Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

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.


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 ...

Interesting timing. We know from depositions from down in Texas that Gov. Rick Perry got personally involved in pushing the manhunt for the Texas Dems -- he's the one who told the cops to go to the neo-natal intensive care unit. Monday, the Department of Homeland Security's investigation of itself gave everybody a clean bill of health -- while making no apparent attempt to find out which politicians authorized misusing its resources. Today, Gov. Rick Perry will announce a special session to take another shot at redistricting in two weeks -- a sort of redistricting the Washington Post said states do 'regularly', and had to have an alert letter to the editor writer point out hadn't happened in half a century.

Now back to the last few days of the vacation.

See Gov. Perry's letter calling the special session, with the no-federal-judges canard included.

Finally, something on the WMD front. No, not actual WMD. But some actual information on something I've been wondering a lot about. Just what are we offering the regime leaders and top scientists in exchange for spilling the beans about the regime's weapons programs?

I definitely thought the Iraqis still had some chemical and biological weapons capacity. The one thing that has made me seriously question whether they did has been the number of regime leaders and scientists in custody. Administration leaders talk a lot about the size of Iraq and how long it would take to search a country of that size. But this has always struck me as a bogus argument. When cops do a murder investigation they don't make a grid line of their entire municipal jurisdiction, mark it off with string, and search every foot of the city. They do an investigation to find the body and the perp. They talk to people and they follow leads.

However large Iraq may be, the fact is that we have lots of folks in custody who should know plenty about the WMD program. And apparently not one of them has squealed. My governing assumption has always been that there's a get-out-of-jail-free card, a harem, a Riviera Chateau and a lifetime supply of jelly beans (and that's just for day one) for whomever sings first. Frankly, I still think that assumption is almost certainly accurate. But this new article from the Times of London says it's not true. Or at least officials from Tony Blair's government seem to be telling the Times it's not true.

According to the article, the Brits are practically begging the Americans to start cutting some deals. But we're standing firm. Here's the key graf from the piece ...

“We have been trying for ages to persuade the Americans but they have come up with all kinds of legal arguments,” one government official said. US authorities have been happy to offer plea bargains to some of America’s most notorious criminals, but apparently draw the line at members of a regime that they have denounced as evil.
Now, one pretty straightforward explanation for this is simply that the folks in the Blair government are getting desperate. The Brits are in full scandal mode over the failure to find WMD (a British government report recently made a finding that those trailers were not mobile weapons labs after all ...) both at the public, press and governmental levels. So perhaps the Blairites are just grasping for straws and want to offer still more, hoping someone will crack. Or, more cynically, they want to float a plausible explanation for the failure to find the goods.

In any case, it makes you wonder.

More to come later today on Texas Homeland Security ridiculousness. The DHS Inspector General's report is out. And, boy, is it thorough!

Damn. Damn. Damn. In this business timing is everything. I was just polishing up the prose on one of my weekly columns -- this one about former NSC official Rand Beers. And now the Washington Post has beat me to it. So it's back to the drawing board.

Here's the deal with Beers.

With all that's coming out now about the lead-up to the Iraq War and the questionable statements about terrorism links and WMD, you'd have to figure that the administration's top anti-terrorism operatives would know where the bodies were buried, if there were any to be unearthed, right? You'd also have to figure that that someone would be someone any ambitious Democrat would really want to talk to, right? Especially if that someone seemed a touch disgruntled with his boss's policies.

Well, Beers served as the National Security Council's senior director for counterterrorism from August 2002 until he resigned just days before the beginning of the Iraq war for what Ari Fleischer then called "personal reasons." Two months later he signed on as John Kerry's lead foreign policy advisor.

See his first salvo in the Post.

Seldom, I think, has a country undergone such a subtle, textured, distinction-granting debate about lying and truth-telling.

"I don't believe that the president deliberately lied to the public in an attempt to scare Americans into supporting his war. But it does look as if ideologues in the administration deceived themselves about Iraq's nuclear programs — and then deceived the American public as well."

