Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

This isn't a Thanksgiving Day question exactly, but a question on Thanksgiving Day nonetheless.

What do we know exactly about Abu Musab Zarqawi?

According to various news accounts he is the chief jihadist/insurgent in Iraq. He is the head of the Iraqi 'branch' of al Qaida, the local subsidiary. Responsibility for numerous bombings and atrocities has been ascribed to him; or, in other cases, he, his supporters, or those speaking for him seem happy to take responsibility themselves.

But it is hard not to see this information in the light of the fairly constant tendency through the War on Terror to build up varous Terrorist Masterminds, who become the focus of most or all news reportage, then trail off into nothing. Not infrequently, they have an uncanny resemblance to characters out of 1984. And with Zarqawi particularly there is a welter of contradictory and often difficult-to-credit information about him that invites further suspicion.

Remember, we first heard of Zarqawi because his alleged 2002 trip to a Baghdad hospital to have his leg amputated was the sign of Saddam's dalliance with al Qaida figures. Only now he seems to have two legs. So, assuming he's not some sort of amphibian who can regenerate limbs, that story doesn't pan out.

With some regularity he is apparently killed, but then turns out not to be dead. Often, if you read between the lines, it's not clear that we know enough about Zarqawi to be able to identify him even if we had a relatively intact body to examine. In a similarly odd fashion, second-in-commands seem to be caught with some regularity, only to be replaced by other long-time second-in-commands.

Now, I haven't followed the Zarqawi story that closely. I've just observed it over time as many of you have. So probably or perhaps some of this information has been nailed down more securely than I've suggested. And if so, please let me know -- the questions I'm asking here are not purely rhetorical.

But let's recognize that Zarqawi's enemies and his supporters -- probably, the man himself above all -- have a common interest in building up his reputation and his centrality. The Bush administration has consistently tried to portray al Qaida as a distinct, coherent and hierarchical organization, even in the face of evidence that, since the Afghan War, it has fragmented (or metastasized) into something more like a movement than an organization. This is particularly the case in Iraq where the administration has sought to bundle various sorts of terrorist and paramilitary violence into the al Qaida basket. So building up Zarqawi into the Iraq's al Qaida boss must be tempting.

You needn't posit intentional deception. In a case as chaotic and bloody as Iraq, the mind naturally looks for hidden organization and hierarchy, definable culpability, particularly if you're the one on the line for stopping the violence.

Now, clearly, Iraq has become a charnel house. And there has been a relatively constant stream of terrorist attacks around the world -- Bali, London, Madrid, Amman, Riyadh, the list goes on and on. The perpetrators all seem at least inspired by bin Laden or bin Ladenism and many of the ringleaders were trained in Afghanistan before the war.

But I'm curious-bordering-on-suspicious about just what we know about Zarqawi, how much specific information we have about who he is and what attacks he may be responsible for.

This article which appeared last year in Newsday contains one of the few detailed skeptical accounts of his role ...

Whenever a car bombing, beheading or other spectacular act of violence takes place in Iraq these days, American officials are quick to blame Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. If he hasn't already taken responsibility himself.

But according to an Arab intelligence assessment, al-Zarqawi is not capable of carrying out the level of attacks in Iraq that he has claimed and that American officials have blamed on him.

Al-Zarqawi's own militant group has fewer than 100 members inside Iraq, although al-Zarqawi has close ties to a Kurdish Islamist group with at least several hundred members, according to two reports produced by an Arab intelligence service.

Kurdish group Ansar al-Islam has provided dozens of recruits for suicide bombings since the United States-led invasion of Iraq, the reports say. And while US forces relentlessly pound the Sunni insurgent strongholds of Fallujah and Samarra, claiming to hit al-Zarqawi safe houses, the elusive militant could be hiding in the northern city of Mosul.

The Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi, 37, has used the media effectively to inflate his role in the Iraqi insurgency. In recent months, he and his supporters have claimed responsibility for scores of suicide bombings, attacks on US and Iraqi forces, kidnappings and beheadings of foreigners, and coordinated uprisings in several Iraqi cities.

