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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Man, I've been pretty rough on Dick Cheney over the last few months, first saying he was the most incompetent member of the administration and more recently that he almost certainly knew the Niger-uranium documents were bogus when he signed off on putting them in the president's State of the Union address.

But I'll give the guy credit: he doesn't hold grudges. TPM just got a personal email from the vice-president offering to make me a "Charter Member of Bush-Cheney '04" and "serve as one of our first key grassroots leaders in Talk, Alaska" if I'll only contribute "$100, $500 or even $1000 today at www.GeorgeWBush.com/CharterMember/." (You can see the actual email here. Don't miss it.)

And when I say TPM got the email, I ain't kiddin.

"That is why President Bush and I are relying on grassroots leaders like you, Talking Points, who can help our efforts in Talk, Alaska and across the nation."

Mr. Vice-President, I'll make you a deal. You let me interview you about the Niger-uranium documents and I'll pony up a cool thousand -- and, believe me, that's a substantial amount of my net worth. I know it might sound like a quid-pro-quo but believe me the standards about that sort of thing have gotten really loose so I don't think we need to worry. And, yes, I know it might sound like checkbook journalism. But, in this case, well ... I'm willing to make an exception.

I don't recommend many sites. But definitely put this one down on your list of ones to visit: It's Ruy Teixeira's new blog, Donkey Rising. (We'll leave explaining how to pronounce his name for a future post -- a long future post.)

Teixeira is one of the sharpest progressive thinkers around when it comes to the interplay of demographics, politics, and public opinion. He's also coauthor, with John Judis, of the The Emerging Democratic Majority -- see the TPM review of it here.

His big issue is getting the liberal/populist and centrist wings of the Democratic party to be wings of a single movement rather than, fundamentally, antagonists -- without which both are sunk. Definitely stop by his new site to see his blog and his weekly newsletters on public opinion and political strategy.

Following up on the previous post, let's assume for a moment that neither the president nor any of his top advisors knew that the Niger-uranium documents were bogus when the president delivered his State of the Union speech. (Let's call it an extreme hypothetical.) Let's say it was just a snafu.

If it's really true that folks at the State Department knew the story was bogus, and folks in the intelligence community knew it was bogus, and folks at the NSC were told it was bogus, and folks at the OVP were told it was bogus ... If all those people knew, and somehow the information never got to the president or any of his top advisors, isn't that the kind of Category-5 screw-up that, almost by definition, costs a National Security Advisor her job?

If the president were given information to tell the public, even while many people in his own government knew the information was bogus -- and I think we now know that's true -- don't you figure he'd want some answers or explanations? From someone?

I think this is the sort of mystery Ockham's Razor slices right through.

Here's the question I'm wrestling with. How do you rebut or refute the White House's defense against the accusations that they knowingly peddled bogus intelligence when they put the Niger-uranium claims into the president's State of the Union speech?

Oh, wait a second. I forgot. They have no defense!

And I don't mean they have no defense, as in the evidence is too overwhelming. I mean, they have no defense -- as in, to the best of my knowledge, no administration figure has even tried to respond to -- let alone deny -- the allegations. They haven't even discussed the issue.

Have you noticed that?

Back a bit less than three weeks ago, on June 8th, Condi Rice said that none of the top level administration leaders knew the Niger documents were bogus at the time they put them in the president's speech. But that was before we knew most of the information we know now -- before Nick Kristof's June 13th column, before the Ackerman/Judis article in The New Republic, before Tom Gjelten's NPR report. (I discuss each in my column in The Hill this week.)

Without going into all the nitty-gritty details, Rice gave her loose denial when there was very little in the public record to contradict her. Now there's a lot to contradict her. And all I can hear is silence.

It's a pretty serious charge. And it's been leveled (in the three pieces I mentioned above) by some of the country's most respected political journalists. What does it say about the DC press corps that they can't or won't get the principals -- Rice, Cheney or any of their top aides -- to dignify the accusations with as much as a denial?

Who's on the show this weekend, Tim?

