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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Okay, so the much-awaited results of our imminent threat contest.

In recent weeks a number of conservative commentators have tried mightily to make the case that because administration leaders seldom used the phrase ‘imminent threat’ that they didn’t argue that this was the situation we faced.

Yet, as I said in The Hill on Wednesday, their argument is really just a “crafty verbal dodge — sort of like ‘I didn’t accuse you of eating the cake. All I said was that you sliced it up and put it in your mouth.’”

Democrats aren't responsible for disentangling this mumbo-jumbo if they want to talk about the president's record and responsibility.

Part of the administration’s effort to float the imminent threat argument was based on redefining what such a threat would mean in the face of terrorism and inadequate intelligence information. Many of the president’s defenders refer to this statement in the president’s State of the Union address in his defense …

Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent. Since when have terrorists and tyrants announced their intentions, politely putting us on notice before they strike? If this threat is permitted to fully and suddenly emerge, all actions, all words and all recriminations would come too late.


But what the president is saying here is that in the context of rogue states in alliance with terrorists we’ll never have the sort of advance warning which used to count as the evidence of an imminent threat. And thus what we had in Iraq actually amounted to an imminent threat. In fact, the administration anticipated this line of reasoning in its National Security Strategy document when it said “We must adapt the concept of imminent threat to the capabilities and objectives of today’s adversaries.”

Condi Rice made a similar point in September 2002 when she said on Nightline: “Well, the President talked about a direct threat. And a threat that might materialize at a certain time. And after the experience of September 11th, the question of what is imminent is a different question because, at any time a threat that has been brewing, a threat that has been developing, can suddenly strike you from the blue.”

But enough of this, because on numerous occasions administration leaders dispensed with this nuancing entirely and just said it was a plain old imminent threat -- and progressively more often as we moved toward war.

The key is the claim that it is a present threat that could come at any moment and which the country has to confront now or risk potential disaster. I made my argument about the bogusness of the “we never said it was an imminent threat” argument in my last column in The Hill. And if you’re interested you can read it there.

But now, let’s get down to who won the super-slick TPM T-shirt.

Some people sent in quotes like this one from Richard Perle:

And the only point I want to make is that as long as Saddam is there, with everything we know about Saddam, as long as he possesses the weapons that we know he possesses, there is a threat, and I believe it's imminent because he could choose at any time to take an action we all very much hope he won't take.


That’s pretty clear, ain’t it?

Throughout the build-up to the war, Perle was acting as a de facto spokesman for the war-hawks in the administration. And he had an office in the Pentagon. But at the end of the day he wasn’t a principal in the administration. So, although his statements typified the administration line, his can’t be the winning quote.

More in contention are the quotes from the president’s spokesmen at the time. Did they think the president was arguing there was an imminent threat? The evidence here is awfully clear. Three examples from my Hill column …

Last October, a reporter put this to Ari Fleischer: “Ari, the president has been saying that the threat from Iraq is imminent, that we have to act now to disarm the country of its weapons of mass destruction, and that it has to allow the U.N. inspectors in, unfettered, no conditions, so forth.”

Fleischer’s answer? “Yes.”

In January, Wolf Blitzer asked Dan Bartlett: “Is [Saddam] an imminent threat to U.S. interests, either in that part of the world or to Americans right here at home.” Bartlett’s answer? “Well, of course he is.”

A month after the war, another reporter asked Fleischer, “Well, we went to war, didn’t we, to find these — because we said that these weapons were a direct and imminent threat to the United States? Isn’t that true?”

Fleischer’s answer? “Absolutely.”


Any of those could be winners in my book.

But others are still in contention.

What always struck me as the most egregious statement at the time was the president's claim on the very eve of the war that we "will not live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder." (italics added)

Administration leaders also called the threat “urgent” (Bush), “mortal” (Cheney), “immediate” (Rumsfeld) and a bunch of other similar lines.

But the most important enunciator of the president’s argument is the president himself.

So first prize in the TPM Imminent Threat T-Shirt Contest (TPMITTSC) goes for this quote from the president’s October 7th 2002 speech in Cincinnati Ohio ...

Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group or individual terrorists. Alliance with terrorists could allow the Iraqi regime to attack America without leaving any fingerprints.


The first runner up goes to another line from a few moments later in the same speech ...

Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof -- the smoking gun -- that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.


