Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Okay, can I have five minutes of your time?

You've gotta hear this.

If you click on this link you can hear a short segment from NPR's 'Marketplace' about one of the American businessmen, Tompie Hall, trying to get a piece of the Iraqi reconstruction action.

Believe me, you've gotta hear this.

To mark Columbus Day, let me suggest a book: The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Diaz del Castillo.

It’s not as current as Conason’s Big Lies or Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. It was written a bit more than four-hundred years ago. But I think it holds up pretty well.

Diaz was born in 1492 and was one of the small band of soldiers under Hernan Cortes who landed on the Yucatan Peninsula in 1519 and eventually conquered most of what we now call Mexico. Whatever political implications and questions linger over the conquest today, this is a truly amazing story, and one that is difficult to fully explain even today.

Diaz was part of Cortes’ expedition. But he was also on two previous, less ambitious, voyages of exploration and potential conquest to these lands in the years just before 1519. For all these reasons he was uniquely qualified to tell the story of what happened. And he was also blessed with an unadorned but gripping and graphic writing style which brings the events marvelously alive.

Diaz finished the book when he was seventy-six, an old man living on an isolated estate in what is now Guatemala. He died in 1580.

As some of you know I spent most of my twenties studying the 17th century North American colonies, particularly New England --- my dissertation was about the first decades of contact between English settlers and Algonquian Indians in southern New England. My great interest in Anglo-Indian contact in that period was the profound alienness of each group in the eyes of the other.

When I was in grad school I also prepared a field in Colonial Latin American history. And that’s where I first came across Bernal Diaz’s book --- which is one of the basic primary documents of the Conquest. (I'm rereading it now.) That same sense of the unknown, the mix of bewilderment, horror and fascination with which each group views the other, is what I find so gripping about it.

As Cortes and his small group make their way into the interior, the Indians they come into contact with have difficulty making sense of whether the Spaniards are even human or some sort of gods. At least at first, they think the men on horses are actually one single creature. Horses turn out to have been a profoundly important military asset. Fire-arms, though not as decisive as a weapon as you might imagine, were literally terrifying.

As 'my' settlers did in 17th century New England, the Spaniards made conscious and quite effective use of terror (not in the sense we now commonly use the word) as a weapon.

The Spaniards meanwhile are fixed on two things: finding gold --- and miscellaneous other precious objects --- and compelling the Indians to accept Christ. Given that human sacrifice was an essential part of religious practice in pre-Columbian Mexico, it’s not surprising that the Spaniards found the Indians' religion shocking and revolting. And as they make their way into the interior --- first defeating and then making alliances with various city-states --- they are constantly demanding that their new allies destroy their idols, end human sacrifice, ban sodomy and adopt various other au courant codes of behavior. This is usually accompanied by whitewashing one or more temples, setting up a cross, and giving a brief lesson on the basic tenets of Christianity, before they move on their way towards Tenochtitlan.

If you like reading history, and discovering unknown, alien worlds, I think you’ll like this book.

Well, there’s the first high-profile response to the Great Push-Back from the White House: the Republican Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee says the president has lost control of his Iraq policy because he has failed to assert control over his vice president, his over-mighty cabinet secretaries, and their endless squabbles.

“The president has to be the president,” Lugar told Tim Russert yesterday on Meet the Press. “That means the president over the vice president and over these secretaries. And Dr. Rice cannot carry that burden alone.”

Lugar is not a Bush loyalist. He was a lukewarm supporter of the war, a voice of the old-line Republican foreign policy establishment. But he’s also no John McCain, nor even a Chuck Hagel. He’s not someone who looks for reasons to criticize the president.

Nor is Lugar the only one making this point.

Last week Bill Kristol noted the foreign policy "disarray within his administration" and said the "administration [was] at war with itself."

Clearly, Kristol doesn't agree with Lugar about a lot, and even less with me -- less and less every day, it seems. And he'd like to see the conflict in DC won by different folks than I would. But the objective reality of disarray at the highest levels is impossible to miss or ignore.

Rumsfeld is on the retreat on every front in the administration’s internecine battles. Powell lacks the clout to fully assert himself --- he remains fundamentally isolated. Cheney is a power unto himself. And Rice has largely abdicated the principal role of the National Security Advisor: to discipline and ride herd over competing institutional and ideological factions within the national security bureaucracy.

By default, our current policy in Iraq is drift.

If you're interested in seeing the audio/visual version of TPM, I'll be on the Aaron Brown show tonight on CNN talking about phony letters to the editors and the phony phonies who write them.

Yesterday we discussed the business of placing phony letters to the editor and OpEds in newspapers --- a real growth industry in Washington, DC. This business, of course, is a subset of what’s called ‘astroturf’ organizing, as in companies that are in the business of whipping up phony ‘grassroots’ support for this or that cause --- something we discussed at some length back in the spring of 2002.

