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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

I'll be traveling off and on for the next several days so posts will be sporadic and infrequent.

For months now, many on the right ... no, scratch that, the stupid and the lazy on the right have resorted to the easy stratagem of painting a black and white rendering of recent counter-terrorism policy. Everything under Bill Clinton was feckless or negligent and everything under George W. Bush was serious and determined.

There were some mistakes under the former president. I spent the last couple months before 9/11 reporting on one of them: the failure to roll-up bin Laden in Sudan in 1996. This was a screw-up. What seldom gets mentioned is that the screw-up was more a matter of being too inflexible toward terrorists and those who harbor them, not too lenient. But more on that later.

But as this example implies, the mistakes mainly came early. Those who have a sense of what was afoot in the late Clinton years know that counter-terrorism became a major focus of concern and more or less constant activity. The president himself became preoccupied with the possibility of al Qaida-linked terrorists mounting a chemical or biological attack.

Now, one of the unintentional effects of the recent revelations about missed 9/11 clues is that this reality is beginning to come out.

For instance, see this clip from the newly-released article from Newsweek ...

...under Attorney General John Ashcroft, the department was being prodded back into its old law-and-order mind-set: violent crime, drugs, child porn. Counterterrorism, which had become a priority of the Clintonites (not that they did a better job of nailing bin Laden), seemed to be getting less attention. When FBI officials sought to add hundreds more counterintelligence agents, they got shot down even as Ashcroft began, quietly, to take a privately chartered jet for his own security reasons.

The attorney general was hardly alone in seeming to de-emphasize terror in the young Bush administration. Over at the Pentagon, new Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld elected not to relaunch a Predator drone that had been tracking bin Laden, among other actions. In self- absorbed Washington, the Phoenix memo, which never resulted in arrests, landed in two units at FBI headquarters but didn’t make it to senior levels. Nor did the memo get transmitted to the CIA, which has long had a difficult relationship with the FBI—and whose director, George Tenet, one of the few Clinton holdovers, was issuing so many warnings that bin Laden was “the most immediate” threat to Americans he was hardly heeded any longer.

or later ...
By the end of the Clinton administration, the then national-security adviser Sandy Berger had become “totally preoccupied” with fears of a domestic terror attack, a colleague recalls. True, the Clintonites had failed to act decisively against Al Qaeda, but by the end they were certain of the danger it posed. When, in January 2001, Berger gave Rice her handover briefing, he covered the bin Laden threat in detail, and, sources say, warned her: “You will be spending more time on this issue than on any other.” Rice was alarmed by what she heard, and asked for a strategy review. But the effort was marginalized and scarcely mentioned in ensuing months as the administration committed itself to other priorities, like national missile defense (NMD) and Iraq.
Of course, there were always other signs of this difference in emphasis and failed interpretation. Richard Clarke -- Clinton's point-man at NSC for counter-terrorism -- was the only person kept on by Bush at NSC. George Tenet -- the only principal hold-over from Clinton's watch -- was apparently the only one who had a clear view of how critical an issue al Qaida was. Then there was the veto threat from the President in September when Senate Democrats tried to trim $1.3 billion in Missile Defense funding and shift $600 million of it to counter-terrorism (In fairness, that was basically a fight over NMD. But that in itself makes the point about priorities.)

There's more to come like this.

As they say, glass houses ...And one other thing, take a look at the mention of George Tenet toward the end of the first passage and compare it to Bill Safire's column in today's Times.

Seems to me Tucker Carlson should apologize to Rep. Alcee Hastings.

On Crossfire tonight he quoted Hastings saying ...

I think they should release the memo. I think they should be more forthcoming with a lot of information ...This is just the tip of the iceberg regarding information that is in their hands that is being held close to vest, and I think it's a mistake to do that for the American people ...He's the President. The buck stops with him and somewhere along the line he has to answer these questions. Otherwise, I think he serves his administration poorly.
Carlson then tried to tie what Hastings had said to what Cynthia McKinney said last month about 9/11 and possible presidential foreknowledge. (I'm going to stick with the ambiguous verb 'tie' because I don't have the transcript yet and don't remember the precise words. But it made my skin crawl.)

Looking at the quotes, what McKinney and Hastings said didn't sound too similar. Is it just that they're both outspoken black Democrats?

