Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

An important article in the Sunday New York Times presents a long, detailed and I would say generally mixed picture of the Bush administration's handling of mounting threats of a major terrorist attack during the spring and summer of 2001.

The article makes clear that the quickening pace of threat warnings was far greater and more ominous than we've been led to believe.

"The warnings during the summer," says the article, "were more dire and more specific than generally recognized." And it provides numerous -- often chilling -- examples to demonstrate that fact.

The White House was tracking the warnings and took some steps to prepare for or possibly head off an attack. But the effort was scattered and uncoordinated and seemed to diminish in urgency and attention after a White House meeting in early July.

The plans for a renewed push against al Qaida -- which the administration has repeatedly called attention to -- were there. But there was apparently little sense of urgency behind them, especially when judged against the escalating threat level. And they were not as robust or militarily-focused as administration officials have led us to believe.

There's a lot in this article to digest. I'd say it provides a decent amount of ammunition for both sides of the debate, though the general picture is one of a White House giving only episodic attention to the escalating threats while focusing on other administration concerns like missile defense. Critics of the White House will point to the more intense focus given to the terrorist warnings around the turn of the millenium -- which Clarke himself has repeatedly noted.

I suspect the follow-on to this article will focus on who the prime movers were in taking the actions that were taken. Was it Clarke and folks like him trying, only half-successfully, to get terrorism on to the front burner? Or were Rice, Hadley and others themselves the ones pushing for the attention the threats did receive? The article seems particularly unclear on these points.

One point to keep in mind, though: the article's heavy reliance on unnamed administration officials in reconstructing the story of what happened in those crucial months. It will be interesting to see how the picture they paint holds up in the questioning of Condi Rice and the articles and further analyses that are certain to follow.

Keep in mind too that Rice's job as National Security Advisor is to coordinate the various national security related departments and agencies to deal with immediate and long-term threats. And on that count, if only in an organizational sense, the article paints a poor picture of the job she did.

Here we are again in this alternative universe in which it's front page news that Colin Powell has conceded that some of his testimony before the UN Security Council early last year was based on intelligence that was not "that solid."

I also hear that Pope has conceded that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and not vice versa. But I'm not sure that development garnered equal press coverage.

Since it has been a given for months that none of the speech's intelligence assessments about current programs were correct, this would seem to be a rather limited concession.

Powell is an ambiguous figure in all this. In an effort which he and his handlers went to great lengths to make known to the press at the time, he sat down at CIA headquarters for I think a couple days shortly before this appearance, and tossed out much of the more ridiculous material from Chalabi's defectors which OSD and OVP were pressing upon him. What he went with was the stuff that seemed at least more credible at the time.

Yet in the key months leading up to the war Powell also repeated particularly incendiary bits of intelligence information which we now know were already widely discredited within the Intelligence Community.

In one of the more comic and farcical strands of this story, many of the more ardent Iraq hawks and bogus intelligence schemers and dupes in and out of the administration now point to Powell as the biggest culprit in the whole manipulated intelligence fiasco. Their argument is that when it came time for the US government to make what was the closest thing to its official case -- that is, before the world at the UN -- it was Powell speaking the words, not Doug Feith or Paul Wolfowitz or Scooter Libby or anyone else.

So Powell takes the fall in their eyes because he gave that presentation and that apparently is vastly worse than a year of muscling the intelligence agencies, getting this goofiness before congress, salting it into the president's speeches and being the sources for myriad newspaper articles.

Let's touch on another matter that should have our attention: control of the electronic media on the ground in Iraq. It's become a given in some circles that whatever actually happens in Iraq over the coming months -- particularly during the handover ceremonies this summer -- will prove secondary to the fact that a highly politicized and Republican CPA will control the images on TV. The control of the electronic media -- particularly television -- will be that tight.

Print journalists are another matter. They can have the run of the place and are not so easily controlled. But images are key.

Again, it's a subject we'll return to, because a lot of work has gone into establishing the basis for such control, which is only one part of the heavy politicization of the whole operation.

