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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Travel day -- more posts later this afternoon/evening.

Who would have thought that this year's presidential race would turn on whether a rebounding economy could save President Bush from the public's congealing sense that his entire Iraq venture was a mistake?

CBS/NYT has a new poll out showing a Bush rebound and a neck-and-neck race, with the president's rise due to public perceptions of an improving economy?

One sounding means little in itself, of course. But this does seem to be the general direction -- a slow upward drift based on a recovering economy contending with the majority's belief that the president's foreign policy is fundamentally flawed.

We are all up in arms right now, it seems, about Vice President Dick Cheney, and the fact that Cheney told one of the more irenic of Democratic senators to "f--k off" in a brief exchange on the Senate floor last Tuesday because the senator in question, Pat Leahy (Democrat of Vermont) had earlier had the temerity to raise questions about lucrative no-bid Iraqi contracts secured by his former employer Halliburton.

Certainly, Cheney and his partisans deserve the knuckle-rapping they're now getting. And it's entertaining to watch avatars of dignity, good order and responsibility like Bill Frist and the folks over at the White House call Cheney's antics good clean fun and politics as usual.

But for those who have few good things to say about the vice-president, I think, the correct response is less outrage than the sort of grim (or perhaps not so grim) satisfaction one feels when a malign character unwittingly reveals himself to a larger audience. Because even if Cheney "felt better" after his outburst, this wasn't a show of strength but one of desperation or, perhaps, impatient impotence.

I think Joe Klein has it right in the title of his new column in Time -- ("Plenty More to Swear About: Bush's security team faces a barrage of criticism as the facts about Iraq come to light"). As Klein writes, last week's "assorted temper tantrums appeared to be a leading indicator of a gathering summer storm confronting this presidency."

Consider for a moment. Who is Dick Cheney? What do we know of him? None of us like being questioned or critized. But in him the disinclination runs particularly deep. He prefers to act in secrecy and is a man to whom government transparency has all the allure that a shaft of sunlight has to a vampire. When challenged, violence seems always to be his preferred method of response, that of first resort --- often a literal sort on the world stage, but with bureaucratic (viz. Plame) and what we might call verbal violence at home. By verbal violence I mean specifically tough talk and threats meant to frighten people away from challenging him further, to knock them on their heels. Even this new case -- saying Leahy et al. had it coming -- is but another example. When that doesn't work, he gets sloppy.

Cheney et al. can see all sorts of bad business coming down the pike in the next few months -- much of it already on the public radar screen, some of it still clogged up no doubt in back channels, newsrooms and new rounds of dirty-tricksterism. It seems clearly to be getting to them.

By the time you read this post you'll likely already know that today's Financial Times makes stunning new claims about alleged sales of uranium from Niger to Iraq.

In brief, the main article in the FT makes two points ...

First, that there is much more information than the forged 'Niger-uranium' documents backing up the claim that Iraq (and other countries) sought to clandestinely purchase 'yellowcake' uranium from Niger.

(I think point two is the real point of the FT story, not point one. But we'll get to that in another post.)

The second assertion requires a touch more explanation.

If you're up on the arcana of the 'Niger-uranium' story you'll remember that they first came to light when a source -- an unnamed Italian businessman and security consultant -- gave copies of them to an Italian journalist named Elisabetta Burba.

(For more on the tick-tock of what Burba did with them and how they eventually got into US hands, see this piece by Sy Hersh from last year in The New Yorker.)

There has been endless speculation about who this mystery man was and who actually did the forging. Was he the forger? And if so, what were his motives? If not, who put them into his hands? And what were their motives?

According to the Financial Times article, that business man is likely himself the forger of the documents and he has a long history of bad acts which, they say, discredit him as a source of information. That last tidbit plays a key part in the FT story because, in their words, the provider of the documents is "understood to be planning to reveal selected aspects of his story to a US television channel."

That's what the FT says.

I hear something different.

In fact, I know something different.

My colleagues and I have reported on this matter extensively, spoken to key players involved in the drama, and put together a detailed picture of what happened. And that picture looks remarkably different from this account which is out today -- specifically on the matter of the origins of those forged documents and who was involved.

I cannot begin to describe how much I would like to say more than that. And at some later point in some later post I will do my best to explain the hows and whys of why I can't. But, for the moment, I can't.

Let me, however, offer a hypothetical that might help make sense of all this.

Let's say that certain individuals or organizations are responsible for some rather unfortunate misdeeds. And let's further postulate that such hypothetical individuals or organizations find out that some folks are on to them, that a story is in the works -- perhaps more than one -- and that it's coming right at them. Those individuals or organizations -- as shorthand, let's call them 'the bad actors' -- might well start trying to fight back, trying to gin up an alternative storyline to exculpate themselves and inculpate others. If that story made its way into the news, at a minimum, it might help the bad actors muddy the waters for when the real story comes out. You can see how such a regrettable turn of events might come to pass.

