Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

While things are spiraling down into the memory hole it sometimes makes sense to give them a few quick tugs before they vanish into oblivion altogether.

Along those lines, remember that some time back there was a big splash about the UN oil-for-food program and claims that various international dignitaries -- including the UN official charged with overseeing the program, Benon Sevan -- had taken bribes or kickbacks from Saddam Hussein out of funds generated by the program.

The evidence for these particular charges stemmed entirely from a collection of documents allegedly in the possession of Mr. Ahmed Chalabi, documents Chalabi apparently deemed too important to let anyone outside his circle see.

There were two Iraqi investigations into this alleged wrongdoing.

First, there was one run by Chalabi crony Claude Hankes Drielsma at Chalabi's direction, with assistance from KPMG (one imagines because Arthur Andersen was no longer available).

Another inquiry was established at the behest of Paul Bremer and run by the head of the Iraq's independent Board of Supreme Audit, Ihsan Karim, with assistance from Ernst and Young.

There was, to put it mildly, a pronounced hostility and antagonism between the two investigations. Chalabi wanted to keep the investigation under his control; Bremer's efforts blocked that aspiration.

Each of the investigations, it turns out, has run into difficulties, though of rather different sorts.

As for Claude Hankes Drielsma and his inquiry, the last we heard from him, early in June, he was claiming that all the computer files of his investigation had been destroyed by shadowy hackers on the same day Chalabi's HQ was raided in Baghdad. In a particular coup, the hackers managed to simultaneously destroy his back-ups kept on various hard-drives. "This report would have been even more damning than anticipated," huffed Hankes Drielsma.

KPMG has stopped working on the investigation because they're owed hundreds of thousands of dollars which have gone unpaid.

In the middle of June, Karim's investigation -- the one run through the Board of Supreme Audit -- signed an agreement with the UN investigation headed up by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker to cooperate and share information.

Finally some progress.

But then this last Thursday, Karim was killed when a bomb was placed under one of the cars in his convoy.

Chalabi spokesman, Zaab Sethna told Reuters that Karim's outfit hadn't been well-equipped to handle the investigation. And then, with some mix of irony, understatement, and goonishness, he said: "The assassination of Mr Karim is very worrying. Bremer appointed the audit board and left them on their own ... The investigation was the highest profile probe the board was handling. It is impossible to speculate who killed Mr Karim, but the oil-for-food corruption involved very powerful people inside and outside Iraq."

So, with all these tumults and jagged occurrences, let's not forget to ask. Has anyone outside the Chalabi crew yet seen those documents? Given that we know Chalabi actually ran his own forgery shop in Iraqi Kurdistan in the mid-1990s, and his general lack of 100% reliability, it's hardly an idle question.

The person who really needs to see them, of course, is Volcker, who is not only (sad to say it, but true) the only investigator left standing, but the one heading up the only investigation that actually has real credibility.

The last batch of articles on this matter date from mid-June. And, as nearly as I could figure, they implied that Chalabi had still not coughed up the documents.

If anyone knows otherwise, I'd be eager to hear.

A brief thought on the vice-presidential choice.

For starters, I have no idea who Kerry will pick. And I haven't even given a lot of thought to who he should pick, though I do agree with John Judis, who wrote in a guest-post here a week before last, that personal chemistry shouldn't be the criterion Kerry uses.

All that aside, here's a thought ...

Smart money seems to be on John Edwards or Dick Gephardt getting the nod.

But if you look back over recent American history you have to go back to Ronald Reagan's choice of George Bush in 1980 to find an instance in which a favorite or even prominent contender got picked. In fact, with the possible exception of Lloyd Bentsen in 1988, I think you might even argue that not since Reagan's choice of Bush has a presidential candidate chosen a vice-presidential candidate who anyone had even considered a serious contender for the VP slot.

Think about: Joe Lieberman? Dick Cheney? Jack Kemp? Dan Quayle? Geraldine Ferraro? Each totally out of left-field. Or, as the case may be, right-field.

Bill Clinton's choice of Al Gore, admittedly, falls a bit outside my model. But not by much. (In retrospect, it seems a logical choice. But at the time it went against all the logic of regional or ideological balancing.)

Point being, that since 1980 the norm for vice-presidential picks seems to be that pundits bandy about half a dozen names of serious contenders. And then the pick ends up being someone who was either never even considered or someone who was thought the longest of long-shots.

Now, like everyone else did in 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996 and 2000, I certainly figure that it'll be one of the logical choices -- Edwards or Gephardt most likely. But if it is one of those two, it'll be a break from the trend of the last quarter century.

