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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

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.

Keeping conservatives from falling head-first into a pit of denial, disingenuousness and deceit is a full-time, sisyphean task. But, hey, I'm back from vacation, tanned and rested. So here goes.

When I popped open my in box this morning I found a slew of emails from various and sundry right-wing yahoos alerting me to this article in the National Review Online, which ostensibly puts to rest the whole matter of the Texas DPS manhunt Homeland Security story.

Here's one example from a disgruntled, but expectant TPM reader Michael K.

Josh,

I am sure you are aware of the following story from NRO, or at least aware of its conclusions.

http://nationalreview.com/ nr_comment/ nr_comment062303.asp

Can we expect to see a mea culpa on TPM in the near future? It seems that you may have attempted created a tempest in a teapot for, what appears to be, no good reason.

Thanks for your time.

Michael K. (last name withheld by editor)

The essential point of the story in question is that the DHS found it did nothing wrong and that more was spent by DHS investigating the issue than it spent helping to track down the Texas Democrats in the first place. And, therefore, it's the critics who are wrong not the Texas Republicans or the DHS.

Now, just for starters, it's obviously the thinnest sort of ice any conservative stands on when judging the merit or results of an investigation by how many tax payer dollars it cost to conduct. Need I say more? But let's set that aside for the moment and go to a few points about the NRO article.

First, the author's interpretation of "DHS inspector general Clark Kent Ervin's report" which he issued "after an extensive investigation." Hard to know where to start on this one since Ervin recused himself from the entire case in mid-May. He turned the investigation over to Lisa Redman, DHS' assistant inspector general.

Oops.

Then there's the "unidentified caller from the Texas DPS" who called the DHS and asked for assistance in tracking down former Texas House Speaker Pete Laney's plane. I think I can help on this one. His name is Lt. Will Crais. He's been identified, to the best of my knowledge in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and every daily newspaper in Texas.

Next, the author of the NRO article claims that Laney really was genuinely missing. And thus the necessity of finding out where he was.

Without Texas Rep. Pete Laney safely in allied territory — in the case, a Holiday Inn in Ardmore, Oklahoma — the Democrats' conspiracy was doomed to failure. Laney was the linchpin to the scheme; without him, the 50 Democrats already holed up in Oklahoma numbered one short of the necessary 51.

Texas Speaker of the House Tom Craddick was looking for Laney too. Under Texas house rules, the speaker of the house may use the Texas Department of Safety (DPS) to retrieve fugitive lawmakers — in handcuffs if necessary. If Craddick could find Laney before he made it across the border, the Democrats' walkout would fail.

Both sides wanted to know: Where was Pete Laney?

Visiting his mother, of course. After all, it was the day after Mother's Day.

Laney, who is the former Democratic speaker of the Texas house and a licensed pilot, was flying to Oklahoma when he dropped off radar screens and landed his plane in Graham, Texas to visit his mother.

See, everyone was looking for Laney! His plane had "dropped off radar screens." (I know Texas is a whole different country. But normally we call dropping off radar screens 'landing' -- especially when it occurs over something called an airport. And how'd they know it had dropped off the radar screens?) Even DHS officials admitted they were bamboozled into thinking the plane had crashed.

In any case, the whole premise here is false. Democrats weren't looking for Laney. He wasn't missing in any sense save the fact that Tom Craddick and Gov. Perry wanted to take him into custody. Even the Texas law enforcement officials don't make this argument any more. (Woe to the journalist who repeats spoon-fed talking points after they're no longer operative!)

Now, what I take from the author's seeming unfamiliarity with the case is that he read little else but the DHS own self-exonerating report. And perhaps he got walked through the controversy by some flack at the RNC, someone from Tom DeLay's office, or maybe someone from the Rutherford Institute.

That explains why his whole conclusion conveniently ignores (or perhaps wasn't aware of) the main question the critics raised from the outset and why it follows so closely from the DHS IG's report itself. As we noted here at TPM more than a month ago, the question was not whether Homeland Security knew they were being bamboozled (the report itself says they did). The question was whether a domestic political dispute was a proper matter for DHS to get involved in and who -- i.e., what politicians -- ordered the DPS to pull them into the dispute.

On question one, the DHS seems to have decided that this was an appropriate use of their albeit minimal resources. That judgment speaks for itself, and not well. As for the other question, the Homeland Security IG report states explicitly that they chose not to look into this question after state officials refused to answer their questions.

Returning back to the East Coast on an Airbus 320, right now at about 35,000. As of Monday morning we'll be back off the vacation posting schedule and back to regular daily posts routine.

There's a bounty today of good material on the growing debate and/or scandal about the administration's over-hyping of evidence about Iraq's WMD programs. Actually, in my Wednesday morning column in The Hill I said that there really is no new debate or new scandal. It's really more that it's suddenly become acceptable to discuss what everyone knew for the last year or so: that is, that the administration was willfully misrepresenting the evidence both on WMD and a purported link to al Qaida.

