Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Don't miss the lengthy and masterful piece on the 'Lackawanna Six' in today's New York Times. This is the group of Yemeni-Americans from near Buffalo, New York who went to Afghanistan for what amounted to al Qaida basic training in early 2001. The Times may be nowhere to be found on the Wilson/Plame matter and a number of other recent stories. But this piece is an example of the sort of detailed investigation and nuanced exposition that only a great newspaper can manage. This is good stuff.

There’s an interesting new story making the rounds about letters to the editor from soldiers in northern Iraq showing up in local and regional newspapers around the country. The letters explain how things are much better than people think in Iraq and how the Army is helping to rebuild the country with support from the locals.

The only problem is that it’s the same letter --- the identical letter --- showing up in multiple newspapers over the names of at least a dozen different soldiers. The blogger who’s on top of this is ‘Hesiod’ who’s been on the story for a few days. And The Olympian, from Olympia, Washington, reported the story out in helpful detail yesterday.

This is just one example. And the search seemed to have been triggered when The Olympian got two copies of the letter from two hometown soldiers stationed in northern Iraq. In other words, I doubt this is the only example -- just the one where someone got caught.

It’s worth saying that most of the soldiers contacted by the paper said they agreed with its contents, though none of them said they wrote it, and one said he’d never even signed it. But clearly that doesn’t answer the mystery of who was behind the letter writing campaign.

I can imagine all sorts of different scenarios behind it --- including this being the innocent, but over-eager effort of a single Army public affairs officer somewhere in northern Iraq.

But there’s another possibility that deserves a serious look.

There are a number of firms in Washington whose business it is to orchestrate phony letter writing campaigns on behalf of pricey clients.

Usually, the gig works something like this. Say you’re the hot dog makers lobby and congress is fixing to hit you with some new regs about hot dog making. Let’s say it’s something truly outlandish like requiring you to include some meat in the product.

If you go up to the hill with your gripes as the National Hot Dog Makers Association you might not do so well. And your ideological compatriots in the media might not be able to get up much of a head of steam banging the table for a bunch of hot dog magnates. So you call up one of the phony letter writing firms --- let’s call one hypothetical outfit The Former Republican Communications Staffers and Speechwriters Group of Washington.

So you go to FRCSSGW. They find out what your beef is and they write up a letter to the editor. Then they go out and find some guy who runs a hot dog stand downtown in some major city and ask him if he’ll sign it for a few hundred bucks. Maybe money changes hands; maybe it doesn’t. It depends on the circumstances. Then they take that letter and find some newspaper to print it.

Local newspapers are usually easier to bamboozle than the big national ones --- though at least one major national paper is known to be an easy mark for phony letters with an appealing ideological tilt.

The letter usually has the nominal author of the letter telling congress that those woeful new regulations will make it impossible for an independent hot dog vendor to stay in business, etc., etc., etc.

Voila! Suddenly those new hot dogs regs aren’t just an annoyance to the hot dog makers. They’re a new burden to some struggling immigrant entrepreneur who’s trying to build his American dream one dog at a time.

I’d be curious to find out whether some outfit like our hypothetical Former Republican Communications Staffers and Speechwriters Group of Washington is doing some of their letter-campaign consulting for the White House or the Pentagon as part of the Great Push-Back.

No question about it: The Washington Post is the first, second and third paper to go to on the Wilson/Plame story. To be fair, Newsday deserves a big mention in there too. But the article in Sunday’s Post is another piece with precise and story-advancing detail almost on a par with the September 28th piece that started the whole ball running.

(The Times? What ever happened to the Times? Lord knows, I'm no Times-basher. But they've been totally AWOL on this story. In fact, they have the ironic and in many ways dubious distinction of having seen the story advanced far more on their OpEd page than in their news pages.)

The Post story begins with a map of the Justice Department investigation. The initial focus of the inquiry, it seems, is not so much on who leaked to Novak as just how the information --- Plame’s status and her relationship to Joe Wilson --- made its way to and then around the White House.

Check out the piece for the details on that point. But this brings up something about the nature of this investigation. I’m all for the appointment of a special counsel to investigate this case. It seems like a textbook example of an inquiry that calls for one.

