Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Today, the Sunday Times of London reports that the Italian middle-man who provided the notorious Niger uranium documents to Italian journalist Elizabetta Burba (she later brought them to the US Embassy in Rome, you’ll remember) was himself given the documents by the Italian military intelligence service, SISMI.

I can vouch for the accuracy of this account since I have been working on this story for six months. In fact, I interviewed the Italian middle-man in question two months ago at a restaurant in mid-town Manhattan -- the details of that interview I describe below.

This all requires a bit of explanation. So here goes …

Back on June 17th, I wrote that I and several colleagues were working on a story that might cause quite a stir in Washington when it was published. That story was (and is) about the origins of the forged Niger uranium documents. Since January my colleague Laura Rozen and I have been reporting on this story for an article that will appear in The Washington Monthly. We’ve also been working in collaboration on this story with an American TV network.

At the time I wrote that post, I thought the story was going to appear in late June, thus my oblique mention of it on the site. It’s now slated to appear later this month.

The reasons for the delay in publication are difficult to describe before the piece runs. But, as you can see, we’ve now been scooped on one part of the story – to my transcendent mortification. So let me share with you some details of what we’re working on and expand on what the Times has reported.

What’s long been known about the Niger documents is that an Italian ‘security consultant’ tried to sell them to an Italian journalist named Elisabetta Burba. Burba’s editor at Panorama, in turn, instructed her to take them to the US Embassy in Rome. That is how they came into the hands of the American government.

The question has always been, who’s the ‘security consultant’? Did he forge the documents? And, if not, where did he get them?

You’ll remember that in late June there was a piece in the Financial Times which alleged various evidence for the proposition that Iraq had in fact sought to purchase uranium from Niger. The story also suggested that the 'security consultant' was himself the likely forger of the documents and that this 'scam' had only served to obscure the real evidence of the sale of uranium to Iraq.

This is untrue on several counts. The 'security consultant' wasn't the forger -- a fact well-known by the FT's Italian government sources. And we have little doubt that the information about him contained in the FT article was provided by Italian intelligence sources to get out ahead of the information they knew the 'security consultant' and others had already provided to us -- specifically, their own complicity in the dissemination of the documents.

So who's the 'security consultant'?

The ‘security consultant’ is a small-time information peddler who buys and sells information in the netherworld of diplomatic, intelligence and media circles in Rome. His clients include foreign intelligence services and also the Italian media. He is himself a former member of SISMI.

He received the forged documents from a current SISMI officer who works in the division specializing in weapons proliferation.

We know the identity of both men. Both are in their early 60s. The identity of the ‘security consultant’ we’ve agreed not to disclose. We will publish the identity of the SISMI officer in the upcoming article.

Here are the basic outlines of what happened.

In early 2000, the ‘security consultant’ was approached by a former colleague from SISMI whom he'd known for some twenty five years. This current SISMI officer told him that he had a source in the Nigerien Embassy in Rome, that they (i.e. SISMI) had no more use for her, but that she could be a source of valuable information for him if he put her on a monthly retainer. They were washing their hands of her, he said. But she could be of use to him.

The ‘security consultant’ met with the woman in question and agreed to pay her 500 euros a month for various documents and materials which came into her hands in the course of her work for the Embassy. Most of the material in question had nothing to do with Iraq or WMD. It dealt primarily with immigration into Italy and Islamist activities in North and Central Africa --- topics of concern to at least one of the 'security consultant's' longstanding clients.

What wasn’t clear at the time, however, was that SISMI hadn’t washed their hands of this Niger Embassy employee at all. She remained a SISMI asset. In fact, the relationship which the SISMI officer had set up was intended to serve as a conduit through which SISMI could conceal its role in the dissemination of what proved to be disinformation.

This was how the forged documents came into the security consultant’s hands.

You’ll remember that most of the papers in the bundle of Niger-uranium documents that arrived at the US Embassy in Rome were actually authentic. It was only a subset of the documents --- those specifically related to the alleged Niger-Iraq transactions and a couple others --- that were bogus.

In late 2001, the SISMI officer brought the Niger Embassy employee a packet of documents --- those later identified as forgeries --- and instructed her to slip them in with the other documents she was providing to the ‘security consultant’ on an on-going basis.

She mixed those documents in with authentic documents which she had access to in the course of her work at the embassy. She then passed those documents --- again, a mix of authentic and forged ones --- to the ‘security consultant’.

The Financial Times article led to a surge of articles and commentary suggesting that the forged documents were only a minor part of the case for the alleged Iraq-Niger uranium transaction. But, as we've noted earlier, that's a willfully misleading account, one which both the Butler Report and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report helped to further.

Contrary to arguments that there was lots of independent evidence of uranium sales between Iraq and Niger, US government sources have told us that almost all of the important evidence derived from the phony documents. Specifically, it came from summaries of the documents Italian intelligence was distributing to other western intelligence agencies -- including those of the US, Britain and France -- in late 2001 and 2002.

