Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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McClellan this morning on Cheney ...

QUESTION: Back in 2003, the Vice President said publicly that he didn't know who sent Joe Wilson on the Niger mission, back in June of 2003 -- or July of 2003 -- when the person who sent him's name first became public. There now seems to be contradictory evidence that, in fact, he did know. Do you know, did he know, did he not know?

SCOTT McCLELLAN: This is a question relating to an ongoing investigation, and we're not having any further comment on the investigation while it's ongoing. That is on all questions relating to the investigation.

QUESTION: But that isn't really a question about the investigation.

SCOTT McCLELLAN: It relates to the whole issue that the special prosecutor is investigating, or looking into.

QUESTION: Well, it relates to the truthfulness of the Vice President with the American public, too, doesn't it?

SCOTT McCLELLAN: Terry, I think you're prejudging things and speculating. And we're not going to prejudge or speculate about things.

QUESTION: Does the President have confidence in the Vice President?

QUESTION: Does the President have confidence in the Vice President?

SCOTT McCLELLAN: The Vice President is doing a great job as a member of this administration and the President appreciates all that he is doing.

Heckuva job.

Very explosive news out of Italy today on the Niger/uranium front. More soon.

Cheney, September 14th, 2003 ...

MR. RUSSERT: Now, Ambassador Joe Wilson, a year before that, was sent over by the CIA because you raised the question about uranium from Africa. He says he came back from Niger and said that, in fact, he could not find any documentation that, in fact, Niger had sent uranium to Iraq or engaged in that activity and reported it back to the proper channels. Were you briefed on his findings in February, March of 2002?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: No. I don’t know Joe Wilson. I’ve never met Joe Wilson. A question had arisen. I’d heard a report that the Iraqis had been trying to acquire uranium in Africa, Niger in particular. I get a daily brief on my own each day before I meet with the president to go through the intel. And I ask lots of question. One of the questions I asked at that particular time about this, I said, “What do we know about this?” They take the question. He came back within a day or two and said, “This is all we know. There’s a lot we don’t know,” end of statement. And Joe Wilson—I don’t who sent Joe Wilson. He never submitted a report that I ever saw when he came back.

I guess the intriguing thing, Tim, on the whole thing, this question of whether or not the Iraqis were trying to acquire uranium in Africa. In the British report, this week, the Committee of the British Parliament, which just spent 90 days investigating all of this, revalidated their British claim that Saddam was, in fact, trying to acquire uranium in Africa. What was in the State of the Union speech and what was in the original British White papers. So there may be difference of opinion there. I don’t know what the truth is on the ground with respect to that, but I guess—like I say, I don’t know Mr. Wilson. I probably shouldn’t judge him. I have no idea who hired him and it never came...


VICE PRES. CHENEY: Who in the CIA, I don’t know.

This would have been three and a half months after Cheney reportedly received a detailed briefing on just what had happened from George Tenet.

Reading over Larry Johnson's thoughts on the Times article about Libby and Cheney, I agree that it's quite unlikely that George Tenet would just have happened to mention Joe Wilson's wife's role at the CIA or her possible connection to the decision to send him on the trip to Niger.

Indeed, the Times article itself says (emphasis added) "Mr. Libby’s notes indicate that Mr. Cheney had gotten his information about Ms. Wilson from George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, in response to questions from the vice president about Mr. Wilson."

The Times article reports that the Libby notes, which record these details, are from June 12th, 2003. Thus, presumably, though we can't say definitively, the Cheney-Tenet conversation occurred only a short time earlier.

I say this because this was big time information for Cheney; and he and Libby are in pretty constant contact. Libby would likely have been the first person Cheney told. So let's say that it's quite likely, though not certain, that the Cheney-Tenet conversation occurred on the 11th or 12th of June, 2003.

The veep gets a regular CIA briefing. He can ask questions and he gets answers back. After all, that's supposedly how we got into this mess in the first place. But the DCI doesn't come back in person and talk to the vice president unless it's a very, very big deal. Or, unless the vice president went to him directly.

I'd be curious to hear from folks with some experience of protocols in such cases, to refine these points above. But this Times article leaves me very curious to learn what action Cheney took that led to that conversation with Tenet.

That's a key part of this story.

There seems to have been some unclarity on this point. So let me follow up on the previous post about the article in today's Repubblica. Repubblica, apparently, now says that the motive behind the forgeries was money. Certainly, individual players did their part for cash. But the question is, what were the aims of those who organized the whole plot, the whole hoax? Who hatched the plan? Given the history of the case and all my reporting on it, I find highly implausible the claim that those people were motivated by financial gain alone. But for the governments involved, it is a convenient theory since it walls the act off from larger political implications.

