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The more I read

The more I read up on the Intelligence Community and Homeland Security the more at least one point becomes abundantly and undeniably clear: the President should fire Tom Ridge and abolish his job.

The point is not that Tom Ridge is a bad guy or even that he has failed at his job. The point is that he has no job and to the extent that one can infer what his job might be he has been given no resources or powers or support to succeed at it.

Having him there -- as well as his largely bogus Office of Homeland Security -- is simply an impediment to any real and thorough reorganization and coordination of the country's homeland security apparatus.

In the war on terrorism, there's no room for comic relief.

If Tim Noah isnt

If Tim Noah isn't working on this whopper for his Whopper of Week column I'll have to have a serious talk with him.

Yesterday on CNN's Crossfire, former FBI Deputy Director Weldon Kennedy was the designated defender of the FBI. Even in the current climate of rampant Monday-morning quarterbacking, Kennedy seemed, to my lights, painfully unwilling to admit that the Bureau had really made any mistakes.

But check this out. In reference to FBIHQ's refusal to okay a warrant request to search Zacarias Moussaoui's computer and other belongings, Kennedy said (and repeated on other CNN shows) ...

For example, even in the Moussaoui case, there's lot of uproar over the fact that the -- there was a failure to obtain a warrant to search his computer. Well, the facts now are that warrant was ultimately obtained. The computer was searched and guess what? There was nothing significant on there pertaining to 9/11.
Really?

Look at this apparently-uncontradicted snippet from last week's Newsweek ...

People close to Rowley and her Minnesota colleagues say they were devastated after the attacks, convinced that they could have done more to stop the plot if only Washington had listened. (Moussaoui's computer, searched after September 11, revealed information about crop-dusting and large jets, and his belongings included the phone number of lead hijacker Mohamed Atta's roommate.) Rowley herself wanted to interrogate Moussaoui. "She was in favor of a hostile interview," an FBI agent says. "A little shoving, a little chair slamming." But her supervisors said Moussaoui, who had invoked his right to a lawyer, was off-limits.
Is this the same as saying up is down or denying that the sky is blue? No, not exactly. And it's not like Mohamed Atta's roommate's phone number would necessarily have busted the whole plot open. And perhaps he's trying to hang this on finding the number in Moussaoui's 'belongings' and not his laptop. But given the extreme tendentiousness of the comment and the near felonious $%#-covering embodied in it, I think this counts as a Whopper of pretty sizeable proportions.

Preview of weeks Washington

Preview of week's Washington Post 9/11 probe headlines ...

Monday: CIA Failed To Share Intelligence On Hijacker: Data Could Have Been Used to Deny Visa, Washington Post

TUESDAY: CIA Gave FBI Warning On Hijacker: Agency Told That Almihdhar Attended Malaysia Meeting, Washington Post

WEDNESDAY: CIA Gave Warning, Later Said Just Kidding: FBI Sources Say CIA Not Clear, Washington Post

THURSDAY: Tenet Denies Head-Fake Report: Heated Inter-Agency Rivalry Boils to Surface, Washington Post

FRIDAY: CIA Warning Delivered in Invisible Ink: Ingredients for Reading Potion Not Shared with FBI, Washington Post

SATURDAY: Warning Memo Found at FBI Headquarters: Shelby Says Tests for Invisible Ink Negative, Washington Post

SUNDAY: CIA Borrowed, Did Not Return 'Phoenix Memo': New Twist In Lingering Mystery, Washington Post

Please pardon the persistent

Please pardon the persistent post paucity, but for the moment TPM must be cobbled together on this feeble Toshiba laptop which for some odd reason seemed like the niftiest thing going when I bought it at some point in like 1997. I'm told the old TPM world HQ will be up and going again as early as tomorrow. So let's hope.

In any case, as you may remember, TPM was a notoriously early-adopter of the Chandra Levy story, first discussing the case in these virtual pages last May 18th. When the sad, but inevitable news surfaced a couple weeks ago I was out of online contact and unable to make any comment.

But let me just mention a thought circulating among some Chandra-obsessives. You'll remember that at the crime scene where Chandra's remains were found, one item found was a pair of her spandex leggings which were knotted together end-to-end.

This has led to various speculation that Chandra was bound and perhaps assaulted before she was killed. Here's an example from a May 31st article in the New York Post ...

