Josh Marshall

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We shouldn't be surprised that the president has now decided to "sign an executive order creating an investigation of intelligence failures in Iraq" or that he's apparently mandated that it not report its finding until after the November election.

But what comes under its purview? "White House sources," tell CBS that "the commission will have full access to materials they need."

But can we get a bit more specificity on that? Will it just look at the collection and analysis of intelligence? And just at the CIA and other intelligence agencies? Or will it look at the administration's use of intelligence, and at the White House, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Office of the Vice President?

I confess: I'm just too gullible.

This morning Post columnist James Hoagland endorses the 'CIA sold the president a bill of goods' defense. Hoagland is willing to concede that the president may have "inflated" the "flawed intelligence that [his] spy bosses and senior aides provided."

But still, he writes, "Credulity, not chicanery, would be the plea, your honor."

As I said, or rather as Hoagland says, the Agency sold the president a bill of goods.

Now, here I am at my favorite cafe, laptop on my knees, latte at the ready, trying to make sense of the world. And this all throws me, because Hoagland spent the last two years telling me that the president and his top aides had to bully the Agency and the rest of the career types in the Intelligence Community and the national security establishment into getting religion on the Iraq threat.

And now I hear it's just the opposite?

For instance, take Hoagland's October 20th, 2002 column ("CIA's New Old Iraq File"). That's where he said that the Agency's record of underestimating the Iraqi threat was so dire that "it is no surprise that Bush has until now relied little on the Langley agency for his information on Iraq. There is simply no way to reconcile what the CIA has said on the record and in leaks with the positions Bush has taken on Iraq."

The column -- which I really recommend you read -- describes how the president and his aides had bullied the analysts at the CIA into finally admitting what a threat Saddam posed. "As President Bush's determination to overthrow the Iraqi dictator has become evident to all, a cultural change has come over the world's most expensive intelligence agency: Some analysts out at Langley are now willing to evaluate incriminating evidence against the Iraqis and call it just that."

A cultural change, indeed.

In that column, and in the ones that followed, Hoagland praised the President's now-notorious October 7th Cincinnati speech as the kind of goods on Saddam that could be wrung from the Intelligence Community when the president asserted sufficient 'leadership.'

So, for instance, a couple weeks later on November 3rd, Hoagland asked where the president got his info about Saddam's ties to al Qaida in the Cincinnati speech? "Sez who?," asked Hoagland, "The answer: Sez the CIA, when pressed to the mat." (Itals added.)

Like so much else in this up-is-down, black-is-white world the president and his backers want us to live in, this new defense doesn't even hold up against the google test. And somehow I imagine that the folks on the inside have access to more evidence and examples than I'm able to track down with my wifi-enabled laptop and a nexis account.

Late Update: And, of course, there's more. This from Hoagland's October 10th, 2002 column ...

A sea change has occurred in official Washington since the president decided last summer that he would soon have to be ready to go to war against Iraq. Public attempts by officials to bury or explain away menacing information about Iraq have largely dried up or gone underground, although the CIA fights a rear-guard action. Now information and intelligence are marshaled to make the case, rather than deflect it.

This is, broadly speaking, political use of information -- no more and no less so than was the previous phase of denial and obfuscation. Bush mobilized facts on Monday to mobilize the nation for a challenge that is no less dangerous for being "largely familiar," as the New York Times labeled Bush's arguments in Tuesday editions.

The State Department and the CIA, institutionally wary and dismissive of the extensive intelligence about Saddam Hussein and his crimes provided by the dissidents of the Iraqi National Congress, had to listen Monday night to the president recite a dossier full of Iraqi National Congress information and insights that have filtered down over the years through the media, the government and academia to the skillful and alert speechwriters on Bush's staff.

Ahh, yes. The INC and the president's speechwriters. Why do we need intelligence agencies when we've got these guys?

The Hoagland archive, truly the gift that keeps on giving, and giving, and giving ...

We're really happy to report our highest traffic month yet. For January 2004: 2,192,404 page views, 1,632,034 visits and 411,239 individual visitors. A very sincere thanks, as always, for being visitors to, and readers of, the site.

Look at this. 117 reformist members of the Iranian parliament have now submitted their resignations over the deepening electoral exclusion crisis. Could this really be coming to a head?

This evening the Post has an article reporting that the <$NoAd$> White House has decided to support an independent probe of the intelligence failure over Iraqi WMD.

Here are the key grafs (emphasis added) ...

The details about the commission are not yet firm, including how much authority it would have to investigate not just the intelligence gathering apparatus but also how the administration used the intelligence it was given.

By joining the effort to create the commission rather than allowing Congress to develop its framework on its own, Bush will likely have more leverage to keep the focus on the CIA and other intelligence organizations rather than on the White House. Democrats have asserted that Bush exaggerated the intelligence on Iraq to justify going war, a theory that was boosted by recent allegations from former Treasury secretary Paul H. O'Neill that Bush had been contemplating the ouster of Hussein long before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

There it is. They want to wall off the investigation so it only scrutinizes their political enemies at the CIA and the rest of the Intelligence Community.

