Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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A note from TPM Reader SL ...

All the focus seems to be on how bad second terms have been for 2-term presidents. But unless I'm mistaken, the underlying events to the scandals invariably took place in the first term (Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Bush II). Question: is there a correlation between not being reelected and being the kind of guy who doesn't do or countenance that sort of bad behavior in the first term. 2 test cases: Carter and Bush I. Bush I would probably have had problems in the second term because he wouldn't have pardoned Weinberger et al if he hadn't been on the way out. That leaves Carter, and I suppose he a particularly morally scrupulous guy. Otherwise, it's all of a piece.

Also, it's not that the cover up is worse than the crime, or even that the cover up is what's punished and not the underlying crime. It's that the cover up keeps the investigators away from the underlying crime so it can't be prosecuted. For example, North's paper shredding; Libby's sand in Fitzgerald's eyes.

I think this is exactly right, certainly it applies to Watergate. But there's another dynamic. And that is how much these cover-ups aim not simply to avoid detection permanently, which is of course the ultimate goal, but to push exposure out past reelection. That's Watergate certainly. In a very different set of circumstances that is what Clinton's lawyers were trying to do with the Jones suit -- at least push it out past the '96 election. And I think we'll find more and more that is what happened here.

Finally, some good reporting on the Niger-Uranium-Italy story.

There are a slew of nice nuggets in this piece in the Times.

But this one may take the cake. This passage describes what happened at that closed-door parliamentary hearing in Rome today ...

Committee members said they were shown documents defending General Pollari, including a copy of a classified letter from Robert S. Muller III, the director of the F.B.I., dated July 20, which praised Italy's cooperation with the bureau.

In Washington, an official at the bureau confirmed the substance of the letter, whose contents were first reported Tuesday in the leftist newspaper L'Unità. The letter stated that Italy's cooperation proved the bureau's theory that the false documents were produced and disseminated by one or more people for personal profit, and ruled out the possibility that the Italian service had intended to influence American policy, the newspaper said.

As a result, the letter said, according to both the F.B.I. official and L'Unità, the bureau had closed its investigation into the origin of the documents.

The F.B.I. official declined to be identified by name.

So back in July, Director Mueller sent a letter to the Italian government providing them with a complete and definitive exoneration of any involvement with the forgeries. A year ago Newsweek reported that the US hadn't received permission from the Italian government to interview Martino -- that despite the fact that Martino travelled to the US twice in the summer of 2004.

Did the FBI interview Martino before making a conclusive judgment about the forgeries, who created them and why?

Curiouser and curiouser and curiouser and ...

Remember how early today an Italian parliamentarian said that in January 2003 the Italian government had warned the US that the Niger docs were forgeries. Well, just out from AP ...

Commission member Sen. Massimo Brutti told reporters after the closed-door session that that the commission was told that the Italian secret services warned the United States in January 2003 that the dossier was fake.

But later, the senator called The Associated Press to retract that statement. He said that the commission was not told that the Italians had warned the Americans.

Brutti said he was confused by the barrage of reporters' questions when the lawmakers emerged from the briefing. He said when he had the opportunity later to check his briefing notes, he realized he had misspoke.

Brutti said what he meant to say was that the commission was told that a SISMI official, contacted by the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria, about the dossier, told the U.N. agency that "those documents didn't come from Sismi, they weren't produced nor supplied by Sismi."

"Our (intelligence services) were not involved," Brutti said the briefing was told. The Italian news agency ANSA quoted Brutti as saying that the commission was told that the U.N. agency queried Sismi about the dossier in January 2003.

And from Reuters ...

Sen. Massimo Brutti initially told reporters that Sismi had warned the United States about the bogus documents around the same time as U.S. President George W. Bush gave his 2003 State of the Union address, making the case for war.

"At around that time, they (Sismi) said that the dossier did not correspond to the truth," Brutti said. He later backtracked, telling Reuters that since Sismi never had the documents, it could not comment on their merit.

