Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

I haven't said much about the California recall race so far because, frankly, I couldn't think of much to say. And that tends to be my standard. But now that things have totally gone out of control I guess I should wade in a bit. That's especially so since there's one bit of news today that seems unquestionably good. That's the news that Rep. Darrell Issa is out of the race. Issa, you'll remember, is the execrable opportunist who got this whole bit of ridiculousness underway, funding much of the effort on his own dime, figuring it was his only way of slipping into statewide office without having to bother with that majority of the vote peskiness. (The last we heard from Issa before the recall craziness was his demand that the Pentagon rewire (rewireless?) Iraq with the inferior cellphone technology (CDMA) owned by hometown company Qualcomm.)

According to press reports, Issa had to fight back tears when making his announcement today. Now at first I figured Issa was tearing up because he'd spent such a big chunk of change on what's turning out to be someone else's party. But then I realized that wasn't it at all. He was just thinking how much more money he's going to have to spend to replace that sheet set and mattress and that fancy duvet because of the mess from that decapitated horse head he found in his bed this morning.

I mean, where do you think the call that got Issa outta this race came from? Yeah, me too ...

Yesterday I said that Mahdi Obeidi had told his CIA handlers about some on-going WMD programs.

Here's what I hear: Sometime in June 2003, after the fall of Saddam but prior to his leaving the country, Obeidi heard the following from a colleague in the Iraqi scientific community.

The colleague told Obeidi that there was another Iraqi scientist (someone involved in the nuclear program but not tied specifically to the uranium enrichment effort) who had done the following. At some point in 2001 or 2002 this scientist had brought together some junior people (other scientists, that is) to do work TPM World Exclusive!  You heard it hear first!  Must Credit.on the uranium enrichment front. This wasn't work actually enriching uranium, per se, in the sense of actual production, but theoretical R&D, discussing and hashing out ideas for how the job should be done once the word was given.

This would be in line with the CIA's 2000 report on the state of Iraq's program which said the Iraqis had "probably continued low-level theoretical R&D" after weapons inspectors had been expelled in 1998.

Again, Obeidi seems to have found out about this particular detail only after the fall of Baghdad, not before. This wasn't something he'd been involved with, but something he'd heard, and apparently believed.

That information jibes with other information both from Obeidi and other Iraqi scientists pointing to the conclusion that the Iraqi WMD programs were much closer to a state of dormancy than US intelligence had feared. However, there was clearly an attempt to keep the relevant scientists around and, at least on the chemical and biological front, to remain prepared to reconstitute the programs if and when the opportunity or need arose. (Bear that in mind when you think about the report coming from David Kay.)

And one other detail: It was widely believed in the US intelligence community that once inspectors left, the Iraqi WMD programs would really kick into high gear. That was a pretty solid assumption. And many of the estimates of the state of Iraqi WMD programs were based not simply or even primarily on positive evidence so much as this inference. What now seems clear, however, is that the sanctions regime may have been -- to the Iraqis -- a bigger deal than the inspectors. And it was the end of the sanctions that would have been the real green light for moving ahead.

Next up: what more evidence of biological and chemical weapons we might still find in Iraq and what it might mean.

Remember Mahdi Obeidi? He's the Iraqi nuclear scientist who made headlines back in June when he turned over parts of a gas centrifuge for uranium enrichment and blueprints related to Iraq's pre-1991 nuclear weapons program. The parts of course were buried under a rosebush in his backyard.

More recently, Obeidi made more embarrassing headlines when the Associated Press revealed that he has consistently told CIA investigators that those much-discussed aluminum tubes had nothing to do with nuclear weapons development.

The AP reported that Obeidi was in Kuwait. But it turns out there's a bit more to the story. Given that Obeidi was so quick to come clean about the history of Iraq's nuclear weapons program and Saddam's plans to reconstitute the program once sanctions were lifted, you might think that we were helping him restart his life in the US, Iraq or perhaps some other Arab country.

Well, not exactly.

It turns out he's being held against his will in Kuwait apparently because he won't 'come clean' about the aluminum tubes, an on-going Iraqi nuclear weapons program and significant chemical and biological weapons stocks.

