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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Let’s put another piece of the uranium forgeries puzzle down on the table.

This time the issue is timing.

First, we already know that in the first couple days of October 2002 Italian journalist Elisabetta Burba got a call from an Italian businessman and security consultant, a source for an earlier story, telling her that he had some documents she’d be interested in seeing.

She met with the source in person on October 7th in a bar in Rome. But on seeing the documents Burba had questions from the start. The next day she brought the documents and her concerns to a meeting with her editors at Panorama. Burba then proposed a fact-finding trip to Niger to investigate the document's authenticity.

But the Editor-in-Chief of Burba’s magazine insisted she take the documents to the American Embassy in Rome to have them verified. That man is Carlo Rossella, a man who is, in Sy Hersh’s words, “known for his ties to the Berlusconi government.” (Keep in mind that the magazine itself is owned by Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi and that he is a staunch supporter of President Bush’s Iraq policy.)

Rossella described his suggestion thusly to the Italian daily Corriere della Sera ...

When Burba showed me the documents she had received from a source of hers, she also explained to me that she had many doubts as to their authenticity. I told her to run all the checks she deemed necessary, and I also suggested the possibility of getting an evaluation directly from the United States ... I knew perfectly well that that material could prove an extraordinary scoop, and therefore I personally called the press office and informed them about what was happening. I suggested delivering them a copy of the dossier in order to have their assessment.


When asked why he didn't have the documents run by private or government experts in Italy he said ...

Because I believed that the only ones able to give us a correct evaluation were the Americans, who for years have been dealing with Iraq and weapons of mass destruction. My objective was exclusively that of not publishing a "poisoned chalice," rather than of informing the United States.


The next day, October 9th, in a meeting arranged by Rosella, Burba handed over copies of the dossier to the American Embassy in Rome. They were then forwarded to Washington. According to several accounts, they were immediately recognized as fakes by analysts at the CIA and the State Department. But that didn't stop their life in the US national security bureaucracy.

Now, those documents turn out to have been amazingly well-timed. Why? Let’s look at what else was happening while these events were unfolding in Rome.

Through the first weeks of September senior members of the Bush administration began a major press offensive alleging that Saddam Hussein had a robust nuclear weapons program. This was done in close coordination with British PM Tony Blair. On September 24th Blair published his Iraq dossier which said, among other things, that “there is intelligence that Iraq has sought the supply of significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

The British dossier was intended to convince skeptics in the UK but also to provide grist for the debate in the United States. The dossier, in fact, was the predicate for a major speech President Bush intended to give on October 7th in Cincinnati, one calling attention to the Niger uranium story.

But there were problems. And they cropped up rapidly.

As early as September 28th the BBC had begun investigating leaks from the British national security establishment claiming that the dossier was based on hyped intelligence.

There were problems too from the IAEA. Immediately after Blair’s presentation in the House of Commons the IAEA insisted that the claims about nuclear activities were unsubstantiated and demanded whatever evidence the US or the UK might have to back them up. Nothing was forthcoming.

Most important in the US, there were problems from the CIA. Behind the scenes in the US, a battle royale was shaping up over whether the president should be allowed to repeat the uranium from Africa claims in his Cincinnati speech.

On October 1st, US intelligence agencies released a top-secret NIE to the White House and Congress. The NIE mentions the Niger reports as well as claims about attempts to purchase uranium in Somalia and Congo. The only doubts were raised in a footnote noting the State Department’s skepticism.

But despite the NIE, the CIA clearly had grave concerns about the accuracy of the Niger story. And pretty much from the moment Blair released the dossier there was a wrestling match between the White House and the CIA over whether the president should publicly refer to the Niger uranium story in his speech.

The struggle culminated in the two days (October 5th & 6th) before the president traveled to Ohio when the CIA sent two separate top-secret memos to the president’s staff insisting that the references be removed from the speech. Fearing that that hadn’t done the trick, CIA Director George Tenet personally telephoned Deputy National Security Adviser Steve Hadley insisting that the references to uranium sales based on the British dossier be removed from the speech, which they were.

Now, I know there are a lot of dates and personages in the mix here and we’ll be adding some more in subsequent posts. But consider the progression of events…

The US and UK start a major roll-out on the nuclear claims. But the response is generally disappointing. There’s major push-back from the IAEA and, secretly in the US, from the CIA.

It was precisely at this moment (in the last days of September and the first of October) that the advocates of the Niger story were most in need of some new evidence. And it was precisely at this moment when the new evidence --- at first seemingly incontrovertible --- popped up in Rome.

And the day after the reporter gets the docs the Editor-in-Chief of her magazine instructs her to take them to the American Embassy.