That's the final paragraph of Nick Kristof's devastating column on just when the White House knew the Niger/Iraq uranium purchase story was bogus.

In Saturday's Times, Bill Keller says: "What the Bush administration did was gild the lily — disseminating information that ranged from selective to preposterous."

That is a description that is perhaps most artfully described as generous.

Washington's newfound appreciation of the 'subtleties' of truth-telling and lies is, well ... what shall we call it?, a revealing contrast to the common-sense definitions bandied about through 1998. But Kristof at least is on to something. There was an element of self-deception. A strong one.

If you simply insist on believing white is black, even when you can see it's white, then when you tell people it's black then, well, maybe you're sort of not really lying, right?

Certainly, in some cases, the truth was more muddy. Folks in the administration put the most ominous interpretation on fragmentary information that was admittedly ambiguous.

Here's another clip from Kristof ...

Still, Mr. Tenet and the intelligence agencies were under intense pressure to come up with evidence against Iraq. Ambiguities were lost, and doubters were discouraged from speaking up.

"It was a foregone conclusion that every photo of a trailer truck would be a `mobile bioweapons lab' and every tanker truck would be `filled with weaponized anthrax,' " a former military intelligence officer said. "None of the analysts in military uniform had the option to debate the vice president, secretary of defense and the secretary of state."

So I'm not simply being critical of this 'subtlety.' Mass psychology and individual psychology are more apt tools than lie detector tests for much of this. Maybe we're not talking about lying but only saying things you have no reason to believe are true, which I guess is not really a lie, right?

Or saying things you have good reasons to believe are false but don't know for a fact to be false?

I'm not in the camp of people who think the administration's falsehoods and distortions about WMD change that fact of the deadly significance of WMD, or the significance of Iraq's long history of non-compliance. But there is still, at the end of the day, an odd unwillingness to state the simple fact that in many cases the White House lied to the American public, repeatedly and unashamedly, to pave the way for war. Sure, sure, they thought they were doing it for a good cause. But if they'd lie about this, well you know the rest ...

Everything changes. Everything. Especially in Southern California.

Part of America's special nature --- good and bad --- is its manner of chewing itself up and building itself up again. Unused land gets laid out and built up and then the new buildings get demolished and the land is built up again. All of this seems to happen in an accelerated fashion in Southern California. It's a sliver of the nation where something like the frontier still exists. Land to be developed. Lots of it. And once they develop it, they develop it again.

Today I drove out to what Southern Californians call the "inland empire" - an area starting maybe 40 miles east of Los Angeles. The towns have names like Upland and Pomona and Ontario and Montclair. It's where I grew up -- or at least where I grew up from the time that I was six until I left for college when I was eighteen.

As must always be the case, the towns and streets and shopping malls look nothing like they did when I was a child. But in this case it's something more than the standard differences that occur over a decade or two. Nothing looks the same. These towns, this region, was and is the bleeding edge of the Los Angeles sprawl, which has been spreading like lava eastward from the coast for decades.

When my family moved to Upland, California in 1975, large sections of the town were still lemon groves. (In a sense this area was still very much like the area east of Los Angeles where Philip Marlowe usually ended up at the end of Raymond Chandler detective novels. Those old shacks where the bad guys were holed up. I think it's in The Big Sleep where Chandler describes Marlowe driving down a road lined with these groves, noting how the rows look like spokes from a rushing car.) One square block would be lemon groves and the next would be tract homes. Other blocks in the grid were just fields with nothing at all but rocks and dirt.

By the mid-late 1970s I don't think any of the lemon groves were actually being farmed. They were derelicts. They'd already been marked off for future development. They were just growing and producing their crops on nature's autopilot because there was no point in chopping them down until some developer was actually ready to build a new subdivision. Back then, at least in my memory, the better part of the town was still in lemon groves. Certainly a lot of it. And to the east the lemons were still king.

Today, the edge of the sprawl is dozens of miles to the east, with towns and towns of bedroom communities which, thirty years ago, only existed on paper.

