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About an hour after

About an hour after news of the despicable murder of Paul Johnson went over the wires yesterday, I spoke with a veteran intelligence official who's tracked terrorism and radical Islamism going back to the Afghan jihad in the 1980s. Next month, as "Anonymous," he'll publish a book titled Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror. There's a lot in the book to consider, disagree with and debate, and I'll be writing more about it shortly. First, here's some excerpts from our conversation about what the Johnson murder tells us about al-Qaeda strategy and Saudi counterterrorism efforts.

<$NoAd$>ANONYMOUS: I don't know if it tells us a lot about their worldwide strategy. It reinforces a lot about what we know about al-Qaeda. al-Qaeda is in many ways a reflection of Saudi society. Osama bin Laden is not an aberrant or deviant product of the Saudi educational system. He is its poster boy. He is the product of an educational system that has existed for more than half a century and turns out people who are of a mindset quite similar to bin Laden and his al-Qaeda people, though probably not as talented.

We saw al-Qaeda execute the operation of killing one American, kidnapping another, within two days. It reinforces the idea of nearly simultaneous attacks. They posted the information about Mr. Johnson, said what they wanted, said what they were going to do, and did it. Which perhaps is the most important trademark for al-Qaeda: they tell you what they’re going to do and then they do it.

In terms of their goals in Saudi Arabia, which are not entirely reflective of their overall strategy, it's to demonstrate the inability of the al-Saud government to provide security for expatriates--and to rally their supporters within the kingdom, which are numerous. So I think the unfortunate, tragic murder of Mr. Johnson is just another step in their attempt to unravel Saudi control over the kingdom.

TPM: Over the last couple days, a lot of the commentary about the kidnapping has been that it's al-Qaeda’s intent to spare Saudi society and instead inflict pain on foreigners who work on the oil sector. It sounds, though, that you’re saying a more important aspiration of al-Qaeda is to provide a demonstration effect of what the power of its ideology and the steadfastness of its operatives can do for people inside Saudi Arabia.

ANONYMOUS: I think that’s right. I think clearly al-Qaeda does not want to kill Muslims unnecessarily. They’re willing for Muslims to die in an attack on the United States or some other target, when the deaths are part and parcel of an act of war. But within Saudi Arabia I think they're kind of the society's Robin Hood. It's an oppressed society, the Saudi government is a tyranny, and I think they have a tremendous audience in Saudi Arabia. I remember reading in The National Interest in 2002 that a poll taken by the Saudi government showed 95 percent of Saudis between 18 and 40 supported Osama bin Laden. Domestic support is not an issue for bin Laden. He's always wanted to protect the oil industry in the sense of its infrastructure, its natural production of oil. He's found a way through this type of murder to affect the American economy, probably, without destroying the future potential of the energy industry in Saudi Arabia. It makes sense for all of those things he wants to do to follow this sort of practice.

TPM: … What should we be asking the Saudis to do after the Johnson murder? How do you assess Saudi anti-terrorism efforts inside the country--have the bombings last May, as many have commented, proven to be a wake up call? How do you rate what the Saudis are doing, both in terms of discrete anti-terrorism efforts, in terms of cooperation with the United States, and in terms of combating terrorism [at] its root?

ANONYMOUS: I think the attacks in May brought the message home to the Saudis that they have a domestic problem. In the course of the last decade, it's clear that the Saudis paid lip service to anti-terrorism, but as long as it didn't happen in the kingdom, that was all they did. The Saudis walk a very fine line on this issue. What we identify as terrorism is identified as jihad, as a religious responsibility within the Salafist or the Wahhabi doctrine that dominates Saudi educational facilities and has forever since the founding of the Saudi state in the '30s. Their efforts to suppress al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda-like people angers as many as it pleases. So their efforts are not and cannot be to eradicate the problem, because it will just aggravate a huge number of people in a very young populace that is very religious. There's a certain point at which they can't trust anti-terrorism efforts without risking a much wider anti-al Saud response.

