Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

The White House is now putting the first dollar signs on its plan for gradually phasing out Social Security and replacing it with a system of government-regulated private investment accounts. A few examples are included in this article out this evening from Reuters.

But an odd parity is emerging in the numbers -- even the highly optimistic ones favored by the White House.

The proponents of phasing out Social Security say we have to get rid of it because the program is "unsustainable", as Scott McClellan said today. The reason it's "unsustainable" is that the program would need more funds to get through the demographic bulge created by the baby generation.

(This in itself is a highly debatable point; but let's leave that for a later discussion.)

Just how much extra funds would be needed and whether those funds would come from borrowing or benefit cuts or new taxes is a matter of debate. But precisely those choices which make Social Security "unsustainable" in a few decades are the ones the White House is happy to make now in order to speed the process of phasing out the Social Security program.

Simply financing the 'transition costs' of phasing out Social Security will cost a good trillion or two dollars, maybe more -- by the White House's own informal estimates. And where on earth are we going to get that money? Borrow it, says the White House. Notta problem. In other words, we have to start phasing out Social Security now because if we don't we're going to face some big borrowing in a few decades. But we can avoid that horror of horrors by doing some big time borrowing now to finance abolishing Social Security we won't have to face that terrible fate a few decades from now.

Makes perfect sense, right?

We'll return with more detailed numbers and explanations in future posts. But the new numbers out from the White House only underscore the basic fact that this debate isn't about funding or lack thereof. It's all about who's in favor of the Social Security phase-out and who isn't.

More to consider ...

In prepared remarks <$NoAd$>praising the new nominee last week, President Bush ranged across the whole of Kerik's career, from his days as a beat cop in Times Square, to his hands-on work at Ground Zero on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

Yet the President was oddly — and utterly — silent on Kerik's work in Baghdad, and perhaps for good reason. Though Kerik presided over the hiring of thousands of recruits for the reconstituted Iraqi police force, most were hired without background checks, and many turned out to be hardened criminals. As a result, some 30,000 of them, or roughly 25 percent of the entire force, are now reportedly being let go, with the U.S. footing the bill for $60 million in severance payments.

There's also Kerik's never-fully explained role in the 1990s as head of a New York City Corrections Department foundation that was secretly funded with roughly $1 million of tobacco company rebates from departmental purchases of cigarettes using city funds. Kerik's hand-picked treasurer for the foundation, Frederick Patrick, is now serving a one-year prison sentence after admitting in court that he pilfered nearly $140,000 of the foundation's money to pay for collect-call phone sex from inmates.

And heck, that's from the New York Post ...

And the mystery deepens<$NoAd$>.

Last night we reported that the first reports of Bernard Kerik's departure from Iraq came in an August 25th piece in the Times. But one of our many eagle-eyed TPM readers (two actually, JB and TB) put us on to this August 15th piece on the CPA bubble in Newsweek in which the magazine's Christopher Dickey wrote ...

Yet L. Paul Bremer III, the American pro-consul who is, I’m told, about to go on vacation, and Bernard Kerik, the former NYC police commissioner who came, who saw, who commented, and is about to go home—these guys say things are getting better all the time.

Normally a cover date on a news weekly would be at least several days after the date the thing appeared. But this was a "web exclusive". So it seems Kerik was putting out word that he was bugging out in the second week of August.

And that is confirmed in an appearance he did on August 11th with CNBC's Maria Bartiromo in which there was this exchange ...

BARTIROMO: I believe you said when you went to Iraq back in the middle of May that you would be there between three and six months. Still true?

Mr. KERIK: I'm--I'm here three months now. You know, hope--hopefully, within the next three or four weeks, you know, I'll be able to get back home. I came here with one job in--in mind, and that was to stand up the Minister--Ministry of Interior, to reconstitute the interior. We have identified the two primary deputies. I have the first deputy in mind at this point. We've identified the Baghdad chief, the--the chief of operations. Police chiefs all over the country have been identified. I've appointed the--the new head of border enforcement and immigrations and customs. So basically, reconstituting the ministry is--is just about finished. Now it is recruiting, training, stand up. That's going to take--take time. It'll take between another year--18 months to two years to get it all intact. But for what I came to do, I'm just about there.

