Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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A few tidbits on the Niger story.

There are some signs the FBI is starting to back off the earlier blanket exoneration they gave the Italian intelligence agency SISMI last year of any role in the Niger forgeries caper. Meanwhile, Senate Dems still seem to be dragging their own heels on taking action that might get to the bottom of the story.

In case you missed it, from Murray Waas in The National Journal ...

Ten days after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President Bush was told in a highly classified briefing that the U.S. intelligence community had no evidence linking the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein to the attacks and that there was scant credible evidence that Iraq had any significant collaborative ties with Al Qaeda, according to government records and current and former officials with firsthand knowledge of the matter.

The information was provided to Bush on September 21, 2001 during the "President's Daily Brief," a 30- to 45-minute early-morning national security briefing. Information for PDBs has routinely been derived from electronic intercepts, human agents, and reports from foreign intelligence services, as well as more mundane sources such as news reports and public statements by foreign leaders.

One of the more intriguing things that Bush was told during the briefing was that the few credible reports of contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda involved attempts by Saddam Hussein to monitor the terrorist group. Saddam viewed Al Qaeda as well as other theocratic radical Islamist organizations as a potential threat to his secular regime. At one point, analysts believed, Saddam considered infiltrating the ranks of Al Qaeda with Iraqi nationals or even Iraqi intelligence operatives to learn more about its inner workings, according to records and sources.

The September 21, 2001, briefing was prepared at the request of the president, who was eager in the days following the terrorist attacks to learn all that he could about any possible connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda.

Not surprisingly, the White House is refusing to provide copies of the document to the Senate intel committee which is, allegedly, trying to investigate whether the White House hyped, manipulated or misrepresented pre-war intelligence about Iraq.

Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-OH): "I pledge to walk in the shoes of my colleagues and refrain from name-calling or the questioning of character."

First speech on the House floor, September 6th, 2005.

Here's one thing I'm interested in. A couple days ago, the Washington Post quoted sources close to the Abramoff investigation saying that investigators are "are looking at half a dozen members of Congress, current and former senior Hill aides, a former deputy secretary of the interior, and Abramoff's former lobbying colleagues."

Now, six members of Congress -- not so many when you consider there are more than 500 hundred of them. But note the standard. Presumably, these are the ones FBI agents and federal prosecutors are looking to possibly charge with criminal offenses and send to prison.

Given how common a practice it is for big contributions to secure votes on key legislation in today's Washington (and yesterday's Washington too, for that matter), you've really got to cross the line in a big way to get into legal trouble for taking bribes, as already seems to have happened with Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH). The DOJ doesn't enforce House ethics rules (then again, nobody does anymore. but that's another story). Nor are there laws against general sleazeballery.

So how big a swath will the Abramoff scandal cut in the House? Six under scrutiny for actual charges? Figure there are ten times that many tarred with his brush, revealed to be deep in his web of corruption, on the freebie gravy train, even if they violated no specific laws which could land them in jail. How does the Abramoff scandal play in their districts?

Last month we did a few posts about a guy named Mark Graul, one-time Chief of Staff for Rep. Mark Green (R) of Wisconsin and now his campaign manager as Green runs for Governor. We noted that Graul's name shows up again and again getting tickets to various Abramoff skyboxes back in 2000. (These are from a collection of Team Abramoff emails we received a few months back.)

Graul first denied getting any freebies. But as we published more and more of the emails and the local press started taking notice, he eventually sorta kinda 'fessed up. And he came up with a new line which was basically, tough luck, that's how business is done in Washington.

When asked about the Abramoff freebies, Graul told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "I believe it's illegal in [the Wisconsin state capital of] Madison. It's legal in Washington."

So how many other members of Congress up for election next year were on the Abramoff gravy train?

Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-OH) just keeps getting better and better advancing an unintentional humor agenda for sane people around the United States.

Schmidt, of course, is the freshman representative from Ohio who reaped almost universal derision on Friday when she went on the House floor and said "A few minutes ago, I received a call from Colonel Danny Bubp. He asked me to send Congress a message: Stay the course. He also asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message: that cowards cut and run, Marines never do."

Today she told the Post: "There's no way that I remotely tried to impugn his character." She's portraying herself as a victim of unscrupulous attacks. In a press release she laments that "[s]ince that moment I have been attacked from across the country by the left."

From the Post ...

Noting that criticism has poured in via phone calls, e-mails and TV reports, she said in her statement: "I am quite willing to suffer those attacks if in the end that policy I so strongly oppose is exposed as unsound. First and foremost, I support the troops. They dodge bullets and bombs while I duck only hateful words."

