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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

"As White House officials try to control the latest fallout over President Bush's flawed suggestion in the State of the Union address that Iraq was buying nuclear bomb materials," says US News' Washington Whispers, "there's growing talk by insiders that National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice may take the blame and resign."

Even I find such an eventuality a bit hard to imagine, but it actually jibes well with a lot of what I've been hearing over recent weeks and months. With Steve Hadley taking the latest rap for the Niger-uranium debacle, Rice has for all intents and purposes taken the rap without having herself uttered the words. As I wrote to someone who knows her earlier today, "Everyone's spin aside, the nuke issue was the biggest issue in terms of threat. And this was one of our best pieces of positive --- as opposed to inferential --- evidence. If she really didn't read the memo that was sent to her --- which I agree is possible --- it's inexcusable."

At the end of the day I think it's quite likely we'll find that the true pressure for pushing the uranium story came from the Office of the Vice President, pressure quite possibly exerted through Hadley, who is generally seen as a Cheney-man at NSC.

But if Rice goes it won't just be as a fall-gal for the uranium business. Because this unsightly view into the Bush NSC has only crystallized an increasingly widespread perception that she has simply done a poor job as National Security Advisor.

Mind you, it's no surprise that any National Security Advisor steps on a lot of toes and makes enemies. It's her job to discipline and force consensus -- if only operational consensus -- from the various ideological and organizational factions in the national security establishment. So the job requires slapping all sorts of people around.

But the criticism in most every case is that she's exercised little of that disciplining, consensus-forcing, BS-catching role. That shortcoming doesn't bear directly on the stuff we're seeing now. But it helped set the stage for it in a number of important ways -- a point we'll get to in greater detail in a later post.

The point is that many people from both sides of the administration's pragmatist-hawk dividing line criticize Rice in very similar terms: for not settling these ideological and inter-agency debates with any finality so that the execution of policy is not overwhelmed by continuing in-fighitng over just what it should be. One hears many stories of her presiding over meetings in the professorial manner of a seminar leader, asking interesting questions, and leaving the issue as unresolved at the end of the meeting as it was at the beginning. In essence, you hear many folks on both sides saying: Hey, choose our plan or choose theirs. But, for God's sake, you have to choose!

Department of scorecards worth pulling back out of that desk drawer.

This from The New York Times, March 22nd 2003 ...

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld declared today that the Iraqi government was starting to crumble as he laid out eight broad objectives by which the Bush administration would define victory.

...

Mr. Rumsfeld listed eight sweeping goals that the Bush administration sought to achieve in the war.

...

The first of the eight specific aims, Mr. Rumsfeld said, is to "end the regime of Saddam Hussein by striking with force on a scope and scale that makes clear to Iraqis that he and his regime are finished."

Second, Iraq's arsenal of biological and chemical weapons, and any program to develop nuclear weapons, are also targets, as the American military has been ordered "to identify, isolate and eventually eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, their delivery systems, production capabilities, and distribution networks," Mr. Rumsfeld said.

Troops will then "search for, capture, drive out terrorists who have found safe harbor in Iraq," he added.

Next, he said, the allied forces will "collect such intelligence as we can find related to terrorist networks in Iraq and beyond."

The fifth goal, Mr. Rumsfeld said, is to "collect such intelligence as we can find related to the global network of illicit weapons of mass destruction activity."

The United States also seeks "to end sanctions and to immediately deliver humanitarian relief, food and medicine to the displaced and to the many needy Iraqi citizens," Mr. Rumsfeld said.

Military forces also will "secure Iraq's oil fields and resources, which belong to the Iraqi people, and which they will need to develop their country after decades of neglect by the Iraqi regime," Mr. Rumsfeld said.

Lastly, Mr. Rumsfeld said, the war effort is "to help the Iraqi people create the conditions for a rapid transition to a representative self-government that is not a threat to its neighbors and is committed to ensuring the territorial integrity of that country."

Add your own clever remark here and stir ...

James Baker update! As we noted in the post earlier this evening, the White House wants James A. Baker, Uber-Fixer-Maximus to take over running Iraq.

Now when I originally linked to the story in question at the Washington Post it was datelined just after twelve noon today. It was headlined with the news about the probable return of Baker ("White House Wants Baker to Head Iraq Reconstruction")and hinted on various levels that Bremer might be on the way out.

What the story actually said was that Baker would likely be asked to run the economy and the physical infrastructure in Iraq while Bremer would run the political side. Significantly, the story said it was unclear whether Bremer would report to Baker or vice versa.

For those who remember how ole' Jay Garner got the boot, that sort of 'transition' had an awfully familiar ring to it.

Now, just before nine I again checked the story. And it had changed -- a lot.

Now there's no James Baker in the headline ("Bush Considers New Overhaul of Postwar Iraq Administration"). And he's not even mentioned until the 5th graf, where it says ...