As we promised yesterday, below is the first installment of our interview with Senator Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The interview was originally done for an article on John Kerry’s and the Democrats’ foreign policy, which you can find in the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly.

The interview was conducted in late March, in Biden’s Senate office, with one member of his staff present.

The second installment of the interview will be published the beginning of next week.


TPM: One of the main points of the piece --- take a hypothetical Democratic administration nine months from now --- what would the continuities and discontinuities be with where Clinton left off in 2000? I mean, obviously the chessboard has moved all around. That's a given. But on an issue like North Korea, an issue like Iran, the Atlantic relationship and so forth, and broad kinds of questions about how you mix diplomatic muscle and military force --- what would you identify as the main continuities or the main discontinuities? Again, either prescriptively or descriptively.

BIDEN: I wouldn't even try.

TPM: I’m sorry?

BIDEN: I wouldn't. I don't think you can connect those dots prescriptively or descriptively. I think it is a false --- I think the paradigm is the wrong one. I mean, I think it is literally impossible to suggest how the policies of the Clinton administration would be continued, augmented, changed, morphed, discarded in the year 2005. The world has fundamentally changed since he left office. And the damage done to our relationships around the world, coupled with the emergence of what was a perceived threat. But even the Clinton administration never fully contemplated --- no one did --- the potential consequence of a serious international terrorist organization coordinating a lethal attack against the U.S.

There isn't anybody who wrote about it. I made a speech on September 10th to the Press Club. I laid out in great detail what it was I thought we should be doing and how this administration was squandering the opportunity to deal with this threat of terror. But the truth was that I don't think that anybody contemplated --- I didn't anyway --- contemplated how not only the psyche of the country but the psyche of the world was changed by that event. And now so many pieces have been moved on the chess board [that] there are no straight lines. I don't see any way. I could better answer the question in suggesting to you how I think a Kerry administration would divert from or have continuity with a Bush administration.

TPM: Sure, okay.

BIDEN: I can do that because I don't think anybody could rationally do the former, quite honestly. I think that the --- a Kerry administration, not Kerry, [but] a Kerry administration would reflect a foreign policy that was emerging and being debated during the Clinton administration but I think is now gelled as a consequence of events in the last four years.

Let me be more precise. In 1994, when I was pleading with the president to use force in the Balkans, Warren Christopher was adamantly opposed. The bulk of the administration except for the president was adamantly opposed. We talked in terms of sovereignty, of nations not being able to be violated. I made a very controversial speech in ‘94 saying I believe countries forfeit their sovereignty when they engage in certain activities --- genocide being one of those activities, harboring terrorist organizations with the knowledge that they are doing damage to other nations.

I was roundly criticized by the foreign policy establishment in my party for that at the time and ironically by the Republicans. When I introduced legislation here to give the president authority to use force in Kosovo the people who blocked it were the conservative Republicans. And if you go back and look at their argument it was the sovereignty of Yugoslavia --- ‘we had no right to intervene’.

So I think one of the things that has happened is that in the debate within my party, my team has won. There is no longer nor should there remain the standard for use of force that pertained from the Vietnam War until the time that we lost the election in 2000. And there is an emerging change in the standard. Even Kofi Annan two years later came along and by inference acknowledged that an international body cannot allow genocide to take place within a nation. We were still arguing --- Democrats and Republicans --- or the bulk of them were still on the side of the equation different than the one I was promoting, for example.

I think John Kerry --- I know John Kerry personally --- and I think the Democratic party generically in a new administration would be a party that was, a government that was, something along the lines that I've been arguing for, which is to have an enlightened nationalism --- to realize that force is a legitimate tool in the toolbox and able to be exercised under a series of circumstances short of all out invasion [on the part] of the United States …

So that I think that what you see is emerging, is that the world has changed, is that a Kerry administration would reflect a willingness to use force unilaterally if one of several conditions pertained: One, international conventions were being violated; they affected American interests; and the international community would not step up to the ball.

Case in point --- took me a while, and I think he would tell you this if you asked him, to convince Clinton to use force in Kosovo. He kept saying, “The UN will not go…” . I said “Don't go to the UN” --- and I'm an internationalist --- I said “Don't go to the UN. You're going to get ‘no’ for an answer. But they know, we know and the world knows that there's genocide taking place on the continent of Europe. You have an obligation to lead. And if you do, the French will follow.”

