Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Hmmm. In for a dime, in for a dollar, I guess.

President Bush today overturned two generations of bipartisan American policy by endorsing the annexation of large parts of the West Bank by Israel. He also ruled out a right of return for Palestinians (or their descendents) who lived in what is now Israel proper before 1948.

Some of this is important merely at the level of symbolism or rather how it affects America's role as something remotely like a fair arbiter in the conflict. Israel will never -- really, could never -- accept a true right of return. It would mean the end of Israel as a majority Jewish state -- its raison d'être.

But earlier plans have called for some symbolic right of return -- some compensation or a return for some limited number of individuals. (I believe some earlier plan pegged a number at around 50,000. But I may remember that wrong.) The more important point, however, is that it is a point of negotiation between the two parties. And while I think it's clear that Israel will never allow a right of return for the descendents of anyone who lived within Israel's current border before 1948, having the US rule it out altogether simply makes us the enforcer of the policies not just of Israel but of this particular Israeli government.

And that brings us one step closer to the complete identity of viewpoints, interests and policies between the United States and Israel, which is really not a good thing for either Israel or the United States -- particularly not when this Israeli government is in power.

The White House is dressing this up as some way to break the logjam in the peace process. But that's clearly a joke. The Post notes how it could make for a good politics for a desperate president. But I'll let others decide whether that was really the key motivating factor.

According to the Post, a few White House officials said -- and here the Post is paraphrasing -- that "a desire to avoid further alienating Arab opinion helped keep the White House from backing all of Sharon's plan." But when you read the various articles you can see that, for all practical purposes, Sharon got everything he wanted -- really, almost more than he could have hoped for, even from this president.

The AP puts the matter a bit more clearly when it writes: "A senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Sharon thought that no American president had ever made concessions so important to Israel as Bush did on Wednesday."

It's really sort of odd, when you think about it, since we have a few irons in the fire across the desert in Iraq, and this might not be the best time to unilaterally endorse a policy of dictation by Israel toward the Palestinians.

But what the hell? Like I said, in for a dime, in for a dollar.

And after all, Sharon doesn't "hate freedom" so what could be the problem?

In a column out today, entitled "We Will Win", Steve Forbes writes ...

We must prepare ourselves for a bloody year. Terrorists will make every effort to pull off Madrid-like atrocities in the U.S. as our elections near. The forces of good, however, when combined with consistency and determination have always triumphed. This war will be no exception.

This is precisely the sort of inane mumbojumbo that will -- perhaps literally -- get us all killed. Certainly many of our young people fighting on our behalf all over the world, and perhaps more<$Ad$> than a few at home as well.

The importance of words is a conceit of wordsmiths, certainly. But they are important -- especially when they bleed through into thought and action, which happens more often than you'd think.

As we noted several months ago, orotund, abstract language can obfuscate accountability, truth-telling, and as we're now seeing most clearly, the simple facing of reality. And, boy, are we there today -- with the repeated incantations of vague phrases which can mean anything and thus also nothing.

Why are things spinning out of control in Iraq? Why are we losing the struggle for hearts and minds in the country? Because we stand for freedom. And the terrorists hate freedom. And they're attacking us because we're bringing freedom to Iraq. And terrorists hate freedom. Therefore they hate us. And since they hate us so much of course they fight us.

That was the substance of the president's message last night. And the blurb from Forbes is more of the same -- words that can mean anything or nothing and which are being strung together before our eyes to avert our gaze from the fact that the decisions of our policy-makers have not had the effect that they said they would.

Quite evidently, the "forces of good" have had their heads handed to them any number of times when they had no clue what they were doing. That's obvious. Only a fool doesn't realize that. Falling back on such meaningless statements is precisely what people do when they find themselves unable to reconcile their expectations with what their eyes are showing them.

And this is the point: What we're grappling with here is whether we can be both resolute and sure we're pursuing a sound strategy. But neither is possible unless we remain willing to see what our eyes are showing us. Otherwise, there's no basis to evaluate whether our strategy is sound or whether we need to correct it.

You'll remember a few days ago I made some ungenerous remarks about the David Brooks column in which Brooks argued that though we're going through a difficult time in Iraq we're on the right track and that what's needed is perservance and toughness to see the job through.

Brooks, Forbes and the president last night all seem to be saying the same thing in different ways. We're right, so what we need to do is keep pushing and everything will be great.

I've thought about this and thought about this and what keeps coming back to me is an experience I had a few months ago in New Hampshire -- perhaps it's one you'll relate to.

Since I'd used one in New Hampshire back in 2000, I made a point of getting a rental car that has one of those GPS direction-giving machines -- the kind that has a little computer screen and a computer voice so if you give the machine the destination you want to go to it will literally guide you, turn by turn, until you arrive.

