Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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An update on Khidhir Hamza.

A reader who is close to Hamza writes in to suggest that Hamza's lack of visibility of late <$Ad$>is due to concerns for his security rather any effort to duck questions from the media.

This seems reasonable to me. Clearly, all Iraqis who are working with the Americans are under threat. And I imagine that the threat is all the more severe for someone so prominently connected with the push for regime change.

So, point taken.

However, that doesn't change the very real need for some explanation from Hamza for why his pre-war claims about Iraq's nuclear program are so difficult to reconcile with the evidence we've found (or rather not found) on the ground in Iraq since April.

A slew of readers have written in to note that -- contrary to my post below -- there is a new poll out fron Iowa. And it has Howard Dean back out in front of Dick Gephardt by 5%.

As I noted earlier, the Des Moines Register poll showing Gephardt jumping ahead of Dean left me wanting more data to confirm that this wasn't simply an outlier. That poll seemed to showing a cresting of Dean's support in the state. And I haven't seen other signs of that.

However, the new poll by SurveysUSA doesn't change my opinion. Why? Because it is based on a methodology (no human poll-taker, just an automated phone system) I find suspect and the Des Moines Register survey has a long track-record and is highly respected.

So, it's another data-point. And it's more recent. But I'm still waiting for more data. Particularly, for another poll from the Des Moines Register.

Meanwhile, aside from Dean, the two Democratic candidates who seem to have some new life in them are Clark and, to my great surprise, Dick Gephardt.

When Gephardt threw his hat in the ring last November I mocked him rather mercilessly. But the biggest news I've seen of late was the early November Des Moines Register poll which showed Gephardt opening up a 7 point lead over Dean.

Since that poll ran, I've been waiting for a follow-up to see whether that sounding was an outlier or whether Gephardt really has turned a corner on Dean in Iowa. (Dean's campaign clearly sees Gephardt's momentum, as evidenced by their decision to run a round of anti-Gephardt ads in the state.) But I'm still waiting to see more poll data.

A few things are worth saying about these two candidates in Iowa. Iowa should be a Gephardt state. So, to an extent, his strength there only shows that his candidacy is holding on. On the other hand, as the frontrunner and with the kind of campaign he's running -- one geared to grassroots support -- Dean needs to win there too. Wearing the frontrunner crown changes all the expectations. A Gephardt win in Iowa would be a very big deal on a number of counts.

On Clark, a few weeks back I said that Clark had no campaign, no message, not no nuthin', but close. Now, he finally seems to have one. He's running ads, showing up on the shows -- the fundraising is decent. He gave a solid foreign policy speech and, in general, his operation is putting together a clear and consistent message.

How consistent this remains and how much traction he gains remains to be seen.

Wow. That's not a good sign -- if you're John Kerry, that is. A new Boston Herald poll has Howard Dean beating Kerry 33% to 24% in Massachusetts. That comes on the heels of a Boston Globe/WBZ-TV poll which had Dean beating Kerry 27% to 24%.

The only small silver lining for the Massachusetts senator is that I suspect it's been this way for some time. It's just that no one has done a public poll in the state on the Dem primary race in months.

Here's another important detail -- posted on TNR's blog -- on the scamliness of the Medicare bill careening through Congress. And yes I've already trademarked the word ("scamliness") for exclusive use on TPM.

The sort of myopic foolery of which Washington is made ...

In an otherwise half-sensible Washington Post editorial about the megaphone of wealth in our political discourse ("Mr. Soros's Millions"), the Post editorialists lets this sentence fly ...

For Democrats thrilled with the Soros millions, imagine conservative financier Richard Mellon Scaife opening his bank account on behalf of Mr. Bush.

Yes, imagine that.

Perhaps <$Ad$>whoever wrote this clunker needs to familiarize themselves with Mr. Scaife's giving to myriad conservative causes (think tanks, publications, pressure groups, etc.) throughout the 1990s, and before, and since.

Those of course contributed significantly to the Republican victories in 2002, and in other elections -- just as Democrats hope that Soros' largesse will contribute to hoped-for future triumphs.