As part of an effort to beef up the reconstruction, the White House is considering asking several major figures, including former secretary of state James A. Baker III, to help with specific tasks like seeking funds from other countries or helping restructure Iraq's debt.
The new article is larded with lines about how everyone loves the job Bremer is doing (which, by and large, I think I agree with, given the constraints he seems to be operating under). And the second mention of Baker's name -- down in graf #8 -- says ...
An aide said Baker is on vacation, and he did not immediately return messages left at his law firm, Baker Botts LLP in Houston. Several administration officials predicted that Baker would not become involved, but said the White House might still seek "a Baker-like figure" to share duties with Bremer.
Here's CBS's pick-up of the original Post story -- though who knows how long it'll remain? Now, I've gotta ask: what happened here?

Between noon and 7 PM we went from the likely sending out of Baker as viceroy to the possible appointment of "a Baker-like figure" to help out Bremer.

Something's fishy here. Did the authors -- Mike Allen and Glenn Kessler, two real pros -- get spun by some bad tips? That's hard to figure. Or did they get walloped by a tsunami of Bush spinmeisters furiously walking back the story? Or did the Baker boomlet at the White House really only last for half an afternoon? Is there a tug of war? And where's Bremer fit in in all this? And, while we're asking questions, how many neos with offices at OSD or at the corner of 17th and M Street suffered nervous breakdowns when they heard James A. Baker might be put in charge of Iraq?

Something worth knowing happened here.

Special Note to Post sources (you know who you are!): Your own TPM mug for whoever can send me a copy of the original piece. And even more TPM prizes for whomever can fill me in on the backstory.

Late Update: Another blog, "Uggabugga" (no, I have no idea how he came up with that name), has both versions of the article lined up side by side on his site.

Even Later Update: Is that your final answer? As of 12:50 AM, we have yet another version of the story ("Changes in Iraq Effort Debated"). Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course. This one sheds a little light on the tug-of-war that likely led to the differences between versions one and two.

Can someone wake me up when we figure out whether this is comedy, tragedy, parody or farce? Now James Baker's going to take over running Iraq.

Yeah, that James Baker.

Some time over this weekend I want to get time to address in detail the defenses coming from administration advocates regarding the war.

For the moment, let me try briefly to address two of the more commonly-heard ones.

First is that captured in Charles Krauthammer's column this morning. Responding to the many charges of exaggerated or manipulated intelligence, the plea is essentially nolo contendere, no contest. Whether the intelligence was cooked or not, they say, we and the region are better off for having invaded when we did.

I think that for anyone seriously following events in the region, that judgment is still very much in suspense. The truth is that it's too soon to know with any certainty what the long-term results of all this are. But, however that may be, this strips down to an ends justify the means argument. Simple as that.

The means the White House used to get the country into Iraq are quite capable of being analyzed independently from the results of the invasion. Anyone who argues otherwise is really cynical in the extreme.

The other argument is that advanced by Dick Cheney yesterday in his speech at AEI. That was, essentially, this: knowing what we knew then we had no choice but to act.

I agree.

In fact, I said so many, many times in magazine articles and in these virtual pages. But Cheney's is only an attempt to retrospectively distort the debate to such an extent that the choice was one between doing nothing and launching the war with only one significant ally in March 2003. (And, no, don't even try to tell me about Poland and Spain.) Cheney is simply trying to pitch the ludicrous notion that everyone who doesn't drink the neocon Kool-Aid spends their spare moments teary-eyed over the rough shake Saddam got growing up on the mean streets of Tikrit.

I certainly hope no one will let him get away with this laughable dodge. To act, in this case, was not synonymous with going to war in March 2003. The key questions were a) timing, b) how we did it, and c) what inspectors were finding once in country -- because as I've said many times before, the initial reconnaissance by the IAEA gave good reason to believe that the Iraqi nuclear program was at best not very far advanced. And nukes were the central issue, as far as any imminent threat.

The challenges we're facing now stem from the fact that we dealt with the situation on the double-quick. And the fact that we dealt with it that way is inextricably linked to the issue of hyping and manipulating the intel.

The question is not whether there was any reason to believe there was a threat. There was. The questions were whether that threat was imminent and whether we dealt with it in the best possible way or the stupidest possible way.

Coming next, criticism aside, what's the best policy to pursue in Iraq today ...

In the previous post I noted the section of Steve Hadley's White House Q&A in which he said that Condi Rice had received the memo calling the Niger-uranium story into question . Then I contrasted it with her earlier statements on Meet the Press.

Some readers noted that in that appearance Rice said only that those "in [her] circles" didn't know that the documents in question were forgeries. She didn't address the broader issue of whether there were concerns that the intel itself was simply false.

Now, for my money, this is slicing it rather thin, or a matter of violating that part about telling not just the truth, but the whole truth. If what Rice meant was that they didn't know the documents were forgeries only that the charges themselves were likely bogus, I think you could say she didn't quite level with us.

As it happens, the question is moot. One of my well-placed and cherished spies alerts me to Rice's comment on ABC's This Week on June 8th ...

STEPHANOPOULOS: That claim was later discredited by the International Atomic Energy Agency, found that to be based on forged documents. So how did it make it into the State of the Union address?

