Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

You've probably already seen this article in today's New York Times on Justice Department interest in an offer Jack Abramoff apparently made to President Omar Bongo of Gabon to set up a meeting with President Bush for the sum of $9 million.

This makes me curious again to know more about the foreign lobbying and foreign business dimensions of Abramoff's work.

For instance, documentary evidence made available to us shows that in the summer of 2004 (after the scandal phase of Abramoff's career was well underway), he was working with Marina Nevskaya and her company Naftasib to secure oil exploration and drilling concessions from The National Oil Company of Liberia.

Abramoff spokesman Andrew Blum had no comment when asked today about the Abramoff-Nevskaya-Liberia dealings.

Nevskaya and Naftasib, you may remember, are the ones that underwrote the DeLay/Abramoff 'fact-finding' trip to Moscow in 1997.

Anyone know more about this Liberian oil exploration angle to the Abramoff story? I'm all ears.

We've had a number of emails in from folks asking how they can contribute money to support the new site we're launching (described here yesterday). First, let me assure that we will go to great lengths to help facilitate your desire to contribute funds for our new project. But not quite yet.

As I mentioned yesterday, Sunday is the fifth anniversary of Talking Points Memo. (Here was the first post.) So next week is 5th Anniversary week here at TPM and we're going to be holding a fundraiser to support the expanded coverage we're planning of scandal-ridden Capitol Hill and the 2006 election cycle.

More on all of this shortly.

Just out from Roll Call (sub. req.) ...

With Jon Corzine (D) trading in his title of Senator for governor-elect of New Jersey, the formal jockeying to replace him accelerated Wednesday, as the Congressional Hispanic Caucus formally endorsed Rep. Bob Menendez (D) for the post.

Corzine will have the power to appoint his Senate successor once he is inaugurated as New Jersey’s chief executive on Jan. 17, but has been mum on his plans for succession during the duration of the gubernatorial campaign and in the hours since his election victory on Tuesday.

But New Jersey Representatives eager for Corzine’s appointment broke their silence Wednesday, with a vengeance.

“I’d like to say my own record of 31 years of service in New Jersey, my understanding of average New Jerseyans and my leadership in the House would make me a valuable addition to the U.S. Senate,” Menendez said in an interview.

Will be interesting to watch.

The Italian Connection, Part III

I discussed in installments one and two of this series my early reporting on the origins of the Niger forgeries and how we later learned the identity of, and made contact with, the man at the center of the drama: Rocco Martino. As I discussed in the earlier installments I was working with a team from 60 Minutes, sharing sources, each of us pursuing the Niger story for publication in our separate mediums.

I first met Martino at a restaurant in mid-town Manhattan in early June 2004. He’d come to New York to be interviewed for the upcoming segment on 60 Minutes and also, per our arrangement, to be interviewed by me. I should add that in this conversation and in the subsequent ones I will describe I always spoke to Martino through a translator, though there were occasional moments, and more over time, when it seemed he had some working command of English.

In the various press accounts that have appeared over recent months Martino is often described as ‘dapper’ or refined in appearance. And that is largely correct. In fact there was a genteel quality in his appearance and manner that belied the scrounging, always-desperate-for-money life which we learned he had led.

Martino was in his mid-sixties, thickly-built and robust for his age. In notes I took when I met with him for the final time two months later I described him as “all gray on the sides, salt & pepper on top, dark complected, thick mustache, mainly grey, S&P in middle, thick features, delta nose, bags chiseled under eyes.”

In its essential outline, Rocco’s story was a simple one. From the beginning, he insisted that he did not forge the documents. And he never claimed to have direct knowledge about who did. But the trail led back to SISMI – Italian military intelligence – through a former colleague named Antonio Nucera, a SISMI colonel working in the '8th division', which worked on counter-proliferation and weapons of mass destruction.

As Martino told me in a subsequent conversation, once he’d become far more candid, he had known Nucera for more than twenty-eight years. They’d first met not long before Martino had entered SISMI in 1976. And they’d remained in regular contact after he left the organization a decade later.

As Martino described it, their ongoing contact served two purposes. Nucera was Martino’s point of contact for the on-going work he did for SISMI for years after leaving the service. And Nucera was also the conduit through whom he kept SISMI abreast of his work for other clients – a key issue, since some were intelligence agencies of other countries.

SISMI is notorious for being riven by factionalism and deeply politicized. But Martino described Nucera as apolitical, a man who followed orders, not someone who would get involved in something like the documents caper on his own account or out of a personal ideological motivation. Whatever Nucera’s role, Martino believed he would have been acting on orders from above.

