Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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A bit more on the Berger story.

As far as I can tell, my comments from last night stand. Notes taken from classified documents are themselves classified, unless and until they are cleared as containing no classified information. That at least appears to be the standard procedure.

However, it seems equally clear that the surfacing of this matter is the product of a malicious leak intended to distract attention from the release of the 9/11 commission report.

Consider the timing.

According to this article in the Post, the National Archives began investigating this matter in October and then referred it to the FBI in January. That is, needless to say, at least six months ago. The article also notes that the FBI has yet to interview Berger, which suggests that the investigation has not reached a critical stage, for good or ill, that would have brought it to light now.

The most obvious, and probably the only, explanation of this leak is that it is intended to distract attention from the release of the 9/11 report due later this week. That would be yet another example of this administration's common practice of using the levers of executive power (law enforcement, declassification, etc.) for partisan purposes.

That doesn't mean Berger doesn't have any explaining to do. The two points are not exclusive of each other.

I just noticed this late story off the AP wire that Sandy Berger, Clinton's National Security Advisor, is the focus, in the AP's words, "of a criminal investigation after admitting he removed highly classified terrorism documents from a secure reading room during preparations for the Sept. 11 commission hearings."

"I deeply regret the sloppiness involved," the article quotes Berger telling the AP, "but I had no intention of withholding documents from the commission, and to the contrary, to my knowledge, every document requested by the commission from the Clinton administration was produced."

It's worth reading the whole article to get all the details, limited as they are.

The whole thing seems almost inexplicable. If I understand the article correctly, Berger took with him out of the secure reading room several highly classified documents relating to the 1999 millenium terrorist threats, as well as handwritten notes he took while reviewing those and other documents.

But these aren't original documents, but rather copies -- at least that's what the article says (see paragraphs 3 and 7).

So even if one imagines the most nefarious intentions -- which I'm certainly not inclined to do -- it's hard to imagine what taking copies of such documents would have been meant to accomplish. At the same time, Berger has spent his career in and out of the national security bureaucracy and must know the dos and don'ts of custody of classified materials like the back of his hand. So I don't know what he could have been thinking.

As I said, the whole thing seems almost inexplicable to me.

The key paragraph in the piece seems to be this one ...

Berger and his lawyer said Monday night that he knowingly removed handwritten notes he had taken from classified anti-terrorist documents he reviewed at the National Archives by sticking them in his jacket and pants. He also inadvertently took copies of actual classified documents in a leather portfolio, they said.

The key here of course is what if any distinction there is between the two things.

I've spent so much time over the last several months reporting on a project that has to do with classified materials that I'm embarrassed to say that I don't know just what the rules are for taking notes of such classified documents in secure reading rooms. (Needless to say I've never found myself in such a situation and doubt very much that I ever will.)

I would imagine they are quite strict and that you're not allowed to just take such notes with you except under the most limited of circumstances, if at all. Obviously, if you can write down the contents of classified documents and then take your notes with you then basically you're taking the document itself -- since the issue is not the physical document but its contents. Again, though, I simply don't know.

The article says that "when asked, Berger said he returned some of the classified documents, which he found in his office, and all of the handwritten notes he had taken from the secure room, but said he could not locate two or three copies of the highly classified millennium terror report."

That would seem to imply that he wasn't supposed to have the written notes either, though not definitively.

What this AP story reports is quite limited; and I'm going to reserve judgment until I know more of the facts and the rules governing this particular situation. But on the face of it, it does seem, as I said, inexplicable. And these are the sorts of incidents that, quite apart from criminal prosecution, rightly or wrongly, often end any future possibility of government service.

Late Update: As of late Monday evening, there is now an expanded version of the AP article that clarifies or at least expands on some of the issues noted above.

There's this graf on the notes issue ...

Berger was allowed to take handwritten notes but also knew that taking his own notes out of the secure reading room was a "technical violation of Archive procedures, but it is not all clear to us this represents a violation of the law," Breuer said.

In the more recent version of the article, however, the issue of copies versus originals seems more muddled, which ain't good.

