David Kurtz

David Kurtz is Managing Editor and Washington Bureau Chief of Talking Points Memo where he oversees the news operations of TPM and its sister sites.

Articles by David

Quote of the week:

"The higher you climb up the tree, the more your ass shows."

--Richard Armitage, on the media attention that goes with rising up the ranks in Washington

Josh is right. The news cycle has inverted and started to feed on itself. Here are two pieces that illustrate the point.

Exhibit A is an AP story headlined "Sex Scandals Dominate Midterm Elections." (Subhede: "Will election be a referendum on men behaving badly?"). It's the sort of breezy, pox on both your houses roundup that tries to pass for political analysis. Are sex scandals dominating the midterms, or is Iraq? And are these scandals really about the sex, or about violence and abuse of power?

Rep. Don Sherwood cheated on his wife, sure, but he also allegedly tried to choke his mistress. Rep. Jim Gibbons may have been drinking and flirting with an off-duty cocktail waitress, but there's a difference of more than just degree between flirting with, or even boinking, a young lovely and pushing her up against the wall of an empty parking garage and threatening her unless she consents, as she alleges.

There's also a difference, and this obviously can't be said often enough, between being gay and being a serial seducer of young male pages. The AP story says the only thing missing from the Foley sex scandal is the sex. Huh? Someone needs to go back and re-read the clips.

Exhibit B is in the Style section of the Washington Post today, a piece on how the term "October Surprise" has been wrung of practically any meaning: "Over time the phrase has been bandied about and overused to the point that it now means any startling surprise from any direction that might somehow affect the outcome of an election." True enough, but reporting about the reporting is a indication of a news cycle that, in the minds of editors and reporters, is peetering out.

The low-hanging fruit of the Foley scandal has been picked, and it's back to the hard work of reporting--unless you prefer scavenging among the rotting fruit that fell to the ground.

I mentioned today's LA Times article on Ken Mehlman's alleged role in firing a State Department official who was taking positions adverse to Jack Abramoff's client, the government of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

Mehlman was asked about the LAT story in his appearance today on CNN. It is a model of saying nothing while seeming to deny everything, yet still managing to stick a few shivs in your opponents, so I'm going to post the entire exchange:

BLITZER: There's a story in the Los Angeles Times today that directly involves you. And I want to give you a chance to respond to it.

It suggests that an official at the State Department was fired, a man named Allen Stayman, who was involved in the tiny Pacific Island nations of the Northern Mariana Islands. He was fired because Jack Abramoff, the disgraced Republican lobbyist, now confessed felon, came to you and basically said, fire this guy; he's not allowing the policies in the Northern Mariana Islands that Abramoff and his clients wanted.

"Newly disclosed e-mails," the L.A. Times reports, "suggest that the ax feel after intervention by one of the highest officials at the White House: Ken Mehlman, on behalf of one of the most influential lobbyists in town, Jack Abramoff."

You were then the political director.


BLITZER: Is that true?

MEHLMAN: It is not true. And I'm not sure that those e-mails suggested that. First of all, I did not have the authority, as the political director, to fire anybody. It wasn't my decision.

As political director -- now second of all, I also don't recall the specifics of this matter involving Mr. Stayman. But as a matter of course, and certainly the first term, I had, frequently, people come to see me with political issues they wanted talked about.

BLITZER: Including Jack Abramoff?

MEHLMAN: Or personnel issues that they wanted talked about. And when they would come see me, what I would do...

BLITZER: Jack Abramoff, also?

MEHLMAN: Again, I don't recall that specific matter that he came to me for, but I had a way of dealing with all these matters, which is to let the policy-makers or the personnel deciders know exactly what people said. And they made the decisions.

What's interesting about this, though, Wolf, while I don't recall it specifically, I have seen some articles since then, since this came out. And what they suggest is that Mr. Stayman violated the Hatch Act, which is a federal law that prohibits employees of the government engaging in politics on their official clock.

And it also suggests he may have been working with the DNC on some things. So while I certainly didn't have the authority to fire anybody and I don't recall this specific matter, it does appear, from what other news reports indicate that there was apparently cause for Mr. Stayman to be removed.

BLITZER: Because, in the L.A. Times, it quotes an e-mail from one of Abramoff's associates, as saying, "Mehlman said he would get him fired.

MEHLMAN: Yes, Mehlman didn't have that authority. Mehlman wouldn't say he had that authority. And remember, you're dealing with individuals who, as we know, have pled guilty to defrauding their clients by saying they did things they weren't able to get done.

My job as a political director, and any job as a political director, is to hear from people, whether it's about personnel or about policy, and make sure that the policy-makers understand their concerns.

Three Ken Mehlman posts in one day. I feel like the poor guy with the shovel following the elephant.