TPM: Is this just a fatal and unavoidable contradiction of Saudi Arabia?

ANONYMOUS: It's a very difficult issue. It's hard for me, and there's other people far more expert on the kingdom, but I cannot see it reconciled in the near term. The Saudis had a breathing space in the '80s because they exported so much of their young men who were bin Laden-like to Afghanistan. For a decade they kept their unhappy young militants focused on fighting the Soviets. Now they have a problem, because those folks are home--although I would suspect that the Saudis and the Egyptians and the Tunisians and the Algerians and the rest of them are exporting some of their militants to Iraq, with the same idea that they can fight the jihad there and hopefully they won’t come back alive. But to answer your question, there’s a fundamental danger to the existence of the Saudi regime if they press too hard on counterterrorism.

TPM: So what has that led to in terms of cooperation with the United States?

ANONYMOUS: From what I can tell, including what I see in the media, it's much better than it used to be, but I'm not sure what that means in terms of progress because we're faced by a community that is by and large sympathetic and familiar with the arguments bin Laden makes about the responsibilities of religion. I would say there has been improvement but I think the Saudis really are in a Catch-22 situation, and that will have a limiting effect on their cooperation not only with us but with any other country.

TPM: What should we be asking them to do?

ANONYMOUS: I think we're focused on what we want them to do. We want to control al-Qaeda within the kingdom. We want them to continue to produce oil. We want them to do any number of police-type, and intelligence-type cooperation, and I'm sure they'll be willing to do that. But what we [really] want them to do, as I wrote in the book, I don't think is going to happen: people argue that we should force them or pressure them to change their curriculum and their education system, and that is very unlikely to happen. The al-Sauds, when they came to power, made a deal with the Islamic establishment: the al-Sauds would take care of the economy and foreign policy, and the religious establishment would take care of education. I'm not sure they're terribly eager to adopt a curriculum of Islamic education as it’s proposed by the United States. …

It's a system that's not prone to reform at a pace that would satisfy us. A pace that would satisfy us would completely destabilize the country. We're going to watch them do as much as they can, and they'll do as much as they can that's consistent with the survival of the state.


Or, in terms of cooperation with the U.S., perhaps less. As The Washington Post reports today, the intransigent interior minister, Prince Nayef, greeted the dispatch of 20 FBI officials to the kingdom by deriding U.S. counterterrorism proficiency to Le Figaro.

More to come soon from our conversation on the future of al-Qaeda, U.S. counterterrorism, and Imperial Hubris.

At the risk of

At the risk of shameless self-promotion, let me recommend a very special issue of The New Republic. As you can see on the left-hand side of the page, TNR has put together a series of reflections by (mostly) liberal hawks about their support for the Iraq war. It's not just an attempt to answer the question "Were We Wrong?" though the pieces certainly grapple with it. It's an attempt to understand what the Iraq war and postwar mean for the idea that U.S. national security is tethered to the promotion of American values, particularly after 9/11--the idea that gives the phrase "liberal hawk" a meaning beyond merely denoting a liberal who happens to favor a particular intervention. There's a lot contained in the issue's 12 essays, and even when certain pieces come to similar conclusions, they often do so for different reasons, so there's a lot I think you'll find worth considering--no matter where you stood on the war, and why. I hope you'll check it out.

What did the 911

What did the 9/11 Commission actually say about Iraq-al Qaeda connections? And what did the Bush administration actually say about them? An e-mail sent out from the White House Office of Public Liaison titled, "TALKING POINTS: 9-11 Commission Staff Report Confirmes Administration's Views of al-Qaeda/Iraq Ties" claims:

<$NoAd$>A 9-11 Commission staff report supports the Bush Administration's longstanding conclusion that there was no evidence of "collaboration" between al-Qaeda on the 9-11 attacks against the United States. The Administration has never suggested that Iraq "collaborated" or "cooperated" with al-Qaeda to carry out the 9-11 attacks.


