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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Wouldn't you figure it's time for a terror alert about now?

Apparently President Bush and his campaign didn't want to make it three days straight without any comment from the commander-in-chief about the al Qaqaa business.

But it wasn't pretty.

No, it probably won't surprise you that I thought it was weak. But I really don't think many of the president's supporters (at least not those who still have any critical faculties left) will be too heartened by it either.

What I jotted down just as I was listening was a line about Kerry's "wild charges about missing explosives" and how Kerry's "denigrating the actions of our troops in the field without knowing the facts."

Beside that it seemed to be a mix of 'Not my fault', 'We still don't know what happened', 'Maybe they were already gone, 'Criticizing me means criticizing the troops' and then on top of that some more mumbojumbo about Tora Bora.

I almost expected him to start whining about media bias.

We've now gone two days without President Bush making any comment at all about the al Qaqaa business. As the Times notes, the president twice ignored reporters' questions on the topic yesterday.

Will Wednesday be number three?

It's an oddly defensive stance less than a week before an election.

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?

Interesting.

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.

Sad.

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.

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