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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

The whole idea of intelligence failures -- how they come about, and how one properly structures an intelligence service -- has quickly become central to much of the news we're reading about the war on terrorism and the reorganization of the federal government.

I little while back I reviewed Ernest R. May's recent book Strange Victory: Hitler's Conquest of France, a study of one of the great intelligence failures of the 20th century: the French failure to predict the timing and and strategy of Hitler's devastating lightning conquest.

It's a great book. And May makes a strong argument that the Fall of France itself was principally due to this catastrophic intelligence failure.

But the book is also a crisp and clarifying exploration of how intelligence agencies can have lots of assets and lots of information but still not be able to use either effectively -- often with fatal consequences.

This, of course, is precisely what seems to have been the case with America's intelligence agencies in the lead-up to 9/11. And you can't read May's book -- written in 2000 -- without getting a very clear sense that he was quite aware of this. Here's one snippet from the introduction ...

The story is particularly well worth recalling now, for in the post-Cold War era, the United States and other seemingly victorious Western democracies exhibit many of the same characteristics that France and Britain did in 1938-40 -- arrogance, a strong disinclination to risk life in battle, heavy reliance on technology as a substitute, and governmental procedures poorly designed for anticipating or coping with ingenious challenges from the comparatively weak.
If you want to think deeply about this whole question of intelligence failures and learn a lot about how not to organize and acculturate an intelligence service, read May's book. It's really, really good. And it's the book to read on this subject.

"Honey, we've had this bone in the burrow for months now and we haven't done anything with it. Do you mind if I toss it out to make room for other edibles and bric-a-brac?"

This isn't a quote from today's Washington Post article on the Chandra investigation.

But pretty damn close!

The DC police seem confident that they didn't actually miss Chandra Levy's leg bone in their search of the apparent crime scene in Rock Creek Park a couple weeks ago. What they actually think happened is that some animal had the bone in his or her burrow and just now decided to toss it. Chief Ramsey told the Post that ...

there was a "very strong probability" that an animal indeed had retrieved it, possibly from a burrow. That hypothesis is based on information the police received from the National Zoo, which told investigators that the animals making this part of the park their home could have abandoned the area during the search and may have been replaced by others after police left. Under this theory, the bone may have been uncovered by an animal cleaning out an old den.
Man, you can't make this stuff up.
The new focus on animal burrows and dens places the police in the difficult position of explaining why these were not searched more thoroughly. Ramsey said search teams looked in burrows and sometimes poked around with sticks. But he said they saw no need to dig them up until the appearance of the tibia. "Animals got hold of the bones; they're scattered all over. They're pulling them out of burrows," Ramsey said.
Damn animals!

Believe it or not this excuse may actually be more ridiculous than it appears on the surface. The idea seems to be that some animal had this bone in his collection for almost a year and then just in the mere week since the crack Chandra investigative team pulled out of his neighborhood he decided to toss it. Or perhaps he bugged out during the search and some new guy who moved into his den afterward decided he didn't want the bone and decided to chuck it.

Yeah.

I mean, it's not that this couldn't't have happened. But given what has come before, I think you've got to ask the following awkward but unavoidable question: Who has more credibility? The DC Metro Police? Or a small burrowing mammal?

The question pretty much answers itself, doesn't it?

And further information from the Post article tends to confirm this. The bone was not found "in plain view. The bone was under a pile of leaves and embedded in the ground." The fact that it was embedded in the ground makes the police/zoo geek hypothesis about its being a recent plant by a scofflaw animal seem pretty far-fetched, doesn't it? Doesn't it take more than a few days for a bone to get covered with leaves and imbedded in the ground?

A slightly less skeptical article in the Washington Times adds that Cmdr. Christopher LoJacono of the D.C. Police Forensic Science Division earlier said that the bone "substantial animal activity" and that police note the bone was found "within 3 feet of what appeared to be an animal's den."

