Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

No doubt you've heard of the still-emerging scandal over the UN oil-for-food program for Iraq. The fact that the program was a hotbed of corruption is not news. What has only emerged quite recently is that the Iraqi regime was apparently using contracts from the program as bribes and pay-offs to various western politicians, journalists and other dignitaries.

You may not have heard a sidenote to this scandal -- the question of who will be in charge of the investigation and who controls the key documentary evidence upon which the investigation will be based.

We'll be following up on this in some detail over the next few days. And Shaun Waterman of UPI has a piece out today which is a good place to start to get a handle on what's going on in this case. The crux of the matter, however, is whether the investigation will be conducted through some transparent process or whether it will be conducted by a team under the control of ... well, can you guess? Ahmed Chalabi.

The authors of The New York Times article on Joe Wilson's new book note that he points a finger of blame at I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the Vice President's Chief of Staff.

The article then says: "But Mr. Wilson offers no firm evidence to support his assertion, and the White House has denied it." And then later: "The White House has denied that Mr. Libby, Mr. Abrams or Mr. Rove were involved in the disclosure."

With respect, that's not true.

It may seem that I'm being hyper-specific. But the White House has gone to great lengths not to deny that these men were involved in disclosing Plame's identity. In fact, they've refused to do so. Rather, they've clung to hyper-technical claims that none of the three were involved in the "leaking of classified information" in the hope that journalists will read this as a blanket denial, which is it not.

The 'classified information' dodge allows them to avoid the actual question and hang their hat on technical interpretations about what was a leak and what was classified when.

Given how aggressively the press 'parsed' the former administration's word, this is quite sloppy.

Perhaps it is a sign of the more general <$NoAd$>desperation. But watch how the president now routinely accuses critics of his Iraq policy of being racists.

This is from a brief press availability the president gave this morning with Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin ...

There's a lot of people in the world who don't believe that people whose skin color may not be the same as ours can be free and self-govern. I reject that. I reject that strongly. I believe that people who practice the Muslim faith can self-govern. I believe that people whose skins aren't necessarily -- are a different color than white can self-govern.

There is so much that is wrong-headed and dishonorable in this repeated invocation -- an implicit, churlish claim that the only reason to oppose him is racism -- that it is hard to know where to start.

This constant refrain does suggest a certain hyper-awareness and focus on skin color and perhaps limpieza de sangre. And what's the deal with 'our' skin color being white? I'm white. The president is white. But 'our' skin color is not white.

Perhaps the principal problem here is the president's belief that saying he's for 'democracy' makes it so, that making the claim places him on the moral high ground even if he has no idea how to accomplish it, has already largely bungled the process, and has already lost the trust of those whose democratic aspirations he claims to defend and champion.

Sue Schmidt has the article today in the Post covering the release of <$NoAd$>Joe Wilson's new book. The article is about as exculpatory of the administration as it could possibly be -- rather like if she were the defense attorney trying to order the evidence on the administration's behalf. She goes as far as she is able to actually revive the uranium claim.

Read the piece through to get a full sense of what I mean. But take for example her description of one key element of the Wilson story ...

Sahhaf's role casts more light on an aspect of Wilson's report to the CIA that was publicly disclosed last summer. On the heels of Wilson's public criticism that intelligence was exaggerated and his statement that his trip to Niger had turned up no uranium sales to Iraq, agency Director George J. Tenet took the blame for allowing President Bush to make assertions about the Iraqi quest for nuclear material in his 2003 State of the Union address. Tenet said the intelligence had been too "fragmentary" to merit inclusion in the speech.

Here Schmidt essentially buys into to the cover that no one who has looked into this story at all takes seriously -- namely, George Tenet's taking the fall for his agency's allowing itself to be bullied by the White House into letting this bogus story into the president's State of the Union address.

Now, I'm not in a position to get deeply into this question because I've been reporting on just these issues for several months. But from what's already been quite well reported in Schmidt's own paper, we know that Tenet's fault in this case was finally giving in to pressure from two top officials at the NSC who insisted repeatedly -- with regards to more than one speech -- that these bogus claims be placed in the president's speech.

