Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Straight outta parseville, baby!

An interesting meditation on the newfound distinction between 'accurate' and 'true' in a back and forth this morning in Ari Fleischer's final press gaggle ...

Questioner: Does the President consider the whole Niger uranium story finished?

Fleischer: I think as far as the President is concerned, he's moved on. The President --

Questioner: What do you mean, "moved on"? That we shouldn't get to the bottom of it?

Fleischer: I think the bottom has been gotten to. The President has explained and said, and the Director of Central Agency has said --

Questioner: Who's to blame for the misinformation?

Fleischer: Well, I think everybody went through this last week, and you can refer to the statements that have been made on it.

Questioner: But there are some questions, Ari, that haven't been answered yet. Who, specifically, can you tell us, in the White House, asked for that line to be put in, given that this came out of the Cincinnati speech?

Fleischer: Which line was taken out of Cincinnati?

Questioner: Well, given that the information relating to the uranium in Niger was not included in the Cincinnati speech because the evidence wasn't there or intelligence wasn't there -- so who made the decision? Was it the speechwriters, the NSC, to put it into the State of the Union?

Fleischer: When you say "it," the information from the Cincinnati speech, which you just accurately said would have applied to Niger and to uranium, was not in the State of the Union. It's a different issue. You had an apple in Cincinnati and an orange in the State of the Union. They are different issues

Questioner: Right. But as I understand it, the matter of the issue -- the intelligence was discussed prior to the Cincinnati speech. And what's been reported all over the place is that a recommendation was made not to include that in the Cincinnati speech. And, yet, it was included in the State of the Union address.

Fleischer: Be precise. When you say, it was not included in Cincinnati, but that was included in the State of the Union -- again, let's be -- I'll walk you through it. But the precision is crucial, because that's the heart of understanding what was taken out of Cincinnati and included in the State of the Union.

The reference that the CIA recommended be taken out of the Cincinnati speech was very specific to the country of Niger and to the quantity of uranium that Iraq sought from Niger, specifically the country of Niger. The language in the State of the Union was very different. The language in the State of the Union said, sought uranium from Africa -- not just Niger -- because there was other reporting about other countries beyond Niger, in Africa. So it would be erroneous to report or to say that the language in Cincinnati, they tried to get it back into the State of the Union. Different language, different meaning, different implications, different facts.

Questioner: Ari, so who -- okay, fine. Who asked that the language about uranium in Africa be put into the State of the Union speech?

Fleischer: It was based on the NIE, by the reporting that we had at the time from the CIA, and it went through the vetting process, through the regular NSC process, speechwriting process.

Questioner: Ari --

Fleischer: And as you know, it was not objected to in the final analysis.

Questioner: Ari, the whole premise for the White House saying that the President's statement shouldn't have been made was because you found out that the -- specifically the Niger information was not credible. So if you knew that that part in October, why did you let him say it given that now you're saying, yes, there was other information about Africa but that, in and of itself, did not hold up and didn't lend itself to --

Fleischer: No, we said it didn't rise to a Presidential level. That's what we've said, that in hindsight, we now realize it did not rise to a Presidential level. There is still -- it would be also erroneous for anybody to report that the information about whether or not Iraq sought uranium from Africa was wrong. No one can accurately tell you that it was wrong. That is not known.

Questioner: In his statement Friday, the CIA Director said that he had alerted the White House officials several times to the fragmented nature of that intelligence, and, yet, Dr. Rice said on Friday and repeated again yesterday that neither she nor the President was aware of any concerns about the quality of the intelligence underlying the charge. Which is it?

Fleischer: I think the CIA Director's statement speaks for itself. I mean, he explains in there very directly that the information in the State of the Union dealing with the broader question of whether or not Iraq was seeking uranium in Africa was not vetted the way it should have been by the CIA. And it was based on CIA documents, as has been very well and publicly reported. I mean, there's nothing new here that hasn't been discussed last week.

Questioner: But in his statement he says that not once, but, in his words, several times, the White House was alerted to concerns about the quality of the intelligence. He meets with the President every day, he's meeting with him now. Did that subject never come up in any of these meetings?