Now, the phony letter and OpEd racket comes in many shapes and sizes. But just to get the ball rolling, let’s look at one example from the TPM archives. Van Kloberg & Associates is a DC lobbying firm which specializes in representing what … well, what would you call them? … let’s say, the most misunderstood of nations. Countries like Burma, Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Liberia under Samuel Doe, Zaire under Mobutu, all sorts of good places. If you look here you can view a November 26th, 1990 letter from Edward van Kloberg to the then-Ambassador of Zaire, Tatanene Manata. The subject of the letter is what Kloberg called the “Zaire Program 1991.”

Basically, this was the firm’s program to flack for Zaire by harrying opponents of the Zairian dictatorship in the United States, lobbying congress and getting stories planted in the press about how the mind-bogglingly corrupt and brutal Zairian dictatorship wasn’t such a bad place after all.

(For a good run-down of Mobutu’s Zaire --- and there’s really no other Zaire since Mobutu changed the country’s name from the Congo to Zaire when he took power and it was changed back after he was run out of the country --- see Michela Wrong’s In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu's Congo.)

By all means take a look at the whole thing. It makes for delightfully entertaining reading, in a sort of surreal and amoral sort of way. But note one part of their ‘press campaign’: placing letters-to-the editor and OpEds in newspapers.

“Our press outreach placed dozens of letters-to-the-editor in newspapers across the country,” Kloberg says on the first page of the letter. He later notes how the firm “responded to criticism of the government of Zaire by drafting and placing letters-to-the-editor and op-ed pieces.”

In mid-2001 an employee of one DC foreign lobbying firm told me that many of these outfits have a few ex-foreign service officers, ex-ambassadors or other luminaries on retainer who can lend a hand by affixing a signature to such letters, or perhaps even writing them.

So this is one part of the racket. Later we’ll discuss others.

At an American Enterprise Institute confab last April entitled (now rather ironically) “What Lies Ahead,” Charles Krauthammer said …

Hans Blix had five months to find weapons. He found nothing. We've had five weeks. Come back to me in five months. If we haven't found any, we will have a credibility problem. I don't have any doubt that we will locate them. I think it takes time.

Krauthammer five and one half months later on David Kay’s inability to find any evidence of weapons of mass destruction whatsoever and his need to hang his hat on various dual use facilities which could have been used to produce weapons of mass destruction …

Hussein was simply making his WMD program more efficient and concealable. His intent and capacity were unchanged.

Sic transit …

Don't miss the lengthy and masterful piece on the 'Lackawanna Six' in today's New York Times. This is the group of Yemeni-Americans from near Buffalo, New York who went to Afghanistan for what amounted to al Qaida basic training in early 2001. The Times may be nowhere to be found on the Wilson/Plame matter and a number of other recent stories. But this piece is an example of the sort of detailed investigation and nuanced exposition that only a great newspaper can manage. This is good stuff.

There’s an interesting new story making the rounds about letters to the editor from soldiers in northern Iraq showing up in local and regional newspapers around the country. The letters explain how things are much better than people think in Iraq and how the Army is helping to rebuild the country with support from the locals.

The only problem is that it’s the same letter --- the identical letter --- showing up in multiple newspapers over the names of at least a dozen different soldiers. The blogger who’s on top of this is ‘Hesiod’ who’s been on the story for a few days. And The Olympian, from Olympia, Washington, reported the story out in helpful detail yesterday.

This is just one example. And the search seemed to have been triggered when The Olympian got two copies of the letter from two hometown soldiers stationed in northern Iraq. In other words, I doubt this is the only example -- just the one where someone got caught.

It’s worth saying that most of the soldiers contacted by the paper said they agreed with its contents, though none of them said they wrote it, and one said he’d never even signed it. But clearly that doesn’t answer the mystery of who was behind the letter writing campaign.

I can imagine all sorts of different scenarios behind it --- including this being the innocent, but over-eager effort of a single Army public affairs officer somewhere in northern Iraq.

But there’s another possibility that deserves a serious look.

There are a number of firms in Washington whose business it is to orchestrate phony letter writing campaigns on behalf of pricey clients.

Usually, the gig works something like this. Say you’re the hot dog makers lobby and congress is fixing to hit you with some new regs about hot dog making. Let’s say it’s something truly outlandish like requiring you to include some meat in the product.

If you go up to the hill with your gripes as the National Hot Dog Makers Association you might not do so well. And your ideological compatriots in the media might not be able to get up much of a head of steam banging the table for a bunch of hot dog magnates. So you call up one of the phony letter writing firms --- let’s call one hypothetical outfit The Former Republican Communications Staffers and Speechwriters Group of Washington.

