Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

From this morning's gaggle, an APB for a buck on the loose ...

QUESTION: Regardless of whether or not there was pressure from the White House for that line, I'm wondering where does the buck stop in this White House? Does it stop at the CIA, or does it stop in the Oval Office?

Scott McClellan: Again, this issue has been discussed. You're talking about some of the comments that -- some that are --

QUESTION: I'm not talking about anybody else's comments. I'm asking the question, is responsibility for what was in the President's own State of the Union ultimately with the President, or with somebody else?

Scott McClellan: This has been discussed.

QUESTION: So you won't say that the President is responsible for his own State of the Union speech?

Scott McClellan: It's been addressed.

QUESTION: Well, that's an excellent question. That is an excellent question. (Laughter.) Isn't the President responsible for the words that come out of his own mouth?

Scott McClellan: We've already acknowledged, Terry, that it should not have been included in there. I think that the American people appreciate that recognition.

QUESTION: You acknowledge that, but you blame somebody else for it. Is the President responsible for the things that he said in the State of the Union?

Scott McClellan: Well, the intelligence -- you're talking about intelligence that -- sometimes you later learn more information about intelligence that you didn't have previously. But when we're clearing a speech like that, it goes through the various agencies to look at that information and --

QUESTION: And so when there's intelligence in a speech, the President is not responsible for that?

Scott McClellan: We appreciate Director Tenet saying that he should have said, take it out.

QUESTION: But it's the President's fault.

Scott McClellan: In fact, if you look back at it, I mean, we did take out a different reference, a reference based on different sources in a previous speech because it was said -- the CIA Director said, take it out.

QUESTION: Let me come back to your "nonsense" statement here, and let me slice it as thinly as I possibly can, just growing out of what Scott asked. Is it nonsense to say that the White House wanted this information included in the State of the Union and negotiated with the CIA to find a way to put it in to the State of the Union?

Scott McClellan: I'm sorry?

QUESTION: Is it nonsense to say that the White House wanted this information in the speech and went through negotiations with the CIA on a way to get it in the speech?

Scott McClellan: That there were discussions? Speech drafts go -- we've stated that these speeches go out to the principals, it goes out to the State, it goes out to DOD, it goes out to CIA, when it's going through the drafting process.

QUESTION: Scott, you said it was "nonsense" to say that the White House was pressuring the CIA to put this in the speech. Is it nonsense to say --

Scott McClellan: I think the question that you asked about was that someone was insisting --

QUESTION: Durbin said, a White House official insisted --

Scott McClellan: -- insisting that it be put in there in an effort to mislead the American people, I think is what --

QUESTION: You didn't explicitly give a motive.

Scott McClellan: And I said I think that's just nonsense.

QUESTION: I'm just trying to slice it a little bit narrowly, to say, is it nonsense to say that the White House wanted this information in the speech and negotiated with the CIA on a way to get it in the speech?

Scott McClellan: Are you asking me to characterize the discussions that occur going on during the speech drafting process? I don't --

QUESTION: I'm saying, does your "nonsense" statement apply to the idea that the White House wanted it in the speech and negotiated with the CIA on a way to get it in the speech?

Scott McClellan: I think that it still goes back to, these drafts go to the various agencies, it goes to the CIA, this is an intelligence matter. It was based on information in the National Intelligence Estimate. That's the consensus document of the intelligence community, and that's what the information was based on in that speech.

QUESTION: So what I asked you about in that speech, your "nonsense" statement --

Scott McClellan: I'm trying to walk you --

QUESTION: You're trying to walk me out the door. (Laughter.)

Scott McClellan: I'm trying to walk you through this.

QUESTION: So your nonsense statement doesn't apply to what I just asked you?

Scott McClellan: I'm trying to walk you through the drafting process. And that's why I was trying to put it in context, so you understand how this occurs.

QUESTION: Scott, on Keith's question, why can't we just expect, basically what would be a non-answer, which is, of course the President is responsible for everything that comes out of his mouth. I mean, that's a non-answer. Why can't you just say that?

Scott McClellan: This issue has been addressed over the last several days.

QUESTION: Why won't you say that, though, that's, like, so innocuous and benign.

Scott McClellan: The issue has been addressed.

Look, it's always a bit brutal and ugly when members of the press flog something like this over and over again. But why can't they just say it: the president takes responsibility for what happens on his watch? And what ever happened to the responsibility era ...

A fresh start ...

I think the thing that discouraged me about the vice president was uttering those famous words, 'no controlling legal authority.' I felt like that there needed to be a better sense of responsibility of what was going on in the White House. I believe that--I believe they've moved that sign, 'The buck stops here,' from the Oval Office desk to 'The buck stops here' on the Lincoln Bedroom, and that's not good for the country.

George W. Bush
October 3rd, 2000
President Bush on Friday put responsibility squarely on the CIA for his erroneous claim that Iraq tried to acquire nuclear material from Africa, prompting the director of intelligence to publicly accept full blame for the miscue.

Associated Press
July 11th, 2003

"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.