Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

It's nice to see some war-hawks are waking up to what George Tenet actually wrote in his July 11th plank-walking press release, the 'mea culpa' that had an extremely sharp barb hidden amidst all the abject language.

Over the last week people who've been following this case have slowly woken up to a realization of how dexterous a game Tenet has been playing. I wrote back on the 12th that if you "read Tenet's 'mea culpa' (self-criticism session?) closely ... you'll see it points right back at Condi Rice's NSC."

But I didn't grasp quite the degree of Tenet's bureaucratic savvy. Nor do I think did the White House. Actually, scratch that: I'm sure they didn't.

Having covered himself with a dignity-dashing mess of sorries and self-criticism (which sounded vaguely like something out of Russia in the mid-late 1930s), he set out an explanation that pointed right back to the White House, or specifically to the NSC.

He upped the ante dramatically when he and his aides gave more information in the recent closed-door hearing on Capitol Hill. Tenet and company are slowly reeling out piece after incriminating piece of information. It's hard to attack him since he's already 'taken responsibility' for the goof (still the only one as far as I can see.) But the real reason it's hard to attack him or, for that matter, fire him, is that the White House realizes that it is far better to have a dishing Tenet on the inside than on the outside. Amazingly, Tenet has managed to make himself nearly untouchable -- at least for the moment.

In any case, back to war-hawks realizing this.

In Bill Kristol's new column, he writes ...

On January 28, the president said in his State of the Union address that "the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." Perhaps he should have said "the British government believes" rather than "has learned." But this statement was unremarkable at the time, and remains unremarkable today. And, contrary to the implications of George Tenet's disingenuous press release of July 11, the president said nothing that the Central Intelligence Agency had retracted or controverted in the months between the distribution of their October estimate and the State of the Union address.

It now turns out the CIA had its doubts--though they were less than definitive. It also turns out the British are sticking by their claim. And it remains the case, most important, that the African uranium business, whatever the truth of it, was never more than a single piece of the otherwise voluminous evidence driving allied concern over Saddam and weapons of mass destruction. How important were those "significant quantities of uranium from Africa"? The White House now acknowledges, in retrospect, that the matter didn't merit mention in the State of the Union.

There are three points I'd like to note about these two grafs. But let me start with the point about Tenet. The "president said nothing that the Central Intelligence Agency had retracted or controverted in the months between the distribution of their October estimate and the State of the Union address"? Is that really your final answer, Bill? If it is, which part of the public record are you disputing? As nearly as I can tell we have at least two instances where the CIA did just that -- we can leave aside for the moment the instances that haven't been reported yet.

George Tenet personally -- and it seems, repeatedly -- interceded with Hadley to keep the Niger uranium story out of the president's October 7th speech. Isn't that right? And then Alan Foley tried to keep the statement out of the State of the Union speech, but eventually gave way over the 'Brits-said-it compromise.' The White House first agreed that Foley had done this and now they seem to have un-agreed.

But does anyone really buy the line from the "senior administration official" on Friday that the White House came up with the 'British caveat' on their own to make the claim seem more credible? It seems like there are at least two instances where Tenet or one of his subordinates tried to warn the White House off those claims, on the reasoning that they were not credible enough for public dissemination. The sentence that reads "the CIA had its doubts" probably ought to read "the CIA had its doubts and communicated them to the White House on at least two occasions after the NIE was completed."

Second point. Kristol asks "how important were those 'significant quantities of uranium from Africa'? The White House now acknowledges, in retrospect, that the matter didn't merit mention in the State of the Union." This comes after he argues that the uranium claim was just a minor part of the case against Iraq.

If I didn't know better I'd think this was an attempt at a rhetorical sleight of hand. Kristol seems to be saying that the uranium claim didn't merit mention because it was a matter of such negligible significance.

Let's try that again.

If they didn't merit mentioning it was because the allegations weren't particularly credible. It's almost as if Kristol wants to have it both ways -- to grab the uranium claims out of the speech but to do so for reasons that have nothing to do with their credibility. Does anyone really believe that evidence of Iraqi purchases of tons of uranium ore from Africa -- if credible -- wouldn't "merit mention in the State of the Union"?

I didn't think so.

The only possible reason not for including those claims when building the case for the magnitude of Saddam's WMD program would be their lack of credibility.

