Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Here's a good piece in Newsweek on the intell backdrop to the failure thus far to find any WMD. To me, the authors still pull their punches with regards to the administration and the issue of conscious manipulation or willful credulousness. A couple quotes bear repeating ...

A recently retired State Department intelligence analyst directly involved in assessing the Iraqi threat, Greg Thielmann, flatly told NEWSWEEK that inside the government, “there is a lot of sorrow and anger at the way intelligence was misused. You get a strong impression that the administration didn’t think the public would be enthusiastic about the idea of war if you attached all those qualifiers.”
And even more this one ...
The case that Saddam possessed WMD was based, in large part, on assumptions, not hard evidence. If Saddam did not possess a forbidden arsenal, the reasoning went, why, then, would he put his country through the agony of becoming an international pariah and ultimately risk his regime? Was he just bluffing in some fundamentally stupid way? Earlier U.N. weapons inspectors projected that Saddam kept stores of anthrax and VX, but they had no proof. In recent years, the CIA detected some signs of Saddam’s moving money around, building additions to suspected WMD sites, and buying chemicals and equipment abroad that could be used to make chem-bio weapons. But the spooks lacked any reliable spies, or HUMINT (human intelligence), inside Iraq.

Then came the defectors. Former Iraqi officials fleeing the regime told of underground bunkers and labs hiding vast stores of chemical and biological weapons and nuclear materials. The CIA, at first, was skeptical. Defectors in search of safe haven sometimes stretch or invent the facts. The true believers in the Bush administration, on the other hand, embraced the defectors and credited their stories. Many of the defectors were sent to the Americans by Ahmed Chalabi, the politically ambitious and controversial Iraqi exile. Chalabi’s chief patron is Richard Perle, the former Reagan Defense Department official and charter member of the so-called neocons, the hard-liners who occupy many top jobs in the Bush national-security establishment.

The CIA was especially wary of Chalabi, whom they regarded as a con man (Chalabi has been convicted of bank fraud in Jordan; he denies the charges). But rather than accept the CIA’s doubts, top officials in the Bush Defense Department set up their own team of intelligence analysts, a small but powerful shop now called the Office of Special Plans—and, half-jokingly, by its members, “the Cabal.”

The Cabal was eager to find a link between Saddam and Al Qaeda, especially proof that Saddam played a role in the 9-11 attacks. The hard-liners at Defense seized on a report that Muhammad Atta, the chief hijacker, met in Prague in early April 2001 with an Iraqi intelligence official. Only one problem with that story, the FBI pointed out. Atta was traveling at the time between Florida and Virginia Beach, Va. (The bureau had his rental car and hotel receipts.)

Two points. The issue raised in the first graf of the second passage is a damn good one -- one that opponents of the war or critics of the administration need to grapple with. It's not an excuse in itself or a justification for the war. But if Saddam didn't have any WMD or only a minimal capacity why did he risk and ultimately lose his regime by stonewalling inspections? I can imagine a few possible answers. But it's a tough question.

Point two is Chalabi. And this goes to the heart of why a lot of people don't trust him. If you criticized Chalabi over the last year or so, you were immediately accosted -- verbally if not literally -- by a gaggle of conservatives joustingly asking why you were against democracy in Iraq. You don't think Arabs are capable of democracy!?!?!? You want another strongman to replace Saddam? What is it about democracy you don't like?!?!?? And so on and so forth.

It's true that there was and is a part of the foreign policy establishment that isn't crazy about the idea of pushing for straight-up democracy in the Middle East in the here and now. But most of the criticism of Chalabi was not about democracy but about Ahmed Chalabi -- and the belief that he was an untrustworthy schemer. That's a very big part of the reason why folks at the CIA -- and not just at the CIA, but all through the government -- didn't trust him. There's a long history of his gaming the Washington policy process through the 1990s, a story that's never really been told.

Even friends of mine in the Pentagon/neo-con orbit concede that it's now clear that a lot of the info that came out of Chalabi's 'intelligence network' must have been a bill of goods.

One other point bears mentioning in this 'where is the WMD' debate. It is true that it was widely accepted across the intelligence community -- and not just the US intelligence community -- that Saddam continued to maintain some WMD capacity. I was confident that he'd maintained a WMD capacity. But all WMD are not created equal. To a great degree, the entire category is misleading. A number of writers made this point over the last year. But the distinction becomes particularly relevant now.

Chemical weapons are just not a strategic threat to the United States. Chemical weapons are very hard to use effectively and they're most useful when you have dense and uncontested air superiority over a piece of land -- like what happened to the Kurds in northern Iraq. There's just no chance of that happening in the US.

