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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Is he kidding? Here's a clip from John Lumpkin's Wednesday evening AP story ...

Rumsfeld, in a terse exchange with Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., said he learned only "within recent days" that the Africa claims were based on faulty evidence. U.N. officials determined the documents were forgeries before the war.

I guess it depends on what the definition of 'recent' is.

It's been widely known since at least March 8th that the evidence in question was 'faulty'. The US turned over the evidence to IAEA. The IAEA quickly determined they were forgeries and announced its findings publicly. What's more, from the beginning, the US government made it clear that it did not dispute the Agency's findings. The understanding was that the US had got taken in by some forged documents, was a bit embarrassed, but didn't want to dwell on it. A week later, according to an article in the Washington Post (March 13th, 2003, pg. A17.), the FBI began a preliminary investigation into who might have forged the documents -- a fact I figure we can take as prima facie evidence that the US government thought the evidence was 'faulty'.

Whatever the ins and outs of it, everyone has known the documents were bogus for at least four months. (If you were a cabinet secretary in the Bush administration and a member of the National Security Council, let's just say there's some possibility you might have known even before that.)

Even if you take the most innocent possible explanation of how the Niger-uranium docs got into the State of the Union address, Rumsfeld's comments can't possibly be true can they?

Tim, this counts as a whopper, doesn't it?

Or is he already over his quota?

It's usually a bad sign when a criminal defendant has half a dozen defenses against the same charge. You know the drill: I couldn't have been there. I have an alibi. But if I was there I didn't have my glasses. And if I did have my glasses, then I saw someone else do it. And if I did it, well, let me tell you what happened to me when I was three ...

Needless to say, this brings us to Mr. Ari Fleischer.

An alert reader just brought Richard Stevenson's article in the Times' today to my attention -- and in particular this quote ...

But Mr. Fleischer said Mr. Wilson's report was vague and did not specifically address the main problem with the intelligence, that documents purporting to document Iraq's efforts were almost certainly forged.

"He spent eight days in Niger and concluded that Niger denied the allegation," Mr. Fleischer said. "Well, typically nations don't admit to going around nuclear nonproliferation."

Let's take this one step at a time.

First of all, Fleischer is lying. Wilson didn't conclude that Niger "denied the allegation." He concluded, after investigating the allegations from a number of vantage points, that the purported sale was close to impossible, or at least quite unlikely. The reasoning turned on the structure of Niger's uranium consortium, how the uranium is accounted for, and how much Iraq was alleged to have purchased. (Why Stevenson didn't note this, shall we say, 'discrepancy' I have no idea.)

Fleischer is lying -- there's no other way to describe it -- about what Wilson's report said to make it seem less significant than it was. (If Fleischer had said Wilson's reasoning was flawed or his investigation incomplete, then you could say he was spinning or distorting. But saying he said something completely different from what he said means he's lying.) He's making it seem less significant than it was to make it appear less culpable that the White House ignored his findings. But the White House's story is that it never heard about his findings. So why the need to discredit his report?

The answer is obvious. They're trying to set up multiple lines of defense.

We didn't hear about it. But if we did hear about it, it didn't amount to much so we ignored it.

Let's have one defense and stick with it, okay?

I had planned on publishing part two of TPM's interview with Kenneth Pollack at the end of this week. But the first couple questions in that second part deal with the controversy surrounding those bogus Niger uranium documents. And with that story seeming to catch some fire in the last couple days, I'm going to go ahead and post that part of the interview this afternoon. The rest of part two of the interview will follow later this week.

Keep in mind that this back and forth took place at the beginning of last week, before the revelations of the last few days ...

TPM: Let me ask you one more question on this front before we move to the post-war part … this question of these uranium sale documents. There've been three or four fairly heavily reported pieces on this --- there's Nick Kristof's piece, there's one in The New Republic, a few electronic media reports. And I think in toto, they make a pretty decent circumstantial case that either principals in the administration must have known about this CIA report or that if they didn't then you have a breakdown in communications that is the kind of thing that people get fired over. It's hard to see that that information wouldn't have gotten to the Vice President or to Condi Rice or something like that. What's your sense of that?

Pollack: Yeah, it is the most interesting thing out there because if it turns out to be true in the sense that Sy Hersch has suggested, and that Nick Kristof is trying to prove, I think it really is a damning indictment of the administration. What I'll say is that people from inside the administration have been trying very hard to convince me that in fact it's not nearly as bad as suggested. And, you know, they have some interesting points. What they basically say is, look, you know, the vice-president's office did find out but the timing isn't the way that you've got it. And in fact when they found out that it was forged that's what led to its being yanked from Colin Powell's presentation. But simultaneously the speechwriter for the State of the Union address had just gone to the earlier, to the British report basically and pulled it from the British report. And they make the point --- and they're absolutely right about this --- which is that no one saw the State of the Union.