For Turkophiles like TPM, Stephen Kinzer has an article in the New York Review of Books on the Erdogan government and the prospects for contemporary Turkey that you should be sure to read.

Michael Getler, ombudsman of the Washington Post, has a short piece today responding to my criticism of Susan Schmidt's article which appeared on July 10th.

"[I]n general," he writes, "I didn't find the criticism of this story persuasive."

Yet after reading his piece I get the impression that he agrees with at least two of my three points of criticism.

One of those three was Schmidt's claim that Wilson had reported that Iraq had tried to purchase 400 tons of uranium from Niger in 1998. In fact, the Report says it was Iran. The Post ran a correction of that error on Tuesday. And Getler says that error was "not central to the main points" of Schmidt's article -- a characterization that I think is probably a fair one.

A second point was my criticism of Schmidt's discussion of the legal implications of whether or not Wilson's wife recommended him for the mission in question -- an interpretation which comes right out of the mouths of the White House's defenders and is, I believe, demonstrably false. With respect to this, Getler writes that "there was one paragraph of speculation about the possible impact of the report on the administration's case in the [Fitzgerald] investigation that, in my view and the view of critics, should have been left out."

This sounds like at least a tacit agreement.

My third point of criticism was whether Schmidt was right to say that "contrary to Wilson's assertions and even the government's previous statements, the CIA did not tell the White House it had qualms about the reliability of the Africa intelligence that made its way into 16 fateful words in President Bush's January 2003 State of the Union address."

I think this is false since the CIA repeatedly tried to warn the White House off the 'uranium from Africa' story, though the Report alleges that they failed to do so just before the State of the Union address. The Report itself goes into great detail about how the CIA struggled to get the charge removed from the president's 'Cincinnati speech' in October 2002. Getler repeats the same facts, but sees this as confirming Schmidt.

There is one other point in Getler's piece that caught my eye.

In Wilson's letter to the Post, he took Schmidt to task for "uncritically citing the Republican-written Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report." Getler says 'no' it was "a bipartisan report."

Both of them, I think, come up a bit short on this one, but Getler more so. It is a 'bipartisan report'. But on the Wilson-Niger matter it's not unfair to identify this as a Republican document since the Democrats did not agree with the majority's conclusions on this matter. Indeed, as the Republicans themselves (specifically Sens. Roberts, Bond and Hatch) complained in their 'additional views' (p. 442) section, "Despite our hard and successful work to deliver a unanimous report ... there were two issues on which the Republicans and Democrats could not agree: 1) whether the Committee should conclude that former Ambassador Joseph Wilson's public statements were not based on knowledge he actually possessed, and 2) whether the Committee should conclude that it was the former ambassador's wife who recommended him for his trip to Niger."

And one other point -- one not directly relevant to all this back and forth about Niger and Wilson, but an example of how journalism too often works, or, rather, fails to.

In a bandwagon-type column out today in USA Today, Richard Benedetto quotes the Report thusly ...

Second, the Senate report said that Wilson "was specifically recommended for the mission by his wife, a CIA employee, contrary to what he has said publicly."

As we've noted here previously, consistently from day one until today, Plame's bosses at CIA have insisted that the idea to send Wilson was theirs, not hers -- a presumably relevant fact the committee Report fails to mention.

Still, that quotation sounds even more definitive than the Report made out. And in fact it is. Benedetto says he's quoting the Report, but he's actually quoting Schmidt.

This post will take us admittedly deep into the weeds of the Iraq-Niger saga. But if you can handle the detail, let's proceed.

As we've noted several times recently, both the Senate intel committee report and the recent "Butler Report" in the UK managed to leave out key details that would undermine the storyline they were trying to present. On critical points both have, shall we say, used the truth sparingly.

Here's a brief example.

The Butler Report -- on pages 121-25 -- describes the British intel judgment that Iraq was trying to purchase uranium from Niger. The key points in the Butler Report's rendition of events is that the judgment was based on multiple reports and that neither was the sheaf of forged documents that bamboozled the US.

As the Butler Report puts it ...

