Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Again and again we hear the refrain that this single instance of mentioning discredited intelligence about Iraqi uranium purchases pales in comparison to the much broader set of reasons why the United States invaded Iraq.

In one sense this is certainly false. The possibility that such a hostile and threatening regime could acquire nuclear weapons is sui generis. You simply can't compare it to this or that many liters of VX nerve gas or botulinum toxin. Seemingly strong evidence that Iraq was well on its way to producing nuclear weapons isn't just one "data point" as Condi Rice put it recently.

In another sense, though, it is just one small question or small issue. And if it were taken in isolation or without a broader context, it would hardly be generating the intensity of criticism and scrutiny that it is. The reason it is generating this level of scrutiny is that this one instance of bad faith is of a piece with so much of what went on in the build up to war.

It would be one thing if the administration had pursued this war because of weapons of mass destruction and, in so doing, pumped up the evidence to strengthen the case. Perhaps, one might hypothesize, they knew there was a lot of chemical and biological weapons production underway and the beginnings of a major push for nuclear weapons and, to seal the deal, said the nuclear program was further along than it was.

But this greatly understates the scope of the problem. Not only was the WMD issue (and the allied issue of Iraq's connection to al Qaida) systematically exaggerated, the entire WMD issue -- and the nexus to non-state terrorist groups like al Qaida -- wasn't even the main reason for the war itself. So the case for war amounted to one dishonesty wrapped inside another -- not quite Churchill's "riddle, wrapped in mystery, inside an enigma" but not that far off it either.

Now some people on the left are saying, well, the real reason was the possession of Iraqi oil. Or, the real reason was to seal the 2002 election or the 2004 election. Various other real reasons have been and are being proffered. But these are at best secondary or tertiary reasons. Karl Rove certainly exploited the Iraq debate and the war on terror to the hilt in 2002 -- and to great effect. But he was only taking advantage of a situation that had come about for reasons entirely different from his own narrow political ones.

Now, the series of neoconservative rationales for invading Iraq well predate 9/11. And as I've written before I think the desire to achieve this goal -- overthrowing Saddam Hussein -- became such a guiding star for many regime-change advocates that the desire become the parent of the rationale. This was one of the reasons why there was, in the end, such a curious multiplicity of rationales for doing it.

But over time after 9/11 one overriding theory of the war did take shape: it was to get America irrevocably on the ground in the center of the Middle East (thus fundamentally reordering the strategic balance in the region), bring to a head the country's simmering conflict with its enemies in the region, and kick off a democratic transformation of the region which would over time dissipate the root causes of anti-American terrorism and violence: autocracy, poverty and fanaticism.

That is why we are in Iraq today. That is the theory of this war. I have little doubt that many in the administration and in certain think-tanks in DC who really don't like much of what they've been reading on this website recently will have little to disagree with in that description.

It's important to note that this theory of the war actually does have a lot to do with stopping terrorism and the generalized instability of region -- but in a way that is almost infinitely more complex than the Saddam-WMD-hand -off-to-al-Qaida idea that the administration pushed in the build-up to the war.

It's much more complicated, much more complex, and vastly more difficult to achieve. It's not that the main war-hawks didn't believe there were WMD or that rooting them out wouldn't have been a great coup for US national security. But it is almost as if administration war-hawks told the public a vastly simplified, fairy-tale version of the Iraq war's connection to stopping terrorism and justified this benign deception because the story contained a deeper truth, almost in the way we tell children similar stories because their minds aren't advanced enough to grasp or process all the factual details connected to the lessons or messages we're trying to convey. Got all that? Good.

Of course, one might also say that the public might have intuited that fighting this sort of war was too risky, improbable and costly than anything it wanted to get involved in.

(I made this argument in an article I wrote in early March and which appeared in the Washington Monthly during the first week of the war. I'd certainly change some things about that piece were I to write it again. But not many.)

As I wrote then, and in several earlier articles, I think this theory of the war contained several penetrating insights into America's position in the Middle East and the long-term losing game we may be playing by identifying ourselves with corrupt autocracies which are in many ways themselves failed states which simply have yet to collapse.

