Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

For the last several days, proponents of the Holy Grail of Niger-Iraqi uranium have been pressing a series of articles which have appeared in the Financial Times that they says confirms the uranium story by reference to alleged evidence in the hands of the British.

That evidence, as detailed by the FT, involved smugglers mining uranium from abandoned mines, ones which would lack the industrial equipment required to turn the rock into yellowcake -- a key point that makes non-proliferation experts discount the signficance of the whole story. That's a point we'll return to.

However, for the moment, look at this section, the last two paragraphs at the end of today's follow-up in the FT.

The UK government has stood by its claim that Iraq had sought to buy uranium, and its assertion is expected to be supported by an official inquiry headed by Lord Butler whose report is published tomorrow. The UK has made clear that its claim was not based on the evidence provided in the fake documents, and that it had other evidence that Iraq had tried to buy uranium.

The Senate report adds weight to these claims by detailing the extent to which French intelligence information supported that being gathered by other intelligence agencies. The French information was given particular weight because French companies control Niger's uranium output.

In other words, the British claim that there was other evidence beside the documents is given further weight by the fact that French intelligence also had suspicions about a Niger-Iraq deal. And France's suspicions were uniquely relevant since French consortia actually control the mines.

This is at best a very sloppy reading of the report.

Here's why.

Page 59 of the report states that on November 22nd 2002 French officials told their American counterparts that they had "information on an Iraqi attempt to buy uranium from Niger." They went on to say that they were confident that the transaction did not in fact occur -- a confidence presumably based on their own physical custody of the uranium.

However, in the context of the WMD debate, Iraqi intent was and is quite important, even if attempts to acquire the yellowcake failed. So the French suspicions were important -- particularly because of their role running the mines.

However, the FT ignores what appears in the report ten pages later. There on page 69 the report says ..."March 4, 2003, the U.S. Government learned that the French had based their initial assessment that Iraq had attempted to procure uranium from Niger on the same documents that the U.S. had provided to the [IAEA]."

In other words, the French suspicions, at least as detailed in the report, add no weight to the claims that there was other evidence beside the documents since the French suspicions, by their own account, were based on the documents.

The president's story, from the speech yesterday at Oak Ridge: "In 2002, the United Nations Security Council yet again demanded a full accounting of Saddam Hussein's weapons programs. As he had for over a decade, Saddam Hussein refused to comply. In fact, according to former weapons inspector David Kay, Iraq's weapons programs were elaborately shielded by security and deception operations that continued even beyond the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom. So I had a choice to make: Either take the word of a madman, or defend America. Given that choice, I will defend America every time."

In a story yesterday, the AP described this passage thus: "But Saddam refused to open his country to inspections, Bush said. 'So I had a choice to make: either take the word of a madman or defend America. Given that choice I will defend America.'"

Clearly, that's not precisely what he said. The president said Saddam "refused to comply" not that he "refused to open his country to inspections", though I don't think there's any doubt that the latter was the impression he meant to convey.

Dealing with the president's doubletalk is a challenging business.

Of course on other occasions, the wordplay has been less cagey ...

President Bush: "Saddam Hussein said, I'm not going to expose my weapons, I'm not going to get rid of my -- I'm not going to allow inspectors in, he said." February 26th, 2004.

President Bush: "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..." July 14th, 2003.

There's been a rush of egregious commentary about the Niger uranium story in the last couple days. And one point we hear again and again is that if Joe Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, played a role in recommending him for the trip to Niger, as the SSCI report clearly states, then this wholly changes the legal and political implications of the administration officials' decision to reveal her identity in the press.

As I pointed out a couple days ago, legally it is clearly irrelevant. Political impact is of course both subjective and unpredictable. So, though we might all venture opinions, there's very little way to know.

But, really, why argue?

If there's no legal case and no political problem, why don't the senior administration officials who leaked her identity just come forward?

If their rationale is a good one and they face no legal jeopardy, what's the problem?

It seems like a great opportunity to clear the air, settle the story, ascertain the facts and let the chips fall where they may.

Doing so will save much of the money being spent on the investigation Mr. Fitzgerald is running. They can save themselves a lot of attorneys' fees. And they can have a free opportunity to explain the rationale behind their decision and why they believed it was the right thing to do in the context.

I can only assume by their silence that they're rather less confident about the quality of their explanation and the degree of their legal jeopardy than their many voluble defenders in the conservative press.

There certainly is an unseemly eagerness on the part of the White House to canvass ideas (embodied in legislation) for a possible delay of the November election in the event of a terrorist attack, as this and other articles explain. The rationale is that we need to have some policy in place for a possible election postponement before some precipitating event actually occurs. But my understanding is that we already have a policy in place on postponements: i.e., we don't do them.

Added to my suspicion is the increasingly common refrain from the White House that the Madrid bombing was responsible for Spanish 'appeasement' in Iraq and the obvious subtext that the answer to any future terrorist attack would be to 'not give in', i.e. reelect President Bush.

Several points about the SSCI report on the Niger matter that may not get a lot of attention but are nonetheless important for understanding the larger story ...

