Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Coming tomorrow: Sen. Roberts' (R-KS) broken promise to complete the Senate Intel Committee Iraqi WMD inquiry after the 2004 election, what remains unrevealed in the fall 2003 Joint State-CIA IG Report into the Niger forgeries, and is it not time that we ask for an accounting from the Berlusconi government about the hoax perpetrated on the American people?

The tsunami flows over into Italy. From the Associated Press ...

The head of Italy's military secret services will be questioned by a parliamentary commission next week over allegations that his organization gave the United States and Britain disputed documents suggesting that Saddam Hussein had been seeking uranium in Africa, officials said Tuesday.

Nicolo Pollari, director of the SISMI intelligence agency, will be questioned on Nov. 3 by members of the commission overseeing secret services, said Micaela Panella, a commission spokeswoman.

She said Pollari asked to be questioned after reports Monday and Tuesday in the Rome daily La Repubblica claiming SISMI passed on to the CIA, U.S. government officials and Britain's MI6 intelligence services a dossier it knew was forged.


When foreign intelligence agencies met the documents with skepticism, Pollari used his own contacts in the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans and an aide to the president's national security adviser to promote the dossier, La Repubblica said, without elaborating.

Remember, Pollari had good contacts with folks at Doug Feith's Office of Special Plans. At the end of 2001 one he had attended a secret meeting in Rome with OSP stalwart Harold Rhode, the now-indicted Larry Franklin and neo-con regime-change-everywhere-at-once guru Michael Ledeen.

This is what my colleagues and I wrote last year about that meeting and the irregular nature of the meetings ...

The first meeting occurred in Rome in December, 2001. It included Franklin, Rhode, and another American, the neoconservative writer and operative Michael Ledeen, who organized the meeting. (According to UPI, Ledeen was then working for Feith as a consultant.) Also in attendance was Ghorbanifar and a number of other Iranians. One of the Iranians, according to two sources familiar with the meeting, was a former senior member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard who claimed to have information about dissident ranks within the Iranian security services. The Washington Monthly has also learned from U.S. government sources that Nicolo Pollari, the head of Italy's military intelligence agency, SISMI, attended the meetings, as did the Italian Minister of Defense Antonio Martino, who is well-known in neoconservative circles in Washington.

Alarm bells about the December 2001 meeting began going off in U.S. government channels only days after it occurred. On Dec. 12, 2001, at the U.S. embassy in Rome, America's newly-installed ambassador, Mel Sembler, sat down for a private dinner with Ledeen, an old friend of his from Republican Party politics, and Martino, the Italian defense minister. The conversation quickly turned to the meeting. The problem was that this was the first that Amb. Sembler had heard about it.

According to U.S. government sources, Sembler immediately set about trying to determine what he could about the meeting and how it had happened. Since U.S. government contact with foreign government intelligence agencies is supposed to be overseen by the CIA, Sembler first spoke to the CIA station chief in Rome to find out what if anything he knew about the meeting with the Iranians. But that only raised more questions because the station chief had been left in the dark as well. Soon both Sembler and the Rome station chief were sending anxious queries back to the State Department and CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., respectively, raising alarms on both sides of the Potomac.

The meeting was a source of concern for a series of overlapping reasons. Since the late 1980s, Ghorbanifar has been the subject of two CIA "burn notices." The agency believes Ghorbanifar is a serial "fabricator" and forbids its officers from having anything to do with him. Moreover, why were mid-level Pentagon officials organizing meetings with a foreign intelligence agency behind the back of the CIA -- a clear breach of U.S. government protocol? There was also a matter of personal chagrin for Sembler: At State Department direction, he had just been cautioning the Italians to restrain their contacts with bad-acting states like Iran (with which Italy has extensive trade ties).

According to U.S. government sources, both the State Department and the CIA eventually brought the matter to the attention of the White House -- specifically, to Condoleezza Rice's chief deputy on the National Security Council, Stephen J. Hadley. Later, Italian spy chief Pollari raised the matter privately with Tenet, who himself went to Hadley in early February 2002. Goaded by Tenet, Hadley sent word to the officials in Feith's office and to Ledeen to cease all such activities. Hadley then contacted Sembler, assuring him it wouldn't happen again and to report back if it did.

See the rest of the meetings article here.

The LA Times picks up the La Repubblica story ...

As anticipation swirled in Washington of potential indictments — and what it would mean for a Bush administration already beset by low approval ratings, the Iraq war and an embattled Supreme Court nomination — a related controversy was brewing in Italy over how the Niger allegations made their way into the intelligence stream.

Italian parliamentary officials announced Tuesday that the head of Italy's military secret service, the SISMI intelligence agency, would be questioned next month over allegations that his agency gave the disputed documents to the United States and Britain, according to an Associated Press report. A spokeswoman said Nicolo Pollari, the agency director, asked to be questioned after reports this week in Italy's La Republica newspaper claiming that SISMI sent the CIA and U.S. and British officials information that it knew to be forged.

The newspaper reported that Pollari met at the White House on Sept. 9, 2002 with then-Deputy National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley. The Niger claims surfaced shortly thereafter. A spokesman for Hadley, now the national security advisor, confirmed that the meeting took place, but declined to say what was discussed.

Hadley had played a prominent role in the controversy over Bush's claims in his State of the Union address — taking responsibility for the insertion of the 16 words that laid out the allegations.

Won't be the last.

Roll Call (sub.req.): "Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald was spotted Tuesday at the law offices of Patton Boggs paying a visit to Robert Luskin, the eccentric (for Washington, D.C.) lawyer who represents Karl Rove."

