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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

There's been quite a lot of chatter in the last couple days about an article in the Daily Trojan (no snickers, please), the USC student newspaper, which reports the following about what author Ron Suskind allegedly said at at a public forum on campus ...

One of Suskind's most severe critiques of Bush was not only Bush's lack of press conferences but also his management of those conferences.

For each press conference, the White House press secretary asks the reporters for their questions, selects six or seven of the questions to answer and those reporters are the only ones called upon to ask their questions during the press conference, Suskind said.


I'd never heard of such a <$Ad$>thing and couldn't believe it was true. But Suskind's a serious person and a first-rate journalist. And a bunch of readers asked if I knew anything about it. And, frankly, I've gotten burned a few times underestimating the degree of skullduggery this White House is capable of. So, with some trepidation, I emailed two friends from the White House press corps just to make sure.

I know and trust both of them and both assured me, categorically, that this is not what happens.

In the words of one of them: "It's complete ---------. As in 'I can't believe that he was quoted accurately' ---------. Occasionally, before background briefings, White House aides will canvass reporters to ask what we're interested in on that day (but "the Middle East" is plenty answer for them). But I have never, ever heard of submitting questions in writing, orally, by email, or any other way before a presidential press conference. Not under Ari, not under Scott."

Onward and upward with the rule of law.

Following up on our post of two weeks ago, Ahmed Chalabi's nephew Salem has now been appointed "general director" of the Iraqi war crimes tribunal which will try, among others, Saddam Hussein.

Salem, you'll remember, earlier went into the war contracting and lobbying business with the law partner of Undersecretary of Defense Doug Feith, a prime architect of the war, and the Pentagon official in charge of the contracting process.

And, no, I'm not making any of this up.

From this article, it seems that the spokesman of Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress, Entefadh Qanbar, is also acting as the spokesman for the Tribunal. Perhaps he already is the spokesman for it. It's just not clear.

In any case, the operation -- holding the malefactors of the old regime accountable for their acts -- does seem to be becoming a family affair.

Along similar lines, we should still be asking why the CPA, the sovereign authority in Iraq, allowed Chalabi to confiscate the files of the former regime's secret police to use to blackmail his political enemies. Given these most recent developments, perhaps it will be argued that this was part of some rather broadly construed discovery proceeding pursuant to the Chalabi family's prosecution of Saddam Hussein. But I would find that rationale less than convincing.

Let's do a moment of follow-up about the president's reaction to the August 6th, 2001 Presidential Daily Brief.

'How did the president react?' and 'What did he do?' have been the chief reactions swirling around this story. So let's look back at the AP story from the day in question.

According to the story, the president went out for the morning 4 mile run before 8 AM. He came back, washed up, and went to meet aides for a foreign policy briefing.

"With sunlight pouring in through a floor-to-ceiling living room window," said the Associated Press, "Bush met with deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin, national security aide Steve Biegun and spokesman Scott McClellan for about 45 minutes. They took a call from National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, discussing peace efforts in Macedonia."

After that, the president headed off to work on a nature walk on the ranch.

Now, there's been some questioning as to whether the president himself ever actually read the PDB at all. According to an article in Salon last week, the president usually does not read his PDBs himself but rather has them summarized for him by George Tenet.

Tenet of course did not do the briefing that morning since Bush was on vacation in Texas. Rather, it was delivered by the number three person at the NSC, Biegun, who was the president's chief foreign policy advisor on hand. It doesn't seem to be a great stretch that Biegun would have summarized the brief just as Tenet normally did. But of course we don't know.

Now, there's another wrinkle to the story. The president arrived two days before the briefing noted above -- on August 4th. That was a Saturday. And the Monday briefing seems to have been the first after he arrived.

In addition to this, Biegun had only been on the job for about six weeks at the time. So it seems likely that this was the first time he had ever briefed the president. And that makes me wonder even more about just how the briefing was conducted.

