Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Seldom, I think, has a country undergone such a subtle, textured, distinction-granting debate about lying and truth-telling.

"I don't believe that the president deliberately lied to the public in an attempt to scare Americans into supporting his war. But it does look as if ideologues in the administration deceived themselves about Iraq's nuclear programs — and then deceived the American public as well."

That's the final paragraph of Nick Kristof's devastating column on just when the White House knew the Niger/Iraq uranium purchase story was bogus.

In Saturday's Times, Bill Keller says: "What the Bush administration did was gild the lily — disseminating information that ranged from selective to preposterous."

That is a description that is perhaps most artfully described as generous.

Washington's newfound appreciation of the 'subtleties' of truth-telling and lies is, well ... what shall we call it?, a revealing contrast to the common-sense definitions bandied about through 1998. But Kristof at least is on to something. There was an element of self-deception. A strong one.

If you simply insist on believing white is black, even when you can see it's white, then when you tell people it's black then, well, maybe you're sort of not really lying, right?

Certainly, in some cases, the truth was more muddy. Folks in the administration put the most ominous interpretation on fragmentary information that was admittedly ambiguous.

Here's another clip from Kristof ...

Still, Mr. Tenet and the intelligence agencies were under intense pressure to come up with evidence against Iraq. Ambiguities were lost, and doubters were discouraged from speaking up.

"It was a foregone conclusion that every photo of a trailer truck would be a `mobile bioweapons lab' and every tanker truck would be `filled with weaponized anthrax,' " a former military intelligence officer said. "None of the analysts in military uniform had the option to debate the vice president, secretary of defense and the secretary of state."

So I'm not simply being critical of this 'subtlety.' Mass psychology and individual psychology are more apt tools than lie detector tests for much of this. Maybe we're not talking about lying but only saying things you have no reason to believe are true, which I guess is not really a lie, right?

Or saying things you have good reasons to believe are false but don't know for a fact to be false?

I'm not in the camp of people who think the administration's falsehoods and distortions about WMD change that fact of the deadly significance of WMD, or the significance of Iraq's long history of non-compliance. But there is still, at the end of the day, an odd unwillingness to state the simple fact that in many cases the White House lied to the American public, repeatedly and unashamedly, to pave the way for war. Sure, sure, they thought they were doing it for a good cause. But if they'd lie about this, well you know the rest ...

Everything changes. Everything. Especially in Southern California.

Part of America's special nature --- good and bad --- is its manner of chewing itself up and building itself up again. Unused land gets laid out and built up and then the new buildings get demolished and the land is built up again. All of this seems to happen in an accelerated fashion in Southern California. It's a sliver of the nation where something like the frontier still exists. Land to be developed. Lots of it. And once they develop it, they develop it again.

Today I drove out to what Southern Californians call the "inland empire" - an area starting maybe 40 miles east of Los Angeles. The towns have names like Upland and Pomona and Ontario and Montclair. It's where I grew up -- or at least where I grew up from the time that I was six until I left for college when I was eighteen.

As must always be the case, the towns and streets and shopping malls look nothing like they did when I was a child. But in this case it's something more than the standard differences that occur over a decade or two. Nothing looks the same. These towns, this region, was and is the bleeding edge of the Los Angeles sprawl, which has been spreading like lava eastward from the coast for decades.

When my family moved to Upland, California in 1975, large sections of the town were still lemon groves. (In a sense this area was still very much like the area east of Los Angeles where Philip Marlowe usually ended up at the end of Raymond Chandler detective novels. Those old shacks where the bad guys were holed up. I think it's in The Big Sleep where Chandler describes Marlowe driving down a road lined with these groves, noting how the rows look like spokes from a rushing car.) One square block would be lemon groves and the next would be tract homes. Other blocks in the grid were just fields with nothing at all but rocks and dirt.

By the mid-late 1970s I don't think any of the lemon groves were actually being farmed. They were derelicts. They'd already been marked off for future development. They were just growing and producing their crops on nature's autopilot because there was no point in chopping them down until some developer was actually ready to build a new subdivision. Back then, at least in my memory, the better part of the town was still in lemon groves. Certainly a lot of it. And to the east the lemons were still king.

Today, the edge of the sprawl is dozens of miles to the east, with towns and towns of bedroom communities which, thirty years ago, only existed on paper.

So old buildings and stores were gone and replaced with new ones. And the open fields where me and friends would go build forts and stalk and capture lizards when we were little kids were built over for the first time, or perhaps the second.

But none of these were my main interest today. I wanted to see something very specific.