And finally to the Brits and the claim they're "sticking by." Based on my own snooping I think I know what the Brits' other evidence is. I can't say I'm certain of it yet. But I have to figure that the White House -- having rather better sources of information than I do -- is hearing the same thing. The "other evidence" is not insignificant. If I were the DCI I'd probably have someone look into it. Hell, I might even send Joe Wilson over to Africa to check it out. But if it's not insignificant, it's pretty close. I think I know why the Brits are keeping it mum. They have their own domestic political reasons for sticking by their other evidence -- even if it's little more than a placeholder -- and the president's defenders know it. But partisans of the White House probably don't want to press too hard, lest everyone actually find out what that 'other evidence' really is.

William Safire has now joined the camp of those who argue that anyone who questions the White House's use of trumped-up or flimsy intelligence is actually playing into the hands of Saddam and aiding his quest to return to power. Saddam, says Safire ...

presumes that British and American journalists, after the obligatory mention that the world is better off with Saddam gone, would — by their investigative and oppositionist nature — sustain the credibility firestorm. By insisting that Bush deliberately lied about his reasons for pre-emption, and gave no thought to the cost of occupation, critics would erode his poll support and encourage political opponents — eager to portray victory as defeat —to put forward a leave-Iraq-to-the-Iraqis candidate.
Let's translate this: What's the defense against charges of manipulation or deception? We don't have one. But don't mention it or you'll be helping Saddam return to power. Or perhaps you could put it another way: the mess we've made is too big for us to afford the luxury of asking why we made such a big mess.

I'll be honest with you. I struggled for some time trying to think up a way to discuss Safire's Monday morning column. But the whole thing was such a cynical mix of half-truths, untruths and twisted logic that it ended up besting me.

Here are a few examples ...

Saddamist guerrillas, aided by terrorist allies in Syria and Iran, would hold out the fearsome possibility of the return to power of Saddam or his sons. A series of murders of "collaborators" would continue to intimidate Iraqi scientists and officers who know about W.M.D. and links to Al Qaeda and its related Ansar al-Islam.
Here Safire slips in an assumption ("continue to intimidate") that virtually no one believes: that we haven't gotten WMD-related testimony because the scientists and officers fear retribution.

Or this ...

How best to deny Saddam's putative return from his Elba, and to put this summer of discontent behind us? Drop the premature conclusion that if we can't yet find proof of the destructive weapons, they never existed. That's like saying because we haven't found Osama or Saddam, those killers never existed.
Is it really like saying that? Am I missing something? Because this analogy sounds like one of the stupidest things I've ever heard in my life.

Let's be honest. Homefront disputes over war aims, justifications and policy are seldom helpful to the conduct of a war, at least in an immediate operational sense. But accountability and responsibility are so alien to these people that the responsibility for their manipulations, reckless enthusiasm and lack of planning rests not with them, but on the shoulders of those who now choose to call them on it.

There's a bigger point that's easy to miss in this larger brouhaha over the Niger documents -- one which the attention to the Niger documents themselves may even help obscure.

A few days ago I mentioned an October 20th column by Jim Hoagland, one in which he celebrated the way the Bush administration had muscled the intelligence community (and particularly the CIA) into giving up its "long-standing and deeply flawed analysis of Iraq." The White House was triggering, he went on to say, a battle between "officials whose careers and reputations were built on the old analysis of the Iraqis as a feckless, inert and inward-looking bunch of thugs against those willing to take a fresh, untilted look at all the evidence."

The idea was clear. The CIA didn't understand Saddam, his motives, the extent of his WMD programs or the depth of its ties to al Qaida. (The CIA, Hoagland lamented, still couldn't bring itself to agree about Iraq's alleged deep ties with al Qaida.) The politicals did -- and they were going to make sure the folks at the Agency did too.

The results, Hoagland continued, had been promising. It was only because the administration had forced the CIA to get religion on Iraq that they had generated a National Intelligence Estimate that allowed the president to fill his speech with details of Iraq-al-Qaida connections and chemical and biological-spewing unmanned aerial vehicles. As Hoagland aptly put it on July 16th, the "political leadership of the administration declared war on the careerists at the CIA soon after Bush's election."

Now, sometimes bureaucracies really do need to be taken on, to be shaken up. But we have intelligence agencies for a reason: to gather and analyze intelligence. Going to war with your primary intelligence agency is a risky proposition, especially while you're fighting a war against international terrorist groups.

Until we got into Iraq we really couldn't say for certain what we'd find. Perhaps the politicals were right and the Agency's more cautious estimations of the Iraqi threat would be exposed as hopelessly naive.

