Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

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.

I've had a bunch of readers write in to ask why I haven't had anything to say about Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911 and whether there's anything to be read into my silence.

In a word, no.

I've been out of the country for the better part of the last two weeks. And I simply haven't had a chance to see it yet. Thus, my comments or thoughts on it would seem of vanishing little significance.

I plan to see it soon.

For all its many discontents, and there are certainly many, I enjoy Washington's cadences and tempo. I don't mean Washington as a metaphor or a power center, but the particular place that I live, the way that the early evening sunlight gleams off the building fronts. If for no other reason than the slow accretion of time in the place, it feels like home. And with the exception of a few 24 hour or 36 hour stays, I hadn't been here in many weeks.

I just landed at Reagan National about an hour ago from New York and immediately raced over to my local Starbucks, which seems to emanate some cosmic force which makes TPM posts glide off my fingertips.

One point, before more posts later.

Yesterday I noted a CBS/NYT poll, highlighting a pick-up for President Bush on the horse-race numbers and the seeming advantage he was gaining from a rebounding, if not fiery, economy.

That was, I must admit, a quick post. And looking at the results a bit more closely, I think I got the emphasis wrong. President Bush's approval rating rests at 42%. Meanwhile, 60% say the Iraq war has not been worth the cost. In other words, that it was a mistake.

(See my Hill column out this evening for more on that latter point.)

Those two numbers, particularly the first, are really close to the whole story. Incumbent presidents who fall short of 50% approval are in some danger. Those who aren't much over 40% are fighting for their political lives, with a poor prognosis.

The economy does continue to be an advantage for the president. But Iraq -- and the myriad of assumptions, policies and repercussions it represents -- is what this election is all about. I take it as a given that virtually no Gore voters from 2000 will pull the lever for Bush. But how many lightly-committed Bush voters from 2000 will hold him to account if they believe he gambled big and gambled unwisely with America's honor and safety, and came up short? I think more than a few. And since there were more Gore voters than Bush voters last time anyway, well ...

Travel day -- more posts later this afternoon/evening.

Who would have thought that this year's presidential race would turn on whether a rebounding economy could save President Bush from the public's congealing sense that his entire Iraq venture was a mistake?

CBS/NYT has a new poll out showing a Bush rebound and a neck-and-neck race, with the president's rise due to public perceptions of an improving economy?

One sounding means little in itself, of course. But this does seem to be the general direction -- a slow upward drift based on a recovering economy contending with the majority's belief that the president's foreign policy is fundamentally flawed.

We are all up in arms right now, it seems, about Vice President Dick Cheney, and the fact that Cheney told one of the more irenic of Democratic senators to "f--k off" in a brief exchange on the Senate floor last Tuesday because the senator in question, Pat Leahy (Democrat of Vermont) had earlier had the temerity to raise questions about lucrative no-bid Iraqi contracts secured by his former employer Halliburton.

Certainly, Cheney and his partisans deserve the knuckle-rapping they're now getting. And it's entertaining to watch avatars of dignity, good order and responsibility like Bill Frist and the folks over at the White House call Cheney's antics good clean fun and politics as usual.

But for those who have few good things to say about the vice-president, I think, the correct response is less outrage than the sort of grim (or perhaps not so grim) satisfaction one feels when a malign character unwittingly reveals himself to a larger audience. Because even if Cheney "felt better" after his outburst, this wasn't a show of strength but one of desperation or, perhaps, impatient impotence.

I think Joe Klein has it right in the title of his new column in Time -- ("Plenty More to Swear About: Bush's security team faces a barrage of criticism as the facts about Iraq come to light"). As Klein writes, last week's "assorted temper tantrums appeared to be a leading indicator of a gathering summer storm confronting this presidency."

Consider for a moment. Who is Dick Cheney? What do we know of him? None of us like being questioned or critized. But in him the disinclination runs particularly deep. He prefers to act in secrecy and is a man to whom government transparency has all the allure that a shaft of sunlight has to a vampire. When challenged, violence seems always to be his preferred method of response, that of first resort --- often a literal sort on the world stage, but with bureaucratic (viz. Plame) and what we might call verbal violence at home. By verbal violence I mean specifically tough talk and threats meant to frighten people away from challenging him further, to knock them on their heels. Even this new case -- saying Leahy et al. had it coming -- is but another example. When that doesn't work, he gets sloppy.

Cheney et al. can see all sorts of bad business coming down the pike in the next few months -- much of it already on the public radar screen, some of it still clogged up no doubt in back channels, newsrooms and new rounds of dirty-tricksterism. It seems clearly to be getting to them.

By the time you read this post you'll likely already know that today's Financial Times makes stunning new claims about alleged sales of uranium from Niger to Iraq.

In brief, the main article in the FT makes two points ...

First, that there is much more information than the forged 'Niger-uranium' documents backing up the claim that Iraq (and other countries) sought to clandestinely purchase 'yellowcake' uranium from Niger.

(I think point two is the real point of the FT story, not point one. But we'll get to that in another post.)

The second assertion requires a touch more explanation.

If you're up on the arcana of the 'Niger-uranium' story you'll remember that they first came to light when a source -- an unnamed Italian businessman and security consultant -- gave copies of them to an Italian journalist named Elisabetta Burba.

(For more on the tick-tock of what Burba did with them and how they eventually got into US hands, see this piece by Sy Hersh from last year in The New Yorker.)

There has been endless speculation about who this mystery man was and who actually did the forging. Was he the forger? And if so, what were his motives? If not, who put them into his hands? And what were their motives?