And indeed, as the, uh, talking points memo notes, President Bush stated that "We've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with ... September 11th." Of course, what the memo quickly adds is that he said that on September 17, 2003. And what it leaves out entirely is why he said that on September 17, 2003. It was in response to this:

MR. RUSSERT: The Washington Post asked the American people about Saddam Hussein, and this is what they said: 69 percent said he was involved in the September 11 attacks. Are you surprised by that?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: No. I think it’s not surprising that people make that connection.

MR. RUSSERT: But is there a connection?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: We don’t know. You and I talked about this two years ago. I can remember you asking me this question just a few days after the original attack. At the time I said no, we didn’t have any evidence of that. Subsequent to that, we’ve learned a couple of things. We learned more and more that there was a relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda that stretched back through most of the decade of the ’90s, that it involved training, for example, on BW and CW, that al-Qaeda sent personnel to Baghdad to get trained on the systems that are involved. The Iraqis providing bomb-making expertise and advice to the al-Qaeda organization.

We know, for example, in connection with the original World Trade Center bombing in ’93 that one of the bombers was Iraqi, returned to Iraq after the attack of ’93. And we’ve learned subsequent to that, since we went into Baghdad and got into the intelligence files, that this individual probably also received financing from the Iraqi government as well as safe haven.

Now, is there a connection between the Iraqi government and the original World Trade Center bombing in ’93? We know, as I say, that one of the perpetrators of that act did, in fact, receive support from the Iraqi government after the fact. With respect to 9/11, of course, we’ve had the story that’s been public out there. The Czechs alleged that Mohamed Atta, the lead attacker, met in Prague with a senior Iraqi intelligence official five months before the attack, but we’ve never been able to develop anymore of that yet either in terms of confirming it or discrediting it. We just don’t know.


Despite not having a shred of evidence, Dick Cheney not only floated the prospect of Saddam sponsoring 9/11, but Saddam being behind the 1993 World Trade Center attacks--which Paul Wolfowitz also referenced on Good Morning America for the second anniversary of 9/11. (Hey Dick: Let's see the evidence on that one, too.) The ensuing media outrage at this blatant dishonesty was what prompted Bush to set the record straight(er).

Let's not stop there. The White House memo continues:

The Administration has said, however, that it was worried about a number of contacts between Iraq and al-Qaeda, including contacts between senior Iraqi intelligence officers and senior members of al-Qaeda.


This is what the 9/11 Commission actually said:

A senior Iraqi intelligence officer reportedly made three visits to Sudan, finally meeting Bin Laden in 1994. Bin Laden is said to have requested space to establish training camps, as well as assistance in procuring weapons, but Iraq apparently never responded. There have been reports that contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda also occurred after Bin Laden returned to Afghanistan, but they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship. Two senior Bin Laden associates have adamantly denied that any ties existed between Al Qaeda and Iraq. [Emphasis added]


So for the White House memo to be conveying truthful information, the Bush administration would need to have followed up any references to "contacts between Iraq and al-Qaeda" with reminders that the intelligence community saw no indication that those contacts were fruitful--and that in some cases entreaties were apparently rebuffed. Did they say that?

On October 7, 2002, in a televised, primetime speech on the threat from Iraq, President Bush said:

We know that Iraq and al Qaeda have had high-level contacts that go back a decade. Some al Qaeda leaders who fled Afghanistan went to Iraq. These include one very senior al Qaeda leader who received medical treatment in Baghdad this year, and who has been associated with planning for chemical and biological attacks. We've learned that Iraq has trained al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases. And we know that after September the 11th, Saddam Hussein's regime gleefully celebrated the terrorist attacks on America. Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group or individual terrorists.


Two weeks earlier, in a press conference with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe he said:

The war on terror, you can't distinguish between al Qaeda and Saddam when you talk about the war on terror.