That was a gigantic departure from the orthodoxy not only of the left but the center of my party. That is now the center of my party.

TPM: Can I ask you a hypothetical about that? What happened in Kosovo was, as you say, we just decided not to ask the UN. But we did ask NATO and got a ‘yes’. And even though…

BIDEN: No. We didn't beforehand. We went before NATO agreed.

TPM: Okay.

BIDEN: We went before NATO agreed and we attempted to then make it a NATO operation because I was convinced that what would happen is that the French and Germans would be exposed. They knew we should've done this. But they do not have the political center or the political leadership in Europe to generate that consensus. They were timid. But that's why America must remain a European power. By our acting it made it impossible for Germany and France not to act.

And ironically if you go back and look at the polling data, what I predicted at the time turned out to be true. 75% of the people of France and Germany thought their countries should act in Bosnia. Their leaders, because they were weak and having no clear mandate from their people --- weak, not personally weak, but weak in terms of either having been coalition governments or bare majorities in their parliaments --- were unwilling to take the chance. So I think you'd see a Kerry administration being willing to exercise force in the face of --- if two conditions pertained --- One, that the exercise of the force was likely to result in the outcome that we were seeking. The difference between exercising force in Kosovo and force in Somalia is that we did not have the physical wherewithal and the likely allies to be able to succeed in the exercise of that force. So there is a very classic judgment that has to be made about the doability. But if it is doable, there are new circumstances in which --- quote --- ‘the integrity of a nation’ can be violated if they're engaged in genocide, if they're clearly and unequivocally harboring terrorists who have done damage, and beyond the question of whether or not they are about to attack, preemption or the like.

It's not preemption. It is a new standard for when you basically forfeit your sovereignty as a nation-state. You cannot claim to be a civilized nation if you're engaged in genocide. So, every place with genocide should we intervene? No There has to be the practical capacity to do so. But where the two exist, I think you see the Kerry administration exercise power like the administration of President Clinton did in the 7th year of his [presidency] --- but that was, remember --- I love these Republicans --- that was in the face of overwhelming Republican opposition!

Second thing is, so there's kind of a new standard that has emerged, that I think is the combination of what I refer to as this enlightened nationalism, that we operate in our national interests in every circumstance where we can under the umbrella of international rules and the international community. But where the damage and danger is irrefutable, we reserve the right to act in our own interest or in the interest of humanity, if we have the capacity. And that is a different standard than existed for the first 27 years I was a United States senator.

That is different than the standard and the rationale of our neoconservative friends. They argue that the exercise of force is important because we are at the apex of our power and that we are more enlightened than the rest of the world. And when we have the ability to exercise force it allows us to leverage our power in direct proportion to the moral disapprobation of the rest of the world.

So if I say, if there's ten people in the room and there's a guy out in the hall screaming and he's bothering us and I say “We ought to stop that guy. We ought to stop that guy.” And everyone says, “Oh no, no. This guy's a bad guy and this guy's gonna cause real problems and there'll be dah dah dah dah dah.” And if I say, “I don't care what the hell all of you think.” And I get up and I go beat the shit out of the guy out there. And I come back in and sit down. You’re all going to look around, and when you misbehave … And I say, “Hey man!” You’re going to go “Whoa whoa whoa…”

These are the nine guys that aren't going to be able to constrain him. He doesn’t care what anybody else thinks. That's what they mean by leveraging power.

TPM: For the demonstration effect?

BIDEN: Sure, you've probably read these guys as well. And they're pretty smart guys. These are not a bunch of Christian Coalition guys. These are serious, serious people. These are patriotic Americans. These are guys who really truly aren't looking to get Halliburton contracts --- that's an ancillary benefit --- but these guys really think --- Paul Wolfowitz is an idealist --- he really thinks you can impose democracy.

We all agree democracy --- if all the Middle East was a democratic institution then in fact our interests are greatly enhanced because democracies tend not to go to war with other democracies. But that's a far cry from being able to impose it.

The Kerry administration will understand, in my view --- I know this from a long --- I know John well --- is that there is a need for you to work a long time for you to establish the soil under which the seeds of liberal democratic institutions can take root. That means public diplomacy; that means [being] engaged in economic initiatives; that means political interchange; that means everything from student exchange programs to saying if you step across that line I'm going to blow you to kingdom-come.

There's is a mix of these things. These guys don't think that. They think all this soft power is useless. If you listen and you read [Joseph] Nye's book about soft power, it is ridiculed by these guys. Well let me tell you, soft power is not enough to do it. But you can't get the ultimate --- if you were to take a look if --- do you have any children?