Twenty-two years ago, late in the evening one night in March of 1981, to be specific, my mother was killed in an auto accident on Foothill Boulevard in a town called Claremont. This was one town over from ours. She was on her way home. She was killed instantly --- at least in every meaningful sense of the word. And the impact of her car left a softball-sized dent in the foot-thick metal pole that held up the street lights at the intersection where she died.

The street, Foothill Boulevard, is the main drag in the region. It's actually the westernmost part of the legendary, cross-country Highway 66 and for years after I'd see that dent --- hard to notice for most people, but hard for me to miss. First as a passenger in other people's cars I'd see it and then as a driver myself cruising over the same path countless times.

For a very long time afterwards the gash still had etches of the maroon paint from her car -- for years I would guess, though I don't know precisely how long. Then eventually those chipped or washed away. And finally it was just a dent.

These things don't work quite the way they do on TV or in novels. I didn't fixate on it. Hundreds of times I passed that intersection and didn't look or even think about it. But it was always there, always there ready for me to notice, an occasional reminder.

In one of those weird, impersonal cruelties by which bureaucracies operate, there was apparently some thought at first that the city would sue my father or, I guess, my mother's estate --- such as it was, which wasn't much --- for the price of fixing or buying a new street light pole. Someone had to pay for repairing this small part of the city's infrastructure. And why should it be the taxpayers? Or so the reasoning went.

In any case, for whatever reason, this bizarre indignity never occurred. And the dent remained for years. The last time I saw it, it had been there for almost two decades.

Later, my father moved away from the area. But when I was in my twenties I'd visit the area to see old friends and I'd inevitably drive by and see the dent. I probably saw it last in the middle 1990s - still the same dent, unchanged, with a few flecks of the paint ripped deep into the metal.

But coming back to California this time I realized that through all those years I'd never touched it. I'd driven by it countless times and very rarely I'd feel some rush of the impact of her death as my car swept past the point in space where hers stopped in its tracks. But I'd never gotten out of the car and walked up to the spot or touched the dent. There must have been grooves cut into the metal -- perceptible only by touch. But I'd never stopped to feel the metal against my fingers or find its contours. I guess it had never occurred to me. Or maybe it occured to me today because I'm only three years younger than she was when she died. Who knows? One could go on about what the kinetics of that dent represented and what feeling its latent effects might conjure up in me --- but it probably goes without saying.

In any case, I wanted to rub it with my hand, maybe kiss my fingers and touch it.

I hadn't been to the area in at least five or six years and I didn't even remember the cross street name anymore. But I wouldn't forget the shape of the dent or the look of the intersection. I knew what it all looked like. So I drove to it knowing I'd recognize it when I saw it but not knowing quite which intersection it would be out of three or four in a row. My memory had grown hazy.

So I passed one and then another and then the intersection that I knew must be it. But no dent. I could make out a few scratches a couple feet off the ground as I drove by, but no dents. I circled back and drove by again thinking maybe I'd missed it. But nothing. Each was that unscarred blotchy metal that all the light poles there are made of. Then I gave a good long look at the pole I knew was the one. And then I extended the search a couple blocks in each direction. Nothing.

Eventually I realized it was gone. I knew where it was but it wasn't there. I stopped by the corner where the new, unbent pole was and looked at it. I wondered what had finally prompted the change. Was it just time to install new poles? Or maybe that old pole had finally got knocked down by some more formidable vehicle. Maybe an eighteen-wheeler had ripped it out of the ground. It wouldn't have been a match for something so large and heavy. Or maybe a new higher tech streetlight was installed. I mulled the possibilities and wondered if it mattered to me and rubbed my thumb a few times over my fingers and drove away.

Maybe what they say about California is true. I did grow up here. But since I got here on Tuesday afternoon, the tempo of my thinking has slowed dramatically. Not the quality, I hope not at least, but the tempo. Maybe it's the sun, or the beach, or the jacuzzi in my dad's backyard which, for once, I didn't have to fix before using when I came to visit. In any case, this probably explains some of the slow pace of posts.

Do read Krugman's column today. As usual a very nice column. But it also captures an important reason why I've given the Texas/redistricting Homeland Security story a lot of attention. Tom DeLay is a genuinely dangerous guy. This incident was a particularly egregious example. But I mean he's dangerous not so much in the sense that he's going to commit one particularly egregious act as the way he is transforming not only the government itself but what we consider acceptable in government. He is, to paraphrase the late Pat Moynihan's old phrasing, defining political deviance down. Krugman hits on several of the key examples in his column today.

Happily, the New York Times finally gave a full editorial to the Homeland Security scandal back on Tuesday. "The new Department of Homeland Security was called in on the case as if it were the patronage police and the dissenting Democrats were terrorists." Take a look at the editorial before the evil Times business gods snatch it out of public view and make you pay to read it. (It ain't that good.)