An apology from the president? Or perhaps a distancing?<$NoAd$>

We all know how John Ashcroft declassified a memo that he used to try to embarrass Commissioner Jamie Gorelick during his testimony before the 9/11 Commission a while back.

Since then he's had the Justice Department declassify thirty or so more documents to embarrass Gorelick, which he's had posted on the Justice Department website as "supplementary material".

Then today after the president completed his testimony, there was this exchange with Scott McClellan ...

QUESTION: Some Republicans on Capitol Hill believe that the work of the 9/11 commission won't be complete until and unless Jamie Gorelick testifies before the commission on her role in building the wall between intelligence and law enforcement. Is that an opinion shared by the White House?

MCCLELLAN: Look, the president, I think even at the beginning of the meeting, he made some brief remarks. He didn't have a prepared opening statement or anything like that, but certainly made some opening remarks at the beginning.

And essentially I think he thanked them for the work that they're doing, talked about how he appreciated what they were doing, and that their work is very important to what we are doing to protect the American people.

And I think that the president looks at this and doesn't believe that there ought to be finger-pointing. We ought to all be working together, to learn the lessons of September 11th and make sure that we are doing everything that we can to protect the homeland and win the war on terrorism. That's the way he looks at it.

QUESTION: The Justice Department keeps releasing documents, they released another -- they declassified 30 pages yesterday, that reinforced the idea that...

MCCLELLAN: I think the president...

QUESTION: ... Commissioner Gorelick has more than she could...

(CROSSTALK) MCCLELLAN: No, I understand. That's what the Justice Department did; we were not involved in it. I think the president was disappointed about that. QUESTION: The president was disappointed in the Justice Department releasing those documents? MCCLELLAN: Putting that on their Web site, yes. (CROSSTALK) QUESTION: Why?

(CROSSTALK) MCCLELLAN: He actually expressed that to the commission as well. QUESTION: But did he talk to... QUESTION: How about to Ashcroft? QUESTION: Yes, to General Ashcroft? MCCLELLAN: I think it's been communicated to the Justice Department. QUESTION: So why was he disappointed...

MCCLELLAN: Well, like I said, it's what I said at the beginning. The president does not believe we ought to be pointing fingers during this time period. We ought to be working together to help the commission complete its work. This is very important work that they are doing that will help us in our efforts to carry out the president's most solemn responsibility, which is to protect the American people.


[later in the briefing]


QUESTION: What you said about the Justice Department and the president's displeasure is pretty remarkable. Can you tell us, who conveyed his displeasure to the Justice Department and how? And has the president or anyone at the White House, Judge Gonzales, asked for any kind of accountability on how the Justice Department would have released these documents...

MCCLELLAN: I don't think so on that, but it's been communicated, I believe, at the staff level.

QUESTION: Judge Gonzales or...

MCCLELLAN: It's been communicated at the staff level. I think I'll leave it at that.

QUESTION: Was anyone at the White House aware of those documents or involved in their release at all?

MCCLELLAN: I'm sorry? No, we weren't involved in that decision.


MCCLELLAN: Well, actually, I addressed that earlier, I think twice.

QUESTION: Are you upset over the fact that the Justice Department did this without coordinating with the White House?

MCCLELLAN: I think he's disappointed that it was, that that information was placed on their Web site like that.

QUESTION: You mean without clearing it with the White House first? Is that part of it?

MCCLELLAN: I don't know if I -- I think I'm looking more at what happened and what was put up on the Web site. I don't know about what you're asking. QUESTION: What's the concern? I mean, obviously the president had a concern if he mentioned it to the commission. What is the concern?

MCCLELLAN: I'm sorry? What is the concern? Like I said, he very much appreciates the work that the 9/11 commission is doing. He appreciates the work that all the members on the commission are doing. Their work is very important. He believes that we should all be working together to help the commission complete its work and not pointing fingers at one another.

