Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

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."

Raleigh News & Observer, Oct. 29th: "President Bush's approval rating in North Carolina continues to decline, according to a poll released Friday by Elon University. The poll found that 41 percent of those questioned approve of Bush's handling of the job of president. That is down from 45 percent in a poll Elon did in April and 52 percent from a poll the university did in March."

Steve Hadley Niger Uranium Mumbojumbo update.

At his press briefing today, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley was asked about his meeting on September 9th 2002 with Italian intelligence chief Nicolo Pollari. And his answers were close to non-responsive if you look closely at what he said. Note that, like Scott McClellan earlier in the day, he seemed to go out of his way to deny allegations that no one is actually making -- namely, that he himself received the forged dossier on that day (emphasis added) ...

Q On September 9th, 2002, you met in Washington with Nicolo Pollari, the head of the Italian Intelligence Agency, SISMI. According to the Italian daily, La Republica, Mr. Pollari came to the meeting to discuss an alleged attempt by Iraq to purchase uranium from Niger. Is that claim false?

MR. HADLEY: We'd looked at this issue. We had both looked at our documentary record -- I have -- we have talked -- I've searched my own recollection; we have also talked to other people on the NSC staff at the time who might have a recollection of that meeting. I can tell you what that canvassing has unearthed. There was a meeting in Washington on that date. I did attend a meeting with him. It was, so far as we can tell from our records, about less than 15 minutes. It was a courtesy call. Nobody participating in that meeting or asked about that meeting has any recollection of a discussion of natural uranium, or any recollection of any documents being passed. And that's also my recollection. I have very little recollection of the meeting, but I have no recollection there was any of that discussion, or that there was any passing of documents. Nor does anybody else who may have participated in that meeting. That's where we are.

Q Can you say what you did discuss with Mr. Pollari?

MR. HADLEY: I told you I have very little recollection of the meeting, and it was in the order of a courtesy call, getting to know a person who is going to be a colleague going forward. And you can tell that from the relative briefness of the meeting. And I think what the Italian authorities have said is very consistent with what I just said.

Now, I know I'm giving these comments pretty tight scrutiny. But consider these points.

First, no one ever said that Hadley got the documents during that meeting. It is a matter of public record that they appeared in Rome a month later and made their way back to Washington via the State Department.

Second, it is also a matter of public record that the Niger/Uranium story was a matter of intense interest and discussion at the White House at precisely that time. Remember, Hadley and colleagues at the NSC were trying to get the claim inserted into the president's upcoming speech in Cincinnati.

Hadley also knew -- then and now -- that the foreign intelligence service reports which had started the suspicion about the Niger/Iraq claims had come from Italy -- from Pollari's own agency, SISMI.

Given all that, it strains credulity to believe that we have to make do with 'searchings of recollections' or the like. Given the time and the topic, if this came up it would have been a big deal. People would remember. It would have been noted in minutes, etc.

It's certainly accepted practice for a president's national security advisor not to discuss what he or she discusses in meetings with foreign intelligence chiefs. Those sorts of exchanges are seldom fair game for public comment. But Hadley is talking. And maybe nothing to do with Niger or Iraq came up at all. But his answers sound supiciously vague.

It is well worth pushing for a clearer, less dodgy answer.

Wow. I saw this mentioned on Atrios's site, but without the link. But now it's up on the CBS News website: Bush at 35%.

By one measure you have to concede that the joke is really on the 65% of us who think he blows. Because no matter how unpopular he is, he's still president.

But once you get down below, say, 40% you've really, really gotta earn every new lost point on the way down.

More concretely, I'm interested to see where the president is in individual states. Ohio? Missouri?

Wasn't Frist the one who broke tradition and campaigned against his opposite, then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle, in his home state of South Dakota? I mean, free country and all. And many of these traditions are meant to be broken. But Mr. Comity and Sweetness and Nice, he ain't.

ThinkProgress has posted a copy of this morning's White House gaggle. And it contains this passage about the Berlusconi/Niger story ...

Q After his meeting with the President on Monday, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was asked whether the Italian government had provided the United States with intelligence on alleged Iraqi purchases of uranium, or from Niger. Berlusconi replied, “Bush, himself, confirmed to me that the U.S.A. did not have any information from Italian agencies.” Does the White House stand by that statement?

MR. McCLELLAN: Stand by what — say the statement again.

Q Berlusconi replied — he replied in Italian, this is a translation, “Bush, himself, confirmed to me that the U.S.A. did not have any information from Italian agencies.”

MR. McCLELLAN: I think I addressed that question yesterday. I responded to that. You’ve got to go back and look at exactly what I said.

Q So your answer is, “yes”?

MR. McCLELLAN: I’m sorry? I addressed that question yesterday. I responded to it.

Q So the answer is, “yes”?

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, if you’re talking about — because there have been some Italian reports about a meeting that took place here at the White House, and I pointed out yesterday that there were no documents provided relating to Niger and uranium at that meeting, much less –

Q Not just –

MR. McCLELLAN: — much less was it even discussed.

