Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

The net is abuzz today about Robert Novak's column suggesting that a reelected Bush administration would quickly pull American troops out of Iraq regardless of the status of the country at the moment or what the consequences of the withdrawal might be.

So what does it mean?

Has President Bush decided that we have to pull up stakes, opting for a far more immediate retreat from Iraq than the one he continually accuses John Kerry of supporting?

My take is that there's no possibility and really no point in trying to answer that question. Whether or not John Kerry has a clear plan for what to do in Iraq, it's quite clear that President Bush doesn't have any. The plan at the moment is simply to keep the troops there in order to keep from having to admit that the whole enterprise has gone south.

(The young and very serious John Kerry once asked "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" A less anguished George W. Bush has decided that a soldier or two a day is a reasonable price to pay to avoid admitting a mistake.)

Given the identity of the reporter, I think this leak is simply an effort to give options to potential Bush supporters.

For those with their hands over their eyes, there's the president's slogans on the hustings. For those who see that what the president is saying makes no sense but yet really prefer not to vote for John Kerry, there's this leak which tells them with a wink that the president realizes his policy has failed and will pull the plug very soon.

The campaign will leave to individual voters which message suits their needs.

Game. Set. Match.

CBS now says it regrets running the Memo story.

They concede that Bill Burkett was their source for the documents and though Burkett does not admit the documents are forgeries he "admits that he deliberately misled the CBS News producer working on the report, giving her a false account of the documents' origins to protect a promise of confidentiality to the actual source."

CBS says that while they have no specific knowledge that the documents are forgeries they also say that they cannot authenticate them and that the story should never have run.

This only prompts the question of why they took so much on faith from Burkett in the first place.

Alan Keyes positioned for a break-out?

New St. Louis Post-Dispatch poll has him closing the gap to under 50 percentage points against Barack Obama.

Obama 68%, Keyes 23%, Other/Unsure 9%.

A new Zogby poll out tonight has not great but decent news for Kerry.

Bush 46%, Kerry 43% on the head-to-head match-up.

Kerry's got his work cut out for him. But he's very much in this race. And the president's underlying weaknesses are still very much there.

Following up on the post below about Rocco Martino, a number of readers have asked about the piece that appeared Sunday about Martino and the Niger business in the Telegraph.

The Telegraph piece contains some information that is accurate. But the article also relies heavily on intelligence and law enforcment sources who are using disinformation to cover for Italian intelligence.

The thrust of the piece is false.

In recent days there have been a run of stories about the byzantine, or rather sovietological, new twists and turns in the Plame investigation. And whenever this story pops up into the news, there’s a rush of speculation about that other investigation.

That, of course, would be the investigation into just who forged the notorious Niger-uranium documents that purported to show that Iraq had purchased uranium from Niger --- the underlying issue that led to the Plame investigation in the first place.

It’s even been suggested in the press that the two investigations might have been consolidated into one.

The truth, though, the dirty little secret, is that there’s never been any real investigation into where those documents came from. Don't look for status updates on it because it doesn't exist.

Yes, back in March 2003, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), vice-chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence asked the FBI to investigate the matter. And it was on the basis of this supposed investigation that the Committee decided not to investigate anything about the forged documents before they showed up at the US Embassy in Rome in October 2002. (See page 57 of the Committee report.) But again, despite claims to the contrary, the FBI hasn’t made any serious effort to find out who was behind the scam.

I say this for several reasons, which I’ll be discussing over the next few days -- some are based directly on my reporting on the case and others from inferences I've drawn from what I've observed. But let me start with one.

One of the obvious places to start such an investigation would be with Elisabetta Burba, the Italian journalist who got copies of the documents and later turned them over to the American Embassy in Rome. And the obvious question would be, Who gave you the documents?

FBI agents did do a cursory interview with Burba not long after Rockefeller asked for an investigation. And they made a pro-forma request for her to contact her source to see if some arrangement could be devised under which they could speak to him.

But after that, they didn’t follow up with her for months to find out what the answer was. And when they did finally follow up with her, it was mainly because one agent was passing the matter on to someone else.

To this day they’ve never made contact with the guy who tried to sell Burba the documents.

Now, on the surface you might say, ‘Well, maybe she’s just refused to name her source. And maybe she’s the only one who knows who the guys is. So what can they do?’

But that excuse falls apart pretty quickly.

Here’s why.

My colleagues and I have known the guy’s name since late spring. And at least three European intelligence agencies knew who he was well before we found out. In fact, twice this summer we brought him to New York for interviews. Both time he travelled under his own name, Rocco Martino.

The first time was in June; the second time was in August. And it’s the second time that’s more telling.