Even if Saddam had given chemicals to terrorists, even that wouldn't have been that big a deal. Yes, chemical weapons are no walk in the park if you're in a crowded subway station in New York city. But then, a dozen AK-47s or some plastic explosives wouldn't be much fun either.

Biological weapons are potentially a much bigger deal. But the real issue, the real weapon of mass destruction is a nuclear weapon.

When evaluating who thought Saddam had WMD and who didn't, it's critically important to make these distinctions since it is across this spectrum of different kinds of WMD that the real distortions took place.

A couple months back, I got a little irked that critics of my article 'Practice to Deceive' kept trying to tar the argument I made as a 'conspiracy theory' even though the article alleged no such thing.

To say that people have been dishonest isn't the same as saying they've engaged in a 'conspiracy'. It just means they haven't told the truth. Or, at least that they've been, shall we say, too parsimonious with it. But, of course, a charge of dishonesty has to be refuted on the merits while labeling an argument a 'conspiracy theory' allows you to dismiss it out of hand.

And if you'll have a difficult time refuting the claim on the merits that gives an added incentive to play the 'conspiracy' card.

Now, back then, I could scarcely reveal my irkitude to you, the vaunted TPM reading public. But in truth the irkification was there -- vouchsafed away in my heart and revealed only in hidden gritted teeth, but there nonetheless. And then one cloudy, wet, dreary day I was walking down the street in my neighborhood. And it suddenly occurred to me: most of the characters calling me a conspiracy theorist spent a big chunk of the last decade pushing the claim that Vince Foster had been whacked in a safehouse in Northern Virginia and then dumped off at Fort Marcy Park to make it look like a suicide. And then, well ... suddenly the sun started shining a bit brighter and the blue sky sloughed off its clouds. And somehow all seemed well with the world. Or at least with my neighborhood -- I don't want to project.

Admittedly, not all of them thought Hillary herself had done the deed with Walther PPK and a silencer, and wearing one of those khaki tunics Blofeld wore in You Only Live Twice. But I think you get the idea.

All of which is, I suppose, to say that this public writerly scuffling over regime change and related matters can be a rather rough business.

There's a new rush of articles claiming that the term "neoconservative" is actually no more than an anti-Jewish slur or codeword and that its use is at a minimum analytically meaningless, almost certainly ill-advised, and quite possibly a form of cloaked anti-Semitism. This of course ignores the fact that the term is itself a coinage of neoconservatives and has been in common usage by them and their opponents for almost three decades.

When the gentiles start charging Jews with uttering anti-Semitic slurs you know there's something funny in the water.

In any case, the latest brouhaha is over Sam Tanenhaus's upcoming article in Vanity Fair, Paul Wolfowitz's statement about WMD contained therein, and now whether Wolfowitz actually said what Tanenhaus claims he said. Over the weekend Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol wrote a short piece in the Standard purporting to show that Tanenhaus had in fact distorted Wolfowitz's words, taken them out of their proper context or simply twisted their meaning.

Now, the problem with verbal interviews is that, unlike the case in written English, people tend to speak in fragments and not always in a purely linear fashion. And that often makes quotations ambiguous and open to different interpretations.

Having said all that, I think that Kristol's review of Tanenhaus' material is at least not the final word.

Let's begin with the paragraph from Tenanhaus' piece that raised the whole ruckus in the first place ...

When we spoke in May, as U.S. inspectors were failing to find weapons of mass destruction, Wolfowitz admitted that from the outset, contrary to so many claims from the White House, Iraq's supposed cache of WMD had never been the most important casus belli. It was simply one of several reasons: "For bureaucratic reasons we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on." Everyone meaning, presumably, Powell and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "Almost unnoticed but huge," he said, is another reason: removing Saddam will allow the U.S. to take its troops out of Saudi Arabia, where their presence has been one of al-Qaeda's biggest grievances.
Kristol has two beefs with Tenanhaus here -- one on the 'bureaucratic reasons' point, and another on the Saudi Arabia point. For now I'm going to focus on the second beef. Here's Kristol ...
As for Tanenhaus's suggestion that Wolfowitz somehow fessed up that the war had a hidden, "unnoticed but huge" agenda--rationalizing a pre-planned troop withdrawal from Saudi Arabia--we refer you, again, to the actual interview. In an earlier section of the conversation, concerning the current, postwar situation in the Middle East, Wolfowitz explained that the United States needs to get post-Saddam Iraq "right," and that we also need "to get some progress on the Israeli-Palestinian issue," which now looks more promising. Then Wolfowitz said this:

There are a lot of things that are different now, and one that has gone by almost unnoticed--but it's huge--is that by complete mutual agreement between the U.S. and the Saudi government we can now remove almost all of our forces from Saudi Arabia. Their presence there over the last 12 years has been a source of enormous difficulty for a friendly government. . . . I think just lifting that burden from the Saudis is itself going to open the door to other positive things.