New Hampshire's a pretty rural state and worrying about directions is usually the last thing I want to do when I'm trying to report on some campaign event. So I just love these little gizmos.

In any case, I find them amazingly effective. And I developed a lot of confidence in the directions the computerized voice regaled me with as I drove down these various country roads. I developed so much confidence, in fact, that sometimes when the road and landmarks I was seeing in front of me didn't at all seem like what the computer was telling me, I'd go with the computer's advice. And most times -- after a moment or two of befuddlement and confusion -- I saw that the computer gizmo was right.

Yet, for everyone, there's a point when the dissonance becomes too great. Occasionally, I'd be going along and the computer told me to turn right but there was no right turn. Or the computer showed the highway arching right but I was clearly banking left.

You can imagine countless analogous examples. But at a certain point you realize it's more than a moment of confusion. It's not just that the facts or, in this case, the lay of the road, hasn't yet revealed itself. Nothing looks like it's supposed to look. And you say to yourself, "Wait a second, I'm not where I think I am. I'm off the map."

And you know what? We're off the map. Recognizing that isn't a moral deficiency. It doesn't signal a lack of grit. It's just sanity.

Fareed Zakaria makes a related point -- though in very different language -- in the piece I quoted yesterday evening:

It is conventional wisdom that the United States should stay engaged with Iraq for years. Of course it should, but for this to work Iraqis must welcome the help. In the face of escalating anti-Americanism, U.S. involvement in Iraq will be unsustainable ... Washington has a final window of opportunity to end the myriad errors that have marked its occupation and adopt a new strategy.

We may be for freedom. But if the people we're trying to 'free' don't think that's true, then it scarcely matters. If we could step down from words like 'free' and 'freedom' which have use in speeches and as broad concepts, but only a limited value for analyzing what's actually going on here, then maybe we'd be a little more effective.

Are we fighting some people who 'hate freedom'? Well, yes, if, as I assume we do, we mean by this people who want to build a closed, theocratic society and hate the secularism and liberalism of the West. But maybe we're also now fighting people who are just nationalists, or people who've been affected in some fashion adversely by the occupation. And maybe we've maneuvered ourselves so badly that now we've got the nationalists and the people who 'hate freedom' fighting together. And, even worse, maybe that's helping the people who 'hate freedom' convince the nationalists and the aggreived that they should 'hate freedom' too. And maybe there are folks there who sorta 'hate freedom' but don't necessarily hate us -- maybe Sistani, for instance, or the folks behind SCIRI, who probably more fairly fit that description than Sistani. And maybe we can drive a wedge between those two groups. Who knows if these points of analysis hold true? But we'd better start digging into the particulars of what's really happening over there or we'll become the primary victims of our whirl of empty, bamboozling phrases. And the infantile belief that everyone who doesn't follow our dictation 'hates freedom' will end up leaving a lot of people really hating us.

From the mailbag ...<$NoAd$>

It is just amazing how some people can be so stupid; especially the Left and the Democrats in this country. The idiots that run your party do not give a flying ---- about the United States nor the citizens that live here. George Bush is more of a leader than Clinton ever was. Meanwhile he was running this country he was getting his ---- sucked by a teenager while lying to the American public. Finally we get a leader and you have the audacity to put him down. The enemy knows how to manipulate us because of -------- like you and the media that tries to divide our nation. You call [it] the Freedom of Speech? I call it treason and we [have] laws in this country that unfortunately give the freedom that you would not be getting in the Muslim world. What an arrogant a-----e.

Jim S.

More soon.

If you have a moment read Fareed Zakaria's new article on Iraq in Newsweek. It's both a run-down of the endless list of mistakes made in postwar Iraq --- almost all of which were widely predicted by people in and out of government --- and a realistic look at what may be our last real chance to avert a catastrophe in Iraq.

Zakaria is willing to look squarely at the fact that the "changing the world" agenda -- which the president pushed again and again tonight -- has to be put way back onto the back burner so we can focus our attention on just averting a disastrous outcome.

I don't know how to give a meaningful analysis of how the president did tonight. (I didn't watch it live, but taped, later in the evening.) Perhaps my opinions of the man and his record are too set in stone for me to provide an objective take. But, even setting aside the awkward moments where the president couldn't think of any mistake he'd ever made on foreign policy since 9/11, what I saw was a man with a quiver of cliches and a few simple stock arguments. Whatever the question, he grabbed a handful of those and tossed them back.

It's become a bit impolitic in Washington to question whether the president really knows what he's doing or whether he has any sort of a detailed handle on what's going on on his watch. But I didn't see much sign of either. I just saw a lot of push harder, freedom, we're changing the world, ditching my policies means the terrorists win, etc. When it wasn't that, the president expressed his willingness to go head to head with all those people who thought Saddam was doing a good job running Iraq and should be back in power. He's also willing to go on the record disagreeing with all those critics of his policies who say that neither Muslims or "brown-skinned" people can create democracies.