We have been told that it was not until early 2003 that the British Government became aware that the US (and other states) had received from a journalistic source a number of documents alleged to cover the Iraqi procurement of uranium from Niger. Those documents were passed to the IAEA, which in its update report to the United Nations Security Council in March 2003 determined that the papers were forgeries ... The forged documents were not available to the British Government at the time its assessment was made, and so the fact of the forgery does not undermine it.

In other words, whatever the deal was with those forgeries, it doesn't affect our judgment because we didn't have the forgeries.

This is what can only be called an artful rendering of the truth.

No, they didn't have the forged documents. But one of their two reports -- indeed, the more important of the two -- was a written summary of the documents provided by Italy -- the same summary the Italians had earlier provided to the Americans, which the CIA used to brief Joe Wilson before they sent him off to Niger. The second report came to them apparently only a week or so before they issued their public document with the claim about Iraq trying to buy uranium in Africa.

This point is pretty widely understood by people following or reporting on this story. But what's interesting to note is the difference between the Butler Report's rendition of events and that of a UK parliamentary committee report produced in September 2003 and chaired by Ann Taylor, an MP who would later serve as a member of the Butler committee.

Here's how the parliamentary committee described the Brits' two sources of evidence on pages 27 and 28 (emphasis added)...

89. The Committee questioned the Chief of the SIS about the reporting behind these statements. We were told that it came from two independent sources, one of which was based on documentary evidence. One had reported in June 2002 and the other in September that the Iraqis had expressed interest in purchasing, as it had done before, uranium from Niger. GCHQ also had some sigint concerning a visit by an Iraqi official to Niger.

90. The SIS’s two sources reported that Iraq had expressed an interest in buying uranium from Niger, but the sources were uncertain whether contracts had been signed or if uranium had actually been shipped to Iraq. In order to protect the intelligence sources and to be factually correct, the phrase “Iraq has sought the supply of significant quantities of uranium from Africa” was used. At the time of producing the dossier, nothing had challenged the accuracy of the SIS reports.

91. In February 2003 the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) received from a third party (not the UK) documents that the party had acquired in the autumn of 2002 and which purported to be evidence of Iraq’s attempts to obtain uranium from Niger. In March 2003 the IAEA identified some of the documents it had received as forgeries and called into question the authenticity of the others.

92. The third party then released its documents to the SIS. The SIS then contacted its source to check the authenticity of its documentary evidence. The SIS told us that its source was still conducting further investigations into this matter.

93. The SIS stated that the documents did not affect its judgement of its second source and consequently the SIS continues to believe that the Iraqis were attempting to negotiate the purchase of uranium from Niger. We have questioned the SIS about the basis of its judgement and conclude that it is reasonable.

That penultimate sentence is key. By saying the documents didn't affect the judgment on the second source, we can fairly infer that they did affect the judgment of the first -- namely, because the documents (or rather a summary of them) were the first source.

As I say, there's a lot of jargon and bureaucratic gobbledygook here. But the key point is that the authors of the earlier report felt free to be candid about what the Butler Report chose to keep hidden -- namely, that most of the British judgment about 'uranium from Africa' was based on the phony documents the Butler Report claims had nothing to do with their judgment.

More information on the thoroughness of the Senate intel committee report ...

This new article by Knight Ridder's Jonathan S. Landay and Warren P. Strobel tells the story of one of the defectors who provided key information on those mobile biological weapons labs that turned out not to exist.

Maj. Mohammad Harith was brought to the Defense Department by James Woolsey in February 2002.

According to the article, Woolsey originally denied that he had played a role in bringing Harith to DOD. After Knight Ridder obtained access to a classified DOD report describing Woolsey's role, he declined further comment.

"By using his Pentagon contacts," write Landay and Strobel, "Woolsey provided a direct pipeline to the government for Harith's information that bypassed the CIA, which for years had been highly distrustful of the exile group that produced Harith."

The article goes on to say that, according to Francis Brooke -- Chalabi's key hand in Washington -- "intermediaries such as Woolsey and former Pentagon official Richard Perle, another leading war advocate, contacted the Bush administration multiple times on the INC's behalf."

