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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Robert Novak today has a column crowing about the Senate intel committee report with respect to Joe Wilson and the Niger matter. Nonetheless, he still manages to misstate its findings.

At the head of Novak's column he says that committee Democrats "did not dissent from the committee's findings that Iraq apparently asked about buying yellowcake uranium from Niger."

Dissenting from this finding would admittedly have been a challenge since this is not in fact what the Report said.

As this article by Doyle McManus in today's Los Angeles Times notes, "the committee found that the CIA's statement, in a 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, was reasonable' at the time. The committee added, however, that the evidence behind the assertion turned out to be weak, and charged that the CIA failed to make that clear to policymakers."

The truth is that we simply don't know whether the Iraqis ever 'sought' uranium in Niger or Africa in the years leading up to the war, though all the evidence we thought we had for such a claim has turned out to be baseless. (There remains the Brits' evidence which they stand by yet won't disclose, and we'll address that later.) And part of the uncertainty is based on the capaciousness of the term. 'Sought' can mean a lot of things -- everything from purchases and active negotiations to vague feelers which might have been intended to lay the groundwork for later attempted purchases.

One bit of evidence that weighs heavily against such claims that Iraq was hunting about looking for a uranium seller in the years just before the war is the simple fact that Iraq seems -- after a rather intense investigation -- not to have had any active nuclear program, thus rather diminishing the need to go around trying to buy uranium, with all the risks that would involve.

Even that doesn't entirely settle the question, though.

As a very knowledgable intelligence source pointed out to me recently, one of the things the Iraq Survey Group found was that from time to time Saddam would call aside this or that scientist or general and ask something to the effect of, 'If we had to, how long would it take us to restart this or that WMD program?'

(Beneath this there is an even further debate and question as to whether Saddam himself knew the extent of the decrepitude of his own army or just how shuttered his WMD programs were.)

My source's recollection was that the particular instances of this that the Survey Group found related to chemical weapons. But it's not inconceivable that Saddam might at some point have asked a similar question on the nuclear front. And that could explain why Iraq -- which had no active nuclear program -- might nevertheless have put out feelers about the possibilities of uranium purchases.

In any case, this is all theoretical or rather hypothetical -- speculation in the absence of any evidence. One point worth noting is that the Senate Report said the Niger uranium judgment was 'reasonable' as of September 2002 -- the time of the authorship of the NIE.

That was just before the forged documents came into possession of the United States. However, the main evidence that the US had at the time -- that which presumably made the judgment 'reasonable' -- was pair of reports the US had gotten from the Italian intelligence service, SISMI. And as later became clear, those reports were based on the forged documents. In other words, the evidence that made the claim 'reasonable' later turned out to be bogus.

One other point that deserves mention: quite a bit has been made about the portion of the SSCI Report that says that Wilson's wife recommended him for the assignment. As a matter of substance, who recommended Wilson is irrelevant. Yet, Wilson's credibility would be undermined if he said X were true, when in fact he knew Y was the case. The LAT article notes that Plame's bosses at the CIA continue to insist that the idea to send Wilson was not hers, but rather theirs. The Times quotes a 'senior intelligence official' saying that "Her bosses say she did not initiate the idea of her husband going…. They asked her if he'd be willing to go, and she said yes."

What the truth of it is, I don't know. But the larger hullabaloo over this secondary point is simply intended to distract attention from the administration's persistent attempt to use weak and ultimately discredited information to muscle the country into war on a timetable which had precious little to do with preventing any sort of standing threat to the United States.

If at first you don't succeed ...

From a new article in The Hill: "Realizing that a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage faces little chance of passing soon, if ever, House Republicans yesterday discussed alternative approaches, including stripping federal courts of jurisdiction over the issue, passing a federal law to define marriage and using the appropriations process to ban gay marriage in Washington ..."

So back to our topic at hand.

The newly-released Butler Report -- a rough analogue in the UK to the Senate intel report out last week -- not only exonerates Tony Blair's government for the claims included in the Iraqi weapons 'dossier' but -- in an act of supererogation that gives new meaning to the Anglo-British 'special relationship -- also exonerates President Bush for using his famous 'sixteen words' in the 2003 State of the Union speech, calling his claim "well-founded."