I saw a man on autopilot, and a pretty crude autopilot at that.

Must-call, indeed.

Did you notice how after the president refused to answer Mike Allen's question about why he and vice-president insist on appearing together before the 9/11 Commission he waived off a bunch of other questions saying "I've got some must-calls. I'm sorry."

He then called on Bill Sammon (of the Washington Times and Fox News) who rewarded the president by helping him regain his balance with this laughable strawman question: "You have been accused of letting the 9-11 threat mature too far, but not letting the Iraq threat mature far enough. First, could you respond to that general criticism?"

Clearly a must-call.

Looking over the White House's follow-on response to the release of the August 6th PDB it's difficult to disentangle what is an accurate description of how the Bush White House functions and how much is simply an effort to devise an explanation which puts the best face on a troubling set of facts.

I suspect it's a mix of both.

But what strikes me most about the president's and his top advisors' description of what happened is their essential passivity.

The Post today quotes the president as saying: "I am satisfied that I never saw any intelligence that indicated there was going to be an attack on America -- at a time and a place, an attack ... [if the FBI or CIA] found something, they would have reported it to me."

[Side note to Dan Bartlett: 'Satisfied' is probably not a word you want the president using in this context or about this topic.]

One thing we have here is this ridiculous notion that there was nothing that could be done unless the warning includes a means of attack, a place and a date. Presumably if the CIA or the FBI had cracked the thing wide open and knew exactly what was coming they would have rolled the operation up on their own and just let the president know what they were doing. The implication behind the president's remark is that so long as there was no specific plot detected and there was no concrete, specific response put together by the CIA that he could sign off on, there was really nothing he could or should do. From the In Box to the Out Box, Next ...

The CIA didn't need to deliver him a turnkey solution to rolling up the terrorist plot wrapped in a bow. The question is whether, when faced with a dire warning and given a few clear hints as to where and when, the president exerted some leadership and got everyone focused on the problem.

The idea that he or his chief deputies would somehow actually get involved in the process, engaged in the interplay between the various law enforcement, intelligence and national security agencies seems to have been alien to him -- or at least they're presenting the notion as alien in their retrospective explanations.

Even during a terrorist scare, presidents have multiple responsibilities. You wouldn't want the president getting completely distracted by this one issue. But this is precisely what the National Security Advisor is there at the White House to do on the president's behalf.

Clearly no one is saying that if the president got a warning at that late date that he should necessarily should have been able to roll up the plot. I don't think anyone expects him to have. But what's damning about this isn't that he didn't prevent what happened.

I think what people would want to know -- having now seen the warnings the president received -- is that the White House snapped into action and was trying to put together every clue it had to get to the bottom of what was coming. After the attack came they could say to the public, "There were some warnings something was coming. We put all the resources we could into it. We scrambled to turn over every stone. But we were in a race against the clock. We did our best. But we didn't figure it out in time."

The problem for the White House is it that it really doesn't seem like anything like that happened. 9/11 probably couldn't have been prevented at that late a date. But we'll never know.

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I’m going to try to comment later on various issues surrounding Saturday’s release of the August 6th PDB. But there’s one point about the White House’s explanation that I don’t understand. It stems from this line in the 8/6 PDB ...

FBI information since that time [presumably since 1998] indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.

Now, in a conference call two senior administration (SAO) officials held with reporters Saturday evening, one SAO was asked just what those 'patterns' were.

Here’s the exchange …

Q: You mentioned earlier about patterns of suspicious activity and cited one. What other patterns? I mean, this is July -- in July you have the Phoenix memo and you have some other things popping up.

SAO: Glad you asked that question, because I think that's one of the things that is, in fact, somewhat difficult to understand here, which is, what are the patterns of suspicious activity? Let me just reemphasize something that my colleague said, is that the patterns of suspicious activity here are not patterns based on FBI investigative observations, other than the one observation of the surveillance of buildings. The pattern was the CIA analyst's judgment that if you connect -- having talked to the FBI analysts -- that if you connect the threat spike overall with the information from the East Africa defendant that bin Laden might be interested in retaliating if people were convicted, and, in fact, they had just been convicted, and that people had recently been seen surveilling the courthouse where they, in fact, had been convicted, even though -- although she did not know it at this time -- that this surveillance turned out to be tourist-related; that if, in her judgment, if you connected those dots, that seemed to be a pattern of possibly suspicious activity in this country.

[ed. note: You’ll note the SAO’s reference to what his or her colleague had said earlier in the briefing. I believe that was a reference to this statement: “The CIA author of the PDB item judged, after consulting an FBI colleague, that there was suspicious patterns of activity that were worrisome, even though nothing pointed to a specific operation in a specific location.”]

