Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

My friend James Sparrow spent a couple years (with grant support from The Sloan Foundation, I think) setting up an archive on the history of the great New York City blackouts of 1965 and 1977. It's all put together in an amazing website (The Blackout History Project) which covers the social history of these events, what happened, people's reminiscences in written and recorded formats, and so forth. The site also has a great deal of information about just how blackouts happen, what these 'grids' are that folks are talking about, and how various forms of electricity deregulation which have taking place over recent years have made an event like we've seen today much more likely. Like, for instance, why did this become so systemic? If you're interested in knowing more, go check out the site. If you're a journalist or tv producer who wants to get a hold of someone who can really talk about this stuff, get a hold of Jim Sparrow.

This is a delicate topic. But Christopher Christie -- the very political US Attorney for District of New Jersey -- seems intent on saying stupid things about his shoulder-launched missile smuggling case against Hemant Lakhani. For me, it's quite enough that Lakhani was willing to sell terrorists weapons to shoot down civilian airliners. But Christie isn't quite willing to give up the al Qaida connection.

Christie says Lakhani may well himself have been an al Qaida sympathizer.

How do we know that?. Thus Christie: "There is no question that Mr. Lakhani was someone who was sympathetic to the beliefs of the terrorists who were trying to do damage to our country. He, on many occasions in recorded conversations, referred to Americans as bastards [and] Osama bin Laden as a hero who had done something right and set the Americans straight."

Now, as I've said, if Lakhani was trying to sell plane-downing weapons to terrorists, that's more than enough for me. He's a rat. Toss the key, and so forth. Maybe he is an al Qaida sympathizer. But this is pretty feeble evidence.

What exactly do we expect the guy to say when he's talking to our undercover agents posing as al Qaida? "I'm happy to sell you fellows these shoulder-fired missiles. But I do think that whole September 11th business was a bit much. I'm not telling you your business. It's a free country. But I'm just sayin'."

Why can't they just promote this as an effective sting operation against a certified rat , rather than making foolish statements like these.

This, quite literally, takes the cake. The Pentagon and the White House are pushing to cut the pay of American troops serving in Iraq.

Back in April Congress raised the extra allowances soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines get for being in combat zones and for family separation. The former got bumped to $225 from $150 a month; the latter to $250 from $100. The administration says this increase will cost $300 million per year. And that's too much. They want to go back to the old rates.

The administration says that amount can't be balanced with our other priorities.

What are our priorities?

For a month or more word has been leaking out of the Pentagon and some quarters of the State Department that David Kay would be coming out with a report in mid-September which would settle the WMD debate in the White House's favor.

Robert Novak put those whispers into print on August 10th when he wrote …

Former international weapons inspector David Kay, now seeking Iraqi weapons of mass destruction for the Pentagon, has privately reported successes that are planned to be revealed to the public in mid-September.

Kay has told his superiors he has found substantial evidence of biological weapons in Iraq, plus considerable missile development. He has been less successful in locating chemical weapons, and has not yet begun a substantial effort to locate progress toward nuclear arms.

So what is Kay going to report? Needless to say, I don't know. But let me set out a number of clues and possibilities gleaned from a mix of press accounts, my own reporting, and conjecture.

First, it's very important to note that even the weapons inspectors and arms control experts who are free of any ideological or partisan need to find WMD in Iraq still don't speak of certainty that there are no biological or chemical weapons there. When I spoke to former weapons inspector David Albright earlier this month he spoke of no 'significant' or 'substantial' caches of these weapons. It's still, he told me, "hard for me to believe they didn't have some" of these weapons.

The point is that the people who are really worth listening to aren't making absolute or maximalist statements or predictions. The White House would like the standard to be, any chemical or biological weapons and they're vindicated. And I fear some of the White House's critics have been complicit in setting this very low standard.

At this point it seems increasingly unlikely we're going to find anything. But it could happen.

Second, it does seem clear that the Iraqis were keeping scientists organized and ready and that they were prepared to reconstitute these programs when the opportunity arose. This probably involved keeping various dual-use infrastructures at hand. Indeed, as I noted last week, Mahdi Obeidi, the nuclear scientist currently cooling his heels in Kuwait, says that after the war he heard about some nuclear scientists doing some low-level theoretical R&D on possible ways to make progress on nuclear weapons.

