Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

"The political leadership of the administration," says Post columnist Jim Hoagland today, "declared war on the careerists at the CIA soon after Bush's election. There should be no surprise that analysts who feel their insights have been scorned and attacked would use this opportunity to get even." But let's not forget how much of a soldier Hoagland was in that war. In a choice example, see this column from last October 20th on Bush's now-newly-controversial October 7th speech on the Iraqi threat. The material for the October 20th speech never would have made it out of the CIA had not President Bush's "determination to overthrow the Iraqi dictator" brought a such a "cultural change" to the Agency.

Too true, Jim.

One coup brought about by the "cultural change" was the president's ability to use in his October 7th speech "an agency finding that Iraq is developing 'a growing fleet of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles' to deliver chemical and biological weapons on U.S. targets." Those would, of course, be the chemical and bio-spewing UAVs which even most of the maximalists now believe never existed. Hoagland thought that Tenet might still be part of the problem, holding the Agency back from truly embracing the new ways.

This is how war is waged inside the CIA: The upstarts who are challenging the agency's long-standing and deeply flawed analysis of Iraq are being accused of "politicizing intelligence," a label that is a reputation-killer in the intelligence world. It is also a protective shield for analysts who do not want, any more than the rest of us, to acknowledge that they have been profoundly and damagingly mistaken.

The "politicization" accusation suggests that those who find Iraqi links to al Qaeda are primarily interested in currying favor with the Bush White House. It comes primarily from those who won favor in the Clinton years with an analysis based on the proposition that an Arab nationalist such as Saddam Hussein would never cooperate with the Islamic fanatics of al Qaeda. They are now out in the cold in the Bush-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz era.

Can we take the quotes off 'politicizing' now?

Here's an interesting article in the Washington Post detailing how the administration's evidence for the Iraqi nuclear weapons programs was growing steadily weaker just as the its public confidence that such a program existed was growing steadily stronger. It's a complicated story, neither cut and dry nor black and white. But you start to understand that time really was of the essence. Just not quite in the way we thought or were led to believe. And another issue I'm hearing a lot about in discussions but suprisingly little about in print: how many of those Iraqi defectors -- where no small part of our intelligence came from -- turned out to be totally full of it?

What's that Dylan line? "They say that patriotism" ... "Patriotism" ... "They say that patriotism is the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings"? ... No, that's not it. No, wait. I got it. I remember. Right. "They say that patriotism is the last refuge to which Frank Gaffney clings"! Right! That's it.

Gaffney had an OpEd in the National Post yesterday which you really must see to believe. Those who are questioning the honesty and completeness of the White House's claims about Iraqi WMD and al qaida ties are paving the way for Saddam's return, sapping the morale of our troops and generally stabbing America in the back ...

Somewhere, probably in Iraq, Saddam Hussein is gloating. He can only be gratified by the feeding frenzy of recriminations, second-guessing and political power-plays that are currently assailing his nemeses ... It is hard to believe that Americans of any political persuasion would actually want to gladden the heart of so vile a tyrant as Saddam Hussein, let alone to encourage those who seek his return to power ... the enemy will be encouraged to believe that additional, murderous assaults on Americans and their Iraqi partners will improve the chances for a restoration of something like the previous order.
After all, what's the problem? Britain continues to stand by its claim, "notwithstanding," as Gaffney generously puts it, "the dubious provenance of one particular document that purports to confirm a specific uranium sale to Saddam's Iraq by Niger."

Call out the Freikorps!

This may be a sign of things to come. John R. Bolton, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, is one of the Bush administration's most hawkish hawks. Last year he caused a stir by claiming Cuba was developing biological weapons. He's also nearly blown the lid off northeast Asia a few times since he's been in office.

Bolton is generally understood to be the neo-cons' minder and advanced scout over in the wilds of the State Department.

In any case, he was slated to testify before a House International Relations Committee subcommittee Tuesday morning. But his testimony was cancelled at the last minute and then postponed until September. Bolton is something of a WMD maximalist. And when I heard about the cancelation Tuesday morning I was told it was because the White House had decided it didn't want to send him up to the Hill to face questions which would inevitably turn to Iraq and the intel iffiness.

According to this Knight Ridder article, that was clearly part of the issue. But there seems to have been more to it than that.