TPM: Wouldn't the vice-president, the vice-president has to see the State of the Union.

Pollack: You would be, the vice-president may have. But the vice-president may not have known the information. It doesn't necessarily go to the staff. And I think that people really would be struck or be really stunned at how few people see the State of the Union address. That actually does ring true for me. Again, this is all unsubstantiated. Even there, I think that you could make the case that, well, alright, if they did find out later on that it was a forgery, shouldn't they have gone out and said … ladies and gentlemen of the American public and the world we actually told you something that was incorrect. We talked about this uranium from Niger … we've now found that the information was forged.

If that's true, which is the version that the administration is telling me, I think that that's still an indictment. But it's obviously not nearly as bad as if they knew about it and purposely let this stuff go out knowing that it was forged. That's kind of a longwinded way of saying at the moment I think the jury is still out.

It certainly looks bad any way you slice it. Certainly there are people at CIA who seem to have known about this long in advance. And it's just unclear exactly how they disseminated that information. But in deference to my old friends at CIA --- and I don't mean to be apologetic for them --- they were in a position where they felt so beaten down by this administration that I don't think they were feeling terribly charitable. And I think that to any low-level CIA officer, the idea of going out, kind of out of channels to say, hey, this big story that you guys thought you had on Niger uranium, it's false. You know, I think by that point in time they just felt like if I do that those guys in OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense] are going to beat the hell out of me. And why do I need this?

And this is kind of part of the larger picture out there. We're focused on these specific details and there's a reason for that. Because if you can make the case stick on the Niger uranium then you've got a really damning indictment, as I've said. But I think the truth of the matter is that the larger problem was just this more general day-to-day of beating up the Agency for any assessments that weren't sufficiently alarmist. And, again, not doing anything illegal, just making the lives of the analysts so miserable that they didn't want to keep writing this kind of stuff while simultaneously cherry picking intelligence to try to put together the most alarming case you could in this shop over at the Pentagon and using that as an alternative set of analyses that was given just as much --- what's the word I'm looking for? --- attention and credibility as what the CIA and the other intelligence agencies were coming up with in these high-level meetings.

More on this soon.

Oh, Rick! Every good defense attorney knows that you need to make sure you've got a handle on the facts in evidence before you come up with your cover story. We all know that, right? Yesterday, Senator Rick Santorum said the following to The New York Times ...

Obviously, when you use foreign intelligence, you — we don't have necessarily as much confidence or as much reliability as you do your own. It has since turned out to be, at least according to the reports that have been just released, not true. The president stepped forward and said so. I think that's all you can expect.
Now, I'm all for buying only bona-fide Made-in-the-USA product. But there's a bit of a problem with Santorum's angle on this controversy. According to what we currently know, the White House preferred British intelligence to American intelligence. In fact, according to reporting by NPR's Tom Gjelten (noted in yesterday's post below), the White House had American intelligence that said one thing (no, Niger uranium) and British intelligence that said something else (yes, Niger uranium). And the White House went with the British intelligence because it was more helpful in making the White House's case.

We'll leave aside for the moment the fact that the White House almost certainly knew that the Brits' intelligence was based on the same bogus documents the CIA had already concluded were fakes.

It just goes to show, you're always better off buying American. Especially if you're a politician.

The most interesting bit of reporting I've seen today on the White House's concession about the fraudulence of the Niger-uranium documents comes at the tail end of a wire story from Reuters ...

A U.S. intelligence official said [Joseph] Wilson was sent to investigate the Niger reports by mid-level CIA officers, not by top-level Bush administration officials. There is no record of his report being flagged to top level officials, the intelligence official said.

"He is placing far greater significance on his visit than anyone in the U.S. government at the time it was made," the official said, referring to Wilson's New York Times article.

The message here seems pretty clear: Joseph who? Wilson, this 'intelligence official' is saying, is some small-time operator who got sent to Niger by some mid-level functionaries at the CIA. All the people who counted had no idea he'd even gone on his trip. And they certainly didn't know about his vaunted report.

Now, I wouldn't be being very straight with you if I didn't start by saying that I don't find this claim particularly credible. But could this be true?

Let's run through what we know.

Wilson has said repeatedly that he was sent to Niger because, as he wrote in the Times, "Vice President Dick Cheney's office had questions about a particular intelligence report."

Now, note the difference in what's being said here. No one, let alone Wilson, has claimed that any "top-level Bush administration officials" sent him on his investigatory trip. What he and others have said is that CIA officials sent him out, because they were following up on a request from the Office of the Vice President (OVP) to look into the Niger-uranium allegations.

