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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

My God, when they say down the memory hole, they ain't kiddin! There now seems to be a secret competition -- perhaps it was announced and I just didn't hear it -- for the Iraq-hawk who can come up with the most ingenious, Orwellian, up-is-down rewriting of the history of the year-long lead-up to the Iraq war. To this point, the strongest entries are those whispers out of the Pentagon, arguing that it was Colin Powell and the State Department who made them make such a big to-do about weapons of mass destruction.

I take my hat off to those folks. That was a pretty solid entry. But when it comes to disingenuous agitprop you just never want to count Bill Safire out. And the old master comes in with a rock-solid entry in Monday morning's column.

Safire begins by asking what the greatest intelligence failure of the war was? Something to do with WMD? Not at all. "It was the nearly unanimous opinion of the intelligence community, backed by the U.S. and British military, that the 50,000 elite soldiers of Saddam's well-trained, well-equipped Special Republican Guard would put up a fierce battle for Baghdad."

This is true to a limited extent -- though the guys in uniform -- i.e., the ones who actually fight wars -- would argue that their aim was to make sure they weren't undergunned if the Republican Guard did fight to the death.

But the contest entry comes next ...

Happily, our best assessment was mistaken. Saddam's supposed diehards cut and ran. Though Baghdad's power and water were cut off, civilians were spared and our losses were even fewer than in Gulf War I.

What if our planners had believed Kurdish leaders who predicted that Saddam's super-loyalists would quickly collapse? We would have sent fewer combat troops and more engineers, civilian administrators and military police. But the C.I.A. and the Pentagon had no way of being certain that the information about the Republican Guard's poor morale and weak discipline provided by Kurds and Iraqi opposition leaders was accurate.

In other words, the lack of preparation for post-war reconstruction and the shortage of nation-builders is the fault of the CIA and the Joint Staff! If Tommy Franks and Eric Shinseki and the rest of them hadn't been such whiners, Doug Feith would have been able to flood the place with MPs, bridge builders, Arabic-speakers and a whole tribe of Jerry Bremer clones! Who knew!

I think Safire is going to run away with this one.

Colin made me do it!!!

In various conversations and chats over the last couple days, I've heard the new spin again and again. It goes something like this. The international embarrassment, or at least discomfort, we're now facing over our inability to find any WMD in Iraq isn't the fault of the Pentagon or the Office of the Vice President or any of the other Iraq-hawks. It's the fault of Colin Powell and the State Department.

Why?

Because it was the State Department and Powell that made the focus WMD, weapons inspections, and UN resolutions. Now, so the argument goes, we're stuck with the embarrassment of not finding any WMDs. And we wouldn't be in this spot if the folks at State -- the internationalists -- hadn't prioritized the WMD issue above all the others.

This is a bogus argument and wildly disingenuous to boot, not least because it ignores an obvious and transcendentally important point: without playing the WMD card the hawks never would have gotten within a thousand miles of Baghdad. And they know it.

Let's review.

As I argued in my article 'Practice to Deceive', for the chief hawks, finding and eliminating Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was only one reason -- and perhaps even a secondary reason -- to go to war. The broader aim was to commence a process of reforming and shifting the geopolitical balance of the entire region by installing free-market, pro-western democracies and rooting out the various political pathologies and sources of anti-Western violence that threatened US interests in the region and even at home. (Again, the details are in the Washington Monthly article.)

I think that plan, at least in its very broad outline, had some real merits (see my original story on Iraq in the June 2002 Washington Monthly).

The problem is that there was never any way you were going to get the American people to go to war for a longterm plan to democratize and institutionalize a cultural revolution in the Middle East on the theory it might arguably further US interests in the region. It was only the imminent or near-term threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction -- and the possibility that Saddam might hand them off to al-qaida-like terrorists -- that built public support for the war.

That's it. Nothing else.

And that's why the administration pushed this argument again and again and again, often hammering on the quite improbable notion that the Iraqis might soon have a nuclear weapon. (Remember Condi Rice's line: "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.")

You could support this war for many reasons -- grand geopolitics, the demonstration effect, weapons of mass destruction, democracy, human rights, helping get our troops out of Saudi Arabia, etc. But the real proponents of war knew that WMD and terrorism was the only way to sell it to the American people. And that's just what they did. The fact that they also said democracy and human rights would be a good thing doesn't change that fact.

So it wasn't the UN that made them do it, or State, or Colin Powell. If there was anyone who pushed them into making WMD the central issue, it was the American people. That doesn't necessarily mean they made the argument in bad faith or that the war might not still be justified on other lines. But to suggest that State forced the hawks to hype the WMD threat is just the same sort of up-is-down, too-clever-by-four-and-a-half funny-business that made a lot of us distrust these guys in the first place.