TPM: I don't.

BIDEN: OK, let's assume you had a --- tomorrow you get married and in a year you have a young child and you think where the hell is --- what's that kid when they're asked to write their senior thesis in the year, you know, 2024 and ask the question, what were the major problems facing humanity at the turn of the 21st century?

They would probably list everything from the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the growth of international terror and the nexus between that and weapons of mass destruction, the great disparity between the haves and have-nots and the development of the third and fourth world, the spread of epidemics and pandemics like AIDS. And you can name a few more … Not the growth of radicalism --- in particular among the 1.2 billion Muslims in the world --- not a single one of these lends themselves to a military solution. Not one.

But at least three of them may require the exercise of military force in the exercise of a solution. Internationalists up until now --- and 30 percent of my party --- have argued that a military solution basically is never a solution unless we're physically attacked. The Republican side says [it’s] the only solution, under the neoconservative approach, international organizations are --- they're the Lilliputians that are tying down Gulliver, us.

And that includes, by the way, NATO. Just think, they will wax nostalgically that if we weren't in NATO we'd have another 110,000 troops to deploy. And what the hell do we need them there for? So I know it is --- I know you fully understand this.

You know the president always brags with me. And what he said to me not long ago was, “Joe, I don't do nuance” --- as if that was a real cool thing, right? I mean literally, that's a quote. When I said to him, “It's a nuanced situation, Mr. President.” He said, “I don't do nuance, Mr. Chairman.” Well you know --- and Kerry's accused of being only nuance. Well let me tell you something, a lot of this is not so simple and it requires the use of more than one tool in the toolbox.

So what you see is emerging, I think, and I think it will in the Kerry administration, an intersection of --- to oversimplify it --- an adherence, and a value, and a promotion of international institutions like our grandfathers did at the end of WWII so we wouldn't carry the whole load of the whole world all the time, and the willingness to exercise force if need be to enforce the rules of the road when they're violated.

Case in point, imagine if after 9/11 the president of the United States sent the secretary of state and the vice president to Europe and said, “We need a new international consensus on two important points.” Number one --- at least a U.S.-Europeean consensus --- there must be some policy short of deterrence that is available to us --- either non-action or deterrence and retaliation --- there must be something because we have a new situation here.

The neocons are right: this is the first time stateless actors with no territory to protect, no interest in protecting individuals, capable of using modern technology, let alone nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction … You don't need weapons of mass destruction. So the combination of technology, sophistication, laptop computers in a cave in Tora Bora. They can orchestrate that. We've never faced that before.

TPM: Can I ask you a question? It seems that one of the shortcomings of the neoconservative worldview is their focus on states.

BIDEN: Exactly right. Bingo.

TPM: Okay.

BIDEN: This is the point that I was trying desperately to make to my colleagues and I tried to articulate it on Stephanopoulos's show. The fundamental flaw --- forget flaw, the fundamental difference between Joe Biden, John Kerry on the one hand, and the neoconservatives on the other is that they genuinely believe --- and put it in the negative sense --- they do not believe it is possible for a sophisticated international criminal network that will rain terror upon a country, that has the potential to kill 3,000 or more people in a country, can exist without the sponsorship of a nation-state.

They really truly believe --- and this was the Axis of Evil speech --- if you were able to decapitate the regimes in Iraq, Iran, North Korea, you would in fact dry up the tentacles of terror.

I think that is fundamentally flawed reasoning. If every one of those regimes became a liberal democracy tomorrow, does anybody think we wouldn't have code orange again in the United States? Rhetorical question. Does anybody think we don't have to worry about the next major event like Madrid occurring in Paris or in Washington or in Sao Paulo? Gimme a break. But they really believe this is the way to do it.


See, these guys aren't stupid. It's not like these guys are a venal bunch of guys. These are really smart guys.

TPM: There's a quote from--I don't remember it word for word—but Doug Feith basically said that's the fundamental insight of their strategy: the continuing centrality of states.

BIDEN: Exactly right. And I think that's fundamentally mistaken, fundamentally mistaken. Now if they were going to make the ad hominem kind of arguments they usually make when they have these debates, other than guys like --- guys who will have a serious discussion with you, Kristol sits here with me and Kristol argues and makes his case without ad hominem arguments. But the way Cheney'd respond to that would be to say, “Well, are you telling me there's not more terror when these guys are running [the show]?”

