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I thought Fred Barnes

I thought Fred Barnes had left behind the paraphernalia of sixties-ism back in his early days at The New Republic. So just what has he been smoking? Did he pick up a good stash when he was in Prague trying to track down those dubious claims about Mohammad Atta? How else to explain his ridiculous column this morning ("The Complainers") in the Weekly Standard Online (good site, by the way) on how the Clintonites are the first administration ever to publicly criticize their successors.

His big beef seems to be with Messrs. Berger and Sperling. "[S]o far as I know," Barnes opines, "officials of the Clinton administration are the first to attack the policies of the next administration in a systematic way that includes public criticism, leaks, and dubious statements."

Oh please.

Try doing a Nexis search on the name Michael J. Boskin, Bush Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers circa 1993-94. Or perhaps Dan Quayle or Dick Cheney or a dozen other names whacking White House foreign and domestic policy in the early Clinton years. Or many more flacking Whitewater.

But why go so far afield? Fred's current boss, William Kristol, was the key player and Republican strategist, publicly and privately, involved in undermining and turning back the Clinton health care initiative. And of course Kristol had been Vice-President Dan Quayle's Chief of Staff. Nothing wrong with that of course. That's politics. And Kristol's a master at it. But why the faulty memory?

Fred, this one doesn't pass the laugh test. Next time Karl pitches you on a story idea, take a deep breath and count to ten. You'll thank yourself in the morning.

When last we checked

When last we checked in, we were trying to find out which congressmen were there with Congressman Dana Rohrabacher when he sat down with then-Taliban Foriegn Minister Muttawakil (and a delegation of Taliban diplomats) and presented him with his 'personal peace plan.' This was in Doha, Qatar in April 2001.

I asked representatives of Congressman Bob Barr and Congressman John Sununu if they were there at the Muttawakil meeting. But so far neither have gotten back to me with an answer.

(Why just Barr and Sununu when there were seven congressmen at the Free Markets and Democracy conference, where the Muttawakil meeting took place? Those are the two who are in contested elections in 2002. So they're the first ones I called.)

I did get to talk to Aaron Lewis, spokesman for Dana Rohrabacher. At the time The Gulf News, which is published in the United Arab Emirates, ran a story ("Positive Engagement," 4/13/01) which hailed "the meeting in Doha between Taliban foreign minister Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil and American Congressman Dana Rohrabacher [as] an important contact between the two countries. Although no concrete headway is reported to have been achieved, the very fact that both senior officials agreed to meet in a neutral place and exchange ideas is significant."

That description squares with wire reports (noted in yesterday's post) in the AP and the AFP. But like Grover Norquist, Lewis says the meeting was a much more impromptu affair. And Lewis was at pains to point out that Rohrabacher's 'personal peace plan' wasn't for peace between the US and Afghanistan (which, of course, weren't at war at the time), but for peace within Afghanistan.

Lewis said he didn't know the details of Rohrabacher's 'personal peace plan.' But that he'd try to find out more information about it when he spoke to the congressman. Lewis says Rohrabacher didn't know the Taliban would be at the conference when he travelled to Qatar. But when he found out they were there, he took the opportunity to give them a talking to about human rights, the Buddhist statues, and related matters.

Lewis said he wasn't sure if the subject of bin Laden was raised during the meeting but that Rohrabacher had long been a determined bin Laden foe.

Lewis said Rohrabacher was also an old friend of then-Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. And he speculated that perhaps this was part of the reason why Rohrabacher was so keen on working things out in the country. A CIA source tells TPM that Rohrabacher has been 'freelancing' in Afghan affairs since the mid-1980s. So Rohrabacher's history of involvement in Afghan affairs seems well attested.

Lewis said he didn't know the identities of the other congressmen who went with Rohrabacher to meet with the Taliban delegation.

So who were those

So who were those other members of Congress who joined with Congressman Dana Rohrabacher in presenting his 'personal peace plan' to then-Taliban Foreign Minister Muttawakil at a meeting in Qatar in April 2001?

(For the details of this rapidly unfolding story, see last evening's post.)

We can't say yet which ones went in on the negotiations with Muttawakil. But we can narrow it down to seven possible candidates -- the other seven congressman beside Rohrabacher who went to last year's Free Markets and Democracy Conference, where the Muttawakil-Rohrabacher meeting took place.

Wyeth Ruthven found the list of the eight member delegation on the website of the U.S. - Qatar Business Council. The eight are ...

Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA)
Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-IL)
Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA)
Rep. Nick Rahall II (D-WV)
Rep. Ciro D. Rodriguez (D-TX)
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA)
Rep. John E. Sununu (R-NH)
Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO)

Did Bob Barr -- who's now pitted against fellow Republican John Linder -- spend some quality time with the Taliban? How about John Sununu? Who's now running for Senate in New Hampshire. Somebody should ask.