As I hinted at in this post from earlier this evening, in his 2003 State of the Union address President did not say "Iraq purchased uranium from Niger" or even that "the British say that Iraq purchased uranium from Niger." He said something much more specific and couched, using language the significance of which would only become clear months later.

"The British government," said the president in the famous sixteen words, "has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

As we learned later that summer and fall, those carefully chosen words had a very precise rationale behind them. The White House tried and failed to get the uranium claim into the October 7th, 2002 Cincinnati speech. The same battle was refought in late January of 2003 as the same parties struggled back and forth over whether the claim would be inserted in the State of the Union address. The CIA refused to countenance the use of the claim. So a compromise of sorts was struck. The president wouldn't be a fact witness to the allegation. He'd hang it on the Brits.

So the president wasn't saying Saddam had bought uranium. He wasn't even saying he'd tried. He said the Brits had "learned" that he tried.

Some White House defenders still hang their hat on this point, arguing that nothing the president said was in fact false. Anybody who got the wrong impression just didn't read the fine print.

That argument (let's call it 'the con-man defense') speaks for itself, I think.

But all of this brings us back to the question: What did the British know? They said they had good intel. The CIA didn't buy it. So what did they know?

Did they have separate non-discredited intelligence? Or, were they just holding out, refusing to admit they'd either been scammed or in on the scamming?

To date the British have refused to concede that they too may have been relying on flawed or phony evidence. They stand by their claim, but refuse to disclose the source or the nature of their evidence.

Last year's Butler Report (a rough analogue to last year's Senate intelligence committee report) went to great lengths to insulate the British finding from the taint of the forgeries. In one passage it says that ...

The forged documents were not available to the British Government at the time its assessment was made, and so the fact of the forgery does not undermine it.

Later in the Report, in a pretty telling illustration of how tied the Butler Report was to the needs of US politics, the authors went so far as to provide the president with a specific exoneration ...

We conclude that, on the basis of the intelligence assessments at the time, covering both Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the statements on Iraqi attempts to buy uranium from Africa in the Government’s dossier, and by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons, were well-founded. By extension, we conclude also that the statement in President Bush’s State of the Union Address of 28 January 2003 that:

The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.

was well-founded.

I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions about how such a passage could have found its way into a British government inquiry. But let's review the story. The Brits say that they had multiple pieces of evidence upon which they based their claim. And the forged documents -- which they only found out about much later -- were not one of them. So the discreditation of the forgeries is irrelevant to their finding. The taint, shall we say, does not attach.

My assumption, and that of many others, is that the Brits are, to put it bluntly, full of it on this one. My best guess is that they are holding on to some de minimis 'other' evidence as a placeholder to get out of taking their own lumps in the Niger skullduggery.

With the claims of an intelligence agency especially, proving a negative is near impossible. So I can't prove to you that the Brits have nothing else. But I think I can make a pretty strong argument that the Butler Report was intentionally misleading on this key question.

The Butler Report wasn't the only British government inquiry into the faulty intelligence question. There was also a parliamentary committee report published in September 2003, before the question of the forgeries and Wilson and the rest of it became so intensely politicized. And a close look at this earlier report, chaired by Labour MP Ann Taylor, shows pretty clearly, I think, that the Butler Report was willfully misleading about the Brits' reliance on the forgeries.

I discussed this point at length in a post from July 17th, 2004. So if you're interested in finding out more, seeing the evidence and the argument, read that post and draw your own conclusions.

So, wait! Didn't the Brits have some other source of intelligence for the Iraq-Niger claim? Don't believe it. More coming on that this evening.

Steve Clemons reports that the target letters have been received, indictments to be filed tomorrow, press conference Thursday. Steve sources his post to an "uber-insider source", and I'd call it quite a fair description.

There's a lot going on today. But I'd be remiss if I neglected to mention I'm doing a special guest blogging feature at the opinion section of the Washington Post website today. It's not different material; it's portions of the same TPM posts showing up over there this week, with a portal back to read and find out more about TPM. There's also this Q&A with a bunch of questions I couldn't think of any good answers to.

A number of you have written in with some version of the following question. If the Niger forgeries only surfaced in Rome in October 2002, what was the earlier information that prompted the CIA/Dick Cheney to dispatch Joe Wilson to Niger earlier that year?

It's a good question. And the good answer tells you some of how the US government and the Congress have gone about misleading the American public about what really happened.

Let me explain.

Not long after the September 11th attacks, the United States received a series of liaison intelligence reports from an allied intelligence service. The reports suggested an illicit trade in uranium between Iraq and Niger.

These were the ambiguous reports that Dick Cheney asked his CIA briefer to follow up on. And that was the request that eventually led to the Wilson trip to Niger.

Those reports are discussed in the Senate Intelligence committee report from last year. And, in isolation, there is nothing odd or untoward about the fact that the name of the allied intelligence service, the country in question, is redacted in the public version of the report. But given all the rest we know, the name of the country turns out to be quite significant.

What country? Right. Italy.

Now, you might say, at least this shows there was some other basis for the Niger claims other than the forgeries. But, well, not exactly.

According to two sources familiar with the documents and reports in question, those early Italian reports were text transcriptions of what we'd later learn were the forged documents. In other words, they were the phony documents. Not facsimiles or xeroxes or whatever you want to call them. But copies of the text that the documents contained.

When US government officials say we didn't have the documents until long after Wilson's trip, you need to treat it like a Scott McClellan non-denial denial. No, they didn't have the documents, only transcriptions of the documents.

The point being, it was all fruit of the same poison tree. The phony documents was all there ever was behind the Niger canard. There has just been a lot of effort to obscure that very significant fact.