Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

I must confess to a mounting impatience with the advocates of the president's war policy who now seem zealously intent on short-circuiting any serious debate about the rationale for the war by denying, obfuscating or simply lying about the premises of the very debate itself.

There are two basic ways this is being done. One is to toss around words like 'conspiracies' and 'plots' in order to discredit their opponents without seriously engaging their ideas. The second is to utterly distort what the WMD debate was all about.

I've been traveling for the last few days (out-of-pocket, 38,000 feet in the air, etc.) and am only now catching up on my reading. So perhaps I've missed some better examples. But certainly one of the best is the sneering OpEd Robert Kagan wrote in the Post on Saturday.

It's starts with the familiar rhetoric ("There is something surreal about the charges flying that President Bush lied when he claimed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction") and ends with it too ("So if you like a good conspiracy, this one's a doozy. And the best thing about it is that if all these people are lying, there's only one person who ever told the truth: Saddam Hussein.")

Along the way, we get the heart of the argument: It's false, dishonest or just ridiculous to charge President Bush with deceiving the American people about Saddam's WMD because so many other worthies said just the same thing. Who? Hans Blix, John Deutsch, Tony Blair, German intelligence, Bill Cohen, Bill Clinton, everyone. In other words, just about everybody who could credibly be called part of the foreign policy establishment.

Each of these guys -- and Kagan could have mentioned many others -- said at one point or another that Saddam continued to maintain a serious stockpile of chemical and likely also biological weapons. This is all true, of course, so far as it goes. But it doesn't go very far if you start off by being disingenuous about what the debate even involves.

The president's defenders want to frame the argument like this: the president said there was WMD; his critics said there was WMD. If he's wrong, everybody was wrong. If there was a 'plot' to deceive the American people, as Kagan would have it, even the president's critics were in on the plot. So what kind of plot would that be?

This is just a head-fake with an advanced degree and it's deeply dishonest.

The public didn't get sold on this war because Saddam had nerve gas, or botulinum or even anthrax. True or not, a lot of people believed that. (I believed it -- and I still have a very hard time believing Saddam doesn't have chemical munitions stored somewhere.) The public got sold on the war because the administration argued consistently and vociferously that Saddam was on the brink of amassing far more fearsome weapons -- particularly nuclear weapons ("We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud") and that he had growing operational ties to terrorists to whom he might give these weapons or even some of his less threatening chemical agents.

It was fairly clear before the war that neither of those claims were true. Since the war it has become clearer by the day that they were almost certainly not true.

Those were the imminent threats that made the war necessary in March. No waiting for inspections, no building up of alliances, nothing. There was an imminent threat and countries respond militarily to imminent threats.

The only thing that's pretty clear is that there was no imminent threat. And there is a growing body of evidence -- much of which was known, frankly, before the war -- that the administration did everything it could to push the claim that there was an imminent threat using what was often very, very weak evidence. I don't think 'lie' is necessarily the best word for it. I think a more apropos analogy is a lawyer's brief. You pull together every piece of evidence you can find -- good, bad, flimsy, obviously bogus, uncertain, it doesn't matter, just throw it all in -- and you make the best case you can with what you have. You put in everything that helps your case and forget about everything that hurts it. And the case was that there was an imminent threat that required war against Iraq. I repeat, imminent.

In many cases I think the folks who pushed these arguments knew they weren't true. But to them, the ends justified the means.

In other cases, though -- and these are the more important and intriguing ones -- I think they believed that Saddam was such a bad guy that these things must be true. Or if they weren't true now, they would be soon enough. So, same difference.

Fareed Zakaria has an excellent column in this week's Newsweek in which he discusses the roots of this tendency. Many of the same folks who played key roles in the build up to the Iraq war make similar overestimations about the Late Soviet Union and later China. (You'll find some similar, if less elegant and erudite, ideas on these folks and this tendency in my earlier article "Practice to Deceive.")

We now need a serious congressional inquiry that will explain what was conscious deception, what was willful blindness tinged by a deep-seated ideological zeal, and what was simply an unwillingness to credit the reports of Intelligence Community analysts with whom the folks in the administration had deep-seated policy disagreements.

