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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Can anyone now deny that President Bush's $5.1 billion budget cut stunt was a political goof? Of course not. And now the president has to resort to transparent weaseling to try to recover. In response to ferocious criticism from the nation's firefighters' union ("Don't lionize our fallen brothers in one breath, and then stab us in the back ...") the president today tried to explain why he's cutting more than $300 million in funding for firefighters and ground zero rescue personnel. It's Congress's fault: "What [the firefighters] ought to be upset about is the fact that Congress tried to tie my hands. They said, 'You've got to spend $5 billion or none of the $5 billion.'" The clear sense of that remark is that the president would have supported the money for firefighters. But Congress forced his hand by lumping it in with a lot of other spending.

Unfortunately, this contradicts what the president said a mere three days ago. Back on Tuesday the president said that along with axing the $5.1 billion he would ask Congress to send him another bill to reinstate funds for "truly pressing needs and priorities" which he said were $200 million for AIDS prevention and $250 million to be divided between aid for Israel and aid for the Palestinians. Those were the priorities the president did want to spend on. The money for firemen wasn't one of them.

The whole budget cut stunt was just a snap decision to save the Economic Forum. They hadn't thought it through. Now they're in damage control. The president has to make stuff up. It's not a pretty picture.

Oh the indignity! It appears Bernie Ebbers' name has finally been taken down off Trent Lott's Mississippi Wall of Fame. And he's apparently been replaced by ... Benji! He of canine fame.

P.S. Thanks to TPM reader "D" for the eagle eye.

And then there were six! TPM readers know we're trying to find out which of the seven other congressmen who attended the Free Markets and Democracy conference in Doha, Qatar, in April 2001, went along with Congressman Dana Rohrabacher to meet with the Taliban delegation and discuss Rohrabacher's 'personal peace plan' for Afghanistan with then-Taliban Foreign Minister Muttawakil. According to several contemporaneous wire reports, other congressmen also joined in on the meeting. We've just heard back from Sununu campaign spokeswoman Barbara Riley and she tells us that Congressman Sununu -- who is currently challenging Senator Bob Smith for the Republican Senate nomination in New Hampshire -- did NOT attend the Rohrabacher-Muttawakil meeting. That leaves six other possibilities. Still no more details on the contents of Rohrabacher's 'personal peace plan.' And still no response from the Bob Barr campaign to our repeated queries about whether he was one of the attendees at the Muttawakil meeting.

Just a brief update on the washingtonpost.com's snatching the name of this website for its own DC-based, online, politics column. I have it on the best authority possible that the Post has received literally hundreds of emails about this. So again, thank you to everyone who's written in. A number of Posties have been kind enough to send along word about how embarrassed they are by their employer's behavior. Which is quite kind of them. Actually I'm just thankful they're still talking to me. I wondered for a while why I wasn't getting any response to my phone calls or emails. I mean, I know everyone is in Crawford and Waco and such. But what am I? Chopped liver? Okay, I guess the answer to that is yes. But still: Why no calls back? Then I discovered that relevant folks at Washington Post Newsweek Interactive (the corporate moniker of the Post website) had been given strict instructions not to talk to me, respond to my queries, emails, phone calls, morse code, smoke signals, what have you ... I kid you not. Apparently there was even some talk of sending Bob Woodward over with a baseball bat, a ragged phone cord, and a decapitated horse head. But they decided that might be too heavy-handed. (Okay, the part about Woodward is a joke. The rest is true.) Finally I got someone at the WPNI Communications Department who was authorized to talk with me. He told me that next week they are going to get all the relevant people at WPNI "around a table and have a smart conversation about it" and then after that they'll get back to me.

I thought Fred Barnes had left behind the paraphernalia of sixties-ism back in his early days at The New Republic. So just what has he been smoking? Did he pick up a good stash when he was in Prague trying to track down those dubious claims about Mohammad Atta? How else to explain his ridiculous column this morning ("The Complainers") in the Weekly Standard Online (good site, by the way) on how the Clintonites are the first administration ever to publicly criticize their successors.

His big beef seems to be with Messrs. Berger and Sperling. "[S]o far as I know," Barnes opines, "officials of the Clinton administration are the first to attack the policies of the next administration in a systematic way that includes public criticism, leaks, and dubious statements."

Oh please.

Try doing a Nexis search on the name Michael J. Boskin, Bush Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers circa 1993-94. Or perhaps Dan Quayle or Dick Cheney or a dozen other names whacking White House foreign and domestic policy in the early Clinton years. Or many more flacking Whitewater.