So to start with you can say that the 'intelligence official's' statement amounts to a sort of non-denial denial. But what about the broader question? Was the whole effort triggered by an inquiry from the OVP or not?

Wilson says yes. And presumably he's basing this on some knowledge of the situation. Nick Kristof said the same thing in his June 13th column in the Times, though it's possible that Wilson was his source. But if there's a factual dispute here, let's find out. Is Wilson's description of the OVP's involvement accurate? In particular, did the OVP get Wilson's eventual report? I think this is something a good investigative reporter with juice should be able to resolve for us pretty quickly. So, again, let's find out.

And there's another problem with the 'intelligence official's' angle. Let's say this was just something Joseph Wilson and a few of his buddies at the CIA knew about. And no one at the White House found out about it. Even if that's true, he's not the only person nor is the CIA the only agency, for that matter, that came to this conclusion.

Greg Thielmann recently left the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, State's intelligence bureau. He says that I&R independently came to the same conclusion as Wilson about the Niger story. And he told Kristof -- again in the June 13th column -- that he was "quite confident" that that judgment had been passed all the way up the chain of command at State.

Kristof threw in this line for good measure ...

"It was well known throughout the intelligence community that it was a forgery," said Melvin Goodman, a former C.I.A. analyst who is now at the Center for International Policy.
What I think we can draw from this is that there were multiple agencies in the national security bureaucracy that had judged the Niger information to be bogus. Perhaps none of them were passed on to high-level administration officials. But the more and more widely the documents' bogusity, shall we say, was known throughout the government, the less credible it is that the whole top level of the executive branch was out of the loop on what everyone else seemed to know.

Then you have the biggest problem, as I see it at least, with this argument.

The White House seemed to go to great lengths to find some outside authority to base its uranium sales claims on. The State of the Union speech ended up basing the claim on what the Brits had said.

In fact, according to one report by NPR's Tom Gjelten, this is exactly what happened: they used the Brits as cover because their own intelligence people were telling them the story was bogus. You can hear Gjelten's report here. But here's my summary of it from a recent column in The Hill ...

On June 19th, NPR’s Tom Gjelten added yet another piece to the puzzle. Apparently the intelligence folks even made their concerns known during the writing of the speech. “Earlier versions of the president’s speech did not cite British sources,” a senior intelligence official told Gjelten. “They were more definitive and we objected.”

At that point, according to Gjelten’s source, “White House officials” said “‘Why don’t we say the British say this?’”

The White House disputes Gjelten’s source’s account. But the upshot of the source’s accusation is pretty damning. If true, the White House really wanted to put the Niger uranium story in the speech. But faced with their own intelligence experts telling them the story was probably bogus, they decided to hang their allegation on the dossier the British had released last September.

Now, even if we discount Gjelten's report, it does seem like the White House knew it would be nice to have some other support for their claims about Iraqi uranium purchases and that there were some reasons for concern about their own 'evidence.' Their own actions seems to show they suspected something was wrong.

So I don't think dumping on Wilson, which seems to be the White House's preferred strategy now, is going to cut it. But in each of these cases, let's find out. If Wilson and Thielmann are fibbing let's expose them. And if their superiors are playing fast and loose with the truth, let's find that out too. Let the chips fall where they may.

Some military jets are equipped with the ability to toss off a cluster of flares in mid-flight to throw off heat-seeking missiles. I think that's what Ari Fleischer and the White House were doing yesterday when they admitted that the president's State of the Union claims about Iraq buying uranium in Africa were wrong.

Yesterday, I posted portions of Fleischer's remarks from Monday morning's press gaggle in which he got awkwardly tripped up in questioning about the Niger-uranium issue and promised a definitive answer later in the day.

That statement went out in dribs and drabs overnight and the Times and the Post have stories on it on their websites today.

But let's look at what the White House is saying. In essence, they're saying that the Niger documents were forgeries. But then, we already knew that. Indeed, the White House has conceded this for months. Sometimes publicly; sometimes privately. Here's what they're saying now, according to the Post: "Knowing all that we know now the reference to Iraq's attempt to acquire uranium from Africa should not have been included in the State of the Union speech."

But, of course, the real issue is that there is at least very strong circumstantial evidence that knowing what they knew then, the Uranium hocum never should have been put into the speech either. This is a classic case of trying to jump out ahead of a story by conceding a point that no one is actually disputing in the first place.

Now, there is one small admission here that's worth noting. Up until now, the White House has often implied that, though Niger-uranium documents were bogus, there was other intelligence that justified the claims about uranium purchases in Africa. Last month, NSC spokesman Sean McCormack said: "Those documents were only one piece of evidence in a larger body of evidence suggesting that Iraq attempted to purchase uranium from Africa. The issue of Iraq's pursuit of uranium in Africa is supported by multiple sources of intelligence. The other sources of evidence did and do support the president's statement."