Obeidi is not in prison. He's in a residential setting with his family, under US government supervision, well-fed and so forth.

But he can't leave. He can't go back to Iraq -- for obvious reasons. He's only in Kuwait through a US agreement with the Kuwaiti government. He can't go anywhere else since he doesn't have a passport. American friends provided him with a satellite phone. But his CIA handlers have frowned on his using it.

The deal he made, or thought he'd made with the US, was that he would be given asylum and allowed along with his family to come to the United States. He has a job lined up in the US and even, believe it or not, a book contract (that's globalization for ya). But though he had a good-faith understanding with the CIA that he'd be allowed to come to the United States, he failed to secure a formal agreement.

That turned out to be a mistake. For two months they've been holding out on him, apparently because the answers he's giving them aren't the ones they want to hear.

Now, the CIA's nominal rationale is that they don't think Obeidi is being honest with them, that he hasn't come clean. They apparently point to examples of Obeidi's lying to inspectors about various issues during the 1990s --- an allegation I've independently confirmed with a knowledgeable source. But that, of course, was back when Saddam's regime was still in power. The fact that he would have lied to inspectors back then doesn't show he's some sort of congenital liar. It just shows that he didn't want himself or his family to end up with bullets in the backs of their heads.

In any case, the claim that Obeidi is deceiving his handlers seems pretty implausible on its face. As they say in hard-boiled detective novels, the guy's made his choice. He provided the US with various materials and equipment the Iraqi regime was prohibited from keeping. He's incurred the displeasure of fellow scientists, not to mention the fact that he's probably made himself a marked man to whichever Baathist loyalists continue to roam the country. Why would he make a deal with the US, expose himself to all the dangers and opprobrium that entails, and then hold out on all the significant evidence?

I don't deny that such a scenario is possible. It is. But logic and other confirmatory evidence points strongly to the conclusion that Obeidi has come clean already.

Now, as CNN reported back in June, former weapons inspector David Albright has acted as an intermediary between Obeidi and the CIA. "I find that there's a conflict of interest for the CIA," Albright told me on Wednesday. "The answer they're getting is that there were no significant stocks of chemical weapons or biological weapons, no significant on-going work on nuclear weapons. But they're not in a position to go to Bush and say, 'Hey, we were wrong.' So they're stalling."

It's difficult to ascertain people's motives in a situation like this. Albright figures the CIA is caught between their own integrity and their unwillingness or inability to deliver the White House news it really doesn't want to hear, i.e., that the WMD search is more or less a bust. "They're getting answers they can't cope with," says Albright.

The one thing that no one wants is for Obeidi to make it to the United States where he's liable to end up on Larry King Live telling a story that would, to put it mildly, be very unhelpful to the White House. That means it's in everyone's interest --- or at least in the White House's and CIA's interest --- to keep Obeidi on ice in Kuwait. Maybe he'll become more helpful. Maybe the search in Iraq will come up with other evidence that will make Obeidi's revelations less embarrassing. Whatever happens, it'll keep him out of reach of journalists and from telling the very off-message story he apparently has to tell. It kicks the can down the road, as they say. No one in the government has any interest in getting Obeidi out of his odd de-nationalized limbo. So it's best just to leave him in Kuwait.

This all sounds rather similar to the story David Ingatius told in the Washington Post on July 18th about Saddam Hussein's science adviser, Amir Saadi. And even if Obeidi were holding out on some information, considering that he's the only Iraqi scientist who's really come up with some real goods, wouldn't it still be in our interests not to so obviously jerk him around? If nothing else, aren't we dissuading other scientists from coming forward? He said he'd give us the centrifuge parts and the blueprints. And he did. But we won't come through for him.

According to Albright, "Obeidi remains hopeful" of getting asylum and being allowed to come to the United States. But his leverage is rather limited. And, according to TPM's sources, earlier attempts to get word out to the press have made his situation in Kuwait all the more difficult.

Coming up later, how Obeidi has told the US about some on-going WMD work by the Iraqis, but why that hasn't come out either.

