Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Ari Fleischer apparently got himself in a mess this morning trying to explain what happened with the Niger-uranium documents. More on this soon when I get the transcript.

Am I overly suspicious? Or is Matt Drudge taking his, shall we say, talking points directly from Karl Rove? Or maybe from Karl Rove, via Ed Gillespie, long-time GOP operative, money-shoveler and incoming chairman of the RNC? Drudge has an over-the-fold headline this evening which claims that there's some sort of super smackdown brewing between Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean and DNC Chair Terry McAuliffe.

For all I know the two may hate each other, I have no idea. Dean has pissed a bunch of people off in DC.

But look at the key quote in Drudge's 'story' about Dean's alleged intention to fire McAuliffe.

"We'll make a change there immediately [after the New Hampshire primary]," a top Dean source said of the DNC leadership. "I think it is important, as does Howard, to mark a new beginning, cut ties from the past."
This 'quotation' suggests a pretty short list of possibilities. Either people in the Dean campaign are incredible morons or this is a bogus quote.


How exactly is Dean going to clean house after -- presumably -- winning the New Hampshire primary? Even though a presidential nominee controls the party apparatus after he gets the nomination, there are a number of reasons why they seldom install their own chairman at the DNC before even winning the presidency. But they certainly don't -- or rather can't -- fire the chairman of the party during the middle of the primary campaign.


Basically for the same reasons that I've so far refrained from firing New York Times Executive Editor Joe Lelyveld or the fact checker of Ann Coulter's ridiculous new book Treason (of which we'll be saying more soon): because I can't.

Who really gave Drudge that 'quote'?

Early last week I sat down with Ken Pollack in his office at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC for an hour-long interview on Iraq, weapons of mass destruction, and the current state of the US-sponsored rebuilding and democracy-building effort.

Pollack is the author of The Threatening Storm. And, as regular TPM readers will remember, this is a follow-up to an earlier interview we conducted with Pollack late last January -- about six weeks before the start of the war.

We'll be publishing this interview in three parts. The following is part one, which covers the state of the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as of June 30th, 2003.

TPM: I want to do this chronologically, starting with things that came before the war and ending with things looking forward. I guess my first question and the question that a lot of people are wondering about now is not 'why haven't we found ten nuclear weapons?' but 'why haven't we found even some stuff on the chemical or biological front?'

Pollack: I think there are two different answers to that. I think the first question is, why haven't we found more of the production capabilities? I think we now have good evidence that indicates that the Iraqis were holding on to a production capability. That centrifuge that was discovered last week and the plans to reconstitute the program are the best evidence we have of what was always believed, which was that the Iraqis at the very least were holding on to the ability to start manufacturing stuff when Saddam gave the word.

In the case of the chemical and biological stuff that seems to have taken two forms. First on the biological side there were the mobile trailers. And I will say that my expectation is that when a judgment is finally rendered on these two trailers that my guess is that we're going to find that they were biological warfare trailers. A) The counter-explanations that people have offered are kind of absurd on the face of them - the hydrogen balloons explanation really doesn't hold a lot of water, or air, as you may see fit. The idea that these were for rocket fuel? Possible. But again, seems unlikely, and that would be prohibited as well. That would be part of maintaining a prohibited production capability.

On the chemical side, it's just unclear what if anything else we're going to find. Our understanding from a whole variety of things including the specifications of the plants themselves, as we saw them constructed, was that the Iraqis were building pharmaceutical plants which were dual-use. Well, if the facilities are dual-use and it's a facility that can be relatively quickly transitioned into making prohibited chemicals, you don't need anything else. You don't need a biological facility, you don't really need anything beyond that.

On the missiles, we just don't know. I think it's pretty clear that the Iraqis were using the Al Samoud and [inaudible] programs, in fact even the UN suspected as much, as that same kind of thing --- the ultimate production capability. On the nuclear side, the interesting question is whether there was anything beyond what we've so far learned from this one nuclear scientist, which is that they basically shelved the program and it went into hibernation and the expectation was that at some point in the future when Saddam felt that the sanctions were sufficiently lifted or eroded that he would reconstitute the program. It's still possible that there was a more active program going on. But that seems fairly unlikely at this point in time.