Any given day. You can't distinguish between al-Qaeda and Saddam. (For more administration assertions of the dubious link between Iraq and al-Qaeda, check out the IRAQ'D mixtape sweepstakes.) If the American people mistakenly think Saddam is tied to 9/11, it's not surprising. On that count, I think I agree with Dick Cheney.

Lets connect a few

Let's connect a few dots in the Abu Ghraib scandal. Don't miss this blockbuster story in USA Today. The paper obtained sworn testimony from Lieutenant Colonel Steven Jordan, the prison's top officer overseeing interrogations. As you'd expect, much of it is self-serving--Jordan directly observed no abuse, his superiors and the CIA are the ones responsible for the torture, etc. As the paper notes, Major General Antonio Taguba heard Jordan's assertions of ignorance and considered him a liar, as the testimony of others, in the words of Captain Donald Reese, pegs Jordan as "very involved with the interrogation process and the day-to-day activities that occurred."

Jordan testified that he felt "pressure" from the White House and the Pentagon to "pull the intelligence out" of Abu Ghraib. White House staffers in September, he testified, implored him to get more information about the Iraqi insurgency. That plea was followed up by a November visit from Frances Fragos Townsend, the former NSC counterterrorism chief. (As my TNR colleague Ryan Lizza has noted, the post formerly held by Richard Clarke has become to the Bush administration what the drum throne was to Spinal Tap.) She confirmed the trip to USA Today, but stated, in the paper's words, that "she did not discuss interrogation techniques or the need to obtain more information from detainees, and neither witnessed or heard about abuse of detainees." And she called the idea that her Mesopotamian excursion pressured anyone at Abu Ghraib to get more information "ridiculous."

So the top NSC counterterrorism official makes a visit to Iraq in November--which, you'll recall, was the bloodiest month thus far for the U.S. occupation, so much so that it prompted the administration to shift its political strategy and schedule a transfer of sovereignty by June 30. She spent, by her reckoning, two hours at the Abu Ghraib prison, which the previous September the U.S. military had made "a central collection and interrogation point for anyone involved in attacks on coalition soldiers or Iraqi security forces," in the words of the Wall Street Journal. She was shepherded around by the prison's senior interrogation official, whom she recalls was "exceptionally polite." And she says she spent 15 minutes in the actual "detention areas" of Abu Ghraib. Remember: She's a White House terrorism official deep in the bowels of a military intelligence operation halfway around the world. And she didn't discuss "the need to obtain more information from detainees"? Is there any other plausible explanation for her visit?

Now here come the dots. Abu Ghraib, by all accounts, was a pressure cooker for information, as that Journal piece referenced above clarifies. "The whole ball game over there is numbers," a senior interrogator, Sergeant First Class Roger Brokaw, told the paper. "How many raids did you do last week? How many prisoners were arrested? How many interrogations were conducted? How many [intelligence] reports were written? It was incredibly frustrating." Prisoners were spewing into the system at a pace of over 60 a day. Colonel Thomas Pappas, Jordan's boss and commander of the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade, instituted a quota system for his interrogation teams. And there's a serious reason why the pace is so hectic: Military commanders and their civilian superiors at the Pentagon were speaking, in the Journal's words, "pointedly about the need for more and better intelligence to crush the insurgency." On November 19, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez placed Abu Ghraib under the "tactical control" of Pappas--even though his chief interrogation officer, Jordan, "lacked anything beyond a 'passing familiarity' with the rules and laws governing prisoner treatment," as USA Today reports.

In late August, the commander of Guantanamo Bay, Major General Geoffrey Miller, made his famous trip to Abu Ghraib, "with my encouragement," testified Pentagon intelligence czar Stephen A. Cambone, "to determine if the flow of information to [Sanchez's command] and back to the subordinate commands could be improved." The previous March, Pentagon general counsel William J. Haynes II had prepared a 100-page report explaining why Guantanamo interrogators were permitted to torture detainees "in order to respect the president's inherent constitutional authority to manage a military campaign." After receiving Miller's briefing, the gloves apparently came off.