Interesting news out of Italy.

I'm told Monday's edition of the Italian daily La Repubblica has an article on Niger forgeries. And this one says the culprits are Rocco Martino, the Italian woman who works in the Niger embassy in Rome and the SISMI operative Martino named as his ultimate source. The motive, says Repubblica, was money.

I've never named the SISMI colonel whom Martino said he (indirectly) got the documents from. But now Repubblica has. So I will too: his name is Antonio Nucera.

(You see I've linked the story above. I haven't read the Italian original. I've only had the contents related to me. So let me put that small caveat to the entire post.)

My experience with this case, going back almost two years now, is that whenever damaging new information was about to come out on the forgery mystery, the Italian government-cum-intelligence agencies put out substantial new information about what happened mixed with disinformation aimed at throwing people off their trail. And when I say 'their trail', I mean the complicity of Italian intelligence in the documents hoax itself.

This fits in very well with that pattern.

Could this latest story be true? Anything could be. But I'd be highly, highly skeptical.

What I can confirm is that Antonio Nucera, the SISMI colonel, was the SISMI operative whom Martino identified from beginning as the source of the documents.

More shortly.

There's another part of Martin Walker's article I should note ...

There is one line of inquiry with an American connection that Fitzgerald would have found it difficult to ignore. This is the claim that a mid-ranking Pentagon official, Larry Franklin, held talks with some Italian intelligence and defense officials in Rome in late 2001. Franklin has since been arrested on charges of passing classified information to staff of the pro-Israel lobby group, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee. Franklin has reportedly reached a plea bargain with his prosecutor, Paul McNulty, and it would be odd if McNulty and Fitzgerald had not conferred to see if their inquiries connected.

I reported on these meetings for much of last year. And to my knowledge the most detailed account, particularly of the US government's knowledge of the meetings and reactions is in this article I wrote with two colleagues at the Washington Monthly.

US government cables showed an on-going tussle between different parts of the executive branch with the CIA and the State Department repeatedly pressing the White House, specifically then Deputy National Security Advisor Steve Hadley, to take some action over the meetings Michael Ledeen was then organizing in Rome with members of Italian intelligence, Pentagon employees working under Doug Feith and various Middle Eastern exile groups.

See the piece for more details.

Okay, there's clearly something to this. Martin Walker of UPI is now reporting that ...

that NATO sources have confirmed to United Press International that Fitzgerald's team of investigators has sought and obtained documentation on the forgeries from the Italian government. Fitzgerald's team has been given the full, and as yet unpublished report of the Italian parliamentary inquiry into the affair, which started when an Italian journalist obtained documents that appeared to show officials of the government of Niger helping to supply the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein with Yellowcake uranium. This claim, which made its way into President Bush's State of the Union address in January, 2003, was based on falsified documents from Niger and was later withdrawn by the White House.

Now, some of you have pointed out in your emails that this is the Moonie UPI and don't know what to think of it on that basis. But whatever you think of UPI, Martin Walker is Martin Walker and he brings his own credibility with him.

So what is this Italian report? A blockbuster dossier or a cursory recitation of known facts? Unlike some other recent reports, Walker doesn't say. Fitzgerald's interest in obtaining such a dossier is big news in itself certainly, whatever specifics might have been obtained. But what's in it? What might Fitzgerald have discovered?

My reporting on this from Italian sources has always suggested that the Italian government had been much, much less than aggressive in its pursuit of the facts in this story. Certainly, that was the case with the separate judicial inquiry in Rome.

An even more interesting question is how the Italians might have dealt with what they found since at least some factions within SISMI, Italian military intelligence, are almost certainly implicated in the documents affair.

Rocco Martino is the Italian 'security consultant' who attempted to sell the documents to journalist Elisabetta Burba in October of 2002. When I interviewed Martino in New York last year he named a SISMI colonel and a female Italian national who works at the Nigerien embassy in Rome as his sources for the documents. The SISMI colonel proved, shall we say, unwilling to be interviewed. But in a separate interview the woman, who is herself a longtime SISMI asset, eventually conceded her role in the transaction.

More to come later.

Blind pol walking, from the Post: "Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) was given considerable information about his stake in his family's hospital company, according to records that are at odds with his past statements that he did not know what was in his stock holdings. Managers of the trusts that Frist once described as "totally blind," regularly informed him when they added new shares of HCA Inc. or other assets to his holdings, according to the documents."