According to the article, Bolton was prepared to tell the subcommittee that "Syria's development of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons had progressed to such a point that they posed a threat to stability in the region." Sound familiar? Apparently it did to many at the CIA and other US intelligence agencies because they flew into something close to full revolt. Clearly, the career people in the intel community are feeling emboldened by the White House's recent Iraq embarrassments. The CIA alone compiled a list of "objections and comments" to Bolton's proposed testimony which ran more than 35 pages.

Is the Agency coming around on 'regime change' after all?

Day after day we see more and more quotes from administration officials ducking the blame for their actions with excuses that don't even pass the laugh test.

Recently, Ken Pollack told TPM: "I think the truth of the matter is that the larger problem was just this more general day-to-day of beating up the Agency for any assessments that weren't sufficiently alarmist."

Now we're told, by some "senior administration official," that the White House is pissed that the CIA would have saddled them with such thin and needlessly alarmist material as the Niger uranium allegations. This from Wednesday's New York Times, discussing the warnings George Tenet gave Condi Rice's deputy Stephen Hadley about the problems with the Niger uranium charges and why they should be kept out of his Cincinnati speech ...

The warning, administration officials said, came in several phone calls to the deputy national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley.

Mr. Tenet told Mr. Hadley that the C.I.A. was not sure about the credibility of the information.

The White House, asked tonight whether Mr. Hadley had read the National Intelligence Estimate before Mr. Tenet warned him that the section on Niger might be unreliable, declined to comment. But one administration official said that it appeared that Mr. Hadley had not read the report before he spoke with Mr. Tenet, or finished reviewing the Cincinnati speech.

While that call was disclosed last weekend, White House officials were asking today why the information about uranium from Niger had been published in the intelligence estimate at all. The White House has said repeatedly over the past eight days that the estimate was one of the reports that they relied upon as evidence that Iraq had a global program to get an atomic weapon in the president's State of the Union speech.

"This report was supposed to be the gold standard of our intelligence about Iraq," said one senior administration official. Asked why the agency backed away from it days after it was circulated, the official replied, "Who knows?"

C.I.A. officials explain the discrepancy by saying that classified intelligence reports sometimes include information that does not necessarily rise to the level of certainty required of a public address by the president. The report contained a footnote that made clear that there were doubts at the State Department about the uranium evidence.

"It's one thing to have information in a classified document with caveats and footnotes, and another to have the president flatly assert something," an intelligence official said.

Now, I think we do need to know more about just what was in the NIE and why it was there. But however it got there, one would really think that Tenet's subsequent, and apparently repeated, attempts to warn the White House off the allegations would have been sufficient to settle the problem. I mean, even if you assume that the CIA included a wildly inflammatory and utterly unsubstantiated report in the NIE, a follow-up call from Tenet saying, "You know, we're really not so sure about that Niger uranium stuff; don't use it" really should have put an end to it, right?

What's very important to keep in mind here is that Hadley is not just some staffer at NSC. He's Rice's deputy -- the equivalent of Armitage at State or Wolfowitz at the Pentagon. There's just no way that anything Tenet told him should have or really even could have gotten lost in the mix.

Now, here's another point worth considering. And consider it in relation to Pollack's comments noted above.

Later on in the Times article there's some discussion of the fact that the NIE was put together on a rush basis, and that this may have played a role in problems in what was included and what wasn't. But there's also some key information about what the NIE was and why it was prepared.

Intelligence officials have also said that the intelligence estimate, which provided an overview assessment of the status of Iraq's programs to develop weapons of mass destruction, was put together hastily and only at the request of Senate Democrats, who wanted to see the report before they voted on a war resolution. [emphasis added, ed.]
Is it possible that the issue here wasn't just one of haste?

As Pollack's notes -- and virtually everyone else says off the record -- the CIA was under intense pressure to produce, well, let's say, good stuff -- material that was, to use Pollack's words, "sufficiently alarmist." I don't think it's unreasonable to assume that that pressure would have been at its greatest when it came time to producing intelligence assessments and dossiers for members of congress who were going to vote on the Iraq war resolution. We know there was an intense battle within the CIA, not only over disagreements over substance, but also between different officials who wanted to bend either more or less in the White House's direction. Is it possible that that pressure got some things into the NIE that really probably shouldn't have been there, but that when it came to making public allegations -- as in the president's October speech -- that seemed like maybe a step too far?