But an insight or even a broad strategy is not a plan -- a fact which we're now seeing played out before our eyes. The fact that the administration never leveled with the public -- or in some ways even itself -- about this shielded it from the kind of scrutiny which would have revealed just how little the administration had thought through the sheer complexity of what it was trying to accomplish. This created the need to goose up secondary issues like WMD to gain a public rationale for the war. If you're wondering why so little planning seems to have gone into what on earth we were going to do once we took the place over it's because so little of the debate leading up to the war had anything to do with these questions or for that matter what we were actually trying to achieve by invading the country.

Now, a few points about the dishonesty at the center of all this. It's bad just on principle not to fundamentally level with the public about why you're getting into a war and just what sort of war you're getting into. Quite apart from that, however, doing so gets you into some practical difficulties. If you don't level with the public that you're getting into a very long-term, extremely costly enterprise you may find that your tough talk about having the staying power to finish the job isn't matched by public sentiment, or that you face a backlash over getting the country into far more than you led voters to believe. You may find that the public really isn't on board for what you're trying to accomplish. And that's a big problem if the public doesn't have the staying power and you have to leave the task half-finished, because this is one of those things that is better not to have tried at all than leave half-done.

So, why is this little matter of the uranium statements such a big deal? Because it is a concrete, demonstrable example of the administration's bad faith in how it led the country to war. To date that bad-faith has been all too apparent on many fronts. But the administration has cowed much of the press into remaining silent or simply not scrutinizing various of the administration's arguments for the war. And success makes up for many sins. No doubt it's painful for the president's partisans to see this stuff dug into. And it produces glee for Democrats who think -- rightly or wrongly -- that it gives them a potent issue to use against the president in the 2004 elections. But quite apart from partisan considerations on either side, we're never going to figure out what we're doing in Iraq, do it well, or accomplish anything good for the future security of the United States unless and until we start talking straight about why we're there, what we need to accomplish, and how we're going to do it.

A few thoughts on under-celebrated reporting of the WMD manipulation story. First, some of the more interesting, not-following-the-pack pieces I've seen have been by Knut Royce in Newsday. (Do I know him? No, never even heard his name before a week or so ago.) And, of course, let's keep in mind that Tom Gjelten of NPR had pretty much the entire story -- the administration's knowledge of the problems with Niger claims, the last minute back-and-forth with the CIA, and even the decision to use the Brits to get around the CIA's objections -- more than a month ago, back on June 19th. Talk about beating everyone else to the story!

What will we find?

When Iraqi scientists are permitted to talk to inspectors and journalists without fear of having their tongues later cut out and their families slaughtered by Saddam, the truth will out in vivid detail about the decadelong deception of the U.N. With "Dr. Germs" singing to save her life at future war crimes trials, today's American straddlers will at last be confronted with conclusive evidence they now profess to doubt ... When the postwar books are written, a former Iraqi spymaster with knowledge of the suicide attacker Mohamed Atta's perhaps unwitting connection to Saddam will eagerly come forth to spill all he knows to save his neck or sell his memoirs. Suspected followers of Osama bin Laden like Musaab Zarqawi and Mullah Krekar, if alive, will further link Al Qaeda to Saddam's mukhabarat police.
Some Bush critic setting the bar ridiculously high? No, Bill Safire, from January 30th.

More to come soon on the phantom 'al Qaida connection.'

It's nice to see some war-hawks are waking up to what George Tenet actually wrote in his July 11th plank-walking press release, the 'mea culpa' that had an extremely sharp barb hidden amidst all the abject language.

Over the last week people who've been following this case have slowly woken up to a realization of how dexterous a game Tenet has been playing. I wrote back on the 12th that if you "read Tenet's 'mea culpa' (self-criticism session?) closely ... you'll see it points right back at Condi Rice's NSC."

But I didn't grasp quite the degree of Tenet's bureaucratic savvy. Nor do I think did the White House. Actually, scratch that: I'm sure they didn't.

Having covered himself with a dignity-dashing mess of sorries and self-criticism (which sounded vaguely like something out of Russia in the mid-late 1930s), he set out an explanation that pointed right back to the White House, or specifically to the NSC.