I think that the bottom line is that this stuff was all very difficult to find. Had that scientist not come forward and said "I've got this stuff buried in my backyard," we never would have found it. And again that goes to the point of just how difficult this stuff is to find, how hard it is to find.

The second issue is, why was there not a lot of stuff deployed? And there I think there is simply a mystery out there. Before the war I always believed that the Iraqis wouldn't have a whole lot of munitions lying around because that made no sense. As I said in the New York Times piece, the munitions degrade very quickly and they're very easy to produce. So you wouldn't want to have lots of them sitting around. That said, there were intelligence reports all through the spring of 2003 suggesting that the Iraqis were deploying actual [i.e. chemical] rounds with Republican Guard divisions …

TPM: Do you think it's possible, and this applies to what you're talking about now and also more broadly to the whole chemical and biological programs … that some of the intelligence may have been not just exaggerations but actual disinformation coming from the Iraqis. Do you think that's possible?

Pollack: It's possible and certainly the Iraqis were trying to mount a kind of deterrence campaign, saying that if you come into Iraq you will be hit very hard and very badly ... We saw clear aspects of that where you had unnamed Iraqi officials telling various Arab newspapers that if the United States came in that they'd be hit with chemical and biological weapons and that there'd be waves of terrorism (all things that were actually to be expected, were very predictable). And it is possible that some of the stuff that they were doing was intended to make us think that it was deployed - that weapons of mass destruction were deployed - when in fact they weren't.

You've seen other people speculate in the press that maybe what they were doing was not deploying the weapons but actually pulling them back for destruction. It's possible. You know, who knows? This is my point: it is a mystery, ultimately. It's a mystery to me why Saddam didn't fill the rounds, because as I said, while I didn't expect him to have lots of it sitting around, I did expect that at some point in time he would begin to think the Americans may actually invade and when that happened he would say, 'alright, you know what? Let's gin up a batch of this stuff, so if they do come in, we've got it waiting.' Because I never expected that he'd go without a fight.

He clearly didn't [do that]. And it is a mystery as to why, although the reports that are increasingly surfacing are that he believed to the last that we absolutely wouldn't come in and we moved on Baghdad much faster ... That was my fondest hope, that was my best case scenario, but I was pessimistic that we would actually be able to get that best case scenario. If we did, that is fantastic. And I am obviously delighted. But right now it's a mystery. And there's also this mystery about what happened with those intelligence reports. Was it Iraqi disinformation? Were they simply mistaken? Were we reading something that was inaccurate or were we getting defector reports that turned out to be inaccurate? That is clearly a mystery.

TPM: Let me ask you this. I guess people are saying this less now, three months out, than they were a couple weeks out, but what about the idea that it's a huge country and it's hard to unearth the stuff? On the other hand, we have, not everybody, but a lot of regime leaders in custody. I assume a lot of these are people who had government status but were also scientists ... And my premise or assumption has always been that we're using very big carrots and very bit sticks with these people. Someone should have squealed. It's one thing to have a latent brain-power capacity and a dual-use infrastructure that you could quickly move to making chemical or biological weapons. But it's another thing to have something a little more than that, to have a program where you're actually building up, etc., etc. It seems to me that if you have the latter, one of these people should have talked by now. Even if you're worried about Saddam, whatever, with a lot of people, someone should have said something. And I imagine that, especially with the political pressure now, we're offering the world to anybody that could take us to the stuff. Does that logic make sense to you?

Pollack. Yes, I think it is logical. I'll start by saying, I mean, I tend to agree with you, Josh. I also expected that at least some of the people that we have in custody would have started to speak. And that they would have revealed at least part of what was going on. That may in fact suggest that the programs weren't as far along or as aggressive or as big as was believed before the war. That's entirely possible and you cannot rule that out.

