Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

This evening, Wingerdom is all aflutter about what they now see as the New York Times-CBS-IAEA international anti-Bush conspiracy. But they might do better to focus their anxieties elsewhere.

Like at the Pentagon, for instance.

Who over there is trying to stick it to the president?

Look at two big news stories on Tuesday, the Washington Post report that the White House plans to ask for some $70 billion more in Iraq spending just a week or two after the election and this USA Today piece reporting that the Pentagon is planning to add roughly 20,000 more troops to the force in Iraq in anticipation of the elections in January.

Just on the basis of logical inference, I'm gonna bet those leaks didn't come from Scott McClellan.

More troops in the country is something that many administration critics have been pressing for. But, still, it's not the news the Bush campaign wants to be talking about one week before the election. Combined with the al Qaqaa business, these two stories managed to create what one network news talking head called a trifecta of bad Iraq news to kick off the last week of the campaign.

Tom Squitieri, author of the USA Today piece, provides some possible guidance about who was behind the troop deployment story: "Four Defense officials with direct knowledge of troop planning for Iraq discussed what the Pentagon must do to meet the need for more troops at election time. They asked not to be identified because troop matters are highly sensitive and decisions have not yet been finalized." The Post sourced its story to Pentagon officials and "Appropriations Committee aides." But what Republican Appropriations Committee aides -- who are the ones who'd know the best details -- would have leaked this stuff to the Post this week?

Even in the al Qaqaa story, while Larry Di Rita has been working reporters trying to get out the White House's storyline, there's been a steady back-draft of off-the-record comments by Army officials that keep tripping him up.

I also couldn't help but notice that both the Times and CBS managed to get lengthy and rather candid interviews with Col. Joseph Anderson, commander of the unit that came through al Qaqaa on April 10th with that NBC News crew. He completely upended the NBC/Drudge storyline that the White House had been depending on all day. And for CBS, Anderson even tossed in the bonus comment that he would have needed four times as many troops to secure all the weapons depots that his troops came across while sweeping into Iraq.

If it were appropriate, I might even note that one of the folks who received the 'talking points' di Rita sent out today describing how to spin the al Qaqaa mess decided to send them on to me.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that the Army is trying to drive the president from office or that there's anything coordinated about this. I'm simply pointing out that if you look at the Pentagon as a whole -- and not just Larry Di Rita's shop in OSD -- in Bush-Cheney '04 terms, it's starting to look like part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Now might be a good time <$NoAd$>for a follow-up from Rick Jervis of the Chicago Tribune.

Back on September 30th, he wrote a piece about the lawlessness in the Iraqi town of Latifiyah, what the US military calls the "IED [or 'improvised explosive device'] capital of Iraq."

Down a ways into the story, in the process of explaining all the violence and bombings and explosions, Jervis writes ...

The insurgents probably are using weapons and ammunition looted from the nearby Qa-Qaa complex, a 3-mile by 3-mile weapons-storage facility about 25 miles southwest of Baghdad, said Maj. Brian Neil, operations officer for the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, which initially patrolled the area.

The facility was bombed during last year's invasion and then left unguarded, Neil said. "There's definitely no shortage of weapons around here," he said.

From the context of the piece it sounds like he may be talking about mortar shells and artillery rounds rather than the RDX and HMX from al Qaqaa that everyone's now talking about.

Still, this sounds like something we should know more about.

[ed. note: thanks to TPM reader TH for having the eagle eye.]

Oh if only he'd remembered his own sage advice ...

Back at the last debate, after John Kerry rattled off some press praise about one of his programs, President Bush quipped (at Kerry's and Bob Schiefer's expense), "In all due respect, I'm not so sure it's credible to quote leading news organizations."

I bet the folks at the White House are now wishing they'd followed the headman's advice before they based their entire push back on the al Qaqaa fiasco on a short blurb on NBC Nightly News that fell apart about as quickly as it took to get all their surrogates to start talking about it.