What's a bit sad about this is that I've always had the impression -- and I still think this is true -- that Chief Ramsey himself is a serious character. He was brought in from somewhere in the Midwest I think to shake the place up. But he's only one man. And the ridiculousness of the DC Metro police is the combined work of many. The last graf of the Post article has Ramsey uttering this anguished lament.

"We're working as hard as we can to find out who's responsible for the murder of Chandra Levy," Ramsey said at the news conference. "I wish we had found all the remains, but obviously we didn't. . . . It's easy for people to sit back and Monday morning quarterback."
Buddy, you got that right.

According to Dana Milbank's article in the Post, planning for yesterday's announcement began on April 23rd -- a contention which, if understood in any meaningful sense, I doubt. The idea apparently was to keep the plan secret for as long as possible from the "experts" and "bureaucrats" who will try to slow-roll and kill the plan. The price of that secrecy, however, was having the plan devised by four men -- Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales and Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels -- none of whom have any apparent knowledge or experience with law enforcement, counter-terrorism, intelligence or disaster preparedness.

What a coup.

Next up, the big four release their master-plan for information-sharing among key government agencies ...

Egg, meet Tom Ridge's face.

Tom Ridge's face, meet egg.

Today Tom Ridge is telling everyone who will listen that the new plan for a cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security was the administration's plan all along.

Here's Ridge a bit more than a week ago telling a National Journal editorial board meeting that he'd advise the president to veto pretty much exactly the same plan.

I've had a few people write in to say I've jumped the gun or been irresponsibly critical of the DC cops in assuming that the human leg bone found yesterday near the Chandra crime scene actually belonged to Chandra Levy. Admittedly, not as many have written in saying that as have written in to say that the new TPM face shot makes the author look a) "too confrontational", b) "menacing" or c) "like a serial killer." But that's for another post.

As to the bone, let me rattle off just the first three utterly devastating rejoinders to this criticism.

First, I made clear that the bone has not yet been DNA-confirmed as Chandra's. But for the moment I'm happy to go with the DC Medical Examiner, who believes it is Chandra's.

Second, even if we assume that the human tibia found yesterday is not Chandra's, can't we still agree that it probably would have made sense for the cops to retrieve all other readily available human tibias in the immediate vicinity just to see if they might belong to Chandra?

Third, if there are really more than a few unretrieved and unidentified human tibias in that section of Rock Creek Park which don't belong to Chandra Levy, can't we just agree that this might point to another possible shortcoming of the DC police?

Un-&%$^#@* believable. Despite giving them a hard time now and then I've always resisted the idea that the DC cops were really fundamentally incompetent, that the seeming inscrutability of Chandra Levy's disappearance and murder might simply be the result of ridiculously inept police work.

Now I've changed my mind.

As you no doubt know, Levy's remains were found recently in an isolated section of DC's Rock Creek park.

But a couple days ago a fellow Chandra-phile and I were watching Greta Van Susteren's show when she and a couple guests -- a renowned forensic pathologist and a retired DC cop -- did a walkaround through the area where Levy's remains were found. What they found a bit disconcerting was that there was a lot of stuff there that the police hadn't bothered to pick up -- a shoe, an empty condom wrapper, some rope, and some other stuff.

Almost certainly this stuff had nothing to do with Chandra's death. But it certainly could have. And certainly tons of people are going to go to the spot over the coming days and weeks to see the area and if this was evidence it'll be gone or compromised before long. The point is, you pick up everything and go through it to see if it might have any relevance to the case. (I know they're overflowing with hot leads and all but ...)

Anyway, it seemed like they'd done a pretty shoddy search.

Well, today the two Levy family investigators -- former DC cops -- went to scene to see what they could find. And what did they find? A sock? Panties? Some hair that might have been Chandra's?

No. Try her shin.

They found what appears to be her left tibia. (The bone hasn't been DNA tested yet. But on the basis of size and wear the DC Medical Examiner told the Washington Post that his "working hypotheses is that it comes from Chandra.")