The US has long known that the Italians had the forged documents in their possession at least as early as the beginning of 2002. And what we've uncovered is that at the same time Italian intelligence operatives were surreptitiously funnelling copies of the documents to this document peddler with the knowledge that he would sell them to other intelligence services and likely to members of the Italian press.

Now, a few more notes on the ‘security consultant’. The Financial Times story said that he “had a record of extortion and deception and had been convicted by a Rome court in 1985 and later arrested at least twice.” Several of the particulars here are incorrect. But he does have a criminal record. And I’m told by a very reliable source that he is now trying to sell his the detailed version of his story to members of the British press for 30,000 euros. Whether he's successful in doing so we'll probably find out in the next few days.

We already have his account. And needless to say, we didn’t pay him. But it’s reasonable to ask how trustworthy his account is since he seems to be someone of rather less than spotless integrity. The answer is that we’ve confirmed the key details of the story I outlined above independently.

More to follow ...

There have been various stories over recent months of people being ejected from Bush rallies for wearing anti-Bush t-shirts and stuff of that sort, with the rationale often being a rather improbable concern for security.

But this Dick Cheney speech in New Mexico seems to be the first instance where would-be attendees were compelled to pledge personal fealty to President Bush in order to get in the front door.

According to this Associated Press story, certain members of the public were required to sign a pledge to endorse President Bush in order to get tickets.

Dan Foley, a Bush campaign spokesman interviewed for the article, tried to argue that the tactic was "a security step designed to avoid a disruption" and said that at least some of the people required to sign the pledge had called from a phone which showed up on caller-ID as ACT (Americans Coming Together), a liberal voter mobilization group.

This article in the Albuquerque Journal, however, says the policy was much more general.

The plan was to limit the tickets "to people with a record of supporting the GOP— or to others willing to sign a statement saying they support President Bush's re-election."

Continues the Journal article ...

Yier Shi, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee in Washington, D.C., said today's rally was meant to reward and enthuse Bush-Cheney supporters, not to be a forum to preach to skeptics.

Democrats, independents and others were welcome to attend the speech, he said— as long as they like Bush and Cheney.

(See also this other article on the topic in the Albuquerque Journal.)

For all the ridiculousness of this loyalty oath mumbo-jumbo, I think Shi's rationale is a pretty apt description of the Bush-Cheney election strategy, and one of the clearest signs of their problems.

A lexicographical note on 'stem-winder'.

Late on Thursday evening I said that John Kerry's speech wasn't a 'stem-winder' and that he was smart not to have tried to pull one off. In that case, as the context implied, I meant 'stem-winder' as a rousing or impassioned speech.

However, since then, while most readers have responded to my discussion of the speech itself, perhaps a dozen have written in to say that I used the term incorrectly, that it refers to a boring and long-winded speech rather than a rousing one.

I, for one, have never heard this meaning. For all the adaptability and ambiguity of certain words, it seems odd that one word should have two diametrically opposite meanings. And the two dictionaries I consulted seem to back me up.

Merriam-Webster defines the word thus ...

Main Entry: stem-wind·er
Pronunciation: -"wIn-d&r
Function: noun
1 : a stem-winding watch
2 [from the superiority of the stem-winding watch over the older key-wound watch] : one that is first-rate of its kind; especially : a stirring speech

American Heritage defines it this way ...

SYLLABICATION: stem-wind·er
NOUN: 1. A stem-winding watch. 2. A rousing oration, especially a political one.

In other words, the dictionary meaning seems pretty clear. Yet enough people are familiar with this opposite meaning that it too must have some currency. That left me wondering whether this was a corruption of the original meaning of the term that has gained currency in recent years. And this article, also sent along by a reader, suggests that is precisely what has happened.

Great moments in Republican <$NoAd$>outreach ...

This from the running Thursday night commentary on National Review Online from Barbara Comstock, former spokesman for John Ashcroft at the Justice Department, former lead investigator for Dan Burton back in the glory days, and now power lobbyist ...

However, there are some things that did strike me about this odd man.

John Kerry once administered CPR to a hamster. This was one of the poignant vignettes we learned tonight from one of his daughters. Is there some gerbil-loving swing demographic out there we are trying to connect with? His daughter told this story as if we could all relate to this "human" moment of mouth-to-mouth contact with a rodent. I think I can speak for most parents, that while we might lay down our lives for our children; we see no need to swap spit with vermin.


John Kerry may have been able to breath life into a hamster; and he may have been able to breath some hope (or is it help?) into the gerbil-loving delegates; but he's still a strange, Herman Munster-like figure to me.

No mention of the inveterate Bush hatred among the gerbil-lovers. But presumably that's for another column.