This was always one of the most intriguing elements of the White House's defense. Because they seemed to be referring to intelligence so top-secret and rarefied that they couldn't even share it with the CIA or other members of the intelligence community. It was so top-secret that only the president's speech writers had sufficiently high security clearances to see it. That was the story on some days. On others, the other intelligence seemed to be the 'dossier' published by the British -- which of course was based on the same bogus Niger documents.

Whatever the case, the 'other intelligence' line no longer seems to be operative.

According to the White House's statement last night, quoted in the Times: "There is other reporting to suggest that Iraq tried to obtain uranium from Africa. However, the information is not detailed or specific enough for us to be certain that attempts were in fact made." A "senior administration official" told the Post that there were "possible attempts" by Iraqis to buy uranium in Namibia and Gabon but that those reports "were all somewhat sketchy."

(I translate this roughly as: "It's not true that we had no other information. We had some. But it was information so fragmentary, questionable and meaningless that we'd really just as soon not go into it." Further translation: according to the distinct recollection of Ahmed Chalabi's brother's butler ...)

The new White House line leaves just as many unanswered questions as before. Did the White House know the CIA had reported that the story was bogus or not? If they didn't know there were problems with the Niger documents, why the big fuss about hanging the allegations on what the Brits said? And if they did know about the problems with the Niger documents, why use the Brits' report as a fig leaf, when their claims were based on the same Niger documents the CIA -- i.e., our lead intelligence agency -- had already decided were bogus? Who approved putting it in the speech in the first place and was that line run by intelligence officials or not?

Both the Times (David Sanger) and the Post (Walter Pincus) have stories on these latest developments today. But surprisingly, Pincus doesn't get into any of the obvious questions which the new White House line poses. Sanger's piece goes much further and asks a lot of those questions.

Maybe I shouldn't be surprised that Sanger's piece is more aggressive and incisive. He, after all, was the 'David' who Fleischer was sparring with in yesterday's interchange.

Okay, I have to confess. I came up a little short on the Niger-uranium exchange Ari Fleischer had this morning in the gaggle. I was going to come up with something clever to say about it or point out the merciless spinning. But it's so incomprehensible I couldn't manage it. So I'm just going to reproduce a portion of the transcript in its entirety.

Now keep in mind that one of the things the White House has said about the Niger-uranium issue is that even though the Niger documents were bogus, the White House had other evidence to support the president's claim. In other words, White House intelligence that was so top secret that it apparently couldn't be shared with the CIA either then or even now. In any case, let's go to the tape ...

Q: Can you give us the White House account of Ambassador Wilson's account of what happened when he went to Niger and investigated the suggestions that Niger was passing yellow cake to Iraq? I'm sure you saw the piece yesterday in The New York Times.

FLEISCHER: Well, there is zero, nada, nothing new here. Ambassador Wilson, other than the fact that now people know his name, has said all this before. But the fact of the matter is in his statements about the Vice President -- the Vice President's office did not request the mission to Niger. The Vice President's office was not informed of his mission and he was not aware of Mr. Wilson's mission until recent press accounts -- press reports accounted for it.

So this was something that the CIA undertook as part of their regular review of events, where they sent him. But they sent him on their own volition, and the Vice President's office did not request it. Now, we've long acknowledged -- and this is old news, we've said this repeatedly -- that the information on yellow cake did, indeed, turn out to be incorrect.

[Here there were questions unrelated to the Niger-uranium issue - tpm ed. note]

Q: I just want to take you back to your answer before, when you said you have long acknowledged that the information on yellow cake turned out to be incorrect. If I remember right, you only acknowledged the Niger part of it as being incorrect -- I think what the --

FLEISCHER: That's correct.

Q: I think what the President said during his State of the Union was he --

FLEISCHER: When I refer to yellow cake I refer to Niger. The question was on the context of Ambassador Wilson's mission.

Q: So are you saying the President's broader reference to Africa, which included other countries that were named in the NIE, were those also incorrect?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think the President's statement in the State of the Union was much broader than the Niger question.

Q: Is the President's statement correct?

FLEISCHER: I'm referring specifically to the Niger piece when I say that.

Q: Do you hold that the President -- when you look at the totality of the sentence that the President uttered that day on the subject, are you confident that he was correct?

FLEISCHER: Yes, I see nothing that goes broader that would indicate that there was no basis to the President's broader statement. But specifically on the yellow cake, the yellow cake for Niger, we've acknowledged that that information did turn out to be a forgery.

Q: The President's statement was accurate?

FLEISCHER: We see nothing that would dissuade us from the President's broader statement.

Q: Ari, that means that, indeed, you all believe that Saddam Hussein was trying to obtain uranium from an African nation; is that correct?