It was a quick exchange so perhaps I'm overstating. But watch it tonight on the rerun and if you think it's as sketchy as I did, write in to CNN and tell them what you think.

You can tell that President Bush is serious about pushing for change in Cuba and not just pandering to emigre whack-jobs because of the conditions he's setting for easing the embargo: free and fair elections next year and creating a market economy.

Actually, I believe this can be seen as an example of the greatness of American democracy: the way our government can simultaneously undertake grave and profound efforts like the struggle against al Qaida but still have time for goofball antics like playing the old Cuba game down in Little Havana.

If we don't make fools of ourselves in South Florida the terrorists will have won!

This is a very, very, very bad situation.

With last week's revelations about possible early hints of a terrorist attack, and the ferocious response from the White House to calls for an investigation, there's one thing that would be extremely convenient right now for the White House: some pointed reminder of how close we might be to another terrorist attack, and that it's no time to be second-guessing the President, or resorting to the conventional political expedient of a congressional investigation.

And, voila ... Here it is.

As every paper is reporting tomorrow, US intelligence agencies have intercepted "vague yet troubling series of communications among Al Qaeda operatives" that might be portend another 9/11-scale attack.

Of course, maybe it's true. It could well be true. I'm certain it's at least partly true. But the problem is that it's so deeply convenient and the administration's response to calls for inquiries has been so strident and aggressive that it's difficult to see this as mere coincidence.

Another clue adds to my suspicion. One of the two outlets to break this story, The New York Times, says that the increased activity has been for "the last few months." NBC says it's for the "past several weeks." So why do we hear about it right now? And what about Tom Ridge's color-coded terror system? Come to think of it, where's Tom Ridge?

The "senior administration official" who was apparently the source of both stories told NBC ...

There is a real potential for a terrorist attack again. The president has been saying since Sept. 11 that there is a possibility of another attack. America needs to be vigilant.
Again, that's really right from the script.

I don't think the intel agencies themselves would go in for this sort of game-playing. Not so nakedly at least or in so partisan a fashion. But the White House -- especially post-9/11 -- will always be getting all sorts of creepy stuff coming in over the transom. If you read between the lines in these stories what seems to have happened is that the "senior administration official" put this stuff out there.

The problem is that this is really serious stuff and it's pretty hard right now for people to know whether they're being legitimately warned or if their emotions are being *$%#$* with for political purposes. Everybody suffers from that ambiguity and confusion.

Are the Democrats 'playing politics'? Maybe. But political oppositions do that. Get used to it. The Republicans definitely did it in spades under Clinton.

The more relevant point is that the Democrats would be negligent if they didn't call for some sort of investigation -- ideally, an independent commission. There's a higher standard for the administration in a situation like this because the administration is, as the name implies, the government. They're the ones with responsibility to act, with control over various pieces of secret information, with control over the national security apparatus. And, again, they're the government, the responsible entity.

(The White House has been stunningly indifferent to this reality, a fact laughably evidenced by the their effort to shift the question to 'what did Congress know' etc. There is a reason after all that they call it the E-X-E-C-U-T-I-V-E branch.)

In any case, the administration's stance in the last few days has been far more vitriolic and political than anything from the opposition party. And that is damaging the country.

Winner of the pie-charts TPM would most like to see contest ...

Percentage of time former FBI Director Louis Freeh spent on counter-terrorism, percentage time former FBI Director Louis Freeh spent on investigations of Bill Clinton, percentage of time former FBI Director Louis Freeh spent on investigations of Al Gore, percentage of time former FBI Director Louis Freeh spent hobnobbing with congressional Republicans, percentage of time former FBI Director Louis Freeh spent talking trash about Janet Reno ... etc.

I'm quite surprised that no one has yet mentioned what I am about to discuss. Or if someone has (which is entirely possible) I haven't seen it.

The sort of intelligence failure which now seems to have occurred prior to September 11th is seldom the fault of a single individual or even a group of individuals. The problem is most often structural and organizational, a failure to devise a framework that gets the right information into the right hands in a timely fashion.

Having said that, consider this.

The key window of time for all the warnings and hints was last summer, roughly June, July and August of 2001, the period right before the attacks. No one has considered that this was also the period of time when the post of FBI Director was vacant.