The chain of events leading to the documents began when Nucera approached Martino with a proposition. Nucera explained that SISMI had long had a woman working in the Nigerien Embassy in Rome, in spy jargon, a SISMI ‘asset’. Earlier she had been employed at another African Embassy in Rome, then too working for SISMI. Now, though, the agency was done with her.

But Martino, being in the business of buying and selling information, could perhaps take her on. She could provide information on immigration from Niger and Islamist groups in Western Africa. He would pay her, as SISMI had. And she would pass on to him, as she once had to SISMI, documents she copied or stole from the Embassy.

Martino met with the woman and ironed out just such an arrangement.

That was in March 2000.

The documents, which would later become notorious as the ‘forged dossier’, didn’t come to Martino in a single bundle. They came slowly over many months. First came the ‘codebook,’ then other documents included the dossier, some of which were genuine. The purported ‘accord’ came last, some time late in 2001.

In the next installment, how Martino initially withheld key information, new evidence that corroborated his story and SISMI's role, and how SISMI began campaigning against the planned story on the Niger papers even before it appeared.

In the Post, Walter Pincus suggests members of the senate intel committee are making some progress in coming up with a roadmap for pursuing 'phase two' of the Iraq WMD investigation, the part focused on how administration officials used the intelligence they were provided.

A little earlier this evening I linked to this post from young DC blogger Kris Lofgren who got into the AEI Chalabi speech today and managed to score a few moments of quality time with Christopher Hitchens to boot.

In his post he tells us ...

Hitchens then turned the subject back to Chalabi, his good friend. I asked him if he thought Chalabi had been passing American intelligence to the Iranians. "No," he insisted. "It's possible that with his training, you know, at [The University of] Chicago that with his own ability he was able to crack the codes. He is a mathematical genius. His expertise is cryptology. It is possible that he broke the codes himself." (This is a paraphrase since I was walking down M Street and crossing Connecticut Avenue all while being amazed that I was having an actual conversation with Christopher Hitchens at the time). Now, I don't believe this for one second. Why would Chalabi be trying to break American codes in his spare time anyway? Who does that if they are friendly to us? Suspicious, I say.

Now, I have to confess that I'm so pitiful at math that in high school I could barely crack a passing grade in trig. In fact, on more than one occasion I failed to crack it entirely. But why go into that?

In any case, even a math fool like me knew enough to laugh out loud when I read that. I'd love to hear Hitchens give a ten minute description of how he thinks modern cryptography works exactly.

Then TPM Reader TT wrote in with even more laughs ...

In that article you linked to by the blogger who saw Chalabi speak at the AEI, Hitchens claims that Chalbi may have broken our or the Iranians' codes (it isn't clear which) himself. That is quite simply the most preposterous story I have ever heard in my life. Chalabi would have about the same chance of breaking our or the Iranians' codes as of building his own nuclear bombs.

Moreover, Chalabi did not specialize in cryptology but in group theory. There is no evidence that he is a mathematical genius, either -- his publication record is not impressive.

I am a research mathematician who works in an areas pretty close to cryptology.

Quite simply, there is no way to take anything Hitchens says seriously ever again. Next to him, Scotty Mac is a paragon of credibility.

Aside from Hitchens' speculation that Chalabi sat around using our diplomatic or military codes (some encrypted diplomatic cables he'd pulled out of the air, I assume) as some brainiac's version of a Rubik's Cube to pass the time while he wasn't busy with embezzlement or forgery, this really is an example of the dingbat personality cult Chalabi managed to assemble around himself in DC.

Has Hitchens run his theory past Ahmad himself?

Norman Podhoretz has penned a version of the 'everyone said they had WMD' line defending President Bush and Co. in the new edition of Commentary. Call it the higher mumbojumbo. Kevin Drum does a very nice and understated job of dismantling the argument. It's well worth a few moments of your time to read (Kevin, not Norm). He hits all the right points.

The Hill has a nice package of pieces chronicling the full measure of not-ready-for-prime-time goofballery behind that leak investigation Frist and Hastert called for.

From article one ...

Rank-and-file members of the House and Senate intelligence committees said they were in the dark yesterday about the timing and logistics of a possible joint investigation into alleged leaks from the Central Intelligence Agency, and there were strong indications that congressional action could be preempted by a potential Justice Department probe.

Article two ...

Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) contradicted the House Intelligence Committee when they called for an investigation into a specific leak case, the question of who divulged classified information about CIA-run prisons in Eastern Europe.

And of course, number three ...

A leak suspected to have come from the office of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) complicated, confused and nearly derailed a joint effort by Senate and House Republican leaders to seek an investigation of the unauthorized release of classified information.

Forget the insider trading thing. Can we just get an investigation going into whether Bill Frist is too big a goof to be in the senate?