One final point -- one to do with TPM and computer technology, not politics -- so skip down now if you're not interested. Thanks to everyone who's sent in advice about Tablet PCs so far. The consensus among TPM readers at least seems to be that Toshiba makes the best line of Tablets -- though some of the other brands have their admirers. A number of readers have suggested using one of these Wacom tablets for the sort of document mark-up we discussed earlier. Basically this is a little tablet you lay on your desk. And when you write on it with the pen the writing shows up on your screen. I've tried this. But I find it doesn't work for the sort of marking up of documents described earlier, or at least I can't get it to work well. We need something where you are actually writing directly on a screen. In any case, please keep the suggestions coming. They're very helpful. And they'll help us bring you more interesting and hopefully informative documents and materials that will provide context for what we discuss on the site.

According to tomorrow's Washington Post, the White House has quickly capitulated on the question of these 9,000 Clinton-era terrorism related documents that they had thus far refused to hand over to the 9/11 Commission.

The lede reads ...

The Bush administration agreed yesterday to let the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks review about 9,000 pages of documents from the Clinton archives, which the White House had earlier refused to release, despite the conclusion of federal researchers that they were relevant to the panel's work.

But then there's this: "But in comments to <$Ad$>reporters in Huntington, W.Va., McClellan declined to say whether the White House would agree to actually hand over any of the disputed documents at issue, raising the possibility of further disputes."

Is this an issue of whether the Commission gets physical custody of the documents, as opposed to reviewing them at some facility controlled by the White House, as has been the case with other material?

The article says some commission members are now raising the possibility that the White House is withholding other documents as well.

And, finally, here is what has to be the quote of the day, from Commissioner Jamie Gorelick:"We can't afford to have documents that are relevant to our inquiry being withheld on a technicality. This is not litigation. This is finding facts to help the nation, and we should not treat this as if we're adversarial parties here."

Too bad some White Houses don't seem to see it that way.

A reader just pointed me to a post Mickey Kaus wrote yesterday in response to one of mine the day previous which discussed the speech on national missile defense which Condi Rice was supposed to give on 9/11.

Mickey makes two points. Let me respond to both.

First he quotes me saying this ...

Perhaps it goes without saying, but let's say it: It was as obvious four years ago as it is today that the most potent threats to America are asymmetric threats, particularly forms of attack that cannot easily be tied back to particular states which we can punish with our conventional military superiority.

And then he responds thus ...

Huh? Clearly the Bush administration failed, as WaPo's Robin Wright puts it, to "take seriously enough the danger from al Qaeda." (Duh!) They should just admit it. But to say this sort of threat was as obvious four years ago as it was after the World Trade Center was destroyed is idiotic, and reflects a counterproductive, bloggish anti-Bush intellectual overstretch.

Here Mickey seems to both misquote and misunderstand my point. I make no specific mention of al Qaida in that passage. <$Ad$>Nor do I say that the threat of al Qaida was as obvious four years ago as it was on September 12th, 2001.

What I do make is a more general point, which I believe to be correct and is frankly not even that controversial. Namely, that because of America's overwhelming military superiority to any single rival state or even any potential grouping of rival states, the most potent threats we face are not traditional military to military conflicts but rather asymmetric threats, particularly ones that we would not be able to retaliate against easily with our overwhelming military superiority.

(For some illustration of this point, see this 'threat spectrum' analysis graphic produced by the Pentagon in early 2001 -- I don't know the precise date, but pre-9/11 -- which I've just added to the TPM Document Collection. Note how terrorist attacks fall right in the 'sweet spot' where the 'probability of occurrence' and 'threat continuum' lines meet.)

This is a strategic argument about where our chief vulnerabilities are and where and how our defense resources should be applied -- not a question of who saw what Presidential Daily Brief or what was contained in it.

You can agree with this point or disagree with it without misrepresenting it or misunderstanding it.

Next there's this.

