Josh Marshall

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Here's another important detail -- posted on TNR's blog -- on the scamliness of the Medicare bill careening through Congress. And yes I've already trademarked the word ("scamliness") for exclusive use on TPM.

The sort of myopic foolery of which Washington is made ...

In an otherwise half-sensible Washington Post editorial about the megaphone of wealth in our political discourse ("Mr. Soros's Millions"), the Post editorialists lets this sentence fly ...

For Democrats thrilled with the Soros millions, imagine conservative financier Richard Mellon Scaife opening his bank account on behalf of Mr. Bush.

Yes, imagine that.

Perhaps <$Ad$>whoever wrote this clunker needs to familiarize themselves with Mr. Scaife's giving to myriad conservative causes (think tanks, publications, pressure groups, etc.) throughout the 1990s, and before, and since.

Those of course contributed significantly to the Republican victories in 2002, and in other elections -- just as Democrats hope that Soros' largesse will contribute to hoped-for future triumphs.

The shoe momentarily finds itself on the other foot and suddenly the Post is gripped with the need to reform the non-existent disclosure requirements for giving to think-tanks and other forms of quasi-political giving. (Perhaps they should pick up a copy of John Judis' The Paradox of American Democracy: Elites, Special Interests, and the Betrayal of the Public Trust to get their footing.)

Read the editorial, let the fullness of the myopia roll over you, and you'll learn a lot about how elite opinion works in this city, and its essential corruption.

A Special Thanks to TPM reader DL for the tip.

Remember Khidhir Hamza? He was a rather famous figure in Washington a year ago. He was “Saddam’s Bombmaker” according to a book he co-wrote a few years back.

Hamza was the originator -- or at least the prime proponent -- of the theory that Saddam was enriching uranium through a highly unorthodox but devilishly concealable method --- with very small uranium enrichment facilities scattered and hidden throughout the country.

Here’s a graf from an article by Eli Lake last year in The New Republic …

Shortly after Wolfowitz took his post in February 2001, for example, Chalabi and Brooke brought 1994 defector Khidir Hamza, one of Saddam's most senior nuclear scientists, to meet the new deputy defense secretary. In the meeting, Hamza described how Saddam was trying to refine uranium for his nuclear program using a centrifuge technique in small labs scattered throughout the country. Initially, there had been skepticism within the intelligence community--and specifically the CIA--that Saddam could be refining uranium in this way. But Hamza was insistent, claiming that Baghdad was purchasing from abroad a specific kind of aluminum tube needed for the process. And ultimately, Hamza's intelligence seems to have been borne out. Just last week, The New York Times published an article reporting that "$(i$)n the last 14 months, Iraq has sought to buy thousands of specially designed aluminum tubes, which American officials believe were intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium."

People who actually make nuclear weapons never thought too highly of Hamza’s story (and that probably should have been a bit more of a warning sign). But, as <$Ad$>Lake implied, many at the CIA eventually came around.

Whether or not Saddam had procured yellowcake from Niger didn’t matter so much, reasoned many Iraq hawks, since he could just mine his own. Richard Perle told me in April of last year, for instance, that Saddam had already been “enriching the natural uranium that’s found in Iraq for some time.”

Not everyone bought Hamza’s story. Late last year, according to the Times of London, former weapons inspectors and proliferation specialist David Albright said Hamza's claims were “often inaccurate . . . He sculpts his message to get the message across . . . (He) wants regime change (in Iraq) and what interferes with that is just ignored." Many, however, found Hamza’s claim both compelling and chilling.

Here’s what Ken Pollack said about Hamza when TPM interviewed him in January of this year …

I will say flat out [that] I was under the same impression: that we had a very good grip on their nuclear program and there really wasn't much of a nuclear program well into the 1990s. I was constantly being assured that by the IAEA and by the intelligence community. And then all of a sudden we had a slew of defectors come out in the mid- and late 1990s and what they told us was that everything that we had thought was wrong. You know Khidhir Hamza is the only one who's gone public. So he's the only one I can really talk about. But in 1994 we really thought the IAEA had eradicated their nuclear program. And the IAEA really thought that they'd eradicated their nuclear program. And they were telling us they'd eradicated their nuclear program. And Khidhir Hamza comes out and says 'No, the nuclear program in 1994 was bigger than it had ever been before.'

The problem is that Hamza’s story now seems almost certain to have been false. Now, people get things wrong for many reasons. But given the minute detail of the highly unconventional methods Hamza alleged were being used and his own self-described central role in Saddam’s nuclear weapons program, it’s really hard to see how Hamza could have seen and done the things he told us he saw and did.