Yeah, there is. Do they aid and abet, do they have sort of a synergistic impact? But are they, if you eliminate them, the life blood that flows to these organizations? It is much more important for us to be able to go at their sources of funding. It's more like organized crime. They love this thing about, you know, it's not law enforcement. It's not law enforcement in the sense that we have to have a warrant to go get them--- that’s the implication. But it is basically gumshoe work.

It is intelligence; it is cutting off the source of their supply of money. It is infiltrating their organizations beyond bombing their training bases. That's a good thing. They bomb their training camps --- that’s a good thing. We did a good thing in getting rid of Saddam. That son-of-a-bitch was a butcher. But it had nothing to do with our central problem, terror.

And the reason why it's so dangerous what they're doing, their approach --- it's not intentional --- but it takes their eye off the ball. It's the wrong focus. If you take a look at ---it's presumptuous of me to say this ---take a look at the speech I delivered on the 10th of September 2001, the day before, actually about 14 hours before, 20 hours before what happened. And my argument there was, these guys --- like most of us --- their greatest strength is their greatest weakness. And their greatest strength is the ability to focus. What has every Republican administration concluded was the most important lesson for presidential governance from Reagan on? Focus. One of the biggest criticisms of --- generic criticisms of --- Clinton? Too many foci. So these guys, focus.

Now, when they came into office they had two overwhelming preoccupations and necessarily at the expense of everything else. There's only so much gray matter able to be brought to a subject matter in any administration. It is not a criticism; it is kind of hard to walk and chew gum at the same time on this stuff. People don't understand that. There’s only 20, 30 people in an administration who are the intellectual energy and center of the administration. Every administration.

And what did they focus on? National missile defense --- from the day they took office, at the exclusion of everything else. The preoccupation was palpable. And that's why I made the speech. I didn't know it was going to come on the 11th. But I said it was going to come and it was gonna come relatively soon. Because they ignored --- I'm not arguing they could have stopped 9-11. But I am arguing that all the resources --- the intellectual, political, and military resources --- were focused on, except to keep everything else just sort of bouncing along, on national missile defense. After 9/12, all the focus went, whoosh, Iraq. So what did we lose with that?

TPM: Which was part of the connection in their mind to missile defense in the first place.

BIDEN: Bingo. You're dead-on right. Now what were some of the consequences of that? One of the consequences of that was --- these guys want to get rid of al Qaida more than anybody does. They want to hang Bin Laden by his private parts. They want to chop him up, these guys --- it's not they don't care about it.

But what did this preoccupation require them to do? It required them and the president to choose Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s advice over Powell's advice about expanding the international security force in Afghanistan. We came back from --- how long were we there? Four days? Three days? Five days? [Crosstalk with aide] We met with every major --- and we were at Bagram as well --- we met with every major military figure in the country we had, including the Brits and others who were there. Every military man said, “You've got to expand the security force here.” These guys said, “Oh nah, nah, nah.”

Two neoconservative principles pertained. Not joking. One was that if you bring them in, they're going to constrain our ability to go after al Qaeda because we're going to have to coordinate with them. But the second one trumped the first. We're not going to put enough forces in to really get al Qaeda, because we'll be draining forces and resources from our efforts in Iraq, which we really want to do.

So what was the result? They turned it over to the warlords, basically.

And I can assure you --- my conversation with Condi Rice … was, I said, “Condi…” I meet with her once a week, we're supposed to do telephone not meeting --- it’s a long story --- remember I was the guy saying these guys are full of hubris, they don't talk to us anymore? And then Henry Hyde said it. And then they got a meeting and we got a meeting and it was agreed Joe would meet with her once a week. You know, Mikey will eat the cereal [unintelligible]. And I remember coming out and I remember telling Tony Blinken --- he might know the date or the time.

I said, “You know what she just said to me?” I said, “Condi, we may lose Afghanistan”.

She said, “What do you mean?”

And I said, “Look what's going on in Herat with Ismail Khan.”

She said, “What's the matter.”

I looked at her and I said, “Well, you know …” and I started explaining and she said, “Look, al Qaida's not there. The Taliban's not there. There's security there.”

I said, “You mean turning it over to the warlords?”

She said, “Yeah, it's always been that way.”

So here's the other little piece to --- not confuse you --- but I don't know how you write it. See the other piece that came in here, is you had a split among the neoconservatives, between the nation builders and the guys who said, ‘No, we don't build nations.’