Police sources said the leggings were found inside out and knotted on both ends of each leg.

Because no bone matter was discovered inside the leggings, police theorize that they were removed and used to restrain her before she died.

"If someone wanted to just kill her, they wouldn't have removed the leggings," said former FBI profiler Cliff Van Zandt.

"The other working theory you could have with this is that they were pulled off her by someone who wanted to make it look like a sexual assault," Van Zandt added.

The D.C. Medical Examiner's Office, which ruled earlier this week that the 24-year old Levy was murdered, has not found any traces of blood or semen on the former intern's clothing found at the scene, although the items are being sent to FBI labs for further analysis.

Police sources said the sex crime angle is just one theory being pursued by detectives seeking to unravel the 13-month long mystery.

Well, maybe. But isn't there another possibility, one no one seems to be mentioning in print? Don't spandex leggings seem a bit more like something you'd tie someone up with during what I guess you'd call consensual bondage rather than during an assault? You know, like a necktie or a silk scarf or something?

Just a thought.

I was at a

I was at a party last night and a few folks asked me -- in response to the previous post I suppose -- why it is that no one ever makes fun of Larry King.

Now, I grant you, people sometimes goof on Larry's softball interviewing techniques. But for someone who so often embarrasses guests by asking knuckleheaded questions which show he hasn't the slightest idea what he and the guest are even talking about, you've gotta admit that Larry skates by pretty free. (If you need an example, see yesterday's post.)

Well, here's the scoop. There actually is a reason, just one that's normally kept pretty close to the vest by insiders. But in honor of Larry's much-hyped 45 years in show business, I think I have to let the cat outta the bag. So here goes.

The no-goofing-on-Larry rule, generally just abbreviated to no-goL among insiders, is actually a corollary of the Warhol Doctrine. You know, Warhol's famous comment that "In the future, everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes."

Clearly, we now are in the future. And everyone is famous for at least fifteen minutes. And it follows from this that everyone will eventually make an appearance on Larry King. Everyone. Look, you may be a barkeep in some dive in Mobile. But you know as well as I do that eventually you're going to make an appearance on Larry's show. Don't deny it!

So since everyone's eventually going to have to face Larry, and since Larry seems such a hail-fellow-well-met, the price of pointing out that about half of Larry's questions sound like they were conceived by a circus clown or a zoo monkey is actually pretty steep. And thus, absent truly brave souls like TPM, it just never happens.

Well no sooner had

Well, no sooner had I returned from my two week trip to various states on this side of the Mississippi River than the Talking Points Memo world headquarters (aka a gunned-up IBM ThinkPad 570e) experienced a major hardware systems breakdown necessitating an emergency retrenchment back to the old TPM world HQ for at least the next several days.

Now you might be asking yourself, what exactly does this have to do with you? how exactly does it affect your life? Well, as it happens, it does. Because on that for-the-moment-inaccessible TPM workstation is a choice thousand words of mockery of an incident that took place yesterday on Larry King Live. I was going to scrap it. But now that I think of it, honestly, it's just too funny not to note for posterity. So here goes ...

If you're a regular viewer of Larry King Live and familiar with the typologies and established fooleries which make up the show, then you'll no doubt be familiar with this one. Larry will have on some goofball or malefactor and he'll be snowballing him or her with question and after question and the goofball/malefactor will be just lapping it up.

Then Larry lofts one more snowball. But this time it's different. This question isn't just inane. It's based on what turns out to be Larry's complete lack of understanding of what's being talked about.

(Larry: "That's like what happened when you discovered the cure for gravity, right?")

This presents the goofball/malefactor with a quandary. He really wants the softball (otherwise why would he be going on Larry King Live?). But biting for this one means validating or buying into Larry's foolery or at the very least squandering whatever remaining dignity the goofball/malefactor has left. It's always a tough spot to be in and it's a challenge for even the craftiest of guests.

Anyway, last night on LKL there was a perfect example of just this sort of moment. John Ashcroft was on Larry's show defending Robert Mueller and the new powers he's granting to the FBI. The to-die-for moment happens at about 24 minutes into the show. Ashcroft is describing for Larry the new FBI guidelines which will allow FBI agents to snoop at public meetings and forums even when not working on a specific investigation. Let's go to the transcript with explanatory comments from TPM ...