As we've noted in a series of posts over the course of the day, the NBC story started falling apart when MSNBC interviewed one of the members of the news crew in question, who said that there hadn't been any search at all. A short time later Jim Miklaszewski came on to explain that indeed there had been no search and that what the NBC News crew saw didn't tell us much of anything about whether explosives were still there at the time the news crew arrived with the 101st Airborne on April 10th. By early evening, Tom Brokaw told Nightly News viewers in polite but no uncertain terms that they hadn't said what the White House was claiming they did.

In fairness to NBC, they never ran that hard with their 'scoop'. And they carefully unpacked it over the course of the day. That fell to CNN, which got goaded into running with the story by Drudge. But by late in the afternoon, even CNN was bailing out.

There's certainly plenty of schadenfreude to go around. But it's worth drawing back and seeing this turnabout in the context of the broader story.

Given all that's happened in Iraq, the potency of the al Qaqaa story was never that it was the worst thing that has happened in Iraq. It's that it brings together in one package almost everything that's gone wrong: incompetence, abetted by denial, covered up by dishonesty, and all in one fatal brew.

And what do we have over the last forty-eight hours? The White House faces a press storm over a new revelation and their reaction is to go to battle with the news organizations involved with an argument they pretty clearly hadn't thought over for more than a few minutes.

Now the White House has first, denied they knew anything about the problem before October 15th; second, said they've known about it all along and that it wasn't their fault because it happened before we got there; and third, well ... I guess we'll find that out tomorrow.

Special thanks to TPM reader TB for reminding me of that moment from the first debate.

I'm told that Dan Senor went on Paula Zahn's show this evening to try to push back on the al Qaqaa story, and that it wasn't a pretty sight. They've just uploaded the transcript. So I'm going to read it shortly. But before I do, an idea ...

When Jerry Bremer headed up the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, Dan Senor was his right hand man. He's still playing that role for Bremer here stateside now that the CPA has gone out of existence.

Now, Sunday evening I noted that there was one big dog who hadn't barked in this whole brouhaha. And that's Bremer. Yes, we're caught up with all this mumbojumbo about whether there are any aerial photographs of what was happening at al Qaqaa in March 2003. But Bremer's really the guy at the center of all this.

He was the administrator of Iraq for almost the entire period of the occupation. All these issues were part of his brief. He was the senior US government official on the ground. And according to Monday's article in the Times, the Iraqis told Bremer in May of this year of their concerns about al Qaqaa. Bremer would also almost certainly know about US pressure on the Iraqis not to communicate these concerns to the IAEA.

Yet, Bremer's not talking. The Times piece made that clear. And journalists who are trying to get him to talk are getting a particularly feeble excuse for why he won't.

He's telling them his publisher isn't letting him talk to the press.

(Back on July 4th of this year Bremer told Fox's Chris Wallace that he was about to "turn to writing a book about my experiences" in Iraq. So presumably that's what he's talking about.)

So when Senor hits the shows, shouldn't the hosts be asking him why his boss isn't willing to answer any questions on this topic from the press? Is the Times right that Iraqis told Bremer about the problem at al Qaqaa last May? Does he know about the pressure CPA officials put on the Iraqis not to talk to the IAEA?

Those would all be great questions to have answers to. But let's talk for a moment about the real reason Bremer is probably observing radio silence.

Let's go back to the beginning of this month.

What got Bremer in hot water a few weeks ago were his indiscreet remarks about how the US occupation force in Iraq was undermanned and the looting that ensued because of it.

"We paid a big price for not stopping it because it established an atmosphere of lawlessness," the Washington Post quoted him as saying. "We never had enough troops on the ground." In another speech, he reportedly said, "The single most important change -- the one thing that would have improved the situation -- would have been having more troops in Iraq at the beginning and throughout" the occupation.

Later, after the firestorm erupted, Bremer wrote an OpEd in the Times tried to do as much damage control as he could with his remarks. And he did so by pulling his criticisms and dissents back to the earliest stages of the occupation. In that way, his already public criticisms would only apply to this very limited period of time.