FLEISCHER: What the President said in his statement was that according to a British report they were trying to obtain uranium. When I answered the question it was, again, specifically about the Niger piece involving yellow cake.

Q: So you believe the British report that he was trying to obtain uranium from an African nation is true?

FLEISCHER: I'm sorry?

Q: If you're hanging on the British report, you believe that that British report was true, you have no reason to believe --

FLEISCHER: I'm sorry, I see what David is asking. Let me back up on that and explain the President's statement again, or the answer to it.

The President's statement was based on the predicate of the yellow cake from Niger. The President made a broad statement. So given the fact that the report on the yellow cake did not turn out to be accurate, that is reflective of the President's broader statement, David. So, yes, the President' broader statement was based and predicated on the yellow cake from Niger.

Q: So it was wrong?

FLEISCHER: That's what we've acknowledged with the information on --

Q: The President's statement at the State of the Union was incorrect?

FLEISCHER: Because it was based on the yellow cake from Niger.

Q: Well, wait a minute, but the explanation we've gotten before was it was based on Niger and the other African nations that have been named in the national intelligence --

FLEISCHER: But, again, the information on -- the President did not have that information prior to his giving the State of the Union.

Q: Which gets to the crux of what Ambassador Wilson is now alleging -- that he provided this information to the State Department and the CIA 11 months before the State of the Union and he is amazed that it, nonetheless, made it into the State of the Union address. He believes that that information was deliberately ignored by the White House. Your response to that?

FLEISCHER: And that's way, again, he's making the statement that -- he is saying that surely the Vice President must have known, or the White House must have known. And that's not the case, prior to the State of the Union.

Q: He's saying that surely people at the decision-making level within the NSC would have known the information which he -- passed on to both the State Department and the CIA.

FLEISCHER: And the information about the yellow cake and Niger was not specifically known prior to the State of the Union by the White House.

Q: What does that say about communications?

FLEISCHER: We've acknowledged that the information turned out to be bogus involving the report on the yellow cake. That is not new. You can go back. You can look it up. Dr. Rice has said it repeatedly. I've said it repeatedly. It's been said from this podium on the record, in several instances. It's been said to many of you in this room, specifically.

Q: But, Ari, even if you said that the Niger thing was wrong, the next line has usually been that the President's statement was deliberately broader than Niger, it referred to all of Africa. The national intelligence estimate discusses other countries in Africa that there were attempts to purchase yellow cake from, or other sources of uranium --

FLEISCHER: Let me do this, David. On your specific question I'm going to come back and post the specific answer on the broader statement on the speech.

When it's 'posted' we'll let you know.

Ari Fleischer apparently got himself in a mess this morning trying to explain what happened with the Niger-uranium documents. More on this soon when I get the transcript.

Am I overly suspicious? Or is Matt Drudge taking his, shall we say, talking points directly from Karl Rove? Or maybe from Karl Rove, via Ed Gillespie, long-time GOP operative, money-shoveler and incoming chairman of the RNC? Drudge has an over-the-fold headline this evening which claims that there's some sort of super smackdown brewing between Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean and DNC Chair Terry McAuliffe.

For all I know the two may hate each other, I have no idea. Dean has pissed a bunch of people off in DC.

But look at the key quote in Drudge's 'story' about Dean's alleged intention to fire McAuliffe.

"We'll make a change there immediately [after the New Hampshire primary]," a top Dean source said of the DNC leadership. "I think it is important, as does Howard, to mark a new beginning, cut ties from the past."
This 'quotation' suggests a pretty short list of possibilities. Either people in the Dean campaign are incredible morons or this is a bogus quote.

Why?

How exactly is Dean going to clean house after -- presumably -- winning the New Hampshire primary? Even though a presidential nominee controls the party apparatus after he gets the nomination, there are a number of reasons why they seldom install their own chairman at the DNC before even winning the presidency. But they certainly don't -- or rather can't -- fire the chairman of the party during the middle of the primary campaign.

Why?

Basically for the same reasons that I've so far refrained from firing New York Times Executive Editor Joe Lelyveld or the fact checker of Ann Coulter's ridiculous new book Treason (of which we'll be saying more soon): because I can't.

Who really gave Drudge that 'quote'?

Early last week I sat down with Ken Pollack in his office at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC for an hour-long interview on Iraq, weapons of mass destruction, and the current state of the US-sponsored rebuilding and democracy-building effort.

Pollack is the author of The Threatening Storm. And, as regular TPM readers will remember, this is a follow-up to an earlier interview we conducted with Pollack late last January -- about six weeks before the start of the war.

We'll be publishing this interview in three parts. The following is part one, which covers the state of the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as of June 30th, 2003.