But why go so far afield? Fred's current boss, William Kristol, was the key player and Republican strategist, publicly and privately, involved in undermining and turning back the Clinton health care initiative. And of course Kristol had been Vice-President Dan Quayle's Chief of Staff. Nothing wrong with that of course. That's politics. And Kristol's a master at it. But why the faulty memory?

Fred, this one doesn't pass the laugh test. Next time Karl pitches you on a story idea, take a deep breath and count to ten. You'll thank yourself in the morning.

When last we checked in, we were trying to find out which congressmen were there with Congressman Dana Rohrabacher when he sat down with then-Taliban Foriegn Minister Muttawakil (and a delegation of Taliban diplomats) and presented him with his 'personal peace plan.' This was in Doha, Qatar in April 2001.

I asked representatives of Congressman Bob Barr and Congressman John Sununu if they were there at the Muttawakil meeting. But so far neither have gotten back to me with an answer.

(Why just Barr and Sununu when there were seven congressmen at the Free Markets and Democracy conference, where the Muttawakil meeting took place? Those are the two who are in contested elections in 2002. So they're the first ones I called.)

I did get to talk to Aaron Lewis, spokesman for Dana Rohrabacher. At the time The Gulf News, which is published in the United Arab Emirates, ran a story ("Positive Engagement," 4/13/01) which hailed "the meeting in Doha between Taliban foreign minister Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil and American Congressman Dana Rohrabacher [as] an important contact between the two countries. Although no concrete headway is reported to have been achieved, the very fact that both senior officials agreed to meet in a neutral place and exchange ideas is significant."

That description squares with wire reports (noted in yesterday's post) in the AP and the AFP. But like Grover Norquist, Lewis says the meeting was a much more impromptu affair. And Lewis was at pains to point out that Rohrabacher's 'personal peace plan' wasn't for peace between the US and Afghanistan (which, of course, weren't at war at the time), but for peace within Afghanistan.

Lewis said he didn't know the details of Rohrabacher's 'personal peace plan.' But that he'd try to find out more information about it when he spoke to the congressman. Lewis says Rohrabacher didn't know the Taliban would be at the conference when he travelled to Qatar. But when he found out they were there, he took the opportunity to give them a talking to about human rights, the Buddhist statues, and related matters.

Lewis said he wasn't sure if the subject of bin Laden was raised during the meeting but that Rohrabacher had long been a determined bin Laden foe.

Lewis said Rohrabacher was also an old friend of then-Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. And he speculated that perhaps this was part of the reason why Rohrabacher was so keen on working things out in the country. A CIA source tells TPM that Rohrabacher has been 'freelancing' in Afghan affairs since the mid-1980s. So Rohrabacher's history of involvement in Afghan affairs seems well attested.

Lewis said he didn't know the identities of the other congressmen who went with Rohrabacher to meet with the Taliban delegation.

So who were those other members of Congress who joined with Congressman Dana Rohrabacher in presenting his 'personal peace plan' to then-Taliban Foreign Minister Muttawakil at a meeting in Qatar in April 2001?

(For the details of this rapidly unfolding story, see last evening's post.)

We can't say yet which ones went in on the negotiations with Muttawakil. But we can narrow it down to seven possible candidates -- the other seven congressman beside Rohrabacher who went to last year's Free Markets and Democracy Conference, where the Muttawakil-Rohrabacher meeting took place.

Wyeth Ruthven found the list of the eight member delegation on the website of the U.S. - Qatar Business Council. The eight are ...

Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA)
Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-IL)
Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA)
Rep. Nick Rahall II (D-WV)
Rep. Ciro D. Rodriguez (D-TX)
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA)
Rep. John E. Sununu (R-NH)
Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO)

Did Bob Barr -- who's now pitted against fellow Republican John Linder -- spend some quality time with the Taliban? How about John Sununu? Who's now running for Senate in New Hampshire. Somebody should ask.