Tanenhaus has taken a straightforward and conventional observation about strategic arrangements in a post-Saddam Middle East and juiced it up into a vaguely sinister "admission" about America's motives for going to war in the first place.

(Note: the transcript is one prepared by the Pentagon and online at the Pentagon's website.)

Now, if I understand Kristol, he's saying that Tanenhaus took a Wolfowitz observation about what's happening in post-war Iraq and twisted it into a statement about one of the reasons we went into Iraq in the first place. In truth, Wolfowitz's statement only talks about benefits after the fact, not explicitly at least about reasons for going into Iraq. You wish Tenanhaus had been a good reporter and followed up to clarify this point -- i.e., whether this was just a fringe benefit or whether it was one of the reasons for invading Iraq in the first place.

Well, look how Tanenhaus did follow up -- the part of the transcript which comes immediately after the portion Kristol quoted, but which Kristol didn't include.

Tenanhaus: Was that one of the arguments that was raised early on by you and others that Iraq actually does connect, not to connect the dots too much, but the relationship between Saudi Arabia, our troops being there, and bin Laden's rage about that, which he's built on so many years, also connects the World Trade Center attacks, that there's a logic of motive or something like that? Or does that read too much into --

Wolfowitz: No, I think it happens to be correct. The truth is that for reasons that have a lot to do with the U.S. government bureaucracy we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on which was weapons of mass destruction as the core reason, but -- hold on one second --

From this point, the conversation gets interrupted a few times by a phone call, and Wolfowitz goes into his point about bureaucratic reasons. But the first chance Tanenhaus gets to speak again he returns to the same point.
Tanenhaus: So this notion then that the strategic question was really a part of the equation, that you were looking at Saudi Arabia --

Wolfowitz: I was. It's one of the reasons why I took a very different view of what the argument that removing Saddam Hussein would destabilize the Middle East. I said on the record, I don't understand how people can really believe that removing this huge source of instability is going to be a cause of instability in the Middle East.

I know this referring back and forth to the transcript is a touch tedious. But looking at the interplay of the conversation it seems pretty clear to me at least that, contrary to Kristol's argument, Wolfowitz made a somewhat ambiguous statement. Tenanhaus followed up in order to clarify what he meant. And Wolfowitz goes on to say exactly what Tanenhaus said he said: that the need to get US troops out of Saudi (and eliminate the goad to terrorism and instability they created) was an important reason for the invasion.

On this point at least, Kristol seems on pretty shaky ground saying that he distorted Wolfowitz's meaning. I think Tenanhaus' point about 'bureaucratic reasons' holds up pretty well too. But I'll leave that for another post.

Now, as it happens, I think Wolfowitz was right about this -- both right in the sense that this was one of his big reasons, but also right in the sense that this was one of the strongest reasons for taking military action against Saddam. In fact, this was one of the key reasons that originally persuaded me of the need to settle our dispute with Saddam. The premise of most mainstream foreign policy types was that we had Saddam 'in a box' and that we could contain him there indefinitely. But, as I said in my original article on Iraq, I became persuaded that we were in that box with Saddam and that being there was, perversely, hurting us a lot more than it was hurting him. As I wrote then, as early as "1996 and 1997, [the in-the-box argument] was no longer clearly true. Saddam's regime was thriving under sanctions, even as his people suffered under them (a condition he could have alleviated, but didn't). As their condition deteriorated, so too did the U.N. Security Council's support for maintaining the U.S.-backed sanctions. We were in the box now just as much as Saddam was. And time was on his side, not ours."

The measures we had to take to keep Saddam in his box were leading to blowback like al Qaida's attacks on the United States.

My God, when they say down the memory hole, they ain't kiddin! There now seems to be a secret competition -- perhaps it was announced and I just didn't hear it -- for the Iraq-hawk who can come up with the most ingenious, Orwellian, up-is-down rewriting of the history of the year-long lead-up to the Iraq war. To this point, the strongest entries are those whispers out of the Pentagon, arguing that it was Colin Powell and the State Department who made them make such a big to-do about weapons of mass destruction.

I take my hat off to those folks. That was a pretty solid entry. But when it comes to disingenuous agitprop you just never want to count Bill Safire out. And the old master comes in with a rock-solid entry in Monday morning's column.