Who can't love the Brits? I do. I'm an Anglophile. I admit it. They've all got such polished educations, at least the ones they send over here. And they turn arguments on a dime. They get it from those debates they have at that big university over there. (What's it called?) And, let's admit it, their accents just sound cool. Even the working class cockney ones sound refined to us -- that's how pathetic we are. (Michael Caine, Duke of London.)

Anyway, Christopher Hitchens has a piece today in Slate lambasting John Kerry for saying that President Bush "misled every one of us."

Hitchens says that this amounts to Kerry saying he's easily duped. So how can he be a credible presidential candidate? And many on the left, says Hitchens, believe the president isn't the sharpest tool in the shed so his campaign mantra amounts to "Kerry. Duped by a Dope." Actually, it's worse, says Hitchens, because the evidence that the president or his advisors were lying has been there for a long time! So he's not only easily duped. But he can't have been duped. Actually, no. He was twice duped! Because if he now believes there were no WMD then he's signing on to the unlikely proposition "that the Saddam regime had no plan to preserve or restart its long-standing WMD scheme, though the evidence for this may involve some complex study and not take a 'gotcha' or 'smoking gun' form." And why didn't Kerry do his own investigation if the president was lying to him? Who is this John Kerry joker? You still following all of this? Good. What a mess Kerry has gotten himself in, what with being fooled and a fool and also a liar and then doubly a fool. "We have learned," says Hitchens, "that Sen. Kerry considers himself to be gullible both ways, which ought to mean that he is ineligible for the nomination, let alone the presidency." Hitch is just running circles around the guy. I've gotta tell you this reminds me of those late night chats Hitch and Dorothy Parker and I used to have at the Algonquin Table back in the day.

Actually, now that I think about it, that wasn't me. Must have been a flashback from some under-the-influence moment back in college. But anyway, I think the whole spectacle, or rather the whole article, is an example of what we might call the diminishing importance of being earnest.

What exactly does any of this verbal rope-a-dope mean? If the folks at DOD or OVP knowingly passed on intell garbage, and Kerry accepted it as legit, is he really a rube? Isn't that more a knock on the president? Or if the charge isn't true, isn't it a knock on Kerry for leveling a reckless and irresponsible charge for political gain?

Kerry, it would seem, would like to base part of his presidential bid on the integrity of the material the Bush administration used to lead the country into war. That angle stands or falls on its merits, I would imagine. That is to say, whether or not it's true.

But Hitchens' article, Slate's front page story, seems less concerned with this point than spinning out so many logical conundrums and rhetorical culs-de-sac that the befuddled and presumably over-brained Mr. Kerry just scratches his head confusedly, decides mounting the charge is just too complicated, and gives up trying.

Oh Boy! Through the grapevine I'm hearing the next line from the precincts of DOD's civilian officialdom: FDR did it (lend-lease); Abraham Lincoln did it (Clement Vallandigham); even Clinton did it (the Sudanese medicine plant). Why are we getting so much grief? People make stuff up for the greater good. It comes with the territory!

I kid you not. That's the line now in the trial balloon stages. Let's call it the Franklin & Abe excuse (FAE).

Stuff like this reminds you what they meant when they came up with the metaphor of the $#@& hitting the fan.

It's really messy. It splatters everywhere. And you really don't want to be anywhere near it when it happens.

Yuck.

I was all set to write up a whole piece about how CNN got suckered into overplaying this story about the nuclear weapons scientist -- Mahdi Obeidi -- who had the parts and documents hidden under a rose bush in his back yard. But sometimes brevity and concision matter most.

Look closely: What was buried were components for a uranium centrifuge and a sheaf of documents detailing how to construct, or rather reconstruct, a uranium enrichment program. These were from the pre-1991 program. The CNN story says that regime leaders ordered him to hide them in expectation of the day when the inspectors would leave and the nuclear program could be restarted. But the CNN story says the call never came -- even though inspectors did in fact leave the country in 1998 and were absent for almost four years.

Former weapons inspector David Albright told CNN: "In a sense, the program was in hibernation. He was the key to the restart of this centrifuge program, and he never got the order. So in that sense it doesn't show at all that Iraq had a nuclear program. And Obeidi told me that he never worked on a nuclear program after 1991."