Given the role of various Washington neoconservatives in providing conduits for Chalabi's defectors or pushing (what turned out to be) bad information into the system, the facts here aren't really that surprising. Nor is there anything inherently wrong with close administraiton advisors using their access to bypass normal channels, though it is inevitably problematic, as the article makes clear. What's worth noting, however, is that none of this appeared anywhere in the Senate report.

This whole subject area runs against the general thrust of the report, which is that the CIA sold the White House a bill of goods. And either by coincidence or design -- you pick -- the whole matter gets no airing in the report.

Then there's this passage ...

After several meetings, a DIA debriefer concluded that some of Harith's information "seemed accurate, but much of it appeared embellished" and he apparently "had been coached on what information to provide."

Those findings weren't included in the initial DIA report on Harith, which noted that he'd passed a lie detector test, the Senate committee said.

However, further intelligence assessments in April, May and July 2002 questioned his credibility - including a "fabricator notice" issued by the DIA. Nevertheless, Harith's claim was included in an October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate and cited by Bush in his January 2003 State of the Union message.

There's no indication in the Senate Intelligence Committee report why Bush and other top administration officials used Harith's information after it was found by intelligence professionals to be bogus.

There will be more of this.

Don't miss Joe Wilson's letter to the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, reprinted here in Salon. And more on Wilson, the SSCI report, and Sen. Roberts this weekend on TPM.

If you don't have a subscription to Salon, you can find it here (scroll down).

A blog called BlueGrassRoots has a post up saying that the Louisville Kentucky Republican party (specifically, the Jefferson County Republican Party) is handing out signs that read "Kerry is bin Laden's Man/Bush is My Man."

I put in a call to the head of the Jefferson County Republicans, Jack Richardon IV and asked him if this were true.

Richardson told me that he'd seen a bumper sticker with that phrase on it and agreed with it heartily. "I believe that if you look at John Kerry's voting record in the senate," he told me, "why wouldn't bin Laden prefer Kerry over Bush?"

When I pressed Richardson on whether or not his party organization was distributing it, he acknowledged that they probably were handing it out on their campaign literature tables at recent events. And if it was being handed out, "I make no apologies for it."

"I think it's funny how the truth not only can be amusing but also make a point," Richardson went on. "Why wouldn't Kerry be bin Laden's man? Bush certainly isn't bin Laden's man."

Toward the end of our conversation Richardson told me I should also be writing about equally anti-Bush signs and bumper stickers he'd seen and other "slanderous things" being said about the president. I told him that made a lot of sense and asked whether he could tell me about similarly aggressive campaign material being distributed by Democrats in his area.

No luck.

"Quite frankly, I don't care what they put out," Richardson said. "They run their business and I'll run ours."

A bit of house-keeping. A couple days ago I noted how Oklahoma Senate candidate Tom Coburn had told an interviewer that he supported the death penalty for doctors who perform abortions. A number of readers wrote in to ask if I could provide a link for the article in question. For some reason the piece doesn't appear on any news website -- couldn't find it with a google search at least. But if you have access to the Nexis database you can find it there. It ran first on July 9th out of Oklahoma City with a byline by Ron Jenkins.

Late Update: Alas, TPM readers have better google skills than I do. The story can be found here.

Sen. Roberts: War a mistake, fault of <$NoAd$>CIA.

That's how I interpret this paragraph from today's article in the New York Times.

But in an hourlong interview on Wednesday morning in his office, Mr. Roberts said he was "not too sure" that the administration would have invaded if it had known how flimsy the intelligence was on Iraq and illicit weapons. Instead, the senator said, Mr. Bush might well have advocated efforts to maintain sanctions against Iraq and to continue to try to unearth the truth through the work of United Nations inspectors. "I don't think the president would have said that military action is justified right now," Mr. Roberts said. If the administration had been given "accurate intelligence," he said, Mr. Bush "might have said, 'Saddam's a bad guy, and we've got to continue with the no-fly zones and with inspections.' "

If you interpret it otherwise, let me know how.