But I haven’t made too big a point of it because I think that once a full-scale criminal probe gets underway it's really not that easy to control. Once lawyers and FBI agents and depositions and the rest of it get involved, these things have a way of taking on a life of their own. As I’ve said before, I’m convinced that the White House will eventually rue the day the president didn’t just do the right thing on day one: find the culprits, fire them and move on.

But back to the Post article.

There’s been a lot of chatter over the last week about whether that Post piece from September 28th --- in which a ‘senior administration official’ pointed the finger at two “top White House officials” --- may have gotten some key points wrong. Some have speculated that perhaps the senior administration official, who was the source for that article, got confused about which calls to reporters were made before and after Novak published his first column.

This new piece seems to clear that up. This from the new article ...

That same week, two top White House officials disclosed Plame's identity to least six Washington journalists, an administration official told The Post for an article published Sept. 28. The source elaborated on the conversations last week, saying that officials brought up Plame as part of their broader case against Wilson.

"It was unsolicited," the source said. "They were pushing back. They used everything they had.”

The point here is clear. The reporters --- one would assume Mike Allen, since he has a byline on both pieces --- went back to the source with all the new information we know now. And the source stuck to his story on every key point. Note too that we’re back to “top White House officials.”

Another key point to notice in this piece is the way the authors start turning some of the spotlight on the press itself. They don’t do so in an adversarial manner. But they’ve gotten at least one reporter to discuss off the record that they’d been told about Plame’s relationship with Wilson by White House officials before Novak's column appeared.

Again, the key passage …

On July 12, two days before Novak's column, a Post reporter was told by an administration official that the White House had not paid attention to the former ambassador's CIA-sponsored trip to Niger because it was set up as a boondoggle by his wife, an analyst with the agency working on weapons of mass destruction. Plame's name was never mentioned and the purpose of the disclosure did not appear to be to generate an article, but rather to undermine Wilson's report.

This last point sums up another of the key themes of the piece. The White House was at war with Joe Wilson. And they were using everything in their arsenal to take him down. The authors of the piece seem to have spoken to “administration sources” who told them that the motive for naming Plame wasn’t retaliation but an effort to destroy Wilson’s credibility and thus get reporters to ignore him. That theory of the crime, shall we say, seems to conflict with the account of the administration official who told the Post on he September 28th that the calls were “meant purely and simply for revenge.”

For my part, I’ve always thought that this question of motivation was greatly over-determined. Revenge, a warning to other potential whistleblowers, attempts to undermine Wilson’s credibility --- none of these strikes me as contradictory or necessarily exclusive of the others. I suspect they were all involved.

In fact, the “senior administration official” who was the source for the September 28th article seemed to believe both motives were involved, since he or she called the disclosure not only wrong but “a huge miscalculation, because they were irrelevant and did nothing to diminish Wilson's credibility.”

For more good information on Valerie Plame's career at CIA and, in some respects, a counterweight to Nick Kristof's informative column in the today's Times, see Warren Strobel's new piece from Friday.

More to come this weekend on The Great Push-Back, the <$Ad$> White House's coordinated PR offensive (involving speeches by most of the foreign policy principals) aimed at knocking down criticism of the war, the failure to find WMD and the evidence of administration deceptions.

To me -- with only a touch of satire or irony -- the analogy is to the Battle of the Bulge -- a bold, but ultimately self-defeating counterstroke from a retreating army.

In truth, it's the White House's biggest exercise in up-is-downism yet. The question, I think, is how much the press and the Democrats will push back in response. The administration's great vulnerability now is its credibility -- whether it knows what it's doing or tells the truth about what it's doing. And on that count this new bundle of speeches offers a very target rich environment.

Nick Kristof has a nice backgrounder on the Plame scandal in Saturday’s Times. He gives the most extensive discussion I’ve seen so far of just what her role was at the CIA, and what the potential consequences of her exposure have and have not been.

One point of dissent: Kristof has a bit more of a ‘pox on both their houses’ attitude toward the Democrats and the Republicans on this than I think is warranted.