The shoe momentarily finds itself on the other foot and suddenly the Post is gripped with the need to reform the non-existent disclosure requirements for giving to think-tanks and other forms of quasi-political giving. (Perhaps they should pick up a copy of John Judis' The Paradox of American Democracy: Elites, Special Interests, and the Betrayal of the Public Trust to get their footing.)

Read the editorial, let the fullness of the myopia roll over you, and you'll learn a lot about how elite opinion works in this city, and its essential corruption.

A Special Thanks to TPM reader DL for the tip.

Remember Khidhir Hamza? He was a rather famous figure in Washington a year ago. He was “Saddam’s Bombmaker” according to a book he co-wrote a few years back.

Hamza was the originator -- or at least the prime proponent -- of the theory that Saddam was enriching uranium through a highly unorthodox but devilishly concealable method --- with very small uranium enrichment facilities scattered and hidden throughout the country.

Here’s a graf from an article by Eli Lake last year in The New Republic …

Shortly after Wolfowitz took his post in February 2001, for example, Chalabi and Brooke brought 1994 defector Khidir Hamza, one of Saddam's most senior nuclear scientists, to meet the new deputy defense secretary. In the meeting, Hamza described how Saddam was trying to refine uranium for his nuclear program using a centrifuge technique in small labs scattered throughout the country. Initially, there had been skepticism within the intelligence community--and specifically the CIA--that Saddam could be refining uranium in this way. But Hamza was insistent, claiming that Baghdad was purchasing from abroad a specific kind of aluminum tube needed for the process. And ultimately, Hamza's intelligence seems to have been borne out. Just last week, The New York Times published an article reporting that "$(i$)n the last 14 months, Iraq has sought to buy thousands of specially designed aluminum tubes, which American officials believe were intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium."

People who actually make nuclear weapons never thought too highly of Hamza’s story (and that probably should have been a bit more of a warning sign). But, as <$Ad$>Lake implied, many at the CIA eventually came around.

Whether or not Saddam had procured yellowcake from Niger didn’t matter so much, reasoned many Iraq hawks, since he could just mine his own. Richard Perle told me in April of last year, for instance, that Saddam had already been “enriching the natural uranium that’s found in Iraq for some time.”

Not everyone bought Hamza’s story. Late last year, according to the Times of London, former weapons inspectors and proliferation specialist David Albright said Hamza's claims were “often inaccurate . . . He sculpts his message to get the message across . . . (He) wants regime change (in Iraq) and what interferes with that is just ignored." Many, however, found Hamza’s claim both compelling and chilling.

Here’s what Ken Pollack said about Hamza when TPM interviewed him in January of this year …

I will say flat out [that] I was under the same impression: that we had a very good grip on their nuclear program and there really wasn't much of a nuclear program well into the 1990s. I was constantly being assured that by the IAEA and by the intelligence community. And then all of a sudden we had a slew of defectors come out in the mid- and late 1990s and what they told us was that everything that we had thought was wrong. You know Khidhir Hamza is the only one who's gone public. So he's the only one I can really talk about. But in 1994 we really thought the IAEA had eradicated their nuclear program. And the IAEA really thought that they'd eradicated their nuclear program. And they were telling us they'd eradicated their nuclear program. And Khidhir Hamza comes out and says 'No, the nuclear program in 1994 was bigger than it had ever been before.'

The problem is that Hamza’s story now seems almost certain to have been false. Now, people get things wrong for many reasons. But given the minute detail of the highly unconventional methods Hamza alleged were being used and his own self-described central role in Saddam’s nuclear weapons program, it’s really hard to see how Hamza could have seen and done the things he told us he saw and did.

Really hard.

As I said above, in the couple years leading up to the Iraq War, Hamza was ubiquitous. And his story was endlessly mentioned. I saw him speak at a panel at the Council of Foreign Relations here in DC in the spring of 2002. And when I went up to try to ask him a few questions afterwards there were so many other folks trying to do the same that after a few pleasantries I got whisked aside to chat with his publicist.