Mickey quotes me saying that Rice's speech "contained little real discussion of terrorism. The only mentions were swipes at the Clinton administration's supposed over-emphasis on transnational terrorism at the expense of more important priorities like missile defense."

Mickey then writes ...

Here's what Rice actually was going to say, according to WaPo:

"'We need to worry about the suitcase bomb, the car bomb and the vial of sarin released in the subway,' according to excerpts of the speech provided to The Washington Post. '[But] why put deadbolt locks on your doors and stock up on cans of mace and then decide to leave your windows open?'"

That's not exactly downplaying the threat of non-state terrorism, is it?

In fact, I think it is.

As Mickey knows, what Rice was doing here was the speech-writing equivalent of what journalists call a 'to be sure' line -- a reference to an obvious line of potential disagreement or attack coupled with a preemptive rebuttal of the same. As in, to be sure X, but Y is so much more important, etc.

The context of Rice's speech also helps elucidate the point.

In its article on Rice's speech, the Washington Post made quite a lot -- and understandably so -- of the irony that she was scheduled to give this speech on the day the attacks actually occurred.

But that's not all that was happening.

Rice and other lead White House officials were in a running debate with missile defense opponents who opposed the policy for reasons quite similar to those I've noted above. Namely, that national missile defense was a costly and destabilizing defense against a quite improbable threat. Meanwhile, much more tangible threats like global turmoil, terrorism, loose nukes and the rest would go untended to if we dumped all our resources into missile defense.

This wasn't just a general debate, but a very specific one Rice was involved in in the days just preceding the attack.

On September 9th, 2001 Rice and then-Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden appeared on Meet the Press and had just this debate. The following day, September 10th, Biden followed up on that debate with a speech at the National Press Club. Below is a key passage ...

Sure, we'll do all we can to defend ourselves against any threat, nobody denies that, but even the Joint Chiefs says that a strategic nuclear attack is less likely than a regional conflict, a major theater war, terrorist attacks at home or abroad, or any number of other real issues. We'll have diverted all that money to address the least likely threat, while the real threat comes to this country in the hold of a ship, the belly of a plane, or smuggled into a city in the middle of the night in a vial in a backpack.

And I ask you, you want to do us damage, are you more likely to send a missile you're not sure can reach us with a biological or chemical weapon because you don't have the throw weight to put a nuclear weapon on it and no one's anticipating that in the near term, with a return address saying, "It came from us, here's where we are?" Or are you more likely to put somebody with a backpack crossing the border from Vancouver down to Seattle, or coming up the New York Harbor with a rusty old ship with an atom bomb sitting in the hull? Which are you more likely to do? And what defense do we have against those other things?

Watch these hearings we're about to have. We don't have, as the testimony showed, a public health infrastructure to deal with the existing pathogens that are around now. We don't have the investment, the capability to identify or deal with an anthrax attack. We do not have, as Ambassador to Japan now, Howard Baker, and his committee said, the ability to curtail the availability of chemical weapons lying around the Soviet Union, the former Soviet Union and Russia, because they don't know what to do with it.

Rice's planned speech the following day, in favor of missile defense, was her response to these points. In that context I think Rice's remarks were very much a 'to be sure' line, intended not as a serious discussion of the threat of transnational terrorism or non-state threats generally, but a reference to Biden's remarks aimed at rebutting them.

Oh when the frogs!

Come marchin' in!

Oh when the frogs come ...

Okay, enough of this silliness. Let's get down to business.

Friday's New York Times runs an article that implies a lot but says frustratingly little about the current state of the Valerie Plame investigation.

The key revelation, which comes in the first graf, is that investigators have "expanded their inquiry to examine whether White House officials lied to investigators or mishandled classified information related to the case."

The point here would be that prosecutors are now considering indictments not directly related to the underlying crime but of members of the White House staff who lied to investigators during the course of the investigation.

It's classic 'not the crime but the coverup.'