Fleischer: The fact that it's fragmentary is what means that it should not have been -- risen to the Presidential level. There's all kinds of information that is available that may -- may not be true. And I've always talked about intelligence being mosaic. Some parts of the mosaic are very clear. Those parts that are the most clear are absolutely concrete is what should rise up to the Presidential level. There's many other pieces of intelligence in the mosaic that certainly may be true, they may be fragmentary, but they should not necessarily rise to the President's level. We're the ones who acknowledge that.

Questioner: Didn't the White House know, from Tenet, that that information was fragmentary and uncertain? The White House knew that from Tenet, correct?

Fleischer: The information specific to Niger and the quantity sought --

Questioner: -- included in the speech, forget Niger.

Fleischer: No, because the NIA did not say that. And as Director Tenet has pointed out, the speech had been vetted by the CIA, and it was not taken out.

But, look, let me back up a second. Let me back up a second. The issue is, the President said that Iraq was seeking uranium in Africa. That still may be absolute fact. The point is, it just didn't rise to the President's level.

Questioner: Nobody here knew that that -- that the information that was included in the speech about uranium from Africa was based on fragmentary evidence. Nobody here understood that.

Fleischer: Keith, that's why there is a vetting process. There is information that we get from the CIA and that we talk to the CIA about. Then a speech gets written. It gets shopped to the CIA for them to review. And if the CIA has objections, it comes out.

Questioner: Well, if only the CIA knew -- the White House understood that to be accurate, firm, information and only the CIA knew that, in fact, it wasn't. Is that what you're saying?

Fleischer: I'm not sure I follow your question.

Questioner: In other words, I'm trying to figure out if the White House understood at the time that this was uncertain information -- because if they did, then somebody here is also responsible, not just Secretary Tenet.

Fleischer: No, it's a process, and the process is we had the NIE in hand. The NIE said it explicitly, as you know. It gets written, it gets sent to the CIA, and nobody from the CIA said, take it out. I think the Cincinnati example actually underscores everything we've been telling you, because in Cincinnati, Director Tenet said, take that out. Had, for the State of the Union, somebody said, take that out, it, too, would have been taken out.

Questioner: But Rice and people here -- forget "take it out," "don't take it out" -- the people at the White House understood that to be certain information based on firm evidence; is that correct, or not?

Fleischer: The NIE stated it directly. And then what happens in the drafting process, the information is then sent back to the originating agency. And they review it and they didn't take it out.

Questioner: Why not, though?

Questioner: So if the NIE states it, then it's firm information?

Questioner: Ari, if the Cincinnati speech underscores the process, doesn't Secretary Powell's speech a week after the State of the Union undercut the process here? Because Secretary Powell looked at the totality of what the President said -- not Niger, just Africa -- considered it and said, this is insupportable. Now, what changed in the week's time between the time the President uttered the words in the State of the Union and the time that Secretary Powell presented his evidence that made everybody suddenly feel nervous about the evidence?

Fleischer: The exact answer that Dr. Rice gave to you when you asked it last week, and that's been in the pool report from last week. No difference. I'm not going to say anything different. It's what she said.

To my good friend the neo-con rapper, isn't this something you could rap?

Quote number one ...

"I will bring honor to the process and honor to the office I seek. I will remind Al Gore that Americans do not want a White House where there is 'no controlling legal authority.' I will repair the broken bonds of trust between Americans and their government."

-- George W. Bush
March 7th, 2000
Quote number two ...
"It didn't rise to the standard of a presidential speech, but it's not known, for example, that it was inaccurate. In fact, people think it was technically accurate."

-- Donald Rumsfeld
July 13th, 2003
I'm gonna put in a placeholder here for quote number three. I think we'll have more.

One of TPM's shrewdest advisors pointed my attention yesterday to the passage at the end of Saturday's Niger-Uranium article in the Washington Post.

Officials involved in preparing the speech said there was much more internal debate over the next line of the speech, when Bush said in reference to Hussein, "Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production."

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in his Feb. 5 presentation to the United Nations, noted a disagreement about Iraq's intentions for the tubes, which can be used in centrifuges to enrich uranium. The U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency had raised those questions two weeks before the State of the Union address, saying Hussein claimed nonnuclear intentions for the tubes. In March, the IAEA said it found Hussein's claim credible, and could all but rule out the use of the tubes in a nuclear program.