The point is that if you want to adopt an expansive definition of 'programs' we probably already have at least some evidence that they had on-going 'programs' --- just ones that were considerably more dormant than we'd imagined before the war.

(Note that "substantial evidence of biological weapons" would seem to mean that they haven't found any actual weapons since that would presumably be conclusive evidence, not just substantial evidence.)

Third, timing. Look at Novak's words: "Kay has told his superiors he has found substantial evidence of biological weapons in Iraq, plus considerable missile development." This construction leaves the issue of chronology quite vague. And I suspect that vagueness is going to become a very important point.

We know that the Iraqis had a biological weapons program and that there were biological weapons in the country. That's wholly undisputed. If Kay produces substantial evidence of such weapons in 1995 or 1998, that's meaningless. What we're trying to figure out is whether he had them in the period when we were considering going to war.

What many suspect is that Kay is going to pull an intel version of a classic 1990s-era document dump. In other words, come forward with a mound of documents detailing the Iraqis' extensive programs, their histories, the means used to conceal them, whom they imported parts from, and so forth. And then conveniently leave as a footnote the fact that these program had gone pretty dormant by 2002. The idea will be to make up with paper poundage what the report lacks in relevance. Hit them with twenty reams of report about the Iraqi WMD programs and then figure that the follow-on reports about how little was actually happening in 2002 are buried in the back of the papers after no one is paying attention.

All of this is to say that we're probably set for an elaborate festival of goal post moving courtesy of Mr Kay -- the widely telegraphed switch from weapons to 'programs' being the key sign.

The point to keep in mind is that at the end of the day the standard isn't any WMD or any identifiable dormant program which might have made non-conventional weapons in the future. The standard is this: If you look at the totality of the White House's pre-war statements about Iraqi WMD, and then look at what's contained in the report, will you say: "Wow, you weren't kiddin!" or "Wow, you've gotta friggin be kiddin!"

That's the standard. Everything else is chatter.

Here's a short blurb from Bahrain's Gulf Daily News. Dateline Sydney ...

US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said yesterday US troops would not leave Iraq until they found weapons of mass destruction there.

"We will (find them). I have absolute confidence about that," he told an Asia Society lunch in Sydney - after talks with Australia's Prime Minister John Howard on Tuesday.

While the US did not want to remain in Iraq any longer than necessary, "we are not going to leave until we find and destroy Iraq's capability to launch biological, chemical and nuclear weapons," Armitage said.

He said the fact that no weapons had so far emerged was a "chilling" reminder that they were "far too easy to move and far too easy to hide."

Noted without comment ...

An interesting email from one of my favorite New Dem-leaning correspondents in Washington DC.

We'll call him Mr R ...

Hi Josh. Great string of posts this a.m.! Glad to see you're back in the swing.

I thought you might be interested in my recent experience as a Democratic contributor. In the last year I've given $100 each to (1) Joe Lieberman, since he's a New Dem from way back and his DLCish instincts generally match my own, and (2) more recently, Howard Dean, because he's interesting and smart and, while I don't much like his current lefty trendline, at bottom I think he's a moderate.

Well. I got a couple of half-hearted follow-ups from the Lieberman camp last year (I think I sent a brochure to you), but absolutely nothing in the last six months or more, even though now is when they're starting to need the money, and a candidate's prior contributors are the folks he should be putting the strongest touch on. But, from Joe, at least to me, silence. Reminds me strongly of the hapless Gore operation - I gave thousands of dollars to Gore, even going back to his Senate years, and it took his campaign forever even to get my name right and figure out I was a supporter. I wonder if Lieberman has inherited some of the not-too-swift Gore back-office operations.

But from the Doctor! I've gotten half a dozen (correctly addressed!) follow-up letters in the couple of months since I sent him a check, and I'm obviously on his main direct-mail list, all on the strength of one contribution. VERY impressive operation on the technical side, and it certainly makes me more likely to contribute again. Wonder where Dean's people came from? Are these the tech-savvy people who are also staffing his Internet operation?

Anyway, a telling contrast, and I though you should have this report from the political contributors' trenches.

Regards, (Mr R.)

Very revealing about each campaign.