By the same token, there are several other alternative explanations. It may be that they are speaking and they're saying very interesting stuff and we just don't know about it yet. I note that I continue to hear all kinds of rumors from friends inside the government that there is in fact lots of interesting stuff floating out there. And it will surface fairly soon. That may be true.

TPM: I think David Kay said something like that a few days ago, even publicly.

Pollack: And it's also worth noting that on a number of these different issues the government's actually managed to keep it quiet for a number of weeks before it did leak out or was publicly put out. They had the first of the trailers for two weeks before they said anything. With the Iraqi scientist it was a week or two before that stuff came out. There's actually a bunch of stuff where you can say that they've actually sat on it for a period of time. And they've been able to successfully keep it secret. So it may be that some of these guys have said some very interesting stuff, maybe even some very revealing stuff, and the administration or - put it a better way - the government has done a good job of sitting on it. That may also be the case. Again, at this point in time other alternative explanations are still out there.

TPM: Do you think …

Pollack: Oh, one other point … One other alternative explanation, which is worth mentioning, is that I do know for a fact that the initial exploitation teams did a terrible job ... I've heard good stories from people on the inside about what the initial teams were looking at and what they overlooked. It was very clear that the initial teams really didn't know what they were doing. They seem to have been sent in and been told: find shells with VX nerve agent …

TPM: So they were sort of expecting literally armaments lying around as opposed to …

Pollack: Right. And they boxed up huge numbers of documents and simply shipped them off to Qatar without actually looking through them. So there is a lot of hope and expectation that there will be lots of information found in those documents. And then beyond that, my understanding is that the initial debriefings of the Iraqis, which were conducted by military debriefers, were also considered very poor. These were military debriefers who were looking for military types of information. And they do it in a manner and style that is consistent with on-going military operations. And they've just recently turned those over to CIA debriefers. So the third alternative explanation is that it may just be that we did a rotten job looking for the stuff early on because we came in expecting to find it lying all over the place, which, again, if you'd thought about it for 30 seconds you'd realize that was almost certainly not the case. Because if it was lying all over the place, the inspectors would have found it.

TPM: Moving from the technical and intelligence side to the political side in the lead-up to the war, let's say hypothetically that each of these programs was in a state in some sense similar to where the nuclear program seems to have been. In other words, there was an effort to keep the intellectual infrastructure in place, and at least some of the hardware infrastructure in place for that day when the political climate would be such that you could ramp up. And maybe with chemicals it would be different because you could have factories that were dual-use, and so forth. I mean, that is certainly different from what the administration was saying in the six months prior to the war. And in retrospect I think it would be hard to argue that we had to do this in the Spring of 2003 if what we were talking about was Iraq's medium to long-term ambition to get back into the WMD business.

Pollack: Yeah. I'd put it this way. I'd go even further. If - if - the nuclear program was exactly as you describe it ... that the program was basically dormant. Yes, they had the plans, some elements of the physical base to do it, and certainly they had the know-how to restart the program. But they didn't even have some kind of centrifuge facility going somewhere. Not only is that a far-cry from what the administration was implying but it didn't even really match up with the intelligence estimates.

I'm not a technical expert and I need to be very careful about that. But I am struck by the fact that what all the technical experts were saying to me, and to others like me, was that they thought that in the period between 1998 and 2002 the Iraqis did have some kind of clandestine centrifuge facility up and running and that they were probably working on enriching stuff even as we were speaking. This seems to be what led to their estimates that the Iraqis were probably somewhere on the order of five years, maybe as little as two or three years away from having a nuclear weapon. It was all based on the assumption that the Iraqis had restarted the program in 1998. And there were reports that this had been the case. But that doesn't seem to be the case …

TPM: Was this an inferential judgment? If you take aside everything we know from April 1st --- ironically --- onward, that makes sense to me. What I was struck with in the Obeidi [interview], though, was that he said that they had it on ice. And I was thinking, 'Why didn't they have him dig that stuff up in 1998?' That's sort of a mystery to me. But go ahead …