He upped the ante dramatically when he and his aides gave more information in the recent closed-door hearing on Capitol Hill. Tenet and company are slowly reeling out piece after incriminating piece of information. It's hard to attack him since he's already 'taken responsibility' for the goof (still the only one as far as I can see.) But the real reason it's hard to attack him or, for that matter, fire him, is that the White House realizes that it is far better to have a dishing Tenet on the inside than on the outside. Amazingly, Tenet has managed to make himself nearly untouchable -- at least for the moment.

In any case, back to war-hawks realizing this.

In Bill Kristol's new column, he writes ...

On January 28, the president said in his State of the Union address that "the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." Perhaps he should have said "the British government believes" rather than "has learned." But this statement was unremarkable at the time, and remains unremarkable today. And, contrary to the implications of George Tenet's disingenuous press release of July 11, the president said nothing that the Central Intelligence Agency had retracted or controverted in the months between the distribution of their October estimate and the State of the Union address.

It now turns out the CIA had its doubts--though they were less than definitive. It also turns out the British are sticking by their claim. And it remains the case, most important, that the African uranium business, whatever the truth of it, was never more than a single piece of the otherwise voluminous evidence driving allied concern over Saddam and weapons of mass destruction. How important were those "significant quantities of uranium from Africa"? The White House now acknowledges, in retrospect, that the matter didn't merit mention in the State of the Union.

There are three points I'd like to note about these two grafs. But let me start with the point about Tenet. The "president said nothing that the Central Intelligence Agency had retracted or controverted in the months between the distribution of their October estimate and the State of the Union address"? Is that really your final answer, Bill? If it is, which part of the public record are you disputing? As nearly as I can tell we have at least two instances where the CIA did just that -- we can leave aside for the moment the instances that haven't been reported yet.

George Tenet personally -- and it seems, repeatedly -- interceded with Hadley to keep the Niger uranium story out of the president's October 7th speech. Isn't that right? And then Alan Foley tried to keep the statement out of the State of the Union speech, but eventually gave way over the 'Brits-said-it compromise.' The White House first agreed that Foley had done this and now they seem to have un-agreed.

But does anyone really buy the line from the "senior administration official" on Friday that the White House came up with the 'British caveat' on their own to make the claim seem more credible? It seems like there are at least two instances where Tenet or one of his subordinates tried to warn the White House off those claims, on the reasoning that they were not credible enough for public dissemination. The sentence that reads "the CIA had its doubts" probably ought to read "the CIA had its doubts and communicated them to the White House on at least two occasions after the NIE was completed."

Second point. Kristol asks "how important were those 'significant quantities of uranium from Africa'? The White House now acknowledges, in retrospect, that the matter didn't merit mention in the State of the Union." This comes after he argues that the uranium claim was just a minor part of the case against Iraq.

If I didn't know better I'd think this was an attempt at a rhetorical sleight of hand. Kristol seems to be saying that the uranium claim didn't merit mention because it was a matter of such negligible significance.

Let's try that again.

If they didn't merit mentioning it was because the allegations weren't particularly credible. It's almost as if Kristol wants to have it both ways -- to grab the uranium claims out of the speech but to do so for reasons that have nothing to do with their credibility. Does anyone really believe that evidence of Iraqi purchases of tons of uranium ore from Africa -- if credible -- wouldn't "merit mention in the State of the Union"?

I didn't think so.

The only possible reason not for including those claims when building the case for the magnitude of Saddam's WMD program would be their lack of credibility.

And finally to the Brits and the claim they're "sticking by." Based on my own snooping I think I know what the Brits' other evidence is. I can't say I'm certain of it yet. But I have to figure that the White House -- having rather better sources of information than I do -- is hearing the same thing. The "other evidence" is not insignificant. If I were the DCI I'd probably have someone look into it. Hell, I might even send Joe Wilson over to Africa to check it out. But if it's not insignificant, it's pretty close. I think I know why the Brits are keeping it mum. They have their own domestic political reasons for sticking by their other evidence -- even if it's little more than a placeholder -- and the president's defenders know it. But partisans of the White House probably don't want to press too hard, lest everyone actually find out what that 'other evidence' really is.