ASHCROFT: One of the things that some individuals have been distressed about is simply the statement that an FBI agent is allowed to go to any public place where any other member of the public is invited, so that if there's a rally in the park, the FBI agent doesn't have to have a specific investigation in mind in order to go to the rally in the park. Or it's surfing the net. You know, an FBI agent ought to be able to surf the net and look for sites that instruct people in how to make bombs. Any 14-year-old in America can sit down at his keyboard -- I've got a 4-year-old grandson that can surf the net. And they can go anywhere on the net they need to, want to, because the net's a public place. The FBI has previously had rules that said, unless you have a specific investigation under way or you're following a specific...

KING: Like a wiretap, you mean.

(TPM: Okay, let's stop right there. Here we (as no doubt Ashcroft did too) see that Larry has no idea what the AG just said. Ashcroft is talking about listening in on public forums and Larry tries to clarify the AG's long answer by ridiculously explaining that this is like a wiretap. There's a pained look on Ashcroft's face as he contemplates what an imbecile Larry must be and what a pickle he's in. But he quickly regains his footing and opts for a classic example of what people in the biz call the "LKL 'Or' Maneuver". As in, yeah, Larry, just like that "or" like this other example which isn't ridiculous. Let's go back to the tape and see a master at work...)
ASHCROFT: Or you've been told you can't look for things that might be a problem.
(TPM: It's a well-executed move on the AG's part and he thinks he's pulled it off. But Larry isn't done with him. He lunges back at Ashcroft with a blistering fusillade of ridiculousness.)
KING: That's why [the] Minneapolis memo was declined, right?

ASHCROFT: Well...

KING: In a sense. They didn't want to look into the Internet of the man arrested.

(TPM: Larry's new angle is that the previous rule barring FBI agents from snooping on public meetings was the reason why FBI HQ didn't approve the Minneapolis field office's request to seek a warrant to search 20th hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui's computer. At this point Larry's new demonstration of cluelessness knocks the AG back on his heels and he can scarcely get out a defeated 'well' before Larry comes back for the coup de grace, showing that he doesn't know the difference between a 'hard drive' and an 'Internet.' After a few moments with the pained look on his face, Ashcroft realizes that Larry is just too big a bonehead to be reasoned with and he comes up with the original strategy of declining to n not because it makes no sense but because it's a delicate matter of national security currently being looked into by the Intelligence Committees.)
ASHCROFT: There are a variety of things there. I don't want to try and be conclusive. The Joint Committees on Intelligence are looking at that situation. We're going to cooperate with them. I think they'll do a good job. The Patriot Act also expanded our capacity to make inquiry and to develop information.
More on the L-man soon.

After hearing that the

After hearing that the Wall Street Journal editorial page had called for FBI Director Robert Mueller's resignation, my first thought was the obvious one: they spend eight years lauding the uber-hack Louis Freeh, who by-rights created the problem, and they call for the head of Robert Mueller, who is trying to clean it up. Now having read the editorial, it is slightly more persuasive than I'd expected. But only slightly. Mueller does seem to be the kind of by-the-books team-player that perhaps the Bureau doesn't need right now.

But why the need for a resignation even if some mistakes have been made? Doesn't continuity have its merits as well? Is what we really need right now the resignation of an FBI Director and several months with no one at the helm? There is a sort of mania with calls for resignations. Detroit makes cars; Silicon Valley makes gizmos; and editorial pages call for resignations. Even when they make no sense. But what else are they good for? So they do it anyway.

Another point: the argument behind the Journal resignation piece seems to be that there is merit and use in taking responsibility at the top, making an example of yourself to set an example for everyone else, saying the buck stops here and I'm not going to pass this off on some underling.

Seems to me that logic could get you wondering about someone besides the Director of the FBI, doesn't it?

Who's scapegoating who here?

A few days ago

A few days ago I did a radio interview where I went head to head with another one of these ridiculous conservatives who -- when thrown on the defensive about some aspect of Bush administration policy -- immediately launches into a tirade about how Bill Clinton is actually responsible for virtually everything that happened on September 11th.

(Did you know that Bill Clinton was actually the barber for three of the 9/11 terrorists!?!!? Or that he vetoed a bill which would have made it a felony to fly commercial jets into tall buildings??!?!!?)

In this particular case, the guy went on a tear about the Sudan-bin Laden handover fiasco, but he clearly didn't understand some pretty elementary details about what had happened.