According to the Financial Times article, that business man is likely himself the forger of the documents and he has a long history of bad acts which, they say, discredit him as a source of information. That last tidbit plays a key part in the FT story because, in their words, the provider of the documents is "understood to be planning to reveal selected aspects of his story to a US television channel."

That's what the FT says.

I hear something different.

In fact, I know something different.

My colleagues and I have reported on this matter extensively, spoken to key players involved in the drama, and put together a detailed picture of what happened. And that picture looks remarkably different from this account which is out today -- specifically on the matter of the origins of those forged documents and who was involved.

I cannot begin to describe how much I would like to say more than that. And at some later point in some later post I will do my best to explain the hows and whys of why I can't. But, for the moment, I can't.

Let me, however, offer a hypothetical that might help make sense of all this.

Let's say that certain individuals or organizations are responsible for some rather unfortunate misdeeds. And let's further postulate that such hypothetical individuals or organizations find out that some folks are on to them, that a story is in the works -- perhaps more than one -- and that it's coming right at them. Those individuals or organizations -- as shorthand, let's call them 'the bad actors' -- might well start trying to fight back, trying to gin up an alternative storyline to exculpate themselves and inculpate others. If that story made its way into the news, at a minimum, it might help the bad actors muddy the waters for when the real story comes out. You can see how such a regrettable turn of events might come to pass.

This is of course only a hypothetical. But I thought it might provide a clarifying context.

So read the FT article. But also keep your ears open. It is, I'm quite confident, not the last word you'll hear on this story.

Let me start back by thanking my three friends and colleagues who sat in for me here at TPM during my ten day absence: Spencer Ackerman, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira. Everybody takes a slightly different approach to this medium. And I couldn't have been happier about what each of them did with the site. I hope you enjoyed their work as much as I did. If the trickle of email I got while I was away was any measure, you did indeed.

(I was able to get online here and there from abroad, so I managed to see most of what got posted. Actually, it was an odd, wholly unaccustomed and somehow deeply relaxing feeling to be able to type in the TPM address to see if anything new had been posted.)

A special thanks too to my out-going assistant, Zander Dryer, who handled all the logistics of the site in my absence as well as working with the guest hosts to make sure everything went smoothly.

As you must know by now Spencer (IRAQ'd) and Ruy (DonkeyRising) both have their own blogs. And John has a new book out The Folly of Empire. John's book isn't quite out yet I don't think -- I think a couple weeks. But I strongly recommend it to you on the basis of my knowledge of the author and recent discussions with him of this topic.

In any case, a sincere thanks to each of them and to you (the readership of this site) as well -- readership held up remarkably well during my absence. Their efforts and your readership helped make my time away relaxing, contented and refreshing.

A Blog first? Well, probably not. But certainly a TPM first. I’m coming to you from some number of tens of thousands of feet over the Atlantic Ocean. And for those who know me well that is, well … something of a change of pace (a long story which we’ll return to at some later point). In any case, to the matters at hand. Even bloggers need vacations. And if they can’t figure that out for themselves --- which in my case seems to be the case --- their girlfriends eventually prevail on them to see the light of reason and do the right thing.

In any case, that brings me to my point. I’m going to be taking a breather from TPM for a few days. I’ll be away tucked away on some island somewhere far, far away. If something truly earth-shattering happens I may pop my head up. But I'm going to try mightily to resist (and you'll be in good hands while I'm away.)

A few points before signing off, though. You may have noticed a slight down-tick in the frequency of posts of late. And that’s for a few different reasons. But a principal one is that I and several colleagues have been working on a story that, if and when it comes to fruition --- and I’m confident it shall --- should shuffle the tectonic plates under that capital city where I normally hang my hat. So that’s something to look forward to in the not too distant future. And that’s taken some of my time away from TPM and prevented me from sharing with you some delectable tidbits which otherwise I would have loved to have done.

Second, TPM won’t be going dark during my brief absence. Iraq --- and the broad panoply of national security, war, and intelligence issues for which it has become the focal point --- remains the key issue in our public lives today. So I’m handing the TPM keyboard over to someone who has absolutely dynamite sources on all these issues and will be able to keep you up-to-date for the next several days and point you toward the key issues which perhaps won’t be getting the treatment they should in the Times, the Post and the rest of the bigs.

I’m going to let him introduce himself, probably a little later today. But he will definitely be able to give you the inside word.

Before you know it, I’ll be back, with batteries recharged, back to the normal feverish rate of posts, ready to slay dragons, break news, lacerate the puffed-up, poke fun at myself and others, post links, embarrass myself with typos and whatever other mumbojumbo I usually do in these virtual pages.

Jack Kennedy from 1960 ...

“But l<$NoAd$>et me stress again,” he told the assembled ministers, “that these are my views — for, contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for president [but the candidate] who happens also to be a Catholic.

“I do not speak for my church on public matters — and the church does not speak for me.

“Whatever issue may come before me as president, if I should be elected — on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject — I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or dictate. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.”

As I wrote in my Hill column this evening, what a difference 45 years makes!

Then a Catholic senator from Massachusetts running for president was at pains to distinguish between his personal religious views and those he'd try to enact into policy as president. He chose a meeting of Southern Baptists in Texas to make the point.

Now we have a Texas born-again president trying to score political points by pressing certain elements of the Catholic hierarchy into disciplining another Catholic Senator and presidential candidate from Massachusetts for not imposing his personal views as public policy.