That's by no means the only interpretation. The point made by the intelligence official quoted above (that you'd include shaky intelligence in a classified document that wouldn't be fit for public consumption) makes a lot of sense to me. But perhaps this other possibility is one we should consider.

Sometimes a reader writes in with a letter of such transcendent comedic value that I've just got to share it with you.


I would like you and your readers to keep open the possibility that the moon may in fact be made of cheese, or at least parts of it. The Apollo missions to the moon only covered a small fraction of the surface area of the moon, excluding large, unexamined areas that may in the future turn out to be made of cheese. Remember, absense of evidence doesn't mean absense of possibility.

-Paul S. [named omitted by editor]

Good point ...

Back in the day, Washington wags used to parse Bill Clinton's public utterances looking for various misstatements, lies, fibs, fudges, what have you.

Sometimes what they found was just nitpicking, or misstatements, in other cases they found trimming or fibs. I'll let you be the judge of how much they did or didn't find.

Now we have President George W. Bush.

And with each passing day it seems his public statements show not so much a pattern of lies as evidence that when he's not doing press availabilities he's living on some other planet. Misstatements are becoming so par for the course that his public pronouncements now seem more and more like a verbal equivalent of what the immortal David St. Hubbins once called a "a free-form jazz exploration" in which the individual words aren't supposed to distract us from the larger truth the president is trying to convey.

Look at the president's final remarks from his press opportunity with Kofi Annan yesterday ...

The larger point is, and the fundamental question is, did Saddam Hussein have a weapons program? And the answer is, absolutely. And we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power, along with other nations, so as to make sure he was not a threat to the United States and our friends and allies in the region.
I mean, where do you start with this?

As the well-worn line goes, I think it's too soon to say we know Saddam didn't have a WMD program. I thought he did. There was lots of evidence to suggest he had at least some chemical and biological weapons programs. And we're still actively looking. (Here's an interesting piece in the new New Republic about how and why he might not have.) But I think our inability thus far to find any clear evidence of a on-going chemical, biological or nuclear weapons program would seem to leave us at least a bit short of being "absolutely" certain that he had one. Am I nitpicking here?

Like the philandering husband, he seems to be asking us, "Who ya gonna believe? Me or your lying eyes?"

And remember when Saddam wouldn't let the inspectors in? I totally missed that one.

Look, you can certainly say that Saddam wasn't cooperating fully with the inspectors, that his people hadn't fully accounted for various chemical and biological munitions which the UN thought he had back in 1990s. Hans Blix said as much. It's true. But, c'mon, he let them in.

You hear this stuff and you say to yourself: "Well, you can kinda know what he meant, I guess."

I find myself thinking that. But even that doesn't cut it.

The disquieting fact is that these whoppers aren't even getting reported any more because it's become a given among reporters and editors that most of what the president is saying on this subject has little connection to anything that's actually going on. And the two keep diverging more and more. It's almost as if the shakier the evidence gets the more certain he becomes about what the evidence was supposed to prove.

Tom DeLay's plans to ram his redistricting plan through the Texas state senate just took what the Austin American-Statesman is calling a "direct, potentially fatal hit."

This is big news. And it comes because of the defection of a Republican state senator: State Senator Bill Ratliff.

It turns out that some Republicans in rural areas aren't willing to have their representation bollixed up just so Tom DeLay can pad his majority and stick an electoral shiv in the back of Marty Frost.

"One or two (senators) are coming back shaking their heads, saying even some of the conservative parts of West Texas are asking why are we doing this," Ratliff said a few days ago. "It's totally unacceptable. The people in Bowie County would wind up being represented by someone in Garland, and that's just one reason. It just obliterates the representation for my constituents in Congress."

Today, according to the Austin American Statesmen, he said he would "not be a part of the destruction of [Texas's tradition of bipartisanship] for the sake of a theoretical marginal partisan gain in the Texas congressional delegation."

I think you could say this guy just made an enemy of Tom DeLay.

Great moments in the passive voice ...

I think the bottom has been gotten to ...

No, we said it didn't rise to a Presidential level. That's what we've said, that in hindsight, we now realize it did not rise to a Presidential level. There is still -- it would be also erroneous for anybody to report that the information about whether or not Iraq sought uranium from Africa was wrong. No one can accurately tell you that it was wrong. That is not known.

Ari Fleischer
Final Gagglefest
July 14th, 2003
Onward and upward ...