weeks later and it explodes. Not so much the facts but the context is different, the moment, the mix of suspicions and momentum. It's reminiscent of the patterns discussed by historians of science like Thomas Kuhn or the sociologist Karl Mannheim.

But then I ditched that academic career, didn't I? So let's cut to the chase.

Tonight the CBS website is running a story that headlines ... "Bush Knew Iraq Info Was False."

For what it's worth, I think the headline gets out a bit ahead of what the story actually reports. But not by much. The key passage reads thus ...

Before the speech was delivered, the portions dealing with Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction were checked with the CIA for accuracy, reports CBS News National Security Correspondent David Martin.

CIA officials warned members of the President’s National Security Council staff the intelligence was not good enough to make the flat statement Iraq tried to buy uranium from Africa.

The White House officials responded that a paper issued by the British government contained the unequivocal assertion: “Iraq has ... sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” As long as the statement was attributed to British Intelligence, the White House officials argued, it would be factually accurate. The CIA officials dropped their objections and that’s how it was delivered.

Let's be clear what this means. The White House ran the charge past the CIA. Folks at the agency said, we don't think it's true. The White House's response was to say, well, okay, we won't say whether it's true or not. We'll just say that the British say this. And the Brits are saying this. So we're good.

(Let's just agree that Republican grousing about 'depends what the definition of 'is' is' just ain't gonna have the same sting anymore, will it?)

As it happens, Tom Gjelten of NPR ran basically the exact same story three weeks ago on June 19th. You can hear Gjelten's report here. My description of it from a recent column in The Hill ran as follows ...

On June 19th, NPR’s Tom Gjelten added yet another piece to the puzzle. Apparently the intelligence folks even made their concerns known during the writing of the speech. “Earlier versions of the president’s speech did not cite British sources,” a senior intelligence official told Gjelten. “They were more definitive and we objected.”

At that point, according to Gjelten’s source, “White House officials” said “‘Why don’t we say the British say this?’”

The White House disputes Gjelten’s source’s account. But the upshot of the source’s accusation is pretty damning. If true, the White House really wanted to put the Niger uranium story in the speech. But faced with their own intelligence experts telling them the story was probably bogus, they decided to hang their allegation on the dossier the British had released last September.

This is, I think, exactly the same story. On June 19th it generated little if any attention. I suspect Martin's story will generate a good deal more.

TPMLivewire