Sheesh! WorldNetDaily isn't usually at the top of my reading list. But they're running a story which, if true, is pretty mind-blowing and, frankly, would answer a lot of questions.

Here are the first three grafs ...

A former Energy Department intelligence chief who agreed with the White House claim that Iraq had reconstituted its defunct nuclear-arms program was awarded a total of $20,500 in bonuses during the build-up to the war, WorldNetDaily has learned.

Thomas Rider, as acting director of Energy's intelligence office, overruled senior intelligence officers on his staff in voting for the position at a National Foreign Intelligence Board meeting at CIA headquarters last September.

His officers argued at a pre-briefing at Energy headquarters that there was no hard evidence to support the alarming Iraq nuclear charge, and asked to join State Department's dissenting opinion, Energy officials say.

Definitely read this piece. It appears well-sourced. And it definitely left me wanting to know more. I'd like to see one of the bigs get on this since they'd probably have the muscle to bust it open a bit more. Though, of course, the real question is, why didn't we hear this story from one of them in the first place?

Alright, I'm a little confused. Articles like this one at MSNBC say that US agents "foiled an international plot" to smuggle a shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile into the United States for downing a commercial airliner. But when you read into the article you see that there really wasn't a 'plot' at all. This was really a sting operation. And as in most sting operations, the 'plot' was really something cooked up by law enforcement to snare a malefactor.

What seems to have happened is that Russian intelligence got wind of the fact that a small time arms dealer might be interested in selling these rocket launchers to terrorists. The seller's motives weren't ideological but pecuniary. In other words, the sellers weren't terrorists, just scoundrels. So in cooperation with Russian and British intelligence, the FBI provided this guy with a potential Islamist terrorist buyer, actually an undercover agent. And they picked him up when the deal was sealed.

Now this is an unquestionably good thing for at least two reasons. First, it's a good thing to have behind bars any miscreant willing to make money by selling terrorists the equipment to bring down a commercial airliner. (These guys are arguably more evil than the terrorists themselves. The terrorists at least think they're pursuing some justifiable, even noble, end. These rogues couldn't care less so long as they can make a buck.) Second, and more to the point, you probably can't deter terrorists who are willing to kill themselves anyway. But you probably can deter some people with financial motives from supplying the terrorists with the weapons. And this probably goes some way toward that end.

But still, there was no plot. And the point is more than just semantic. Look at this sentence a few grafs into the MSNBC report: "It was not immediately clear whether the plot was connected to al-Qaida or some other terrorist network."

All the horrors of terrorism aside, that line really brought a smile to my face. There was no plot. So there really wasn't much of a way al Qaida could have been involved, right?

The reporters who covered the story for the Times seemed to have a better handle on this. This line comes at the end of the third graf of their story: "No real terrorists were ever connected to the plot."

On the other hand, the Times piece also contains this line: "Intelligence agencies say Al Qaeda already has dozens of missiles, many of them American-made Stingers left over from the war in Afghanistan in the 1980's when the United States supplied them to Afghan guerrillas seeking to oust Soviet troops from their country. Hundreds of other surface-to-air missiles are reported to be circulating on the black market."

Something new at TPM. We're busily working away on the TPM redesign. The site won't look very different. But it'll have a number of features readers have been asking for for quite some time. A printer friendly function, easier searching, an RSS feed. There may even be a way to get a discount on your prescription drug costs. But we're still working on that. And the financing may be a bit touchy.

In any case, here's something new at the site that we're rolling out before the redesign. TPM reviews books. But there are many books that I'd like to recommend that I either haven't had time to read cover to cover or won't be able to review in a formal way. That's where the TPM Featured Book comes in -- right over there on the left.

Not all of them will be ones I agree with in every respect. I'm actually far from being a doctrinaire civil libertarian -- so there are points and attitudes that I disagree with in the first choice, The War on Our Freedoms: Civil Liberties in an Age of Terrorism. But airing these issues is critical for as co-editor Richard Leone says in the introduction, "history teaches us that bypassing public deliberation almost inevitably leads to outcomes that the nation ends up regretting."