So you go to FRCSSGW. They find out what your beef is and they write up a letter to the editor. Then they go out and find some guy who runs a hot dog stand downtown in some major city and ask him if he’ll sign it for a few hundred bucks. Maybe money changes hands; maybe it doesn’t. It depends on the circumstances. Then they take that letter and find some newspaper to print it.

Local newspapers are usually easier to bamboozle than the big national ones --- though at least one major national paper is known to be an easy mark for phony letters with an appealing ideological tilt.

The letter usually has the nominal author of the letter telling congress that those woeful new regulations will make it impossible for an independent hot dog vendor to stay in business, etc., etc., etc.

Voila! Suddenly those new hot dogs regs aren’t just an annoyance to the hot dog makers. They’re a new burden to some struggling immigrant entrepreneur who’s trying to build his American dream one dog at a time.

I’d be curious to find out whether some outfit like our hypothetical Former Republican Communications Staffers and Speechwriters Group of Washington is doing some of their letter-campaign consulting for the White House or the Pentagon as part of the Great Push-Back.

No question about it: The Washington Post is the first, second and third paper to go to on the Wilson/Plame story. To be fair, Newsday deserves a big mention in there too. But the article in Sunday’s Post is another piece with precise and story-advancing detail almost on a par with the September 28th piece that started the whole ball running.

(The Times? What ever happened to the Times? Lord knows, I'm no Times-basher. But they've been totally AWOL on this story. In fact, they have the ironic and in many ways dubious distinction of having seen the story advanced far more on their OpEd page than in their news pages.)

The Post story begins with a map of the Justice Department investigation. The initial focus of the inquiry, it seems, is not so much on who leaked to Novak as just how the information --- Plame’s status and her relationship to Joe Wilson --- made its way to and then around the White House.

Check out the piece for the details on that point. But this brings up something about the nature of this investigation. I’m all for the appointment of a special counsel to investigate this case. It seems like a textbook example of an inquiry that calls for one.

But I haven’t made too big a point of it because I think that once a full-scale criminal probe gets underway it's really not that easy to control. Once lawyers and FBI agents and depositions and the rest of it get involved, these things have a way of taking on a life of their own. As I’ve said before, I’m convinced that the White House will eventually rue the day the president didn’t just do the right thing on day one: find the culprits, fire them and move on.

But back to the Post article.

There’s been a lot of chatter over the last week about whether that Post piece from September 28th --- in which a ‘senior administration official’ pointed the finger at two “top White House officials” --- may have gotten some key points wrong. Some have speculated that perhaps the senior administration official, who was the source for that article, got confused about which calls to reporters were made before and after Novak published his first column.

This new piece seems to clear that up. This from the new article ...

That same week, two top White House officials disclosed Plame's identity to least six Washington journalists, an administration official told The Post for an article published Sept. 28. The source elaborated on the conversations last week, saying that officials brought up Plame as part of their broader case against Wilson.

"It was unsolicited," the source said. "They were pushing back. They used everything they had.”

The point here is clear. The reporters --- one would assume Mike Allen, since he has a byline on both pieces --- went back to the source with all the new information we know now. And the source stuck to his story on every key point. Note too that we’re back to “top White House officials.”

Another key point to notice in this piece is the way the authors start turning some of the spotlight on the press itself. They don’t do so in an adversarial manner. But they’ve gotten at least one reporter to discuss off the record that they’d been told about Plame’s relationship with Wilson by White House officials before Novak's column appeared.

Again, the key passage …

On July 12, two days before Novak's column, a Post reporter was told by an administration official that the White House had not paid attention to the former ambassador's CIA-sponsored trip to Niger because it was set up as a boondoggle by his wife, an analyst with the agency working on weapons of mass destruction. Plame's name was never mentioned and the purpose of the disclosure did not appear to be to generate an article, but rather to undermine Wilson's report.

This last point sums up another of the key themes of the piece. The White House was at war with Joe Wilson. And they were using everything in their arsenal to take him down. The authors of the piece seem to have spoken to “administration sources” who told them that the motive for naming Plame wasn’t retaliation but an effort to destroy Wilson’s credibility and thus get reporters to ignore him. That theory of the crime, shall we say, seems to conflict with the account of the administration official who told the Post on he September 28th that the calls were “meant purely and simply for revenge.”

For my part, I’ve always thought that this question of motivation was greatly over-determined. Revenge, a warning to other potential whistleblowers, attempts to undermine Wilson’s credibility --- none of these strikes me as contradictory or necessarily exclusive of the others. I suspect they were all involved.

In fact, the “senior administration official” who was the source for the September 28th article seemed to believe both motives were involved, since he or she called the disclosure not only wrong but “a huge miscalculation, because they were irrelevant and did nothing to diminish Wilson's credibility.”

For more good information on Valerie Plame's career at CIA and, in some respects, a counterweight to Nick Kristof's informative column in the today's Times, see Warren Strobel's new piece from Friday.