But now we're there. And from what we've found so far, the Bush administration's revisionist view of Iraq seems far more deeply flawed than what Hoagland called the Agency's "long-standing and deeply flawed analysis of Iraq."

Now we're also seeing a lot of administration defenders carting out the standard lines that intelligence is an art, not a science, that it's a mosaic, and so forth.

That's all true of course. But it doesn't cut it to say, "This is just an intelligence failure. The White House just went with what they were being told." Why? Because you can't separate our failure to find a lot of what we thought we'd find in Iraq from the "war" the administration has been fighting with the intelligence community for the last two years. If the administration spent the previous two years "at war" with the CIA, pushing them harder and harder into a set of assumptions (and in many cases conclusions) that turned out to be wildly off-the-mark, shouldn't there be some political accountability for what turned out to be at best a very poor call?

Let's say a CEO took over a Fortune 500 company. Let's further say that his first act was to walk down to the advertising division and tell them they had no idea what they were doing and had to change the way they did business. He also told them he was going to bring in some outside consultants to comment on (read: second guess) their work. Now, the CEO and his new crew didn't have a huge amount of experience with ad work. But he talked a good game. So people thought he might have something up his sleeve. Then the new results come in at the end of the year and the company's revenues fell off the cliff.

Now, needless to say, the boss's cronies and sycophants would say that it was just an example of how bad the ad division was doing in the first place, or come up with some other such excuse. But how long do you think that CEO would hold on to his job?

As noted earlier, a "senior administration official" briefed members of the White House press corps this afternoon about the latest developments in the WMD story. The real substantive news here, as near as I can tell, is that the White House is saying it didn't make any changes in the uranium portions of the State of the Union speech because of resistance or doubts from the CIA -- specifically in the conversation between NSC staffer Bob Joseph and Alan Foley of the CIA. That directly contradicts what Alan Foley is reported to have said in Wednesday's closed-door hearing in the Senate. The "senior administration official" also seemed to say (you read the transcript and be the judge) that the White House would not allow White House staff -- most likely Joseph -- to be questioned about any of this before committees on Capitol Hill. Several papers reported yesterday that the White House had signaled willingness to do so. The entire question and answer portion of the briefing has just been posted in the TPM Documents Collection.

Early this afternoon a "senior administration official" briefed members of the White House press corps on the National Intelligence Estimate, Iraq and WMD. Return soon to find out just what this person said.

We'll also be discussing what you might call, paraphrasing the late President Eisenhower, 'creeping DeLayism'. House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas ordered Capitol police to forcibly remove Democratic committee members from a nearby library where they had gone to plot strategy after a dispute erupted over the amount of time the Dems were given to review a bill in the committee

Yesterday morning a few of the usual suspects pointed to the National Intelligence Estimate and said, "Look, it has the claims about Iraqi uranium purchases in Africa. End of story. The Agency gave the White House bad intelligence, period."

Today the White House has declassified and released selected portions of the NIE, including a claim, according to this AP article, that there was "compelling evidence" that Saddam was trying to reconstitute his nuclear program and that "if left unchecked...probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade." It also cited unsubstantiated reports that the Iraqis might be trying to buy uranium in Africa.

Now, first of all, I think we need to know more about just what the NIE said on this issue, in its totality. But let's assume that it said it more or less flat out.

Even if that's true, it still seems like the CIA made subsequent and multiple attempts -- some successful, some not -- to keep the president from making this claim publicly because they had very real doubts about whether it was even true. The NIE may give the White House something to hang its hat on but only as a debating point, no more.

If the White House were interested in getting the story right, rather than just getting it scary, you'd think they would have paid attention to the repeated messages from the CIA saying, in essence, "Yes, we know it's mentioned in the NIE. But we're now not so sure it's true. The president shouldn't say it."

They kept pushing and pushing even after Agency personnel seem to have made their views on the evidence pretty clear.

Like the female employee and her grabby boss, how many times does she have to say 'no' before the behavior becomes inappropriate?

First we find out that ABC News has the temerity to send a gay reporter to risk getting shot-up and blown-up in Iraq. Now it turns out he's Canadian too!

Have they no shame?!?!?!? Know they no limits!?!?!

This seems to be the attitude over at the White House. Jeffrey Kofman is the ABC reporter who filed the recent stories about declining troop morale in Iraq. According to Lloyd Grove's column this morning, the White House press office has been putting out word about Jeffrey Kofman's unpardonable offenses to friendly news organizations, including Matt Drudge.