This is of course only a hypothetical. But I thought it might provide a clarifying context.

So read the FT article. But also keep your ears open. It is, I'm quite confident, not the last word you'll hear on this story.

Let me start back by thanking my three friends and colleagues who sat in for me here at TPM during my ten day absence: Spencer Ackerman, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira. Everybody takes a slightly different approach to this medium. And I couldn't have been happier about what each of them did with the site. I hope you enjoyed their work as much as I did. If the trickle of email I got while I was away was any measure, you did indeed.

(I was able to get online here and there from abroad, so I managed to see most of what got posted. Actually, it was an odd, wholly unaccustomed and somehow deeply relaxing feeling to be able to type in the TPM address to see if anything new had been posted.)

A special thanks too to my out-going assistant, Zander Dryer, who handled all the logistics of the site in my absence as well as working with the guest hosts to make sure everything went smoothly.

As you must know by now Spencer (IRAQ'd) and Ruy (DonkeyRising) both have their own blogs. And John has a new book out The Folly of Empire. John's book isn't quite out yet I don't think -- I think a couple weeks. But I strongly recommend it to you on the basis of my knowledge of the author and recent discussions with him of this topic.

In any case, a sincere thanks to each of them and to you (the readership of this site) as well -- readership held up remarkably well during my absence. Their efforts and your readership helped make my time away relaxing, contented and refreshing.

A Blog first? Well, probably not. But certainly a TPM first. I’m coming to you from some number of tens of thousands of feet over the Atlantic Ocean. And for those who know me well that is, well … something of a change of pace (a long story which we’ll return to at some later point). In any case, to the matters at hand. Even bloggers need vacations. And if they can’t figure that out for themselves --- which in my case seems to be the case --- their girlfriends eventually prevail on them to see the light of reason and do the right thing.

In any case, that brings me to my point. I’m going to be taking a breather from TPM for a few days. I’ll be away tucked away on some island somewhere far, far away. If something truly earth-shattering happens I may pop my head up. But I'm going to try mightily to resist (and you'll be in good hands while I'm away.)

A few points before signing off, though. You may have noticed a slight down-tick in the frequency of posts of late. And that’s for a few different reasons. But a principal one is that I and several colleagues have been working on a story that, if and when it comes to fruition --- and I’m confident it shall --- should shuffle the tectonic plates under that capital city where I normally hang my hat. So that’s something to look forward to in the not too distant future. And that’s taken some of my time away from TPM and prevented me from sharing with you some delectable tidbits which otherwise I would have loved to have done.

Second, TPM won’t be going dark during my brief absence. Iraq --- and the broad panoply of national security, war, and intelligence issues for which it has become the focal point --- remains the key issue in our public lives today. So I’m handing the TPM keyboard over to someone who has absolutely dynamite sources on all these issues and will be able to keep you up-to-date for the next several days and point you toward the key issues which perhaps won’t be getting the treatment they should in the Times, the Post and the rest of the bigs.

I’m going to let him introduce himself, probably a little later today. But he will definitely be able to give you the inside word.

Before you know it, I’ll be back, with batteries recharged, back to the normal feverish rate of posts, ready to slay dragons, break news, lacerate the puffed-up, poke fun at myself and others, post links, embarrass myself with typos and whatever other mumbojumbo I usually do in these virtual pages.

Jack Kennedy from 1960 ...

“But l<$NoAd$>et me stress again,” he told the assembled ministers, “that these are my views — for, contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for president [but the candidate] who happens also to be a Catholic.

“I do not speak for my church on public matters — and the church does not speak for me.

“Whatever issue may come before me as president, if I should be elected — on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject — I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or dictate. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.”


As I wrote in my Hill column this evening, what a difference 45 years makes!

Then a Catholic senator from Massachusetts running for president was at pains to distinguish between his personal religious views and those he'd try to enact into policy as president. He chose a meeting of Southern Baptists in Texas to make the point.

Now we have a Texas born-again president trying to score political points by pressing certain elements of the Catholic hierarchy into disciplining another Catholic Senator and presidential candidate from Massachusetts for not imposing his personal views as public policy.

Straight out of gag(gle)ville -- Geneva Conventions, Cheney on al Qaida, Plame, Dick Clarke, a movable feast -- from this morning ...

Q Why do you say you've made <$NoAd$>it clear on Geneva Conventions when it's -- obviously, they've been violated ever since we went into Iraq?

