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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

This may be a sign of things to come. John R. Bolton, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, is one of the Bush administration's most hawkish hawks. Last year he caused a stir by claiming Cuba was developing biological weapons. He's also nearly blown the lid off northeast Asia a few times since he's been in office.

Bolton is generally understood to be the neo-cons' minder and advanced scout over in the wilds of the State Department.

In any case, he was slated to testify before a House International Relations Committee subcommittee Tuesday morning. But his testimony was cancelled at the last minute and then postponed until September. Bolton is something of a WMD maximalist. And when I heard about the cancelation Tuesday morning I was told it was because the White House had decided it didn't want to send him up to the Hill to face questions which would inevitably turn to Iraq and the intel iffiness.

According to this Knight Ridder article, that was clearly part of the issue. But there seems to have been more to it than that.

According to the article, Bolton was prepared to tell the subcommittee that "Syria's development of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons had progressed to such a point that they posed a threat to stability in the region." Sound familiar? Apparently it did to many at the CIA and other US intelligence agencies because they flew into something close to full revolt. Clearly, the career people in the intel community are feeling emboldened by the White House's recent Iraq embarrassments. The CIA alone compiled a list of "objections and comments" to Bolton's proposed testimony which ran more than 35 pages.

Is the Agency coming around on 'regime change' after all?

Day after day we see more and more quotes from administration officials ducking the blame for their actions with excuses that don't even pass the laugh test.

Recently, Ken Pollack told TPM: "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."

Now we're told, by some "senior administration official," that the White House is pissed that the CIA would have saddled them with such thin and needlessly alarmist material as the Niger uranium allegations. This from Wednesday's New York Times, discussing the warnings George Tenet gave Condi Rice's deputy Stephen Hadley about the problems with the Niger uranium charges and why they should be kept out of his Cincinnati speech ...

The warning, administration officials said, came in several phone calls to the deputy national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley.

Mr. Tenet told Mr. Hadley that the C.I.A. was not sure about the credibility of the information.

The White House, asked tonight whether Mr. Hadley had read the National Intelligence Estimate before Mr. Tenet warned him that the section on Niger might be unreliable, declined to comment. But one administration official said that it appeared that Mr. Hadley had not read the report before he spoke with Mr. Tenet, or finished reviewing the Cincinnati speech.

While that call was disclosed last weekend, White House officials were asking today why the information about uranium from Niger had been published in the intelligence estimate at all. The White House has said repeatedly over the past eight days that the estimate was one of the reports that they relied upon as evidence that Iraq had a global program to get an atomic weapon in the president's State of the Union speech.

"This report was supposed to be the gold standard of our intelligence about Iraq," said one senior administration official. Asked why the agency backed away from it days after it was circulated, the official replied, "Who knows?"

C.I.A. officials explain the discrepancy by saying that classified intelligence reports sometimes include information that does not necessarily rise to the level of certainty required of a public address by the president. The report contained a footnote that made clear that there were doubts at the State Department about the uranium evidence.

"It's one thing to have information in a classified document with caveats and footnotes, and another to have the president flatly assert something," an intelligence official said.

Now, I think we do need to know more about just what was in the NIE and why it was there. But however it got there, one would really think that Tenet's subsequent, and apparently repeated, attempts to warn the White House off the allegations would have been sufficient to settle the problem. I mean, even if you assume that the CIA included a wildly inflammatory and utterly unsubstantiated report in the NIE, a follow-up call from Tenet saying, "You know, we're really not so sure about that Niger uranium stuff; don't use it" really should have put an end to it, right?

What's very important to keep in mind here is that Hadley is not just some staffer at NSC. He's Rice's deputy -- the equivalent of Armitage at State or Wolfowitz at the Pentagon. There's just no way that anything Tenet told him should have or really even could have gotten lost in the mix.

Now, here's another point worth considering. And consider it in relation to Pollack's comments noted above.

Later on in the Times article there's some discussion of the fact that the NIE was put together on a rush basis, and that this may have played a role in problems in what was included and what wasn't. But there's also some key information about what the NIE was and why it was prepared.