Now, some people have asked me whether this isn't the next shoe to drop -- another ominous but bogus claim about an alleged Iraqi nuclear weapons program.

I'm not willing to go that far. Not yet at least. But I do think this revelation sheds some important light on the White House's apparent desperation to get the Niger uranium claims into the president's state of the union speech, even in the face of so many signs and warnings that it wasn't true.

First, what to make of the claims about the aluminum tubes?

In their recent article in The New Republic, I think Spencer Ackerman and John Judis make a pretty good case that the weight of analytic opinion was against those tubes being for a nuclear program.

The less ominous interpretation was particularly strong among those who might arguably be said to be most familiar with how you make nuclear weapons -- at least those most familiar with what we might call traditional methods, as opposed to freaky-deaky approaches some allege were being employed in Iraq in the last days of Saddam (a long story we'll get to later).

Here's a key passage ...

Some analysts from the CIA and DIA quickly came to the conclusion that the tubes were intended to enrich uranium for a nuclear weapon through the kind of gas-centrifuge project Iraq had built before the first Gulf war. This interpretation seemed plausible enough at first, but over time analysts at the State Department's INR and the Department of Energy (DOE) grew troubled. The tubes' thick walls and particular diameter made them a poor fit for uranium enrichment, even after modification. That determination, according to the INR's Thielmann, came from weeks of interviews with "the nation's experts on the subject, ... they're the ones that have the labs, like Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where people really know the science and technology of enriching uranium." Such careful study led the INR and the DOE to an alternative analysis: that the specifications of the tubes made them far better suited for artillery rockets. British intelligence experts studying the issue concurred, as did some CIA analysts.
The key though is that there was a dispute. Indeed, there still is. And that makes it different from the African uranium story about which, as Greg Thielmann makes clear, there really was no serious dispute. Aside from those who just heard the rumor, said "cool!", and moved on, pretty much everyone who gave it a serious look decided it didn't add up. I strongly suspect we'll still find that political pressure played an important role in pumping up the aluminum tube claim too. But, still, there was a dispute.

The problem was a political one. By January of this year the issue of the aluminum tubes had already become a subject of intense public debate. It was at least clear that there was another interpretation of what those tubes might be for. That meant the big public evidence for a nuclear program was in dispute. And for many opinion-leaders and citizens around the country, the threat of a nuclear-armed Saddam was the one possibility which truly warranted immediate action to remove him from power.

In that context, getting proof that Saddam was buying tons of uranium would really help seal the deal. It wasn't just one more "data point" as Condi Rice put it today. It was a hugely significant claim, something which the White House certainly realized. It's one thing to say someone is buying materials to build a nuclear facility. I think that to most people the assumption would be that if you're buying many tons of uranium that's prima facie evidence that you already have such a facility. After all, why buy tons of uranium unless you had, or were about to have, some way to start cooking it into nuclear weapons?

That's why the Niger uranium claims were so tempting. They weren't just "this one sentence, this 16 words" as Condi Rice repeatedly and ridiculously said today on the morning shows. They made the near-term nuclear threat appear a lot more credible.

Apparently the temptation was just too great.

That's a good sign. This from Monday's USA Today ...

With multiple congressional investigations of the Iraq-related intelligence about to begin, some in the Bush administration are arguing privately for a CIA director who will be unquestioningly loyal to the White House as committees demand documents and call witnesses.
Or this ...
Officials in Vice President Cheney's office are angry at Tenet because they believe the CIA leaked to reporters last week that it had told White House officials — before the State of the Union address — that allegations Iraq was trying to buy uranium were probably bogus.
And of course, this ...
Bush administration officials who were hawkish on war in Iraq also have lingering resentment toward Tenet for his tendency to be skeptical about the intelligence implicating Iraq. These officials took note that the envoy the CIA sent to Niger in February 2002 to investigate the uranium rumors was Joseph Wilson, a career diplomat who had served on Clinton's National Security Council. Last year, Wilson made frequent TV appearances in which he voiced opposition to war in Iraq.
First those rubes at the Agency let 9/11 happen and then they forget that emissaries on secret Iraq-related missions have to be vetted through AEI! Who can trust these guys?

Is that your final answer?

I mean, where's friggin' Regis when you need him?