So we had Cheney and Rumsfeld among others finding it convenient to say, consistent with neocon principles, ‘We're going to move on to Iraq.’ But also, ‘I don't give a crap about rebuilding.’ Look, remember that game when you were a kid. You'd go up to the boardwalk when you rented the place for two weeks and it rained and your parents didn't know what to do with you? And it was called whack-a-mole. This little mole pops its head up and you hit it?

Well these guys believe in whack-a-mole. They believe, look, if these guys come back, if the Taliban comes back, we'll go back and crush them again. It's more logical. It's more realistic. There's never been a nation state here of any consequence. We can't do this anyway. And by the way, we have Iraq.

So what's happened now? Do we have those attacks in Madrid and in Bali because we didn't get [bin Laden]? I don't know. But let me tell you something: it seems to me that we diverted our attention --- as my dad used to say, God rest his soul, “Joey, first things first. If everything is equally important to you, nothing is a priority to you, son.”


End of Part One.

Part two of our interview will run the beginning of next week.

I just picked up the newly revised and expanded edition of Thomas Powers' Intelligence Wars, a compilation of his essays from The New York Review of Books. And in the preface to the new edition -- which is all I've had a chance to read so far -- he talks about the key structural problem with the CIA, which is, paradoxically, its 'responsiveness' -- its sensitivity, eagerness to please and validate the beliefs, agendas, aims, even the fantasies of its master, the sitting President of the United States.

(For some sense of this 'responsiveness', see this highly telling, though perhaps now much-regretted column by Jim Hoagland from October 20, 2002 in which Hoagland describes how steady pressure from the White House got the Agency to get religion on Iraq and WMD. Actually, to be more precise, it describes how pressure from the White House led not only to getting religion but to the elevation of what we might call the most 'responsive' folks at Langley. Later, of course, Hoagland shifted gears to the 'CIA sold the White House a bill of goods' thesis after word came down from HQ to stop zigging and start zagging.)

Today, everyone is waiting with frenzied expectation to see what's going to be contained in that soon-to-be-released Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on Iraq intelligence failures.

Here's one thing I suspect we'll hear about.

Remember those aluminum tubes?

Those were the tubes imported by Iraq which were so precisely and finely manufactured that they could only have been intended for use in gas centrifuges to enrich uranium. That was the story at least -- the tubes that launched a thousand ships in the tragicomic Dubyiad.

There were always doubters, of course. And some rather important ones, particularly the experts at the Department of Energy -- the folks in the US government who actually have real experience in enriching uranium and making nuclear weapons, a rather potent credential.

They didn't think the aluminum tubes were for nukes.

Yet that seemingly qualified verdict was overruled by contending voices at the CIA, particularly one analyst who took up the tubes case aggressively.

As David Albright wrote in March 2003, "For over a year and a half, an analyst at the CIA has been pushing the aluminum tube story, despite consistent disagreement by a wide range of experts in the United States and abroad. His opinion, however, obtained traction in the summer of 2002 with senior members of the Bush Administration, including the President."

In any case, who did the actual technical analysis of the tubes for the CIA? Apparently they hired an outside consultant/contractor -- given the US government's expertise in the production of nuclear weapons, a rather dubious instance of outsourcing. And that contractor came back with the thumbs up on the nuclear verdict.

But the thumb, it seems, didn't start out up. It needed help.

Apparently, the first time they came back with their judgment it was either ambiguous or negative on whether these tubes seemed likely to be destined for an Iraqi nuclear program.

Only that wasn't the answer the tube-master at the CIA wanted. And they were told so in no uncertain terms.

Getting the thumbs-up apparently required a bit of couching, a clear message that the initial thumbs-down (or perhaps thumbs-sideways) wasn't the right answer.

Verdict number two, I'm told, came back on the mark, with an answer finely tuned to meet the required specifications.

"Send your Church Directory to your State Bush-Cheney '04 Headquarters or give to a BC04 Field Rep. ... Identify another conservative church in your community who we can organize for Bush ... Receive a list from you [sic] County Chair of all non-registered church members and Pro-Bush Conservatives ... place reminder bulletin about all Christian citizens needing to vote in Sunday program or on a board near the church entrance."

Just a few of the "duties" of Bush-Cheney campaign Church coordinators, as outlined by this Bush-Cheney campaign document obtained by the Washington Post.

Let them eat Adam Smith and keep their invisible hands to themselves ...

U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Thomas Donohue says those who lose their jobs to off-shoring -- about a quarter of a million folks a year -- should "stop whining."

Actually, I think those selfish grumblers should stop their complaining too because they're not the only ones who are suffering.