Ken Mehlman, defending the GOP handling of the Foley scandal, today on CNN:

The fact is the speaker and our leadership could not have been more aggressive. The moment they found out about this, they gave Mark Foley the political death penalty.

They said, get out of Congress or we're going to throw you out. They called in the FBI and the Department of Justice to investigate.

He just makes this stuff up, doesn't he? Sits in on a conference call sometime Saturday evening with other clever guys and gals and just starts pulling responses to the expected Sunday morning questions out of the air.

Recall that Speaker Hastert has already admitted that Foley was gone so fast they didn't have time to tell him to resign. They never told Foley, Quit or we're going to kick you out. Simply never happened. It was Nancy Pelosi who first moved to refer the matter to the Ethics Committee, not any GOP leader. So I don't know what exactly Mehlman considers to have been "aggressive" action by the House leadership because in fact they took no unprompted action.

Recall, too, that Hastert's letter to the Attorney General requesting an investigation came after Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) had already publicly called for an federal investigation earlier that same day.

Like I said, Mehlman just makes this stuff up.

The rivalry between the camps of Bush 41 and Bush 43 were on full display at the recent christening of the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush, according to Tom DeFrank:

For five years, the 41s have bit their collective tongues as, they complain, the 43s ignored their counsel. But as the war in Iraq has worsened and public support for the current administration has tanked, loyalists of the elder Bush have found it impossible to suppress their disillusionment - particularly their belief that many of 43's policies are a stick in the eye of his father.

. . .

"Forty-three has now repudiated everything 41 stands for, and still he won't say a word," a key member of the elder Bush alumni said. "Personally, I think he's dying inside."

. . .

"Everyone knew how Rumsfeld acts," another key 41 assistant said. "Everyone knew 43 didn't have an attention span. Everyone knew Condi [Rice] wouldn't be able to stand up to Cheney and Rumsfeld. We told them all of this, and we were told we don't know what we're doing."

On one level, I find all of this fascinating (perhaps best captured by the Dana Carvey skit from a few years ago in which, if I remember correctly, Carvey's 41 takes 43 hunting and debates whether to shoot 43 for the good of the country).

On the other hand, 41's cohort could have done so much more to sound the alarm and prevent the terrible slide the country has taken under 43. If Jim Baker's return is a sign that the adults are back, then where the hell have they been?

Reed Hundt compares the number of Iraqi deaths since the U.S. invasion to the casualty figures in our own Civil War.

At the risk of being mocked for my naivete, let me say that I was under the impression that U.S. air strikes in Iraq had dwindled to only very occasional, discreet sorties months if not years ago. Fighting an insurgency with air strikes is like performing heart surgery with a chain saw. Apparently, though, that's exactly what we are doing.

Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, hinted at ongoing air strikes this week when he told a group of military reporters that in a war with North Korea the United States would be hampered by the fact that so many guidance and intelligence assets are in use in the Middle East. As reported by the LA Times:

Pace said a conflict with North Korea, which both he and President Bush have said is highly unlikely, would rely heavily on the Navy and Air Force because of the significant deployment of land forces in Iraq. In addition, such an attack would not be "as clean as we would like," he said, because guidance systems used to aim bombs were in use in the Middle East.

"You wouldn't have the precision in combat going to a second theater of war that you would if you were only going to the first theater of war," Pace told a group of military reporters. "You end up dropping more bombs potentially to get the job done, and it would mean more brute force."

Although Pace did not name specific guidance and intelligence systems, Air Force officers have said they do not have surveillance aircraft such as Global Hawk and Predator reconnaissance drones available for East Asia because of their heavy use in Iraq and Afghanistan. The unmanned aircraft are used to spy on enemy territory.

Such recon assets are not used solely for air strikes; they support ground forces, too. But the report last week in the Lancet on the estimated number of Iraqi casualties (an astonishing 655,000 souls) also suggests ongoing aerial bombardment. Crooked Timber crunches the numbers (h/t to Ygelsias):

One number that is striking, but hasn’t attracted a lot of attention is the estimated death rate from air strikes, 13 per cent of the total or between 50,000 and 100,000 people. Around half the estimated deaths in the last year of the survey, from June 2005 to June 2006. That’s at least 25,000 deaths, or more than 70 per day.

Yet reports of such deaths are very rare. If you relied on media reports you could easily conclude that total deaths from air strikes would only be a few thousand for the entire war. . . .

The best source turns out to be the US Air Force Command itself. For October and November 2005, the US Air Force recorded 120 or more air strikes, and this number was on an increasing trend. Most of the strikes appear to be in or near urban areas, and the recorded examples include Hellfire missiles fired by Predators, an F-16 firing a thousand 20mm cannon rounds and an F-15 reported to have fired three GBU-38s, the new satellite-guided 500-pound bomb designed for support of ground troops in close combat. . . .