And Pappas wanted to make sure that his superiors knew that the operation was yielding results. He prepared documents about the prison based on what Miller had told him: one was titled, "Draft Update for the Secretary of Defense." Now we know that the White House was flying senior NSC officials to Abu Ghraib for--well, they won't say what for, but, to put it gently, there's an interpretation that jumps out at me. Townsend arrived at Abu Ghraib at a moment of severe military challenge and subsequent political panic. It's 100 percent understandable that the administration has an overwhelming need for actionable intelligence for use against the insurgents. Indeed, as Rumsfeld put it yesterday, "Certainly, that's a fairly typical thing in a conflict." What isn't typical is that Rumsfeld and Townsend's colleagues in the legal offices of the Bush administration had been arguing for nearly two years that under certain circumstances--circumstances they consider much like those in Iraq--torture is legal. What might she have been trying to find out at Abu Ghraib? What did she communicate back? And, Ms. Townsend, shouldn't you answer these questions with your hand on a Bible?

The paranoid spokesman sees

"The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms--he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millenialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date for the apocalypse."

That's Richard Hofstadter in 1964. Forty years later, here's Donald Rumsfeld:

This much is certain: coalition forces cannot be defeated on the battlefield. The only way this effort could fail is if people were to be persuaded that the cause is lost or that it's not worth the pain, or if those who seem to measure progress in Iraq against a more perfect world convince others to throw in the towel. I'm confident that that will not happen.


Only the media, says the most powerful secretary of defense in history, can lose the war in Iraq. By that logic, a year's worth of mistakes--an insufficient number of troops to provide basic security; an inability or unwillingness to demobilize militias; a preference for wishing deeply-rooted conflicts in Iraqi ethnic and religious politics away instead of providing a civil forum for their arbitration; the installation of pliant Iraqis onto a council subsequently made powerless; torture--are simply wished away. And there are more mistakes to come: Since November 15, the Bush administration has loudly promised Iraqis that they'll be in control of their country after June 30. Behind the scenes, the Coalition Provisional Authority has been ensuring that the U.S. will retain significant control over Iraq's political development. More overtly, of course, Iraqis will still see American armored vehicles rolling down their streets. And at that point, Iraqis will see us breaking a promise--granting sovereignty--that we will loudly be proclaiming we've kept. Given that 90 percent of Iraqis distrust us according to CPA's own polls, the already significant danger to our 138,000 brave men and women in uniform is compounding. And the secretary of defense would prefer to point fingers at the media:

You know, let me say one thing to follow on Pete's comment. I've been kind of following the headlines and the bullets in the television -- the big, powerful hits on torture and this type of thing that we've seen. Needless to say, I can't read all the articles, and so I'm no expert on what every person says, and I know headline writers and people dramatize things.

But in thinking about it all, and I have to be a little careful -- we know that there's still more investigations going on, and we're going to learn more information, so no one can speak with finality or definitively or conclusively at this stage. But -- and second, I have to be a little careful about what I say because of the risk of command influence. But let me just say this: I have read this -- editorials, "torture" -- and one after another. Washington Post the other day -- I forget when it was -- just a great, bold "torture."

The implication -- think of the people who read that around the world. First of all, our forces read it. And the implication is that the United States government has, in one way or another, ordered, authorized, permitted, tolerated torture. Not true. And our forces read that, and they've got to wonder, do we? And as General Pace said, we don't. The President said people will be treated humanely, and that is what the orders are. That's what the requirements are. Now, we know that people have done some things they shouldn't do. Anyone who looks at those photographs know that. But that's quite a different thing. And that is not the implication that's out there. The implication that's out there is the United States government is engaging in torture as a matter of policy, and that's not true. Think of the second group of people who see it. All those people in the region and in Iraq and in Afghanistan, that we need their cooperation, we need their help, the people in those countries, the people in the neighboring countries, and think how unhelpful that is for them to gain the inaccurate impression that that is what's taking place.