Following up on the last post ... After the initial squall over the manhunt for the Texas Democrats, state Representative Lon Burnam -- a member of the Law Enforcement Committee -- filed an open records request for documents relevant to the Department of Public Safety's manhunt. After hearing news reports that files were being destroyed even after the issuance of that request, he filed a motion for, and eventually received, a restraining order barring further document destruction. Burnam also subsequently filed a motion to depose four members of the DPS.

In response to Burnam's request, the Texas Attorney General's office -- acting on behalf of the DPS -- demanded that Burnam reveal the names of his sources (i.e., those at DPS who had squealed) before any members of the DPS would be deposed.

"It is not possible," says the AG's filing, "to prepare for the preliminary injunction hearing or to prepare for the defense of depositions until Plaintiff identifies the source of the information that documents were allegedly destroyed after the receipt of the open records request on May 19th, 2003."

(A copy of the Texas AG's motion has just been added to the TPM Document Collection.)

Yesterday a judge ordered everybody to show up to get deposed next Monday, the four members of the DPS and Burnam and his legislative director.

On Thursday afternoon, I spoke to Burnam. He told me that he has "multiple sources" at the DPS who told him about the alleged document destruction. He also says he will identify his sources at the deposition on Monday, though he is currently trying to arrange some sort of whistleblower protection for them. When I asked Burnam why he thought the AG's office placed such importance on finding out the identity of his sources, he said he thought "they are trying to find out what I know and who I know it from and how they can get to them."

More on the Texas Dems. This from a Wednesday evening report in The Quorum Report, a Texas political newsletter ...

"I will be able to reveal more in a couple of days but for now I have to protect my sources. What I can say is there has been a development that I would describe as significant."

Bailey said he would likely be able to reveal more Friday. At his press availability, Bailey disputed comments made yesterday by Gov. Perry¹s office that their involvement in the DPS search was negligible.

"My source in the DPS paints a very different picture," Bailey said. "I was told the DPS felt like they were puppets. That was their exact words. They felt they were being manipulated throughout."

Add to this the following fact: Rep. Lon Burnam (D-Dallas Fort Worth) is the Texas rep who sued the Department of Public Safety to prevent them from destroying any more records connected to the Dem manhunt. He is now being forced to reveal his sources at DPS. Burnam says the Texas AG "is apparently trying to find out who a whistle-blower is rather than stopping the illegal shredding of documents."

And, finally, TNR has a very good lead editorial about the Texas shenanigans. Credit, lots of it, where credit is due.

The choice graf ...

Why won't this once scandal-obsessed city take what happened in Texas seriously? Sure, it involved neither sex nor money. But it involved something more serious: the blurring of the line between the power of the state and the partisan interests of those who run it--a line that represents the fundamental separation between a democracy and a dictatorship. When FBI files showed up in Bill Clinton's White House, Republicans, with the help of the press, screamed with outrage, even though no evidence that they were used for any partisan purpose was ever uncovered. Yet, in this case, when we know that police powers were harnessed for partisan gain, the issue elicits laughs.
The inner rot laid bare.

"More disturbing than the false alarm and subsequent cover-up is the ease with which one of the most powerful federal agencies was seduced into a hunt for a citizen's airplane. More abuses are almost sure to follow if the perpetrators get away this time, if controls on Homeland Security are not implemented and if secrecy prevails."

That's a choice graf from a must-read editorial on the Texas/Homeland Security shenanigans in today's Austin American-Statesman.

Sorta, kinda, not-really money quote from Chris Hitchens' review of Blumenthal's The Clinton Wars ...

I think it is only for strict party reasons that [Blumenthal] fails to mention Roger Tamraz and James Riady and all Clinton's other thick-envelope direct donors, and concentrates instead on saying (at excruciating length) that Whitewater produced no smoking gun. This may be true, though it is not true that the Clintons ever acted as if they had nothing to hide or nothing to fear.
People's evidence #492 that Orwell really does matter. And why it would have been nice to have him around in the late 90s, or maybe even in editing this review.

The hard hearted Senate. From the Times ...

A last-minute revision by House and Senate leaders in the tax bill that President Bush signed today will prevent millions of minimum-wage families from receiving the increased child credit that is in the measure, say Congressional officials and outside groups.

...

Because of the formula for calculating the credit, most families with incomes from $10,500 to $26,625 will not benefit. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal group, says those families include 11.9 million children, or one of every six children under 17.

...

The Senate provision that did pass was intended to help those families making $10,500 to $26,625 who do pay federal taxes and could have taken all or part of the $600 credit. The provision, which would have cost $3.5 billion, would have allowed those families to receive some or all of the extra $400 in the new law.

...

House Republicans, who acknowledged the gap on the child credit, blamed the Senate for insisting on its $350 billion cap, saying the low-income families could have been covered had the Senate been more flexible.

Family values.