Some Democrats have hyped the potential danger to Plame’s personal well-being and/or that of her family. But this strikes me as a far more marginal exaggeration --- one weakly stated and much less commonly heard --- than that of Republicans who have tried to argue that the whole matter is one of little consequence. It also pales in comparison to the White House’s evident refusal to get to the bottom of what happened or discipline anyone involved.

But read the column and make your own judgments.

One new bit of news, or one now put in print for the first time: Plame’s relationship to the Aldrich Ames case.

Back on September 29th I wrote a post criticizing various points about an article by Cliff May in National Review Online, in which he suggested that the whole thing was a tempest in a teapot since Plame’s status as a CIA agent was already so widely known in Washington. Poor tradecraft, and so forth.

As I wrote on the 29th: “To this I would only say, Cliff, pursuing this line of inquiry/argument could lead to some really awkward surprises. Just heads up.”

Well, this is what I was talking about.

Plame was one of a group of spies that the CIA suspected, but wasn’t sure, might have been compromised by Aldrich Ames. Because of that, she was brought back stateside for her own protection, though she continued to work as a NOC.

So, yes, there were some potential problems with Plame’s cover: not because her status wasn’t a serious matter or a closely guarded secret, but because it had quite possibly already been a casualty of Ames’ treason.

In other words, you might say that Plame’s cover has been under attack for more than a decade. Those two ‘senior administration officials’ just finished the job that Rick Ames --- one of the arch-traitors of American history --- started.

Nice company.

Recently I told you that Scott McClellan's denial on behalf of Abrams, Libby and Rove might be a lot less airtight than a lot of reporters have been assuming.

The question is whether one or more of these three men was the source for Bob Novak's column disclosing Valerie Plame's identity as a clandestine employee of the CIA.

McClellan's 'denials' have hinged on a lawyerly and off-point claim that they were "not involved in leaking classified information."

Listen closely: He's not answering the question.

Why not press McClellan to answer the question straight-out?

Well, today at the briefing, someone did. And, as you might expect, it wasn't a reporter from one of the big prestige outlets.

Here's the exchange ...

QUESTION: Scott, earlier this week you told us that neither Karl Rove, Elliot Abrams nor Lewis Libby disclosed any classified information with regard to the leak. I wondered if you could tell us more specifically whether any of them told any reporter that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA?

MCCLELLAN: Those individuals -- I talked -- I spoke with those individuals, as I pointed out, and those individuals assured me they were not involved in this. And that's where it stands.

QUESTION: So none of them told any reporter that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA?

MCCLELLAN: They assured me that they were not involved in this.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on that?

QUESTION: They were not involved in what?

MCCLELLAN: The leaking of classified information.

QUESTION: Did you undertake that of your own volition, or were you instructed to go to these --

MCCLELLAN: I spoke to those individuals myself.

So, when McClellan was asked to be more clear, he opted for a meaninglessly vague statement and then fell back on the "leaking of classified information" dodge.

Can we all take note of this now? That denial wasn't what it seemed to be. In fact, I doubt it was a real denial at all.

There's more there. Why not find it?

I hear an intrepid reporter may have picked up the ball at the daily briefing today and walked it a few yards down field. More in a bit.

Meanwhile, back in <$NoAd$> wingerville, the search for the Holy Grail, or rather an innocent explanation of the Plame mess, continues.

We pick up the story in a note from Nick. Y ....

When was Wilson's wife last on a clandestine operation? As a 40 year old mother of 2 year old twins I would imagine it has been a long time ago. Don't you?

Did the CIA change her status? Is she now just an analyst as she has been working at in the CIA Langley Office?

Is there a pay scale difference among analysts and operatives? Could it be that she retained that title even though there was no intention of ever using her again in a clandestine operation? After all she is the wife of a former Ambassador and now has two small children.

The lady may have been an operative at one time but my bet is that she was still with the CIA and would have continued her career as an analyst until her retirement and that's why her role at the CIA was well known in Washington Circles.

The CIA needs to answer some questions about this woman.

Enough said.

The quest continues. Whose heart will be so pure as to find the Grail. And what of Excalibur? And the Lady in the Lake?

Oh, now that’s very interesting.

Let’s go back and do a little more Bob Novak exegesis.