For all their bluster

For all their bluster, the White House still refuses to guarantee the Iraqi Kurds -- who currently enjoy de facto autonomy -- that the US will protect them if Saddam makes a preemptive move against them in the lead-up to war. The administration line -- reiterated this weekend by Dick Cheney -- is that America will "respond at a time and place of its choosing." To the Kurds that sounds like, we'll respond once you guys are all dead. But if the administration is serious, why refuse such a guarantee? True, doing so would give Saddam the initiative, allowing him to commence hostilities at a time of his choosing. But with the exception of Turkey, wouldn't issuing such a guarantee improve our diplomatic position greatly? Allies who are wary of American plans for 'regime change' would be far less likely to resist an American pledge to protect a civilian population against an armed incursion by Iraq's Republican Guard. And if Saddam were foolish enough to give the White House such a pretext for action, much international criticism and resistance would be blunted. We'd likely be supported by many. If the administration is serious, then issuing that guarantee seems like a no-lose proposition. Which makes me think, maybe they're not. At least not yet.

Deep in the wilds

Deep in the wilds of Orange County, in my home state of California, a woman named Gerrie Schipske is challenging long-time incumbent Congressman Dana Rohrabacher in the 46th district. Rohrabacher is one of Congress's more colorful figures. He's both very right-wing on foreign policy (and most other things) and also a reformed surfer/stoner. Reformed only on the drug part it seems: his website features a picture of the middle-aged congressman catching a wave.

Recently Schipske posted a press release on her website alleging that in April 2001 Rohrabacher had a secret meeting with then-Taliban Foreign Minister Ahmad Muttawakil in Doha, Qatar. He leaned on the Qatari government to arrange a get-together. And at the meeting, she says, Rohrabacher gave Muttawakil some documents and proceeded to discuss his "personal peace plan" with the Afghan Foreign Minister.

Now, I did a little research on this and based on my interviews and wire reports I've read, the story is actually true. In April 2001, Rohrabacher travelled to Doha, Qatar to attend a conference on "Free Markets and Democracy." While there, he met with a Taliban delegation led by Muttawakil. Al Jazeera reported that the two discussed Osama bin Laden, the situation of women and civil liberties. Rohrabacher told Agence France Presse that the conversation was "frank and open." And he told the Associated Press that Muttawakil's response to his plan was "thoughtful and inquisitive."

[Note: Needless to say, it's wrong to call the meeting 'secret' since Rohrabacher gave interviews about it at the time. 8/15/02-5:36PM]

Now the Logan Act prohibits private citizens from negotiating with foreign governments. But that's a rather technical matter. So let's pass over that for the moment.

It turns out there's more. The Muttawakil meeting was attended by several members of the United States Congress, according to AP and AFP reports. Who those other members of Congress were is not clear. They don't seem to be jumping forward. Who are they? I'd like to know.

Still more interesting are the two groups who sponsored Rohrabacher's trip: the Egypt International Forum and the Islamic Institute. Those who follow Republican politics will recognize the Islamic Institute as the group Republican power broker Grover Norquist established to help corral American Muslims into the Republican party. Norquist has been a close friend and political ally of Karl Rove for a couple decades and he is now a close advisor to President Bush.

(The Islamic Institute and Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform are both run out of the same office in downtown Washington. For some of the details see Frank Foer's article Fevered Pitch: Grover Norquist's Strange Alliance with Radical Islam.)

Okay, a little more.

The Agence France Presse report implies that Khalid Suffari, head of the Islamic Institute, was at the meeting too. The AFP report says Suffari told an Al Jazeera reporter that "The position of the Taliban was flexible on most of the issues and the Afghan delegation showed itself to be ready for dialogue."

So this got me wondering. Was the meeting somehow under the auspices of the Islamic Institute? I wondered even more when I learned that Norquist himself was in Doha for the Free Markets and Democracy conference (See Norquist's October 3rd, 2001 OpEd in the Washington Times).

So today I called Norquist. Norquist told me that he was at the conference. But he denied being at the meeting with Muttawakil. "Dana ran into some guy who was a representative of the Afghan government," Norquist told me on Wednesday, "and since he [Rohrabacher] had worked in Afghanistan he sat down and talked to the guy. They literally met in the hallway. I just remembered Dana mentioning that he ran into these guys ... and he yelled at them about blowing up the Buddhist statues."

That sounds a little different from the press reports at the time. But that's his recollection.