We knew the Iraqis had a pre-1991 nuclear weapons program. We knew there were probably parts from it hidden around the country in various stages of preservation or disrepair. If anything this finding seems to present some positive evidence that no effort to reconstitute the program was ever made -- though one would definitely want a lot more evidence to arrive at any conclusive judgment.

This is an important story, but as far as the bottom line on the big question of the state of Iraq's WMD programs in early 2003 it really changes nothing.

I have a column this morning in The Hill on the ever-tightening web of circumstantial evidence that several of the president's top advisors, if not the president himself, knew the Niger uranium story was almost certainly bogus well before they included it in the president's January 2003 State of the Union speech. Many of you have probably already read the Ackerman/Judis article in The New Republic, which adds a number of important details to the story. And I discuss those points. But I also draw attention to a Tom Gjelten piece on NPR, in which a senior intelligence source told Gjelten that intelligence officials explicitly warned the administration off the Niger/uranium story while the White House was putting the speech together. The White House disputes the account. But I'm surprised this kernel hasn't drawn more attention. In any case, see my piece in The Hill for the details.

Along a related line, I want to discuss a post that Andrew Sullivan has up on his website today on the WMD/deception issue.

First, I want to give Sullivan credit -- and that's not meant facetiously. Though I strenuously disagree with his reasoning on this question, he's been one of the few conservatives to take the issue itself seriously. Early on, he recognized the importance of our inability to find evidence of WMD. (As I understand his position, he feels the war was justified on humanitarian and geostrategic grounds even if we never find WMD or even if there was never any WMD.)

He's also trying to grapple with the deception issue.

Most conservative commentators are either unwilling even to credit the debate or approach it only in the most polemical fashion. Their tacit reasoning seems to be, as long as the boots are on the ground and the poll numbers hold, who really cares who said what? At best, they're willing to advance the ludicrous argument that the CIA -- the institution most hostile to maximalist intelligence estimates on Iraq -- was responsible for the hype.

Now, back to Sullivan.

In a post yesterday evening he discusses the deception debate and particularly the Ackerman/Judis article. He concedes that the administration hyped some of the evidence. But he sees the Ackerman/Judis article as an argument that the administration exaggerated the threat rather than lied about it. Yet he finds "a premise here that strikes me as off-base. The premise is that after 9/11, only rock-solid evidence of illicit weapons programs and proven ties to terrorists could justify a pre-emptive war to depose Saddam."

What Sullivan goes on to argue is essentially that in the post-9/11 world we're operating under a 'better safe than sorry' standard. By that standard the administration is justified in pointing out the most ominous interpretations of admittedly incomplete evidence.

Here, though, Sullivan has his own problem with premises. Logically, his reasoning works, but it's not an apt analogy or description of what happened.

If the 'better safe than sorry' doctrine is what we're now operating under, there shouldn't be any need for exaggeration. The president might just have said, "They had chemical and biological weapons in the past. It's a brutal regime that's used these weapons in the past. They probably have them now. They might even be trying to develop nuclear weapons or strike up ties with al Qaida. We don't have much evidence on these latter points. But the possibility is just too dire to chance. Better safe than sorry."

Yet the administration seems to have understood that this wouldn't quite cut it. So they tried something different. At best, they kept the 'better safe than sorry' reasoning to themselves. They decided it was better to be safe than sorry in their arguments to the American people. And, to make sure, they stripped all the ambiguity out of the evidence and removed it from the public debate. (Conservative defenders of the administration are engaging in a rhetorical sleight of hand here, arguing that under 'preemption' we don't need as much evidence, and conflating this with the idea that we needn't present the evidence we have accurately.) Actually, they did more than that. On many occasions they presented evidence that they, at best, should have known was highly dubious and in some cases certainly knew was bogus.

So, Sullivan may be right that we can no longer wait for "rock-solid evidence." But the folks at the White House who made the case apparently weren't too confident that the American people agreed. So they told the American people that they knew much, much more than they did.