William Safire has now joined the camp of those who argue that anyone who questions the White House's use of trumped-up or flimsy intelligence is actually playing into the hands of Saddam and aiding his quest to return to power. Saddam, says Safire ...

presumes that British and American journalists, after the obligatory mention that the world is better off with Saddam gone, would — by their investigative and oppositionist nature — sustain the credibility firestorm. By insisting that Bush deliberately lied about his reasons for pre-emption, and gave no thought to the cost of occupation, critics would erode his poll support and encourage political opponents — eager to portray victory as defeat —to put forward a leave-Iraq-to-the-Iraqis candidate.
Let's translate this: What's the defense against charges of manipulation or deception? We don't have one. But don't mention it or you'll be helping Saddam return to power. Or perhaps you could put it another way: the mess we've made is too big for us to afford the luxury of asking why we made such a big mess.

I'll be honest with you. I struggled for some time trying to think up a way to discuss Safire's Monday morning column. But the whole thing was such a cynical mix of half-truths, untruths and twisted logic that it ended up besting me.

Here are a few examples ...

Saddamist guerrillas, aided by terrorist allies in Syria and Iran, would hold out the fearsome possibility of the return to power of Saddam or his sons. A series of murders of "collaborators" would continue to intimidate Iraqi scientists and officers who know about W.M.D. and links to Al Qaeda and its related Ansar al-Islam.
Here Safire slips in an assumption ("continue to intimidate") that virtually no one believes: that we haven't gotten WMD-related testimony because the scientists and officers fear retribution.

Or this ...

How best to deny Saddam's putative return from his Elba, and to put this summer of discontent behind us? Drop the premature conclusion that if we can't yet find proof of the destructive weapons, they never existed. That's like saying because we haven't found Osama or Saddam, those killers never existed.
Is it really like saying that? Am I missing something? Because this analogy sounds like one of the stupidest things I've ever heard in my life.

Let's be honest. Homefront disputes over war aims, justifications and policy are seldom helpful to the conduct of a war, at least in an immediate operational sense. But accountability and responsibility are so alien to these people that the responsibility for their manipulations, reckless enthusiasm and lack of planning rests not with them, but on the shoulders of those who now choose to call them on it.

There's a bigger point that's easy to miss in this larger brouhaha over the Niger documents -- one which the attention to the Niger documents themselves may even help obscure.

A few days ago I mentioned an October 20th column by Jim Hoagland, one in which he celebrated the way the Bush administration had muscled the intelligence community (and particularly the CIA) into giving up its "long-standing and deeply flawed analysis of Iraq." The White House was triggering, he went on to say, a battle between "officials whose careers and reputations were built on the old analysis of the Iraqis as a feckless, inert and inward-looking bunch of thugs against those willing to take a fresh, untilted look at all the evidence."

The idea was clear. The CIA didn't understand Saddam, his motives, the extent of his WMD programs or the depth of its ties to al Qaida. (The CIA, Hoagland lamented, still couldn't bring itself to agree about Iraq's alleged deep ties with al Qaida.) The politicals did -- and they were going to make sure the folks at the Agency did too.

The results, Hoagland continued, had been promising. It was only because the administration had forced the CIA to get religion on Iraq that they had generated a National Intelligence Estimate that allowed the president to fill his speech with details of Iraq-al-Qaida connections and chemical and biological-spewing unmanned aerial vehicles. As Hoagland aptly put it on July 16th, the "political leadership of the administration declared war on the careerists at the CIA soon after Bush's election."

Now, sometimes bureaucracies really do need to be taken on, to be shaken up. But we have intelligence agencies for a reason: to gather and analyze intelligence. Going to war with your primary intelligence agency is a risky proposition, especially while you're fighting a war against international terrorist groups.

Until we got into Iraq we really couldn't say for certain what we'd find. Perhaps the politicals were right and the Agency's more cautious estimations of the Iraqi threat would be exposed as hopelessly naive.

But now we're there. And from what we've found so far, the Bush administration's revisionist view of Iraq seems far more deeply flawed than what Hoagland called the Agency's "long-standing and deeply flawed analysis of Iraq."

Now we're also seeing a lot of administration defenders carting out the standard lines that intelligence is an art, not a science, that it's a mosaic, and so forth.