TPM: I want to do this chronologically, starting with things that came before the war and ending with things looking forward. I guess my first question and the question that a lot of people are wondering about now is not 'why haven't we found ten nuclear weapons?' but 'why haven't we found even some stuff on the chemical or biological front?'

Pollack: I think there are two different answers to that. I think the first question is, why haven't we found more of the production capabilities? I think we now have good evidence that indicates that the Iraqis were holding on to a production capability. That centrifuge that was discovered last week and the plans to reconstitute the program are the best evidence we have of what was always believed, which was that the Iraqis at the very least were holding on to the ability to start manufacturing stuff when Saddam gave the word.

In the case of the chemical and biological stuff that seems to have taken two forms. First on the biological side there were the mobile trailers. And I will say that my expectation is that when a judgment is finally rendered on these two trailers that my guess is that we're going to find that they were biological warfare trailers. A) The counter-explanations that people have offered are kind of absurd on the face of them - the hydrogen balloons explanation really doesn't hold a lot of water, or air, as you may see fit. The idea that these were for rocket fuel? Possible. But again, seems unlikely, and that would be prohibited as well. That would be part of maintaining a prohibited production capability.

On the chemical side, it's just unclear what if anything else we're going to find. Our understanding from a whole variety of things including the specifications of the plants themselves, as we saw them constructed, was that the Iraqis were building pharmaceutical plants which were dual-use. Well, if the facilities are dual-use and it's a facility that can be relatively quickly transitioned into making prohibited chemicals, you don't need anything else. You don't need a biological facility, you don't really need anything beyond that.

On the missiles, we just don't know. I think it's pretty clear that the Iraqis were using the Al Samoud and [inaudible] programs, in fact even the UN suspected as much, as that same kind of thing --- the ultimate production capability. On the nuclear side, the interesting question is whether there was anything beyond what we've so far learned from this one nuclear scientist, which is that they basically shelved the program and it went into hibernation and the expectation was that at some point in the future when Saddam felt that the sanctions were sufficiently lifted or eroded that he would reconstitute the program. It's still possible that there was a more active program going on. But that seems fairly unlikely at this point in time.

I think that the bottom line is that this stuff was all very difficult to find. Had that scientist not come forward and said "I've got this stuff buried in my backyard," we never would have found it. And again that goes to the point of just how difficult this stuff is to find, how hard it is to find.

The second issue is, why was there not a lot of stuff deployed? And there I think there is simply a mystery out there. Before the war I always believed that the Iraqis wouldn't have a whole lot of munitions lying around because that made no sense. As I said in the New York Times piece, the munitions degrade very quickly and they're very easy to produce. So you wouldn't want to have lots of them sitting around. That said, there were intelligence reports all through the spring of 2003 suggesting that the Iraqis were deploying actual [i.e. chemical] rounds with Republican Guard divisions …

TPM: Do you think it's possible, and this applies to what you're talking about now and also more broadly to the whole chemical and biological programs … that some of the intelligence may have been not just exaggerations but actual disinformation coming from the Iraqis. Do you think that's possible?

Pollack: It's possible and certainly the Iraqis were trying to mount a kind of deterrence campaign, saying that if you come into Iraq you will be hit very hard and very badly ... We saw clear aspects of that where you had unnamed Iraqi officials telling various Arab newspapers that if the United States came in that they'd be hit with chemical and biological weapons and that there'd be waves of terrorism (all things that were actually to be expected, were very predictable). And it is possible that some of the stuff that they were doing was intended to make us think that it was deployed - that weapons of mass destruction were deployed - when in fact they weren't.

You've seen other people speculate in the press that maybe what they were doing was not deploying the weapons but actually pulling them back for destruction. It's possible. You know, who knows? This is my point: it is a mystery, ultimately. It's a mystery to me why Saddam didn't fill the rounds, because as I said, while I didn't expect him to have lots of it sitting around, I did expect that at some point in time he would begin to think the Americans may actually invade and when that happened he would say, 'alright, you know what? Let's gin up a batch of this stuff, so if they do come in, we've got it waiting.' Because I never expected that he'd go without a fight.

He clearly didn't [do that]. And it is a mystery as to why, although the reports that are increasingly surfacing are that he believed to the last that we absolutely wouldn't come in and we moved on Baghdad much faster ... That was my fondest hope, that was my best case scenario, but I was pessimistic that we would actually be able to get that best case scenario. If we did, that is fantastic. And I am obviously delighted. But right now it's a mystery. And there's also this mystery about what happened with those intelligence reports. Was it Iraqi disinformation? Were they simply mistaken? Were we reading something that was inaccurate or were we getting defector reports that turned out to be inaccurate? That is clearly a mystery.