By the time we brought Martino to New York in early August, he had already been identified by name in the Italian and the British press as the man who tried to sell Burba the forged documents. And when we whisked him out of the country he was under very active and conspicuous surveillance by Italian authorities in Rome (a point we'll return to later). He flew to New York under his own name and stayed for several days.

A colleague of mine and I actually had a friendly bet about whether we'd have any problems getting Rocco through Customs in New York the second time or whether FBI agents would be there waiting to talk with him since the word was out about who he was, what he'd done, and that he was coming to the US.

I told my friend that I doubted they were looking for him. And if they were, the last thing they'd want would be for it to be reported in the press that they'd questioned Rocco or taken him into custody. He was a hot potato. Everything we'd learned reporting on Niger uranium case told us that this was a story the US government did not want to get to the bottom of.

Needless to say, nothing happened.

Now, perhaps if the case weren’t that high a priority or if there were some jurisdictional issues, it might be understandable if the FBI made no effort to contact him in Rome. But if they were on top of this case or interested in getting to the bottom of it, you’d think they’d try to speak with him if he arrived in New York right after his name was plastered across a bunch of European newspapers --- including one, the Financial Times, which you can pick up at any decent newsstand in the United States. (The Italians were keeping a close eye on him. And through leaks to the press in Italy, they let it be known that Rocco had again gone to the US.)

But he came, spent several drama-filled or tragicomic days, and then left. And no one from the FBI or any other American law enforcement or intelligence agency made any attempt to contact him in any way. Nor have they done so since.

Now, there are other reasons why this information about Martino would have been easy for the Bureau to get a hold of. But once it was publicly known who he was and that he was traveling to the US under his own name, it seems pretty clear that they really just weren’t too interested in talking with him.

Defining GOP deviance down.

Back in the good old days, when right-wing candidates wanted to tell voters that the libruls were going to take away their crucifixes or legislate compulsory race-mixing or make gay sex instruction a mandatory part of the high school phys.ed. curriculum, they'd push it under the radar with push-polls from some shark like Tom Synhorst.

No more pussyfooting around, though.

According to this Associated Press story, the RNC is sending mailings to West Virginia voters that claim that the Dems will ban the bible and legalize gay marriage if they get elected -- presumably they'll both be included in one omnibus bill (that's a little parliamentary humor there.)

I keep hearing from the direction of the Bush campaign that one of their big fears is that some Democratic 527 will put together an ad based on Kitty Kelley's Bush abortion claims and run it in West Virginia. Given the voters Bush-Cheney '04 is banking on in the state, they know that could be very damaging.

When you see stuff like this, from the RNC no less, it's hard to see why they shouldn't.

Over the last few days, I've written out two or three lengthy posts about the odd disparity in the polls, only to decide after reading them over that they didn't work for some reason and then scrapping them.

There is also a spread in survey data -- surveys never match up precisely. But here we don't have a spread so much as two sets of polls showing two markedly different pictures of the race. One shows the race dead even or with a small Bush lead; another shows the president running a commanding margin of roughly ten points.

In the last few days the pattern has repeated itself with Gallup and CBS/NYT showing roughly a ten point race and Harris and Pew showing it roughly dead even.

This sort of clustering can't be explained by margins of error -- not after it shows up so repeatedly. It can only be explained by different organizations using quite distinct polling models. Recently, Ruy Teixeira has been arguing, pretty convincingly I think, that Gallup numbers are skewed because they include a substantially higher percentage of Republicans than have shown up to vote in the last several presidential elections.

As Ruy notes this evening, the Gallup data show independents favoring Kerry by 7 points, while the overall numbers have him down by 8 points (these are Gallups registered voters numbers.) That's hard to figure since in recent history self-identified Democrats always outnumber self-identified Republicans.

(See this post here for a more detailed explanation of Ruy's argument. In fact, for all questions like these on the innards of polls I recommend Ruy's blog.)

So, as I say, I think Ruy's pretty convincing on Gallup.

But it's not just Gallup. It's also CBS/NYT and, if their last poll is any measure, ABC/WaPo as well.

I assume that these other surveys are using models similar to Gallup's -- and I'd like to see analyses of the internals of these other polls to show if that's the case. Still, I'm not willing to dismiss all these big Bush lead polls too easily.

What Dems should take from this is that there are a slew of polling organizations that say this race is basically a tie and buck up their morale accordingly. On the broader question of what's going on here, count me as still puzzled and, needless to say, it's a debate I'd much rather be having on the other side of the 50 yard line.

Bush on Iraq: Who you gonna believe? Me, or your lyin' eyes?