In any case, clearly, by definition, we were not as prepared as we should have been for September 11th. And there's plenty of blame to go around. But one of the true ironies of the relationship between Clinton administration responsibility and Bush administration responsibility is this: most of the Clintonite policies which really were screw-ups were precisely those the Bush administration was most intent on continuing.

Here's an example of that pattern -- one which I'm surprised to say seems to have gotten quite little attention. It's described in an article in the Washington Monthly by Nick Confessore, a former colleague of mine from the American Prospect. (Actually, he's only 'former' because I'm not there anymore. He's still at the Prospect. But don't hold that against him. He's first-rate.)

Anyway, the article ... We all know the pitiful story about how the INS sent out visa approval notifications to two of the 9/11 hijackers almost six months after their planes plowed into the Twin Towers. This choice anecdote shined a bright light on how easy it apparently is for potential terrorists to slip into the country under the cover of student visas. Of course, sometimes they really are students, here to upgrade their jobs skills as international terrorists -- sort of Robert Reich meets Osama bin Laden. But that's another matter.

In any case, since then -- as the New York Times reported a couple weeks back -- the INS has been working to hurry along the new-fangled student visa tracking program -- SEVIS -- to make sure this sort of screw up never happens again.

But it turns out that there's a back story here that gives you a sobering sense of just how tough a battle the war on terrorism in Washington is going to be. SEVIS is actually just a ridiculously dumbed-down version of someting called CIPRIS, a pretty high-powered tracking system that the Clinton administration developed starting in the mid-1990s and ran in a pilot program in the Southeast a couple years ago.

CIPRIS was the sort of program you'd want if you were serious about keeping close tabs on whether foreign students were really in school, or out committing crimes, or kickin' it with the local al Qaida ward leader, or just hanging out in their boxers eating Fritos and watching the Flinstones at two in the afternoon. CIPRIS got a lot of info, had a more or less forgery-proof ID and efficiently and continually cross-checked this info with the relevant databases at Treasury, FBI, CIA and so forth so you'd have a good sense of whether their names or their funding sources were showing up on this or that watch-list.

The INS field-tested it and it worked great.

But it ran afoul of a series of organized interest groups: the immigration lobby and the Washington lobby for university employees who work as advisors to foreign students (yes, believe it or not ...) Anyway, through the standard Washington strategems of turning out effective bureaucrats and screwing around with funding these characters managed to get the system gutted and replaced with SEVIS, which did little more than put the existing info onto a computer without cross-referencing it with any other government databases. Basically SEVIS was a high-end, high-tech, New Economy, 21st Century, yada yada yada way of accomplishing nothing, which was more or less -- as the article explains -- what the interest groups who killed CIPRIS wanted.

Now, fast-forward to the Bush years. Some key folks involved in killing CIPRIS weren't run out of town on a rail. They got key appointments at INS under Bush. And the administration also helped keep CIPRIS on ice in an effort to cater to the Hispanic voters President Bush and Karl Rove are trying to lure into the Republican party. What's more, libertarian-minded Bush appointees at the INS are still blocking CIPRIS even after all that's happened. They're still there. And they're still pushing the lametonian SEVIS program even though the better CIPRIS program is waiting right there on the shelf waiting to be used.

The aforementioned article in the Times doesn't even mention the SEVIS-CIPRIS back story and it's not clear the author of the piece was even aware of it.

Definitely take a look at the story. It's a key piece of the 'what we could have done but didn't and still aren't' debate and it deserves more attention.

One of the great

One of the great things about having a weblog is having a forum for expanding on points that must be dealt with briefly in conventional article writing. The article on Iraq which I just wrote for the Washington Monthly is a case in point. And I think I'll spend some time, as I get back to regular posts, expanding on some elements of the argument I tried to make in that piece.

One key point is the issue of sanctions and the broader matter of containment.

This was Clinton administration policy more or less throughout. And my sense is that it was a good policy for much of the 1990s. But a central premise of my article, a sine qua non really, is that containment is no longer a workable policy. So let me explain why.

One part of the equation is our ability to maintain sanctions and no-fly zones indefinitely. Simply stated, we can't. Every year we face more and more resistance from the rest of the UN Security Council. They don't want sanctions in place any more. At least France, Russia and China don't -- to varying degrees. So more and more diplomatic heavy lifting is required on our part every year simply to maintain the status quo. And every year our grip, if you will, loosens a bit.