As we’ve noted before, one of the best pieces of evidence that Novak (and thus his sources) knew Valerie Plame was a clandestine employee of the CIA was that he said as much in his original column. There he called her an “Agency operative.”

People who follow the intel world say that phrase is almost always meant to refer to a clandestine agent or someone in the field, rather than an analyst.

Now, since the story blew up a week and a half ago, Novak has been telling people that this reference was just some sort of slip-up, that in this case he meant ‘operative’ only in the generic sense of a ‘hack’ or a ‘fixer.’ On Meet the Press Novak said he uses “the word too much [and] if somebody did a Nexus search of my columns, they'd find an overuse of ‘operative.’”

Well, Novak does seem to use the word operative a lot. But as one of my readers pointed out to me this evening, ‘operative’ can mean all sorts of things in different contexts. The question is how Novak uses it in this particular context. Following up on my reader’s suggestion I did a Nexis search to see all the times Novak used the phrases “CIA operative” or “agency operative.”

This was a quick search. But I came up with six examples. And in each case Novak used the phrase to refer to someone working in a clandestine capacity.

Here they are …

On December 3rd 2001 Novak reported on the surprise and even outrage among CIA veterans that Mike Spann’s identity had been revealed even in death. Spann was the agent killed at the uprising at Mazar-i-Sharif Thus Novak: “Exposure of CIA operative Johnny (Mike) Spann's identity as the first American killed in Afghanistan is viewed by surprised intelligence insiders as an effort by Director George Tenet to boost the embattled CIA's prestige.”

On November 1st, 2001 Novak described the Agency’s handling of the late Afghan resistance commander Abdul Haq. Thus Novak: “the CIA was keeping in close touch with Haq's friends but providing more criticism than help. The Afghan freedom fighter who was honored by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher during the war against the Soviets became "Hollywood Haq" to the CIA. He was described by the agency's operatives as ‘unruly and immature.’”

This is the most ambiguous reference. But I think it’s pretty clear here that Novak is referring to people in the field, i.e., operatives, not analysts back at Langley.

On September 23rd, 2001, Novak discussed the long decline of the CIA, particularly its human intelligence (HUMINT) and operational capacities. He made particular reference to the tenure of Stansfield Turner as DCI. Thus Novak: “Appalled by the CIA's operatives in Central America, he issued the now-famous order against hiring unsavory local agents. There went any serious effort at espionage.” Again, that ain’t a reference to analysts.

On July 5th, 1999, Novak reviewed Bill Buckley’s new book on Joe McCarthy and in the course of that review he noted how Buckley had “honed his craft well in chronicling the fictional adventures of his CIA operative, Blackford Oakes.” Now, the Blackford Oakes spy novels are … well, spy novels. So this one’s pretty clear.

On September 22nd, 1997 Novak noted to the role of “Bob,” someone whom he referred to as an “undercover CIA agent” who got pulled into the Roger Tamraz phase of the campaign finance scandal. Later in the same column Novak referred to “Bob” as a “CIA operative.” Ergo, “undercover CIA agent” equals “CIA operative.”

On September 18th, 1997 Novak referred to this same “Bob” on CNN as an “an undercover CIA operative.”

I also did a quick search for Novak’s references to “CIA analyst” or “agency analyst” I found three --- each clearly referring to people who were in fact analysts. In an 1993 column, Novak used a precise phrasing to refer to "CIA briefer Brian Latell, a 30-year career officer." Again, no vague use of 'operative.'

I don’t think this requires too much commentary, does it?

Clearly, Novak knows the meaning of the phrase 'CIA operative' and he uses it advisedly. In the last decade he’s never used the phrase to mean anything but clandestine agents.

Let’s cut the mumbo-jumbo: past evidence suggests that Novak only uses this phrase to refer to clandestine agents. In this case, when he has every reason to run away from that meaning of the phrase, he suddenly runs away from that meaning. Especially with all the other evidence at hand, that just defies credibility. Everything points to the conclusion that Novak did know. That would mean, necessarily, that his sources knew too.

The ‘we didn’t know’ cover story just doesn’t wash. Novak's fellow reporters have never pressed him on this point. Maybe now would be a good time ...