If it weren't for the million-plus jobs lost to export of jobs overseas since President Bush took office, he wouldn't still be struggling to create his first net new job since the Supreme Court made him president way back when.

So, personally, I'd like to join my voice to Tom Donohue's and advise these whiners to start beating the pavement for a new service sector job and focusing on the sufferings of our fearless leader rather than always having it be about me, me, me!

This month, in The Atlantic Monthly, I have an article on John Kerry's foreign policy and, more broadly, where the Dems are on foreign policy in the post-9/11 and -- one can only hope -- soon-to-be post-Bush era.

In the course of reporting that article I talked to various Democratic bigwigs and smallwigs. And one of those in the former category was Sen. Joe Biden (D) of Delaware, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a possible contender for Secretary of State should John Kerry win in November -- the other two main contenders being Richard Holbrooke and Sandy Berger.

It was an extensive interview covering various contemporary foreign policy debates. And I found it extremely enlightening about the differences that separate the parties today as well as the divisions and directions of the Dems.

In any case, we'll be publishing the interview in three parts, with the first part hopefully coming later this afternoon or early tomorrow.

Imagine that. Back a year and a half ago, we here at TPM went on for several days telling you about the case of Allen Raymond, once head of GOP Marketplace LLC, a phone bank operation, and all-around GOP jack-of-all-trades.

As we reported back then, the New Hampshire GOP had hired him to do phone banking work on election day 2002 when Senator John Sununu pulled off his close-call victory over out-going Governor Jeanne Shaheen.

Somehow, though -- and it's always amazing how these things happen -- that innocent effort turned into a campaign to jam the phone lines of the Democrats' get-out-the-vote operation on election day, with a phone bank out in Idaho making countless five-second hang-up calls to phone numbers of the Democratic coordinated campaign offices as well as the offices of the Manchester firefighters union, which was also doing get-out-the-vote work that morning.

The Executive Director of the New Hampshire GOP, Chuck McGee, resigned -- not because he hired Raymond but because he lied about it to the local paper. McGee, of course, had no idea how things had gone so terribly awry. And before long he had resurfaced as the state head of Citizens for a Sound Economy, C. Boyden Gray's anti-tax outfit that the old Bushie now runs with Dick Armey.

In any case, the hunt was on to find out how this dreadful misunderstanding had taken place.

We did our own bit of sleuthing and found out that Raymond was also the Executive Director of the Republican Leadership Council -- an outfit run by a long list of Republican worthies -- and that his company had done phone banking for them on election day too. And Steve Kornacki of PoliticsNJ.com found out that Raymond also seemed to be behind another phone banking scandal in New Jersey.

(If you're interested in all the gory details, go to the TPM seach page and stick in Raymond's name.)

In any case, as you might expect, Raymond denied the whole thing. Until today that is, when he copped a plea in U.S. District Court in Concord.

In a statement out today, the Executive Director of the state Democrats, Michael Vlacich, says, "While Allen Raymond of GOP Marketplace was charged in this case, the US Attorney makes it clear that there are co-conspirators, both known and unknown. We urge the U.S. Attorney to continue working to bring all of the people involved in this matter to justice."

Another book recommendation: Diarmaid MacCulloch's The Reformation: A History just out from Viking.

I've been hunting around for a good single volume history of the Reformation for years. And this is a very, very good book. The parts of the era about which I have some detailed knowledge -- particularly the English Reformation, and its echo in the American colonies -- are gracefuly and judiciously handled. The rest was told in a way I always found accessible and clear.

A book like this is a joy to read because the author's deep mastery of the topic shines through effortlessly page after page, allowing him to anticipate developments further down in the narrative and refer back to earlier discussions while never letting the reader get lost in the shuffle. With a topic as broad as Reformation history, spanning almost two centuries, fracturing into different confessional histories, with different tempos and outcomes in different parts of Europe, that sort of command is essential for the story not to descend into chaos or a crude textbookish regimentation.

The emphasis is on ideology -- the internal dimensions of religious thought and theological transformation -- rather than the economic and political trends that shaped the period, though those issues are by no means short-changed. Neither are movements of Catholic renewal, reform and reassertion crowded out or shortchanged by the story of the growth of Protestantism.

If there's any criticism I have of the book it's that it is marred by an occasional infelicity of language or perhaps minute editing errors. If every book had so few it would be a blessing. And I mean perhaps as few as a dozen in a book that runs hundreds of pages. But here it presents a certain level of distraction much as one might find listening to a LP of a brilliantly conducted symphony which nonetheless has three or four scratches that stand out all the more for the excellence of the recording.