I think I'll just leave it where I did.

I certainly don't take this necessarily at face value. But, certainly, something happened here.

From a late report in the Associated Press: "U.S. Marines announced Thursday an agreement to end a bloody, nearly monthlong siege of Fallujah, saying American forces will pull back and allow an all-Iraqi force commanded by one of Saddam Hussein's generals to take over security ... The agreement, reached late Wednesday night, was negotiated between U.S. forces and Fallujah representatives, including four Iraqi generals. The deal provides for a new force, known as the Fallujah Protective Army, to enter the city Friday and provide security. It will consist of up to 1,100 Iraqi soldiers led by a former general from Saddam's military, Lt. Col. Brennan Byrne said."

Champing at the bit ...<$NoAd$>

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: Okay, the President had his usual briefings this morning. And the meeting with the 9/11 Commission started right on time, at 9:30 a.m. this morning. And they are continuing to meet right now. QUESTION: Who is in the meeting, for your side? SCOTT MCCLELLAN: Hang on. I'll come to questions. I'll go through my routine here. Other than that, all I have is that I'm briefing at 1:15 p.m. and State Department is briefing at 12:30 p.m. That's all I've got. Now, go ahead. QUESTION: So who is in the meeting, from your side? SCOTT MCCLELLAN: Well, I'll go over everybody that's in there. You have all 10 commission members, you have one member of the commission staff present. Then you have the President and Vice President; Judge Gonzales is there, and two staff members from the Counsel's Office are there as well. QUESTION: Who are the staff members? SCOTT MCCLELLAN: I'm not going to get into the names of the staff that's present. QUESTION: Why? QUESTION: Why? QUESTION: Why? SCOTT MCCLELLAN: Just, Judge Gonzales. They're lawyers on the White House Counsel staff. I know you all want to call them and talk to them afterwards, but I'll just say, two members of the White House Counsel staff. QUESTION: No, that's not why, we just want their names. QUESTION: For God's sake, this is a matter of historical record. SCOTT MCCLELLAN: It's a private meeting, Helen. QUESTION: It's not a private meeting, it's a public meeting. SCOTT MCCLELLAN: I just told you who is present. QUESTION: It's doing the nation's business. SCOTT MCCLELLAN: These are two members of the Counsel's Office that have been working closely with the September 11th Commission. QUESTION: Why the secrecy? SCOTT MCCLELLAN: I don't look at it that way. QUESTION: But we do. QUESTION: It is a good question. It is an historic moment. This is -- in a public event. SCOTT MCCLELLAN: I'll talk back with these individuals and see if -- but -- QUESTION: Just for the record, really, just for the record. SCOTT MCCLELLAN: I'll talk back with these individuals, but I'm not in the habit of just going and naming every staff members that attend all these meetings. QUESTION: But this isn't just another meeting. SCOTT MCCLELLAN: I understand. QUESTION: You're the spokesman for this White House, and you should give us the basics. SCOTT MCCLELLAN: I'll check with those individuals, but I'm not going to get into naming staff members without their -- QUESTION: Why did the White House feel there was a need for three staff members -- SCOTT MCCLELLAN: -- without talking to them about it. QUESTION: -- versus one for the commission of 10 members? SCOTT MCCLELLAN: Well, you have 10 commission members there, too. So you have a lot of members of the commission. These are two staff members that have been very involved in working on these efforts. QUESTION: What is their purpose, Scott? Are they there to record what takes place? SCOTT MCCLELLAN: No. QUESTION: Are they there to advise the President -- SCOTT MCCLELLAN: No, I'm sure they'll be taking notes. QUESTION: -- or Judge Gonzales -- SCOTT MCCLELLAN: No. QUESTION: What is the purpose? What is their purpose? SCOTT MCCLELLAN: Because they're two members of the Counsel's Office that have been very involved in working on these issues with the September 11th Commission. And they'll be there taking notes, just like a member of the commission staff will be there taking notes. QUESTION: So they're actually there more to record what happens. SCOTT MCCLELLAN: Well, take notes, yes. QUESTION: Are there two note takers? SCOTT MCCLELLAN: Yes, I expect both of them will be taking notes. I expect members of the commission will be writing information down, as well. QUESTION: You said there was one note taker. Is there an official note taker or are these both -- SCOTT MCCLELLAN: I said there would be at least one member yesterday, and then yesterday afternoon when I was updated, I said that there would be two members of the Counsel's Office present. QUESTION: Who are they? SCOTT MCCLELLAN: Helen, I'll check with them. And I don't want to go and just name them without talking to them first. QUESTION: Where are they all sitting? Is the President at his desk? Where is the Vice President? SCOTT MCCLELLAN: The President and Vice President are sitting in the chairs in front of the fireplace. And the commission members are sitting on the couches and in chairs in the Oval Office. QUESTION: Who got the couches? How did they decide who got the couches? What, did they run in, and -- (laughter.) QUESTION: Why in the Oval Office? Why not in a place where all of them could sit at a table? SCOTT MCCLELLAN: Well, the President has lots of meetings in the Oval Office. He meets with world leaders there on a regular basis -- QUESTION: There's 10 members of the commission. SCOTT MCCLELLAN: -- and this is a similar setup. Well, it's like yesterday, when we met with -- when the President met with Prime Minister Persson of Sweden. You have several members of the staff -- of each other's staff