Pollack: I agree. It's another one of those mysteries where we've got to get inside Saddam Hussein's head and figure out what was this guy thinking. With regard to the intelligence estimates, I don't really know exactly why they came to that. I know it was a combination of defector reporting [and] watching the Iraqis purchasing. We watched their clandestine purchasing and procurement network very carefully. And a variety of other intelligence. But in some cases there were defectors who saying flat out that they've restarted the program. And this was a consensus among the technical experts among the various intelligence communities, not just the United States, but among many of the European countries and in Israel as well.

What we've seen so far clearly isn't consistent with that. And I think that you're right. The biggest question it gets to is the timing of the war. Now I think it is fair to say that based on what the intelligence experts were saying it would have been fair for the Bush administration to say, "Alright, we don't have a lot of time here. We've got a period of years, not necessarily months. But we don't have forever. Because at some point in time he is going to get these things. And as Condi Rice once famously observed, "The smoking gun we may see may be a mushroom cloud."

By the same token, it's very clear that the evidence that we've found so far doesn't match up the with implied threat which the administration tried to create, which was that this was an imminent threat, that the Iraqis were very close to the acquiring the stuff or very close to giving the stuff to terrorist groups, that we could face an attack in the very near future. And that therefore the war had to be fought this year …

But in some ways it's unfair to use the evidence that we've found since April 1st against the administration, because that was unknown. All the administration really had to go on were the intelligence estimates. And that's why in my New York Times piece the point that I made was that, not that I felt that what we've found since was an indictment of the administration. As I say, it wasn't fair to hold the administration accountable for that because the fact is that the intelligence community did believe that there was an active program. What I think it is fair to hold against the administration is that they stressed continuously the imminence of a threat which in fact the intelligence community felt was much more distant. Even at the time, even before the war.

TPM: But that's a big difference.

Pollack: Oh, I agree. It's a very big difference. It's why my argument was that you have to do this sooner rather than later. But not immediately. And most importantly, and I think this was important for a lot of other moderate Republicans, Democrats, non-Americans, was that it meant that you had more time. And that you could do other things before you went to war. You could take the time to address the peace process before you went to war. You could take the time to build broad international support. You could take the time to wage the war on terrorism more aggressively. You didn't have to go right after Iraq. There was time available to go after all of these other issues. You could also take the time to do a better job in terms of post-war planning. So that you didn't have to rush into this thing. You could have taken the time to prepare the ground work for the war. So that when it happens it would have gone more smoothly and had fewer repercussions.

TPM: Does it sound accurate to say that the intelligence consensus - in our intelligence community and in others - was that maybe this was, say a 6, on the threat scale. The administration was saying that it was more like a 9 or higher. But it's possible that it may end up that it was more like a 3, in terms of the 24 month threat window. Whether those numbers are exactly right or not, the point is that it's not like the CIA was saying we were going to find what we've found so far. They were off the mark in some ways too. But the administration was making a more maximal argument than they were as well.

Pollack: I certainly think the way you're setting it up is right. I'd quibble with the numbers. And here let me make a bigger point, which is that I think people are getting really hung up on this issue of the weapons. I think it's an interesting question; it's a mystery; it's clearly one that the intelligence community seems to have gotten wrong. But with weapons of mass destruction - and I'm using that in the broadest sense of the word - not having the physical shells, the physical filled rounds, or missile warheads isn't terribly important because the stuff is so easy to make, that if you've got the production capability you can make the munitions up in short order. So that the fact that we didn't find 10,000 VX rounds is an interesting mystery to me and it says, it makes me ask some questions about what the intelligence was seeing. But I don't see that as necessarily being an order of magnitude off of what the intelligence [community] thought before the war.