So what exactly was going on here? Honestly, good question. Back in the eighties Norquist and Rohrabacher used to be known for what you might call extreme activism, basically heading out to remote spots in the Third World, mainly in Africa, and hooking up with various right-wing militias. Jonas Savimbi's group. Stuff like that. They both hung out in Afghanistan a bit too. And I suspect this was just more of the same. Still, given the context, you'd want to know who those other members of Congress at the meeting were, wouldn't you? And, again, given that this all happened only a few short months before 9/11, maybe Rohrabacher should give some accounting of just what he was up to.

Much as I like

Much as I like the folks at the Washington Monthly, it's a small operation. They don't have a behemoth publicity operation like a Time or a Newsweek to push my new article (in the upcoming issue) on the myth of Republican competence. But somehow they've enlisted the White House itself in the effort to flack my piece. How else to explain the White House decision to ax this $5.1 billion?

Let's be honest, all else aside, this couldn't be more stupid -- purely in political terms. Set aside the fact that the president's own policies have busted the budget. Put all that aside. Let's just look at how dumb this hastily conceived ploy actually was.

Even I figured that this $5.1 billion would turn out to be mainly well-intentioned but not pressing funding projects, with a few homeland security things tossed in -- like money to monitor the health of the rescue workers at ground zero. But look at some of the other examples provided in this new AP article.

$82 million to enhance the FBI's counterterrorism technology.

You can sort of understand this one. I mean, the FBI did such a bang up job with those 386s and 3x5 notecards they currently use.

$165 million to strengthen security around food and water supplies.

Why spend money on this? Who's ever heard of terrorists attacking water supplies?

$100 million to improve the communications systems of firefighters, police officers and other emergency personnel nationwide. Radio problems hindered rescue workers' response to the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 because the various agencies' radios could not communicate with each other.

This one I can actually understand, I guess. With our crack intelligence agencies, when are we ever going to need local law enforcement as first responders to terrorist attacks?

Now there are a few instances of funding priorities you can sort of imagine the president may have wanted to cut. Like the $400 million for election reform. Or the $275 million for Veterans' medical care (as we reported a little while back, the White House is already trying to rein in costs at the VA by ending efforts to sign vets up for their health care benefits.)

For laughs, the president ridiculed the $2 million included for what he called "a new facility for storing the government's collection of bugs and worms." It does sound pretty lame. Until you find out that the president himself asked for it in his February budget request. (Memo from George to Mitch: Work with the speechwriters on this stuff. Stuff making look like such a goof!) And the reason is pretty clear. The current set up has the collection in 730,000 gallons of alcohol just a few blocks from the White House. "The issue is that, in theory, we have a potential bomb sitting there and it's in the middle of the mall in Washington," a spokesman for House Budget Committee Democrats told the AP.

Let's be honest. Set aside the White House's cynical dishonesty in trying to shift the blame for the return to deficit spending. The real story here is the folks running the White House were so desperate and panicked about what to do on the economy and so eager to come up with some way to salvage the Economic Forum that they came up with this joke which is sure to backfire.

As I've been saying, the gang that can't shoot straight.

Times are kind of

"Times are kind of tough," President Bush told CEOs and investment gurus in Waco today. And how. Especially if you're the Bush administration. Most media outlets I saw today framed coverage thusly: was the Forum a genuine forum or a hollow PR exercise? That meant the White House had already lost the battle, since framed that way, the question pretty much answers itself. And not in a way the White House would like.

Yet the Forum -- and other similar exercises -- are beginning to illustrate an important reality -- one which the press corps is hard pressed to grasp, with its frequent emphasis on atmospherics and trappings and spin.

According to conventional wisdom, George Bush lost the presidency to Bill Clinton because he ignored the economy. He insisted it was good when it wasn't good; he didn't focus on it; he seemed not to care, etc. Bill Clinton beat him by doing the opposite. And this President Bush is determined not to make his father's mistake.

The conventional wisdom assumes it's all a matter of optics; but it's not. The White House and the media are engaged in a meta-discussion about the president's efforts to look engaged and focused on the economy. The hard reality, though, is that it's very difficult for a conservative president to actually do anything in a down economy -- because doing so goes against both his ideology and the interests of his key political constituencies.

(In this case you also have the president deeply and inextricably invested in long-term fiscal irresponsibility. But that's just icing on the cake.)

Thus you see the president doing politically foolish things like cutting $5 billion in funding for things like helping the firefighters at Ground Zero and sending aid to Afghanistan, which is currently crumbling under the weight of the White House's heavy inattention. The problem is only in small part one of appearances and political tactics. It's really a conflict between the White House's desire to appear to do something and its ideology which dictates that it do nothing.

Now to other matters.

Still no response from the Washington Post about the egregious pilfering of the name of this website. But new developments are brewing. We shall keep you up-to-date. And thank all of you again for sending all the emails to the Post. It's much appreciated.