in there. You have the ambassadors and you have other members of staff in there. And they all sit around on the couches and chairs. That's where we sit when those meetings take place. It's a similar setup to that. QUESTION: Scott, are we going to hear from the President today? SCOTT MCCLELLAN: Look, if there's any change in the schedule, I'll keep you posted. QUESTION: So does that mean maybe? SCOTT MCCLELLAN: No, I'm not ruling anything in or out at this point, but we'll keep you posted, obviously, on the meeting. QUESTION: What does that mean? What are your plans to read this out in some way, or give us your take on what happened? SCOTT MCCLELLAN: One, don't expect a readout on the discussion. I think I've kind of indicated that over the last few days. This is a private meeting. But let's let the meeting take place, and then we'll go from there. QUESTION: But we could hear from the President. SCOTT MCCLELLAN: I'm not ruling anything in or out, David. We'll keep you posted. QUESTION: Scott, what was the preparation prior to this? How many times did the President and Vice President together meet with the White House Counsel? SCOTT MCCLELLAN: I provided a general description of what he did to prepare for this. And I talked about how over the last couple of days he continued to visit with members of -- the President continued to visit with members of the White House staff -- specifically Condi Rice and Andy Card and Judge Gonzales, and that he looked over materials and documents that were provided to him by the Counsel's Office. QUESTION: But specifically, what did he and Judge Gonzales talk about, because if he's just taking notes today, he already knows what the President apparently is going to say. SCOTT MCCLELLAN: Well, one, April, keep in mind that a lot of this occurred two-and-a-half and three years ago. And the President wanted to refresh his memory and look over documents from that time period to make sure he can provide the commission as complete account of events as possible. I mean, this is a good opportunity for the President to sit down with members of the commission and talk with them about the seriousness with which we took the threat from al Qaeda, the steps we were taking to confront it and how we have been responding to the attacks of September 11th. The President believes their work is very important, and it is very important to helping us win the war on terrorism. He's pleased to sit down with the commission and answer their questions so that they can provide the American people with as thorough and comprehensive a report as possible. And that's what's going on right now. QUESTION: Scott, a follow-up to that real quick. I know it's been a couple of years, but it was such a poignant time for this administration. What does he really need to be refreshed on? SCOTT MCCLELLAN: April, this is two-and-a-half years ago. Of course he wanted to look back at the documents to make sure that he's providing the commission as complete an account as possible about the events prior to September 11th, the events on September 11th. And I think that that's -- that anyone would want to do that prior to sitting down and visiting with the commission. QUESTION: But in news interviews, he was able to go off and just rattle off the events. But what specifically -- SCOTT MCCLELLAN: Well, I'm sure that -- well, I'm sure, April, that they have some specific questions going back to that time period, and we're talking about two-and-a-half, three years ago. QUESTION: Scott, will the White House release a photo of this session this morning? SCOTT MCCLELLAN: I don't -- I don't anticipate that. QUESTION: Why not? And also, did the President say anything before he -- before he went into -- SCOTT MCCLELLAN: Yes, the meeting is going on right now, Terry, so I don't -- QUESTION: Did he say anything to you or anybody else before he went in about how he felt -- SCOTT MCCLELLAN: No -- QUESTION: -- or what he was feeling? SCOTT MCCLELLAN: No, he was looking forward to it. Like I said, he's pleased to sit down with the commission. I talked to him this morning, and he -- the way I would describe it, he believes their work is very important to helping us win the war on terrorism, that the President's most solemn responsibility is to protect the American people. And that's the way in which he looks at this, that he wants to do what he can to help the commission piece together all the information they've been provided access to so that they can complete their work in a timely manner. He wants to -- he looks forward to seeing their report and he looks forward to seeing their recommendations and seeing if there are additional steps that we can take beyond what we are already doing to win the war on terrorism. QUESTION: Did he and the Vice President open with statements? Did they plan to open with statements? SCOTT MCCLELLAN: It's going on right now, Wendell. That wasn't the plan. That wasn't the plan. QUESTION: It was not the plan for them to open with statements for the committee? SCOTT MCCLELLAN: No. QUESTION: Scott, what time is the next event on the President's schedule today? SCOTT MCCLELLAN: He's got some events scheduled this afternoon, some meetings that he has, I know. He meets regularly with members of his Cabinet department. I think Secretary Ridge is coming this afternoon, two something, 2:30 p.m., something like that. And he's got some other staff meetings and personnel meetings, things like that. QUESTION: Will the President be able to explain why the bin Laden family was flown out of the country right after the event? SCOTT MCCLELLAN: I think that that matter has already been discussed and addressed previously, Helen. QUESTION: And also why the FAA didn't go up? SCOTT MCCLELLAN: Helen, I don't know what questions the commission is going to be asking. The President looks forward to answering their questions.