So let's see where this leaves us.

From the start of the Niger uranium controversy, or rather since the IAEA dismissed the purported agreement documents as forgeries, the British have stood by their claim that the Iraqis were trying to purchase uranium in Africa and, specifically, that their conclusion was based on sources separate from the discredited documents.

And, indeed, the Butler Report repeats precisely this claim: that the UK had "credible" evidence that the Iraqis were trying to purchase uranium in Africa, specifically from Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo. (The relevant discussions in the Report are on pages 121-125)

The report states that, like many other countries, the Brits became aware of an Iraqi diplomat's visit to Niger in 1999 and concluded that this was likely aimed at discussing uranium sales. This judgment was made on the basis of a) Iraq's earlier purchases of uranium from Niger (circa late 70s and early 80s), b) their presumed resumption of a nuclear weapons program, and c) the fact the Niger exports little of value beside uranium.

This is a standard part of the story, widely known.

The reference to the additional evidence on Niger comes on page 122, paragraph 495 ...

During 2002, the UK received further intelligence from additional sources which identified the purpose of the visit to Niger as having been to negotiate the purchase of uranium ore, though there was disagreement as to whether a sale had been agreed and uranium shipped.


The Report also says this with respect to the Democratic Republic of Congo ...

There was further and separate intelligence that in 1999 the Iraqi regime had also made inquiries about the purchase of uranium ore in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In this case, there was some evidence that by 2002 an agreement for a sale had been reached.


The problem is that the Report doesn't give any details about what those reports were, thus giving very little way to assess their credibility. And that leaves us pretty much where we've been for a year, with the Brits claiming they had other evidence not connected to the documents but unwilling to describe what the evidence was.

If this subject interests you, I'd strongly suggest that you read the whole passage yourself. It's quite brief, no more than a couple minutes to read.

More on this to follow.

Couldn't happen to a nicer caucus ...

From the AP: "A split among Senate Republicans over different versions of an amendment to ban same-sex marriage is preventing a vote on an election-year issue pushed by President Bush and religious conservatives."

Now, that's pretty pro-life.

Tom Coburn, a former member of the House of Representatives from Oklahoma, who is campaigning to become the Republican party's candidate to replace retiring Senator Don Nickles, recently said he supports the death penalty for doctors who perform abortions.

"I favor the death penalty," Coburn told the AP last week, "for abortionists and other people who take life."

The Republican primary is July 27th; the winner will face likely Democratic nominee Brad Carson.

A Republican lobbyist friend just sent me a link to today's Best of the Web column at the Wall Street Journal's opinionjournal.com. There James Taranto goes on a long and detailed series of responses and criticisms of things I've written over the last few days about the Plame controversy.

First (or rather last in Taranto's piece) is the answer to the question I asked yesterday. That was, if the decision to reveal Plame's identity creates no political or legal problems for the leakers, why don't they come forward?

The answer, Taranto says, is that doing so would expose them to further vilification from sites like TPM.

I think that explanation speaks for itself.

Then there's the matter of legal jeopardy for the leakers. Taranto seems to believe that it is legally significant whether the White House officials revealed Plame's identity to damage her personally or to damage Wilson's credibility by alleging she played a role in sending him on the trip -- thus making her collateral damage.

Taranto's point is that the White House was just trying to damage Wilson politically, albeit with what Taranto believes is a valid criticism. They didn't have any particular desire to expose Plame's identity. It was just that it was necessary to expose her identity in order to attack Wilson's credibility.

This, as we noted earlier, is the imagined 'need to attack the credibility of political opponents' exception to the law in question, which pretty clearly doesn't exist. The Wall Street Journal must have some in-house attorneys that Taranto could discuss this with.

It may be that these two valiant worthies could only serve the cause of the higher truth by breaking the law, a sort of oddly insider form of civil disobedience. But they were still breaking the law.

What would be a defense is if the leakers, for whatever reason, did not know Plame was covert. But, as we noted late last year, a careful analysis of both the language Novak used to describe Plame and that which he's used in past columns to describe other covert CIA employees makes it pretty clear that Novak knew quite well what her status was. And the only reason he knew is because they knew and they told him.