BARTIROMO: So when do you think you'll be able--or the US will be able to turn over security to the Iraqis?

Mr. KERIK: Well, I think it's not--you know, there's not going to be a day. There's not going to be a date. I think it's a transitionary process. The more Iraqis you stand up, the more you can work on transition and disengagement from the military, but it's going to be a while before that happens.

As we said last night, he actually said he'd be there for at least six months. So again, what happened?

In the course of his confirmation hearings, Bernard Kerik may be able to shed some unique light on decision-making in the early days of the Iraq occupation.

Here's what interests me most.

In an article in the New York Daily News on May 16th 2003, Kerik confirmed that he'd been tapped to be the American in charge of the Iraqi Interior Ministry (formally, he'd be the chief 'advisor'). Principally, that meant he'd be in charge of domestic security and specifically in charge of standing up a new Iraqi police force. This was just after Bremer had arrived on the scene. And he told the Daily News he'd be leaving for Iraq within three days. As for how long he'd be in the country, he said he'd be in Iraq "in excess of six months, but no one really knows . . . as long as it takes to get the job done."

As Kerik suggested, six months seemed optimistic. In mid-July, according to an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Robert C. Orr, who the Pentagon had just sent as part of a fact-finding mission to Iraq, said that "former New York police commissioner, Bernard B. Kerik, is training an Iraqi police force but his work won't be completed for at least another 18 months, and the need for help is urgent and immediate (italics added)."

If you review the newspaper reportage over the next couple months you'll see Kerik quoted in various articles about security and policing in Iraq. He even showed up in walk-along columns by the Post's Jim Hoagland and the Times' Thomas Friedman.

But little more than two months into his tour, just as Iraq was slipping the first few rungs down the ladder into chaos, something happened -- something that I've never seen explained.

Remember that on August 7th, the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad was bombed -- the first high-profile terrorist act since the war. Then on August 19th a truck bomb destroyed the UN compound in the Iraqi capital killing seventeen, including the head of the UN mission, Sérgio Vieira de Mello.

Then, only a few days later, a few press reports noted for the first time -- in most cases just in passing -- that Kerik was preparing to leave the country. The earliest of these that I'm aware of came in a Times article by Dexter Filkins in which he notes in passing that Kerik was "wrapping up his tour in Iraq" and later that Kerik's "time here is to end in a week."

[ed.note: If there are earlier references to the timing of Kerik's departure I'm not aware of them. But if you are, I'd be obliged if you could let me know.]

Then just a few days later, on August 29th, a bomb exploded outside the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf killing upwards of a hundred people including Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, head of SCIRI.

Tracking down the precise date of Kerik's departure is difficult. But he apparently left the country either two or three days later. The first word of Kerik's departure that I could find comes in a September 3rd article by John Tierney in the Times, which reported on the truck bombing of the central office on the Iraqi police in Baghdad. In that report Tierney notes that the leader of the effort to reconstitute the Iraqi police force had been "Bernard B. Kerik, a former New York City police commissioner [who] finished his three-and-a-half-month tour here this week."

The question, I suppose, pretty much asks itself: what happened? Kerik arrived in Iraq with a rather open-ended committment. By his own account, it should have carried him at least through the end of 2003. There was even some suggestion that it would keep him in the country through 2004. Yet just after the first two major terrorist attacks in Baghdad reports surfaced that he was about to leave. And only a week later, after major terrorist incidents numbers three and four, he was gone.

At the time, the Pentagon and Kerik (or rather people speaking on his behalf) made rather unconvincing claims that Kerik's departure was simply part of the original plan.

As TPM noted a week after Kerik left, the Pentagon said the Kerik was actually supposed to leave in the summer and "extended his stay to finish his ongoing projects." That was a bit hard to figure since that would have meant his entire tenure in the country would have lasted only a few weeks. Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Kerik's employer, Giuliani Partners, said the plan had always been that he'd only stay in the country for 90 days. But that of course directly contradicted Kerik's own statements.