Bob Novak had a very good column on Sunday about the more moderate wing of the Bush administration pulling out all the stops to beat some reason into the head of the president on Iraq -- particularly a face-to-face meeting the president had with Powell and his extremely influential deputy Richard Armitage. If you're following this issue, definitely take a look.

As regular readers know, I came to the reluctant conclusion that we should move against Iraq. But this administration seems intent on doing it in the most reckless, foolhardy and impetuous manner possible. Enough to make you think that if it's going to be done like this, it might be better left undone. It's a close-run thing as far as I'm concerned. And I'll be saying more on this soon. But if you're following this, definitely take a look at Novak's column.

Sometimes seriously sometimes for

Sometimes seriously, sometimes for little more than a laugh, administration officials argue that the permissive climate of the Clinton years was to blame for CEO and corporate boardroom shenanigans. The hapless Larry Lindsey tried out a version of this argument on Moneyline last week and Lou Dobbs actually burst into momentarily uncontrolled chuckles. "Mr. Lindsey, I understand it's a political year," Dobbs piped up after regaining his composure, "But you make it sound almost as if the administration and the respective law enforcement agencies and regulators will deal with only those criminals who committed those acts during the watch of President Clinton."

The argument is so transparently ridiculous that it's hard to know precisely how to test it. But here's a possibility. Fortune has just released its "Greedy Bunch," its list of the 25 greediest CEOs. That's an admittedly subjective category. And the methodology Fortune chose is a touch complicated. But the essence of it is a measure of who cashed out the most while their stockholders were losing the most.

I did a quick bit of research through the campaign filing data. And out of that 25 I came up with 10 who were Bush campaign contributors. Four out of the top five actually. Two of the 25 gave money to Al Gore. But those two also gave money to Bush. So it would seem that even if these flighty CEOs were beguiled by Clinton's seductive amorality the affliction didn't stop them from supporting George W. Bush.

(Note: With a quick run through the data, there might be some errors. It's not always clear whether this John Smith who gave money is the same John Smith who's on the list, and so forth. But the overall pattern seems clear.)

Two of the Bush donors on the cash-out-derby list are also participating in Tuesday's Economic Forum in Waco, Texas. In fact, number 11 on the list, Charles Schwab, is the keynote speaker at the panel on Small Investors & Retirement Security.

And what to make of the Forum itself? Much of the shine has come off the endeavor as it's become clear that the 'Forum' is basically a summit of the president's chief campaign contributors and CEOs who have been pre-approved because they already agree with his policies. But in an apparent effort to demonstrate some action, the president is going to announce he's rejecting $5.1 billion in spending already approved by Congress. This $5 billion in spending could, we are told, exacerbate the long-term deficit outlook that the President's own OMB says is overwhelmingly caused by the economic downturn and the president's tax cut.

But how smart is this $5 billion ruse, even in the most cynical political terms? As the Washington Post notes, this money is earmarked for, among other things, "aid to Israel and Afghanistan, funds for health monitoring at Manhattan's Ground Zero, and $44 million for police overtime reimbursement and other uses in the District of Columbia."

Those seem like rather worthwhile expenditures directly tied to the war on terrorism. The rejection of that money puts the administration's rhetoric at war with itself. Complaining about the deficit is supposed to be off-limits because spending is necessary for the war on terror. Okay ... Now the president is taking a tough line by cutting spending on the war on terror because it threatens to bump up the deficit. Which is it? Is it really too much to expect logically consistent cynical manipulation?

It really is the gang that can't shoot straight.

Still no response from

Still no response from the Washington Post to complaints from me and others that they've purloined the name of this column for Terry Neal's new online-only column on the WaPo website.

Thanks very much to everyone who's written to Neal and the Post (they've already received quite a few) registering their displeasure. Please keep sending those emails. Meanwhile the TPM legal department will continue considering its options.

P.S. The Washington Times, of all places, has picked up on the story of the Post's outrageous behavior. Intellectual Property, it seems, makes strange bedfellows.

I wanted to ignore

I wanted to ignore Bob Somerby's continued attacks on me. But his new one today is so tendentious and misinformed that I can't hold my tongue. Today Somerby says that over the weekend on Reliable Sources I "finally acknowledged" that one of Gore's major problems in 2000 was the press corps' deep antipathy to him.

"There’s only one problem with Marshall’s statement," writes Somerby, "he didn’t say a word in real time, when voters deserved—indeed, needed—to be told." I'm only saying it now, says Somerby, not before or during the election when it would have counted.

I don't want to clutter these pages any more with this inanity. But for anyone who wants proof that Somerby is either wildly misinformed or deeply tendentious (I suspect the former) please peruse this article about the press's deep antipathy for Gore which I wrote during the Democratic National Convention in August 2000 (The American Prospect, cover date: Sept. 11th, 2000 Volume 11, Issue 20).

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