From a story on CNN yesterday evening: "Amid calls for an independent probe into prewar intelligence failures, Vice President Dick Cheney has called key lawmakers to say the administration is open to a range of options, sources tell CNN."

Why is the White House scrambling to get out ahead of these calls for an investigation and contain the potential investigation being called for?

Three data points framed as questions ...

1. Did the White House play fast and loose with the truth about the Iraq threat?

2. Are people in the Intelligence Community likely to know just how they played fast and loose?

3. Do people in the Intelligence Community feel ill-used by this administration?

Add them up.

And one other thing: how credible will an inquiry be if it covers the CIA but not the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Office of the Vice President?

There’s just so much to say about this new bubbling-up of the WMD controversy. And I plan to say a lot of it. But, for the moment, let’s see if there’s any way to get the media and various other members of the capital's elect to avoid another round of self-administered bamboozlement.

For months we have known with increasing degrees of certainty that there were, contrary to expectations, no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Yet the fact that David Kay has now stated this baldly has suddenly put this reality at the center of the national debate in a way it wasn’t only a couple weeks ago.

He has also said two other things.

First, he’s said that the CIA was not pressured to reach its erroneous conclusions. Second, he has said that rather than the president owing an explanation or apology to the American people, the CIA owes an explanation or apology to the president.

As to the first point, how would he know?

To the best of my knowledge, Kay wasn’t involved in any of the relevant inter-agency processes and he hasn’t investigated this question after the fact. So how would he know? I think the answer is clear: he doesn't.

The second point is a classic example of that phenomenon we’ve become so familiar with in the Bush years: up-is-downism.

Let me explain.

First, a stipulation. There’s no question that it was widely believed within the US intelligence community that Iraq had on-going weapons of mass destruction efforts and probably had at least a chemical and probably a biological weapons capacity.

Clearly, that assumption was wrong.

There is a subsidiary issue here. Intelligence assessments like this often include worst case scenario or pessimistic case scenario judgments based on incomplete evidence. And a lot of the misjudgments seem to have been of that sort --- a point which we need to get further into. But for the moment let’s stipulate that the US intelligence community got some major facts wrong and that we need to find out why and make improvements.

Having said that, let’s outline the ridiculousness of Kay’s judgment.

We didn’t go to war because Iraq had mustard gas or nerve gas or even anthrax. The threat, as presented by the White House, went far beyond that. All WMD are not created equal. Indeed, the catch-all phrase ‘weapons of mass destruction’ obscures much more than it clarifies. It groups together things like mustard gas, which is really a battlefield weapon, with nuclear weapons, which really are weapons of mass destruction.

The White House was well aware of this. And for that reason it repeatedly pressed the argument that Iraq was close to creating nuclear warheads --- a point over which there was very real disagreement within the Intelligence Community. The other component of the argument for war was Iraq’s supposed ties with international terrorist organizations like al Qaida. It was this nexus between illicit weapons and connections to non-deterrable terrorist organizations that was the essence of the White House’s case for war.

On the question of ties to al Qaida one can’t say there was a great deal of disagreement within the Intelligence Community, because the White House had real difficulty finding any intelligence professionals who believed that this was true. This, after all, is why administration officials at the Pentagon set up their own intelligence analysis shop --- because most people in the Intelligence Community didn't buy their argument about the connections between the Iraqi regime and al Qaida.

Now, Kay is saying, in essence, that the CIA sold the president a bill of goods. And they owe him an explanation.

But let’s review what we know.

We know that after 9/11 there were intense battles pitting the Intelligence Community against political appointees in the administration and that those battles were over almost every aspect of the Iraqi threat: nuclear weapons capacity, ties to terrorism, whether Saddam would use his arsenal against the United States, degrees of certainty about the state of Saddam’s chemical and biological programs, everything.

To the best of my knowledge there is not one single instance we know of in which any portion of the Intelligence Community pressed for a more ominous view of the threat in the face of skepticism from the political appointees at DOD, the Office of the Vice President, the White House or anywhere else in the administration. Not one.

We know of many points of controversy. And, to the best of my knowledge, every last one involved administration politicals pressing for more extreme and ominous interpretations of the Iraqi threat against skeptical members of the Intelligence Community. Every last one.

This is hardly even a controversial point. The hawks themselves made the same argument endlessly. They only stopped when the evidence came in and they were shown to have been wrong in almost every particular.

An internal review at the CIA conducted by Richard J. Kerr, a retired senior CIA official, has now also concluded that there is no evidence the CIA shaded its estimates to support the administration's case for war. But even if we grant the accuracy of that judgment it really doesn't get at the true question.