As he wrote in the Times, "I believe it would have been helpful to have had more troops early on to stop the looting that did so much damage to Iraq's already decrepit infrastructure."

Now, here I think we may be on to the root of the matter. A few weeks ago, the widespread looting and destruction of critical infrastructure in the first weeks of the occupation seemed an out-of-the-way and politically safe point.

Now, not so much.

When CBS interviewed the commander of the unit that visited al Qaqaa with that NBC news crew on April 10th, they heard the following ...

The commander of the first unit into the area told CBS he did not search it for explosives or secure it from looters. "We were still in a fight," he said. "our focus was killing bad guys." He added he would have needed four times more troops to search and secure all the ammo dumps he came across.

This really is the same issue, the heart of the matter: the lack of a sufficient number of troops early on to secure critical infrastructure and facilities. And it seems to be one to which Bremer's given quite a bit of thought.

I know it's not fun to get on the wrong side of your publisher. But somehow I think that's not the only reason Mr. Bremer's staying mum.

Special thanks to TPM reader ADJJ for recalling for me what Bremer said in the Times OpEd.

The lede in tomorrow's Times story about al <$NoAd$>Qaqaa ...

White House officials reasserted yesterday that 380 tons of powerful explosives may have disappeared from a vast Iraqi military complex while Saddam Hussein controlled Iraq, saying a brigade of American soldiers did not find the explosives when they visited the complex on April 10, 2003, the day after Baghdad fell.

But the unit's commander said in an interview yesterday that his troops had not searched the facility and had merely stopped there for the night on their way to Baghdad.

And then there's this ...

President Bush's aides told reporters that because the soldiers had found no trace of the missing explosives on April 10, the explosives could have been removed before the American invasion. They based their assertions on a report broadcast by NBC News on Monday night that showed video footage of the 101st arriving at Al Qaqaa.

By yesterday afternoon, as Mr. Bush made his way through Wisconsin and Iowa, his aides had moderated their view, saying it was a "mystery" when the explosives disappeared. They said that it could have happened before or after the invasion and that Mr. Bush did not want to comment on the matter until the facts were known.

Reduced to hanging their hat on the say-so of the NBC News crew. Splendid.

Much more on this, this evening. But for now, those grafs above pretty much say it all, don't they?


CBS Evening News just did a follow-up on the missing explosives story and it adds a few new facts to the mix.

First of all, remember how yesterday Scott McClellan said that,"the Pentagon, upon learning of [the disappearance of the explosives], directed the multinational forces and the Iraqi Survey Group to look into this matter, and that's what they are currently doing."

CBS talked to the Chief of the Iraq Survey Group, Charlie Duelfer, in Baghdad and he says he hasn't gotten any order like that.

Duelfer does say something that may provide some grist for the White House's defenders. At this point, he says, he doesn't think the stuff is even worth looking for.

Here's the text from the CBS press release ...

"It's hard for me to get that worked up about it," Duelfer said in a phone interview from Baghdad, adding that Iraq is awash in hundreds of thousands of tons of explosives.

And how about the first troops who arrived on the scene and didn't find any weapons? Maybe not.

The commander of the first unit into the area told CBS he did not search it for explosives or secure it from looters. "We were still in a fight," he said. "our focus was killing bad guys." He added he would have needed four times more troops to search and secure all the ammo dumps he came across.

Too few troops?

I'd be much obliged if people could send me examples of CNN news readers and anchors pushing the Drudge/NBC 'the weapons were already gone' line even now that NBC has pulled the plug on the story.

As we noted last night, on the Nightly News, NBC ran a segment on one of their news crews' visit to al Qaqaa on April 10th, 2003, as embeds with the 101st Airborne. According to that NBC initial report, these were the first US troops on the scene and the explosives were already gone.

NBC didn't run very hard with the story, though, as evidenced by the fact that it didn't even show up on the MSNBC website. But after Drudge started hammering it and it got ginned around the Republican media echo chamber, CNN picked it up and started running with it harder than NBC ever did.