And the second runner-up goes to this exchange from May 7th 2003 with then-presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer:

Question: Well, we went to war, didn't we, to find these -- because we said that these weapons were a direct and imminent threat to the United States? Isn't that true?

Fleischer: Absolutely. One of the reasons that we went to war was because of their possession of weapons of mass destruction. And nothing has changed on that front at all.


Now, we had almost 500 entries. So many people sent in the same quotations. And the only fair way to sort them out was to go with the entrant who came up with the quote first.

(BTW, a special thanks to TPM editorial assistant and all-around helper Zander Barnes for processing, organizing and reviewing all the entries.)

So, with that in mind, the winners are …

1st Place … Jason Barnosky (Winner of a finely-crafted TPM T-Shirt)

2nd Place … Anita Krasno (Winner of a finely-crafted TPM Mug)

3rd Place … Jon Rey (Winner of a finely-crafted TPM Mug)

Now, in these trying times, it’s important for all of us to keep our morale up. So if you’re hit especially hard by not winning the contest, keep in mind that you can buy your own TPM apparel, mugs and carry-alls in the TPM Shop.

If you wanted to write the script for next year's election to ensure the closest possible result, you'd write it pretty much exactly as it's shaping up. If the economy remained persistently sluggish, the fiscal situation remained so awash in red ink, and things remained so bleak in Iraq, I think President Bush would have great difficulty getting reelected.

But it now seems clear that there is new job growth in the economy --- as signaled by today's down-tick in the unemployment rate to 6%. Growth in itself is comparatively insignificant in political terms. The key political metric is jobs. And there are signs of improvement there too.

(See this article at CNN/Money to get a feel for how much job growth is necessary just to keep up with population growth and productivity gains. Says the CNN article: "Most economists believe payrolls need to grow by at least 150,000 jobs a month in order to keep up with the natural growth of the labor force and keep the unemployment rate down, and that is generally expected to happen only slowly in the next year.")

We've had a couple false-start recoveries in the last couple years. But it seems hard to figure that president Bush won't enter the home stretch of the campaign next year without at least an improving economy to point to. But how quickly will it come? Where will the pick-up be concentrated? And how will the economic news meld in voters' minds with what's happening abroad?

Since I was going to appear on another show on CNN later that evening, I only heard parts of the Rock The Vote presidential debate that CNN broadcast Tuesday night. When I was listening from the other room, though, I heard parts of the lambasting Howard Dean got from the rest of the candidates about the confederate flag remarks.

On first blush, I thought that Dean was really getting unfairly pummeled and that the other candidates were just grandstanding. I think everyone knew the point Dean meant to convey. And that's a point that's hard to disagree with: namely, that Democrats need to seek the votes of working class Southern white voters who've been basically lost to the Democratic party for two generations.

As I listened to hullabaloo unfold, however, something else occurred to me. Dean's stubbornness and arrogance can be a big liability for him. When he got asked about the comment at the Rock The Vote debate there was a really straightforward way to answer ...

A) I stand by the point I was trying to make. B) If the way I phrased it offended you, I'm really sorry about that. C) You know, you speak a lot on the campaign trail. And sometimes you don't phrase something just the right way. But I'll try to be more careful about how I choose my words.

End of story. That would have been it, though his opponents would certainly have tried to milk it a bit longer. No big production of an apology would have been necessary.

But he couldn't bring himself to do it. And it was the headline out of the debate. And the headline yesterday with the semi-apology. And today when I brought up the CNN page the story about the full apology is practically breaking news.

One of Dean's selling points is the straight-talk thing, sorta like John McCain. So I don't think it would be a good idea for him to muzzle himself. But part of the straight-talk thing is being willing to quickly say "yeah, that was lame" when you put your foot in your mouth and then move on.

If he can't learn to do that, he'll have a lot of trouble ahead.

Senator Pot in need of a kettle to call black ...

It is a disgusting possibility that members of the Senate would actually try to politicize intelligence, especially at a time of war, even apparently reaching conclusions before investigations have been performed ...


Senator John Kyl (R-AZ) Wednesday on the Senate floor.

Newspaper stories see the light of day for all sorts of strange and inscrutable reasons. Often the nominal 'story' is like the calm or slightly rippled surface of a lake in which all sorts of hidden business is taking place beneath.