And remember too that it wasn’t publicly known at the time that Niger was the country in question.

So who won the 'imminent threat' contest?

Well, we got just shy of 500 entries by the time the deadline rolled around on Monday evening. So it's taken us a couple days to work our way through them and sift out duplications. But we'll be announcing the winners soon.

More on Clark...

I've had a number of people write in about the previous post. And the most frequent question has been whether I think the general's candidacy is somehow beyond repair.

My answer is: not in the least. I think he remains a very strong candidate, and quite probably the strongest contender against President Bush. I also think he's got a lot of great people working for him at the grassroots level and in Little Rock. And I think he did very well in the last debate.

But that doesn't change the fact that the campaign is not organized with a clear message or an evident strategy for winning the nomination. At least that's what I see from where I'm sitting. And this is coming from a real admirer of the candidate.

Clark has only been in this race for six weeks or so. So I doubt there's any great harm done -- from an optics standpoint -- if he does some reshuffling. Campaigns are hard to put together, all the more so on the fly and quickly. All true.

But at the moment I just don't see the kind of campaign I think Clark needs to win. To paraphrase the UNCF, a great candidate is a terrible thing to waste.

Wes Clark gave a great speech on Tuesday at the Center for American Progress conference in Washington. And the most recent national poll, the Quinnipiac University Poll, has him back ahead of Howard Dean, after several that showed the reverse.

But let's be honest: the air's going out of his campaign. In money, in direction, in the polls, at the grass roots.

In fact, that doesn't even quite capture it. The air's going out of his candidacy because he doesn't have a campaign. Where's the campaign, the strategy, the organization?

What's surprised me most is that he's managed to do as well as he has over the last six weeks even with the complete lack of direction and organization from Little Rock.

The operation is being run by an interlocking directorate of folks who can't be bothered to be more than absentee proprietors of the general's campaign. (We'll say more about the details on these points in a follow-on post.)

I have to imagine Clark can see this. How could he not? The question is whether he's going to really do anything about it. Getting a national campaign up and running on the quick is no mean task, especially if you're new at it. And I still think he's a very strong candidate. But even the strongest candidate can be run into the ground by a bad campaign operation. He needs to get some new heads in the operation and let some others roll.

As I wrote yesterday, the president’s attempt to pass off the “Mission Accomplished” sign as something the sailors on the USS Abraham Lincoln foisted on him was a big mistake.

It’s dishonest, for one.

And having the commander-in-chief trying to pass off one of his political problems --- if admittedly one of the more minor ones --- on members of his military during wartime sends a rather inglorious message.

But this small story also points to a bigger one: this president’s political relationship with the American military and more broadly, his party’s relationship with the military.

During the last presidential election a number of high-ranking, recently retired generals --- including Anthony Zinni --- endorsed president Bush. That wasn’t quite unprecedented. But it got a lot of attention because it was outside the mold for what’s been expected of retired four-star generals, especially ones just recently retired.

Yet, as I wrote back in early 2002, pretty much from the start the brass at the Pentagon ended up getting something very different from what they’d expected. Though the ire focused on the president’s civilian appointees, rather than the president himself, the disgruntlement came quickly and grew apace over the president’s first two years in office.

Much of this was muted or set aside as the Pentagon ratcheted up for war in early 2003. But it resurfaced with a vengeance at mid-year as problems began to crop up in Iraq and it became increasingly clear that the president had taken the country -- and his military -- into a conflict on questionable pretenses and with no good plan for what we’d do there once we toppled the government.

Two things have happened in recent months. First, the animosity toward the administration --- or at least its appointees at the Pentagon --- has seeped down from the highest echelons of the officer corps down into its more junior ranks and the enlisted men and women on the ground. Second, there’s a creeping sense that the problem goes higher than Don Rumsfeld. (To get some sense of this progression, leaf through publications like Army Times.)

As a political matter, the politics of the US military has implications beyond who the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines themselves vote for. There is a whole class of civilian voters that take their own cue from which party does better by the US military.

Now, there are all sorts of reasons why members of the military -- when disgruntled with or angry with Republicans and President Bush -- don’t necessarily shift to the Democrats. But this growing alienation of many in the military from this president and his party could prove very important next year.

I think we’ll be hearing a lot more about this issue in coming months. But the cover story ("Corps Voters" by Benjamin Wallace-Wells) of the new Washington Monthly begins the discussion with an excellent article on the subject. Take a look. It’s up this morning over at the Monthly website.

There's no question that President Bush stepped very deep in it yesterday when he sidestepped responsibility for the "Mission Accomplished" banner in the background at his announcement of the end of 'major combat operations' on board the USS Abraham Lincoln last May 1st.