My feeling on the balance between civil liberties and counter-terrorism is that I'm willing to countenance quite a lot that wouldn't pass ACLU muster if I'm convinced those measures will help prevent terrorist attacks against Americans. (Living in DC in the aftermath of 9/11 and during the anthrax scare tended to focus my attention and priorities in this respect.) What's consistently troubled me about this administration is the eagerness to adopt certain tactics which don't seem to make us measureably safer at all simply because they appeal to a pre-existing and ideologically-driven hostility to civil liberties.

In any case, this is an important book, which I'm glad to recommend. It's got contributions from all the people you'd want to hear from: Alan Brinkley, E.J. Dionne, Tony Lewis, John Podesta and others. Stop by Amazon and take a look.

A week or more back I discussed the similarities and dissimilarities between Clinton-hating and Bush-hating. At the time I said that for political purposes it really doesn't matter which is or was more justified, rational, or whatever. The issue is the political dynamic each creates.

Let me expand on what I mean by that.

Many people wrote in to say that Clinton-hating ended up not profiting the Republican party very much.

That judgment is profoundly mistaken. The vitriolic, organized and often orchestrated opposition to Bill Clinton ended up helping Republicans a great deal. But it's critical to understand just how it did.

Let's go back five years to the late summer of 1998. Bill Clinton hadn't been impeached or acquitted. The various videotaped testimonies had yet to be taken. But, for those with eyes to see, it was already pretty clear how the thing was going to play out. Congressional Republicans were going to pull the country through a protracted impeachment crisis that a clear majority of the public opposed, even though it was pretty clear they weren't going to be able to drive him from office. A few months later that reality was driven home by the party's surprisingly disappointing showing in the off-year elections. Yet the whole carnival proceeded anyway.

The Republican party was consumed by its animosity toward the president. Partly this was genuine grass-roots antipathy by Republican partisans. But that generalized rage was pulled together, organized and focused by bullying party moderates with the threat of retribution by an aggrieved base.

However you slice it the Beltway Republican party had grievously and dangerously alienated itself from public opinion on numerous fronts. Clinton-hating was a big loser with a decisive majority of the electorate -- at least sixty percent. Yet it still played a key role in the 2000 election.

The key was George W. Bush.

In his person, Bush seemed to Republican partisans to be the antithesis of Clinton. He also consistently tapped at the anti-Clinton keywords like honor, and respect for the office and so forth. At the same time, Bush didn't come from Washington (or didn't appear to). And thus he could portray himself as unconnected with the partisan frenzy of the late 1990s. When he talked about 'changing the tone' in Washington he wasn't running against Clinton or Gore. He was running against congressional Republicans in an appeal aimed at swing voters.

What the Bush candidacy provided for the GOP was a candidate who could pocket the 30% to 35% of the electorate animated by anti-Clinton rage, gain from all their energy, and yet also present himself to the political middle and independents as unconnected with the anti-Clinton craziness they found repellent in the congressional GOP. He let the party have its cake and eat it too.

I think the Democrats face a similar dynamic in 2004.

People often talk about the electorate as having a right and a left and a 'middle'. But that's not the best way to understand it. It's really sliced in half in two different ways.

There's the familiar left and right division -- roughly even if you mean Dems versus Republicans. And then there's the politicized (or partisanized) versus the non-politicized. The politicized group is bigger than the non-politicized part of the electorate. But not by that much. Three to two is probably a reasonable measure.

In many ways the partisans on the left and right have more in common than either do with the non-politicized group, though there are a host of very well-paid pollsters in DC working on teasing out all the nitty-gritty of it.

The key for Democrats is that they very much need a candidate who will harness the intense opposition among Democratic partisans to the direction the president is taking the country without being too tightly connected to or identified with that passion. If they don't find one, I think they'll end up having a very mobilized constituency that falls short of securing a majority.

This doesn't mean the candidate has to have watered down policies or be more 'centrist' in policy terms. It also does not and should not mean that he or she doesn't draw clear distinctions with administration policy. (The self-identified centrist leaders who are publicly scornful of the energized anti-Bush Democratic electorate are foolish and shortsighted. And there's more than a few people in the orbit of the standard centrist groups that know that and are trying to rectify the mistake.) What it means is that Democrats need a candidate who can appeal to those two very different slices of the electorate.

I'm not prejudging who that candidate is. I'm just saying that Democrats who are seriously interested in having a new president in eighteen months need to choose a candidate with that double-division of the electorate in mind.