Intelligence officials have also said that the intelligence estimate, which provided an overview assessment of the status of Iraq's programs to develop weapons of mass destruction, was put together hastily and only at the request of Senate Democrats, who wanted to see the report before they voted on a war resolution. [emphasis added, ed.]
Is it possible that the issue here wasn't just one of haste?

As Pollack's notes -- and virtually everyone else says off the record -- the CIA was under intense pressure to produce, well, let's say, good stuff -- material that was, to use Pollack's words, "sufficiently alarmist." I don't think it's unreasonable to assume that that pressure would have been at its greatest when it came time to producing intelligence assessments and dossiers for members of congress who were going to vote on the Iraq war resolution. We know there was an intense battle within the CIA, not only over disagreements over substance, but also between different officials who wanted to bend either more or less in the White House's direction. Is it possible that that pressure got some things into the NIE that really probably shouldn't have been there, but that when it came to making public allegations -- as in the president's October speech -- that seemed like maybe a step too far?

That's by no means the only interpretation. The point made by the intelligence official quoted above (that you'd include shaky intelligence in a classified document that wouldn't be fit for public consumption) makes a lot of sense to me. But perhaps this other possibility is one we should consider.

Sometimes a reader writes in with a letter of such transcendent comedic value that I've just got to share it with you.

Josh,

I would like you and your readers to keep open the possibility that the moon may in fact be made of cheese, or at least parts of it. The Apollo missions to the moon only covered a small fraction of the surface area of the moon, excluding large, unexamined areas that may in the future turn out to be made of cheese. Remember, absense of evidence doesn't mean absense of possibility.

-Paul S. [named omitted by editor]

Good point ...

Back in the day, Washington wags used to parse Bill Clinton's public utterances looking for various misstatements, lies, fibs, fudges, what have you.

Sometimes what they found was just nitpicking, or misstatements, in other cases they found trimming or fibs. I'll let you be the judge of how much they did or didn't find.

Now we have President George W. Bush.

And with each passing day it seems his public statements show not so much a pattern of lies as evidence that when he's not doing press availabilities he's living on some other planet. Misstatements are becoming so par for the course that his public pronouncements now seem more and more like a verbal equivalent of what the immortal David St. Hubbins once called a "a free-form jazz exploration" in which the individual words aren't supposed to distract us from the larger truth the president is trying to convey.

Look at the president's final remarks from his press opportunity with Kofi Annan yesterday ...

The larger point is, and the fundamental question is, did Saddam Hussein have a weapons program? And the answer is, absolutely. And we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power, along with other nations, so as to make sure he was not a threat to the United States and our friends and allies in the region.
I mean, where do you start with this?

As the well-worn line goes, I think it's too soon to say we know Saddam didn't have a WMD program. I thought he did. There was lots of evidence to suggest he had at least some chemical and biological weapons programs. And we're still actively looking. (Here's an interesting piece in the new New Republic about how and why he might not have.) But I think our inability thus far to find any clear evidence of a on-going chemical, biological or nuclear weapons program would seem to leave us at least a bit short of being "absolutely" certain that he had one. Am I nitpicking here?

Like the philandering husband, he seems to be asking us, "Who ya gonna believe? Me or your lying eyes?"

And remember when Saddam wouldn't let the inspectors in? I totally missed that one.

Look, you can certainly say that Saddam wasn't cooperating fully with the inspectors, that his people hadn't fully accounted for various chemical and biological munitions which the UN thought he had back in 1990s. Hans Blix said as much. It's true. But, c'mon, he let them in.

You hear this stuff and you say to yourself: "Well, you can kinda know what he meant, I guess."

I find myself thinking that. But even that doesn't cut it.

The disquieting fact is that these whoppers aren't even getting reported any more because it's become a given among reporters and editors that most of what the president is saying on this subject has little connection to anything that's actually going on. And the two keep diverging more and more. It's almost as if the shakier the evidence gets the more certain he becomes about what the evidence was supposed to prove.

Tom DeLay's plans to ram his redistricting plan through the Texas state senate just took what the Austin American-Statesman is calling a "direct, potentially fatal hit."

This is big news. And it comes because of the defection of a Republican state senator: State Senator Bill Ratliff.

It turns out that some Republicans in rural areas aren't willing to have their representation bollixed up just so Tom DeLay can pad his majority and stick an electoral shiv in the back of Marty Frost.