More soon ...

It's amazing what counts as a 'conspiracy theory' these days.

Last week, in my column in The Hill, I described how the war crimes tribunal in Iraq is being run by Ahmed Chalabi's nephew, Salem. And at the same time Salem is in the Iraqi contracts business with, Marc Zell, the former law partner of Doug Feith, the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, whose office has oversight over doling out Iraqi reconstruction contracts.

(This article on the tribunal by Robert Collier in the San Francisco Chronicle, which I hadn't seen when I wrote the original column, is quite good.)

This week, in a letter to the editor, David Epstein, a former member of the law firm Feith & Zell (the firm in which Doug Feith and Marc Zell were the two named partners), writes in and says the following ...

“I danced with a man who danced with a girl who danced with the Prince of Wales.” This line from a 1920s song came to mind after reading Josh Marshall’s April 23 attack on Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith (“Dictatorship ended, cronyism is doing nicely”).

The “conspiracy theory” is that Ahmed Chalabi is on the Iraqi Governing Council, his nephew Salem returned to Baghdad and he is seeking to do business in the reconstruction of Iraq. The article reports that Salem Chalabi is doing business with Mark Zell, who was once in the law firm of “Feith and Zell PC” and who uses the Internet name of “fandz.com.”

So there is the dance.

In fact, Feith withdrew from the practice of law when he went to the Pentagon in the summer of 2001. Upon his withdrawal, his name was dropped from the firm name.

The remaining attorneys disbanded at the end of 2001, going in a number of different professional directions. How do I know? I was a member of the firm for 10 years.