One point they allude to at the end of the piece, and one of the good things to come out of the affair is the way that it has exposed the laughable hypocrisy of many on the right. It's one thing to say, well, if this were Clinton they'd be saying this that and the other. And they would, of course. But it's nice just to have on record that my conservative friends really don't care very much about the abuse of federal law enforcement authorities for the crudest of political purposes. Just not their bag, not their concern.

Also, do read the piece by Fareed Zakaria which I linked to in the earlier column. It's on the deeper story behind the overstatements about WMD. He really has them right.

Finally, TPM has made arrangements to start accepting advertisements on a limited basis. Till now, the site has depended entirely on the much-appreciated generosity of readers who send in contributions -- that and a pretty big subsidy from my freelance writing. But we're trying to open up a new revenue stream which should help us expand the site in various ways. We're not expecting any major ad buys from Nike or Coke or anything like that. TPM attracts between twenty and thirty thousand individual readers on an average weekday. But it's a fairly choice demographic, including lots of people on Capitol Hill, many in the executive branch, lots of DC lawyers and lobbyists, and a lot of folks in the national media who advertisers generally are itching to get access to. So we'll see how it goes. More soon.

A special thanks to a number of readers who caught and alerted me to several typos in the previous post. Alas, the wages of writing a thousand words at four in the morning -- with jet lag no less!

I must confess to a mounting impatience with the advocates of the president's war policy who now seem zealously intent on short-circuiting any serious debate about the rationale for the war by denying, obfuscating or simply lying about the premises of the very debate itself.

There are two basic ways this is being done. One is to toss around words like 'conspiracies' and 'plots' in order to discredit their opponents without seriously engaging their ideas. The second is to utterly distort what the WMD debate was all about.

I've been traveling for the last few days (out-of-pocket, 38,000 feet in the air, etc.) and am only now catching up on my reading. So perhaps I've missed some better examples. But certainly one of the best is the sneering OpEd Robert Kagan wrote in the Post on Saturday.

It's starts with the familiar rhetoric ("There is something surreal about the charges flying that President Bush lied when he claimed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction") and ends with it too ("So if you like a good conspiracy, this one's a doozy. And the best thing about it is that if all these people are lying, there's only one person who ever told the truth: Saddam Hussein.")

Along the way, we get the heart of the argument: It's false, dishonest or just ridiculous to charge President Bush with deceiving the American people about Saddam's WMD because so many other worthies said just the same thing. Who? Hans Blix, John Deutsch, Tony Blair, German intelligence, Bill Cohen, Bill Clinton, everyone. In other words, just about everybody who could credibly be called part of the foreign policy establishment.

Each of these guys -- and Kagan could have mentioned many others -- said at one point or another that Saddam continued to maintain a serious stockpile of chemical and likely also biological weapons. This is all true, of course, so far as it goes. But it doesn't go very far if you start off by being disingenuous about what the debate even involves.

The president's defenders want to frame the argument like this: the president said there was WMD; his critics said there was WMD. If he's wrong, everybody was wrong. If there was a 'plot' to deceive the American people, as Kagan would have it, even the president's critics were in on the plot. So what kind of plot would that be?

This is just a head-fake with an advanced degree and it's deeply dishonest.

The public didn't get sold on this war because Saddam had nerve gas, or botulinum or even anthrax. True or not, a lot of people believed that. (I believed it -- and I still have a very hard time believing Saddam doesn't have chemical munitions stored somewhere.) The public got sold on the war because the administration argued consistently and vociferously that Saddam was on the brink of amassing far more fearsome weapons -- particularly nuclear weapons ("We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud") and that he had growing operational ties to terrorists to whom he might give these weapons or even some of his less threatening chemical agents.

It was fairly clear before the war that neither of those claims were true. Since the war it has become clearer by the day that they were almost certainly not true.

Those were the imminent threats that made the war necessary in March. No waiting for inspections, no building up of alliances, nothing. There was an imminent threat and countries respond militarily to imminent threats.

The only thing that's pretty clear is that there was no imminent threat. And there is a growing body of evidence -- much of which was known, frankly, before the war -- that the administration did everything it could to push the claim that there was an imminent threat using what was often very, very weak evidence. I don't think 'lie' is necessarily the best word for it. I think a more apropos analogy is a lawyer's brief. You pull together every piece of evidence you can find -- good, bad, flimsy, obviously bogus, uncertain, it doesn't matter, just throw it all in -- and you make the best case you can with what you have. You put in everything that helps your case and forget about everything that hurts it. And the case was that there was an imminent threat that required war against Iraq. I repeat, imminent.

In many cases I think the folks who pushed these arguments knew they weren't true. But to them, the ends justified the means.