RICE: At the time that the State of the Union address was prepared, there were also other sources that said that they were, the Iraqis were seeking yellow cake, uranium oxide from Africa. And that was taken out of a British report. Clearly, that particular report, we learned subsequently, subsequently, was not credible. But it was also a very small part, George, of a larger picture of a program aimed at developing nuclear weapons.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me stop you right there, because many in the United States government knew before then that this, this ...

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: George, somebody, somebody down may have known. But I will tell you that when this issue was raised, uh, with the intelligence community, because, uh, we actually do go through the process of asking, uh, the intelligence community, can you say this? Can you say that? Can you say this? The intelligence community did not know at that time or at levels that got to us that this, that there was serious questions about this report.

Either Rice didn't read the memo (possible, but improbable) or she didn't level with George.

A couple days ago I linked to a UPI story that said the just released 9/11 report had concluded not only that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 but that there were no ties whatsoever between Iraq and al Qaida. They've now retracted the story.

Why the pass for Condi? This from Hadley's White House Q & A ...

Hadley: The memorandum describes some weakness in the evidence, the fact that the effort was not particularly significant to Iraq's nuclear ambitions because the Iraqis already had a large stock of uranium oxide in their inventory. The memorandum also stated that the CIA had been telling Congress that the Africa story was one of two issues where we differed with the British intelligence. This memorandum was received by the Situation Room here in the White House, and it was sent to both Dr. Rice and myself.

...

Question: So within the White House, the first time that the CIA concerns about the quality of the British intelligence went up to the level above your level, up to Dr. Rice, would have been with memo number two?

Hadley: I'm hesitating because, again, given you don't know what you don't, given what we put together at this point in time, that's the evidence we had. That's old --

Question: But as of memo number two, certainly Dr. Rice was aware of the concerns, the CIA --

Hadley: What we know is, again, a copy of the memo comes to the Situation Room, it's sent to Dr. Rice, it's sent -- and that's it. You know, I can't tell you she read it. I can't even tell you she received it. But in some sense, it doesn't matter. Memo sent, we're on notice.

Steve Hadley
White House Q&A
July 22nd, 2003

We did not know at the time--no one knew at the time, in our circles--maybe someone knew down in the bowels of the Agency, but no one in our circles knew that there were doubts and suspicions that this might be a forgery.
Condi Rice
Meet the Press
June 8th, 2003
Speaks for itself doesn't it?

Chatterbox takes the field! Slate's Tim Noah, AKA 'Chatterbox', has a very good run-down of Dick Cheney's speech today at AEI and the larger, shall we say, context of this counter-offensive.

By the way, was that Ahmed Chalabi sitting there in the front row next to Lynne Cheney?

Remember, in this administration, all roads lead to Cheney, especially the ones paved with good intentions and the ones leading to ... well, you know where.

The headline from this article in today's Washington Post is that Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz conceded that a number of the administration's assumptions about the occupation of Iraq turned out to be unduly optimistic.

Wolfowitz summed up his implicit defense thus: "There's been a lot of talk that there was no plan. There was a plan, but as any military officer can tell you, no plan survives first contact with reality."

I credit Wolfowitz for his candor. But here's why this explanation doesn't really add up.

Under any set of circumstances this was an extremely ambitious undertaking. There would inevitably have been setbacks and course corrections once hypotheses gave way to realities.

The issue though is not that there are reverses and course corrections, but the extent of them and, even more than that, which way they trend.

Let me explain what I mean in this context by "trend."

In the lead-up to the war there was a broad battle between Pentagon civilian appointees and folks at State, CIA, in the uniformed military, and even career folks at DOD -- those who hadn't already been shipped off to the Hill or NDU -- over what the occupation would look like and what would be required to make it a success.

(I discussed this issue with regards to the CIA in my column this week in The Hill.)

The big issues were how many troops would be needed to secure the country, how much low-level armed resistance would continue after the war, how quickly and under what auspices a new government would come into being, the optimal degree of internationalization, among many others.

Give the Post article a good read, because it contains a lot of good information and a solid overview. But if you read it and other similar articles I think it's hard not to come to one conclusion: that on almost every one one of these key issues the predictions and preferred policies of the career/State/ CIA/uniformed military faction turned out to be far closer to the mark than the thinking that was coming out of the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) -- the people who ended up in charge of shaping the actual policy.

Some neo-cons and advocates of the Pentagon civilians will argue that an almost equally significant problem was that the NSA, Condi Rice, never forced everyone to get on one page and agree on one policy. So what you had was different parts of the national security bureaucracy devising and pushing contrary policies right up till the last minute, and generally fighting wars with each other while they were supposed to be getting ready to fight a war against Iraq. And there's some measure of truth in this criticism.

The neos also make the argument that if it had been left to the career/State/ CIA/uniformed military faction we probably never would have invaded Iraq in the first place -- though that's not quite the argument ender it was a few months ago.

At the end of the day, though, it just doesn't cut it to say that no plan is perfect and that you never know quite what you'll find until you're actually in country. Because a lot of people did have a fairly good idea of what we'd find in the country, or at least a much better idea than the folks at OSD.

Unfortunately, those folks at OSD spent the last two years pummeling those other dudes into the ground.

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