Taranto even still argues about whether Plame was even covert. But this is the silliest of arguments for the following reason. Plame's status is the predicate of the whole case. If she's not a person covered by the law then there's nothing even to investigate.

Yet an investigation into the matter has been going on for almost a year; and the quasi-independent Fitzgerald investigation has been underway for more than six months.

If Plame wasn't covert, the CIA never could have made its referral to Justice. If they did, that would have been the most obvious of reasons for Justice to decline to investigate. And surely Fitzgerald wouldn't have spent these months dragging members of the White House staff before a grand jury without satisfying himself that the first and essential legal predicate of the entire case (Plame's status as covert) was valid -- a factual matter that could have been nailed down in rather less than a day.

My apologies to regular readers for all the back and forth. But occasionally it's necessary.

For the last several days, proponents of the Holy Grail of Niger-Iraqi uranium have been pressing a series of articles which have appeared in the Financial Times that they says confirms the uranium story by reference to alleged evidence in the hands of the British.

That evidence, as detailed by the FT, involved smugglers mining uranium from abandoned mines, ones which would lack the industrial equipment required to turn the rock into yellowcake -- a key point that makes non-proliferation experts discount the signficance of the whole story. That's a point we'll return to.

However, for the moment, look at this section, the last two paragraphs at the end of today's follow-up in the FT.

The UK government has stood by its claim that Iraq had sought to buy uranium, and its assertion is expected to be supported by an official inquiry headed by Lord Butler whose report is published tomorrow. The UK has made clear that its claim was not based on the evidence provided in the fake documents, and that it had other evidence that Iraq had tried to buy uranium.

The Senate report adds weight to these claims by detailing the extent to which French intelligence information supported that being gathered by other intelligence agencies. The French information was given particular weight because French companies control Niger's uranium output.


In other words, the British claim that there was other evidence beside the documents is given further weight by the fact that French intelligence also had suspicions about a Niger-Iraq deal. And France's suspicions were uniquely relevant since French consortia actually control the mines.

This is at best a very sloppy reading of the report.

Here's why.

Page 59 of the report states that on November 22nd 2002 French officials told their American counterparts that they had "information on an Iraqi attempt to buy uranium from Niger." They went on to say that they were confident that the transaction did not in fact occur -- a confidence presumably based on their own physical custody of the uranium.

However, in the context of the WMD debate, Iraqi intent was and is quite important, even if attempts to acquire the yellowcake failed. So the French suspicions were important -- particularly because of their role running the mines.

However, the FT ignores what appears in the report ten pages later. There on page 69 the report says ..."March 4, 2003, the U.S. Government learned that the French had based their initial assessment that Iraq had attempted to procure uranium from Niger on the same documents that the U.S. had provided to the [IAEA]."

In other words, the French suspicions, at least as detailed in the report, add no weight to the claims that there was other evidence beside the documents since the French suspicions, by their own account, were based on the documents.

The president's story, from the speech yesterday at Oak Ridge: "In 2002, the United Nations Security Council yet again demanded a full accounting of Saddam Hussein's weapons programs. As he had for over a decade, Saddam Hussein refused to comply. In fact, according to former weapons inspector David Kay, Iraq's weapons programs were elaborately shielded by security and deception operations that continued even beyond the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom. So I had a choice to make: Either take the word of a madman, or defend America. Given that choice, I will defend America every time."

In a story yesterday, the AP described this passage thus: "But Saddam refused to open his country to inspections, Bush said. 'So I had a choice to make: either take the word of a madman or defend America. Given that choice I will defend America.'"

Clearly, that's not precisely what he said. The president said Saddam "refused to comply" not that he "refused to open his country to inspections", though I don't think there's any doubt that the latter was the impression he meant to convey.

Dealing with the president's doubletalk is a challenging business.

Of course on other occasions, the wordplay has been less cagey ...

President Bush: "Saddam Hussein said, I'm not going to expose my weapons, I'm not going to get rid of my -- I'm not going to allow inspectors in, he said." February 26th, 2004.

President Bush: "We gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power..." July 14th, 2003.

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