Really hard.

As I said above, in the couple years leading up to the Iraq War, Hamza was ubiquitous. And his story was endlessly mentioned. I saw him speak at a panel at the Council of Foreign Relations here in DC in the spring of 2002. And when I went up to try to ask him a few questions afterwards there were so many other folks trying to do the same that after a few pleasantries I got whisked aside to chat with his publicist.

Recently, he’s been a bit hard to come by. In fact, I did a nexis search on his name and I only got a couple dozen hits since the invasion last March.

I had figured that Hamza had just dropped off the radar screen --- which would be sort of understandable, given what I’ve noted above. But a memo prepared by a US government official after two stints working in post-war Iraq suggests that Hamza is still working with the US occupation authorities in Iraq, specifically in the new Ministry of Science and Technology. And the memo, written in late October, says Hamza will be coming to Washington in November.

So where is Khidhir Hamza? What’s his explanation? And if he doesn’t have a good one, why are we still working with him?

That’s it. I’m old.

Today I was making my way between my usual haunts --- my Starbucks, my favorite Mexican restaurant, my bookstore, and other stops: the places where I break up the time between reading, writing or reporting in my office. And from mid-day on, everywhere I went, there they were: roving gaggles of young people flooding into every place I spend my time, overcrowding them, and just downright getting in the way.

At first I couldn’t figure out what it was about them that seemed different and put me a bit on edge. And then it hit me: teenagers.

The real McCoy, not college underclassmen, but high schoolers --- a bit shorter than the rest of us, and each in their accustomed roles: the popular and the shy, the jocks, the pimply-faced, the fat and skinny, the geeky outcasts hovering on the edges of the crowd, the strutters and the preeners. The whole bit. Teenagers.

To the best of my recollection I once was one. But in the age-group isolation of my thirty-something bachelordom it’s a species with which I realize I’ve become almost wholly unfamiliar. Yes, of course, in their ones or twos, I see them all the time. And that's fine -- wonderful folks. But when they’re running in herds, that’s an altogether different experience. And one I now realize I’ve become weirdly unaccustomed to.

Certainly, somewhere in DC this weekend there’s some rally or Model UN, or National Association of High School Rabble-rousers convention or some such thing. Hopefully that’s it, and it’s just for the weekend. Otherwise, there goes the neighborhood.

"Some are now attacking the president for attacking the terrorists."

Is that how it is?

That's the line from a Republican party ad about to go on air in the primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Meanwhile, back on planet Earth we have a batch of unsettling news from the real war on terrorism.

In Turkey, the jewel of the democratic, western-oriented muslim Middle East, two more horrific suicide bombings kill 27 and wound hundreds.

As Craig Smith notes perceptively in the Times: "The attacks appeared aimed at disrupting the pro-Western secular axis many people in the Middle East believe the United States and Britain are trying to drive through the region with Iraq war. Such an axis would create a swath of territory friendly to the West from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf."

A five-member UN panel says it is "just a matter of time" before al Qaida attempts a chemical or biological attack.

And the Washington Post reports on an ominous process of what we might term 'alqaidogenesis' ...

Leaders of the al Qaeda terrorist network have franchised their organization's brand of synchronized, devastating violence to homegrown terrorist groups across the world, posing a formidable new challenge to counterterrorism forces, according to intelligence analysts and experts in the United States, Europe and the Arab world.

The recent attacks in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Chechnya and Iraq show that the smaller organizations, most of whose leaders were trained in al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, have fanned out, imbued with radical ideology and the means to create or revitalize local terrorist groups. They also are expanding the horizons of groups that had focused on regional issues.

It is, it would seem, a process which is proceeding a pace with little connection, for a good or for ill, to anything we are accomplishing or not accomplishing in Iraq.

Not so deep background <$NoAd$> (from a piece in tomorrow's Post) ...

Bush raised the possibility of increasing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq. When a reporter mentioned the United States' announced plans to reduce troop levels, the president responded: "We could have less troops in Iraq, we could have the same number of troops in Iraq, we could have more troops in Iraq -- whatever is necessary to secure Iraq."

A top aide to Bush, who briefed reporters after the news conference on condition that she not be identified, said that Bush was not announcing a change in policy and that expectations remained that troop levels would be reduced. "There is simply nothing to suggest that the number of American forces would need to increase," the official said. "In fact, the conversations with the commanders have gone the other way."

Who could that possibly be?

Marvelous, marvelous piece on Dick Cheney by Frank Foer and Spencer Ackerman in the new issue of The New Republic.

