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A reader wrote in

A reader wrote in this morning noting CNN's report that US forces will "soon implement high-tech surveillance tactics in the region [where bin Laden is thought to be], enabling them to monitor the area 24 hours a day, seven days a week." He said this sounded like a pretty good idea since the 9-5 M/F approach hadn't panned out so far.

That's a cheeky line; but it does point to a valid question. Why now?

Now, one of the dangers of any sort of opinion commentary, and blogging in particular, is that you're constantly tempted to comment on or venture an opinion on a topic that you know something about, but yet not all the relevant details. And this is certainly one of those cases. But this sudden rush of new resources into the bin Laden hunt really does seem to cry out for some explanation about timing, doesn't it?

There does seem to be a certain post-winter seasonal logic to the ramping up of the effort. But then this is the third spring since 9/11, not the first.

Why didn't we throw all these resources into the search in early 2002 or early 2003?

We know that too few resources were put into the search for bin Laden in the months just after the fall of the Taliban. At a minimum it seems we left too much of the effort in the hands of local allies -- the Northern Alliance, tribal allies, the Pakistanis -- whose motivation to capture bin Laden wasn't as clear or strong as ours, though that is, to be fair, probably more clear in retrospect than it was at the time.

We also know that we were drawing forces out of Afghanistan over the course of 2002 to build up for our invasion of Iraq. And making a full-court press in the spring of 2003 likely would have been difficult while we were focusing so many resources on Iraq.

But that's an argument the administration is presumably wary of making since it would show, in the most direct way, that the rush to invasion in Iraq sidetracked our battle against al Qaida. The decision-making in 2002/2003 is arguably more problematic since, unlike what may have been the case a year earlier, the trade-offs in that decision should have been clear at the time.

One possible answer to the 'why now' question is that it's now possible because of the deal we just cut with Pakistan. But that begs the question of why that deal happened now as opposed to two years ago and what we had to give up to get it.

In any case, as I say, I don't want to presuppose the answer to this question. The timing may be tied to changes in the internal political situation in Pakistan or the deal we just cut over the A.Q. Khan nuclear network.

But I think we do have to ask this question. We've been after bin Laden for more than two and a half years. Why the rush of new ground forces and high-tech gizmos in the lead-up to the presidential election?

Now that the Newsday

Now that the Newsday article -- discussed below -- has provided a new hook for the Plame story, it's really time for some member of the White House press corps to pose the 5th amendment question to Scott McClellan.

The question has two parts.

First: Does the White House know whether any White House appointees or employees have invoked their fifth amendment rights in the Plame investigation?

Second: Is the president's order to his staff to cooperate with the investigation consistent with his aides or appointees invoking their fifth amendment rights while remaining on the White House payroll?

The first question probably won't generate much of an answer because he may well not know. And he could credibly say that he has no way or knowing what's going on in confidential interviews and grand jury sessions.

But the second question should clarify just how much cooperation the president is calling for.

File this one under

File this one under friggin' unbelievable.

You'll remember the much-touted mobile biological weapons labs which now seem never to have existed. The overwhelming consensus within the US Intelligence Community now seems to be that those trailers we found soon after the war ended were actually for making hydrogen for weather balloons.

That didn't stop Dick Cheney from claiming less than two months ago that they were in fact for making biological weapons. But, alas, I digress.

In any case, in all the investigations now underway, we're trying to retrace our steps and see how we went wrong on these trailors.

According to an article by Walter Pincus in tomorrow's Post, it turns out that the main source for the claim -- an Iraqi chemical engineer -- was never even interviewed by American intelligence officers.

In fact, we didn't even know his name. We relied entirely on a foreign intelligence agency -- in whose custody he then was and in which he apparently remains -- to vouch for his credibility.

Really, this goes beyond issues of credibility since we'd want to have our own people interview the guy to get an idea whether he even had any idea what he was talking about, let alone whether he was on the level.

The only other person who could support or confirm this guy's story was another defector, a Iraqi major supplied to the US by Chalabi's folks at the INC.

