Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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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.

From this morning's This Week, comments from Majority Leader Bill Frist ...

"I have this fear that this zone of privacy that we all want protected in our own homes is gradually — or I'm concerned about the potential for it gradually being encroached upon, where criminal activity within the home would in some way be condoned," Frist told ABC's This Week.
Where to start? Does Frist seriously think that the right of privacy, particularly with regard to the sanctity of the home, is going to be used to 'condone' what most people might consider 'criminal activity'? Like robbery, child abuse, drug use or trafficking, counterfeiting, murder, and so forth?


Or, is it just that he thinks -- and wants to signal that he thinks -- gay sex is or should be criminal?

Having just gotten back into town, I've been able to give much less attention than I'd like to the on-going story of the Texas re-redistricting fight. I guess we might actually call it the re-re-redistricting fight now since they're taking yet another stab at it on Monday when Gov. Perry's special session for redistricting convenes.

This weekend is being taken up by what might be politely called sham public hearings meant to give the process the coloration of standard procedure. (Here's a report of one interesting flap about the GOP Chair from the Dallas area seemingly having the ability to secure special speaking slots at the hearings in which members of the public are supposed to be allowed to speak on a first-come-first-serve basis. Let me know if you want to speak, he said in his email to local Republicans, "as I will need to get you a place in speaking order AHEAD of time." Here's an article on just how raucous the situation is getting. And finally we also found out last week that the Justice Department's Inspector General started its own investigation back on June 4th into what if any of its resources were pulled into the original Dem manhunt.)

Also of note is a part of the backstory of the redistricting fight which has never gotten that much attention: the at least innovative levels of political money Tom DeLay poured into the state in 2002 to set the stage for the redistricting fight. The juice DeLay got played a pivotal role in the intensity Republicans have shown in their quest over recent months. Here's a few grafs from an article in tomorrow's Dallas Morning News ...

For the first time in state politics, large amounts of corporate contributions made their way into political races during 2002, helping cement a GOP takeover of the Texas House, state and federal records show.

U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, and the state's largest business group led behind-the-scenes efforts that have prompted lawsuits and investigations into whether the infusion of money was legal – which they vigorously contend it was.

"That was a sea change. The soft money game that played in Washington for years – no one had done that to any appreciable degree before this in state races," said Fred Lewis, director of the watchdog group Campaigns for People.

It is illegal for corporations or unions to donate directly to candidates in Texas, and the extensive ways corporate money became involved in the low-ballot legislative races raised the legal questions.

The expenditures have led to a grand jury inquiry into the Texas Association of Business; a citizen's criminal complaint against Texans for a Republican Majority political action committee – an offshoot of Mr. DeLay's Americans for a Republican Majority; and a series of civil lawsuits.

Directors of the committees that used corporate money said their actions represented a smart use of available resources, but were not illegal or improper.

The emergence of corporate money – whether used to produce advertisements, pay administrators or hire consultants – in 22 key House races last year helped the GOP overrun the last Democratic bastion in Texas government, campaign experts said.

As you might imagine, there's also a Westar Energy connection ...

Not a few of the emails I get nowadays are from aggrieved but expectant 'wingers who say something like this: Aren't you gonna feel stupid for going on about the uranium documents when the president finds the VX nerve gas?

Well, in lieu of answering this question a gazillion times individually, let me try to answer it here ...

No, not really.

Before and during the war, I was pretty sure Saddam had at least some chemical weapons. I also figured he probably had some low-level biological weapons. I never thought he had a serious nuclear weapons program. And my confidence in that last assessment increased greatly after the IAEA got back into the country late last year (the rule of thumb here is that a credible nuclear weapons program is much, much more difficult to conceal than a chemical or biological weapons program.)

What began to change my mind, not surprisingly, was our inability thus far to find them. In particular, it was our inability to find them when we had so many regime leaders and scientists in custody.

So, if we find them, we find them.

But nerve gas was never a serious threat to the United States or our allies -- not in the US, not in the region. Nuclear weapons, big-time biological weapons, a serious long-range missile program -- these would have been a very big deal. And the difference between these two orders of WMD -- a phrase that confuses more than it clarifies -- bears directly on whether we needed to go to war when we did, and whether the nature of the threat merited our turning the world upside down to get into the country last spring.

Since I thought he had them before, I'm not wedded now to the idea that he didn't have them. It just seems increasingly unlikely -- at least that he had any sort of robust and on-going effort.

The bigger issue though is the utter lack of connection between the two issues.

If the White House knowingly deceived the American public about one of its key pieces of 'evidence' that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program, it's hard for me to see how that becomes less of a big deal because we find some nerve gas. I'd say it's still a pretty big deal, especially when you consider that it's just the most evident and egregious example of a much broader pattern of exaggeration, manipulation and in some cases outright deception.

It's also a big deal since it was precisely because some chemical weapons weren't that threatening that you'd decide to scam the public about the nuclear stuff.

Now, with that out of the way, let's move to a different point -- one that makes me at least a little less confident about the assumption that we would have found the chemicals or biologicals by now because we've got so many people in custody.