They even made it the headline story on their website for much of last night.

They did this apparently without doing a google or Nexis search to see that the NBC crew embedded with the 101st Airborne wasn't with the first US troops to get there. That actually happened a week earlier, on April 4th 2003, as we noted in this post last night.

In a series of reports today from a member of the news crew in question and from follow-up reporting from Jim Miklaszewski, it became clear that the troops in question made no attempt to inspect the facility for the explosives in question.

Yet CNN is apparently still pushing it.

No matter how easy you guys give it up, they're still not going to love you like FOX.


Late Update: As of 5:29 PM on the east coast CNN has a front page story that still includes the now-defunct NBC story.

Lovely Di Rita?

We're told that the folks in the <$NoAd$>Department of the Army don't think the al Qaqaa debacle is such a 'who cares' situation as Don Rumsfeld's spokesman Larry Di Rita seems to think it is.

But they're not supposed to say so. At least not publicly.

To provide guidance on what they are supposed to say about the "missing explosives in Iraq", Di Rita, a political appointee sent out these "talking points" yesterday to folks in the Pentagon.

Recent stories in the media report that the Iraqi government has notified the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that several hundred tons of explosives are missing from the former Al-Qaqaa military facility in Iraq, about 30 miles south of Baghdad. Following are talking points on the issue.

# Since Operation Iraqi Freedom began in March 2003, Coalition forces have discovered that Saddam’s regime stored weapons in countless locations, including schools, mosques and hospitals. Citizens were forced to hide weapons in their homes and neighborhoods. Many Iraqis have bravely stepped forward with information leading to more weapons.

# Weapons searches have been successful in Iraq. The Duelfer Report states that since mid-September, Coalition forces have reviewed and cleared more than 10,000 caches of weapons and destroyed more than 240,000 tons. Another 162,000 tons of munitions are awaiting destruction.

# Some weapons were stored at the Al-Qaqaa Complex. Coalition forces were present in the vicinity at various times during and after major combat operations. The forces searched 32 bunkers and 87 other buildings at the facility, but found no indicators of WMD. While some explosive material was discovered, none of it carried IAEA seals.

# Although some believe the Al-Qaqaa facility may have been looted, there is no way to verify this. Another explanation is that regime loyalists or others emptied the facility prior to Coalition forces arriving in Baghdad in April.

# The material does not pose any nuclear proliferation risk.

# During the 1990s, the IAEA reportedly destroyed or rendered harmless all “single use” (i.e., uniquely usable in the context of a nuclear program) equipment and material in Iraq.

# The material in question is “dual-use” equipment (which could have conventional applications), high explosives that are somewhat more powerful than TNT. This dual-use equipment was generally permitted to remain in Iraq.

# Explosives of the nature reported missing from Al-Qaqaa are available around the world. It would be nearly impossible to verify that these materials ever left Iraq or are being used for any specific purpose.

# The Administration takes the report of missing munitions very seriously. The Iraqi Survey Group is evaluating this recent report by the Iraqi government.

It's good to see he's on the case.

Okay, now can we say that the NBC Nightly News report that <$NoAd$>the explosives at al Qaqaa were already gone when the first US troops arrived -- the one Drudge goaded CNN into running with far harder than NBC ever did -- is now officially no longer operative?

Earlier we noted that MSNBC had interviewed a member of the NBC news crew that was embedded with the 101st Airborne, Second Brigade, which visited the al Qaqaa facility on April 10th, 2003.

She said they didn't do any search. They were there on a "pit stop" on the way to Baghdad.

Now, NBC's Jim Miklaszewski just went on MSNBC with this follow-up (emphasis added) ...