"One or two (senators) are coming back shaking their heads, saying even some of the conservative parts of West Texas are asking why are we doing this," Ratliff said a few days ago. "It's totally unacceptable. The people in Bowie County would wind up being represented by someone in Garland, and that's just one reason. It just obliterates the representation for my constituents in Congress."

Today, according to the Austin American Statesmen, he said he would "not be a part of the destruction of [Texas's tradition of bipartisanship] for the sake of a theoretical marginal partisan gain in the Texas congressional delegation."

I think you could say this guy just made an enemy of Tom DeLay.

Great moments in the passive voice ...

I think the bottom has been gotten to ...

No, we said it didn't rise to a Presidential level. That's what we've said, that in hindsight, we now realize it did not rise to a Presidential level. There is still -- it would be also erroneous for anybody to report that the information about whether or not Iraq sought uranium from Africa was wrong. No one can accurately tell you that it was wrong. That is not known.

Ari Fleischer
Final Gagglefest
July 14th, 2003
Onward and upward ...

Straight outta parseville, baby!

An interesting meditation on the newfound distinction between 'accurate' and 'true' in a back and forth this morning in Ari Fleischer's final press gaggle ...

Questioner: Does the President consider the whole Niger uranium story finished?

Fleischer: I think as far as the President is concerned, he's moved on. The President --

Questioner: What do you mean, "moved on"? That we shouldn't get to the bottom of it?

Fleischer: I think the bottom has been gotten to. The President has explained and said, and the Director of Central Agency has said --

Questioner: Who's to blame for the misinformation?

Fleischer: Well, I think everybody went through this last week, and you can refer to the statements that have been made on it.

Questioner: But there are some questions, Ari, that haven't been answered yet. Who, specifically, can you tell us, in the White House, asked for that line to be put in, given that this came out of the Cincinnati speech?

Fleischer: Which line was taken out of Cincinnati?

Questioner: Well, given that the information relating to the uranium in Niger was not included in the Cincinnati speech because the evidence wasn't there or intelligence wasn't there -- so who made the decision? Was it the speechwriters, the NSC, to put it into the State of the Union?

Fleischer: When you say "it," the information from the Cincinnati speech, which you just accurately said would have applied to Niger and to uranium, was not in the State of the Union. It's a different issue. You had an apple in Cincinnati and an orange in the State of the Union. They are different issues

Questioner: Right. But as I understand it, the matter of the issue -- the intelligence was discussed prior to the Cincinnati speech. And what's been reported all over the place is that a recommendation was made not to include that in the Cincinnati speech. And, yet, it was included in the State of the Union address.

Fleischer: Be precise. When you say, it was not included in Cincinnati, but that was included in the State of the Union -- again, let's be -- I'll walk you through it. But the precision is crucial, because that's the heart of understanding what was taken out of Cincinnati and included in the State of the Union.

The reference that the CIA recommended be taken out of the Cincinnati speech was very specific to the country of Niger and to the quantity of uranium that Iraq sought from Niger, specifically the country of Niger. The language in the State of the Union was very different. The language in the State of the Union said, sought uranium from Africa -- not just Niger -- because there was other reporting about other countries beyond Niger, in Africa. So it would be erroneous to report or to say that the language in Cincinnati, they tried to get it back into the State of the Union. Different language, different meaning, different implications, different facts.

Questioner: Ari, so who -- okay, fine. Who asked that the language about uranium in Africa be put into the State of the Union speech?

Fleischer: It was based on the NIE, by the reporting that we had at the time from the CIA, and it went through the vetting process, through the regular NSC process, speechwriting process.

Questioner: Ari --

Fleischer: And as you know, it was not objected to in the final analysis.

Questioner: Ari, the whole premise for the White House saying that the President's statement shouldn't have been made was because you found out that the -- specifically the Niger information was not credible. So if you knew that that part in October, why did you let him say it given that now you're saying, yes, there was other information about Africa but that, in and of itself, did not hold up and didn't lend itself to --

Fleischer: No, we said it didn't rise to a Presidential level. That's what we've said, that in hindsight, we now realize it did not rise to a Presidential level. There is still -- it would be also erroneous for anybody to report that the information about whether or not Iraq sought uranium from Africa was wrong. No one can accurately tell you that it was wrong. That is not known.