First there was the smearing of Joe Wilson, now the digging up of personal details about Kofman. Are we permitted to start recognizing a pattern here? A road map, shall we say, for how the White House plans to deal with criticism on this issue?

Wow. Amazing and terribly tragic. Dr. David Kelly was a British government Iraq expert -- and former weapons inspector -- who seemed to be the source for BBC reports that Prime Minsiter Tony Blair's office had "sexed up" its report about Iraqi WMD. He had denied it. But the Ministry of Defense fingered him as someone who had met with the BBC reporter in question.

He disappeared yesterday (yesterday UK time) and a body which seems to be his was found in the woods not far from his home this morning (again, UK time). Every sign here looks like this is someone who was unaccustomed to and overwhelmed by the media spotlight this was generating and took his own life. One MP told the BBC: "He is not used to the media glare, he is not used to the intense spotlight he has been put under."

Even if that's what happened here though, when people at the center of scandals like this turn up dead it raises the drama level, the media fascination and 'heat' of the story almost immeasurably.

Who was Dick Durbin talking about when he told Good Morning America that George Tenet named the White House official who "insisted" on including the shaky Niger material?

(This late-filed report from the AP reports that a "U.S. government official present at the closed-door Senate Intelligence Committee meeting" says it was another CIA official, not Tenet, who dicsussed this stuff with the committee. But this other official doesn't seem to dispute Durbin's contention that a White House official was named at the hearing.)

But, again, who is the White House official in question? The invaluable Chris Nelson of the Nelson Report says he knows.

This from the summary of this evening's Nelson Report ...

Summary: the Iraq intel scandal gets more interesting, as CIA's Tenet decides to pull NSC from behind the curtain. Says proliferation expert Bob Joseph performed the "negotiated truth" of Bush's State of the Union Niger claim. Hints Hadley, Rice (?) had to approve. Senate intel committee chair Roberts loyally trying to shield White House, limit damage to CIA. No deal, Tenet now makes clear. Watch for September public hearings.
This is the same official, Robert G. Joseph, a NSC nuclear proliferation expert, mentioned in the July 12th Sanger-Risen New York Times story.

More from this evening's Nelson Report ...

1. With Senate Intelligence Committee chair Pat Robert's promising public hearings in September, it's now clear that CIA Director George Tenet is no longer prepared to let the Agency take the fall for President Bush's use of discredited information on Iraqi nuclear procurement in the State of the Union address.

-- in closed testimony yesterday, sources confirm, Tenet named NSC non-proliferation official Bob Joseph as the White House staffer who forced the CIA to accept the "negotiated truth" Bush used to "prove" assertions by Vice President Cheney, and DOD Secretary Rumsfeld, that the Administration "knew" that Saddam Hussein was trying to "reconstitute" his nuclear bomb program.

2. Tenet's decision shows that the professional intelligence community has been pushed one time too many in a process that includes Cheney's historically unprecedented three visits to Langley, and DOD Undersecretary Feith's rump intel assessment group.

-- while CIA professionals have always had to fight political appointees over the interpretation of intelligence (the misuse of Vietnam war intel being a classic, tragic example), in this case, the straw that broke the camel's back was Joseph's insistence on what he knew was flawed British intelligence for the political purpose of persuading the American people to support the Iraq war.

3. The implications of Tenet's counterattack are potentially huge: while Joseph is a career professional, his highly ideological approach to arms control, and refusal to countenance compromise, has made him a major political player by default, sources confirmed as early as 2002, due to his central role in blocking negotiations with North Korea…more on this in the next section of today's Report.

-- but no career professional could have had such impact on the decision-making process if he didn't receive the backing of his political masters. Tenet, who came to the CIA from Capitol Hill, thus knew exactly what he was doing when he threw Joseph's name out to the Senators yesterday.

4. As Tenet obviously intended, even Republicans are now asking tough questions about the role of National Security advisor Condi Rice, and, in particular, her deputy, Steve Hadley…the two senior political appointees who's approval of Joseph's actions were essential, observers agree.

-- Hadley, especially, has some explaining to do, given that Tenet called him in early October, 2002, to warn that the Niger information was doubtful, and should be deleted from the prepared text of an Oct. 9 Bush speech.

5. And this incident alone puts Rice in the difficult position of having to explain why she said just last week (July 11) that no one at her level knew of the CIA's doubts about the Niger information at the time of the State of the Union, several months after the Tenet/Hadley chat.

-- so far, Rice and other White House officials have sought to minimize, or localize, the harm to the "bigger picture" of how the President went about persuading the American people to support a war to overthrow Saddam…that's what this talk of "just 16 little words" is all about.