You've no doubt heard the story that CNN ran Wednesday about the Iraqi nuclear scientist who had the uranium enrichment hardware buried under a rose bush in his backyard. (In case you've been buried under a rose bush for the last few days, you can read the story here.)

Now, when I read CNN's story, what jumped out at me was the name David Albright. CNN was quoting Albright about what the scientist's story was, why he'd come forward, what kind of stuff he had, and so forth. And it made me wonder, how'd he know this stuff?

Albright is one of the legion of former UN Iraqi weapons inspectors from back in the 1990s. He does a fair amount of TV. And, if my memory serves me right, he was -- as the former inspectors go -- fairly dovish on whether we should go to war this time against Saddam. So that made me think even more, why were they giving Albright a crack at him?

Well, on Friday CNN ran another story which tells the tale -- one which they should have run with the original one.

It turns out that Obeidi was trying to give up the goods almost from the moment US troops stormed into Baghdad. But our operation was so poorly run that we ended up making the guy into some sort of friggin' nuclear Diogenes, practically wandering the streets trying to find one competent person to turn himself in to.

According to the CNN story, Obeidi wanted to cooperate from day one, but was afraid to talk to US soldiers. That's understandable -- on both sides. Question one is why no one else was there beside soldiers (who are going to be, in their nature, intimidating and not professional weapons inspectors) for him to talk to. Perhaps they were there. But it doesn't seem like he knew where to find them.

(Think it might have been a good idea to have brought the IAEA folks back in to help out? Yeah, me too.)

So Obeidi remembered Albright from back in the day and "approached international journalists at random outside the well-known Palestine Hotel in the Iraqi capital until he was able to convince one to contact" him.

Finally someone got him in touch with Albright. And Albright started making calls in Washington. But apparently he had a helluva time getting anyone to listen.

"I have never seen anything like it," he told CNN, "Obeidi is sending all sorts of signals, and they just missed it completely. They were going to walk away from him."

Finally, he got the Agency to take Obeidi seriously and Obeidi started talking. He said he just wanted assurances that he and his family would be protected. After he got those assurances, he handed over the stuff on June 1st.

Then, two days later, the US Army showed up at his house, busted his door down and took him into custody.

"They took me outside, and they handcuffed me," he told CNN. "I saw tens of soldiers and tens of tanks and Hummers and helicopters were all around. And then I was taken to the side, and I was put on one of these Hummers ... and they took me to the airport" where the US is incarcerating detainees.

Anyway, that got worked out after a day or so. Centcom now calls the incident "unfortunate." David Kay -- another former inspector and the CIA's new weapons supremo in Iraq -- apparently got things straightened out. According to CNN, he "blamed the mistake on a lack of coordination between the many units operating in the country."

(Boy, I'd say that's a pretty big #$%@#& understatement, wouldn't you?)

At this point you half expect to hear that Obeidi woke up one morning to find he'd been transformed into a giant cockroach. (A little absurdist humor there ...) But actually it gets better.

After Obeidi got out of Army slammer, the CIA started hedging on its promises to get him out of the country. Or at least that's what Obeidi thought.

"First they have promised that they will make all the attempts to safeguard me ... and then what happened they told me that they have looked and they have investigated this matter, and they have discovered that there is more that I can offer, and they are ready to take the news to the media."

At this point, Obeidi apparently started to freak and asked Albright what he should do. Abright told him to go to the media. And this, it would seem, is how CNN got pulled in -- as Obeidi's insurance policy that our folks over in Iraq didn't completely screw-up the situation or end up FedExing him and his nuclear parts to Osama bin Laden off in the wilds of Central Asia.

So CNN went to the CIA and asked what the deal was. When asked, the CIA responded by saying that they were "moving Obeidi to a safer place and asked that the network refrain from airing anything until he and his family were out of Iraq."

Now, I can certainly see why CNN held off. But, contrary to how the story was played on Wednesday, you get the sense that the reason the CIA asked CNN not to move on the story was that they needed a few days to figure out what the hell they were doing and get their act together.

"CNN later interviewed Obeidi under an agreement not to reveal his location," the report says toward the end. "Obeidi in turn had consented with his handlers not to reveal much about his removal from Iraq or future plans."

Now, I have to tell you that I'm not sure quite what to make of this. I guess I'm not going too far out on a limb to say that this doesn't inspire a huge amount of confidence -- not least of which in the planning that went in to how we were going to deal with the WMD issues once we got there. At the same time, if something like this happened, maybe there are people out there dying -- hopefully not literally -- to tell their stories but just can't get anyone to listen to them.

I still think that our failure to find anything after ninety days most likely means that the sort of extensive chemical and biological weapons programs we thought were there probably weren't. But that doesn't mean stuff wasn't put on ice, literally or figuratively. When you hear stories like Obeidi's, who knows?

Some quick thoughts from Michael R.