You'll note that the footnote at the bottom of page 57 says that in March 2003 Sen. Rockefeller asked the FBI to investigate the source of the forged uranium documents and the motivation of those responsible for them. Because of that investigation, the Committee chose not to examine any questions about the documents themselves, who forged them, where they came from, etc. In fact, the Committee walled its investigation off so that it looked only at what happened with the documents after they appeared in the US Embassy in Rome in October 2002.

Second, in many accounts of this story we hear that multiple intelligence agencies had reports of Iraq's attempts to procure uranium from Niger. But many of those reports or judgments were the fruit of the same poison tree.

On page 69, for instance, the report states that on "March 4, 2003, the U.S. Government learned that the French had based their initial assessment that Iraq had attempted to procure uranium from Niger on the same documents that the U.S. had provided to the INVO" (i.e., the IAEA).

Now, it's a premise of much reporting and in fact a subtext of the committee report that there were these various reports about Niger and that only much later did these documents surface.

That's true with respect to the US, but also misleading.

The French were basing their judgments on documents in question or perhaps a report based on them, as we've seen.

The US, in turn, was basing most, though not all, of its suspicions on these reports it got from this unnamed foreign intelligence agency that provided an initial report to the US shortly after 9/11 and then another with more detail in February 2002, as the SSCI report states. That foreign government was Italy. And the information they provided also stemmed from the same documents.

So France, Italy and the United States each had reports about the alleged Iraq-Niger sales. And each stemmed from the same source -- the forged documents, the origins of which the SSCI chose not to investigate.

The documents weren't peripheral. They were central, though precisely how and why only emerged over time.

Britain is a more complicated case that we'll address later.

I'll dispense with the literary prologue and get right to the point.

Susan Schmidt is known, happily among DC Republicans and not so happily among DC Democrats, as what you might call the "Mikey" (a la Life Cereal fame) of the DC press corps, especially when the cereal is coming from Republican staffers.

This morning she has an article on the Senate intel report and Joe Wilson, specifically focusing on the relevance of Wilson's reporting on Niger (the report says analysts did not see Wilson's findings as weakening claims that Iraq had sought to purchase uranium from Niger) and his wife's role in recommending him for the assignment.

We'll discuss the broader issues of Plame's role in Wilson's assignment and the underlying question of the alleged Iraq-Niger negotiations. A clearer-eyed take on Wilson and report can be found here in this story by Knight Ridder. But for now a few points on Schmidt's treatment.

In her fourth paragraph Schmidt writes that "contrary to Wilson's assertions and even the government's previous statements, the CIA did not tell the White House it had qualms about the reliability of the Africa intelligence that made its way into 16 fateful words in President Bush's January 2003 State of the Union address."

This is one of those cases in which it's helpful to actually read the report rather than just run with what you've got from the majority committee staffer who gave you the spin.

The claim with regards to the back-and-forth was always that the CIA struggled to get the uranium references out of the October 2002 Cincinnati speech and then failed to do so -- though why presicely is less clear -- when the same folks at the White House tried again to get it into the 2003 State of the Union address. And indeed on page 56 the report states that ...

Based on the analyst's comments, the ADDI drafted a memo for the NSC outlining the facts that the CIA believed needed to be changed, and faxed it to the Deputy Natoinal Security Advisor and the speech writers. Referring to the sentence on uranium from Africa the CIA said, "remove the sentence because the amount is in dispute and it is debatable whether it can be acquired from the source. We told Congress that the Brits have exaggerated this issue. Finally, the Iraqis already have 550 metric tons of uranium oxide in their inventory."

... Later that day, the NSC staff prepared draft seven of the Cincinnati speech which contained the line, "and the regime has been caught attempting to purchase substantial amounts of uranium oxide from sources in Africa." Draft seven was sent to CIA for coordination.

... The ADDI told Committee staff he received the new draft on October 6, 2002 and noticed that the uranium information had "not been addressed," so he alerted the DCI. The DCI called the Deputy National Security Advisor directly to outline the CIA's concerns. On July 16, 2003, the DCI testified before the SSCI that he told the Deputy National Security Advisor that the "President should not be a fact witness on this issue," because his analysts had told him the "reporting was weak." The NSC then removed the uranium reference from the draft of the speech.

Although the NSC had already removed the uranium reference from the speech, later on October 6th, 2002 the CIA sent a second fax to the White House which said, "more on why we recommend removing the sentence about procuring uranium oxide from Africa: Three points (1) The evidence is weak. One of the two mines cited by the source as the location of the uranium oxide is flooded. The other mine city by the source is under the control of the French authorities. (2) The procurement is not particularly significant to Iraq's nuclear ambitions because the Iraqis already have a large stock of uranium oxide in their inventory. And (3) we have shared points one and two with Congress, telling them that the Africa story is overblown and telling them this is one of the two issues where we differed with the British."

I find it difficult to square that with Schmidt's claim that the report states that the CIA "did not tell the White House it had qualms about the reliability of the Africa intelligence."

Then there's a point with regards to Plame's role in selecting Wilson for the mission. The report includes testimony from those involved saying that Plame did suggest Wilson for the mission -- a point we'll return to. Based on this Schmidt says ...