The first thing to look at is Spencer Ackerman and John Judis' article in The New Republic on the administration's misrepresentation of the intelligence on Iraq's WMD program. This is a good example of why they call journalism the first draft of history. It's the first attempt to put this whole matter of intelligence manipulation into a chronological and interpretive perspective. It's more complicated than people just lying. It's having your agenda and then having the facts. You try to get them to fit together. And when they don't, well, you go with your agenda. (Why else do they call it your agenda, after all.)

The reason that any of this is really even a debate, why there's even a question, goes to the heart of intelligence work itself. In intelligence work few things are ever truly certain. The 'facts' about which you have the greatest certainty are only nearly certain. And even the utterly unsubstantiated rumors from unreliable sources could conceivably be true. The whole enterprise is probabilistic. And thus, the answer to whether someone was distorting the intelligence or simply had a particularly harebrained take on it must in some sense be too. But when you begin to see people pushing the evidence that is almost certainly bogus and disputing the evidence that is almost certainly valid, you, at a certain point, just realize that you need move over into the vernacular and call things as they are. Those folks are lying.

As noted before, so much of intelligence work is made of hints and allegations, that it's going to be hard to find one of those bright line examples that counts in the public square of scandalism as a 'lie.' But Ackerman and Judis have significantly advanced the story on one of the key cases where you really may be able to show a no-two-ways-about-it lie.

One of the thus-far-hidden points of humor in all this is that the president's father, when vice-president, was widely ridiculed for claiming that he was "out of the loop" on significant elements of the Iran-Contra affair. We now have a case in which the president and most of the senior members of the government claim to have been 'out of the loop' on what numerous administration officials and intelligence community analysts knew about Iraq's WMD programs. Ackerman and Judis, however, marshal very persuasive circumstantial evidence that Dick Cheney -- and almost certainly other high-level officials -- knew the Niger uranium sale story was bogus before it was placed in the president's State of the Union speech. The argument they make is a cumulative one. So you'll really need to read the piece. But the key piece of information comes from the former US ambassador to Niger who visited the country and came back with clear and multiple evidence that the whole story was bogus.

The CIA circulated the ambassador's report to the vice president's office, the ambassador confirms to TNR. But, after a British dossier was released in September detailing the purported uranium purchase, administration officials began citing it anyway, culminating in its inclusion in the State of the Union. "They knew the Niger story was a flat-out lie," the former ambassador tells TNR. "They were unpersuasive about aluminum tubes and added this to make their case more persuasive."
I don't know off hand how the former ambassador would be in a position to confirm that the CIA had passed the information on to Cheney's office. But the authors wouldn't have published his confirmation unless he was in a position to know. So the vice-president's office got the information. And, frankly, though it is possible, it's simply strains credulity to the breaking point to believe that such information would not have made it to Cheney himself. And that's being generous.

In any case, read the Ackerman-Judis article.

Also, see Ken Pollack's long column today in the Times. Pollack makes several important points. And I feel his discomfort in being pushed into being a defender of the president's policies when in fact he is not one. His point that bears repeating is that there was all sorts of evidence that the Iraqis continued to maintain some chemical and biological weapons capacity. All sorts of governments believed this. It's also true that there were security arguments for invading Iraq which did not hinge on its being an imminent threat in the near-term. And this is where the administration's deception came into play. They knew they didn't have evidence that would make most Americans support going to war NOW. So they essentially cooked it up and made it up.

I don't share Pollack's certainty that we're going to find the chemical and biological weapons. I'm not certain we won't or that we will. But for reasons I've discussed elsewhere, I think that as time goes on it becomes increasing likely that we may have misjudged this part of the equation too.

Unfortunately, we're now in a situation in which if we do turn up some nerve gas that will be taken as evidence that the White House found the WMD. And that will be true as far as it goes. But it may snuff out the inquiry into all the administration's deceptions on nukes and al Qaida links -- the stuff that created the false impression of an imminent threat. TPM is interviewing Pollack next week. So we'll be going over these questions in more detail then.

A couple points to conclude. There's a now fashionable argument that we shouldn't let the administration's deceptions on WMD and al Qaida blind us to the big issue, which is securing a democratic, non-threatening Iraq. This point strikes me as true, but terribly off-point. We also shouldn't let the WMD deception issue stop us from passing a federal budget next year or getting the trade deficit under control. But do we need to? I figure we can manage all these things at the same time.

It's true that we are now in Iraq. And how we got there -- legitimately or illegitimately -- doesn't absolve us of responsibility for preventing the country from falling into chaos or reduce our strong national interest in insuring a positive outcome. But getting to the bottom of the administration's deceptions is about our democracy. And let's not let our strong interest in Iraqi democracy forget about American democracy, which we have something of an interest in too.