Here are my thoughts on the Republican claims that Senate Democrats are guilty of anti-Catholic bigotry for opposing the judicial nomination of Alabama Attorney General William Pryor. It's my new column in The Hill.

To my mind, it's an extremely ugly and cynical game the Republicans are playing -- led by Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA). They're doing their best to wrench advocacy of abortion rights into some latter-day version of anti-papal hysteria. Santorum's argument, in essence, is that political opposition to pro-lifers is fine, unless they base their pro-life stance on their Catholicism, in which case any such opposition becomes a form of anti-Catholic bias.

To me, that argument is ridiculous on its face. And there is the added ugliness of tossing around fake charges of religious bigotry for the most frivolous reasons -- precisely the charge Republicans constantly make against Democrats. In any case, I make my argument in the column.

A tad more on General Clark.

In discussing a potential Clark candidacy earlier today, I wrote ...

One of the big attractions of ex-military candidates is straight talk. Always has been. It signals a no-nonsensism that's one of the big attractions. Yet a while back I remember Clark not only being cagey about whether he was going to be a candidate (that's certainly understandable) but even which party's nomination he'd run for. And that falls a bit short on the no nonsense test.
A number of readers have written in to say that this same caginess about party affiliation was practiced by Eisenhower and Powell. (For that matter the same applies to Grant.)

That's true. But it misses the point. For various reasons there was a real question about which party the others would choose, what their real politics were. But the same is hardly true for Clark. He's not running for Republican nomination. He's considering whether to run as a Democrat, period. No question about it.

Because of that, the equivocation sounds odd.

Believe me, I have no interest in criticizing Clark. I'm quite intrigued by his potential candidacy. And one stray comment is hardly a big deal. But the comparison to Eisenhower's notorious caginess strikes me as quite inapt.

I've been hearing more and more about these Meet-Up meetings for various presidential candidates. So yesterday I stopped by one for Wesley Clark in Washington, DC. Or rather I should say it was for the Draft Wesley Clark group, since Clark isn't even a candidate yet. I can't say I was particularly underwhelmed or overwhelmed by the turn-out or the energy of the folks there. But it's hard for me to judge really since it's the only one of these I've been to.

I have a number of friends who are very taken by the idea of a Clark candidacy. And I think I'd say that I'd include myself in that group.

At the same time, though, I'm awfully skeptical. Military heroes who get into politics or are drafted into politics are usually big heroes, generals whose popularity is so transcendent that they can literally sweep away all the rest of the contenders from the field. The key examples would be Grant, Eisenhower, Powell (had he chosen to get into the race in 1996).

Clark, as much as I admire him (and I do, a lot), simply isn't in that category. And by conventional standards, it's way too late for him to get into the race. It's not at all clear to me that he can push these other contenders from the field simply by throwing his hat into the ring. And will he have the money or the organization or staff that will allow him to do it the old fashioned way?

I have my doubts.

Here's another issue.

One of the big attractions of ex-military candidates is straight talk. Always has been. It signals a no-nonsensism that's one of the big attractions. Yet a while back I remember Clark not only being cagey about whether he was going to be a candidate (that's certainly understandable) but even which party's nomination he'd run for. And that falls a bit short on the no nonsense test.

Now I say this as someone who'd really like to see Clark get into this race and catch fire. The national security credentials speak for themselves. And he does have the advantage that none of the other candidates have really pulled away from the pack or demonstrated any serious credibility as national candidates. (Even Dean's momentum --- as important and innovative as it is at the level of technology-assisted grass-roots organizing -- still strikes me as a sign of the weakness of the Democratic field.) I just have my doubts.

By ten o'clock this morning, by the time I left for the train station, I had already received a flood of email about last night's post about the parallels between Bush-hating and Clinton-hating.

Of course, the response was shaped by the fact that the TPM audience leans Democratic --- though probably not as much as most people think. And many of those responses could be summarized as follows: animus toward President Bush simply doesn't compare to that against President Clinton --- whether in the sheer degree of rage, the organized nature of it, or simply its mania. Emailers also noted two other distinctions: One was that animus toward President Bush isn't nearly as tied to the president as a person, as it was in Clinton's case. The other was that intense opposition to President Bush is, quite simply, far more justified.