The title of James Risen's piece in the Times tomorrow lashes Condi Rice and Don Rumsfeld with cruelly apt understatement: "Rumsfeld and Rice Adjust Defense of Iraq-Africa Claim."

The original line out of the White House was that the uranium allegation turned out not to be true. They didn't know it at the time. And with what we know now it shouldn't have been there. But it was an honest mistake: no harm, no foul.

Only that didn't go over so well, especially when people started taking a closer look at the timing of who knew what when. So, now, well, now it is true. Or, in the tellingly ubiquitous word we're hearing from administration officials, 'accurate.'

Risen picks the signature quote from Rice, the theme around which she spent Sunday morning weaving a fugue of cynicism and mendacity: "The statement that he made was indeed accurate. The British government did say that."

Rumsfeld, lacking Rice's musical bent, was shall we say a touch more wobbly: "It didn't rise to the standard of a presidential speech, but it's not known, for example, that it was inaccurate. In fact, people think it was technically accurate."

Oy ...

Risen has other sentences that capture the essence of the situation with equally grand understatement.

The legalistic defense of the phrasing seemed to signal a shift in the focus of the White House's strategy in dealing with the political fallout over Mr. Bush's public use of evidence that was based in part on fabricated documents and in part on uncorroborated reports from abroad.
(Dr. Jones' fitness to practice medicine has been called into question since his qualifications were based in part on a forged diploma and in part on long, probing study of Marcus Welby, MD.)

Read Risen's article. But, I warn you, don't be drinking any beverages or eating any food while you do.

Senator Jay Rockefeller, from an interview today on NPR ...

"I cannot believe that Condi Rice... directly, from Africa, pointed the finger at George Tenet, when she had known -- had to have known -- a year before the State of the Union."

"The entire intelligence community has been very skeptical about this from the very beginning," Rockefeller says. "And she has her own director of intelligence, she has her own Iraq and Africa specialists, and it's just beyond me that she didn't know about this, and that she has decided to make George Tenet the fall person. I think it's dishonorable."

See the transcript or hear the audio here.

Here's a very good piece in Time on the Uranium-Niger question. (It took you guys a while. But welcome on board ...)

Some of the key passages ...

In what looked like a command performance of political sacrifice, the head of the agency that expressed some of the strongest doubts about the charge took responsibility for the President's unsubstantiated claim.


Greg Thielmann, then a high-ranking official at State's research unit, told TIME that it was not in Niger's self-interest to sell the Iraqis the destabilizing ore. "A whole lot of things told us that the report was bogus," Thielmann said later. "This wasn't highly contested. There weren't strong advocates on the other side. It was done, shot down."

The piece gives a few benefits of doubts I think may be unwarranted. But it draws the whole story together: the more dubious the evidence became, the harder the White House tried to get it in ...

I was most curious this morning to see Wolf Blitzer's interview with Condi Rice since she is the point at which all the arrows are now pointing, even if it's taken the press a few days to pick up on that fact. Frankly, it wasn't pretty -- certainly not on the level of substance, but not even on the level of presentation. All of the commentators this morning were coming around to the realization that the real question is less whether Tenet's CIA didn't push hard enough to keep bogus information out of the president's speech as why others were pushing so hard to keep it in.

And the 'others' -- at least in an immediate sense -- were staffers in Rice's NSC.

Rice's efforts to work her way out of this tight knot of logic -- especially the new revelation that George Tenet personally told her deputy, Stephen Hadley, to keep the uranium canard out of a speech in October -- were, to put it mildly, pathetic. The fact that the CIA Director had to intervene personally with the Deputy National Security Advisor to get the bogus information out of an earlier speech raises the obvious question: just how many times did the Agency have to warn the White House off the bogus uranium claim before they got the message and stopped trying to put it into the president's mouth?

Rice's efforts to answer these questions fell back on the same shambling claims that new information was becoming available between one incident and the next (if anything the opposite was true) or the endless repetition of her talking points that "it is sixteen words and it has become an enormously overblown issue." Here presentation was incoherent, contradictory and filled with several more extremely misleading statements.

One in particular jumped out at me. I don't have the transcript of her remarks yet. But she said, essentially, that Joseph Wilson's report was comprised of official denials from Nigerien government officials and the suggestion that a private businessman acting as an intermediary for the Iraqis had made an overture to one of those officials about possible uranium sales.