He, it turns out, had already been "red-flagged" by the DIA for having provided unreliable information about Iraq's mobile bioweapons program. But DIA analysts, it seems, hadn't circulated that judgment widely enough through the rest of the Intelligence Community.

Now we know the engineers name. And that's only made us more eager to have him sit down with our guys. Because it turns out that the engineer is related to a senior member of the INC.

Imagine that.

It's bad enough that Chalabi and the INC helped scam us into war. But the ultimate indignity they've subjected us to has to be forcing us to endure investigations of our own intelligence services that read like Monty Python scripts.

Big Trouble An article

Big Trouble? An article <$Ad$>in tomorrow's Newsday reports that the Plame grand jury has subpoenaed Air Force One's phone records for the week prior to July 14th, 2003, the day Robert Novak published his original column outing Plame as an undercover CIA operative.

That's the sizzle, certainly. And it's the headline of the piece.

More interesting, and I suspect ultimately more consequential, though, is the Newsday article's discussion of the subpoena's focus on something called the White House Iraq Group, something which -- as the article notes -- has only been discussed previously in an August 10th, 2003 article in the Washington Post.

The Post article describes the group thusly ...

The group met weekly in the Situation Room. Among the regular participants were Karl Rove, the president's senior political adviser; communications strategists Karen Hughes, Mary Matalin and James R. Wilkinson; legislative liaison Nicholas E. Calio; and policy advisers led by Rice and her deputy, Stephen J. Hadley, along with I. Lewis Libby, Cheney's chief of staff.

That's an interesting list of names. And, two of them, Hughes and Matalin, had already left the White House by last summer, when all the activities under investigation took place.

Now, another matter.

I've noted previously in TPM and on Thursday in my column in The Hill some key issues about the pressure the White House was facing in early October 2002 to come up with evidence about the alleged Iraqi nuclear threat and the timing of the appearance of the forged Niger uranium documents in Italy on October 7th.

This all gets rather deep into the arcana. But if you've already read either that post or that column, the Post article from August 10th provides some helpful context.

As long as were

As long as we're talking about Slate, Will Saletan has a very nice piece on the problem with President Bush on the site this evening. The gist of it is that President Bush is such a man of principle that he sticks to his principles even when the facts say they don't apply or when the facts show that applying those principles produced completely different results than he said they would.

A more devilish way to put this might be to say that President Bush and his team have given a new turn to John Maynard Keynes famous response when challenged for changing his opinions so often.

Quipped Keynes: “When the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do, sir?"

For the Bush White House, when the facts change, you just change them back again. Why get distracted?

A note from what

A note from what I take to be a new and perhaps temporary TPM reader, Timothy N. ...

hey you lazy piece of liberal crap, get a job, and get out of the greatest country in the world, people like you ruin it. President Bush is one of the best presidents we've ever had if no the best. You dont like him , dont worry, we dont like you, leave and stop taking this beautiful country for granted!

Yet another hateful Democrat, I guess.

A note I got

A note I got tonight from a friend and bona-fide Gore insider ...

We took Nader too lightly in 00. We didn't challenge him. We didn't point out his sizable personal fortune, his complete lack of assistance on any environmental cause for decades, his sources of funding. Oh progressives do not make this mistake twice in your lifetime or Nader's.

Hear, hear.

I'm not certain I agree on this, though I certainly do at the level of sentiment. I still suspect that Nader will be such a relatively minor factor this fall that he's better left ignored. But who knows?

Im still marvelling at

I'm still marvelling at how tendentious and, in at least some cases, sloppy Slate's scorecard of Kerry's "waffles" is.

Kerry's been in the Senate for twenty years. He has shifted on issues. And he has, in recent years, shifted toward the center. A friend of mine who I respect as much as anyone in this business -- and who is a confirmed opponent of President Bush's -- expressed concern over just this point a few days ago, calling Kerry a "positioner" and basing that on experience dealing with him as a reporter.