More soon ...

From this morning's gaggle, an APB for a buck on the loose ...

QUESTION: Regardless of whether or not there was pressure from the White House for that line, I'm wondering where does the buck stop in this White House? Does it stop at the CIA, or does it stop in the Oval Office?

Scott McClellan: Again, this issue has been discussed. You're talking about some of the comments that -- some that are --

QUESTION: I'm not talking about anybody else's comments. I'm asking the question, is responsibility for what was in the President's own State of the Union ultimately with the President, or with somebody else?

Scott McClellan: This has been discussed.

QUESTION: So you won't say that the President is responsible for his own State of the Union speech?

Scott McClellan: It's been addressed.

QUESTION: Well, that's an excellent question. That is an excellent question. (Laughter.) Isn't the President responsible for the words that come out of his own mouth?

Scott McClellan: We've already acknowledged, Terry, that it should not have been included in there. I think that the American people appreciate that recognition.

QUESTION: You acknowledge that, but you blame somebody else for it. Is the President responsible for the things that he said in the State of the Union?

Scott McClellan: Well, the intelligence -- you're talking about intelligence that -- sometimes you later learn more information about intelligence that you didn't have previously. But when we're clearing a speech like that, it goes through the various agencies to look at that information and --

QUESTION: And so when there's intelligence in a speech, the President is not responsible for that?

Scott McClellan: We appreciate Director Tenet saying that he should have said, take it out.

QUESTION: But it's the President's fault.

Scott McClellan: In fact, if you look back at it, I mean, we did take out a different reference, a reference based on different sources in a previous speech because it was said -- the CIA Director said, take it out.

QUESTION: Let me come back to your "nonsense" statement here, and let me slice it as thinly as I possibly can, just growing out of what Scott asked. Is it nonsense to say that the White House wanted this information included in the State of the Union and negotiated with the CIA to find a way to put it in to the State of the Union?

Scott McClellan: I'm sorry?

QUESTION: Is it nonsense to say that the White House wanted this information in the speech and went through negotiations with the CIA on a way to get it in the speech?

Scott McClellan: That there were discussions? Speech drafts go -- we've stated that these speeches go out to the principals, it goes out to the State, it goes out to DOD, it goes out to CIA, when it's going through the drafting process.

QUESTION: Scott, you said it was "nonsense" to say that the White House was pressuring the CIA to put this in the speech. Is it nonsense to say --

Scott McClellan: I think the question that you asked about was that someone was insisting --

QUESTION: Durbin said, a White House official insisted --

Scott McClellan: -- insisting that it be put in there in an effort to mislead the American people, I think is what --

QUESTION: You didn't explicitly give a motive.

Scott McClellan: And I said I think that's just nonsense.

QUESTION: I'm just trying to slice it a little bit narrowly, to say, is it nonsense to say that the White House wanted this information in the speech and negotiated with the CIA on a way to get it in the speech?

Scott McClellan: Are you asking me to characterize the discussions that occur going on during the speech drafting process? I don't --

QUESTION: I'm saying, does your "nonsense" statement apply to the idea that the White House wanted it in the speech and negotiated with the CIA on a way to get it in the speech?

Scott McClellan: I think that it still goes back to, these drafts go to the various agencies, it goes to the CIA, this is an intelligence matter. It was based on information in the National Intelligence Estimate. That's the consensus document of the intelligence community, and that's what the information was based on in that speech.

QUESTION: So what I asked you about in that speech, your "nonsense" statement --

Scott McClellan: I'm trying to walk you --

QUESTION: You're trying to walk me out the door. (Laughter.)

Scott McClellan: I'm trying to walk you through this.

QUESTION: So your nonsense statement doesn't apply to what I just asked you?

Scott McClellan: I'm trying to walk you through the drafting process. And that's why I was trying to put it in context, so you understand how this occurs.

QUESTION: Scott, on Keith's question, why can't we just expect, basically what would be a non-answer, which is, of course the President is responsible for everything that comes out of his mouth. I mean, that's a non-answer. Why can't you just say that?

Scott McClellan: This issue has been addressed over the last several days.

QUESTION: Why won't you say that, though, that's, like, so innocuous and benign.

Scott McClellan: The issue has been addressed.

Look, it's always a bit brutal and ugly when members of the press flog something like this over and over again. But why can't they just say it: the president takes responsibility for what happens on his watch? And what ever happened to the responsibility era ...