Unfortunately, the piece doesn't make clear whether these might be indictments in addition to ones tied to underlying crime or whether the prosecutors are going for this because they can't make a case on that underlying bad act.

What's more, prosecutors are apparently preparing to take further grand jury testimony. But the authors say it's not clear whether this signals that indictments are coming or that they're getting some final testimony before closing the investigation without indictments -- what you might call a rather substantial difference.

None of this is meant as a criticism of the piece. These are devilishly difficult articles to write. And it seems like the authors got some key leads but not enough to quite present the full picture.

But lets shift gears a bit and discuss another subject.

Earlier this month Murray Waas reported in the American Prospect that Karl Rove had admitted "that he circulated and discussed damaging information regarding CIA operative Valerie Plame with others in the White House, outside political consultants, and journalists [but] also adamantly insisted to the FBI that he was not the administration official who leaked the information that Plame was a covert CIA operative to conservative columnist Robert Novak."

In itself, this is not surprising. It's been pretty clear from the start that Rove pushed the Plame story with reporters after the Novak column appeared. The question is whether he was also the original source of the story.

If he only did only the former, I've always assumed that he was legally in the clear, notwithstanding the ethical sliminess of the behavior.

But perhaps that's not so.

A couple weeks back a legal memo fell into my hands from the sky. And it suggests that even the facts Rove has apparently admitted to put him in clear legal jeopardy.

First, a brief note about the memo: this is not a memo that is in any way a product of the investigation itself. The facts it discusses are exclusively ones which have appeared in media reports. I'm not a lawyer so I cannot myself vouch for the strength of the arguments advanced in the memo. (They certainly seem, to my non-legal mind, to press for an interpretation which yields legal jeopardy.) But it was prepared by lawyers with the proper professional expertise to compose such a memo and interpret the statutes and precedents in question. Finally, this memo is not the product of any political campaign or organization. Not that it would matter particularly, but it's not.

Now to the memo.

The essential argument is that the law, the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, does more than simply prohibit a governmental official with access to classified information from divulging the identities of covert operatives. The interpretation of the law contained in the memo holds that a government insider, with access to classified information, such as Rove is also prohibited from confirming or further disseminating the identity of a covert agent even after someone else has leaked it.

I won't try to explain it anymore than that. The memo is only a few pages long and I've marked the key passages.

There is one point the author of the memo doesn't raise. My layman's reading of the memo suggests to me that it would be critical to ascertain whether Rove learned of Plame's identity before the Novak article appeared or whether he learned of it for the first time when he read Novak's column.

If the latter, then I'm not sure the argument contained in the memo holds up.

Again, that's what occurred to me reading this memo. But bear in mind that my legal education is limited to a summer studying for the LSAT and a mortifying few hours about a decade ago taking the damn thing itself.

Here's the memo. I'm curious to hear your opinions.

Sometimes you just can't trust a Republican senator with a <$NoAd$>microphone ...

Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, at a recent GOP event, told diners that state Sen. Daniel Mongiardo, his likely opponent in the November election, looks like one of Saddam Hussein's sons.

Yesterday, his campaign said it was a joke and apologized.

"We're sorry if this joke, which got a lot of laughs, offended anyone," Bunning campaign manager David Young said.

Read more here ...

We’ve been eager to hit the half-a-million monthly TPM readers benchmark. And in March we finally did.

Stats for March: Unique visitors: 560,957; Total visits 2,577,021; Total pageviews 3,540,296. As always, a sincere thanks to everyone who made those numbers possible.

A few other points to discuss.

According to The Hill, Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee may try to subpoena Doug Badger, President Bush’s White House healthcare adviser, if he doesn't show up to testify on Capitol Hill. They want to ask him about possible White House involvement in fudging the numbers of the recent Medicare prescription drug bill.

(The story is also covered here by Knight Ridder.)

Normally, Committee Republicans can shut something like this down on a party-line vote. But a mix of political pressure and genuine Republican disgruntlement over being lied to may prevent that.