MR. McCLELLAN: Are you talking about the abuses that occurred at Abu Ghraib?

Q And Guantanamo and everywhere else.

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know what specifically you're referring to, everywhere else.

Q I'm saying that you people have never said definitively that you are obeying the Geneva Conventions.

MR. McCLELLAN: Helen, no, we made it very clear when it comes to Iraq that the Geneva Convention did apply.

Q Consistent with, you say, but --

MR. McCLELLAN: No, not in Iraq. In Iraq we made it very clear the Geneva Convention applies.

Q Can I ask about Vice President Cheney, because yesterday he repeated what is a very controversial claim. He said that Saddam Hussein had long-established ties with al Qaeda. Does the President believe that Saddam Hussein had long-established ties with al Qaeda?

MR. McCLELLAN: We certainly talked about the ties with terrorism between the -- between the regime that was removed from power, and we talked about those ties prior to the decision to remove that regime from power. So that was well-documented. Secretary Powell went before the United Nations and talked about some of those ties to terrorism, as well. And Zarqawi is certainly a senior al Qaeda associate who was in Iraq prior to the decision to go in and remove the regime from power.

Q There's also al Qaeda in the United States. That does not mean the United States is cooperating with those members of al Qaeda. Just by the presence of someone does not mean there's a cooperation.

MR. McCLELLAN: But, remember, we're talking about an oppressive regime that was in power in Iraq that exercised control over that country. And go back and look at what we documented, Norah. We documented all this, and I think that's what the Vice President was referring to.

Q So today you're saying the President does agree there were long --

MR. McCLELLAN: We stand by what we've said previously, in terms of the regime's ties to terrorism, yes. And I think that's what the Vice President was referring to.

Q The President said there were no ties in the run up to the war.

MR. McCLELLAN: No, Helen, that's a mischaracterization. There were clear ties to terrorism between the regime --

Q He said there were no ties with al Qaeda.

MR. McCLELLAN: -- certainly supporting suicide bombers in the Middle East.

Q Are you repudiating what the President said?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I think you're talking about September 11th.

Q Has the President been asked to answer questions before the CIA leak investigation?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't have any update at this point. But those are the types of questions that you need to direct to the prosecutors who are overseeing that investigation. And I'll see if there's any further update beyond what we said previously.

Q Why can't you tell us? I mean, he's the President of the United States. You aren't going to tell us if he's been questioned in a criminal investigation>

MR. McCLELLAN: I just said I don't have any update from where he -- what he previously responded to, Terry.

Q Right, but we'd like it from you, please.

MR. McCLELLAN: And I'll see what else I can find out. But remember what we've made clear from the very beginning. There's an ongoing investigation right now. We want to do everything we can to help that investigation conclude successfully and get to the bottom of this. And in that spirit, that's why we've referred questions like that to the investigators, because if they feel it will help move their case forward, I'm sure that they will discuss that information with you. But I will -- but I'll go back and just check from our end to see what else I can find out.

Q It's an historic event. Not many Presidents --

MR. McCLELLAN: Understood. No, understood, but I have to balance that with the ongoing investigation that's underway.

Q Has he retained his lawyer yet, regarding this?

MR. McCLELLAN: That's what I said. I don't have any update from what he previous said. Let me look into things.

Go ahead.

Q Scott, Richard Clarke says that in the wake of his book, NSC lawyers were used to do opposition research against him, that they contacted his former colleagues to -- quote -- "dig up dirt" on him. Is that accurate? And is it an inappropriate --

MR. McCLELLAN: Arash, I think we've been through this issue and I don't think there's anything to add to what we've previously said.


So many questions ...

Allow me a moment of suspicious speculation ...

Earlier today we noted reports that President Bush had told one of the Pope's chief advisors (actually Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state) that "Not all the American bishops are with me" on cultural issues and asked the Vatican to nudge the American bishops toward greater 'activisim'. The issues of Bush's concern were gay marriage, abortion and stem cell research.

Now, out of context it's not immediately clear what such 'activism' might mean. But perhaps here is some of the context.

The question of whether pro-choice politicians (particularly Democrats, it would seem, and particularly one named John Kerry) should be denied communion has been roiling the country's Catholic bishops. And starting today, June 14th, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will gather in Englewood, Colorado and one key item on their agenda will be to arrive at some guidelines or uniform decision on this issue of denying communion to Catholic politicians.

The archbishop heading the task force on this question is Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington. In public statements he has said that he is uncomfortable with the idea of denying communion to Catholic officeholders. And for this he's been the target of a high-priced ad campaign by a group calling itself the American Life League.