So Mr. Zell kept the Internet name. Few people outside the law firm probably knew that this jumble of letters, “fandz.com,” ever had an association with Doug Feith. It is not a brand name. It is not “Coca-Cola.” Moreover, the issue is not what either Messrs. Chalabi or Zell are doing or what Internet name Mr. Zell uses. The suggested challenge is to the conduct of Doug Feith. The article does not offer a scintilla of evidence about any improper conduct by him.

I don't know what all this razmataz is about <$Ad$>the URL of the website. It strikes me as a diversion from the point.

But what's the 'conspiracy theory' here exactly?

More and more, it seems, in neoconservative circles in Washington, a 'conspiracy theory' is an assertion or argument one simply doesn't like. The phrase 'conspiracy theory' is added on to the response as a sort of literary slur.

So let me try this one again: the nephew of America's one-time favorite to run post-war Iraq probably shouldn't be the one who runs the war crimes tribunal that sits in judgment over Saddam. If he does, he probably shouldn't also be in the reconstruction contracts business with the ex-law and business partner partner of the top Pentagon appointee whose office a) drew up most of the policies for the occupation and b) has oversight over doling out the contracts.

I understand that well-meaning people are sometimes importuned to write such letters on behalf of those who aren't in a position to respond themselves. But how is that a 'conspiracy theory' exactly. It seems more like pointing out the obvious.

NBC has a new story out this evening which reports that members of the Iraqi National Congress in Iraq are currently being investigated by the Iraqi police for abduction, robbery, "stealing 11 Iraqi government vehicles" and "assaulting police by firing on them during a search".

These stories have been around for some time (in addition to accusations of car-jacking), though I think this is the first time I've seen them reported -- at least in a mainstream publication.

One more detail I hadn't heard thus far is that, according to NBC, an arrest warrant has been issued for the INC's chief of intelligence. My question is why there's no American arrest warrant for the INC's chief of intelligence.

But I guess that's another story.

We'll have more on Chalabi tomorrow and his ongoing tussle with the King Abdullah of Jordan, including some interesting stuff on wire intercepts.

I must confess to being slightly baffled by James Risen's piece in Wednesday's Times on Doug Feith's Counter Terrorism Evaluation Group, the shop which had Michael Maloof and David Wurmser trying to find ties between terrorist groups across sectarian lines as well as ties between al Qaida and states like Iraq.

Elements of this story have been reported previously, particularly by the Washington Bureau of Knight-Ridder.

But what the Times presents is almost entirely the group's apologia for their own work. One can write a story from various perspectives of course. But from the vantage point of April 2004, the take Risen takes leaves the story a tad incomplete. It's rather like writing a narrative about interagency battles in 2002 in which those claiming the most maximal views about Iraqi WMD are valiantly fighting the forces of bureaucratic fuddy-duddyism to bring the truth to light.

An interesting story, no doubt -- but rather incomplete without some discussion of the fact that the fuddy-duddies turned out to be right.

The article's only clear statement on the underlying facts of the matter is this paragraph ...

The C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies found little evidence to support the Pentagon's view of an increasingly unified terrorist threat or links between Mr. Hussein and Mr. bin Laden, and still largely dismiss those ideas. Foreign Islamic fighters have sought haven in Iraq since the American-led invasion and some Sunnis and Shiites have banded together against the occupiers, but the agencies say that is the result of anger and chaotic conditions, not proof of prewar alliances.

That's quite an agnostic view. Risen seems even to imply that the influx of foreign fighters into Iraq since the war somehow validates the group's pre-war arguments about ties between the secular Iraqi government and al Qaida.

On the other hand, there's choice passages like this ...

"I think the people working on the Persian Gulf at the C.I.A. are pathetic," Mr. Perle said in an interview. "They have just made too many mistakes. They have a record over 30 years of being wrong." He added that the agency "became wedded to a theory," that did not leave room for the possibility that Iraq was working with Al Qaeda, and that "they went to battle stations every time someone pointed to contrary evidence."

So all's not lost.