So, what do we have? The fact that the meeting lasted less than an hour -- and also included discussion of another major issue, Macedonia -- tells us, I think, that the document generated little if any serious discussion.

But look who was also there: Scott McClellan, the president's current press secretary. The press gets a crack at him every day. Sure, he probably won't answer on principle. But he's one of only four people there that day. He was there. Why not ask him?

There's a lot of hand-wringing from Democrats and a lot of satisfaction from Republicans over the two new polls out this morning showing a small, but measurable lead for the president over John Kerry.

(CNN/USAToday Bush 50%, Kerry 44%, Nader 4%. WaPo/ABCNews Bush 48%, Kerry 43%, Nader 6%.)

The first thing that is worth noting is that if you look at the tally on the Polling Report website, there have been eight other polls conducted entirely or in part during the month of April. And only one of those showed a lead for the president. The most recent of those other polls, the Zogby poll conducted roughly simultaneously with the WaPo and CNN polls, has Kerry up by three points over Bush and tied when Nader is put into the mix.

What I take from this is not that the two most recent polls are outliers and should be discounted, but that we've just gone roughly a month when every poll agreed that Kerry was ahead. Before that, over the first four months of this year, they've oscillated back and forth a couple times. I think this is the just the nature of this race. And something folks on both sides are going to have to get used to.

From what I can glean from reader emails these new numbers have really knocked the wind out of a lot of Democrats because it's very hard for them to see how the president could have possibly gained traction over two or three weeks when the news for his White House has been universally and profoundly bad -- principally because of the uptick in fighting in Iraq, but also because of the 9/11 business.

If I could capture the mood in a sentence, it is, "If this doesn't sink the guy, nothing will."

I must say that it surprises me too. But, as I said, this is a close race that has bounced back and forth a couple times -- and often for reasons which are not as clearly tied to the current news cycle as we're inclined to think. In short, don't change your view of the race based on the president popping up a few points into the lead.

Another opinion is that of Charlie Cook, in the "Off to the Races" analysis out this morning, who points to the president's ad campaign.

Cook gives a rather downcast view of the state of the Kerry campaign and suggests that the massive Bush ad campaign against Kerry is finally bearing fruit. Nevertheless, measures of public opinion on Iraq keep heading south, as does the all-important 'is the country headed in the right direction/wrong direction' question. He concludes by saying that "Kerry's rising negative ratings and an increase in Bush's own problems create a wash -- a race that remains a dead heat in this evenly divided country."

A contrary reading of these polls might suggest that the president gains as national security and war issues become more salient, even if they are becoming more salient because of what seem to be objectively bad news about his policies. But I suspect Cook's read is closer to the mark.

The more I read that passage (below) from this morning's gaggle, the more perplexed I become. Why couldn't Scott McClellan give a straight denial to any of the questions about whether Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar had pledged to President Bush that his country would lower gas prices in time for the November election?

It's not that I don't think it could be true. In fact I find it quite plausible. It makes sense to me given the ties between the Bush family and the House of Saud -- particularly to Bandar. It makes sense given Bandar's Republicanism. And, perhaps most of all, it rings true because such an understanding would play to Bandar's once-exalted role as facilitator and intermediary between elites in both countries.

As David Plotz explained in this December 2001 article in Slate, Bandar's role in Washington and the essence of his once-vast power was as the man who created the illusion that elites from these two deeply dissimilar and in many ways antagonistic countries could hash out mutual understandings and find common interests in places like Aspen and other getaways far removed from the true pulse of both societies.

(Think about that when considering the ties between the Bushes and the Sauds.)

So, yes, I think such an arrangement or understanding is quite possible. Yet such agreements aren't written out on paper. And they should be easily deniable even if they are true -- especially with a White House that, from my experience, seldom gets hung up on such minor quibbles.

So, again, why the evasion?

Even odder is that Woodward now seems to be backing off the original claim. At least that's what I gleaned from this exchange from last night between Bandar and Woodward on Larry King (a cast of three characters about whom many funny things could certainly be said) ...