It does Kagan no credit to tar critics as conspiracy theorists or muddy up the water enough so that the debate can't be had. (If he wants to have it out with that minority of yahoos who claim that the US cooked up all the claims about WMD to get into Iraq and snatch away the country's oil, that's his choice.)

The fact is that the administration and its advocates are now doing everything they can to run away from a year's worth of arguments about the imminent threat posed by Saddam Hussein. Quoting one of their patron saints, conservatives are often fond of saying that 'ideas have consequences.'

Lies do too.

Till now we've assumed that the Department of Homeland Security got hoodwinked into getting involved in the manhunt for the Texas Democrats. Apparently that's not so. (Note to Joe Lieberman, Dan Gerstein, et al.: did you guys pick up on this?) One of the things Homeland Security did to help the Texas Republicans was to put out what amounted to an APB, calling various Texas airports to see if they could track down the Democrats in question. When an official at one of the local airports contacted by Homeland Security asked what was up, the Homeland Security official told him it didn't have anything to do with a downed plane or any problem like that. "This is just somebody looking for politicians they can't find," an unidentified official told Marvin Miller, an airport official in Plainview, Texas, according to a Saturday article in the Washington Post.

So much for an innocent misunderstanding. So much for 'homeland security'. (Note to Tom Ridge: Where's that IG Report?)

So here's the story with the disputed quotes from Sam Tanenhaus' article on Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz in Vanity Fair. As noted here a couple days ago, the Tanenhaus article says that Wolfowitz is "confident" that Saddam played some role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and that he had "entertained" the notion that Saddam had played some role in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing as well. (Tanenhaus sources Wolfowitz's ideas about Oklahoma City to a "longtime friend" of the Deputy Secretary.)

In the portion of his article that discusses his interview, Tanenhaus quotes Wolfowitz on the 1993 bombing and then notes that Wolfowitz declined to comment on Saddam's possible involvement in the Oklahoma City bombing.

The only problem is that none of this exchange appears in the interview transcript the Pentagon later posted on its website.

So what's the score? Did Wolfowitz say this stuff or didn't he?

It turns out that the dispute centers not on what was said but on whether it was on the record.

Vanity Fair and Tanenhaus said that these statements were all on the record. Certain portions of the interview were off the record, they say, but this wasn't one of them.

Wolfowitz's office disagrees. As he did yesterday, Wolfowitz spokesman Jeff Davis told me that the "transcript is complete and accurate, minus introductory pleasantries and off-the-record comments."

Davis confirmed that the issue of the 1993 bombings was discussed during an off-the-record portion of the interview and that Wolfowitz declined to discuss the Oklahoma City bombing issue when Tanenhaus brought it up. In other words, there isn't much dispute about what was said, just whether the two were on-the-record.

Tanenhaus is a pro. So it seemed to me that there must have been some miscommunication or misunderstanding on one or both sides about when they were off and on the record. So I asked Davis precisely what had been said that made it clear they'd gone off the record. In the complete transcript, Davis told me, "it was clearly caveated that that particular discussion [of the 1993 and 1995 bombings] is off the record."

When I asked Davis if I could see a copy of the transcript and the caveats he mentioned, he declined, citing the wish to maintain the confidentiality of the Deputy Secretary's off-the-record comments. (I'd have preferred to see it myself; but Davis' point isn't unreasonable.)

Now, obviously I wasn't present for the interview and I haven't seen the unedited transcript. So make your own judgments. But that's my best effort to get to the bottom of this little mystery.

Yesterday TPM reported that quotes from Sam Tanenhaus' interview with Paul Wolfowitz, which appeared in the Vanity Fair magazine article, don't appear in the transcript of the interview provided by the Pentagon. I'm still waiting to get the complete story from both sides. So I don't want to go into too many details quite yet. But, in the interests of not leaving the open question hanging out there, I can say that the discrepancy turns on a dispute between the two parties as to what was and what was not on the record. More on this soon.

Is Doug Feith dusting off his resume? Or, more to the point, should Doug Feith be dusting off his resume? (Feith is UnderSecretary of Defense for Policy and generally considered one of the uberest of uber-hawks in the administration.)

In Washington, people seldom get fired because of manifest incompetence (God knows that's true.) Nor do folks usually get canned because of one mega screw-up. People hold their positions because of a latticework of ideological positions, interpersonal connections, reliability, their usefulness for various tasks and constituencies. When enough of those are pulled away, a person's position can grow precarious.