Questioner: In his statement Friday, the CIA Director said that he had alerted the White House officials several times to the fragmented nature of that intelligence, and, yet, Dr. Rice said on Friday and repeated again yesterday that neither she nor the President was aware of any concerns about the quality of the intelligence underlying the charge. Which is it?

Fleischer: I think the CIA Director's statement speaks for itself. I mean, he explains in there very directly that the information in the State of the Union dealing with the broader question of whether or not Iraq was seeking uranium in Africa was not vetted the way it should have been by the CIA. And it was based on CIA documents, as has been very well and publicly reported. I mean, there's nothing new here that hasn't been discussed last week.

Questioner: But in his statement he says that not once, but, in his words, several times, the White House was alerted to concerns about the quality of the intelligence. He meets with the President every day, he's meeting with him now. Did that subject never come up in any of these meetings?

Fleischer: The fact that it's fragmentary is what means that it should not have been -- risen to the Presidential level. There's all kinds of information that is available that may -- may not be true. And I've always talked about intelligence being mosaic. Some parts of the mosaic are very clear. Those parts that are the most clear are absolutely concrete is what should rise up to the Presidential level. There's many other pieces of intelligence in the mosaic that certainly may be true, they may be fragmentary, but they should not necessarily rise to the President's level. We're the ones who acknowledge that.

Questioner: Didn't the White House know, from Tenet, that that information was fragmentary and uncertain? The White House knew that from Tenet, correct?

Fleischer: The information specific to Niger and the quantity sought --

Questioner: -- included in the speech, forget Niger.

Fleischer: No, because the NIA did not say that. And as Director Tenet has pointed out, the speech had been vetted by the CIA, and it was not taken out.

But, look, let me back up a second. Let me back up a second. The issue is, the President said that Iraq was seeking uranium in Africa. That still may be absolute fact. The point is, it just didn't rise to the President's level.

Questioner: Nobody here knew that that -- that the information that was included in the speech about uranium from Africa was based on fragmentary evidence. Nobody here understood that.

Fleischer: Keith, that's why there is a vetting process. There is information that we get from the CIA and that we talk to the CIA about. Then a speech gets written. It gets shopped to the CIA for them to review. And if the CIA has objections, it comes out.

Questioner: Well, if only the CIA knew -- the White House understood that to be accurate, firm, information and only the CIA knew that, in fact, it wasn't. Is that what you're saying?

Fleischer: I'm not sure I follow your question.

Questioner: In other words, I'm trying to figure out if the White House understood at the time that this was uncertain information -- because if they did, then somebody here is also responsible, not just Secretary Tenet.

Fleischer: No, it's a process, and the process is we had the NIE in hand. The NIE said it explicitly, as you know. It gets written, it gets sent to the CIA, and nobody from the CIA said, take it out. I think the Cincinnati example actually underscores everything we've been telling you, because in Cincinnati, Director Tenet said, take that out. Had, for the State of the Union, somebody said, take that out, it, too, would have been taken out.

Questioner: But Rice and people here -- forget "take it out," "don't take it out" -- the people at the White House understood that to be certain information based on firm evidence; is that correct, or not?

Fleischer: The NIE stated it directly. And then what happens in the drafting process, the information is then sent back to the originating agency. And they review it and they didn't take it out.

Questioner: Why not, though?

Questioner: So if the NIE states it, then it's firm information?

Questioner: Ari, if the Cincinnati speech underscores the process, doesn't Secretary Powell's speech a week after the State of the Union undercut the process here? Because Secretary Powell looked at the totality of what the President said -- not Niger, just Africa -- considered it and said, this is insupportable. Now, what changed in the week's time between the time the President uttered the words in the State of the Union and the time that Secretary Powell presented his evidence that made everybody suddenly feel nervous about the evidence?

Fleischer: The exact answer that Dr. Rice gave to you when you asked it last week, and that's been in the pool report from last week. No difference. I'm not going to say anything different. It's what she said.

To my good friend the neo-con rapper, isn't this something you could rap?

Quote number one ...

