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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

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.

According to a story just hitting the wires by UPI's Shaun Waterman, the report from the joint congressional 9/11 inquiry, which will be released tomorrow, concludes not only that Iraq had no connection with the 9/11 attacks but that there was no evidence for any Iraq-al-Qaida connection.

Some interesting tidbits ...

Former Democratic Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, who was a member of the joint congressional committee that produced the report, confirmed the official's statement.

Asked whether he believed the report will reveal that there was no connection between al-Qaida and Iraq, Cleland replied: "I do ... There's no connection, and that's been confirmed by some of (al-Qaida leader Osama) bin Laden's terrorist followers."

...

"The administration sold the connection (between Iraq and al-Qaida) to scare the pants off the American people and justify the war," said Cleland. "What you've seen here is the manipulation of intelligence for political ends."

...

Although the committee completed its work at the end of last year, publication of the report has been delayed by interminable wrangles between the committees and the administration over which parts of it could be declassified.

Cleland accused the administration of deliberately delaying the report's release to avoid having its case for war undercut.

"The reason this report was delayed for so long -- deliberately opposed at first, then slow-walked after it was created -- is that the administration wanted to get the war in Iraq in and over ... before (it) came out," he said.

"Had this report come out in January like it should have done, we would have known these things before the war in Iraq, which would not have suited the administration."

...

[A government official who's read the report] went on to suggest that the conclusions drawn from the information about [a key piece of alleged evidence for a Iraq-al Qaida connection] was indicative of a wider-ranging problem with the administration's attitude to intelligence on the alleged Iraq al-Qaida link.

"They take a fact that you could draw several different conclusions from, and in every case they draw the conclusion that supports the policy, without any particular evidence that would meet the normal bar that analytic tradecraft would require for you to make that conclusion," he concluded.

Administration backers will reasonably note that former Senator Cleland might be said to have a bit of a bone to pick with the White House. After all, they spearheaded a campaign against him that charged that he, a Vietnam vet and triple amputee, was soft on national defense. So maybe some will say that Cleland's credibility is suspect. But, then, everyone's credibility is stretched a bit thin these days, ain't it ...

Interesting insider info on the CIA-NSC war from today's Nelson Report ...

CIA TORPEDOES THE NSC

9. Until or unless the President steps in to provide leadership, the long-awaited showdown between the "neoconservatives" and the "pragmatists" will soon reach crisis proportions…this, due to CIA director George Tenet's extraordinary decision to name the President's staffers responsible for misleading, or false, pre-Iraq war intel, Administration sources confirm today.

-- and the war has just begun, intelligence community sources warn. The Iraq/Niger debacle is but one of "a whole series of stories which are ready to break", a source told us today, adding, "I've never seen such hostility and disdain as now being expressed between the White House and the CIA. Never…"

10. As we reported on July 17, Tenet's lengthy, closed Capitol Hill testimony "outed" not just NSC non-proliferation staffer Bob Joseph, but also Deputy National Security Advisor Steve Hadley, and, by implication, Condi Rice, and Vice President Cheney, if not Bush himself.

-- yesterday, Hadley performed a virtual repeat of Tenet's highly qualified "taking responsibility" pose by making it clear that if he has to take a fall, then Ms. Rice needs to explain why she didn't read the memos he gave her.

11. As one Administration source put it, privately, today: "Between Tenet and Hadley, Condi now has the choice of saying she's a fool, or a liar…if not both. Bottom line is she failed to protect the President…look at all this lame stuff about him not being a 'fact checker'. It's just incredible."

-- even before last week, a source close to the White House told us, "the President now sees that he's exposed on the intel problems. And he now sees who's been manipulating him, and he's not happy about it. No president likes to be embarrassed, but this stuff goes to the heart of all the reservations, pre-9/11, about his intelligence, his attention span, and his interest in foreign affairs."

12. Three weeks ago, this source speculated that it would be "difficult" for Bush to fire the senior officials responsible, for obvious reasons, since they would include Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Rice, at a minimum, and that Tenet seemingly had so ingratiated himself at the personal level, he could escape punishment.

-- today, while no one wanted to speculate about Rummy and Cheney, in the absence of new disclosures, disparate Administration sources confirm that it is "generally accepted" that Tenet will be fired from the CIA, if only because of what he started last week.

13. Where this gets really interesting is the apparent response of neoconservatives: just prior to Hadley's self-destruction yesterday, a source reported talk of trying to replace Tenet with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz; replacing Wolfowitz with Hadley; and moving Bob Blackwill immediately up to Deputy NSC advisor…even though Blackwill is not a neo-con.

-- parenthetically, sources explain that for neo-cons, Blackwill enjoys the considerable virtue of loathing, and being loathed by, the "leaders" of the pragmatists, Secretary of State Powell, and Deputy Secretary Armitage. State sources say Blackwill was "fired" as Ambassador to India, due to his management of the Embassy, and how he worked with Armitage in various India/Pakistan crises.

More soon ...

So now we have Stephen Hadley, Condi Rice's number two, stepping forward to take the blame for not keeping the uranium line out of the State of the Union speech. This buck may eventually stop at the president's desk, but it's amazing how many stops it makes along the way, isn't it?

An Acela Express it ain't!

Presumably this renders 'inoperative' the earlier White House claim that the CIA didn't warn them about their doubts on the uranium sale.

It would seem that Hadley's 'mea maxima culpa' was triggered by leaks out of the CIA that they had even more evidence to prove that they sent the word to the White House plenty of times. It may also not have been entirely coincidental that the news came out on a day when the administration was celebrating a very real victory in having tracked down Saddam Hussein's sons Uday and Qusay.

For what it's worth I think the chain here leads not so much to President Bush as to Vice President Cheney.

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