That's all true of course. But it doesn't cut it to say, "This is just an intelligence failure. The White House just went with what they were being told." Why? Because you can't separate our failure to find a lot of what we thought we'd find in Iraq from the "war" the administration has been fighting with the intelligence community for the last two years. If the administration spent the previous two years "at war" with the CIA, pushing them harder and harder into a set of assumptions (and in many cases conclusions) that turned out to be wildly off-the-mark, shouldn't there be some political accountability for what turned out to be at best a very poor call?

Let's say a CEO took over a Fortune 500 company. Let's further say that his first act was to walk down to the advertising division and tell them they had no idea what they were doing and had to change the way they did business. He also told them he was going to bring in some outside consultants to comment on (read: second guess) their work. Now, the CEO and his new crew didn't have a huge amount of experience with ad work. But he talked a good game. So people thought he might have something up his sleeve. Then the new results come in at the end of the year and the company's revenues fell off the cliff.

Now, needless to say, the boss's cronies and sycophants would say that it was just an example of how bad the ad division was doing in the first place, or come up with some other such excuse. But how long do you think that CEO would hold on to his job?

As noted earlier, a "senior administration official" briefed members of the White House press corps this afternoon about the latest developments in the WMD story. The real substantive news here, as near as I can tell, is that the White House is saying it didn't make any changes in the uranium portions of the State of the Union speech because of resistance or doubts from the CIA -- specifically in the conversation between NSC staffer Bob Joseph and Alan Foley of the CIA. That directly contradicts what Alan Foley is reported to have said in Wednesday's closed-door hearing in the Senate. The "senior administration official" also seemed to say (you read the transcript and be the judge) that the White House would not allow White House staff -- most likely Joseph -- to be questioned about any of this before committees on Capitol Hill. Several papers reported yesterday that the White House had signaled willingness to do so. The entire question and answer portion of the briefing has just been posted in the TPM Documents Collection.

Early this afternoon a "senior administration official" briefed members of the White House press corps on the National Intelligence Estimate, Iraq and WMD. Return soon to find out just what this person said.

We'll also be discussing what you might call, paraphrasing the late President Eisenhower, 'creeping DeLayism'. House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas ordered Capitol police to forcibly remove Democratic committee members from a nearby library where they had gone to plot strategy after a dispute erupted over the amount of time the Dems were given to review a bill in the committee

Yesterday morning a few of the usual suspects pointed to the National Intelligence Estimate and said, "Look, it has the claims about Iraqi uranium purchases in Africa. End of story. The Agency gave the White House bad intelligence, period."

Today the White House has declassified and released selected portions of the NIE, including a claim, according to this AP article, that there was "compelling evidence" that Saddam was trying to reconstitute his nuclear program and that "if left unchecked...probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade." It also cited unsubstantiated reports that the Iraqis might be trying to buy uranium in Africa.

Now, first of all, I think we need to know more about just what the NIE said on this issue, in its totality. But let's assume that it said it more or less flat out.

Even if that's true, it still seems like the CIA made subsequent and multiple attempts -- some successful, some not -- to keep the president from making this claim publicly because they had very real doubts about whether it was even true. The NIE may give the White House something to hang its hat on but only as a debating point, no more.

If the White House were interested in getting the story right, rather than just getting it scary, you'd think they would have paid attention to the repeated messages from the CIA saying, in essence, "Yes, we know it's mentioned in the NIE. But we're now not so sure it's true. The president shouldn't say it."

They kept pushing and pushing even after Agency personnel seem to have made their views on the evidence pretty clear.

Like the female employee and her grabby boss, how many times does she have to say 'no' before the behavior becomes inappropriate?

First we find out that ABC News has the temerity to send a gay reporter to risk getting shot-up and blown-up in Iraq. Now it turns out he's Canadian too!

Have they no shame?!?!?!? Know they no limits!?!?!

This seems to be the attitude over at the White House. Jeffrey Kofman is the ABC reporter who filed the recent stories about declining troop morale in Iraq. According to Lloyd Grove's column this morning, the White House press office has been putting out word about Jeffrey Kofman's unpardonable offenses to friendly news organizations, including Matt Drudge.

First there was the smearing of Joe Wilson, now the digging up of personal details about Kofman. Are we permitted to start recognizing a pattern here? A road map, shall we say, for how the White House plans to deal with criticism on this issue?