Feith gave an interview to the Los Angeles Times a few days ago in which he got seriously out in front of stated administration policy on possible US troop redeployments in Asia. Not that what he was saying was wrong necessarily, just not ready for public consumption.

Let's hear what Chris Nelson had to say about this in the Nelson Report a couple days ago ...

Summary: on the big Asia troop redeployment stories last week, it's now clear that Undersec. DOD Feith spoke without clearance on where to put the Okinawa Marines, and, at most, Australia looks like a future training site. General thrust of his L.A. Times interview more right than wrong. But net effect may be, finally, to show Rumsfeld why Feith is too loose a cannon to keep around.


Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, interviewed in Singapore over the weekend, "clarified" the rather stunning remarks of Undersecretary for Planning Doug Feith, barely stopping short of calling Feith an idiot for his L.A. Times interview claiming that U.S. Marines now on Okinawa would likely be moved to Australia.

-- but, while Wolfowitz ridiculed Feith's "Australia" statement as a "salacious detail" from "some eighth level in the bureaucracy", he did confirm what we also reported, on Wednesday, and again Thursday, that "the story in the broad concept was generally pretty accurate."


-- but both formal, and informal, responses to Feith's L.A. Times interview from State Department, White House and even DOD sources, on Friday, made clear that professional Asia policy handlers viewed with great displeasure what one DOD source frankly called "Feith's obvious ignorance of the political ramifications of all this", especially for Okinawa and Australia.

Another source noted that Feith's tendency to try to work directly with Secretary Rumsfeld, at the expense of consultation with colleagues, and his habit of aggressive confrontation with perceived "opponents" within the Administration, nearly led to his being fired once before.

-- it was an open question, Friday, whether this latest episode, which went far beyond "inside baseball" to present serious international political concerns, will be the last straw for Feith, but Wolfowitz's dismissive language should be noted.

So loose cannon-hood is one issue.

Then there's the question of the "Road Map." People sometimes tend to lump together all the neocons and hardliners in the administration on all the issues in the Middle East. That's not accurate. Paul Wolfowitz, for instance, may be seen as the godfather of the administration neocons. But he is also quite serious, I think, about a negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Perhaps it wouldn't be one that doves have in mind, but one which would require what Israeli leaders often call 'painful compromises' -- certainly the creation of a Palestinian state, some retrenchment of settlements from the West Bank, and possibly even some compromises on Jerusalem.

Feith is a different sort of character. I think he can fairly be called a hardcore, Greater Israel, rejectionist -- someone who thinks the whole peace process, even a leaner, meaner one, is a mistake.

Up until now that fissure didn't matter quite so much. But in the present circumstances that puts him seriously off-message.

Finally, there's WMD and the intelligence failure issue.

If there's blame to go around in this administration it should cover a lot of very high-level people. But one of the key issues is the special intelligence shop that was set up over at the Pentagon because they didn't like the intell they were getting from CIA about Iraq. A lot of the intell they started working with came from Pentagon favorite Ahmed Chalabi's 'intelligence network' inside Iraq. And a lot of that info now seems to have been pretty bogus.

That special intelligence shop, The Office of Special Plans, came under the oversight of Doug Feith. (Today he gave what The New York Times calls "rare briefing today to rebut accusations that senior civilian policy makers had politicized intelligence to fit their hawkish views on Iraq and to justify war on Saddam Hussein.")

Don't get me wrong. I don't expect Feith to be going anywhere anytime soon. I'm not even saying he'll be going anywhere at all. Canning him would be greeted with great hostility by many of Bush's most ardently pro-Israel supporters -- not so much Jews, as evangelical Christians. But that latticework that keeps people in office looks like it's fraying a bit for him. And if the WMD intell question gains too much political traction, too much heat, I'm not sure there'd be anyone quite so well-placed to take the fall.

Okay, from the sublime to the ridiculous. As I reported earlier this afternoon, the Pentagon's transcript of the Vanity Fair interview between Sam Tanenhaus and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz seems to have left out at least one key exchange.

That's the sublime.

Now to the ridiculous.

Rush Limbaugh has a blurb up on his website that says you can debunk Hillary's new book with passages from Sid Blumenthal's new book -- a sort of inverted harmonic convergence of Clinton-hating, you might say.