Now, this is a conversation that has so many moving parts that it's difficult to know quite where to start. Let me begin with this: by and large, I agree with those points stated above. But before getting into this more deeply, I think it's important --- both in terms of intellectual honesty and of crafting responses --- for us to understand the structure and function of these two phenomena as clearly as we can.

Now, let's take that last point first: Bush has done more to deserve it. True or not, this is obviously not the kind of judgment you're ever going to get agreement on across the partisan or ideological aisle. What I think you can say is this: opposition to President Clinton was more personal, aggrieved and intense. And this is all the more striking considering his presidency was fairly centrist in its orientation and quite non-ideological. The same certainly can't be said about the Bush White House, which has been quite conservative and quite ideological.

You could certainly find some hacks and liars who would challenge that essential characterization. But this analysis is as close to objective truth as the highly subjective terrain of political analysis can ever hope to be. In fact, the testimony of conservatives demonstrates the fact. Remember, of course, that one of the prime Republican charges against President Clinton was that he was 'stealing our issues.' A fair translation of this charge is that he repositioned the Democrats out of positions and policies and imagery that made it easy for Republicans to pillory and defeat them. One would even hear this line in a more frustrated form when partisan Republicans lashed out at Clinton for masking his true liberal desires with all manner of centrist-sounding policies.

Today, to demonstrate the conservative line President Bush has taken, one need only look at the quiescence of the Republican right, their basic satisfaction with him on virtually every issue. That is because he has faithfully satisfied their essential wants on almost every issue: tax cuts, conservative judicial appointments, business-friendly regulatory policies, no compromise on bright-line 'morality' issues like gay-marriage, stem-cell research and the like.

I think a much more maximal argument could be made on both of these points --- both about Clinton and Bush. But for the moment I want to stick to arguments that are, I believe, undeniable. And so I think you can say that opposition, even intense opposition to President Bush is at least more explicable in conventional political terms than was the opposition, animus and rage directed toward President Clinton.

Another point worth making is that opposition to President Bush isn't nearly as personalized as it was to President Clinton. And, to be frank, it's nowhere near as frenzied. There is simply no equivalent to the talk of 'body counts,' conspiracy theories about the deaths of Vince Foster and Ron Brown, the numerous intensely politicized investigations leading to nothing, the Impeachment jihad, or the lot of it (much of it cynically trafficked in by supposedly respectable commentators and politicians). 'Wingers will frequently try to jump on the Richard Hofstadter bandwagon. But this sort of zeal and political hysteria, as Hofstadter understood, has almost always been the province of the right in this country or if not the right, per se, than political groupings currently aligned with the right.

There are more than a few sorta liberal commentators who've tried to imply or predict that Democratic antipathy towards Bush has become or would become as intense as the Clinton variant, predicting in one case that it would become as violent as hard-right activism sometimes did in the 1990s. This was, is and I'm pretty confident always will be a stretch, a facile attempt to find a symmetry that isn't there.

(The new faddish attention to Bush-hating among many DC types is an example of the town's collective amnesia and, on a deeper level, failure to really come to grips with what happened in the middle and late 1990s.

Now, I want to say more about this. And I'll try to pick up some of these threads in a subsequent posts.

But let me conclude on this point. It's always a mistake to let the rights and wrongs of a situation obscure its dynamics. For some time now I've been working on a review of Sidney Blumenthal's book, The Clinton Wars. It's a long book. And I think a very good book. And, though I've read a number of reviews of it with different reactions, I think it's actually a fairly straightforward book, straightforward, that is, in its essential point.

The conceit of official Washington is that the 'Clinton wars' were an inane time-wasting battle between a president with no morals and outlandish partisans with unhinged brains. It was, in this view, as though politics had simply stopped for half a dozen years or skidded off the rails into something that was utterly alien to politics, in the sense that politics has anything to do with issues and governance and so forth. Let's call this view, for the lack of a better word, Quinn-Broderism. Blumenthal's point is that the entire episode was deeply political, precisely about politics and concrete political issues, an effort on the part of one side to go outside the conventional political system and engage in a sort of political guerilla warfare. Defending Clinton, which many people have seen as the central aim of Blumenthal's book is, I think, actually quite secondary to sustaining that larger point.

