Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Serendipity is part of the magic of the newspaper. Not the newspaper as a concept, or simply the work of hundreds of news professionals at the big dailies, but the physical artifact itself: the bundle of paper with numerous articles on various topics scrunched up together in the columns of a broadsheet.

The key being that even if you're focused on articles on topics A & B, you're bound to have your attention focused on articles on topics C & D, articles that actually turn out to interest you a great deal but which you wouldn't have thought to look for on your own.

The web has made that factor of serendipity all the more apparent to me because I've seen how focused -- and thus, in key respects I think, impoverished -- the web has allowed my newspaper reading to become. (Of course, the web has also allowed us all to have instant access to newspapers around the world -- something once possible only for heads of state and CEOs, if even for them).

As you no doubt know if you read this site on a regular basis, there are a host of topics that interest me a great deal -- basically, national politics, intelligence, foreign policy and military affairs. The web allows me to focus in on those topics. And I've found over time that I end up never seeing a lot of stuff I would have seen if I were still reading the paper paper.

In any case, largely for this reason I've started experimenting with getting the 'electronic' editions of the Times and the Post -- something which is now available for many papers, but not all.

Basically what you get is an exact copy of the physical newspaper on your computer, the same layout, the color, the ads, everything. The Times and the Post both use proprietary services, each of which I'd call 'okay' in terms of ease of use and navigation, though the Times set up seems marginally better. (I'm still getting the feel for them -- so that's a tentative judgment.)

One thing that strikes me about these services is that the papers don't seem at all serious about marketing them. First of all, they get almost no play on the sites themselves. And, more telling, they are outrageously expensive, as compared to the actual physical paper itself. I can't imagine I'll keep subscribing to the electronic edition of the Times, for instance, because it seems to cost as much to subscribe to as the paper paper itself.

Price aside, that almost seems galling on first principles.

In any case, here's an article today in the Times that I don't think I would have seen otherwise.

The article describes a new Spanish government proposal to finance all major religions in Spain. Spain already subsidizes the Catholic Church to the tune of $170 million a year -- no small sum in a country with a population of 40 million. Technically, the subsidy is temporary -- under an agreement brokered after the end of the Franco regime. But in practice it's permanent.

The new proposal is nominally couched in terms of equality and equity. But the Ministry of Justice and counterterrorism officials who are pushing the idea are quite open with the fact that the real aim is to wean Islamic organizations and mosques from funding from militant groups abroad.

George W. Bush, August 2nd 2004: “Let me talk about the intelligence in Iraq. First of all, we all thought we’d find stockpiles of weapons. We may still find weapons. We haven’t found them yet. Every person standing up here would say, 'Gosh, we thought it was going to be different.; As did congress, by the way. Member of both parties. And the United Nations. But what we do know is that Saddam Hussein had the capability of making weapons. And ... umm … but let me just say this to you. Knowing what I know today, we still would have gone on into Iraq. We still would have gone to make our country more secure. He had the capability of making weapons. He had terrorist ties. The decision I made was the right decision. The world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power.”

It certainly doesn't seem like there's much time to make a drama out of the Illinois senate race. But comedy, it seems, is still a possibility.

The Chicago Sun-Times is reporting that the Illinois GOP is now trying to draft Alan Keyes to run against Barack Obama for the seat being vacated by retiring Senator Peter Fitzgerald.

According to a member of the Illinois Republican State Central Committee, Keyes, a Maryland resident, "said that he was open to the idea. And he felt that Obama didn't really represent the views of the people of Illinois."

For more on Keyes, the self-proclaimed 'Quintessential American', see this page on his website.

"White House and Bush campaign officials have long said that the details [of White House counterterrorism proposals] matter far less than the pictures and sounds of Mr. Bush talking in any way about his campaign against terrorism, which polls show is still his strongest card against Mr. Kerry," writes Elizabeth Bumiller in the Times today.

Ain't it the truth!

But wouldn't it be nice if we had a press which would make some effort to point out instances where the 'details' utterly belie what the president says he's doing?

The issue here is the president's supposed embrace of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, particularly on the creation of a new National Intelligence Director under whom the heads of the various intelligence agencies would operate.

I was working on another project pretty much constantly through most of the day and heard discussion of this on the cable networks, particularly CNN. What I heard there was that the president had embraced the commission's recommendation on this point while only disagreeing on whether this new head of national intelligence would be housed within the White House or have cabinet rank status outside the White House structure.

Yet it turns out that this is but one, and not at all the most significant way in which the policy the president has embraced differs from that of the commission. In fact, when you look closely at it, it's nothing like what the commission recommended at all. The president went out into the Rose Garden, said he was adopting the commission's proposals. But in fact he was doing close to the opposite, doing more or less what they said shouldn't be done.