So old buildings and stores were gone and replaced with new ones. And the open fields where me and friends would go build forts and stalk and capture lizards when we were little kids were built over for the first time, or perhaps the second.

But none of these were my main interest today. I wanted to see something very specific.

Twenty-two years ago, late in the evening one night in March of 1981, to be specific, my mother was killed in an auto accident on Foothill Boulevard in a town called Claremont. This was one town over from ours. She was on her way home. She was killed instantly --- at least in every meaningful sense of the word. And the impact of her car left a softball-sized dent in the foot-thick metal pole that held up the street lights at the intersection where she died.

The street, Foothill Boulevard, is the main drag in the region. It's actually the westernmost part of the legendary, cross-country Highway 66 and for years after I'd see that dent --- hard to notice for most people, but hard for me to miss. First as a passenger in other people's cars I'd see it and then as a driver myself cruising over the same path countless times.

For a very long time afterwards the gash still had etches of the maroon paint from her car -- for years I would guess, though I don't know precisely how long. Then eventually those chipped or washed away. And finally it was just a dent.

These things don't work quite the way they do on TV or in novels. I didn't fixate on it. Hundreds of times I passed that intersection and didn't look or even think about it. But it was always there, always there ready for me to notice, an occasional reminder.

In one of those weird, impersonal cruelties by which bureaucracies operate, there was apparently some thought at first that the city would sue my father or, I guess, my mother's estate --- such as it was, which wasn't much --- for the price of fixing or buying a new street light pole. Someone had to pay for repairing this small part of the city's infrastructure. And why should it be the taxpayers? Or so the reasoning went.

In any case, for whatever reason, this bizarre indignity never occurred. And the dent remained for years. The last time I saw it, it had been there for almost two decades.

Later, my father moved away from the area. But when I was in my twenties I'd visit the area to see old friends and I'd inevitably drive by and see the dent. I probably saw it last in the middle 1990s - still the same dent, unchanged, with a few flecks of the paint ripped deep into the metal.

But coming back to California this time I realized that through all those years I'd never touched it. I'd driven by it countless times and very rarely I'd feel some rush of the impact of her death as my car swept past the point in space where hers stopped in its tracks. But I'd never gotten out of the car and walked up to the spot or touched the dent. There must have been grooves cut into the metal -- perceptible only by touch. But I'd never stopped to feel the metal against my fingers or find its contours. I guess it had never occurred to me. Or maybe it occured to me today because I'm only three years younger than she was when she died. Who knows? One could go on about what the kinetics of that dent represented and what feeling its latent effects might conjure up in me --- but it probably goes without saying.

In any case, I wanted to rub it with my hand, maybe kiss my fingers and touch it.

I hadn't been to the area in at least five or six years and I didn't even remember the cross street name anymore. But I wouldn't forget the shape of the dent or the look of the intersection. I knew what it all looked like. So I drove to it knowing I'd recognize it when I saw it but not knowing quite which intersection it would be out of three or four in a row. My memory had grown hazy.

So I passed one and then another and then the intersection that I knew must be it. But no dent. I could make out a few scratches a couple feet off the ground as I drove by, but no dents. I circled back and drove by again thinking maybe I'd missed it. But nothing. Each was that unscarred blotchy metal that all the light poles there are made of. Then I gave a good long look at the pole I knew was the one. And then I extended the search a couple blocks in each direction. Nothing.

Eventually I realized it was gone. I knew where it was but it wasn't there. I stopped by the corner where the new, unbent pole was and looked at it. I wondered what had finally prompted the change. Was it just time to install new poles? Or maybe that old pole had finally got knocked down by some more formidable vehicle. Maybe an eighteen-wheeler had ripped it out of the ground. It wouldn't have been a match for something so large and heavy. Or maybe a new higher tech streetlight was installed. I mulled the possibilities and wondered if it mattered to me and rubbed my thumb a few times over my fingers and drove away.