TPM: Let me ask you this. I guess people are saying this less now, three months out, than they were a couple weeks out, but what about the idea that it's a huge country and it's hard to unearth the stuff? On the other hand, we have, not everybody, but a lot of regime leaders in custody. I assume a lot of these are people who had government status but were also scientists ... And my premise or assumption has always been that we're using very big carrots and very bit sticks with these people. Someone should have squealed. It's one thing to have a latent brain-power capacity and a dual-use infrastructure that you could quickly move to making chemical or biological weapons. But it's another thing to have something a little more than that, to have a program where you're actually building up, etc., etc. It seems to me that if you have the latter, one of these people should have talked by now. Even if you're worried about Saddam, whatever, with a lot of people, someone should have said something. And I imagine that, especially with the political pressure now, we're offering the world to anybody that could take us to the stuff. Does that logic make sense to you?

Pollack. Yes, I think it is logical. I'll start by saying, I mean, I tend to agree with you, Josh. I also expected that at least some of the people that we have in custody would have started to speak. And that they would have revealed at least part of what was going on. That may in fact suggest that the programs weren't as far along or as aggressive or as big as was believed before the war. That's entirely possible and you cannot rule that out.

By the same token, there are several other alternative explanations. It may be that they are speaking and they're saying very interesting stuff and we just don't know about it yet. I note that I continue to hear all kinds of rumors from friends inside the government that there is in fact lots of interesting stuff floating out there. And it will surface fairly soon. That may be true.

TPM: I think David Kay said something like that a few days ago, even publicly.

Pollack: And it's also worth noting that on a number of these different issues the government's actually managed to keep it quiet for a number of weeks before it did leak out or was publicly put out. They had the first of the trailers for two weeks before they said anything. With the Iraqi scientist it was a week or two before that stuff came out. There's actually a bunch of stuff where you can say that they've actually sat on it for a period of time. And they've been able to successfully keep it secret. So it may be that some of these guys have said some very interesting stuff, maybe even some very revealing stuff, and the administration or - put it a better way - the government has done a good job of sitting on it. That may also be the case. Again, at this point in time other alternative explanations are still out there.

TPM: Do you think …

Pollack: Oh, one other point … One other alternative explanation, which is worth mentioning, is that I do know for a fact that the initial exploitation teams did a terrible job ... I've heard good stories from people on the inside about what the initial teams were looking at and what they overlooked. It was very clear that the initial teams really didn't know what they were doing. They seem to have been sent in and been told: find shells with VX nerve agent …

TPM: So they were sort of expecting literally armaments lying around as opposed to …

Pollack: Right. And they boxed up huge numbers of documents and simply shipped them off to Qatar without actually looking through them. So there is a lot of hope and expectation that there will be lots of information found in those documents. And then beyond that, my understanding is that the initial debriefings of the Iraqis, which were conducted by military debriefers, were also considered very poor. These were military debriefers who were looking for military types of information. And they do it in a manner and style that is consistent with on-going military operations. And they've just recently turned those over to CIA debriefers. So the third alternative explanation is that it may just be that we did a rotten job looking for the stuff early on because we came in expecting to find it lying all over the place, which, again, if you'd thought about it for 30 seconds you'd realize that was almost certainly not the case. Because if it was lying all over the place, the inspectors would have found it.

TPM: Moving from the technical and intelligence side to the political side in the lead-up to the war, let's say hypothetically that each of these programs was in a state in some sense similar to where the nuclear program seems to have been. In other words, there was an effort to keep the intellectual infrastructure in place, and at least some of the hardware infrastructure in place for that day when the political climate would be such that you could ramp up. And maybe with chemicals it would be different because you could have factories that were dual-use, and so forth. I mean, that is certainly different from what the administration was saying in the six months prior to the war. And in retrospect I think it would be hard to argue that we had to do this in the Spring of 2003 if what we were talking about was Iraq's medium to long-term ambition to get back into the WMD business.

Pollack: Yeah. I'd put it this way. I'd go even further. If - if - the nuclear program was exactly as you describe it ... that the program was basically dormant. Yes, they had the plans, some elements of the physical base to do it, and certainly they had the know-how to restart the program. But they didn't even have some kind of centrifuge facility going somewhere. Not only is that a far-cry from what the administration was implying but it didn't even really match up with the intelligence estimates.

