Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Yesterday I was going to post a link to this story in the Seattle Times which describes one stop on the way home for the American soldiers and marines killed in Iraq -- a loading bay at the US military section of Kuwait International Airport.

The article begins: "The aluminum boxes, in ordered rows, are bound by clean white straps on freshly scrubbed pallets. American flags are draped evenly over the boxes."

The painfully antiseptic quality of those words pervades the piece. And it is one which, quite apart from your political views, it's worth your time to read -- each of these young Americans, motionless in a box, the focus of a tragedy beginning to unfold thousands of miles away, silent.

The focus of the story is a 50 year old mother of three, a civilian contract worker, Tami Silicio, who works at the loading bay in question. The article tells the broader story of the processing of these remains through the prism of Silicio's work in that process.

The article ends with these three grafs ...

Since the 1991 Gulf War, photographs of coffins as they return to the United States have been tightly restricted. And few such photographs have been published during the conflict in Iraq.

On the April day depicted in the photograph that accompanies this story, more than 20 coffins went into a cargo plane bound for Germany. Silicio says those who lost loved ones in Iraq should understand the care and devotion that civilians and military crews dedicate to the task of returning the soldiers home.

Silicio says she shares her motto, "Purpose and Cause," with colleagues who appear worn down from the job: "We serve a purpose and we have a cause — that's what living life is all about."

As the second graf notes, the article is paired with a photograph of coffins on those pallets in the hull of a cargo plane. Apparently, Silicio, who took the photograph, had sent a copy to a friend. The paper got it from the friend. They contacted Silicio. And things went from there.

Now, I don't know the precise timeline and cause and effect. But this photo came up just before a batch of similar photos from Dover Air Force Base, which were apparently the product of FOIA requests from the Pentagon, hit the Internet. And Silicio's photo seems in some sense to have opened the floodgates.

Today, the Seattle Times reported that Silicio and David Landry, a co-worker she recently married, were fired over the photo by the civilian contractor that employed them, Maytag Aircraft.

"I feel like I was hit in the chest with a steel bar and got my wind knocked out. I have to admit I liked my job, and I liked what I did," Silicio told the Times. "It wasn't my intent to lose my job or become famous or anything."

Now, I have a degree of ambivalence about this question of media coverage of the fallen soldiers coming back to Dover. For many opponents of the war there is an unmistakable interest in getting these photographs before the public in order to weaken support for the war. There's no getting around that. I don't mean to imply that most who want these pictures out believe that, or even that that's an illegitimate goal. And there's a long record of governments managing bad news during wartime to keep up civilian morale.

But one needn't oppose the war to find something morally unseemly about the strict enforcement of the regulations barring any images of the reality behind these numbers we keep hearing on TV. There is some problem of accountability here, of putting on airs of national sacrifice and not having the courage to risk the real thing, some dark echo of the Rumsfeldian penchant for 4th generation, high-tech warfare where data transfers and throw weights replace bodies at every level.

Of course, the rationale for this policy of barring these images is that to publicize them would be an invasion of the privacy of the families. And certainly if the issue were one of barring photographers from private funerals, perhaps that notion would have merit. But the idea that the privacy of the families is advanced by barring any sort of public grieving and witnessing of these sacrifices just seems ridiculous on its face -- especially when we are often talking about rows of anonymous flag-draped coffins.

All the arguments aside, there's something wrong about the fact that we're seeing none of this.

Then there's Silicio.

Every job has rules. Civilians working in war zones probably have more than most. And taking pictures of things you're not supposed to take pictures of and allowing them to be published is probably high on the list.

But here we have a situation where this woman was the first one to give Americans a view of something they should have seen a year ago. And for that she loses her job.

For all the rules, this is a case where the sum (her getting fired over this) isn't more or less but just entirely different from the sum of its parts.

Whatever the rules say, that fact that she lost her job over this is wrong.

I have a newspaper column out tomorrow which pursues the hypothesis I mentioned a few days ago that an escalating crisis in Iraq might actually help President Bush, even though the crisis is demonstrably of his own making.

Meanwhile, Ruy Teixeira has a post on his blog DonkeyRising which says Bush's recent rise in the polls reflects his bulking up on support in the bright red states without making much if any headway in the battleground states where the race will be won or lost.

For what it's worth, I remain fundamentally optimistic about this race.

Secret liberal influence at the Coalition Provisional Authority?

Compare and contrast the CPA Website with that of the Brookings Institution.

Who knew Strobe's influence still stretched so far?

Actually, a quick look under the hood of each site shows that either the CPA or Brookings snagged the other outfit's website and remodeled it as their own.

The presence of this line ("submenu name="Brookings Review" id="brs" url="/press/review/rev_des.htm") buried in the code of both websites seems to give a pretty good sign of who did the deed.

Now if they'd just crib the policy proposals and not just the html!

Oh, the Humanity!

Hey, at least those CPA folks are saving money!

Okay, I'm done.

Another follow-up on the White House press conference question.

As I said before, for the reasons I noted below, I'm sure the Presidential press conferences don't work from presubmitted questions.

However, as I noted a couple days ago, that doesn't mean the president's aides, don't give him "must-calls" -- a list of ringer journalists who they know will toss the president a lifeline with some gimme question.

Bill Sammon of the Washington Times was one of the 'must-calls' from last week.

He served up this ridiculous question: "You have been accused of letting the 9-11 threat mature too far, but not letting the Iraq threat mature far enough. First, could you respond to that general criticism?"

For all I know, maybe Sammon gave Scott or Bartlett at look at his question in advance. Who knows? But I really doubt it. After all, they could be pretty confident it would either be something like this or maybe: "Mr. President, many commentators claim John Kerry is a ridiculous liberal who can't stand up to the bad guys. Can you comment?" You get the idea.

In any case, this strikes me as a separate point. I remain quite sure the journalists from the straight-up publications (real newspapers and TV nets) don't submit their questions in advance.

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.