From: [name suppressed by editor]
To: "'talk@talkingpointsmemo.com'"
Subject: WMD
Date: Fri, 27 Jun 2003 14:35:48 -0700
X-Mailer: Internet Mail Service

Do not the missiles fired from Iraq into Kuwait fall with in the realm of WMD? Just about everything the Iraqi's threw at our people were banded. So what is your problem? What does it take for you to realize that they have been finding the weapons all along, yet the media and the whiners of this country still can't accept the fact that we have a President that at least tries to do the right thing. Just a quick thought, why is it acceptable to spend millions upon millions of our tax dollars helping feed the poor of the world, yet when our government attempts to stop ONE SICK S.O.B. from killing 5,000 children in a year, burying thousands of people alive, using poison gas on civilians (boy, that is one nice person, Maybe he needs to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize), our government (which was fairly elected) is considered to be less than human. Maybe people like you that can not see the trees through the forest should wake up and be thankful that we live in a country that allows you to voice your opinion.

Michael R.

Quick thoughts ...

Let's watch really closely how the walk-back unfolds. And taking what was undoubtedly a hotly-debated stab at walking back the administration's WMD claims this afternoon was Secretary of State Colin Powell.

A little more than an hour ago NPR ran an interview with the Secretary on All Things Considered. Here's one of the key passages in which the interviewer asks Powell about why no toxins were found on the alleged chemical/biological weapons trailers found in northern Iraq (emphasis added in quotations below) ...

MS. BLOCK: There were no toxins found in those trailers.

SECRETARY POWELL: Which could mean one of several things: one, they hadn't been used yet to develop toxins; or, secondly, they had been sterilized so thoroughly that there is no residual left. It may well be that they hadn't been used yet.

Our concern was that Iraq was keeping in place this capability, waiting for the day when they were free of sanctions and could go about putting all of their programs back in place. This particularly applies to the nuclear program. What I said in February when I spoke to the UN, was that they had the brainpower, they had the plans, and they were working on acquiring the capability, and whenever they were free of UN constraints or other constraints -- nobody was breathing down their neck -- there was no doubt in my mind Saddam Hussein still had the intention of developing such a capability.

And as we have seen from material that's come forward in the last couple of days, and we've seen on television and in papers, we now have seen the plans, we have seen the scientists who said this is what he was supposed to be working on, and he was told to hide this material until times were better to get the program up and running again. That was the concern we had with Saddam Hussein. Not only did he have weapons -- and we'll uncover not only his weapons but all of his weapons programs -- he never lost the intent to have these kinds of weapons.

So now the argument is that Iraq hadn't reconstituted anything, but rather that they were holding on to the plans and waiting for the day when they were out of the sanctions box and could go back into the WMD business.

Frankly, I believe that's true. I also thought they must have had some chemical and possibly biological weapons left over from the glory days before the inspectors came in. I still think they may have. And this is one of the reasons I strongly backed the need to threaten force to get inspectors back into the country and quite possibly war to remove Saddam's regime once and for all. As I discussed a year ago, I think that circa 2001 the sanctions were hurting us more than they were hurting Saddam and that time was on his side, not ours.

But this isn't the argument the administration made -- not even close.

If this is what the White House thought, then there was no reason whatsoever to turn the world upside down in order to pull the trigger this spring.

Dick Cheney knew that, of course. Thus the recourse to bogus Niger uranium documents.

Man, I've been pretty rough on Dick Cheney over the last few months, first saying he was the most incompetent member of the administration and more recently that he almost certainly knew the Niger-uranium documents were bogus when he signed off on putting them in the president's State of the Union address.

But I'll give the guy credit: he doesn't hold grudges. TPM just got a personal email from the vice-president offering to make me a "Charter Member of Bush-Cheney '04" and "serve as one of our first key grassroots leaders in Talk, Alaska" if I'll only contribute "$100, $500 or even $1000 today at www.GeorgeWBush.com/CharterMember/." (You can see the actual email here. Don't miss it.)

And when I say TPM got the email, I ain't kiddin.

"That is why President Bush and I are relying on grassroots leaders like you, Talking Points, who can help our efforts in Talk, Alaska and across the nation."

Mr. Vice-President, I'll make you a deal. You let me interview you about the Niger-uranium documents and I'll pony up a cool thousand -- and, believe me, that's a substantial amount of my net worth. I know it might sound like a quid-pro-quo but believe me the standards about that sort of thing have gotten really loose so I don't think we need to worry. And, yes, I know it might sound like checkbook journalism. But, in this case, well ... I'm willing to make an exception.

I don't recommend many sites. But definitely put this one down on your list of ones to visit: It's Ruy Teixeira's new blog, Donkey Rising. (We'll leave explaining how to pronounce his name for a future post -- a long future post.)

Teixeira is one of the sharpest progressive thinkers around when it comes to the interplay of demographics, politics, and public opinion. He's also coauthor, with John Judis, of the The Emerging Democratic Majority -- see the TPM review of it here.

His big issue is getting the liberal/populist and centrist wings of the Democratic party to be wings of a single movement rather than, fundamentally, antagonists -- without which both are sunk. Definitely stop by his new site to see his blog and his weekly newsletters on public opinion and political strategy.