But some of these "waffles" are really pretty weak. Let's start with one under the header "Social Security" ...

Kerry's Original Position

During the 1996 campaign, when I was a Globe reporter, Kerry told me the Social Security system should be overhauled. He said Congress should consider raising the retirement age and means-testing benefits and called it "wacky" that payroll taxes did not apply to income over $62,700. "I know it's all going to be unpopular," he said. "But this program has serious problems, and we have a generational responsibility to fix them."

Kerry's Revised Position

Kerry no longer wants to mess with Social Security. "John Kerry will never balance the budget on the backs of America's seniors," his Web site promises.

Let's take this apart.

Is Kerry saying that any consideration of means-testing or raising the retirement age is off the table? I'd say someone should ask him. <$Ad$>Because if he's now making a categorical statement ruling this out, that would be a shift in his position. And going into a presidential election he might not want to be entirely clear.

But all the author includes is a website bromide about not "balanc[ing] the budget on the back of America's seniors."

(Here's the page on the Kerry site where it says this. The full statement is: "John Kerry will never balance the budget on the backs of America’s seniors. Many politicians have supported major cuts that cause premium increases and cutbacks in benefits. John Kerry won’t.")

All the author is doing here is comparing a specific statement with a broad and essentially meaningless statement. He should have called up Kerry and tried to see if he still thinks those things should be on the table.

The rest of the before and after makes even less sense.

The author recounts how Kerry told him that it was "'wacky' that payroll taxes did not apply to income over $62,700." The author then says this contradicts the later website pledge about not balancing the federal budget "on the backs of America's seniors."

In this latter case the author may just be confused. I'm honestly not sure.

What Kerry is talking about here is raising or removing the cap on payroll taxes, which was then $62,700 and is now, I think, over $80,000, because of fixed yearly increases.

Getting rid of the cap is something usually put forward by people who don't want to touch benefits because this is a change on the support side rather than the pay-out side.

So, for instance, if you wanted to balance the federal budget and get Social Security in check without touching so much as a hair on Social Security's balding head, the most obvious thing to do would be to remove the payroll tax cap because that amounts to a payroll tax increase on upper income people to put more money into Social Security and thus avoid benefit cuts.

There are all sorts of policy-wonkish arguments for why this would probably be a good thing. But for the moment, suffice it to say, that the author simply seems to have confused a tax increase for upper income earners who pay into Social Security with a benefit cut for those who are recipients of the program.

Phrasing it that way, of course, assumes that we grant the author's seeming premise that the website bromide amounts to forswearing any benefit cuts to Social Security. It can hardly be an example of trying to "balance the budget on the backs of America's seniors" when it's actually a demonstrable example of trying to balance it on the backs of the young, the middle aged and the wealthy.

A new Associated Press

A new Associated Press poll out today has President Bush's approval rating at 48%. He polls 46% versus 45% for John Kerry. But the real stunner is that Ralph Nader is pulling 6%.

My gut -- and a lot of other evidence -- still tells me that Nader will prove to be far less of a factor this year than he was in 2000. The scope of opposition to President Bush tells me that, as does the fact that I don't think Nader will even appear on the ballot in many states since he's not running on the Green party ticket.

Still, I find that 6% number pretty surprising, and a little worrisome.

I said a couple

I said a couple days ago that a <$Ad$>briefing of sorts that I heard last week gave me the sense that the White House political operation was in serious denial about the state of their political fortunes.

My point wasn't that the president is heading to certain defeat. Far from it. With all the bad news the president has had so far in 2004 he's still barely running outside the margin of error against Kerry in most polls.

But when you're in denial about what might be manageable problems that can be the same as having problems which are in fact unmanageable.

As I wrote in the second post ever to appear on TPM, one of the most dangerous things you can do in politics is to fall for your own spin. And the Bush political operation, as I noted in that post from November 2000, has a history of doing just that.

In any case, Bob Novak has a column today which doesn't say the same thing as I've said above. But I think it's consistent with that read of where the White House is right now.