David Kurtz

David Kurtz is Managing Editor and Washington Bureau Chief of Talking Points Memo where he oversees the news operations of TPM and its sister sites.

Articles by David

The Observer, on the status of Iran's nuclear program and U.S./Israeli saber-rattling:

Despite Iran being presented as an urgent threat to nuclear non-proliferation and regional and world peace - in particular by an increasingly bellicose Israel and its closest ally, the US - a number of Western diplomats and technical experts close to the Iranian programme have told The Observer it is archaic, prone to breakdown and lacks the materials for industrial-scale production.

. . .

The detailed descriptions of Iran's problems in enriching more than a few grams of uranium using high-speed centrifuges - 50kg is required for two nuclear devices - comes in stark contrast to the apocalyptic picture being painted of Iran's imminent acquisition of a nuclear weapon with which to attack Israel. Instead, say experts, the break-up of the nuclear smuggling organisation of the Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadheer Khan has massively set back an Iran heavily dependent on his network.

. . .

Yet some involved in the increasingly aggressive standoff over Iran fear tensions will reach snapping point between March and June this year, with a likely scenario being Israeli air strikes on symbolic Iranian nuclear plants.

The sense of imminent crisis has been driven by statements from Israel, not least from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has insisted that 2007 is make-or-break time over Iran's nuclear programme.

. . .

It also emerged last week in the Israeli media that the country's private diplomatic efforts to convince the world of the need for tough action on Iran were being co-ordinated by Meir Dagan, the head of Israel's foreign intelligence service, Mossad.

The escalating sense of crisis is being driven by two imminent events, the 'installation' of 3,000 centrifuges at Natanz and the scheduled delivery of fuel from Russia for Iran's Busheyr civil nuclear reactor, due to start up this autumn. Both are regarded as potential trigger points for an Israeli attack.

Hawkish elements of the Israeli government working in tandem with hawkish elements of the U.S. government to spread the chaos outward.

Garry Wills has a good op-ed in the NYT today on the overuse of the term "commander in chief" as a sign of the militarization of our politics:

When Abraham Lincoln took actions based on military considerations, he gave himself the proper title, “commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.” That title is rarely — more like never — heard today. It is just “commander in chief,” or even “commander in chief of the United States.” This reflects the increasing militarization of our politics. The citizenry at large is now thought of as under military discipline. In wartime, it is true, people submit to the national leadership more than in peacetime. The executive branch takes actions in secret, unaccountable to the electorate, to hide its moves from the enemy and protect national secrets. Constitutional shortcuts are taken “for the duration.” But those impositions are removed when normal life returns.

But we have not seen normal life in 66 years. The wartime discipline imposed in 1941 has never been lifted, and “the duration” has become the norm. World War II melded into the cold war, with greater secrecy than ever — more classified information, tougher security clearances. And now the cold war has modulated into the war on terrorism.

Exactly. A case in point was revealed in yesterday's New York Times in a piece on the extraordinary steps the Justice Department is taking to control legal proceedings with national security implications. As reported by Adam Liptak:

The Bush administration has employed extraordinary secrecy in defending the National Security Agency’s highly classified domestic surveillance program from civil lawsuits. Plaintiffs and judges’ clerks cannot see its secret filings. Judges have to make appointments to review them and are not allowed to keep copies.

Judges have even been instructed to use computers provided by the Justice Department to compose their decisions.

Instructed by whom? DOJ? The article suggests judges are only now beginning to resist these "instructions."

But here's the most chilling part:

In ordinary civil suits, the parties’ submissions are sent to their adversaries and are available to the public in open court files. But in several cases challenging the eavesdropping, Justice Department lawyers have been submitting legal papers not by filing them in court but by placing them in a room at the department. They have filed papers, in other words, with themselves.

Congress and the Judiciary have allowed themselves to be steamrolled by the Executive. The mid-term elections forced Congress to change. There is no such external corrective mechanism for the Judiciary, which is at it should be. So judges and justices will have to stand up to defend an independent judiciary. Will they? The record so far is mixed, at best.

Newsweek poll:

The president’s approval ratings are at their lowest point in the poll’s history—30 percent—and more than half the country (58 percent) say they wish the Bush presidency were simply over . . .

Public fatigue over the war in the Iraq is not reflected solely in the president’s numbers, however. Congress is criticized by nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of Americans for not being assertive enough in challenging the Bush administration’s conduct of the war. Even a third (31 percent) of rank-and-file Republicans say the previous Congress, controlled by their party, didn’t do enough to challenge the administration on the war.

The poll also found that 67 percent of respondents believe Bush’s decisions about policy in Iraq and other major areas are influenced more by his personal beliefs regardless of the facts.


It turns out Ari Fleischer will be the next witness, once court resumes Monday. (Damn, just missed him!) The defense team wants to note—for the jury's benefit—that Fleischer demanded immunity before he would agree to testify, because this might cast Fleischer's testimony in a different light.

And here Fitzgerald makes a nice little chess move: Fine, he says, we can acknowledge that Fleischer sought immunity. As long as we explain why. Turns out Fleischer saw a story in the Washington Post suggesting that anyone who revealed Valerie Plame's identity might be subject to the death penalty. And he freaked.

Via The Plank.

Oops. The initial report from the U.S. military about an incident in Karbala last weekend said five U.S. service members were killed repelling an attack by an armed group disguised as an American security team. Today, the AP reported that four of the five were actually abducted and found dead or dying some 25 miles from the compound where they were captured. Larry Johnson has more.