That's point one.

Point two is the geo-political and diplomatic collateral damage created by sanctions. You don't have to believe the puffed-up claims of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children dying because of sanctions to recognize that they have caused very real suffering. They destroyed the middle class, impoverished everyone else, and certainly led to some deaths because of the crippling of the medical and social services infrastructure. It looks really bad and that's largely because it is really bad. It gets people in the Arab world and the Muslim world and to some degree the world more generally really mad at us.

Now, could Saddam have alleviated this suffering by putting money into food and medicine rather than military and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) research? Absolutely. But in the real world that just doesn't matter. In the latter Clinton years, the administration tried tweaking the sanctions in such a way that it would be clear that if kids weren't getting medicine it was because of Saddam's priorities not because of something we were doing. The idea was that if we put the lie to Saddam's lies that people would blame Saddam and not us. It wasn't a bad idea. But we tweaked, it was clear, but people still blamed us. It just didn't matter. We take the rap for whatever suffering takes place under sanctions, period.

This might not be so bad if we were slowly strangling Saddam's government with our sanctions. But no one -- and I mean no one -- thinks that's true. Through a perverse irony sanctions have only left Saddam's regime more deeply entrenched.

So here we have what I'd call the chronological issue. Sanctions cost us a lot internationally, more so every year. And our ability to maintain them diminishes every year. But Saddam can withstand them just fine. It may be terrible for the civilian population. But he's fine.

That means that if Saddam's "in the box" we're "in the box" with him. And the box is a lot more cramped for us than it is for him. Time, as the cliche has it, is not on our side. Frankly, he can wait us out.

And there's another problem. The sanctions don't work very well. At least not in terms of stopping WMD research. Nobody who I talked to who opposes military action against Iraq thinks that sanctions have stopped Saddam's WMD development. Not a one. And I talked to a lot of them. How much it's slowed things down is a more difficult question. But most of the people on the non-hawk side of this debate think he's still working on it, and is still making progress. The hawks have all sorts of scary reports about various stuff he's been able to import in recent years or develop. And I found a lot of this pretty iffy. The truth is that we just don't have much of a sense of what he's doing. All we reliably have to go on is that he kept working on stuff while inspectors were in the country and fiercely resisted giving stuff up while inspectors were there. So it's hard to figure he's shut everything down now that inspectors have been out of the place for almost four years. If we had inspectors in the country we could keep at least a limited read on what sort of progress he was making. But since 1998, and for now at least, we don't.

What we really have is not so much containment as deterrence. And this is the real question: whether deterrence is sufficient. I want to deal with that question separately. So let me put that aside and for the moment return to sanctions.

The best argument from the non-hawks about why not to attack Iraq is that it will gets the Arab and Muslim worlds really pissed at us and possibly create a very messy, chaotic situation. The hawks tend to pooh-pooh this argument. I don't. It's a damn good argument. What the non-hawks don't pay enough attention to, however, is how our current policy -- containment -- does something rather similar, only in slow motion.

What were Osama bin Laden's big rallying cries getting people to attack the US around the world and in New York? To a great degree it was troops on the Arabian Peninsula and the suffering of Iraqi children. Don't get me wrong and don't willfully misinterpret me. This isn't a matter of finding root causes or saying we brought it on ourselves or anything like that. It's just a cold-eyed realization that these have been a major irritant and stirred up a lot of trouble for us. There's just no denying that. Recognizing this is simply a matter of realistically judging costs and benefits. Garrisoning troops on the Arabian Peninsula -- and not just in the tiny coastal emirates where there's some precedent for it -- is just a losing proposition. For one thing it gets us deep in the sack with the Saudis. And, well ... that just ain't a good place to be. And why are those troops in Saudi Arabia? Lots of reasons, I suppose. And all other things aside, it's nice for a superpower to have some troops on the ground at the choke point of the world's oil supply. But there's one big reason: containing Saddam.

So for me, when I looked at the containment policy it seemed like a running wound for the United States, one that was hurting us in ways we weren't completely willing to recognize, and one that would continue to hurt us over time.

Perhaps it would be better, it seemed to me, to lance this boil rather than let the infection continue to fester.

More on related matters soon.

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