Third, think of the people who, for whatever -- whenever -- today, tomorrow, next year -- capture an American civilian or American military personnel and will use all those headlines about torture and the impact in the world that people think that's what's taking place, and use that as an excuse to torture our people. So this is a very serious business that this country's engaged in. Now, we're in a war, and I can understand that someone who doesn't think they're in a war or aren't in a war, sitting in an air-conditioned room someplace can decide they want to be critical of this or critical of that, or misstate that or misrepresent something else, or be fast and loose with the facts. But there's an effect to that, and I think we have to be careful. I think people ought to be accountable for that, just as we're accountable.
To the enduring shame of the U.S., lawyers at the White House, Justice Department and Pentagon have authored memoranda interpreting torture as somehow consistent with the Constitution and our treaty obligations. (Please, point me to the references in the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions sanctioning the use of unmuzzled dogs.) And yet it's the media that's undermining the war effort by reporting that vile fact.

And about accountability: If you're never held to account, are you really accountable? Here’s President Bush today:

I'm never disappointed in my secretary of defense. He's doing a fabulous job and America's lucky to have him in the position he's in.


UPDATE: This post has been corrected. Thanks to reader J. for pointing out that, contrary to what I wrote earlier, only forty years have elapsed between 1964 and 2004.

Just remember George Costanza

<$NoAd$>"Just remember," George Costanza once advised Jerry Seinfeld, "it's not a lie if you believe it."

QUESTION: Mr. President, why does the administration continue to insist that Saddam had a relationship with al Qaeda, when even you have denied any connection between Saddam and September 11th, and now the September 11th commission says that there was no collaborative relationship at all?

BUSH: The reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and al Qaeda, because there was a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda.

This administration never said that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated between Saddam and al Qaeda. We did say there were numerous contacts between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. For example, Iraqi intelligence officers met with bin Laden, the head of al Qaeda, in the Sudan. There's numerous contacts between the two.

I always said that Saddam Hussein was a threat. He was a threat because he had used weapons of mass destruction against his own people. He was a threat because he was a sworn enemy to the United States of America, just like al Qaeda. He was a threat because he had terrorist connections, not only al Qaeda connections, but other connections to terrorist organizations; Abu Nidal was one. He was a threat because he provided safe haven for a terrorist like Zarqawi who is still killing innocents inside of Iraq.


From Staff Statement No. 15 of the 9/11 Commission:

Bin Laden also explored possible cooperation with Iraq during his time in Sudan, despite his opposition to Hussein's secular regime. Bin Laden had in fact at one time sponsored anti-Saddam Islamists in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Sudanese, to protect their own ties with Iraq, reportedly persuaded Bin Laden to cease this support and arranged for contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda. A senior Iraqi intelligence officer reportedly made three visits to Sudan, finally meeting Bin Laden in 1994. Bin Laden is said to have requested space to establish training camps, as well as assistance in procuring weapons, but Iraq apparently never responded. There have been reports that contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda also occurred after Bin Laden returned to Afghanistan, but they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship. Two senior Bin Laden associates have adamantly denied that any ties existed between Al Qaeda and Iraq. We have no credible evidence that Iraq and Al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States.


There's also not a shred of evidence that Saddam Hussein "provided safe haven" for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, either.

For more on Francis

For more on Francis Brooke, don't miss Laura Rozen's dispatch at her top-drawer national security blog, War and Piece.