Q — no, not just at the meeting –

MR. McCLELLAN: And in terms of going back to the issue of Niger and uranium, I mean, we briefed on that and we talked about the basis for the statement in the remarks. And it was based on the National Intelligence Estimates and the British intelligence.

This is sort of maddening since the same thing happened yesterday. Reporters ask whether the president is really claiming that the US didn't get any of its Iraq/Niger intelligence from Italy -- a claim that is certainly false. Then McClellan chooses to answer a completely different question. McClellan answers by referring to their vague response to reports that then-Deputy National Security Advisor Steve Hadley discussed the Niger-uranium story with Italian intel chief Nicolo Pollari at a meeting in Washington in September 2002.

That September meeting is another part of the puzzle. But these are two completely different questions. But this funny business has allowed McClellan to duck answering the question for two days running.

The Italian Connection, Part II

In the previous installment I described early reporting I did on the origins of the Niger forgeries – reporting which pointed strongly toward an Italian government role in the Niger uranium hoax.

I started reporting on the story in earnest in January 2004, when I still had a writing contract with The Washington Monthly, where I then did most of my long-form magazine reporting. So after the preliminary reporting I described earlier, I told the magazine’s editor, my friend Paul Glastris, that I would write my next piece on the Niger story. I also asked Laura Rozen to join me in reporting the story.

Soon, however, it became clear to me that we simply wouldn’t have the clout or the resources to break open the story, either in Washington or in Italy. We were also crossing paths with various unpleasant characters as we tried to piece together clues about the identity of the man who had sold the documents -- which, honestly, isn't fun without a large news organization in the mix.

So I approached a producer at 60 Minutes who had earlier expressed an interest in working together on a project. We came up with an arrangement in which we would share sources. They would have access to the sources and leads I developed and I to theirs. They’d produce their television segment. I’d write my article. Both would be separate. Our only agreement was that we wouldn’t scoop each other. I wouldn’t write my article until their TV segment aired.

Before approaching CBS we’d already come up with the name of a man we thought might be the one who had first peddled the documents to Elisabetta Burba, the Panorama journalist who’d first gotten hold of the forgeries in October 2002. The next step was to go Burba herself and see if we were right. Only she could provide the confirmation. Only she knew who it was we were looking for.

That was in the first week of April 2004.

We talked to Burba. And we asked. And, quite simply, we were wrong. Dead wrong. It wasn’t him. A huge amount of legwork was simply a bust. I've never been sure whether the original lead about the identity of the documents peddler was just a bum steer or a fragment of the real story which we had somehow misinterpreted. Regardless, for us it was a dead end.

But things didn’t end there.

Burba proceeded to do what she’d never done before. She told us about the unnamed security consultant, without revealing his name. And she went on to describe what had happened in the year and a half since the forged documents had first come into her possession.

Ever since Panorama had established the documents were unreliable, Burba had wanted to pursue the story behind the forgeries. But her editors at Panorama decided not to publish anything.

Nevertheless, she confronted her source and demanded to know where he had gotten the documents.

In response to her demands, he began to describe a murky story involving an Italian intelligence officer and a woman working at the Embassy of Niger in Rome.

Later we learned the name of her source: Rocco Martino. Martino was an information peddler, a former member of Italian military intelligence (SISMI) who, after retiring from SISMI in the early 1980s, had worked as a supplier of information and sometimes agent-for-hire for other intelligence agencies in Europe and the Middle East. His specialty, he would later tell us, was work on Islamic fundamentalist groups around the southern Mediterranean. He recounted trips over the years to countries across the Arab Middle East and North Africa.

The story began, as Martino later told us, when a former SISMI colleague had approached him with a proposition. The man’s name was Antonio Nucera, a SISMI colonel. The two had remained in professional contact over the years since Martino had left the service.

Nucera pointed Martino’s attention to a female Italian national who worked as a secretary at the Nigerien Embassy in Rome. The woman had been a long-time source for SISMI, a SISMI asset, apparently stealing documents from the Nigeriens and possibly from others and then passing them on to SISMI. Martino would later tell us that she had once worked at the embassy of another African nation in Rome -- apparently then too as a plant for Italian intelligence.

Nucera told Martino, somewhat contemptuously, that SISMI was washing its hands of the woman. But he suggested that she could provide Martino with documents and information that he could make use of, selling to his various clients, often to the highest bidder. It was from this woman working at the Niger Embassy that he had gotten the dossier of Niger uranium documents he later tried to sell her in October 2002. Later, he would come to believe that Nucera had himself provided the dossier to the woman at the Niger Embassy .

And there it was, a first account of what had happened from two of the players at the center of the drama, at least a rough outline -- from Nucera, the SISMI colonel, to the woman at the Niger Embassy to Martino.

Next we would have to try to talk to these three players themselves.

(ed.note: The text above is a revised version of the post that appeared late Tuesday evening -- jmm.)