I'll leave the rest of my take on Blumenthal's book to my review. But I think that this new phenomenon grows very much out of that earlier period. And, whatever the rights and wrongs of it, I think the dynamics involved are quite important for Democrats to understand.

More on this soon.

There are more and more articles being written about the intense animus toward president Bush among Democratic partisans. (I believe David Brooks got the meme rolling a month or two back.) I don't think there's much doubt that many are pushing this idea to discredit or marginalize the more intense opposition to the president. At the same time, there's simply no doubt that there is some real truth to it.

Here's what's weird about this, though: no one seems to mention how deeply this parallels the situation which prevailed through most of the 1990s between core Republicans and President Clinton. It wasn't simply that hardcore partisans then and now despised the president. But there was perhaps a third of the electorate that believed deeply in the president's illegitimacy (then Clinton, now Bush) and were driven further into that belief by the fact that they could not manage to get the rest of the electorate (say 60% or so) to see the man in the way they did. The difficulty of unmasking him became a sign of his political sins.

This was certainly the case with Bill Clinton. And there are at least hints of that now with Bush. If anything the depth of the enmity against Clinton was far more in-grown and aggrieved. But the parallel is so strong, the dynamics so similar, that the fact that it's gone so little mentioned really points to a blindspot among the folks who think up these ideas in the Washington press corps and commentariat.

Not that such a blind-spot would be so surprising, but still.

The reason we don't hear more about it, I suspect, is that Clinton-hating wasn't as jarring to most of these folks as enmity toward President Bush is, in that it wasn't that separated from their own passions and opinions and leanings through the 1990s.

Both phenomena -- Clinton-hating and now Bush-hating -- are signs of a deeper volatility, instability and acrimony in our current politics.

This article doesn't seem to have been picked up much of anywhere. But it provides a very interesting view into the struggles taking place behind the scenes in the US government over Iraq.

In this case, one of the important hawks at the Pentagon, F. Michael Maloof, has apparently had his security clearances lifted because of his contacts or connections with a Lebanese-American businessman whom the US is investigating for running guns to Liberia. (Small world, ain't it?) Maloof was a key player in the Pentagon's effort to develop its own intelligence to support a al Qaida-Iraq link.

This sort of story about security clearances, secret intelligence, and administrative decisions which are themselves supposed to be classified are very hard to nail down. And the article inevitably leaves all sorts of questions unanswered.

Maloof's defenders (the usual suspects among the hawks) say he's being punished for dissenting from and finding evidence to challenge the State Department-CIA view of the Middle East. Whatever the case, this is clearly part of a deeper tug-of-war over the control of intelligence, most details of which remain outside the public view.

This article from the Associated Press fleshes out the theory that Saddam had actually shuttered his WMD programs but intentionally kept the world guessing to produce the deterrent effect of having people believe he still had them.

He may even have put out disinformation to get people to believe the programs were still underway. Actually, it's more than a theory. The story is based on the testimony of a close aide who says this is what happened.

According to the aide, by the mid-1990s "it was common knowledge among the leadership" that Iraq had destroyed its chemical stocks and discontinued development of biological and nuclear weapons.
Who knows if this true? But I will say that it jibes with a lot of chatter I've heard back from Iraq in the last couple months. And it explains some key questions -- in particular, some supposed evidence of WMD from just before the war which it's been clear for some time was disinformation from the Iraqis. Frankly, it accounts for more potential questions than almost any other theory I've heard.

Frankly, it shows that, if nothing else, Ken Pollack was right about one thing: Saddam could be a pretty big idiot. Remember, one of Pollack's main arguments was that Saddam had a propensity to miscalculate. So I think you can say that Pollack had that one pretty much right -- only perhaps with slightly different consequences than expected.

Apparently Saddam was the only person in the universe last Spring who didn't know the fix was in on regime change.

And, I've gotta ask. Those uranium document forgeries? Could they have come from ...? No, couldn't be.