Just got back from

Just got back from chatting with a fugitive from justice. That would be Francis Brooke, Ahmed Chalabi's man in Washington and the head of the Information Collection Program -- the Iraqi National Congress's $340,000-a-month intelligence venture with the Bush administration. Recently, Zuhair al-Maliki of the Central Criminal Court of Iraq (he's "not really a judge," says Brooke) issued a warrant for Brooke's arrest on charges of obstruction of justice in connection with the May 20 raid on Chalabi's Baghdad compound. Brooke proclaims his innocence and won't take the matter lying down. He's trying to organize a trip back to Iraq--he even says he wants to bring his wife and kids--so he can clear his name. (One option he's considering is to enter Iraq after flying into Tehran, which has a kind of poetic justice to it, given that Chalabi is suspected of double-dealing with the Iranians. "Right in their face!" Brooke exclaims, cheerfully pumping his fist.)

"What I'd like to do is just present myself to the court as expeditiously as possible," he says. "There's a charge against me. I have no intention of living as a fugitive. I have confidence in the Iraqi justice system." That confidence isn't shared by his INC colleague Entifadh Qanbar, who also found himself on the receiving end of a warrant. "Until I find out that I'll receive due process I'm not going to turn myself in," Qanbar told The Washington Post on Sunday.

That isn't the only thing Brooke wants to clarify. About the charge that fugitive INC intelligence chief Aras Habib Karem worked for Iranian intelligence, he says, "It is baseless. The best way to look at it is to look at his relationship with United States intelligence, or his relationship with Turkish intelligence, Syrian intelligence, Kuwaiti intelligence, Jordanian intelligence. He is an Iraqi intelligence officer. He is representing Iraqi interests."

Huh?

"He has liaison relationships with many intelligence services, including, at many times, with the United States. But he never works for no one. He has a liaison relationship with them"--that is, the Iranians--"in that we cooperate on issues that we agree with them on. We both hated Saddam. No question about it. We both opposed Saddam's domination of Iraq. And on those kinds of issues, we cooperated, no question--the same way we did with the government of the United States."

Hope that clears everything up. Iranian employee? Baseless. Iranian "liaison"? "Liaison relationship, that's right, we don't deny it."

I guess I might

I guess I might as well break the suspense: Hey there, TPM readers -- Spencer Ackerman here from The New Republic. As Josh wrote below, the proprietor of this fine blog has handed me the keys while he enjoys some hard-earned R&R. For the next few days, I'll be trying my best not to turn TPM into an online version of Weekend At Bernie's, though I can't promise that Josh will return to Washington and find his liquor cabinet untouched. I hope you'll keep checking out the blog despite the absence of the mighty Marshall.

So, with that out of the way, let's get right to it.

With the handover of Iraqi "sovereignty" just two weeks away, there's no shortage of open questions about what exactly our behind-the-scenes role in Iraq will be. One particularly pressing question has been whether the interagency knife-fight between the State and Defense Departments over Iraq will finally draw to a close. You'll remember that the Pentagon essentially junked about a year's worth of laborious preparatory work for the occupation prepared at Foggy Bottom, and famously told the first U.S. proconsul, Jay Garner, that he couldn't hire its architect, Tom Warrick. Failures and recriminations have compounded and intensified ever since -- sometimes fairly, sometimes not. Not surprisingly, the Bush administration has tried to present a united front going into the post-June 30 phase, when our political efforts will be housed in a new U.S. embassy, under the control of the Department of State. At a forum last month at the U.S. Institute of Peace, the leaders of the State and Defense transition teams, Ambassador Francis Ricciardone and retired General Mick Kicklighter, exchanged the sort of photogenic handshake usually reserved for when belligerents mark the formal end of hostilities.

But it looks more like the conflict is about to enter its guerilla phase. Steve Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists has obtained a copy of the National Security Presidential Directive that governs the structure of our future presence in Iraq. (Warning: PDF.) Signed on May 11 by President Bush, it ensures that the Defense Department will have a significant foothold in the embassy. Sure, it specifies that

The Secretary of State shall be responsible for the continuous supervision and general direction of all assistance for Iraq.