Finally, Republicans are saying to Democrats, threatening them really, with the argument that going up against the president on the question of his administration's deceptions on the WMD issue is a political loser. Walking into a buzzsaw and so forth. I'm really not sure this is true. I think this may end up being a more debilitating issue than they imagine. But certainly it could be handled poorly by Democrats. And perhaps it's not good politics. But frankly I'm not sure that matters. As Ackerman and Judis say at the end of their article, some issues are well worth pressing quite apart from the politics. It's important simply because it's wrong. And this sort of indifference to the truth is toxic in a democracy. (I can already hear the Republicans snarking about definitions of sex and so forth. But, really, their inability or unwillingness to recognize the distinction between frivolous issues and ones that are central to a democracy indicts them from their own corrupt mouths.)

A few weeks ago, I was talking to a friend who is basically a New Dem like myself and we were talking about unions. He asked me whether I really thought the country would be in better shape if the union movement were, say, twice as strong, had twice as many members as it currently has. I was surprised by the question since it challenged one of my basic assumptions. I'm a big supporter of unions. But I'm far from a down-the-line supporter of their issues. I'm a big free-trader for instance and that's not at all a popular position in today's trade union movement. So I thought about it and said that, yes, I thought it would be in better shape, though it certainly wouldn't be positive in all respects.

But what we could agree on was that a good bit of the decline in the union movement was attributable to changes in the law and de facto changes in the law -- through lax enforcement of labor law -- which chipped away and over time significantly diminished the right to organize, the right to join a union if that's what you want to do. And that, I told him, is just wrong -- whatever the economic consequences.

This is a similar case. Even if the consequences of going into Iraq turn out to be good -- and that seems to be an open question, though I think it was and to a degree remains possible -- it's wrong to have deceived the public to make the policy happen. It's wrong to have damaged the country's intelligence agencies. Let's not even get into the damage that was done to the country's standing in the world. It's also wrong for the political opposition not to say it was wrong, even if the short-term political consequences are uncertain or even damaging.

Here are a few very good examples of an ignored fact: the problems at the Times (and, for that matter, the Post and a slew of other papers) aren't new. They just started treading on what we might call, well, protected persons. Don't miss Sid Blumenthal's response to one-time and current New York Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld's error-laden review of Blumenthal's book in the New York Review of Books. Along the same lines, see Joe Conason's and Gene Lyons' run-down of the same dispute.

Apparently, after the Democrats convinced the president to create the Department of Homeland Security, he got so into it that he ended up creating two of them.

First, there's the get-along-go-along operation that gets dragged into Keystone Cops political shenanigans and then lets bygones be bygones when it finds out it's been had. Then there's the highly-compartmented, top-secret, black-marker-wielding intelligence operation that releases its public reports.

The report the DHS released yesterday looks a bit like one of those old cornball FBI surveillance reports you might find in the back of some Malcolm X Reader you read in college or the same from some old lefty PBS documentary about Allen Ginsberg. In many places the thing is so marked up -- or, as the phrase goes, 'redacted' -- with that oversized, black magic-marker that you can hardly see what's going on.

Actually, I shouldn't have gone with the two DHS metaphor. It's really more like three. Because there's also the comically passive DHS which conducted the investigation of itself. The report issued Monday lacks, shall we say, Ricoeur's 'hermeneutic of suspicion.' (The general thrust of the report is 'no harm no foul.' We'll be saying more about the specifics in subsequent posts.) In all seriousness, the report's methods and conclusions are good examples of the difference between the hyper-aggressive investigations of the 1990s and the see-no-evil-hear-no-evil operations of today.

Here are some noteworthy examples from Wednesday's article from the Austin American-Statesman. Keep in mind that the real question most people were trying to get an answer to was just who tried to misuse the DHS's resources ...

During questioning [of the DPS], the investigator "was consistently interrupted and challenged by DPS participants that questions were not within the scope of the DHS-OIG investigation," one document said.

When asked who instructed the officer to call the interdiction center, "(redacted) said several individuals," the document said. When asked for specifics, the investigator was told that "this question was outside the scope" of the investigation, and the question was not answered.

[ed.: if and when DHS investigates TPM, I'd like to put in my request for this 'investigator'.]

...

Homeland security investigators refused to investigate a DPS order to destroy all documents relating to the agency's search for the Democrats, referring the matter to the FBI. The FBI was not interested in investigating.

[ed.: with Leung and Hanssen out of circulation the Bureau is stretched thin lining up a new crop of double-agents.]

Not exactly the Ken Starr treatment ...

It's the small hypocrisies that make life sweet. The president accepts public money for his campaigns, but doesn't check off the box. This from yesterday's Ari-thon ...

Q And also in the last, 2000 and coming up, the President will accept federal funds in the general election.

MR. FLEISCHER: Correct.

Q Is there any dash of hypocrisy in that he doesn't contribute to that fund when he files his tax returns?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, interestingly, we talked before about taxpayer-financed elections, and while for the congressional races, Senate races and House races, and for overwhelming majority of the funds that go to presidential races is voluntary, there is that check on the tax reforms. And the best I remember this from IRS data is something like only 12 percent, or down to 8 percent of the American people check that box. So I think the President is in pretty good company with a number of American people who do not check that box.

Q Why would he take the money, then?

MR. FLEISCHER: As you know, he's not taking the money for the primary campaign; he will take it for the general.

Good company ...

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