My own sense is that what the administration did was analogous to the actions of the cop who frames someone whom he's sure is guilty. They believed Saddam was dangerous, in many cases believed it deeply. And they believed he must be doing this stuff. But they didn't have a lot of evidence. So, well, they made it up. Either they hyped what they knew to the point of outright deception. Or they passed along information that they had to know or should have known was probably bogus. Again, it's like the cop who tries to put someone away on the say-so of an unreliable jailhouse snitch because he knows the guy's guilty anyway. After all, he doesn't know the snitch isn't telling the truth, right? So if the jury buys it, what's the problem? Mix in a touch of intellectual dishonesty and willingness to spin yourself and you see how this all works.

I really don't think the president necessarily knew a lot of this was going on. But I think he created a climate within his national security team in which this sort of scamming and self-scamming was acceptable and tolerated.

Let's keep in mind that this is all working under the assumptions of what we might call the conservatives' 'exaggeration' argument. A measure of exaggerations are necessary and apparently acceptable.

If this is true, though, I think we need the administration to spell out for us now just how this 'exaggeration' exception works. How far does it go? Let's take Iran. We're now being told that the Iranians are close to getting nukes and that we may have to go to war to stop them. I take this issue very seriously, largely because I think they may be quite close. But to make up my own mind on this I really want to know now whether the 'exaggeration' rules apply to Iran too because war with Iran would make war with Iraq look like a cake-walk.

So, fine, we're working under the 'exaggeration' rules now. But let's just get straight what those rules are. And can we get a heads-up on when they're being applied and when they're not? Like maybe a chyron under the screen when top administration officials are talking? Do they mean Iran's maybe not really far along to developing nuclear weapons? Do they cover that too? Does the 'exaggeration' doctrine cover 10% of the truth, 50%, 75%? As long as we can get this straight I guess we can still have some idea of what's actually going on.

Could this possibly be true? The BBC has a report on the rising numbers of Iraqis who have apparently become victims of radiation poisoning because of the low-enriched uranium (i.e., "yellow-cake") which was looted from the Tuwaitha nuclear facility south of Baghdad. Barrels of the stuff were dumped into local rivers, it seems, so that the containers could be used for various domestic purposes. (Hell, and you thought you had to go to Niger to get your yellow-cake!)

Down at the end of the article, though, comes this ...

A team of UN experts has been at Tuwaitha trying to account for the missing nuclear material, but the United States as the occupying power is not allowing them to carry out any medical examinations on local people.
Is this part of the dispute with the UN inspectors or the IAEA? Are we doing medical examinations and don't want others doing it?

I have a hard time believing it's really as clear cut as that BBC clip implies. But if there's anything to this story it's really, really bad.

Man, they don't call 'em hawks for nutin'!

The Weekly Standard has two pieces this week -- one scrapbook item and one article by Stephen Hayes -- both aimed squarely at The New Republic's article by Spencer Ackerman and John Judis.

Hayes' piece is a systematic attempt to refute Ackerman's and Judis' catologue of the various misrepresentations, distortions, and outright lies the Bush administration put out in the lead-up to the war with Iraq.

First, let's stipulate that I find Hayes' refutation, well, let's say singularly unconvincing -- particularly so on the bogus Niger uranium documents (we may get more into this later.)

But this factual disagreement isn't my primary concern here. I've made my own views on this point clear enough. Read both pieces and decide for yourself.

The key is Hayes' description of TNR as "previously hawkish" on Iraq. (The scrapbook item makes the same point.) But TNR joined their publication of the Ackerman/Judis piece with an editorial deploring the administration's misrepresentations but still supporting the war, albeit much less on the basis of some of the more outlandish WMD claims.

Does this count for TNR being "previously hawkish." I know Judis never favored the Iraq war -- a fact that put him somewhat at odds with the editorial line of the magazine, which has been consistently pro-war.

Now, generally speaking, being a 'hawk' in whatever context means being a hardliner, a maximalist, someone who's not afraid of throwing their weight around and getting the job done -- someone who won't get squeamish or put up with any shilly-shallying. In short, it means being tough.

In this case, according the Weekly Standard, to be an Iraq hawk you have to a) support the war before shooting started b) support the war after the shooting ended and c) keep sitting still for the administration's agitprop even when much of it's being exposed as gross exaggerations, manipulations or outright lies on a more or less daily basis.

That's tough. Real tough.

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