For all their bluster, the White House still refuses to guarantee the Iraqi Kurds -- who currently enjoy de facto autonomy -- that the US will protect them if Saddam makes a preemptive move against them in the lead-up to war. The administration line -- reiterated this weekend by Dick Cheney -- is that America will "respond at a time and place of its choosing." To the Kurds that sounds like, we'll respond once you guys are all dead. But if the administration is serious, why refuse such a guarantee? True, doing so would give Saddam the initiative, allowing him to commence hostilities at a time of his choosing. But with the exception of Turkey, wouldn't issuing such a guarantee improve our diplomatic position greatly? Allies who are wary of American plans for 'regime change' would be far less likely to resist an American pledge to protect a civilian population against an armed incursion by Iraq's Republican Guard. And if Saddam were foolish enough to give the White House such a pretext for action, much international criticism and resistance would be blunted. We'd likely be supported by many. If the administration is serious, then issuing that guarantee seems like a no-lose proposition. Which makes me think, maybe they're not. At least not yet.

Deep in the wilds of Orange County, in my home state of California, a woman named Gerrie Schipske is challenging long-time incumbent Congressman Dana Rohrabacher in the 46th district. Rohrabacher is one of Congress's more colorful figures. He's both very right-wing on foreign policy (and most other things) and also a reformed surfer/stoner. Reformed only on the drug part it seems: his website features a picture of the middle-aged congressman catching a wave.

Recently Schipske posted a press release on her website alleging that in April 2001 Rohrabacher had a secret meeting with then-Taliban Foreign Minister Ahmad Muttawakil in Doha, Qatar. He leaned on the Qatari government to arrange a get-together. And at the meeting, she says, Rohrabacher gave Muttawakil some documents and proceeded to discuss his "personal peace plan" with the Afghan Foreign Minister.

Now, I did a little research on this and based on my interviews and wire reports I've read, the story is actually true. In April 2001, Rohrabacher travelled to Doha, Qatar to attend a conference on "Free Markets and Democracy." While there, he met with a Taliban delegation led by Muttawakil. Al Jazeera reported that the two discussed Osama bin Laden, the situation of women and civil liberties. Rohrabacher told Agence France Presse that the conversation was "frank and open." And he told the Associated Press that Muttawakil's response to his plan was "thoughtful and inquisitive."

[Note: Needless to say, it's wrong to call the meeting 'secret' since Rohrabacher gave interviews about it at the time. 8/15/02-5:36PM]

Now the Logan Act prohibits private citizens from negotiating with foreign governments. But that's a rather technical matter. So let's pass over that for the moment.

It turns out there's more. The Muttawakil meeting was attended by several members of the United States Congress, according to AP and AFP reports. Who those other members of Congress were is not clear. They don't seem to be jumping forward. Who are they? I'd like to know.

Still more interesting are the two groups who sponsored Rohrabacher's trip: the Egypt International Forum and the Islamic Institute. Those who follow Republican politics will recognize the Islamic Institute as the group Republican power broker Grover Norquist established to help corral American Muslims into the Republican party. Norquist has been a close friend and political ally of Karl Rove for a couple decades and he is now a close advisor to President Bush.

(The Islamic Institute and Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform are both run out of the same office in downtown Washington. For some of the details see Frank Foer's article Fevered Pitch: Grover Norquist's Strange Alliance with Radical Islam.)

Okay, a little more.

The Agence France Presse report implies that Khalid Suffari, head of the Islamic Institute, was at the meeting too. The AFP report says Suffari told an Al Jazeera reporter that "The position of the Taliban was flexible on most of the issues and the Afghan delegation showed itself to be ready for dialogue."

So this got me wondering. Was the meeting somehow under the auspices of the Islamic Institute? I wondered even more when I learned that Norquist himself was in Doha for the Free Markets and Democracy conference (See Norquist's October 3rd, 2001 OpEd in the Washington Times).

So today I called Norquist. Norquist told me that he was at the conference. But he denied being at the meeting with Muttawakil. "Dana ran into some guy who was a representative of the Afghan government," Norquist told me on Wednesday, "and since he [Rohrabacher] had worked in Afghanistan he sat down and talked to the guy. They literally met in the hallway. I just remembered Dana mentioning that he ran into these guys ... and he yelled at them about blowing up the Buddhist statues."

That sounds a little different from the press reports at the time. But that's his recollection.

So what exactly was going on here? Honestly, good question. Back in the eighties Norquist and Rohrabacher used to be known for what you might call extreme activism, basically heading out to remote spots in the Third World, mainly in Africa, and hooking up with various right-wing militias. Jonas Savimbi's group. Stuff like that. They both hung out in Afghanistan a bit too. And I suspect this was just more of the same. Still, given the context, you'd want to know who those other members of Congress at the meeting were, wouldn't you? And, again, given that this all happened only a few short months before 9/11, maybe Rohrabacher should give some accounting of just what he was up to.

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