KING: The story that Mr. Woodward has about the promise to lower the oil prices by the election. Your government has denied has.

WOODWARD: That's not my story. What I say in the book is that the Saudis, and maybe you looked at this section of the book, Ambassador, that the Saudis hoped to keep oil prices low during the period for -- before the election, because of its impact on the economy. That's what I say.

BIN SULTAN: I think the way that Bob said it now is accurate. We hoped that the oil prices will stay low, because that's good for America's economy, but more important, it's good for our economy and the international economy, and this is not -- nothing unusual. President Clinton asked us to keep the prices down in the year 2000. In fact, I can go back to 1979, President Carter asked us to keep the prices down to avoid the malaise. So yes, it's in our interests and in America's interests to keep the prices down.


Clearly we're in good hands.

The Bandar Oil Deal Gaggle<$NoAd$> ...

QUESTION: Can you describe conversations between the White House and Prince Bandar about his essential promise to lower oil prices before the election?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think you heard from Prince Bandar a few weeks ago about --

QUESTION: He didn’t talk specifically about the election.

MR. McCLELLAN: -- the most recent conversation that we had with him regarding oil prices. And he expressed his views out at the stakeout to you all that Saudi Arabia is committed to making sure prices remained in a range, I believe it’s $22 to $28 price per barrel of oil, and that they don’t want to do anything that would harm our consumers or harm our economy. So he made those comments at the stakeout and we’ve made our views very clear that prices should be determined by market forces, and that we are always in close contact with producers around the world on these issues to make sure that actions aren’t taken that harm our consumers or harm our economy.

QUESTION: There were no conversations specifically about the President’s reelection?

MR. McCLELLAN: You can ask Prince Bandar to --

QUESTION: But from the point -- I mean, conversations are obviously two ways.

MR. McCLELLAN: -- what his comments were. But the conversations we have are related to our long-held views that we have stated repeatedly publicly, that market forces should determine prices.

QUESTION: To follow up on that then, I would gather that the White House view is one of expectation that the Saudis would increase oil production between now and November.

MR. McCLELLAN: Our views are very well-known to Saudi Arabia. Prince Bandar made a commitment at the stakeout that I will let speak for itself. You all should look back to those remarks.

QUESTION: We’re missing the allegation here, which is that Prince Bandar and the Saudis have made a commitment to lower oil prices to help the President politically. Is that your --

MR. McCLELLAN: I’m not going to speak for Prince Bandar. You can direct those comments to him. I can tell you that what our views are and what he said at the stakeout is what we know his views are, as well.

QUESTION: Does the White House have any knowledge of such a commitment?

MR. McCLELLAN: I’m sorry?

QUESTION: Does the White House have any knowledge of such a commitment?

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, I’m not going to speak for Prince Bandar. You can direct those questions --

QUESTION: Is there a deal?

MR. McCLELLAN: -- I wouldn’t speculate one way or the other. You can direct those questions to him, but I’m telling you --

QUESTION: I’m not asking you to speculate either. Do you have knowledge of such a commitment?

MR. McCLELLAN: I’m telling you what our views are and what we've stated, and I'm telling you what I do know, which is that our position is very clear when it comes to oil prices and what our views are. And Prince Bandar spoke to you all just a few weeks ago out at the stakeout after meeting with some White House officials and expressed --

QUESTION: So you have no knowledge of such a commitment?

MR. McCLELLAN: -- and expressed their view. I'm not going to try to speak for Prince Bandar. You can direct those questions to him.

QUESTION: The President is confident that the American elections are not being manipulated by the world's largest oil producer?

MR. McCLELLAN: Our view is that the markets should determine --

QUESTION: The market doesn't. It's a cartel.

MR. McCLELLAN: But our view is that that's what -- that the markets should determine prices. And that's the view we make very clear to producers around the world, including our friends in OPEC.