Add your wry quip here and stir ...

DeLay's bad acts, Biden's fecklessness -- all packaged into a neat bundle in my new column in The Hill.

Committee Chairman Kevin Bailey says "It may have been a technical violation of the law to destroy the documents. I don't think there was an intent to cover up anything. So I don't think there's a need to look at it any further." He's leaving the investigation to Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle's grand jury. (Alas, discretion does seem a Democratic virtue. But then, you knew that.) Meanwhile, he says he can't do much more to investigate why Texas' state Homeland Security Czar was in the command center leading the search for the Dems or why he gave the DPS the contact information for Homeland Security ...

Mr. Bailey said he has no choice but to accept statements from the Texas attorney general's office that Mr. Kimbrough was present in his capacity as a state lawyer, advising DPS and House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, on legal issues related to the hunt.

"And if that's the case, I don't see a problem. On the other hand, obviously, if they used the federal agency that's designed to get terrorists, that might be a problem," Mr. Bailey said. "I'm not sure it's anything that I can really, or we can really, get information on."

That's from Thursday's article in the Dallas Morning News, which also says: "Mr. Bailey said the committee can go no further concerning whether federal homeland security assets were abused."

Finally, the folks at Homeland Security say they're coming to the end of their investigation. But they still may not be releasing the tapes.

Let's quickly touch on this matter of Maureen Dowd. I'm far from one of Dowd's fans. In the last post I linked to an April 1999 column I wrote on her Pulitzer Prize -- a piece that was, to say the least, not positive.

(For that matter, I'm no fan of Howell Raines, who did as much as anyone to advance the Clinton pseudo-scandals while he was editor of the Times Op-Ed page. Note to 'wingers: think twice before you try to ditch him, he's done a lot for you guys!)

Here's the issue.

In a May 14th column ("Osama's Offspring") Dowd quoted the president thus ...

'Al Qaeda is on the run,' President Bush said last week. 'That group of terrorists who attacked our country is slowly but surely being decimated ... they're not a problem anymore.'
And here's the complete quote.
Al Qaeda is on the run. That group of terrorists who attacked our country is slowly but surely being decimated. Right now, about half of all the top Al Qaeda operatives are either jailed or dead. In either case, they're not a problem anymore."
That's a very misleading ellipsis. Luckily, journalism has an established remedy for such a lapse: a prominent correction -- probably at the footer of a future column. That corrects the misleading information and gives the equivalent of a pricey, over-90-mph speeding ticket to the columnist. Get enough of 'em and you lose your license.

Yet, predictably, this is being turned into case #3 in the Times scandal. Zev Chafets today in the New York Daily News wrote ...

If Dowd intentionally misrepresented the President's words, she is guilty of a journalistic offense much worse than Bragg's intern problem, or even Blair's fantasies.
It's hard to imagine a more ridiculous statement. All sorts of arguable statements can be cobbled together by attaching a slippery 'if this, then that' phrase at the front of a wild-minded charge like this. But it's still ridiculous. One misleading ellipsis is more egregious than chronic fabrication and plagiarism?

If this is the standard we're going to apply for felony offenses in journalism -- in OpEd's no less -- then the profession will rapidly be depleted to no more than a saving remnant. And many of those now going after the Times most ferociously would be among the first before the firing squad. None of them minded far more egregious ridiculousness when Bill Clinton was in Dowd's crosshairs. (For what it's worth, the earlier claim that the Times had misrepresented Henry Kissinger's position on Iraq was utterly bogus.)

This gets to a bigger problem. As I said above, I have little positive feeling for Raines, only a touch more for Dowd. The Blair scandal has exposed some very serious management problems at the Times. And the more recent Bragg scandal-ette shows what I'd call an institutional arrogance that is at a minimum troubling. For that matter, how many other major stories did the Times utterly blow during the 1990s? Whitewater? An utter embarrassment. The Wen-ho Lee case? At least as bad. And there are many others.

And yet the agenda here is also unmistakable (not everyone criticizing the Times, certainly, but the usual suspects). As much as the Times is an institution with some serious problems, it is also one of those enduring institutions which stands apart from the government, clear partisan affiliation, the crudest dictates of money, and so forth -- in other words, precisely what an organ of a free press, a part of the scaffolding of civil society, is supposed to do. A certain sort of conservative (an increasing number, but still only a part) have always seen it -- rightly -- as to their advantage to tear such institutions down.

That would leave the ground to a jumbling mix of Fox News, the Wall Street Journal editorial page and feckless jabbering at the Nation and perhaps a reemergence of Phil Donohue -- a world entirely to their liking. The difference between imperfectly striving for balance in reporting the news and making no attempt to achieve it whatsoever would be obliterated. Indeed, it would become just a quaint artifact.

That doesn't all rest on the NYT of course. But it's an important building block in the edifice.

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