I can't say enough good things about this piece. It not only goes into fascinating detail about the back-and-forth between Cheney's Office of the Vice President and the CIA over the last two years, it also gives an insightful reading of the evolution of Cheney's own foreign policy views going back into the mid-1980s, placing that development in a sometimes rightly sympathetic light.

I think I have some quibbles with Foer's and Ackerman's judgment about the role of 9/11 as a transformative event for Cheney. But that's a small difference of opinion, and one I'm going to need to give some more thought to, before I make a final judgment.

But for now this is the piece on Cheney, the intel wars, and Iraq. It convinces me even more of something I've thought for some time: that Cheney's office is a rogue operation in this administration and one with the defining influence.

Money talks, and AARP walks.

To find out more about the ugly truth and what you can do to make your voice heard, go to this page at the Campaign for America's Future website.

Interesting update.

In late May, the UN's senior humanitarian relief official in Iraq, Ramiro Lopes da Silva, warned that the US reconstruction effort was too driven by "ideology" and said, in the paraphrased words of the British paper The Guardian, that "the sudden decision last week to demobilise 400,000 Iraqi soldiers without any re-employment programme could generate a 'low-intensity conflict' in the countryside."

This comment gets at another point. To disband or not to disband was not an either/or or a black and white question. At a minimum it would have been necessary at some point to purge the army of unreconstructed Baathists and those responsible for the worst sorts of human-rights offenses.

The question was whether it made sense to disband the institution and give these guys nothing else to do at a point when none of the infrastructure -- either physical or political -- of a stable post-war settlement had been created. Perhaps a year on, if things were proceeding in a good direction, it could have been done then.

As it happened, the decision didn't so much solve the problem of Iraq's almost half a million soldiers. It just left them unsupervised and jobless.

Here's an interesting question: whose idea was it to disband the Iraqi army? Formally, the decision was Paul Bremer's. But that only means that he executed the plan, not that he originated the idea or even necessarily agreed with it. He's taking the rap for it in a lot of corners. But I doubt very much the idea originated with him.

Here's what today's Washington Post article on the subject says ...

The demobilization decision appears to have originated largely with Walter B. Slocombe, a former undersecretary of defense appointed to oversee Iraqi security forces. He believed strongly in the need to disband the army and felt that vanquished soldiers should not expect to be paid a continuing salary. He said he developed the policy in discussions with Bremer, Feith and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz.

"This is not something that was dreamed up by somebody at the last minute and done at the insistence of the people in Baghdad. It was discussed," Slocombe said. "The critical point was that nobody argued that we shouldn't do this."

Slocombe recalled discussing the issue with Wolfowitz on May 8 and with Feith several times, including on May 22, the night before Bremer issued the formal order. Trying to put the army back together at that point, he said, "would've been a practical disaster."

Slocombe's an interesting possible author of the decision since he's a highly respected former official from the Clinton Pentagon and a Democrat, if one with a fairly non-partisan hue.

I have heard, reliably, that Cheney was the key force in the decision. And that he was convinced by Chalabi and others in his circle.

On the other hand, an article in the new Newsweek says this ...

When Bremer arrived in Baghdad in mid-May, the insurgency was just getting started, and clots of former Iraqi troops were reappearing, asking to be remobilized. Bremer, who has been widely blamed for reversing the decision of his predecessor, Jay Garner, to hire such men and pay them, was warned he would cause chaos by demobilizing the Army instead. The CIA station chief told him, “That’s another 350,000 Iraqis you’re pissing off, and they’ve got guns.” According to one official who attended the meeting, Bremer replied: “I don’t have any choice ... Those are my instructions.” Then Bremer added: “The president told me that de-Baathification is more important.”

Needless to say, the word coming directly <$Ad$>from the president is not at all inconsistent with Chalabi convincing senior officials, including Cheney, that this was the way to go.

A few other thoughts on this.

First, I sat down for an interview with a well-known defense policy expert at the very end of June. And the first thing out of his mouth was how bad an idea this was, and that no one could understand what they were thinking.

So I really don't think that it's correct to say that this is one of those ideas that seemed good at the time but has produced unintended results. Most people seem to have seen this as a pretty bad idea from word 'go'.

Second, the issue here, I think, isn't so much whose idea this was, as in a particular person, as just how it originated. Was it just bad decision-making by the people in charge -- not every call can be made correctly? Or was it another example of ideologues or those under the influence of Chalabi getting it into their heads that this was a great idea and then pushing it through over the objections of region experts, the CIA, the military, folks at State, etc.?