The bone was apparently some 25 yards from where Levy's skull recovered. But this isn't like a toe or something. It's like a foot long.

It simply beggars belief.

Though obviously not a great supporter of the president, what President Bush seems poised to announce tonight sounds like a promising move in the right direction. It's only part of the solution. But it's a very important part.

But let's step back and consider an obvious but all-too-important point.

Would this be happening without the political heat being generated because of the embarrassing intelligence failure revelations? Of course not.

And how willingly did the administration leap forward to get these investigations underway? Enough said on that count.

The point is clear. Do politicians try to reap political gain through aggressive investigations? Of course, they do. Get used to it.

But they also help the nation. In Smithian fashion, impure motives nonetheless create a public good. Especially when a recalcitrant administration puts secrecy -- which is too often the hand-maiden of &$@-covering -- above all else.

One other quick point in passing: Tom Ridge really, really, really shouldn't get this job. It's important. And even worth fighting over. He's damaged goods and has no relevant experience for the task. No special perks for being the president's friend.

Just a quick note for TV news producers, newspaper editors or even just Hill staffer types trying to make their bosses look good. If you want to get out ahead of the Ashcroft fingerprinting story, read this article in last month's Washington Monthly and ask the obvious questions. You'll be glad you did.

Yesterday we took Former FBI Deputy Director Weldon Kennedy to task for his demonstrably false claim that there turned out to be nothing of value in the possession of Zacarias Moussaoui even after the FBI got a post-9/11 warrant to search his possessions. Well, here's the lede of tomorrow's article on the same in the Washington Post...

Amid the latest revelations about FBI and CIA lapses prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, congressional investigators say it is now clear that the evidence that lay unexamined in Zacarias Moussaoui's possession was even more valuable than previously believed.
Tim, how meaty does this one have to be before it's a Whopper?

I'm willing to grant the state some expanded policing and surveillance powers as the price for protecting the nation against the threat of terrorism. What's distressing is when the state asks for expanded powers which seem to offer little real payoff or assistance in combatting terrorism. It's even more disappointing when we shy away from this or that reform because it offends some prized interest group or because -- and here's the biggie -- making the change would require the investment of real political capital and standing down entrenched bureaucracies.

This is where the war on terrorism really is being won or lost today. And I'm afraid it's the latter.

This administration is really hardcore in the mountains of Afghanistan. It talks a great game on Iraq. But when it comes to busting some heads or getting a little bloody in the trench warfare of the DC bureaucracy George W. Bush is turning out to be a mix of George McGovern and Alan Alda.

I'm telling ya, you talk to the people who follow this stuff and they're clear that these guys are just doing nothing.

Let's look at today's announcement from John Ashcroft in which the AG outlines a new plan to require ...

"visa holders temporarily entering the United States from [Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya and Sudan] to be fingerprinted and photographed and to provide contacts in the United States and in their home countries. After 30 days, the visa holders would have to report to the Immigration and Naturalization Service about their activities, and again after each year in the United States and when leaving. Violators would be barred from re-entering the United States."
That's the description from the Washington Post.

But wait. The very next sentence reads: "A similar arrangement already exists for all of the five countries except for Syria."

Excuse me?

I thought this was something new. We're cracking down on the Syrians?

There's also going to be a slightly less draconian system which will cover a larger group of countries.

But why exactly are we doing this when we're stymied even putting in place a simple database to keep track of where kids on student visas are hanging out?

Oh right, I forgot. The Immigration lobby and the Foreign Student Advisors' lobby are against it.

If you're a conservative and you're gratified that the administration seems unfettered by political correctness in toughening up the nation's defenses, don't be so gratified. Most of this stuff is window-dressing or simply beside the point. Most of the important stuff simply isn't getting done. Taking on the ACLU and John Conyers is child's play. But going head to head with the barons at the FBI, the CIA and Main Justice is just something this administration doesn't have the stomach for.

Earth to Dems: If you want your issue, this is it.

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