Recently, he’s been a bit hard to come by. In fact, I did a nexis search on his name and I only got a couple dozen hits since the invasion last March.

I had figured that Hamza had just dropped off the radar screen --- which would be sort of understandable, given what I’ve noted above. But a memo prepared by a US government official after two stints working in post-war Iraq suggests that Hamza is still working with the US occupation authorities in Iraq, specifically in the new Ministry of Science and Technology. And the memo, written in late October, says Hamza will be coming to Washington in November.

So where is Khidhir Hamza? What’s his explanation? And if he doesn’t have a good one, why are we still working with him?

That’s it. I’m old.

Today I was making my way between my usual haunts --- my Starbucks, my favorite Mexican restaurant, my bookstore, and other stops: the places where I break up the time between reading, writing or reporting in my office. And from mid-day on, everywhere I went, there they were: roving gaggles of young people flooding into every place I spend my time, overcrowding them, and just downright getting in the way.

At first I couldn’t figure out what it was about them that seemed different and put me a bit on edge. And then it hit me: teenagers.

The real McCoy, not college underclassmen, but high schoolers --- a bit shorter than the rest of us, and each in their accustomed roles: the popular and the shy, the jocks, the pimply-faced, the fat and skinny, the geeky outcasts hovering on the edges of the crowd, the strutters and the preeners. The whole bit. Teenagers.

To the best of my recollection I once was one. But in the age-group isolation of my thirty-something bachelordom it’s a species with which I realize I’ve become almost wholly unfamiliar. Yes, of course, in their ones or twos, I see them all the time. And that's fine -- wonderful folks. But when they’re running in herds, that’s an altogether different experience. And one I now realize I’ve become weirdly unaccustomed to.

Certainly, somewhere in DC this weekend there’s some rally or Model UN, or National Association of High School Rabble-rousers convention or some such thing. Hopefully that’s it, and it’s just for the weekend. Otherwise, there goes the neighborhood.

"Some are now attacking the president for attacking the terrorists."

Is that how it is?

That's the line from a Republican party ad about to go on air in the primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Meanwhile, back on planet Earth we have a batch of unsettling news from the real war on terrorism.

In Turkey, the jewel of the democratic, western-oriented muslim Middle East, two more horrific suicide bombings kill 27 and wound hundreds.

As Craig Smith notes perceptively in the Times: "The attacks appeared aimed at disrupting the pro-Western secular axis many people in the Middle East believe the United States and Britain are trying to drive through the region with Iraq war. Such an axis would create a swath of territory friendly to the West from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf."

A five-member UN panel says it is "just a matter of time" before al Qaida attempts a chemical or biological attack.

And the Washington Post reports on an ominous process of what we might term 'alqaidogenesis' ...

Leaders of the al Qaeda terrorist network have franchised their organization's brand of synchronized, devastating violence to homegrown terrorist groups across the world, posing a formidable new challenge to counterterrorism forces, according to intelligence analysts and experts in the United States, Europe and the Arab world.

The recent attacks in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Chechnya and Iraq show that the smaller organizations, most of whose leaders were trained in al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, have fanned out, imbued with radical ideology and the means to create or revitalize local terrorist groups. They also are expanding the horizons of groups that had focused on regional issues.

It is, it would seem, a process which is proceeding a pace with little connection, for a good or for ill, to anything we are accomplishing or not accomplishing in Iraq.

Not so deep background <$NoAd$> (from a piece in tomorrow's Post) ...

Bush raised the possibility of increasing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq. When a reporter mentioned the United States' announced plans to reduce troop levels, the president responded: "We could have less troops in Iraq, we could have the same number of troops in Iraq, we could have more troops in Iraq -- whatever is necessary to secure Iraq."

A top aide to Bush, who briefed reporters after the news conference on condition that she not be identified, said that Bush was not announcing a change in policy and that expectations remained that troop levels would be reduced. "There is simply nothing to suggest that the number of American forces would need to increase," the official said. "In fact, the conversations with the commanders have gone the other way."

Who could that possibly be?