In other cases, though -- and these are the more important and intriguing ones -- I think they believed that Saddam was such a bad guy that these things must be true. Or if they weren't true now, they would be soon enough. So, same difference.

Fareed Zakaria has an excellent column in this week's Newsweek in which he discusses the roots of this tendency. Many of the same folks who played key roles in the build up to the Iraq war make similar overestimations about the Late Soviet Union and later China. (You'll find some similar, if less elegant and erudite, ideas on these folks and this tendency in my earlier article "Practice to Deceive.")

We now need a serious congressional inquiry that will explain what was conscious deception, what was willful blindness tinged by a deep-seated ideological zeal, and what was simply an unwillingness to credit the reports of Intelligence Community analysts with whom the folks in the administration had deep-seated policy disagreements.

It does Kagan no credit to tar critics as conspiracy theorists or muddy up the water enough so that the debate can't be had. (If he wants to have it out with that minority of yahoos who claim that the US cooked up all the claims about WMD to get into Iraq and snatch away the country's oil, that's his choice.)

The fact is that the administration and its advocates are now doing everything they can to run away from a year's worth of arguments about the imminent threat posed by Saddam Hussein. Quoting one of their patron saints, conservatives are often fond of saying that 'ideas have consequences.'

Lies do too.

Till now we've assumed that the Department of Homeland Security got hoodwinked into getting involved in the manhunt for the Texas Democrats. Apparently that's not so. (Note to Joe Lieberman, Dan Gerstein, et al.: did you guys pick up on this?) One of the things Homeland Security did to help the Texas Republicans was to put out what amounted to an APB, calling various Texas airports to see if they could track down the Democrats in question. When an official at one of the local airports contacted by Homeland Security asked what was up, the Homeland Security official told him it didn't have anything to do with a downed plane or any problem like that. "This is just somebody looking for politicians they can't find," an unidentified official told Marvin Miller, an airport official in Plainview, Texas, according to a Saturday article in the Washington Post.

So much for an innocent misunderstanding. So much for 'homeland security'. (Note to Tom Ridge: Where's that IG Report?)

So here's the story with the disputed quotes from Sam Tanenhaus' article on Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz in Vanity Fair. As noted here a couple days ago, the Tanenhaus article says that Wolfowitz is "confident" that Saddam played some role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and that he had "entertained" the notion that Saddam had played some role in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing as well. (Tanenhaus sources Wolfowitz's ideas about Oklahoma City to a "longtime friend" of the Deputy Secretary.)

In the portion of his article that discusses his interview, Tanenhaus quotes Wolfowitz on the 1993 bombing and then notes that Wolfowitz declined to comment on Saddam's possible involvement in the Oklahoma City bombing.

The only problem is that none of this exchange appears in the interview transcript the Pentagon later posted on its website.

So what's the score? Did Wolfowitz say this stuff or didn't he?

It turns out that the dispute centers not on what was said but on whether it was on the record.

Vanity Fair and Tanenhaus said that these statements were all on the record. Certain portions of the interview were off the record, they say, but this wasn't one of them.

Wolfowitz's office disagrees. As he did yesterday, Wolfowitz spokesman Jeff Davis told me that the "transcript is complete and accurate, minus introductory pleasantries and off-the-record comments."

Davis confirmed that the issue of the 1993 bombings was discussed during an off-the-record portion of the interview and that Wolfowitz declined to discuss the Oklahoma City bombing issue when Tanenhaus brought it up. In other words, there isn't much dispute about what was said, just whether the two were on-the-record.

Tanenhaus is a pro. So it seemed to me that there must have been some miscommunication or misunderstanding on one or both sides about when they were off and on the record. So I asked Davis precisely what had been said that made it clear they'd gone off the record. In the complete transcript, Davis told me, "it was clearly caveated that that particular discussion [of the 1993 and 1995 bombings] is off the record."

When I asked Davis if I could see a copy of the transcript and the caveats he mentioned, he declined, citing the wish to maintain the confidentiality of the Deputy Secretary's off-the-record comments. (I'd have preferred to see it myself; but Davis' point isn't unreasonable.)

Now, obviously I wasn't present for the interview and I haven't seen the unedited transcript. So make your own judgments. But that's my best effort to get to the bottom of this little mystery.

Yesterday TPM reported that quotes from Sam Tanenhaus' interview with Paul Wolfowitz, which appeared in the Vanity Fair magazine article, don't appear in the transcript of the interview provided by the Pentagon. I'm still waiting to get the complete story from both sides. So I don't want to go into too many details quite yet. But, in the interests of not leaving the open question hanging out there, I can say that the discrepancy turns on a dispute between the two parties as to what was and what was not on the record. More on this soon.