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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

If you watch the Sunday shows tomorrow, watch to see which if any of the hosts asks an administration guest this question: If Tenet and the CIA are guilty of not pushing hard enough to keep bogus or 'highly dubious' information out of the State of the Union speech, who was pushing on the other side?

Read Tenet's 'mea culpa' (self-criticism session?) closely and you'll see it points right back at Condi Rice's NSC.

As noted in yesterday's post, we have a pretty clear idea what the interplay was between the CIA and the White House. The CIA expressed reservations about the Niger-uranium claims. The White House pressed to keep it in. Officials at the NSC, by several accounts, suggested getting around the CIA's reservations by using public statements by the British government as a figleaf -- even though the CIA believed the British assessment was incorrect.

Whose hands are dirtier? The folks who caved in to pressure and signed off on that figleaf? Or the folks who pressed for it?

This is a passage buried at the end of the New York Times Saturday article ...

Before the speech, the crucial conversations between the C.I.A and White House over whether to include the African reference in the State of the Union address were held between Robert G. Joseph, a nuclear proliferation expert at the National Security Council, and Alan Foley, a proliferation expert at the C.I.A., according to government officials.

There is still a dispute over what exactly was said in their conversations. Mr. Foley was said to recall that before the speech, Mr. Joseph called him to ask about putting into the speech a reference to reports that Iraq was trying to buy hundreds of tons of yellowcake from Niger. Mr. Foley replied that the C.I.A. was not sure that the information was right.

Mr. Joseph then came back to Mr. Foley and pointed out that the British had already included the information in a report. Mr. Foley said yes, but noted that the C.I.A. had told the British that they were not sure that the information was correct. Mr. Joseph then asked whether it was accurate that the British reported the information. Mr. Foley said yes.

Other government officials said, however, that Mr. Joseph did not recall Mr. Foley's raising any concerns about the reliability of the information. If he had, they said, Mr. Joseph would have made sure that the reference was not included in the speech.

There are at least three separate reports that the idea for the British figleaf came from the White House side. Those reports are buttressed by common sense. If the CIA was questioning using the Niger claims and the White House was pressing for it, what sense does it make that the idea of having it come from the Brits would be suggested by the CIA?

Now the White House is having the president and Condi Rice first place the blame for the Niger debacle (allowing disinformation into a State of the Union address) squarely on the shoulders of George Tenet and then later having the president say he has complete confidence in Tenet, thus conveniently keeping him in the fold. In other words, no harm, no foul. I'm tempted to say that the White House wants to have its yellowcake and eat it too. But even I wouldn't stoop so low.

One other point before I leave for what I'm hoping will be a blog and laptop free Saturday.

A number of administration officials have stated that Joseph Wilson's report from Niger was largely made up of Nigerien officials denying that their country had sold uranium to Iraq. My reporting tells me something different. Wilson's report went into great detail about how the uranium ore was processed, how the processing was regulated, and most particularly who had physical custody of the product from the time it was in the ground to the time it was delivered to the customer. Wilson adduced various findings relating to the custody, oversight and regulation of the state uranium mining industry which, in his view, made the alleged sale highly unlikely.

Perhaps these officials are referring to, or confusing Wilson's report with, a different report back from Niger, one that hasn't yet been mentioned.

A few weeks before Wilson's visit to Niger, a senior military official from United States European Command visited the country (most of Africa comes under EUCOM's purview). During his visit, this high-ranking officer raised the issue of the alleged uranium sales to Iraq in meetings with various current Nigerien government officials. Those queries resulted in the official denials that certain administration officials are now so dismissive of. Some record of this high-ranking officer's report back to his superiors must be on record at the Pentagon.

With all the hullabaloo over the Niger uranium bogusness, I haven't yet had a chance to address another story that's been going on in the background over the last few days. The Department of Homeland Security a while back issued a famously incomplete IG investigation report of its role in the Texas redistricting manhunt. The Department of Transportation did an investigation too. Their report turned out to be much, much more thorough. One morsel from the Washington Post's brief story on the report ...

Mead's report pins principal responsibility for the FAA efforts on David Balloff, appointed by President Bush in 2001 as the FAA's assistant administrator for government and industry affairs. Balloff is a former adviser to Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. (R-Tenn.) and a former Tennessee Republican Party official.

Mead's report said Balloff withheld critical information during several interviews and fostered an "appearance" of trying to hide information about his activities from his FAA superiors. Kirk K. Van Tine, the department's general counsel, promised that he and FAA Administrator Marion Blakey would counsel Balloff "appropriately regarding these issues."