Limbaugh writes that Hillary's claims to be the last one to know are bogus, as are her claims to any estrangement after Bill's confession. Everything was staged ...

Sydney Blumenthal's book blows Hillary's out of the water. He writes that Bill called him after his Lewinsky grand jury testimony to see what he thought of it. Next, Hillary picked up the phone followed by James Carville.

Sydney heard Hillary and Bill talking in the background, and rejoiced that they were "still working together." They managed the entire scene at that time, pretending to be estranged. How many times did we see this Pulitzer Prize-winning photo (below) of the first family and dog departing for the Vineyard the day after Bill testified, with Chelsea between them and Hillary off to the side?

Yet Blumenthal says that Mrs. Clinton was in on the strategy, not giving her husband "the silent treatment" as we were told. This disagrees with Mrs. Clinton saying in her book that Buddy the dog came along to keep Bill company, since he's the only one who would. I have to feel sorry for the Democratic presidential nominees today, because this book is the only story out there!

As you might expect, this is rather misleading spin. He even gets the quotes wrong. Blumenthal explicitly says he never talked to Hillary about her emotions or feelings or what was happening between her and her husband. This is his description (p. 461) of his first contact with Hillary after the president's admission ...
I called Hillary. We dispensed with the extraordinarily difficult personal problem at the start. As her friend, I wanted to respect her privacy. I said that whatever "issues" anyone had, and hers was worse than anyone's, we had to think about the politics. That was her reasoning as well. She said that the President would be "embarrassed," but that was for him to deal with. And that was all she said about it.
What follows this passage is an uncomfortable description not only of Hillary's feelings of personal betrayal but of her humiliation and chagrin at having defended her husband against charges she now understood to be true. Four pages later Blumenthal describes talking by telephone to Clinton, then Hillary, then Carville and Mark Penn after the president's speech to the country. While talking to Penn he says ...
I could hear the President and Hillary bantering in the background. Whatever they would have to do between themselves to get over this episode, in the challenge to their marriage and the presidency they were still working as a team. Without that, nothing was possible.
Now that I think about it, would anyone really trust Rush Limbaugh on something like this? Doesn't one go to Rush for Vince Voster and the Temple of Doom sorta things? In any case, next back to why passages seem to have been scrubbed from the Pentagon's Tanenhaus-Wolfowitz transcript.

Remember that transcript the Pentagon posted of the interview Sam Tanenhaus did with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz for Vanity Fair magazine? Just how complete and accurate is it? As I discussed in my article this morning in The Hill, what I found most surprising was a passage in which Tanenhaus discusses the portion of the interview in which he and Wolfowitz discussed the possibility that Saddam may have played a role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. According to Tanenhaus' article, Wolfowitz is "confident" Saddam played some role in the 1993 incident and has "entertained" the theory that he played a role in the Oklahoma City bombing as well. In the interview, according to Tanenhaus, Wolfowitz declined comment on the 1995 bombing.

These are theories that are, to put it mildly, not widely credited. And it raises some serious questions about just what sorts of theories gained credence at the DOD.

I wanted to see the actual interchange so I called up the transcript of the interview on the Pentagon website. And that passage is nowhere to be found.

So I called the Pentagon to see if the transcript was a complete transcript or only a partial one. A Wolfowitz spokesman, Jeff Davis, told me that, though he wasn't present during the interview, to the best of his knowledge it was a complete transcript -- save, possibly, for any pleasantries at the beginning of the conversation, or any parts that may have been off the record.

So what happened to the parts of the interview where the 1993 and 1995 bombings were discussed? Davis speculated that those quotes from Wolfowitz might not have been from the interview at all, but rather from published accounts of other previous statements Wolfowitz may have made, or other transcripts from the Pentagon website that Tanenhaus may have gotten his hands on.

So then I called Vanity Fair. Vanity Fair's Beth Kseniak told me categorically that Tanenhaus' and Wolfowitz's discussion of the 1993 and 1995 bombings definitely took place during their interview.

If that's true, why isn't it anywhere in the Pentagon's transcript?

Very Friedmanesque, but also very good column by Tom Friedman in Wednesday's Times; also a good column by Maureen Dowd -- each on figuring out why we fought the war we just fought.