Finally, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said recently that he would like to meet with the Bishops on this question.

(For what it's worth, a recent poll of lay Catholics shows they lean strongly against denying communion to the likes of Kerry, and even a majority of weekly church-going Catholics opposes the idea. And even some of the more conservative cardinals at the Vatican have recommended caution.)

Now, a decision which leans in the direction of placing a sanction Kerry would of course be helpful to the president. But a decision which led to denying communion to various Catholic politicians who dissent from various Church-positions could quickly get out of hand. So one of Karl Rove's chief conservative Catholic allies, Deal W. Hudson -- with whom he has recently been strategizing -- has tried to simplify the issue.

Here's a clip from the Post ...

Karl Maurer, vice president of Catholic Citizens of Illinois, a conservative grass-roots group, said he would add sodomy and gay marriage to that list. Some liberal grass-roots groups have said they believe the church's teachings against war and the death penalty are worthy of equal treatment.

"Once you open this door, what's going to come rolling through it?" asked Deal W. Hudson, editor of the magazine Crisis and a key Catholic ally of the Bush administration. "Pretty soon, no one would be taking Communion."

Hudson said he believes the denial of Communion should begin, and end, with Kerry. Even better, he said, would be if priests would read letters from the pulpit denouncing the senator from Massachusetts "whenever and wherever he campaigns as a Catholic."


Hudson's and Rove's agenda here seems rather clear.

Now, put all this together. When the president tells Vatican officials that not "all the American bishops are with me" and then asks them to push the bishops to greater 'activism', what might he be getting at? Think about it.

"Bush [told Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state], 'Not all the American bishops are with me' on the cultural issues. The implication was that he hoped the Vatican would nudge them toward more explicit activism. Other sources in the meeting said that while they could not recall the president’s exact words, he did pledge aggressive efforts on the cultural front, especially the battle against gay marriage, and asked for the Vatican’s help in encouraging the U.S. bishops to be more outspoken.

That's an excerpt from the National Catholic Reporter, picked up in a full-length article in The New York Times.

As you probably know, there has been a movement afoot in a number of Roman Catholic diocese to deny communion to Roman Catholic politicians who oppose certain Catholic moral teachings as matters of public policy, as opposed to ones of personal conscience. The key example is abortion.

One bishop, I believe, has even held out the option of denying communion to ordinary voters who don't vote a consistently pro-life line.

According to today's Times ...

In his recent trip to Rome, President Bush asked a top Vatican official to push American bishops to speak out more about political issues, including same-sex marriage, according to a report in the National Catholic Reporter, an independent newspaper.

In a column posted Friday evening on the paper's Web site, John L. Allen Jr., its correspondent in Rome and the dean of Vatican journalists, wrote that Mr. Bush had made the request in a June 4 meeting with Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state. Citing an unnamed Vatican official, Mr. Allen wrote: "Bush said, 'Not all the American bishops are with me' on the cultural issues. The implication was that he hoped the Vatican would nudge them toward more explicit activism." Mr. Allen wrote that others in the meeting confirmed that the president had pledged aggressive efforts "on the cultural front, especially the battle against gay marriage, and asked for the Vatican's help in encouraging the U.S. bishops to be more outspoken." Cardinal Sodano did not respond, Mr. Allen reported, citing the same unnamed people.


I guess on one level we can say we've come a long way since 1960 when John F. Kennedy had to foreswear that he'd follow the instructions of the Pope in his decisions of governance. Today we have a Protestant born-again who tries to enlist the Pope to intervene in an American election.

Now, let's look at this phrase 'more explicit activism'.

The key point of activism we've been hearing about is that of denying communion to pro-choice Catholic pols, or perhaps those who support gay marriage -- seemingly always Dems, pro-choice GOPers seem always to find a special dispensation, shall we say.

This creates at a minimum a political nuisance which affected Democrats must deal with.

Now, just what sort of activisim is it Bush is asking the Pontiff to press upon the bishops?

It seems a pretty small leap to think that pressing the denial of communion issue is one of them. And sources told the National Catholic Reporter that "while Bush was focusing primarily on the [gay] marriage question, he also had in mind other concerns such as abortion and stem cell research."

Presidents regularly meet with Popes. Certainly they talk about matters both political and moral, perhaps even theological. But is it the president's place to press the pope to sow religious divisions among American Catholics, a majority of whom seem uncomfortable with the efforts of some in the hierarchy to discipline pro-Choice Catholic politicians? And all that aside is it proper for the president to enlist the Vatican as an arm of his political campaign? The articles noted above make it pretty clear these requests were made for electoral political purposes.

Remember the words ... "Not all the American bishops are with me"

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