Now she even seems to be a spat with the wingnut who she was allegedly quoting when she attacked Murtha.

From the Post ...

Bubp, a GOP state legislator and Marine Corps Reserve officer, had campaigned for Schmidt. He put out his own statement yesterday: "The comments and concerns I shared with Congresswoman Schmidt were never meant as a personal reference to Mr. Murtha. . . . We never discussed anyone by name and there was no intent to ever disparage the congressman or his distinguished record of service for our nation." Bubp, through a spokeswoman, declined an interview request.

Schmidt recalls their Friday phone conversation somewhat differently. "I wrote down what he was saying," she said in the interview. "He did ask me to send a message to Congress, and he also said send a message to 'that congressman.' He did not know that congressman's name, but I did. Neither one of us knew he was a Marine."

It just gets better and better, doesn't it?

Late Update: Actually, wait! I was wrong. It gets better still. According to the Dayton Daily News, Schmidt is now saying that "she has been made a scapegoat by a media disappointed that Congress didn't vote to withdraw troops from Iraq." Local Republicans seem not to agree, judging by the fact that two challengers from the GOP primary in her race are now saying they may run against her again.

This is an awfully weird story.

Yesterday Britain's Daily Mirror ran a story claiming that a top secret British government document records a conversation in Washington between President Bush and Tony Blair in April 2004 in which President Bush discussed bombing the headquarters of Al Jazeera headquarters in Doha, Qatar.

The literal account of the conversation, says the Daily Mirror, has Bush suggesting an attack and Blair talking him out of it by noting the international backlash that would certainly ensure. The paper goes on to quote one anonymous source suggesting that Bush was joking, letting off steam, etc., and another saying that Bush was actually serious.

The added wrinkle to the story is that there does seem to be such a top secret document. We know that because two British civil servants have been charged under the UK Official Secrets act for leaking it. They were charged just last week.

In Wednesday's paper the Post follows up and reports a brush off quote the White House gave the AP. Said Scott McClellan, "We are not interested in dignifying something so outlandish and inconceivable with a response."

The Post also has this passage ...

In Washington, a senior diplomat said the Bush remark as recounted in the newspaper "sounds like one of the president's one-liners that is meant as a joke." But, the diplomat said, "it was foolish for someone to write it down, and now it will be a story for days."

The Times also picks up the story, but does less with it. Tomorrow's Guardian says that the UK government is now threatening to prosecute editors who reveal details of the memo. And the AP points out, among other things, that the British tabloids not infrequently get things wrong and that the Daily Mirror's last editor was forced to resign last year after the paper published what turne out to be faked pictures of alleged prisoner abuse by Britihs soldiers.

I'm really not quite sure what to make of this. Reading over the stories in the Daily Mirror, the Post, the BBC and other news outlets, there doesn't seem much question that there is a memo/transcript and that it does have Mr. Bush discussing bombing Al Jazeera HQ. What's unclear is whether he was serious or not. That of course makes all the difference in the world. And there's just no way to judge without seeing just what it said.

With my very limited sense of how George W. Bush operates in private, I think it does sound the like the sort of thing the president might joke about or say merely for effect, though I wouldn't say that shows him in such a great light either.

The only thing that strikes me as odd is that a diplomatic aide would memorialize this exchange between if it were merely a joking aside. Did the aide either think Bush was serious or perhaps found the discussion so disturbing that he chose to note it down?

The one thing that I think you can say with some surety is that this is yet one more example of the president's rapidly diminishing power, credibility and prestige. Six months, not to mention a year ago, I think there's little reason to believe a paper like the Post would have touched such a story and touch it in a way that entertains the possibility that President Bush actually had to be talked down by Tony Blair from bombing a news network whose editorial line he found too critical.

Read Matt Yglesias's take on what the new Murray Waas article tells us about the origins of the Plame Affair.

TPM Reader JS asks ...

Have you noticed the lack of commemoration of the assassination of JFK on November 22, 1963? I find no reference to that sad, and seminal, event. Am I the only person who reads the blogs and has a personal memory of that day?

Certainly hadn't occurred to me. But now that he mentions it, yes, it did used to be a date for which there was always some build up and moments of commemoration. But now nothing. Is it just some critical mass in the passage of years? Forty-two years and it's just definitively part of the past? Or is it some political or cultural inflection point the country's passed through post-9/11? Maybe it's none of these and JS and I are noticing a difference that's not there.