"I will bring honor to the process and honor to the office I seek. I will remind Al Gore that Americans do not want a White House where there is 'no controlling legal authority.' I will repair the broken bonds of trust between Americans and their government."

-- George W. Bush
March 7th, 2000
Quote number two ...
"It didn't rise to the standard of a presidential speech, but it's not known, for example, that it was inaccurate. In fact, people think it was technically accurate."

-- Donald Rumsfeld
July 13th, 2003
I'm gonna put in a placeholder here for quote number three. I think we'll have more.

One of TPM's shrewdest advisors pointed my attention yesterday to the passage at the end of Saturday's Niger-Uranium article in the Washington Post.

Officials involved in preparing the speech said there was much more internal debate over the next line of the speech, when Bush said in reference to Hussein, "Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production."

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in his Feb. 5 presentation to the United Nations, noted a disagreement about Iraq's intentions for the tubes, which can be used in centrifuges to enrich uranium. The U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency had raised those questions two weeks before the State of the Union address, saying Hussein claimed nonnuclear intentions for the tubes. In March, the IAEA said it found Hussein's claim credible, and could all but rule out the use of the tubes in a nuclear program.

Now, some people have asked me whether this isn't the next shoe to drop -- another ominous but bogus claim about an alleged Iraqi nuclear weapons program.

I'm not willing to go that far. Not yet at least. But I do think this revelation sheds some important light on the White House's apparent desperation to get the Niger uranium claims into the president's state of the union speech, even in the face of so many signs and warnings that it wasn't true.

First, what to make of the claims about the aluminum tubes?

In their recent article in The New Republic, I think Spencer Ackerman and John Judis make a pretty good case that the weight of analytic opinion was against those tubes being for a nuclear program.

The less ominous interpretation was particularly strong among those who might arguably be said to be most familiar with how you make nuclear weapons -- at least those most familiar with what we might call traditional methods, as opposed to freaky-deaky approaches some allege were being employed in Iraq in the last days of Saddam (a long story we'll get to later).

Here's a key passage ...

Some analysts from the CIA and DIA quickly came to the conclusion that the tubes were intended to enrich uranium for a nuclear weapon through the kind of gas-centrifuge project Iraq had built before the first Gulf war. This interpretation seemed plausible enough at first, but over time analysts at the State Department's INR and the Department of Energy (DOE) grew troubled. The tubes' thick walls and particular diameter made them a poor fit for uranium enrichment, even after modification. That determination, according to the INR's Thielmann, came from weeks of interviews with "the nation's experts on the subject, ... they're the ones that have the labs, like Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where people really know the science and technology of enriching uranium." Such careful study led the INR and the DOE to an alternative analysis: that the specifications of the tubes made them far better suited for artillery rockets. British intelligence experts studying the issue concurred, as did some CIA analysts.
The key though is that there was a dispute. Indeed, there still is. And that makes it different from the African uranium story about which, as Greg Thielmann makes clear, there really was no serious dispute. Aside from those who just heard the rumor, said "cool!", and moved on, pretty much everyone who gave it a serious look decided it didn't add up. I strongly suspect we'll still find that political pressure played an important role in pumping up the aluminum tube claim too. But, still, there was a dispute.

The problem was a political one. By January of this year the issue of the aluminum tubes had already become a subject of intense public debate. It was at least clear that there was another interpretation of what those tubes might be for. That meant the big public evidence for a nuclear program was in dispute. And for many opinion-leaders and citizens around the country, the threat of a nuclear-armed Saddam was the one possibility which truly warranted immediate action to remove him from power.

In that context, getting proof that Saddam was buying tons of uranium would really help seal the deal. It wasn't just one more "data point" as Condi Rice put it today. It was a hugely significant claim, something which the White House certainly realized. It's one thing to say someone is buying materials to build a nuclear facility. I think that to most people the assumption would be that if you're buying many tons of uranium that's prima facie evidence that you already have such a facility. After all, why buy tons of uranium unless you had, or were about to have, some way to start cooking it into nuclear weapons?

That's why the Niger uranium claims were so tempting. They weren't just "this one sentence, this 16 words" as Condi Rice repeatedly and ridiculously said today on the morning shows. They made the near-term nuclear threat appear a lot more credible.

Apparently the temptation was just too great.

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