Certainly something worth considering, no?

Let's review the history. On May 1st of last year then-Director Louis Freeh announced his resignation and that he would leave sometime in early June (Freeh's questionable tenure at the Bureau is another major point of concern, but that's for another post.) I'm not sure when Freeh's official last day was, but on June 22nd Attorney General John Ashcroft made Deputy Director Tom Pickard Acting Director, effective the following day.

Through May and June the White House searched for a replacement for Freeh, first focusing on Robert S. Mueller, then deciding the President wanted other choices, then finally settling on Mueller.

President Bush announced Mueller's appointment on July 5th. But he wasn't confirmed until August 2nd. And then he didn't take the oath of office until September 5th.

None of this was dilatory or out of the ordinary. But during this key period the FBI's leadership was at best in deep flux and at worst the Bureau was leaderless.

Following up on this earlier post, the last thing the White House should be doing right now is sending that despicable rat Ari Fleischer out to swipe at Senator Hillary Clinton for posing a question many of her constituents are no doubt asking. Fleischer's *#$%-eating grin and nervously gnashing remarks aren't called for. Messrs. Daschle's and Gephardt's comments were far more biting than Hillary's. Hers were comparatively generous. Trying to get the Hillary-haters to bail them out of this one will not work.

Remember Douglas H. Paal? TPM chronicled his long, restless struggle to secure an ambassador-type appointment in Asia -- any ambassador-type appointment in Asia, really -- from the Bush administration in a March article in The New Republic.

When last we left Mr. Paal ... well, when last we left Mr. Paal, Mr. Paal was leaving us. His long awaited appointment to serve as AIT Director in Taipei -- America's de facto ambassador to Taiwan -- was finally announced on April 5th and off he was supposed to go. This was in spite of the fact that there were still various questions floating out there. But the battle royale between the China hawks and the China engagers was over and Paal was packing his bags.

Over the last couple days though I've been getting signals that something might be amiss. That maybe there was some further hold up. And now that seems confirmed.

Today's Nelson Report -- Washington's bible for the hottest scoops and gossip on Asian diplomacy and trade negotiation politics (yes, believe it or not) -- reveals that "Doug Paal [has] still not [been] fully cleared by State for Taipei."

What's this newest hitch? What is it now?

Let me offer some friendly advice to the Bush White House. And, no, I'm not being facetious. I'm really not. The best thing -- really the only thing -- for the White House or the President to do now is to come out and say ...

Look, in hindsight, there are connections maybe we should have made. Communications should have been better between various intelligence and law enforcement agencies. But hindsight is 20/20 and these things were not as clear then as they are now. Our people did the best they knew how. But I'm the Commander-in-Chief. And I'm responsible. The buck stops here. Let's move ahead now and make whatever improvements we can.

In other words, make your stand on the basis of the obvious, and these drip-drip-drip revelations won't be nearly so painful or costly.

Will this open the president up to political damage and fallout? Messy, uncomfortable investigations?

Absolutely.

But as us Clinton folk learned, this is the uncomfortable thing about having the presidency. When the American military -- the strongest in the world, but an institution you had nothing to do with creating -- goes out and wins a war, you rock.

When something terrible happens and in retrospect you maybe should have or could have done more to prevent it -- even if the other guys probably wouldn't have done any better -- you take a hit. Maybe a big one.

Those are the rules. Deal with it.

Otherwise you will end up with situations like this. Yesterday Ari Fleischer and Condi Rice said that no one before September 11th imagined that plane hijackings would equate to using the planes as guided missiles. That certainly sounds right. That is, until you read this new AP story which says inter alia ...

"Suicide bomber(s) belonging to al-Qaida's Martyrdom Battalion could crash-land an aircraft packed with high explosives (C-4 and semtex) into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), or the White House," the September 1999 report said ... The report noted that an al-Qaida-linked terrorist first arrested in the Philippines in 1995 and later convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing had suggested such a suicide jetliner mission.

So you really can't say that it never occurred to anyone. It definitely did.

Also, arrogant trash talk from Dick Cheney accusing the Dems of taking political advantage will likely prove counterproductive.

It's called the responsibility era. Get used to it. And you'll be better off in the long run.

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