Plame's role could be significant in an ongoing investigation into whether a crime was committed when her name and employment were disclosed to reporters last summer.


The report may bolster the rationale that administration officials provided the information not to intentionally expose an undercover CIA employee, but to call into question Wilson's bona fides as an investigator into trafficking of weapons of mass destruction. To charge anyone with a crime, prosecutors need evidence that exposure of a covert officer was intentional.

Again, a conversation with a lawyer may have been more helpful than one with a staffer.

There's no 'challenging the bona fides of a political opponent' exception to the law in question. While Plame's alleged role may have some political traction, it's legally irrelevant. Government officials are not allowed to disclose the identity of covert intelligence agents, whether they feel like they have a good reason or not.

Finally, down toward the end of Schmidt's article she writes that: "According to the former Niger mining minister, Wilson told his CIA contacts, Iraq tried to buy 400 tons of uranium in 1998."

I read the report's discussion of the whole Niger business. And I didn't see that reference. However, on page 44 there is a reference to Wilson reporting to the CIA that "an Iranian delegation was interested in purchasing 400 tons of yellowcake from Niger in 1998 [but that] no contract was ever signed with Iran." (emphasis added).

Perhaps I missed the reference that Schmidt is noting. But it seems awfully similar to the one the report notes about Iran -- same date, same tonnage. Presumably in this case, Schmidt innocently confused the two neighboring and similar-sounding countries, though it's a goof you'd think an editor would have caught.

I've always thought that if Washington's Iraq War were a history play or perhaps a tragedy, on the model of Shakespeare, that the folks in Doug Feith's made-to-order intel shop at the Pentagon would be the dingbat comic relief, the antic if malevolent players who provide the theatrical diversion from the main rush of the drama's forward motion. And on this point the mammoth Senate intel report does not disappoint. Pages 304 to 312 of the report provide some enlightening, depressing and even entertaining reading on that count.

From those pages, there's one point that caught my attention.

You'll remember that in recent days and weeks we've been harping again and again on this October 20, 2002 column by Jim Hoagland in the Post in which Hoagland praises the administration's mau-mauing of the CIA that had finally gotten Langley's analysts religion on Iraq, al Qaida, WMD and the rest of it.

In the course of that column, Hoagland notes that there were still some hold-outs against the new party line. And he gives the following example ...

Such misjudgments have continued until today. After four months of inconclusive debate following Sept. 11, the agency produced a new analysis last spring titled: "Iraq and al Qaeda: A Murky Relationship." It fails to make much of a case for anything, I am told. It echoes the views of Paul Pillar, the national intelligence officer for the Middle East and South Asia, and other analysts who have consistently expressed doubts that Iraq has engaged in international terrorism or trained others to do so since 1993.

Go read the pages I noted above to find out the backstory to that analysis or report, which makes Hoagland's mumbo look even more jumbo than it did before. It was cooked and coddled and rubbed and massaged and yet still it failed to meet Hoagland's outlandish requirements.

More details a little later.

A hint of regret, Sen. Rockefeller?

I'm sure they'll show it again later on C-SPAN. So if you get a chance, definitely try to catch a bit of the Roberts-Rockefeller press conference this morning announcing the release of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee report on the Iraq intelligence failure.

Sen. Rockefeller and the rest of the Democrats on the Committee voted unanimously to approve the report that a) places all the blame for the intelligence failures on the CIA, b) specifically -- and quite improbably -- rules out administration pressure as a cause of the problem, and c) avoids any discussion of how or whether the administration manipulated or distorted intelligence community findings to build their case for war.

The very structure of the investigation, as Rockefeller noted, necessarily pushed any discussion of the administration's responsibility for or role in the debacle back until after the November election -- a veritable tour de force of political convenience.

Yet in his comments at the press conference Rockefeller seemed to say that each of these conclusions was either false or so incomplete as to be deeply misleading.

As one of the first reporters to get a question in perceptively asked, why exactly then did they vote for it?

Good question.

The reality is that the CIA is responsive to its president, its master. Its over-responsiveness is one of its key institutional flaws -- not just under this president, but under previous ones too. The CIA really did believe at least that Iraq continued to maintain some stocks of chemical and biological weapons. But its reports, analyses and judgments escalated dramatically in their certainty and scope after President Bush was sworn in to office (significantly, even before 9/11). Those at the CIA with more alarmist views gained favor at the White House, while those who were more skeptical lost it.

Remember in all of this that the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which Sen. Roberts noted was the focus of the Senate report, was hastily cobbled together after the White House had spent a year making its quite alarmist case about Iraq's illicit weapons.

There is no bright line separating the administration's hyping of the threat and manipulation of the evidence and the CIA's own misreading of the evidence and its institutional decision to service the president's needs.

The aim of the administration's defenders -- Senator Roberts, et al. -- is to draw such a bright line (I'm tempted to say 'forge' but let's say 'draw'), thus suggesting the reasoning that because the CIA is guilty, that the White House must be innocent. But that's not true. It is itself yet another deception. They're both guilty -- only of different things.

The CIA is guilty: of aiding and abetting.