Why are you hearing about a given story now? Who dropped a dime on who? The surface story is often at least as important as the backstory. But the backstory is something you want to know too.

Here's one of those cases.

You've likely already seen or will soon see the story running in several major news outlets this evening about apparent last minute overtures that Iraq made to the US, looking for a deal just before the outbreak of the war.

The story centers on an apparent back channel (or attempted back channel) using a Lebanese-American businessman who had a relationship with an analyst in Doug Feith's shop at the Pentagon, Michael Maloof. (Richard Perle was part of the potential back channel too.)

In aftermath of 9/11, Maloof and David Wurmser were each part of a two-man team tasked by the Pentagon with finding links between Shi'a and Sunni extremist groups as well as between Islamist terrorists and secular Arab regimes. They reported finding lots of evidence. But the folks at the CIA never bought it.

Down deep in the New York Times article, there's this line contained in a parantheses: "In May, Mr. Maloof, who has lost his security clearances, was placed on paid administrative leave by the Pentagon."

There's your ripple.

And that's where I think you'll find a lot of the backstory for why we're hearing now about this business with the last-minute overture.

To start getting a feel for that backstory, see this piece from Knight Ridder's Warren Strobel from August 1st ("U.S. revokes security clearance for Pentagon employee.")

This issue of security clearances and the revocation of security clearances and investigations in the depths of the bureaucracy is an important story of which we're only getting the vaguest hints.

Late Update: Let me be a bit more clear about what I'm getting at here.

Let's say I'm a career defense bureaucrat struggling to get my security clearances restored because it's very hard for me to be a defense bureaucrat without them. And let's say one of the reasons I can't get them restored is because of some unauthorized contacts I had with a Lebanese-American businessman under investigation for running guns to Liberia. And let's further add to the mix that my whole mess with the security clearances is part of a larger struggle between different factions in the national intelligence bureaucracy. Oh, and one last thing: let's say I'm a protégé of Richard Perle.

Okay.

Now, if I'm on the line for these unauthorized contacts with the gun-running businessman, wouldn't it be a lot harder to punish me for it if it looked like that contact almost allowed me to secure a deal that would have averted the need for war?

And if that's the case, wouldn't it be cool if my buddies and mentors went to the press with the story of how I almost saved the day?

(And as long as we're on the subject, look at all the contradictions between the Times' piece and Strobel's piece.)

Word was spread about today that the president would be giving a major speech tomorrow about democracy in the Middle East. It turns out that it'll be at a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Everybody's for democracy in the Middle East these days, so far as it goes. But the question isn't what you're for so much as what and who you're against. And the word that was being bandied about was that the president would say that the longstanding US policy of supporting the region's autocracies had failed and would be ended.

That's the kernel of the neocon faith (or rather what we might call the Neocon Faith 3.0 or 3.2 or something like that) and there's more than a little to be said for it.

But who would the president call out? The Saudis? The Egyptians? We've always been against the anti-American autocracies. How about the pro-American ones? At the current moment, in a tough battle in Iraq, that would certainly be the all-or-nothing approach.

The AP has a run-down out now. And it seems it's going to be a rather more tepid affair.

Still, I think this speech will be worth reading, if only to get a glimpse into the factional in-fighting in the White House today.

See this interesting post on Muqtada al-Sadr on Juan Cole's site. An example of some seemingly successful carrots and sticks applied by the CPA. Cole's site is one of the few places online -- in English at least -- where you can find good sustained reporting on these nitty-gritty details of what's going on over in Iraq. Invaluable.

We've made our way through all the entries for the TPM 'imminent threat' contest. And we'll be announcing the winner on Friday. (So if you entered the contest a lustrous, new TPM T-shirt may be in your future!)

But to get things started, here's my new column in The Hill on the effort to convince us that all those administration leaders didn't say what everyone remembers them saying less than a year ago.

In other words, the 'imminent threat' mumbo-jumbo.

TPM tonight on the Aaron Brown show on CNN at 10 PM -- talking about the Reagan miniseries ridiculousness.

As promised in the previous post, here's a copy of the letter about possible voting irregularities in Mississippi today which Secretary of State Eric Clark sent today to Attorney General Mike Moore and the state's two US Attorneys.

The irregularities include reports that poll watchers are videotaping voters in predominantly black neighborhoods.

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