I'm not a technical expert and I need to be very careful about that. But I am struck by the fact that what all the technical experts were saying to me, and to others like me, was that they thought that in the period between 1998 and 2002 the Iraqis did have some kind of clandestine centrifuge facility up and running and that they were probably working on enriching stuff even as we were speaking. This seems to be what led to their estimates that the Iraqis were probably somewhere on the order of five years, maybe as little as two or three years away from having a nuclear weapon. It was all based on the assumption that the Iraqis had restarted the program in 1998. And there were reports that this had been the case. But that doesn't seem to be the case …

TPM: Was this an inferential judgment? If you take aside everything we know from April 1st --- ironically --- onward, that makes sense to me. What I was struck with in the Obeidi [interview], though, was that he said that they had it on ice. And I was thinking, 'Why didn't they have him dig that stuff up in 1998?' That's sort of a mystery to me. But go ahead …

Pollack: I agree. It's another one of those mysteries where we've got to get inside Saddam Hussein's head and figure out what was this guy thinking. With regard to the intelligence estimates, I don't really know exactly why they came to that. I know it was a combination of defector reporting [and] watching the Iraqis purchasing. We watched their clandestine purchasing and procurement network very carefully. And a variety of other intelligence. But in some cases there were defectors who saying flat out that they've restarted the program. And this was a consensus among the technical experts among the various intelligence communities, not just the United States, but among many of the European countries and in Israel as well.

What we've seen so far clearly isn't consistent with that. And I think that you're right. The biggest question it gets to is the timing of the war. Now I think it is fair to say that based on what the intelligence experts were saying it would have been fair for the Bush administration to say, "Alright, we don't have a lot of time here. We've got a period of years, not necessarily months. But we don't have forever. Because at some point in time he is going to get these things. And as Condi Rice once famously observed, "The smoking gun we may see may be a mushroom cloud."

By the same token, it's very clear that the evidence that we've found so far doesn't match up the with implied threat which the administration tried to create, which was that this was an imminent threat, that the Iraqis were very close to the acquiring the stuff or very close to giving the stuff to terrorist groups, that we could face an attack in the very near future. And that therefore the war had to be fought this year …

But in some ways it's unfair to use the evidence that we've found since April 1st against the administration, because that was unknown. All the administration really had to go on were the intelligence estimates. And that's why in my New York Times piece the point that I made was that, not that I felt that what we've found since was an indictment of the administration. As I say, it wasn't fair to hold the administration accountable for that because the fact is that the intelligence community did believe that there was an active program. What I think it is fair to hold against the administration is that they stressed continuously the imminence of a threat which in fact the intelligence community felt was much more distant. Even at the time, even before the war.

TPM: But that's a big difference.

Pollack: Oh, I agree. It's a very big difference. It's why my argument was that you have to do this sooner rather than later. But not immediately. And most importantly, and I think this was important for a lot of other moderate Republicans, Democrats, non-Americans, was that it meant that you had more time. And that you could do other things before you went to war. You could take the time to address the peace process before you went to war. You could take the time to build broad international support. You could take the time to wage the war on terrorism more aggressively. You didn't have to go right after Iraq. There was time available to go after all of these other issues. You could also take the time to do a better job in terms of post-war planning. So that you didn't have to rush into this thing. You could have taken the time to prepare the ground work for the war. So that when it happens it would have gone more smoothly and had fewer repercussions.

TPM: Does it sound accurate to say that the intelligence consensus - in our intelligence community and in others - was that maybe this was, say a 6, on the threat scale. The administration was saying that it was more like a 9 or higher. But it's possible that it may end up that it was more like a 3, in terms of the 24 month threat window. Whether those numbers are exactly right or not, the point is that it's not like the CIA was saying we were going to find what we've found so far. They were off the mark in some ways too. But the administration was making a more maximal argument than they were as well.

Pollack: I certainly think the way you're setting it up is right. I'd quibble with the numbers. And here let me make a bigger point, which is that I think people are getting really hung up on this issue of the weapons. I think it's an interesting question; it's a mystery; it's clearly one that the intelligence community seems to have gotten wrong. But with weapons of mass destruction - and I'm using that in the broadest sense of the word - not having the physical shells, the physical filled rounds, or missile warheads isn't terribly important because the stuff is so easy to make, that if you've got the production capability you can make the munitions up in short order. So that the fact that we didn't find 10,000 VX rounds is an interesting mystery to me and it says, it makes me ask some questions about what the intelligence was seeing. But I don't see that as necessarily being an order of magnitude off of what the intelligence [community] thought before the war.

My quibble here is with your 6 versus 3. You know, it may have been a 5. But you're certainly right that it wasn't the 9 that the administration was claiming it to be. The one other thing that I would add is that in every case it was I think a 5 going up, increasing over time. And the big interesting issue now is 'how much time?' And we may find after the war that it was increasing much slower. So maybe I'm right. Maybe it was a 5, but it wasn't going up as quickly as the intelligence, the technical experts, believed before the war. So even if it wasn't the 6 we believed it was ... or a 6 that we expected to be a 9 in five years, maybe it was a 5 that wouldn't get to be a 9 for ten years.

Part two of the interview, where we get into the question of the Niger-uranium transfer documents and what's happening in Iraq today, will follow later next week.

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