Update: Perhaps some tone deafness on my part. The "Oops" was of course a reference to the inaccurate original report of the attack and the long delay in correcting the account of what actually happened in Karbala, as Larry Johnson lays out. Some readers took it as a callous reference to the deaths of U.S. servicemen, which was certainly not my intent.

In following the political debate over the Iraq debacle, it helps to take a step back from time to time and to re-focus on Iraq from a strategic vantage point. Our President isn't able to do that, and for the most part neither is the media nor the Congress. As Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) has repeatedly pointed out, the President's surge is not a new strategy but a new tactic. All the goings-on in Congress over which resolution best expresses disapproval of the surge miss the larger picture. Even congressional defunding of the surge is tinkering at the tactical level.

So go read the written testimony of Lt. Gen. William E. Odom (Ret.) given last week to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (the .pdf if here). It is, as you would expect, a sobering read. But rather than a thundering denunciation of the President and his Administration, it is a quiet--though blistering--indictment of our political and military establishment that makes most of the debate about the war and how to move forward from here seem like self-serving, short-sighted exercises in chest-thumping by one side and throat-clearing by the other:

Several critics of the administration show an appreciation of the requirement to regain our allies and others' support, but they do not recognize that withdrawal of US forces from Iraq is the sine qua non for achieving their cooperation. It will be forthcoming once that withdrawal begins and looks irreversible. They will then realize that they can no longer sit on the sidelines. The aftermath will be worse for them than for the United States, and they know that without US participation and leadership, they alone cannot restore regional stability. Until we understand this critical point, we cannot design a strategy that can achieve what we can legitimately call a victory.

Any new strategy that does realistically promise to achieve regional stability at a cost we can prudently bear, and does not regain the confidence and support of our allies, is doomed to failure. To date, I have seen no awareness that any political leader in this country has gone beyond tactical proposals to offer a different strategic approach to limiting the damage in a war that is turning out to be the greatest strategic disaster in our history.

When the political debate over Iraq is viewed at the strategic level, it becomes much clearer. Silly diversions are revealed for what they are, like the demands from the President and Vice President that opponents of the surge present their own tactical plans for "success" or the defense secretary's claim that the debate itself emboldens the "enemy." (Gates has candidly said that four wars are currently underway in Iraq, so which enemy is emboldened? All of them?)

The Democrats in Congress want to "send a message" with a resolution opposing the surge. That's fine, as far as it goes. But as Odom's testimony makes clear (go read the whole thing), the President has committed strategic errors of monumental proportions. Getting bogged down in a debate with the President over tactics, lets him off the hook for the most egregious of his sins, which are strategic, and makes it more difficult to chart a way out of this strategic disaster.

Late Update: Here's a link to the video of the hearing that included Odom's testimony.

McClatchy has more on the recent string of U.S. attorney appointments that have gone to Bush loyalists--a total of nine, by their count.

Andrew Sullivan, on JFK:

It's worth acknowledging that, whatever his rhetoric, Kennedy wasn't so good at transparency either. And, if anything, he was more reckless in foreign policy than his rich-kid, daddy's boy successor, George W. Bush.

JFK was more reckless in foreign policy than GWB? What is Sullivan talking about? I really don't know.

Yes, the Bay of Pigs was a disaster, and the Cuban Missile Crisis was surely a dangerous confrontation. But can anyone imagine George W., in the same position, agreeing to remove missiles from Turkey? I can hear him saying, "Bring it on!" The possible consequences then--imminent nuclear annihilation--were far more grave than what we face today; giving Sullivan the benefit of the doubt, perhaps you can say it takes less effort to be deemed reckless under a looming nuclear threat. But even the most negative reviews of JFK's foreign policy place it squarely in the mainstream of American post-WWII anti-communism.

Unquestionably, Kennedy deserves significant blame for starting us down the long path to ignominy in Indochina. But, as more than one observer lately has pointed out, the strategic importance of the Middle East today dwarfs that of Southeast Asia in the 1960s, making the regional upheaval, disarray, and instability caused by our Iraq adventure much more of a direct threat to U.S. national interests than the misadventure in Vietnam. Nor am I sure Kennedy's Vietnam policy is fairly called reckless. Misguided, perhaps. But not reckless.

So I'm at a loss as to how anyone could judge JFK to be more reckless in foreign policy than GWB. What am I missing?

Remember the long-delayed National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq that the Bush Administration managed to push off completing until after the election? Well, the Administration has slow-rolled completion of the NIE past the introduction of the surge and the State of the Union address, according to Ken Silverstein at Harper's:

The situation came to a head last week, during a closed-door session of the Senate Armed Services Committee. This committee expected to be briefed on the long-awaited NIE by an official from the National Intelligence Council (NIC), which coordinates NIEs by gathering input from all of the nation's various intelligence agencies. But the NIC official turned up empty-handed and told the committee that the intelligence community hadn't been able to complete the NIE because of the many demands placed upon it by the Bush Administration to help prepare the new military strategy on Iraq. He then said that not all of the relevant agencies had offered input into the NIE process, and thus it had proven impossible to put together a finished product.

Why, yes, of course. They were too busy rolling out what they're calling a new Iraq policy to prepare the NIE which should inform creation of that new policy. That tells you everything you need to know about the surge.

From TPM Reader TB:

I think you may have touched on this before, but I'd like to reiterate the single biggest mental block that currently makes me think I will not cast my vote for Clinton. It makes my stomach hurt to think that in twenty or thirty years I could look back at a list of presidents that includes "Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton." This country is far too great to have to rely on two families for so much presidential leadership. Think about it: a two-term Hillary would be TWENTY-EIGHT years of Bush and Clinton. It's petty, but like I said it's a mental block, and I'm just not sure how I can get over it.

I wouldn't call it a petty concern.