But just to be clear here, this was not based on FBI information -- FBI observations of patterns of suspicious activity derived from their investigative observations, other than that one of surveillance of the courthouse later determined to be tourist-related.

Q: But to put it a different way, to prepare this paper, no one went back to the FBI to ask for all the information they had relative to potential hijacking?

SAO: The analyst called -- the CIA analyst called an FBI analyst for information that would be relevant. And the FBI analyst provided the information that we just described to you.

On the face of it, this seems to misstate <$Ad$>what the PDB actually says. The document refers to a pattern of suspicious activity “including recent surveillance …”

It doesn’t say it’s limited to the surveillance but that it includes it. If this were a Venn Diagram we’d have one big circle which would be the “patterns of suspicious activity” and then you’d have a smaller circle inside it that would be the surveillance information.

Now, it seems to me there are two issues here. One is a misrepresentation of what intelligence analysis is about --- specifically that it’s two words, intelligence and then analysis. The senior administration official here seems to want to say that since the judgment about hijackings was based on the CIA analyst’s piecing together a series of seemingly disparate, yet possibly interconnected, pieces of information that that judgment was somehow irrelevant or insignificant.

But, as I say, this is precisely what intelligence analysis is about --- taking isolated pieces of information and making analyses of them which make them meaningful. The quality of the analysis is another matter; but that's what intelligence analysis is.

So that’s point one.

Yet even on the merits, the SAO’s argument doesn’t make sense to me. He or she seems to be saying that the CIA analyst took a) the threat spike, b) the fact that bin Laden would try to retaliate if the embassy bombers were convicted and c) the fact that the courthouse where they were convicted was being cased and then concluded from that there were signs of preparations for a hijacking.

That just makes no sense.

Let’s grant the SAO the benefit of the doubt and include the other piece of information in the PDB: that there were hints bin Laden might try to hijack a plane to gain the release of some of his imprisoned fighters.

That moves the pieces a little closer together. But it still seems very hard to believe --- just based on logic and the construction of the sentence itself --- that the only information from the FBI pointing to hijackings was this casing of the federal building by the two Yemenis.

There’s a lot more I want to say about this. But here what you have is the White House trying to retrospectively (and with the benefit of retrospective information) deconstruct the plain text and meaning of what this report was telling the president. And even at that, the deconstruction doesn’t really hold up.

Here are two columns you should definitely read.

The first is Bob Novak's column from April 8th which details growing frustration from America's top generals that they've been forced to go along with the administration's fiction that no more troops are needed in Iraq.

"Abizaid made clear Monday," writes Novak, "that he was not going to be the fall guy if conditions in Iraq further deteriorate. If commanders want more troops to fulfill their mission, he will ask for them. That would leave Rumsfeld with no choice. The secretary announced on Tuesday that the generals 'will get what they ask.'"

Also be sure to read Jim Pinkerton's piece from Friday on why the Bush campaign probably won't be using any more 9/11 images in its ads. In addition to being an accomplished columnist, Jim's background as a former George H.W. Bush staffer and a Republican (if perhaps now something of an alienated one) gives his columns on these topics a certain dissonant edginess and power.

Pinkerton's column was written before Saturday evening's release of the August 6th PDB. But that only makes his words more pointed and on the mark.

I think it's fair to say there's nothing thermonuclear, shall we say, in the August 6th Presidential Daily Brief released this afternoon by the White House. But Condi Rice's claim that the information contained in it was primarily of an historical nature seems at least to leave out some key points.

(You can read the thing yourself here in a .pdf file.)

The first portion of the document covers past plots and efforts by al Qaida against US interests and within the US itself. Then towards the end of the memo it moves into the present with a few tidbits which do raise some questions.

The second to last item says that in the previous three years or so the FBI had observed "patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent wtih preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York."

The last item says that there were currently 70 FBI field investigations the Bureau considered "Bin Ladin-related" and that the FBI and CIA were following up on "a call to our Embassy in the UAE in May saying that a group of Bin Ladin supporters was in the US planning attacks with explosives."

There's certainly far, far less here than you'd need to do anything specific to counter what was coming. But you can't say there aren't some hints: preparations for hijackings, casing of federal buildings in New York (presumably New York City), a three month old tip saying bin Laden operatives were in the US planning some sort of bombing attacks.

Elsewhere in the memo it reports that bin Laden was intent on retaliating in Washington for the 1998 missile attacks on his camps in Afghanistan.

I agree with Robert Wright who wrote, on the Times OpEd page yesterday that the real scandal is not so much what the administration missed pre-9/11 but that they kept to a clearly outmoded vision of national security as solely a matter of conflicts between states even after 9/11 had shown that viewpoint to be seriously inadequate.

Still, the one issue doesn't invalidate the other.

The next question is what the White House, or the CIA or the FBI or whomever, did to follow up on these very fragmentary leads.