We now know that the many of the key security-related decisions that have haunted the occupation for the last year and a half happened in those first few months. Kerik also left at a time when there seemed to be plenty of police work to go around in Iraq.

So again, what happened?

Kerik on critics of the war: "Political criticism is our enemies' best friend."

(As quoted in Newsday, Oct. 20, 2003)

Beautiful ...

Marshall Wittman: "Despite the mass exodus, the incompetent one remains -Rummy. All that happened on his watch was an abysmal post-war plan and a prison scandal. This confirms that the only ones held accountable in this Administration are welfare mothers and struggling third grade students. For them, standards and accountability apply. For Rumsfeld, he is just passed along to the next grade (or term) regardless of his performance."

I must say that I was surprised not so much with the heated reactions to the post below about civil liberties (which I expected) but the over-interpretation of it, or rather projection on to it. More than a few readers seem to read this passage -- "a good deal less doctrinaire on civil liberties issues than, I suspect, many of the readers of this site ... And a lot of the things that were done in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 were, I think, justifiable in theory, if not always in execution." -- as clearly justifying the use of torture to extract confessions or for any other purpose.

Perhaps my interpretive skills are flagging, but can someone point out the reference to torture here? Torture does not exhaust the range of issues covered by civil liberties, to say the least.

More mailbag ...

Subject: the law vs. survival


I think that what I object about <$NoAd$>the Bush administration's actions is that they are trying to legitimize torture. That is a significant change.

Realistically, there are times when a person decides to do whatever is necessary to survive. If you're dead, having the law on your side doesn't help much.

It occurs to me that it's similar, in a strange way, to civil disobedience. In theory, civil disobedience means breaking the law to make a larger point. In such a case, the person breaking the law is willing to face the legal consequences in order to make that point. You might stage a sit-down strike. You don't resist being arrested, but you might plead not-guilty and insist on a jury trial just to gum up the legal works and make yourself as inconvenient as possible to the authorities.

The point is torture has no legitimate place in U.S. law. Regards,

Jim R.

See this June 7th post for more discussion of the point at issue here.

Bazinet and Kennedy nail the Kerik story in the Daily News ...

"Rudy cashed in a chip on this one," said a White House source, who earlier this week predicted there was "no way" Kerik could land a cabinet-level job in the Bush administration.

Rudy's chit.

If there was ever a subject for the Sunday shows, certainly this is it.

By Kevin Drum's count there are seven cabinet secretaries now left standing. Four of them are at second-tier posts (Interior, Labor, HUD and VA) and another, Treasury Secretary Snow, is just (briefly) being kept around for humiliation value -- like the goofy kid in the club whose role and utility is to provide a ready target for the application of wedgies.

And that leaves Don Rumsfeld who, according to this report tonight on CNN, is not only still standing, but will keep standing probably for the rest of the Bush presidency ...

The official said the president asked Rumsfeld, 72, to stay during a weekly meeting on Monday because the nation is at war and he is the best person for the job. Rumsfeld has said he wants to finish his reforms at the Pentagon and continue overseeing the Iraq war and that country's hoped-for transformation.

And of all these <$Ad$>people -- Powell, Ashcroft, Paige, Abraham, Thompson, Veneman, Evans -- does any of them hold a candle to Don Rumsfeld when it comes to the number of screw-ups, debacles and disasters that have happened on his watch?

I mean, it's not even close, is it?

One criticism of the president that loomed large in the last election -- and not just among Democrats but with many Republicans too -- was that this president either does not recognize or will not admit mistakes. And whichever it was, there was no accountability for them. In most cases those 'mistakes' people were talking about were ones under Rumsfeld's purview. And he would seem to be the only one -- certainly the only one of the principals -- that the president insists on keeping in place.

In this administration, the buck may not stop at the Oval Office, but the hard line against accountability sure does start there.