Also interesting: unlike the DHS report, the folks at DOT told Texas Department of Public Safety officer Will Crais that, yes, he actually did have to answer their questions. The results were revealing. State House Speaker Tom Craddick earlier said he and his office had no moment-to-moment involvement in the manhunt. He only put the DPS on the case. Apparently not ...
In a civil deposition, DPS Lt. William Crais, a key player in the hunt, testified that he was told to try to initiate a federal search operation by state Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, and by an aide to the state House speaker, Tom Craddick, R-Midland.
These articles in the Washington Post and the Dallas Morning News only scratch the surface of what's included in the report. But they're a good place to start. Meanwhile, a Texas state judge yesterday ruled that the entire state manhunt for the runaway Dems -- soup to nuts -- was illegal.

And off the plank he goes. CNN is running breaking news that CIA Director George Tenet is taking "responsibility for incorrect information in State of the Union address about alleged Iraqi attempts to obtain uranium in Africa."

This may not be good public policy or accountability. But I will say this: it'll make for a great absurdist novel. (And since I'm casting around for a book idea I'm taking serious note. Where's Joseph Heller when you need him?)

Here's the deal, one which will be fairly familiar to anyone who has been reporting on this story for the last eighteen months. Broadly speaking, the internal battles which have gone on in the executive branch over Iraq have pitted the career intelligence bureaucracy against more ideological types -- often political appointees. There's been a lot of overlap between that division and one between the CIA and State Department on the one hand and the Pentagon and the Office of the Vice President on the other, with the CIA and State having a much more skeptical take on the WMD/terrorism case against Iraq and the OVP and Pentagon having a much more maximal one.

The maximalists pushed like crazy to get this Niger-uranium charge and other dubious charges into the president's speech and into the argument for war generally. Now, we hear that it's the CIA's fault for not having insisted strenuously enough that the White House not retail bogus information to the American people.

Like I said, the absurdist novel.

Ken Pollack captured some of this in his interview with TPM last week ...

But in deference to my old friends at CIA ... 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? ... 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.
Now Tenet has come forward and said, essentially, that his agency did not stand firm enough in the face of the White House's insistence on using intelligence reports that almost everyone in the intelligence community believed were bogus. (Bear in mind that everything that is being said about Tenet applies equally to Powell.) Frankly, I think he's right. They didn't. No one resigned. No one went to the mat over this.

But what does that mean exactly?

Let's look at what Tenet said in his statement ...

Officials who were reviewing the draft remarks on uranium raised several concerns about the fragmentary nature of the intelligence with National Security Council colleagues. Some of the language was changed. From what we know now, agency officials in the end concurred that the text in the speech was factually correct that the British government report said that Iraq sought uranium from Africa. This should not have been the test for clearing a presidential address. This did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for presidential speeches, and CIA should have ensured that it was removed.
Again, I think Tenet is right. Going with the British say-so for an intelligence judgment that the CIA and other US intelligence agencies believed was bogus "did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for presidential speeches." That's a huge understatement, I'd say. He probably should be canned.

But who suggested hanging the allegation on the Brits? According to Rice and Tenet, the CIA was uncomfortable with including the allegation in the first place. Did they suggest the British angle? Not likely.

Here, frankly, is what I think happened. The White House wanted to include this charge in the State of the Union address. The CIA, as Pollack makes clear, had been getting beaten over the head for more than a year for intelligence assessments that, in Pollack's words, "weren't sufficiently alarmist." But including an allegation in the State of the Union which they more or less knew to be false was just further than they could go. They balked.

The White House and folks from the Agency then started a negotiation over what was okay to put in the speech. At this point, someone suggested hanging the charge on the Brits. Again, I think it's very hard to believe that this suggestion came from the CIA folks. And in fact we have both NPR's and CBS's reporting saying that the suggestion came from the White House side. Saying that the British said this was technically true. Thus the speech was technically true.

The problem was that it was willfully misleading since the CIA believed the Brits were wrong. The people on the Agency side seem to have decided that the White House had made their objections to such unhelpful information very clear. They felt they'd acquitted themselves of their minimum responsibility but getting the statement into the technically true category. And they relented.

That was a terrible decision. No one had the guts to resign over this or really make a stink. Maybe heads should roll at the Agency. Maybe it should be Tenet's.