I just read this article in the Times, billed as Cheney's counterattack against the Democratic ticket, figuring it would be filled with various distortions and untruths I could pick apart.

Really, though, there's not much there to pick apart, because there's simply not much there. Some boiler plate about raising taxes, the troop funding vote run-around and some stuff about John Edwards hair -- that's about it.

If the Times author is reasonably conveying Cheney's message, it's awfully weak stuff.

Now this is rich.

President Bush's new line of attack is that John Kerry is a man of few achievements.

"My opponent has good intentions," the president said today. "But intentions don't always translate into results. After 19 years in the United States Senate, my opponent has had thousands of votes but very few signature achievements."

This might be a plausible line of attack coming from another opponent. Unlike, say, Russ Feingold or Ted Kennedy, there's no prominent piece of legislation with Kerry's name on it, though admirers of Kerry point to his critical role in a series of high-profile Senate investigations.

But coming from George W. Bush? A guy whose handlers had to get some of the more gullible run of journalists to refer to his life before he turned forty as his 'lost years'?

I mean, even if you grant that Bush's presidency has been a tenure of transcendent achievement (and it has undoubtedly been eventful), it's a bit hard to get around the fact that even by his own account he spent his first five decades kicking back, living off family connections and playing solitaire.

It's certainly true that Mr. Kerry said certain things in his war protestor days that can now be used against him with some audiences. But until he was well into middle-age President Bush's most noteworthy public utterances seem to have been limited to various invocations and inflections of 'par-TAY' and reciting the alphabet under legal compulsion.

(I'd be surprised if the Kerry camp didn't use this as another opening to highlight the difference between how these two men spent their twenties.)

It's also another case of the Bush campaign's internally contradictory lines of attack.

John Kerry: highly ambitious and grasping ne'er-do-well.

George W. Bush: man of action, sword of steel.

In the Boston Globe this morning, Tom Oliphant, no foe of Mr. Kerry, says the nominee "essentially blew an opportunity he may not get again until the debates with Bush this fall" and "muffed an opportunity to hone great material into a powerful address."

I know what he's referring to: Kerry's sometimes rushed delivery. But this seems like a needlessly harsh appraisal and a distorted impression of the speech itself.

From the start of Kerry's speech I could tell that he kept talking into rising applause -- something like the rhetorical equivalent of spitting into the wind. He would nail a good applause line and then rush into the next verse of the speech.

In many cases I wondered or worried that some of those lines couldn't be heard over the din, though I suspected that television microphones would do a better job keeping Kerry's voice audible over the crowd.

At the time this struck me as a function of Kerry's lack of expertise as a public speaker. A master like a Clinton or an Obama can make magic of those moments, half-heartedly trying to talk over the crowd, only to let them again and again beat him back with their cheers. Kerry mowed right through them, though perhaps it was simply that Kerry had a speech he could only get through if he took few or no breaks for sustained applause.

In any case, I really didn't think it was nearly so big a deal as Oliphant did. But I'd be curious to hear others' opinions.

The reference to CNN last night was to their running live on-air the panicked reactions of the convention director as the balloons failed to drop precisely on schedule. Originally it may have been a glitch. But they seemed to keep it running long after they could have rectified the problem.

Another good take on the speech is Will Saletan's in Slate. I remember looking out into the audience at various of those moments of thunderous, almost defeaning response that Will mentions and thinking, they sowed the wind.

A brief note or follow-up on the Kerry speech.

A number of readers have written in to say they were wowed by the speech and ask why I led off saying that it wasn't a 'stem-winder'.

To me there's no contradiction. The term 'stem-winder' isn't simply an evaluation of the quality of a speech, but also -- and more so -- a description of a certain kind of performance. I thought this speech was very impressive, about at the top of the guy's form. To say it wasn't a stem-winder is simply to say that it wasn't like Barack Obama's speech a few nights back, or Clinton's, or even Clark's or Sharpton's for that matter.

But I don't think that's the kind of public speaker Kerry is. And he was wise not to try to be something he's not. He didn't try to be a master of rhetoric or tear into the crowd like those others. This was a well-written, powerfully delivered speech. And what occurred to me as I listened to it was how well the convention planners had used the earlier evenings events and speeches to tee the moment up for him.

I mean that not just in the sense that there's an effort to build excitement for the main event or talk up the candidate --that's a given. I thought they did a good job at playing Kerry up as a forceful and decisive leader. And that allowed him to suit his strengths as a speaker to the moment, to slide his speech-making right into that path they'd carved for him when his moment came.

Of course, I still haven't seen the video of the actual TV-version of the speech. I'm still going on what I saw in the hall, watching the back of his head as he delivered. So perhaps my opinions are still premature.

And a final point, for what it's worth. I talked to numerous reporters in the minutes and hours after the speech. And I think it would be fair to say that every person I spoke to told me that Kerry had exceeded their expectations.