My quibble here is with your 6 versus 3. You know, it may have been a 5. But you're certainly right that it wasn't the 9 that the administration was claiming it to be. The one other thing that I would add is that in every case it was I think a 5 going up, increasing over time. And the big interesting issue now is 'how much time?' And we may find after the war that it was increasing much slower. So maybe I'm right. Maybe it was a 5, but it wasn't going up as quickly as the intelligence, the technical experts, believed before the war. So even if it wasn't the 6 we believed it was ... or a 6 that we expected to be a 9 in five years, maybe it was a 5 that wouldn't get to be a 9 for ten years.

Part two of the interview, where we get into the question of the Niger-uranium transfer documents and what's happening in Iraq today, will follow later next week.

"Was [Judith] Miller a cheerleader or a reporter? A propagandist or a journalist? How tainted was her work by a demonstrable bias for one set of informers—the former Iraqi exiles, who have their own agenda to push? Did the Times publish inaccurate stories because it failed to police her bias? Never mind her high-handedness: The Times owes its readers a comprehensive review of her recent work."

Those are questions Jack Shafer asked last week in Slate about New York Times reporter Judith Miller. Shafer's been asking questions about Miller's reporting for months. And he's posed some pretty damn good ones -- as has Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post -- largely centering on Miller's biased reporting, extreme partiality to a particular source with an extremely conspicuous agenda, and questionable adherence to several basic canons of journalism.

I'm confused. I thought mau-mauing the Times was all the rage these days. In media criticism terms, this is twenty M80s, half a jerrican of gas, ten packs of sparklers and a six-pack of Pop Rocks -- all waiting for a spark.

But no spark.

What is it exactly that has prevented all this from blowing up other than the fact that most of the people who drummed Howell Raines out of the business have benefited so mightily -- ideologically, that is -- from Miller's excesses?

Don't bother sending me the answer. I think I'm set.

I do wish they'd gotten on it sooner. But The Washington Post has a very good editorial today -- Tuesday -- on the continuing shenanigans of the Texas GOP. Mid-decade redistricting is bad idea -- no matter how many novel excuses party shills come up with. And the Department of Homeland Security's investigation was, as The New Republic recently put it, "a joke." In the words of the Post, "The inspector general's office has deemed off-limits the concerns that prompted calls for an inquiry in the first place, while reporting no wrongdoing in a corner of this weird affair where wrongdoing never seemed likely. If the IG's office is right that the rest of the matter is not its business, then a different investigation must be conducted." Even The New York Times has some good stuff on the story today.

From an article in Tuesday's Haaretz, a leading Israeli daily ...

According to Abbas, immediately thereafter Bush said: "God told me to strike at al Qaida and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did, and now I am determined to solve the problem in the Middle East. If you help me I will act, and if not, the elections will come and I will have to focus on them."
Maybe Abbas has a problem with liberal bias?

Beside being bogus in constitutional terms, Texas Republicans' argument that they need to redistrict again because redistricting shouldn't be done by judges has always also been deeply disingenuous. Why? Because they were the ones who forced it into the courts. It's not quite the parricide begging sympathy as an orphan. But it's close.

This clip from an overdue piece in tomorrow's Times makes the point with a particularly good source ...

Some Texas Republicans — including Governor Perry and Tom Craddick, who became speaker of the state House in January when the party took control for the first time in 130 years — argue that the state's Congressional delegation, with 17 Democrats and 15 Republicans, does not reflect Texas voting patterns, in which nearly 60 percent of the votes cast for Congress last year were for Republicans.

They say the current Congressional map is just an old Democratic gerrymander. And they say that although the Constitution requires the legislature to draw district boundaries, the current map was drawn by a panel of federal judges.

Others note that Republicans chose at the time to let the judges redraw the Congressional districts rather than compromise with Democrats who still held the majority in the state House.

John R. Alford, a professor at Rice University who was an expert witness for Governor Perry in the 2001 redistricting litigation, said the Republican Party knew at the time that the state Legislature, with its own new district map, was about to swing to Republican control in 2002.

