Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Today I read this article by Christopher Caldwell about the origins of the recent anthrax outbreak. (For those of you who don't read much of the conservative press, Caldwell is one of the sharpest conservative writers around today -- and well worth your reading.) In any case, I think he's a bit too critical of those who've raised the possibility that the outbreak had domestic origins. He views it as wishful thinking, pointing out the admitted shallowness of some of the pro-domestic source arguments.

Before discussing some new developments from tomorrow's papers, let me just make the following point. As someone who's cautiously been in the pro-domestic source camp, the point is not that there's anything definitively pointing to a domestic source. It's only that there are problems with the international/Al Qaeda explanation that I don't believe have been adequately answered or resolved.

For my part, the really telling problem is the content of the letters themselves and, more particularly, the very fact that the letters say they contain anthrax. From everything I've seen about the Al Qaeda MO, they'd let you find out they'd sent anthrax when people starting showing up at the hospitals. They wouldn't warn you. They'd want as high a body count as possible. Frightening as it may be to imagine, think about what would have happened if the Daschle letter would have been the first letter and it would have contained what looked like a quaint letter from a fourth grader.

(Here, some might say: but the whole point of terrorism is to terrorize. And the letter has spread a lot of terror. But I think we in the West have a an over-articulated theory of terrorism. I don't think this is how the Al Qaeda folks think. This is a topic I hope to return to later.)

In any case, I think the honest answer, as I said the day before yesterday, is that there's good evidence against both a domestic and an international source.

At least until today, that is. According to this article in the Post, a letter sent from within Pakistan to a US Consulate in Lahore, Pakistan has tested positive for anthrax.

(If you just said yikes, you're damn right.)

That really does sound like the other shoe dropping. I know there have been several cases of anthrax contamination in Pakistan over the last few days. But, frankly, a lot of these international cases have proven to be false alarms. So I've kept an open mind. But the State Department seems to have done the testing on this one. So this looks like the real deal.

What it all comes down to now is whether it turns out to be the same strain. Presumably we'll know the answer soon.

Let's do another Subash Gurung update. I think we can now say with certainty that Gurung is either a) not a terrorist or b) the stupidest terrorist. You'll remember we commented yesterday on the seeming foolery of letting Gurung out on bail before any investigation was done into just why he was taking all those weapons on to the plane.

Well, according to this wire report at MSNBC, the FBI didn't have to bend over backwards tracking him down once the local authorities had cut him loose. Gurung was arrested the next day when he returned to O'Hare to get back his checked-in luggage.

It now seems that Subash Gurung wasn't an evil-minded terrorist, just a ridiculous boob. At least so say the Feds. When I wrote yesterday that releasing him immediately on bond seemed pretty foolish, a number of readers wrote in that what it looked like was that the authorities were letting him go in the hopes that he might lead them to more clues or associates.

On paper that made good sense. But the Feds' subsequent rearrest of Gurung, so soon after the locals cut him loose, points pretty clearly, I think, to the original conclusion that letting him go was just a screw up, plain and simple.

Anyway, the follow-up information to Gurung's arrest provides the really pitiful details about the state of our current airline security system.

When Gurung went through the normal security check point, the security guards noticed something in his pocket, which turned out to be two knives. They confiscated those knives and waived him through. Only later in a random check at the gate by United Airlines personnel were seven more knives discovered in his carry-on luggage along with two more weapons of micro-destruction -- a stun gun and mace.

Now just in order to give the story all the dramatic punch possible, it turns out that the security company responsible for this bang-up job was Argenbright Security, the company that the federal government has already repeatedly cited for hiring various hoodlums, illegal aliens and ne'er-do-wells to do their screening for them.

Argenbright said their employees had done everything by the book, but responded with this gem, the comedic potential of which seems not yet to have been fully explored:

Effective today, any individual who has a suspicious item confiscated by security personnel ... will automatically have their carry-on bags searched as well by Argenbright personnel ...
Let's unpack this.

Under Argenbright's new ultra-draconian rules, once you are found trying to take a weapon on to a plane, all your carry-on bags will be searched. No exceptions!

Is this a joke? You know, I don't want to be too much of a hardass, but for my money, in the post-9/11 universe, if you get caught trying to bring two knives on board a plane, I'm willing to say you just can't come on the trip.

Call me heartless.