Al-Zarqawi is thought likely responsible for the beheadings of American contractor Nicholas Berg and several other foreigners. But the sheer level of other attacks that he has claimed is not consistent with the number of supporters he has inside Iraq and his ability to move around the country, according to the analysis. The reports say former members of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime are responsible - directly or by paying others - for many of the attacks, especially sophisticated roadside bombings and ambushes of US troops.

The assessment contradicts many of the Bush administration's statements about al-Zarqawi and his terrorist network.

So what I'd ask is this. I'm interested in seeing articles -- from reputable news organizations -- which give specific information about Zarqawi and what reliable information we have connecting him to these various attacks.

Are we getting the straight story? Or are we falling victim to the ironically overlapping needs of Bush administration officials and Zarqawi himself to over-inflate his role and give us all a highly distorted impression of just what is going on in Iraq?

Salt Lake Tribune: "When lobbyist David Safavian signed on as chief of staff to Utah Rep. Chris Cannon in 2001, he left the door open to return to his old lobby firm and its lucrative stable of clients. Safavian did not sever his ties with his lobbying firm, Janus-Merritt Strategies. Instead, he took a "leave of absence" to work for Cannon." Cannon's press guy now says: 'It was our understanding that when David Safavian left the firm he severed all ties.'"

David Safavian, you'll remember, was the first person to be indicted in the Abramoff investigation.

Late Update: For more detailed info about Safavian's leave of absence racket, check out this post.

We're almost two-thirds of the way to our goal of 3,000 contributors for our TPM Muckraking Fund Fundraiser. So we wanted to make one more push before everyone leaves for the holiday. The funds are going to hiring two staff reporter-bloggers for our new site TPMmuckraker.com which will be devoted to unearthing, explaining and publicizing the web of public corruption scandals breaking out across Washington today. Along the way we'll try to keep in the TPM punch and edge many of you who've written in have said you want in the new site.

There's so much muck to be raked, it'll be a challenge for the two of them to cover it all. But we'll make sure they burn the midnight oil to bring you all of it.

For those of you who've already contributed, our sincere thanks. You'll be hearing from us shortly.

And to all of you a happy and safe Thanksgiving.

A few tidbits on the Niger story.

There are some signs the FBI is starting to back off the earlier blanket exoneration they gave the Italian intelligence agency SISMI last year of any role in the Niger forgeries caper. Meanwhile, Senate Dems still seem to be dragging their own heels on taking action that might get to the bottom of the story.

In case you missed it, from Murray Waas in The National Journal ...

Ten days after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President Bush was told in a highly classified briefing that the U.S. intelligence community had no evidence linking the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein to the attacks and that there was scant credible evidence that Iraq had any significant collaborative ties with Al Qaeda, according to government records and current and former officials with firsthand knowledge of the matter.

The information was provided to Bush on September 21, 2001 during the "President's Daily Brief," a 30- to 45-minute early-morning national security briefing. Information for PDBs has routinely been derived from electronic intercepts, human agents, and reports from foreign intelligence services, as well as more mundane sources such as news reports and public statements by foreign leaders.

One of the more intriguing things that Bush was told during the briefing was that the few credible reports of contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda involved attempts by Saddam Hussein to monitor the terrorist group. Saddam viewed Al Qaeda as well as other theocratic radical Islamist organizations as a potential threat to his secular regime. At one point, analysts believed, Saddam considered infiltrating the ranks of Al Qaeda with Iraqi nationals or even Iraqi intelligence operatives to learn more about its inner workings, according to records and sources.

The September 21, 2001, briefing was prepared at the request of the president, who was eager in the days following the terrorist attacks to learn all that he could about any possible connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda.

Not surprisingly, the White House is refusing to provide copies of the document to the Senate intel committee which is, allegedly, trying to investigate whether the White House hyped, manipulated or misrepresented pre-war intelligence about Iraq.

Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-OH): "I pledge to walk in the shoes of my colleagues and refrain from name-calling or the questioning of character."

First speech on the House floor, September 6th, 2005.

Here's one thing I'm interested in. A couple days ago, the Washington Post quoted sources close to the Abramoff investigation saying that investigators are "are looking at half a dozen members of Congress, current and former senior Hill aides, a former deputy secretary of the interior, and Abramoff's former lobbying colleagues."

Now, six members of Congress -- not so many when you consider there are more than 500 hundred of them. But note the standard. Presumably, these are the ones FBI agents and federal prosecutors are looking to possibly charge with criminal offenses and send to prison.

Given how common a practice it is for big contributions to secure votes on key legislation in today's Washington (and yesterday's Washington too, for that matter), you've really got to cross the line in a big way to get into legal trouble for taking bribes, as already seems to have happened with Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH). The DOJ doesn't enforce House ethics rules (then again, nobody does anymore. but that's another story). Nor are there laws against general sleazeballery.

So how big a swath will the Abramoff scandal cut in the House? Six under scrutiny for actual charges? Figure there are ten times that many tarred with his brush, revealed to be deep in his web of corruption, on the freebie gravy train, even if they violated no specific laws which could land them in jail. How does the Abramoff scandal play in their districts?

Last month we did a few posts about a guy named Mark Graul, one-time Chief of Staff for Rep. Mark Green (R) of Wisconsin and now his campaign manager as Green runs for Governor. We noted that Graul's name shows up again and again getting tickets to various Abramoff skyboxes back in 2000. (These are from a collection of Team Abramoff emails we received a few months back.)

Graul first denied getting any freebies. But as we published more and more of the emails and the local press started taking notice, he eventually sorta kinda 'fessed up. And he came up with a new line which was basically, tough luck, that's how business is done in Washington.

When asked about the Abramoff freebies, Graul told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "I believe it's illegal in [the Wisconsin state capital of] Madison. It's legal in Washington."

So how many other members of Congress up for election next year were on the Abramoff gravy train?

Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-OH) just keeps getting better and better advancing an unintentional humor agenda for sane people around the United States.

Schmidt, of course, is the freshman representative from Ohio who reaped almost universal derision on Friday when she went on the House floor and said "A few minutes ago, I received a call from Colonel Danny Bubp. He asked me to send Congress a message: Stay the course. He also asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message: that cowards cut and run, Marines never do."

Today she told the Post: "There's no way that I remotely tried to impugn his character." She's portraying herself as a victim of unscrupulous attacks. In a press release she laments that "[s]ince that moment I have been attacked from across the country by the left."

From the Post ...

Noting that criticism has poured in via phone calls, e-mails and TV reports, she said in her statement: "I am quite willing to suffer those attacks if in the end that policy I so strongly oppose is exposed as unsound. First and foremost, I support the troops. They dodge bullets and bombs while I duck only hateful words."

Now she even seems to be a spat with the wingnut who she was allegedly quoting when she attacked Murtha.

From the Post ...

Bubp, a GOP state legislator and Marine Corps Reserve officer, had campaigned for Schmidt. He put out his own statement yesterday: "The comments and concerns I shared with Congresswoman Schmidt were never meant as a personal reference to Mr. Murtha. . . . We never discussed anyone by name and there was no intent to ever disparage the congressman or his distinguished record of service for our nation." Bubp, through a spokeswoman, declined an interview request.

Schmidt recalls their Friday phone conversation somewhat differently. "I wrote down what he was saying," she said in the interview. "He did ask me to send a message to Congress, and he also said send a message to 'that congressman.' He did not know that congressman's name, but I did. Neither one of us knew he was a Marine."

It just gets better and better, doesn't it?

Late Update: Actually, wait! I was wrong. It gets better still. According to the Dayton Daily News, Schmidt is now saying that "she has been made a scapegoat by a media disappointed that Congress didn't vote to withdraw troops from Iraq." Local Republicans seem not to agree, judging by the fact that two challengers from the GOP primary in her race are now saying they may run against her again.