Why? Because we know that there were numerous cases in which people in the Intelligence Community tried to stop the White House from making various hyperbolic or unsubstantiated claims, precisely because they were not supported by the Intelligence Community's consensus estimates.

What we have here is a serious intelligence failure, but one that in itself would almost certainly not have led to war, at least not on the grounds of there being an imminent threat to the United States. Recognizing that it was an insufficient casus belli the White House then hyped it up with all manner of unsubstantiated mumbo-jumbo.

And for this the Intelligence Community owes the president an apology?

Just as the president did last summer when he forced an apology from George Tenet over the Niger-uranium claims and then tried to put the matter to rest without firing Tenet or asking for any kind of investigation, he now wants to pocket the blame being heaped on the Agency (because it absolves him politically) without having any sort of investigation to get to the heart of what happened.

Why? Simple. Because any truly independent investigation of how this all unfolded would expose the administration's systematic exaggeration of what we knew about the threat Iraq posed and, almost certainly, its willful deception of the American people.

Friends, a brief personal and house-keeping note. As I wrote when I arrived in New Hampshire a couple weeks ago, I wasn't able to send email, only receive it. I eventually came up with a work-around that allowed to send a few time-sensitive emails. But sending that way was complicated and time-consuming. So lots of emails went unanswered. And, with all the rush of running from one campaign event to another, a backlog of unread emails numbering upwards of a thousand built up too.

In any case, I'm not going to be able to respond to all of these. But I will read them all and respond to as many as I can. So if you've asked some question and haven't heard back from me yet, please bear with me for a few days while I'm working through the backlog, which I'm going to try to do this weekend.

Also, some of you have noticed that we've been having intermittent server problems going back a week or so. In most cases this has just been slow downloading. But in a few cases on one day over the weekend the site was, albeit briefly, almost totally inaccessible.

Part of this is due to some egregiously bad service by our Web hosting provider. Some has been due to the spike in traffic during the last week before the primary (if we're lucky I think we'll have a bit over 400,000 individual readers this month). But the big issue is that the hosting set up that worked when we were dishing out six or seven hundred page views a day two or three years ago just isn't up to the task of managing the sixty or seventy thousand page views per day we're serving up now.

We didn't want to make a switch to an altogether new set up while I was reporting from New Hampshire because when you make such a switch-over there's always a chance that the site can go down entirely or various other glitches can come up. As it happened, there was quite enough mixing of two worlds for my taste, sitting down for a quick meal at the Merrimack restaurant, trying to find my way out of my oversized parka, and yelling into my cell phone to the tech support dudes down in Georgia about why a guaranteed 72 hour turn-around for getting my site fixed (three days before the primary) really didn't strike me as a satisfactory answer.

In any case, we're going to be working on finding a robust set-up that will be able to grow with the site. So a new faster-loading TPM should be on the way soon.

Roy Neel has a message up on the Dean blog introducing himself and giving a status report to the campaign's supporters. It's worth a read. And I think he strikes the right note -- to some extent just by communicating in this fashion.

None of this changes my view that the outlook for the Dean campaign is bleak. (I think the window of opportunity is closing. And if Dean doesn't even contest the Feb. 3rd contests and doesn't place well, titanic forces will come into play that will be all but impossible to turn back.) But I admire their pluck. And who knows? Stranger things have happened. In fact, one just did. Two months ago, Kerry's campaign looked like a sinking ship and today he's probably on the way to the nomination.

Also of interest, Lisa DePaulo's new piece on Joe Trippi is available on the GQ web site.

Drats! There I go again, giving Mr. Perle too much credit. In my last post I told you how Richard Perle is in another controversy after giving a speech at a fundraiser for an organization the United States government classes as a terrorist group.

But a reader just pointed out to me that I seem to have gotten one detail a bit off.

I said that Perle had told the Post that his speaking fee was going to the Red Cross, and that Perle was surprised when the Post reporter told him that the Red Cross had decided not to accept any monies from the event.

But that's not quite what it says he said. The article quotes Perle telling the Post that "all of the proceeds [from the fundraiser] will go to the Red Cross."

But he says nothing about his speaking fee going to the Red Cross.

In fact, the article doesn't say explicitly that Perle even received a speaking fee, though it clearly implies that he did.

The article reports that "Perle declined to say how much he received." Later, the article has Perle explaining that the speech was arranged by something called the Premiere Speakers Bureau. Now, speakers' bureaus generally set up paid speeches. Not always, I suppose. But it's a good indication. Also, if he did the speech gratis why would he decline to say how much he got? Why not say he did it gratis and avoid any question or controversy?

As I say, we don't know, but the logic of the Post's piece points strongly toward the conclusion that Perle was paid to give this speech at a fundraiser for a terrorist organization. And if he got one, there's no indication he's given that fee back or given it to some other charity.

Should an advisor to the Pentagon be pocketing a fee for helping to raise money for a terrorist organization?