Safire begins by asking what the greatest intelligence failure of the war was? Something to do with WMD? Not at all. "It was the nearly unanimous opinion of the intelligence community, backed by the U.S. and British military, that the 50,000 elite soldiers of Saddam's well-trained, well-equipped Special Republican Guard would put up a fierce battle for Baghdad."

This is true to a limited extent -- though the guys in uniform -- i.e., the ones who actually fight wars -- would argue that their aim was to make sure they weren't undergunned if the Republican Guard did fight to the death.

But the contest entry comes next ...

Happily, our best assessment was mistaken. Saddam's supposed diehards cut and ran. Though Baghdad's power and water were cut off, civilians were spared and our losses were even fewer than in Gulf War I.

What if our planners had believed Kurdish leaders who predicted that Saddam's super-loyalists would quickly collapse? We would have sent fewer combat troops and more engineers, civilian administrators and military police. But the C.I.A. and the Pentagon had no way of being certain that the information about the Republican Guard's poor morale and weak discipline provided by Kurds and Iraqi opposition leaders was accurate.

In other words, the lack of preparation for post-war reconstruction and the shortage of nation-builders is the fault of the CIA and the Joint Staff! If Tommy Franks and Eric Shinseki and the rest of them hadn't been such whiners, Doug Feith would have been able to flood the place with MPs, bridge builders, Arabic-speakers and a whole tribe of Jerry Bremer clones! Who knew!

I think Safire is going to run away with this one.

Colin made me do it!!!

In various conversations and chats over the last couple days, I've heard the new spin again and again. It goes something like this. The international embarrassment, or at least discomfort, we're now facing over our inability to find any WMD in Iraq isn't the fault of the Pentagon or the Office of the Vice President or any of the other Iraq-hawks. It's the fault of Colin Powell and the State Department.


Because it was the State Department and Powell that made the focus WMD, weapons inspections, and UN resolutions. Now, so the argument goes, we're stuck with the embarrassment of not finding any WMDs. And we wouldn't be in this spot if the folks at State -- the internationalists -- hadn't prioritized the WMD issue above all the others.

This is a bogus argument and wildly disingenuous to boot, not least because it ignores an obvious and transcendentally important point: without playing the WMD card the hawks never would have gotten within a thousand miles of Baghdad. And they know it.

Let's review.

As I argued in my article 'Practice to Deceive', for the chief hawks, finding and eliminating Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was only one reason -- and perhaps even a secondary reason -- to go to war. The broader aim was to commence a process of reforming and shifting the geopolitical balance of the entire region by installing free-market, pro-western democracies and rooting out the various political pathologies and sources of anti-Western violence that threatened US interests in the region and even at home. (Again, the details are in the Washington Monthly article.)

I think that plan, at least in its very broad outline, had some real merits (see my original story on Iraq in the June 2002 Washington Monthly).

The problem is that there was never any way you were going to get the American people to go to war for a longterm plan to democratize and institutionalize a cultural revolution in the Middle East on the theory it might arguably further US interests in the region. It was only the imminent or near-term threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction -- and the possibility that Saddam might hand them off to al-qaida-like terrorists -- that built public support for the war.

That's it. Nothing else.

And that's why the administration pushed this argument again and again and again, often hammering on the quite improbable notion that the Iraqis might soon have a nuclear weapon. (Remember Condi Rice's line: "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.")

You could support this war for many reasons -- grand geopolitics, the demonstration effect, weapons of mass destruction, democracy, human rights, helping get our troops out of Saudi Arabia, etc. But the real proponents of war knew that WMD and terrorism was the only way to sell it to the American people. And that's just what they did. The fact that they also said democracy and human rights would be a good thing doesn't change that fact.

So it wasn't the UN that made them do it, or State, or Colin Powell. If there was anyone who pushed them into making WMD the central issue, it was the American people. That doesn't necessarily mean they made the argument in bad faith or that the war might not still be justified on other lines. But to suggest that State forced the hawks to hype the WMD threat is just the same sort of up-is-down, too-clever-by-four-and-a-half funny-business that made a lot of us distrust these guys in the first place.

Following up on the last post ... After the initial squall over the manhunt for the Texas Democrats, state Representative Lon Burnam -- a member of the Law Enforcement Committee -- filed an open records request for documents relevant to the Department of Public Safety's manhunt. After hearing news reports that files were being destroyed even after the issuance of that request, he filed a motion for, and eventually received, a restraining order barring further document destruction. Burnam also subsequently filed a motion to depose four members of the DPS.