"Republicans used the court-drawn plan as a place to park redistricting until they could address the issue when they were in control of the House and obviously better off in the Senate," Professor Alford said. "You give it to the courts knowing that, after 2002, you'll take it back."

He also disputed that the current Congressional map was a Democratic gerrymander, noting that voters in several districts, who choose Republicans for virtually every other office, have split their tickets to re-elect moderate Democrats.

"You can't have a gerrymander where six of the Democratic seats have Republican majorities," Professor Alford said.

Who knew we did congressional seats by proportional representation? Such a big reform. And I keep on politics. I thought I'd have heard ...

The summmary section from today's Nelson Report ...

Summary: U.S. expert warns intel on N. Korea reprocessing indicates possible bomb test for Christmas. Seems to be saying this isn't Cheney/Feith faith-based intel, but the real thing. Puts a point to meetings today, tomorrow in Washington. South Korea has insisted on serious counter-proposal from U.S. to DPRK's Beijing initiative. So State is going through the motions. Still not clear that White House will authorize the real thing. Why is this so difficult, experts ask?

Iran…recent meetings with Iranian officials, private experts, highlight concerns. As with N. Korea, U.S. seems focused on containment, not diplomacy, as per pressure on Japan to kill Iran oil deal. But, looks like Shell Oil can't be stopped. So where's the leverage? Iranians recognize everyone furious they've been cheating, and to fear serious sanctions from UNSC. Want U.S. to promise non-interference in internal politics. In return, what about terrorism funding?

Faith-based intelligence analysis. I like that.

Oh please! Andrew Sullivan has a post today on the debate over the administration's bogus or exaggerated intelligence estimates. He notes a recent article by Slate's Fred Kaplan. "Slate's Fred Kaplan," he says, "also argues that the discrepancy between what we believed Saddam possessed and what we have so far found is best explained by the usual vagaries of intelligence assessments, not unlike the 'missile gap' of 1960."

I'm sorry but that's just too misleading a summary of what Kaplan said. What he described is a pattern one sometimes sees in how policy-makers use, or rather misuse, intelligence data. Sometimes politicians or military people believe so deeply that something is true (they just know it) that they start ignoring all the evidence that contradicts their belief and glomming on to every bit of data that confirms it.

Sometimes they're just so sure it's true that they'll even start fiddling with the facts a bit just to make sure you don't come away from the presentation with any doubts about how right they are. Zeal can become the hand-maiden of self-deception and even outright deception -- and like that hot place you've heard about the road to get there is paved with good intentions.

Chris Nelson, of The Nelson Report, has come up with the best word for it: faith-based intelligence analysis.

(By all means, do not take my word for it: read Kaplan's piece and make your own call.)

By and large, I think this is what happened. I also think there were at least a few cases where they bulldozed right over the line into simply telling the American public things they flat-out knew weren't true. But I'd say most of it was willful ignorance and in some cases a reckless disregard for the truth.

I've had people write in and say to me: if the administration was really lying about the WMD, why weren't they smart enough to plant some stuff for themselves to find and avoid the current embarrassment? And my answer is that I think they were as surprised as anyone to come up empty-handed. Really surprised. I think they knew the Niger uranium documents were bogus. But they figured there'd at least be plenty of chemicals and biologicals to go around once they got there.

In any case, what I think Kaplan was talking about was something quite different from the "usual vagaries of intelligence assessments."

Just speaking for myself, what I think it really comes down to is this: does it make it okay to have hoodwinked the American people, if you hoodwinked yourself in the process?

Tomorrow, thoughts on Wes Clark and Howard Dean. The Dean fund-raising story is like a thunderclap over the Democratic party. Yesterday, Dean told reporters he had already raised $6.2 million in the quarter ending June 30th; and his campaign manager Joe Trippi says they're going to try to hit $6.5 million by tomorrow night. That will quite possibly end up being more than any of the other Democratic candidates this quarter. I'm no Dean booster. But that news is huge, demonstrating both the improbable strength of Dean and the demonstrable feebleness of the establishment contenders.