Your guess is as good as mine.

Let me suggest a few other questions to be posed in response to the new story the Italian government rolled out today to explain their involvement with the Niger uranium hoax.

The current story, detailed in this updated report from the Associated Press is that Rocco Martino forged the documents, that no one at SISMI (Italian military intelligence) was involved in any way and that at some point in January 2003, the Italians warned the United States that the documents were forged.

For the sake of discussion, let's stipulate to those facts.

So these questions.

1. If Martino forged the documents with no involvement by SISMI personnel, how did SISMI end up distributing transcriptions of the forgeries to the United States and other countries?

2. The Italian government now says they warned the Americans that the documents were forgeries in January 2003. But what exactly did they warn them about? According to the current story, the documents that the Americans had went from Martino to Elisabetta Burba to the US Embassy in Rome to the State Department. When exactly did the Italian government come into the picture in that chain of custody and how did they know we had the documents?

What Italian intelligence had done is give us reports in 2001 and early 2002 that were summaries and transcriptions of the documents. Was it their own earlier reports that they told us were based on forgeries? And if so, when did they learn that the information they gave us was based on forgeries?

3. If it is certain that Martino is the forger, and that he was acting on his own account, why has no action ever been taken against him?

The AP story we noted earlier is now up on the web ...

Italian secret services warned the United States months before it invaded Iraq that a dossier about a purported Saddam Hussein effort to buy uranium in Africa was fake, a lawmaker said Thursday after a briefing by the nation's intelligence chief.

"At about the same time as the State of the Union address, they (Italy's SISMI secret services) said that the dossier doesn't correspond to the truth," Sen. Massimo Brutti told journalists after the parliamentary commission was briefed.

Brutti said the warning was given in January 2003, but he did not know whether it was made before or after President Bush's speech.

The United States and Britain used the claim that Saddam was seeking to buy uranium in Niger to bolster their case for the invasion, which started in March 2003. The intelligence supporting the claim later was deemed unreliable.

So that's the new story.

The problem is that this puts Italian intelligence in the odd, though not impossible, position of being both the purveyor and the debunker of the Niger uranium hoax.

Remember, the original reports about a Niger-Iraq uranium sale came in from Italy in late 2001 and early 2002. Those were the reports that caught Cheney's attention and subsequently sent Wilson on his trip. But, as we've noted here many times, those reports, which Wilson was briefed on before he left for Niger, were later determined to have been based on the forgeries.

If you don't want to take my word for it, listen to the conclusion which the president's own WMD commission came to ...

"The October 2002 NIE included the statement that Iraq was “trying to procure uranium ore and yellowcake” and that “a foreign government service” had reported that “Niger planned to send several tons” of yellowcake to Iraq. The statement about Niger was based primarily on three reports provided by a liaison intelligence service to CIA in late 2001 and early 2002 ... When it finally got around to reviewing the documents during the same time period, the CIA agreed that they were not authentic. Moreover, the CIA concluded that the original reporting was based on the forged documents and was thus itself unreliable." -- Robb-Silberman Commission Report, page 78.

If the Italians gave this warning to the US in January 2003, who'd the warning go to?

Something does not add up.

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Their hands may be dirty, but they don't want to get stuck with the blame.

Just off the AP Wire ...

Italian secret services warned the United States months before it invaded Iraq that a dossier about a purported Saddam Hussein effort to buy uranium in Africa was fake, a lawmaker said Thursday after a briefing by the nation's intelligence chief.

More to follow ...

Two can play that game.

Just out from the Austin American-Statesman: "Earle challenges Republican judge. DA wants DeLay judge Schraub out and new judge to name replacement. More to come."

Newsweek: "President Bush last week appointed nine campaign contributors, including three longtime fund-raisers, to his Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, a 16-member panel of individuals from the private sector who advise the president on the quality and effectiveness of U.S. intelligence efforts."