But "all" doesn't exactly mean "all." Leave aside the fact that

Commander, USCENTCOM, under the authority, direction and control of the Secretary of Defense, shall continue to be responsible for U.S. efforts with respect to security and military operations in Iraq. In all activities, the Chief of Mission and Commander, USCENTCOM shall ensure the closest cooperation and mutual support.


The Centcom-Embassy structural conflict is one we all expected, and, given our maintenance of over 138,000 troops in Iraq, can't really be avoided. A few paragraphs later in the NSPD, however, there's something else:

I also establish ... a temporary organization within the Department of Defense to be called the Project and Contracting Office (PCO) to provide acquisition and project management support with respect to activities in Iraq, as requested by the Secretary of State and heads of other Departments and agencies. The Secretary of Defense in consultation with the Secretary of State shall select a Director for PCO. PCO personnel in Iraq shall be permanently or temporarily assigned under Chief of Mission authority. PCO shall provide acquisition and project management support to the Chief of Mission. PCO's service may include engineering, auditing, and other contract-related authorities.


That's all the NSPD says about this new office. The PCO looks to be the successor organization to the Program Management Office, the Pentagon's contracting office within the Coalition Provisional Authority. Clearly the Pentagon will play a role in overseeing the implementation of contractor projects, and that's no trivial matter: the $18.4 billion we're spending in Iraq is supposed to be an important aspect of our post-June 30 influence. But this is surely about more than just the reconstruction contracts. Remember that there are "security"-related contracts issued for Iraq as well--just ask Virginia-based CACI International, who sent employee Steven A. Stefanowicz to Abu Ghraib. And that "other contract-related authorities" responsibility designated to the PCO seems sufficiently broad to allow the PCO chief--chosen by Donald Rumsfeld, with input from Colin Powell--to exercise it as he sees fit. There's not a whole lot that's clear here, but it certainly seems like the NSPD doesn't give the State and Defense Departments the same sheet of music to sing from. Plus ca change...

A Blog first Well

A Blog first? Well, probably not. But certainly a TPM first. I’m coming to you from some number of tens of thousands of feet over the Atlantic Ocean. And for those who know me well that is, well … something of a change of pace (a long story which we’ll return to at some later point). In any case, to the matters at hand. Even bloggers need vacations. And if they can’t figure that out for themselves --- which in my case seems to be the case --- their girlfriends eventually prevail on them to see the light of reason and do the right thing.

In any case, that brings me to my point. I’m going to be taking a breather from TPM for a few days. I’ll be away tucked away on some island somewhere far, far away. If something truly earth-shattering happens I may pop my head up. But I'm going to try mightily to resist (and you'll be in good hands while I'm away.)

A few points before signing off, though. You may have noticed a slight down-tick in the frequency of posts of late. And that’s for a few different reasons. But a principal one is that I and several colleagues have been working on a story that, if and when it comes to fruition --- and I’m confident it shall --- should shuffle the tectonic plates under that capital city where I normally hang my hat. So that’s something to look forward to in the not too distant future. And that’s taken some of my time away from TPM and prevented me from sharing with you some delectable tidbits which otherwise I would have loved to have done.

Second, TPM won’t be going dark during my brief absence. Iraq --- and the broad panoply of national security, war, and intelligence issues for which it has become the focal point --- remains the key issue in our public lives today. So I’m handing the TPM keyboard over to someone who has absolutely dynamite sources on all these issues and will be able to keep you up-to-date for the next several days and point you toward the key issues which perhaps won’t be getting the treatment they should in the Times, the Post and the rest of the bigs.

I’m going to let him introduce himself, probably a little later today. But he will definitely be able to give you the inside word.

Before you know it, I’ll be back, with batteries recharged, back to the normal feverish rate of posts, ready to slay dragons, break news, lacerate the puffed-up, poke fun at myself and others, post links, embarrass myself with typos and whatever other mumbojumbo I usually do in these virtual pages.

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