In any case, that's a minor matter, just something I thought I'd note. If this topic interests you, this book will not disappoint you.

I'm never sure with William Safire where the line is between Safire the snookered and Safire the snookerer. Nor am I sure which is the case in this instance. (With so many permutations of snookerhood I need a language maven to sort out all the possibilities. But I'm not sure he'd take my call.)

Safire is now the first columnist to grab hold of the story which ran in Financial Times on Monday alleging A) a new trove of evidence that Iraq and other nations were illicitly seeking to purchase uranium from Niger and B) that the mystery of who is behind the notorious Niger uranium forgeries has been solved.

The FT story is yet to have been picked up by other news outlets in the United States but it has become a matter of acute interest and frenzied promotion for what I guess we'd call certain interested parties in Washington. And I half suspect that one of them put Safire on to his piece.

In any case, to Safire ...

Safire's claim is that the CIA ignored solid intelligence -- principally from the Italians, but also from the Brits and the French -- and then fumbled the ball irretrievably by getting bamboozled by the phony documents.

Here's Safire ...

A close reading of the article suggests the original human source was Italian, whose tip was confirmed by British and French electronic intercepts. C.I.A. analysts, who often disdain data not gathered by us, ignored the real thing until they were suckered by the forged documents.

That's astonishing. Is that really how it happened? Not really.

This is an object lesson in how if you're going to run with a story based largely on disinformation from two foreign intelligence services, it's worth cranking up the Nexis database at least to get yourself up to speed on what's already known about the story. Otherwise, things can really get messy.

As is known, even from published sources, the Italians first sent Washington their reports about alleged sales of uranium from Niger to Iraq in late 2001. The FT article and Safire suggest that this choice information was ignored by the CIA.

Not so.

For better or worse, the American intelligence community's assumptions about an Iraqi nuclear program -- as opposed to the Bush White House's late, pre-war propaganda campaign, which was quite a different thing -- were not principally tied to the Niger uranium story. But the US government's interest in the Niger uranium story did stem from the information received from the Italians in late 2001.

They weren't ignored at all. Indeed, with no little pressure from Vice President Cheney, it was based on that and a subsequent report from the Italians that Joe Wilson was sent to Niger in the spring of 2002.

The essential falsehood in Safire's tale is the claim that that supposedly choice info from the Italians had no connection to those phony documents. But that's not true. Not true at all.

You can approach this on a different level. Safire would like us to believe the Bush White House, faced last July with a PR catastrophe over the president's use of the Niger uranium claim in the State of the Union address, decided to fold its cards and issue a series of rather abject apologies even though they had this rock-solid intelligence that they could have used to go on the offensive. That make sense to you? Me neither.

There's a lot of disinformation coming down the pike on this and related stories. Safire is just the peddler of the day, enabled by the fact that he's either uninterested or indifferent to checking out the facts of the story.

There's a body of sociological literature which shows that when the world does not come to an end on the day prescribed by this or that messianic cult, the cult usually does not fall apart. Rather, their belief only tends to intensify to still greater levels. Safire seems to be an example of the same phenomenon only applied to Iraqi WMD cult.

Now, before signing off for the evening, another point about Safire and the FT article -- but this one is more speculative.

One premise of the two FT articles was that smugglers were getting uranium from derelict (and thus unguarded and unregulated) mines in Niger to sell to five countries.

Safire mentions three of the alleged countries: Iran, Iraq and Libya. The FT includes the other two: North Korea and China.

On its face, it's not inconceivable that countries seeking nuclear weapons technology like Iran, Iraq, Libya and North Korea would be in the market for illicit supplies of processed uranium.

But China? Last time I checked China is an acknowledged nuclear power and has been for decades. They also have a growing civilian nuclear power program. Perhaps most to the point they have big uranium mines in their own country and a national monopoly company (the China National Nuclear Corporation) charged with the running the mines and the nearby-located processing facilities. The IAEA says the Chinese have the domestic capacity to process 1200 tons of uranium a year.

Now, I don't know the precise needs of Chinese civilian and military nuclear activities. But given their own domestic capabilities, how likely is it that they're going to try to cut a deal with low-rent smugglers to get some uranium from derelict (and thus not very productive) mines in Niger? Does that make sense?

I'd be curious to hear from non-proliferation folks on how great China's need is for foreign imports of processed uranium and whether they're so desperate as to resort to negotiations with smugglers who say they can get some uranium out of some abandoned mines in Niger.