The key point made by the commission, you'll remember, is that the new NDI would have to have budgetary authority across the various intelligence agencies and the ability to hire and fire senior managers. As the Times makes clear, the president's proposal does none of those. Indeed, the dailies do a pretty good job making this clear. The Post says that ...

Bush's statement embraced the two most significant of the 37 recommendations by the commission that investigated the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but with significant limitations. Under his plan, the new intelligence chief would lack the authority over budgets, hiring and firing that the commission had envisioned.

If anything, though, even that doesn't quite do it justice.

You'll remember that we already have a national director of intelligence, someone in charge of overseeing the work of all the various American intelligence agencies. That person is the DCI, the Director of Central Intelligence.

The only problem is that for a variety of reasons, some intentional, some historical and some incidental, the DCI does not really serve that function. In fact, the current set-up can reasonably be viewed as a worst of both worlds scenario since the DCI doesn't have this broad supervisory function and yet -- as we saw in the Iraq WMD debate -- the DCI can improperly tilt joint national intelligence findings in favor of his agency, the CIA.

Now, if you go back and read the actual 9/11 Report you'll see that the commissioners description of the organizational shortcomings of the DCI post reads more or less exactly like the description of the new post the president outlined today.

I quote from page 410 ...

The current DCI is responsible for community performance but lacks the three authorities critical for any agency head or chief executive officer: (1) control over purse strings, (2) the ability to hire or fire senior managers, and (3) the ability to set standards for the information infrastructure and personnel.

And it gets better.

The Times article notes that the president said that while the new NID wouldn't have full control of the purse strings, he or she would have a 'coordinating' role in budgeting.

Yet, in the very next paragraph of the report, the commissioners note how this doesn't cut it.

Again on page 410 (emphasis added) ...

The only budget power of the DCI over agencies other than the CIA lies in coordinating the budget requests of the various intelligence agencies into a single program for submission to Congress.The overall funding request of the 15 intelligence entities in this program is then presented to the president and Congress in 15 separate volumes.

Now, for what it's worth, I'm not at all happy with the way that the dynamics of the election year are rushing the process of adopting this list of recommendations which, at the end of the day, is still the product of a small group of people, done with relatively little open debate. But there's still the issue of truth in advertising and whether the press -- and particularly the electronic press -- only pays attention to the "pictures and sounds" rather than the details of what the White House is actually doing.

The Post's Tuesday editorial notes this ... well, how shall we say it ... lack of candor, but still refers to it in bland terms.

Saith the Post: "Mr. Bush cast the plan he unveiled yesterday, to create a director of national intelligence and a national counterterrorism center, as embracing the commission's recommendations. In fact the administration's proposals differ in critical respects."

What's more, this is such a pattern for this White House that you'd think the Kerry campaign, and the Dems on the Hill, would get hold of this as a pretty manageable critique of this administration: That is, you just can't trust them.

What this White House says it's doing and what it's actually doing seldom turn out to be the same thing.

America Coming Together has a mock George W. Bush commercial featuring the still-living but yet already immortal Will Ferrell, and it's hilarious.

I'm not sure what I think of their 'Stop the Fraud' petition seemingly aimed at getting the FCC to crack down on "misleading, deceptive and fraudulent advertising." Actually, I think I know what I think of it -- I don't like it. But the faux-commercial is funny. And ACT's get-out-the-vote work for this November is extremely important.

Now the Bush-Cheney political campaign is telling all who will listen that they will spend the next month running a massive ad campaign (with a price tag of $30 million and no doubt supplemented by on-message talking points sent out to the all the foot soldiers) aimed at mocking John Kerry as a undistinguished and risible figure. According to the Times, this will culminate at the GOP convention where Kerry will be portrayed as "an object of humor and calculated derision."

(As a side note, this telegraphing of a looming attack is classic Rove -- a topic we'll return to.)

This makes sense on a number of levels.

First, the Kerry campaign now faces about four weeks of serious strategic vulnerability. They're now under the post-convention public financing caps, while the Bush campaign is not. That means that they're going to be hard pressed to match that spending dollar for dollar since they've now got a static budget that has to last them through the end of the election.

Hopefully for them the Democratic party and other independent Dem-oriented groups, while not allowed to formally coordinate on such things, will have Kerry's back on this during this period.

The more discussion-worthy point, however, is the use of humor as a political weapon -- mockery, derision, diminishment.

Republicans are very good at this. And it can be a tool that is deceptively difficult to respond to or combat. Effective mockery is 'sticky', hard to shake off, hard to parry. And it appeals to people's appetite for fun and humor.

Indeed, it's not just contemporary Republicans who have a knack for this. There seems to be something intrinsic to the reactionary or right-leaning mentality that gravitates toward this method of political combat. Think of the Tory pamphleteers and essayists of the 18th century in Great Britain or others of a more recent vintage in the US.

This is potent stuff. And Democrats would do well not only to be on their guard but consider applying this approach to the current president, who is more than a bit ripe for such treatment.

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.