This sort of reliance on air strikes to combat the insurgency (which is becoming supplanted by sectarian violence, which our forces may or may not be in a position to distinguish) is a classic example of tactics divorced from strategy.

My own sense for some time has been that our inability to secure the peace--largely the result of our inadequate force size--has been the biggest obstacle to a political solution in Iraq. Obviously, many other factors come into play, and even achieving security, especially at this late date, does not ensure that a political solution is achieved. But persistent violence, and protecting oneself from it, has a way of trumping all other consideration for a civilian populace. If what we are doing in Iraq militarily still involves heavy use of air strikes, then we are a major source and cause of that violence to an even greater extent than I had imagined, and in a random and indiscriminate way which undermines anything we try to accomplish in Iraq politically.

In-depth profile of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in today's Lexington Herald-Leader, a taste of what we have to look forward to if the GOP retains control of the Senate and if, as expected, McConnell becomes the new majority leader:

In the early 1970s, Addison Mitchell McConnell Jr., a young and intense Republican lawyer, strode into the political science class he taught at the University of Louisville.

He didn't introduce himself to his students. He went straight to the chalkboard and scribbled.

"I am going to teach you the three things you need to build a political party," he said, and backed away to reveal the words: "Money, money, money."

. . .

"He's completely dogged in his pursuit of money. That's his great love, above everything else," said Marshall Whitman, who watched McConnell as an aide to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and as a Christian Coalition lobbyist.

. . .

Some senators shy away from fund-raising duties because of ethical concerns. Top donors tell senators what they want from upcoming votes, and top donors get special treatment, said retired Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo. Their calls to Senate offices are returned first, Simpson said, and their wishes are a priority when action is taken.

"I didn't enjoy it at all," Simpson said. "I just felt uncomfortable."

Yet McConnell never blinks, Simpson said.

"When he asked for money, his eyes would shine like diamonds," Simpson said. "He obviously loved it."

Not a flattering profile.

Didn't President Bush, in a much ballyhoed press conference in September, declare that the CIA's secret prisoners were being transferred to Gitmo for trial by military tribunals? That is what he said, right?

So what's this about?

A suspected al Qaeda leader, accused of being involved in September 11 and planning the 2004 Madrid train bombings, has been imprisoned in a secret U.S. jail for the past year, Spain's El Pais newspaper reported on Sunday.

Mustafa Setmarian, 48, a Syrian with Spanish citizenship, was captured in Pakistan in October 2005 and is held in a prison operated by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Pakistani and European security service officials told El Pais.

A spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Spain declined to comment on the report.

Setmarian's 2005 capture was reported in May of this year after the United States put a $5 million bounty on the head of the alleged founder of al Qaeda's Spanish network.

A photograph of the red-haired Setmarian has been removed from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Intelligence's most-wanted Web page.

Not that making it to Gitmo guarantees any sort of due process, as this NYT piece today makes clear:

Mr. Ginco, a college student living in the United Arab Emirates, had gone to Afghanistan in 2000 after running away from his strict Muslim father. He was soon imprisoned by the Taliban, and tortured by operatives of Al Qaeda until, he said, he falsely confessed to being a spy for Israel and the United States.

But rather than help Mr. Ginco return home, American soldiers detained him again. Nearly five years later, he remains in the United States military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba — in part, it appears, on the strength of a propaganda videotape made by his torturers.


We've been beaten up pretty good around here at TPM for what some perceive as our insufficient levels of enthusiasm for Ned Lamont and of loathing for Joe Lieberman.

I won't speak for Josh, but my second biggest dread about the November election (the biggest being the GOP retaining both chambers) is that control of the Senate comes down to Lieberman--and he defects to the GOP.

Now you may think that's because legions of Lamontites--and several personal friends--will have my neck if that happens. And it's true that I don't relish the I told you so's. But the prospect of Joe Lieberman continuing to play a central role in our national politics after what he has said and done in this campaign fills me with a worse dread than simply having been wrong about Joe staying with the Dems.

Here's Joe's latest weasel:

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a lifelong Democrat and student of politics, blanked when asked if America would be better off with his party regaining control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

A Democratic victory would immeasurably boost the influence of two Connecticut friends, U.S. Reps. Rosa L. DeLauro and John B. Larson, and provide a counterbalance to the Republican Senate and White House.

"Uh, I haven't thought about that enough to give an answer," Lieberman said, as though Democrats' strong prospects for recapturing the House hadn't been the fall's top political story.

He was similarly elusive about the race for governor. Is he voting for John DeStefano Jr., a Democrat and mayor of the city where Lieberman has lived since the 1960s?

"I'm, uh, I'm having," he stammered, then laughed and said his decision would remain private.

Joe, Joe, Joe . . . more here.