This morning all the news outlets are reporting the arrest of Subash Gurung, who tried to take a stun gun, mace and a slew of knives on to a flight leaving Chicago.

Even more troubling than the Soldier of Fortune value-pak he apparently planned to bring on board was the fact that he used a Chicago address also used by Ayub Ali Khan, one of the two 'material witnesses' arrested on an Amtrak train in Texas on September 12th, with $5,500 cash, two box-cutter knives and hair dye. (On the day of the attacks, Khan and his associate Mohamed Jaweed Azmath were on a plane which was grounded after the FAA closed American airspace.)

Perhaps there's an innocent explanation for this. Or at least a non-terrorist explanation. But here's the weird part. After being detained and processed Gurung was released on bond!

Now I'm all for civil liberties. But according to this excellent Washington Post article, the Feds are already pursuing a policy of 'disruption' in their waves of anti-terrorist arrests. We'll be saying more about the specifics and rationales behind this soon. But for the moment, let's just say that this is a policy of arrest, detain and then ask questions later. It's as much an effort to disrupt the terror network by getting a lot of folks locked up as it is an effort to charge and prosecute particular individuals for particular crimes.

Wouldn't you think the authorities would have wanted to keep Gurung on ice for a few days? Isn't this, at the very least, rather inconsistent?

Here is yet another excellent article on the baffling question of the origin of the anthrax attack. The troubling and confusing upshot of the article is that there are very good reasons to doubt both a domestic and an international culprit.

The best argument against the 'no-connection to Al Qaeda' hypothesis remains the sheer rapidity with which the attacks began. The first known letter was sent only a week after the 9/11 attacks.

On the other hand, those who argue for a connection face numerous inconsistencies, including the very non-Al Qaeda-seeming MO and the many oddities of the letters themselves. Among other things, as the Post article notes, the combination of the Arabic "Allah" and the English "is Great" seems odd. To a non-Muslim "Allah" has an exotic sound to it. But it simply means "God." According to the Middle Eastern studies prof the Post quotes, you'd expect a Muslim to either say it all in English or all in Arabic.

This really is a mystery.

Just now, on one of my morning walks, I happened by a police car stationed at an inconspicuous corner, presumably positioned there as part of the heightened -- and now indefinite -- state of alert against potential terrorist attacks. Seated in the car, slouched back and clad in a bullet proof vest, was a DC Metro police officer playing Microsoft Solitaire on his patrol car's on-board computer screen.

It'd be easy to have some fun at the guy's expense. And Lord knows, the DC Metro police have their problems.

But it seemed more than anything emblematic of the hurry-up-and-wait tempo of DC's now perpetual anti-terrorism preparedness. Perhaps we're about to be hit by a massive and catastrophic terrorist attack. On the other hand, it's a beautiful day out and would you like to go hang at Starbucks?

At one point people may begin to ask why US Attorney Mary Jo White spent the better part of 2001 investigating the unreviewable pardons of former President Clinton and the shenanigans of Senator Bob Torricelli (two cases over which she had at best uncertain jurisdiction) when her time might have been more profitably spent cracking down on Islamic terrorist cells in New York.

But it's nice to know -- even now -- she still has time to work on the Torricelli case.

Certainly, everything looks different with post-9/11 hindsight. But it's worth beginning to talk about what a profoundly injudicious prosecutor White is, and how poorly suited she is for her job.

But she's a Clinton appointee, you say?

Who cares?

We'll be saying more about this.

Here is a column I wrote for Friday's New York Post about the lessons we can learn from the failed effort to get the Sudan to turn over Osama bin Laden back in 1996. The gist of the story is that the folks at the Clinton NSC were not so much too soft (as many are quick to assert) as too hard on the folks in question. In a critical respect they fell for the rogue state mythology they and others had helped create.

More important is this, however. I found out a few days ago that my editor at the Post, Mark Cunningham, had become the latest victim of the anthrax outbreak. Thankfully, it's only of the skin variety. And no doubt he'll be fine.

I'd kept mum about this. But the news has now been made public. So I suppose there's no problem mentioning it.

Mark's been hard at work editing the Opinion Page at the Post, editing my column among many other things, all while dealing with this anthrax stuff. So Mark's one of my heroes in this whole awful situation.

One more follow-up on this anthrax susceptibility question. Given the results of the study referenced in this post, it would be very interesting to know how many of the victims of inhalation anthrax were either smokers or had a history of occupational lung damage.