But all of this begs the obvious and singularly important question: the charge is that CIA didn't push hard enough to keep bogus information out of the president's speech. Who was pushing on the other side? Who was pushing to keep the bogus information in? And why?

If you think the White House doesn't have a plank with George Tenet's name on it, read this.

We noted yesterday that Colin Powell told reporters that the Niger uranium charge "was not standing the test of time" and thus dropped it from the presentation he gave the UN on February 5th. We further noted that given the timing of the State of the Union speech and the preparations for the UN presentation, that the time span over which the evidence didn't stand up stretched from January 29th to February 1st. Now The New Republic's Spencer Ackerman is reporting that the State Department's intelligence bureau, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, sent Powell a detailed memo in March 2002 stating that the Niger-uranium charges were, in its opinion, false. (They came to this judgment without seeing Joseph Wilson's report which, separately, helped scotch the story at the CIA.) "We knew it was important," an analyst who worked on the I&R report tells TNR. "The [Niger] issue might have traction, and so we wanted him to know what our opinion was."

Look, I'm as big a Star Trek fan as the next guy. And I try to think outside the box. But I was assuming that the test of time referred to linear time.

A couple days ago, Andrew Sullivan clipped this damning passage from a new Vanity Fair article on Howell Raines ...

Worse, Raines would not let facts get in the way of a story he had ordered up or a point he decided to make. "Howell wanted a thought inserted high in one of my stories," says a metro reporter. "The only problem was, it wasn't true. Mind you, this was on my beat, a beat he didn't really know about. I said to the editor who was the message-bearer that it wasn't true, and it didn't belong in the story, period. A while later he came back to me and said, 'Well, you're right, but Howell wants it anyway.' It became clear that the editor had not fully conveyed my arguments to Howell, because he was afraid to. I said, 'F--- that -- I'll tell him myself.' And he literally seized my arm and said, 'You don't want to do that.' And ultimately the editor-intermediary and I compromised on a version of what Howell wanted that was just vague enough not to mean much, but still close enough to a falsehood to make my very uncomfortable."
Remind you of anyone?

An apt observation from &c, The New Republic's blog ...

WHEN YOUR ZONE GOES BONE DRY: We've taken our fair share of shots at Howell Raines. But say this for the former New York Times executive editor: You'd certainly be able to tell from reading his paper that the Bush administration was embroiled in its first major foreign policy scandal. By contrast, the Times' actual coverage of the Niger uranium hoax has been virtually non-existent under interim executive editor Joe Lelyveld--save for a single David Sanger piece earlier this week, written mostly on the basis of an Ari Fleischer press conference. Pretty much the only place you can consistently read about that scandal in the Times these days is in the paper's the op-ed pages. Is it too much to ask that the paper put a single investigative reporter on the beat? (Or, if there already is one, then how bout an investigative reporter who produces a piece every once in a while?) Under Lelyveld the paper seems to have lapsed into its prior stupor as the official, but barely readable, paper of record.
Too true ...

The president's partisans can't seem to decide whether the CIA didn't tell them what they knew or whether what they knew was bogus. Along those lines, here's Cliff May's opening salvo in the smear-Joseph-Wilson campaign in National Review Online. May's final line reads: "In other words, Wilson is no disinterested career diplomat — he's a pro-Saudi, leftist partisan with an ax to grind. And too many in the media are helping him and allies grind it." In response to May, Wilson tells TPM: "So those are the talking points. Good to know. Not worth responding to. The article stands, the administration has made the acknowledgement. The story is not, and never was about me. It is and has been about who put the statement in the State of the Union. I am not going to rise to bait that is clearly designed to resurrect the notion that I am the story. I am not. The story is the story."

A reader points out to me this passage in Colin Powell's Thursday press briefing which I'm embarrassed to say I hadn't yet noticed. A momentary, but revealing departure from message ...

I think the President in the State of the Union address had this sentence in there and it talked about efforts on the part of Iraq to obtain uranium from sources in Africa. There was sufficient evidence floating around at that time that such a statement was not totally outrageous or not to be believed or not to be appropriately used. It's that once we used the statement and, after further analysis and looking at other estimates we had and other information that was coming in, it turned out that the basis upon which that statement was made didn't hold up. And we said so. And we've acknowledged it and we've moved on. [emphasis added]
Holding people to momentary, extemporaneous phrasings is often unfair. But in this case I think Powell's first characterization was probably closer to his true views. The uranium charges cleared the "not totally outrageous" bar, but not much more than that. Powell wanted to apply a higher standard. Now he's holding the bag.

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