I know on what I can only call extremely good authority that that is a woeful and wilful misrepresentation of what Wilson reported back to the CIA. That's just not what he told them. (See this earlier post for more details.) Has Rice still not tried to get a hold of Wilson's CIA debriefing?

I don't think anyone is saying that Wilson is some reincarnation of Bill Donovan or a real-life James Bond, that he knows everything or that his judgments are utterly beyond question. He went to the country; he investigated the matter; he reported back his judgment. I've seen no reason or evidence to believe his reasoning was wrong in any way. But anyone can make a mistake or miss something. Thus one could say, well, Wilson's reasoning was wrong for reasons A, B and C and therefore I disregarded it. If Rice has a beef with his argument, she should lay it out. Or if the CIA failed to pass on to her the relevant parts of his report, she should say that. Or if she has solid evidence that Iraq was trying to buy Uranium from another African country, she should say that. But she isn't doing that. She's simply saying he said X when in fact he said Y. She is, to use the vocabulary we used back in the 20th century, lying. Like the lawyers say: if the facts are on your side, bang on the facts. If the law is on your side, bang on the law. If neither the facts nor the law is on your side, bang on the table.

Rice is banging on the table.

He may not be the worst member of the United States Senate. But Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Pat Roberts' prepackaged and coordinated role in the pin-it-on-Tenet operation yesterday was a marvelous audition for the role.

The key lines from his prepared remarks yesterday afternoon are ...

So far, I am very disturbed by what appears to be extremely sloppy handling of the issue from the outset by the CIA. What now concerns me most, however, is what appears to be a campaign of press leaks by the CIA in an effort to discredit the President.
Interesting priorities.

If you watch the Sunday shows tomorrow, watch to see which if any of the hosts asks an administration guest this question: If Tenet and the CIA are guilty of not pushing hard enough to keep bogus or 'highly dubious' information out of the State of the Union speech, who was pushing on the other side?

Read Tenet's 'mea culpa' (self-criticism session?) closely and you'll see it points right back at Condi Rice's NSC.

As noted in yesterday's post, we have a pretty clear idea what the interplay was between the CIA and the White House. The CIA expressed reservations about the Niger-uranium claims. The White House pressed to keep it in. Officials at the NSC, by several accounts, suggested getting around the CIA's reservations by using public statements by the British government as a figleaf -- even though the CIA believed the British assessment was incorrect.

Whose hands are dirtier? The folks who caved in to pressure and signed off on that figleaf? Or the folks who pressed for it?

This is a passage buried at the end of the New York Times Saturday article ...

Before the speech, the crucial conversations between the C.I.A and White House over whether to include the African reference in the State of the Union address were held between Robert G. Joseph, a nuclear proliferation expert at the National Security Council, and Alan Foley, a proliferation expert at the C.I.A., according to government officials.

There is still a dispute over what exactly was said in their conversations. Mr. Foley was said to recall that before the speech, Mr. Joseph called him to ask about putting into the speech a reference to reports that Iraq was trying to buy hundreds of tons of yellowcake from Niger. Mr. Foley replied that the C.I.A. was not sure that the information was right.

Mr. Joseph then came back to Mr. Foley and pointed out that the British had already included the information in a report. Mr. Foley said yes, but noted that the C.I.A. had told the British that they were not sure that the information was correct. Mr. Joseph then asked whether it was accurate that the British reported the information. Mr. Foley said yes.

Other government officials said, however, that Mr. Joseph did not recall Mr. Foley's raising any concerns about the reliability of the information. If he had, they said, Mr. Joseph would have made sure that the reference was not included in the speech.

There are at least three separate reports that the idea for the British figleaf came from the White House side. Those reports are buttressed by common sense. If the CIA was questioning using the Niger claims and the White House was pressing for it, what sense does it make that the idea of having it come from the Brits would be suggested by the CIA?

Now the White House is having the president and Condi Rice first place the blame for the Niger debacle (allowing disinformation into a State of the Union address) squarely on the shoulders of George Tenet and then later having the president say he has complete confidence in Tenet, thus conveniently keeping him in the fold. In other words, no harm, no foul. I'm tempted to say that the White House wants to have its yellowcake and eat it too. But even I wouldn't stoop so low.