Did you get a straight answer out of that?

A few more details on the September planning for seizing the oilfields of southern Iraq, which I mentioned last night.

The United States military, indeed every general staff, will have plans on file not only for the wars a country might likely face, but even for many of the most improbable scenarios -- even potential conflict against current allies. If I'm not mistaken, I think I recall that the United States had war plans on file for war against the United Kingdom well into the early decades of the 20th century.

This isn't a sign of agression or bad faith, just preparedness for any eventuality. And besides planning for wars is what staff officers do.

In any case, war against Iraq was something Pentagon planners had been preparing for for years -- especially after 1991. So there was an existing plan on the shelf when 9/11 came along.

That, however, is not what I was referring to in the post below when I spoke about planning for war against Iraq in September 2001.

When Centcom planners were tasked with preparing to seize Iraq's southern oilfields they took the existing plan for an all-out invasion and essentially whittled it down, since conquering southern Iraq was a smaller version of what would be needed to conquer the entire country.

The chatter around Centcom at the time was this gambit was being pushed by Wolfowitz and was not necessarily done on the say-so of the White House.

How do I know this? From a highly credible source with first-hand knowledge.

Bob Woodward's new book is making a lot of news with the report that President Bush directed Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld to began planning for war with Iraq on November 21, 2001 -- little more than two months after the 9/11 attacks.

I hear it was much sooner than two months -- more like two weeks. That is to say, in September 2001.

In mid-September 2001, at the same time Don Rumsfeld tasked Centcom with drawing up plans for attacking the Taliban, they were also tasked with putting together a plan to seize Iraq's southern oil fields.

(British officers, who were embedded in the planning process and actually on location in Tampa, Florida from mid-September 2001 onwards, reacted with something close to disbelief that this was what the Secretary of Defense had ordered.)

This plan -- pushed by Wolfowitz -- is referred to obliquely in the Saturday article on Woodward's book in the Post. But this wasn't just some idea Wolfowitz proposed prior to 9/11, as the author implies. Centcom planners began putting together the plan for it right as they were putting together the war plan for Afghanistan.

What happened in November was still important, and qualitatively different, because this earlier tasking was not explicitly aimed at regime change, simply seizing the southern oil fields. But whether it was formally aimed at regime change or no, within less than two weeks after 9/11, Centcom planners were at work putting in place a plan to make war on Iraq.

Tune in late this evening for some more news on just how early Centcom was tasked with drawing up plans to attack Iraq.

From my friend in Iraq, late in the afternoon of April 16th, local time<$NoAd$> ...

Dear Josh, I would like you to share with your readers that the four abducted Italian bodyguards worked for me. They were people I had brought in to provide close protection for my former company's contractors. Fabrizio, who was executed, was a great guy and it appears he died with honor, knowing what was about to happen. If the rumors are true that he stated "Cosi Morare Un Italiano - Here is how an Italian man dies" well it would be just like him ... all of the others Incusori, Bersagalieri, Alpini and other Italians have such honor filled sayings tattooed on their arms and chests ...

The guys were returning home to Italy from Baghdad via route 10 to Amman. I don't know why they thought they could make it and I am racked with guilt for not having been there to weigh in on such a simple decision ... it would have been NO! Fly royal Jordanian! Everyone would have gone home happy and safe. They and the other Italians who worked for us were/are consummate professionals and our staff loved them. I can only hope the others make it home in safety and this madness of abduction ends. I am headed back to Baghdad now and my family is terrified. If I am not there things will swiftly fall apart as our Iraqi staff are loyal and have offered to protect us with their families and their lives. However I need to give them much more training. So for now I am too grief stricken to assess whether this was worth the adventure that is Fallujah but all I ask is ... how can we assault a city of 300,000 and not have the largest east-west highway secure for logistics and commerce by Military Police?? Allah only knows how many people were killed by ignoring a basic military principle ... secure your lines of communications and supply!


More soon.

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