As you may have seen, the president said that it was the Navy's idea to put up the sign, not the White House's. (The sign was carefully placed to frame the image of the president as he gave his speech.)

"We took care of the production of it," said Scott McClellan, "We have people to do those things. But the Navy actually put it up."

So it was all the Navy's idea, but the White House was happy to step in with their sign-makers to help out.

Yeah. (They forced him to get on that plane too ...)

This is so ridiculous that I'm surprised they're even trying it. It's an example of how bedraggled and out-of-it they are at the moment.

I think it's at least possible that someone on board the ship or in the Navy suggested such a sign. But even if that's true, it's irrelevant.

This event aboard the Abraham Lincoln was a particularly crass exercise. But every such major event for a modern president is minutely choreographed. For Clinton as much as for Bush. Nothing isn't debated. And nothing, no image or word, is left to chance.

I doubt the Navy actually suggested this idea. But if they did -- and they may have -- there is no way that the idea was not debated, planned, vetted and everything else in the White House's political and communications offices. No way.

Everybody knows that it's ridiculous. And yet the president is on the record saying it.

And unlike a lot of other inherently more important issues, this is the sort of thing the White House press corps grabs onto and won't let go of.

A few points to cover.

First, though the administration seems like it’s in disarray over Iraq, I believe the internal disarray and in-fighting is much more pronounced than is now apparent. Much more.

Second, in various conversations yesterday I was struck by how similarly many Democrats and many neocons in (and in the orbit of) the administration are viewing the situation in Iraq. Or, at least one key aspect of it, one key fear.

At the American Progress conference yesterday I sat in on a press roundtable Q&A with John Podesta and Sandy Berger. Berger said his greatest fear was that we would withdraw from Iraq prematurely.

I heard this anxiety expressed by a lot of people at the conference. The concern is that the politicals at the White House will dictate a hasty and potentially disastrous withdrawal from Iraq --- one engineered not to create a long-term good outcome in the country, but to create a very specific short-term benefit, to eliminate or reduce the president’s political vulnerability on the issue in the fall of 2004.

The neocons seem to share that anxiety in spades.

One other thing to keep an eye on. Here’s a graf from an article in the Times today …

In a second day of high-level meetings at the Pentagon to refine American plans, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld met on Tuesday with Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top commander of American forces in Iraq; and L. Paul Bremer III, the top American civilian administrator in Iraq.


What did Bremer tell Rumsfeld?

There was a very insightful, if troubling in its implications, op-ed in The Washington Post on Monday. With all the tumult of recent days, I fear it may have gotten lost in the shuffle.

The point of the article, though this is a great simplification, is that 'victory' in military contests seldom rests on objective or even clearly measureable standards. It depends mainly on having your adversaries agree that they are in fact defeated.

Perhaps another way to say it is that it depends on engineering military victories of such a totality and such a nature that your adversaries will accept defeat. Read the piece. It's quite perceptive. It raises an issue similar to one I discussed in this column in The Hill ("Shock and awe — nothing more — for Bush in Iraq") last March.

After finishing my column for The Hill this morning, I spent the whole day at the “New American Strategies for Security and Peace” conference. This is the conference put on by the Center for American Progress, and cosponsored by The Century Foundation and some magazine called The American Prospect.

The event kicked off with a speech by Wes Clark, which was quite good. (There’s no question that the long-form exposition is Clark’s forte and in this case it showed.)

Clark was invited before he announced his candidacy. And though his speech was quite well-received, there was some chatter about whether he should have been given such a prominent and singular role, given that he’s contesting for the nomination against nine other Democrats.

I thought his speech was sufficiently un-campaign-like to be appropriate for the venue (Clark spoke by satellite). But Ted Sorensen’s introduction of Clark was surprisingly fulsome.

In any case, Clark was good. He was followed by a number of good panels filled with various luminaries. (Between you and me, I had to spend a lot of my time in the hallways on my cell phone working on reporting out a certain story.) But what stood out to me over everything else was the speech in the early evening by Zbigniew Brzezinski.

I don’t know whether a transcript of the speech will be available. I’m not even sure how much of it was precisely written out or just extemporaneous. But the basic sanity, wisdom and tough-mindedness of it was bracing. And for me it brought home the nature of our historical moment, and the critical turning point we’re at, more powerfully than any other public address I’ve heard. I don’t know if the transcript will be available or if there’ll be some sort of recorded live feed on the conference website. But if it is, watch it. Balanced, powerful, shrewd -- it was that good.

Fresh from the Department of Sublime Understatement ...

Experts in public opinion said it would be difficult for Bush to convince Americans that the violence was a byproduct of success.


From Dana Milbank's and Thomas Ricks' article on Bush and the bombings in Tuesday's Post.

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