Following up on that story from last night, military officials tell NBC News that on April 10, 2003, when the Second Brigade of the 101st Airborne entered the Al QaQaa weapons facility, south of Baghdad, that those troops were actually on their way to Baghdad, that they were not actively involved in the search for any weapons, including the high explosives, HMX and RDX. The troops did observe stock piles of conventional weapons but no HMX or RDX. And because the Al Qaqaa facility is so huge, it's not clear that those troops from the 101st were actually anywhere near the bunkers that reportedly contained the HMX and RDX. Three months earlier, during an inspection of the Al Qaqaa compound, the International Atomic Energy Agency secured and sealed 350 metric tons of HMX and RDX. Then in March, shortly before the war began, the I.A.E.A. conducted another inspection and found that the HMX stockpile was still intact and still under seal. But inspectors were unable to inspect the RDX stockpile and could not verify that the RDX was still at the compound.

Pentagon officials say elements of the 101st airborne did conduct a thorough search of several facilities around the Al QaQaa compound for several weeks during the month of April in search of WMD. They found no WMD. And Pentagon officials say it's not clear at that time whether those other elements of the 101st actually searched the Al QaQaa compound.

Now, Pentagon officials say U.S. troops and members of the Iraq Survey Group did arrive at the Al QaQaa compound on May 27. And when they did, they found no HMX or RDX or any other weapons under seal at the time. Now, the Iraqi government is officially said that the high explosives were stolen by looters. Pentagon officials claim it's possible -- they're not sure, they say, but it's possible that Saddam Hussein himself ordered that these high explosives be removed and hidden before the war. What is clear is that the 350 metric tons of high explosives are still missing, and that the U.S. or Iraqi governments or international inspectors, for that matter, cannot say with any certainty where they are today.

Poor CNN.

Just a pit stop.

This morning MSNBC interviewed one of the producers <$NoAd$>from their news crew that visited al Qaqaa as embeds with the 101st Airborne, Second brigade on April 10th, 2003.

This is the 'search' that the White House and CNN are hanging their hats on (empahsis added)...

Amy Robach: And it's still unclear exactly when those explosives disappeared. Here to help shed some light on that question is Lai Ling. She was part of an NBC news crew that traveled to that facility with the 101st Airborne Division back in April of 2003. Lai Ling, can you set the stage for us? What was the situation like when you went into the area?

Lai Ling Jew: When we went into the area, we were actually leaving Karbala and we were initially heading to Baghdad with the 101st Airborne, Second Brigade. The situation in Baghdad, the Third Infantry Division had taken over Baghdad and so they were trying to carve up the area that the 101st Airborne Division would be in charge of. Um, as a result, they had trouble figuring out who was going to take up what piece of Baghdad. They sent us over to this area in Iskanderia. We didn't know it as the Qaqaa facility at that point but when they did bring us over there we stayed there for quite a while. Almost, we stayed overnight, almost 24 hours. And we walked around, we saw the bunkers that had been bombed, and that exposed all of the ordinances that just lied dormant on the desert.

AR: Was there a search at all underway or was, did a search ensue for explosives once you got there during that 24-hour period?

LLJ: No. There wasn't a search. The mission that the brigade had was to get to Baghdad. That was more of a pit stop there for us. And, you know, the searching, I mean certainly some of the soldiers head off on their own, looked through the bunkers just to look at the vast amount of ordnance lying around. But as far as we could tell, there was no move to secure the weapons, nothing to keep looters away. But there was – at that point the roads were shut off. So it would have been very difficult, I believe, for the looters to get there.

AR: And there was no talk of securing the area after you left. There was no discussion of that?

LLJ: Not for the 101st Airborne, Second Brigade. They were -- once they were in Baghdad, it was all about Baghdad, you know, and then they ended up moving north to Mosul. Once we left the area, that was the last that the brigade had anything to do with the area.

AR: Well, Lai Ling Jew, thank you so much for shedding some light into that situation. We appreciate it.

Of course, as we noted last evening, contrary to the Drudge/CNN account, this wasn't the first detachment of troops to visit al Qaqaa. That came a week earlier when explosives were in fact found in a quick spot check of the facility.

Bear in mind the the al Qaqaa facility contains a vast number of buildings. Different press reports put the number anywhere from 87 to 1100. The discrepancy, I believe, is a definitional one, depending on whether one counts major buildings or individual bunkers and storage units.