In response to Burnam's request, the Texas Attorney General's office -- acting on behalf of the DPS -- demanded that Burnam reveal the names of his sources (i.e., those at DPS who had squealed) before any members of the DPS would be deposed.

"It is not possible," says the AG's filing, "to prepare for the preliminary injunction hearing or to prepare for the defense of depositions until Plaintiff identifies the source of the information that documents were allegedly destroyed after the receipt of the open records request on May 19th, 2003."

(A copy of the Texas AG's motion has just been added to the TPM Document Collection.)

Yesterday a judge ordered everybody to show up to get deposed next Monday, the four members of the DPS and Burnam and his legislative director.

On Thursday afternoon, I spoke to Burnam. He told me that he has "multiple sources" at the DPS who told him about the alleged document destruction. He also says he will identify his sources at the deposition on Monday, though he is currently trying to arrange some sort of whistleblower protection for them. When I asked Burnam why he thought the AG's office placed such importance on finding out the identity of his sources, he said he thought "they are trying to find out what I know and who I know it from and how they can get to them."

More on the Texas Dems. This from a Wednesday evening report in The Quorum Report, a Texas political newsletter ...

"I will be able to reveal more in a couple of days but for now I have to protect my sources. What I can say is there has been a development that I would describe as significant."

Bailey said he would likely be able to reveal more Friday. At his press availability, Bailey disputed comments made yesterday by Gov. Perry¹s office that their involvement in the DPS search was negligible.

"My source in the DPS paints a very different picture," Bailey said. "I was told the DPS felt like they were puppets. That was their exact words. They felt they were being manipulated throughout."

Add to this the following fact: Rep. Lon Burnam (D-Dallas Fort Worth) is the Texas rep who sued the Department of Public Safety to prevent them from destroying any more records connected to the Dem manhunt. He is now being forced to reveal his sources at DPS. Burnam says the Texas AG "is apparently trying to find out who a whistle-blower is rather than stopping the illegal shredding of documents."

And, finally, TNR has a very good lead editorial about the Texas shenanigans. Credit, lots of it, where credit is due.

The choice graf ...

Why won't this once scandal-obsessed city take what happened in Texas seriously? Sure, it involved neither sex nor money. But it involved something more serious: the blurring of the line between the power of the state and the partisan interests of those who run it--a line that represents the fundamental separation between a democracy and a dictatorship. When FBI files showed up in Bill Clinton's White House, Republicans, with the help of the press, screamed with outrage, even though no evidence that they were used for any partisan purpose was ever uncovered. Yet, in this case, when we know that police powers were harnessed for partisan gain, the issue elicits laughs.
The inner rot laid bare.

"More disturbing than the false alarm and subsequent cover-up is the ease with which one of the most powerful federal agencies was seduced into a hunt for a citizen's airplane. More abuses are almost sure to follow if the perpetrators get away this time, if controls on Homeland Security are not implemented and if secrecy prevails."

That's a choice graf from a must-read editorial on the Texas/Homeland Security shenanigans in today's Austin American-Statesman.

Sorta, kinda, not-really money quote from Chris Hitchens' review of Blumenthal's The Clinton Wars ...

I think it is only for strict party reasons that [Blumenthal] fails to mention Roger Tamraz and James Riady and all Clinton's other thick-envelope direct donors, and concentrates instead on saying (at excruciating length) that Whitewater produced no smoking gun. This may be true, though it is not true that the Clintons ever acted as if they had nothing to hide or nothing to fear.
People's evidence #492 that Orwell really does matter. And why it would have been nice to have him around in the late 90s, or maybe even in editing this review.

The hard hearted Senate. From the Times ...

A last-minute revision by House and Senate leaders in the tax bill that President Bush signed today will prevent millions of minimum-wage families from receiving the increased child credit that is in the measure, say Congressional officials and outside groups.


Because of the formula for calculating the credit, most families with incomes from $10,500 to $26,625 will not benefit. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal group, says those families include 11.9 million children, or one of every six children under 17.


The Senate provision that did pass was intended to help those families making $10,500 to $26,625 who do pay federal taxes and could have taken all or part of the $600 credit. The provision, which would have cost $3.5 billion, would have allowed those families to receive some or all of the extra $400 in the new law.


House Republicans, who acknowledged the gap on the child credit, blamed the Senate for insisting on its $350 billion cap, saying the low-income families could have been covered had the Senate been more flexible.

Family values.

Add your wry quip here and stir ...

DeLay's bad acts, Biden's fecklessness -- all packaged into a neat bundle in my new column in The Hill.