The White House is refusing to make Badger available. Why? One guess ... Separation of powers.

One would imagine that Badger's testimony would be allowable under the White House's recently-discovered 'scandal exception' to the normally high bar on testimony from White House aides. But apparently that theory is no longer operative. Or perhaps it's one of those precedent-less arguments which only apply to Condi Rice. One way or another it's apparently down the memory-hole -- which is starting to get rather full, in case you haven't noticed.

(A Note to White House gaggleers: This is a spoon feed, folks. Just last week the White House argued that the separation-of-powers bar on testimony applied to questions of policy not appearances tied to scandal or congressional investigations into wrongdoing. This clearly falls right into that category. It's wrapped in a bow. Why not ask?)

And speaking of White House shenanigans ...

Yesterday, Rep. Henry Waxman wrote a letter to White House Counsel Al Gonzales asking whether he had placed calls to "selected" members of the 9/11 Commission during Richard Clarke's testimony last week, as reported today by the Washington Post. Presumably this was to feed them White House talking points to be used when they got to question Clarke. We've just posted the letter to the TPM Document Collection.

Longtime readers know we used to keep the TPM Document Collection section of the website very up-to-date -- confidential documents, video of nasty attacks ads, public records that should be more public, etc. But with all the rush of events over the last several months, we haven't been able to update it often enough. And the existing design isn't up to snuff.

In any case, with some expanded resources we're going to redebut the Document Collection with a new design and other added features. One of the things we're going to do is more marking up of the various electronic documents we post -- highlighting key passages, interlinear notes, stuff like that.

And here's where I'd like to enlist your assistance. To do this I'm probably going to need to get one of these Tablet PCs to allow me to handwrite on electronic documents, mark them up, and so forth. Now, about seventy or eighty thousand people visit this website each day. So I figure there must be more than a few people out there who have a sense of which are well-designed and which aren't. So any input would be greatly appreciated.

And one other thing.

In case you missed it, make sure you read Steve Clemons' oped in the New York Times yesterday on part of the collateral damage from the war on terror -- namely, the steep decline in educational, scientific and cultural exchange visas issued since 9/11. Steve is going to be opening up his own blog in the near future. And if he ever gets the lead out and puts the thing online we'll be linking forthwith since it's sure to be a must-read.

Sometimes a poetic truth captures only ... well, only the poetic truth. And then sometimes a poetic truth turns out to be the real thing.

We've been describing for some days now the backdrop -- well-known then but somehow forgotten -- to Richard Clarke's accusations against the Bush administration. Namely, the fact that the Bush administration came to office with a fundamentally flawed conception of the threats facing the United States.

Transnational terrorist groups were almost off the radar. The real near-term threats were rogue states which could hit the US with WMD-bearing ICBMs -- longer-term the threat was China. And thus the centerpiece of our new national security strategy -- and the target of the biggest funding -- would be national missile defense.

Now in a front page piece in Thursday's Washington Post we learn that on September 11th, 2001 Condi Rice was scheduled to deliver a major foreign policy address on missile defense as the centerpiece of a new strategy to combat "the threats and problems of today and the day after, not the world of yesterday."

Then reality intruded.

As the Post explains, the speech contained little real discussion of terrorism. The only mentions were swipes at the Clinton administration's supposed over-emphasis on transnational terrorism at the expense of more important priorities like missile defense.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but let's say it: It was as obvious four years ago as it is today that the most potent threats to America are asymmetric threats, particularly forms of attack that cannot easily be tied back to particular states which we can punish with our conventional military superiority.

In plainer speech, the biggest threats we face today are ones that don't come with a return address.

An ICBM, which has a launch point that can be determined down to the yard and requires a vast apparatus to get off the ground, really doesn't fit into that category.

In any case, this is just another example that they simply failed to understand where the real threat was coming from.

That in itself is forgivable. The problem is that they tried to shoehorn 9/11 into their existing paradigm rather than rethink that flawed analysis.