Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

I am more and more often visiting this website, a blog run by University of Michigan Islam and Middle East scholar Juan Cole. The presentation is a bit more jumbled than I'd like. But the quality of the content more than makes up for that minor shortcoming. This evening Cole has a long post discussing the Imam Ali Shrine bombing. He makes a seemingly persuasive conjectural argument that the perpetrators were Saddam loyalists.

Lies and fun. What a combination. And the Washington Monthly's got it.

The up-coming issue of The Washington Monthly includes 'The Mendacity Index,' a compilation of expert opinion on the comparative rates of dishonesty for the last four presidents -- Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush. In the words of the Monthly's editors ...

We asked a nominating committee* of noted journalists and pundits to pick the most serious fibs, deceptions, and untruths spoken by each of the four most recent presidents. We selected the top six for each commander-in-chief, then presented the list to a panel of judges** with longtime experience in Washington. Panel members were instructed to rate each deception on a scale of 1 (least serious) to 5 (most serious). Then we averaged the scores for each deception and for each president. We believe their validity rests somewhere between the Periodic Table and the U.S. News & World Report college rankings.

Take a look at how each of the four made out. And then head over to BeliefNet (which is partnering with the Monthly on this project) to rate each president's top six deceptions.

Paired with the Monthly's Mendacity Index is my next article in the Monthly, 'The Post-Modern President: Deception, Denial, and Relativism: What the Bush administration learned from the French,' my attempt to put together a grand unified theory of the Bush's White House difficulties with the truth.

The article is out in the soon-to-be-released September issue. And we'll be posting a pre-release link in the next day or so.

When she's right, she's right.

Maureen Dowd from the Sunday Times ...

It has also now become radiantly clear that we have to drag Dick Cheney out of the dark and smog. Less Hobbes, more Locke.

So far, American foreign policy has been guided by the vice president's gloomy theories that fear and force are the best motivators in the world, that war is man's natural state and that the last great superpower has sovereign authority to do as it pleases without much consultation with subjects or other nations.

We can now see the disturbing results of all the decisions Mr. Cheney made in secret meetings.

For more on this Cheney meme, see this article from a few months back.

Bob Drogin article in Thursday's Los Angeles Times put me in the mind of something I came across a year and a half ago when I was researching my first long article on Iraq -- a murky moment from Ahmed Chalabi's past, which played a key role in making him an object of deep distrust and animosity for many at the CIA.

In case you haven't read the earlier posts, Drogin's article says that US intelligence has concluded that a number of defectors with stories about Saddam's WMD programs were probably either double-agents or dupes who unwittingly passed on disinformation from Saddam. (One might also suppose they simply saw the rewards in store for any Iraqi defector who told the Americans what they wanted to hear ...) The piece went on to say that the Agency was applying renewed scrutiny to many of those defectors and implied that that scrutiny would also be applied to the man who was the conduit and handler of many of those defectors: Ahmed Chalabi.

Here's the incident I'm talking about ...

In the Iraq hawks' version of the events of the last dozen years, a key turning point was the failed CIA-backed coup attempt against Saddam in 1996. The coup was run out of Amman, Jordan; it centered on a group of Iraqi army defectors. And it came apart in a particularly humiliating manner: Saddam's agents used the radios the Agency operatives had given the plotters to radio them back and tell them they'd foiled the coup and that the plotters would be executed.

From any perspective it was a pretty low moment.

But, again, back to the Iraq hawks' version of events.

In early 1996 - a few months before the plot unraveled - Chalabi came to Washington to warn the US that the CIA's coup plot had been compromised and should be called off. Chalabi went to Richard Perle - already the eminence grise behind the INC's shadow war in Washington - who arranged a meeting with then-CIA Director John Deutch, his then-deputy George Tenet, and the CIA's Director of Operations for the Near East, Steve Richter.

According to the INC, Chalabi warned the three of what he had discovered --- that the plot had been compromised. But his warnings went unheeded. That meant the CIA brass was doubly responsible for the plot's eventual failure: Not only was the operation poorly run, but they refused to call it off even when they'd been warned that the plot had been compromised.

In September, a couple months after the coup attempt went bust, Deutch was called to testify on Capitol Hill about whether Saddam had bested the United States with the thrust into northern Iraq he had just made. (This move back into northern Iraq came after a series of US setback earlier in the year and came after Saddam was able to sow division between the two main Kurdish factions.) Before Deutch went to testify, Perle went to him and put that earlier meeting to good use, bullying Deutch into, in essence, breaking with the administration on Iraq. "Richard Perle got a hold of him and really busted him up," one source familiar with both meetings told me. With the knowledge of the earlier tip-off meeting, this source told me, "Richard had even more ammunition come September."

When Deutch appeared before the Senate he broke with the administration's position and agreed that Saddam was, in fact stronger, than he had been before the thrust North.

INC sources tell this story as an example of how they used the CIA's incompetence as a tool to advance their own agenda in Washington.

In any case, that's their version of events.

The CIA had a very different take on what had happened with the 1996 coup debacle. Many at the Agency thought that Chalabi, rather than warning that the plot had been compromised, had in fact been the source of the compromise.

The key thing about the 1996 coup attempt, after all, was that it didn't include Chalabi --- but rather the rival umbrella group, the Iraqi National Accord, an assortment of Sunni military defectors. And Chalabi had a history of scuttling anti-Saddam plans that didn't involve him.

Most believed that Chalabi had intentionally compromised the plan, though some thought he might have unwittingly done so or that his group had been infiltrated by Iraqi agents. (These suspicions at the Agency were noted obliquely in this May 16th column by David Ignatius.)

Let's make clear that the CIA also wasn't an unbiased observer to all this. The plot had gone south. It was their operation. And they weren't crazy about Chalabi to begin with. It's not unreasonable to question whether these operatives were just looking for a convenient person to blame the whole mess on. Without all sorts of security clearances, it's almost impossible to judge the basis of their suspicions, though senior people at the Agency implied that their evidence was more than circumstantial.

However that may be, the fact that many folks at the Agency believed Chalabi had leaked word of their plot and gotten a number of US assets executed helps explain why their distrust and animosity toward him runs so deep.

If the CIA is now taking another look at Chalabi's organization, suspecting it may have been infiltrated by or used by Iraqi double-agents, will this earlier incident come in for more attention?

It certainly should be. And given the hostility between the CIA and Chalabi, you'd expect they would if for no other reason than bureaucratic payback.

But according to one former Agency employee, quite the opposite might happen. The CIA, this source told me recently, is in full circle-the-wagons mode. They've got their hands full a) trying to find some WMD and b) investigating why so many points in their pre-war intelligence analysis seemed to be wrong. Looking back to the mid-1990s might dredge up some facts that would sully Chalabi's reputation. But it would probably bring up many of the Agency's errors too. At the moment, they're trying to keep the self-examination and investigation limited to only the most recent events. They've already got more problems than they can deal with.

A real investigation into this long sordid history is what we need. Not just one into the White House's handling of the lead-up to war, but everything. The CIA, the INC, the Clinton administration, the defectors, the WMD evidence or lack thereof. Everything. We've got many of the big players in custody now and lots of the former regime's archives. They may not be telling us what we want to hear about weapons of mass destruction. But there are any number of other questions and mysteries they should be able to clear up. The point wouldn't be to find bad-acting, mistakes or incompetence (though I'm sure we'll find plenty of each), but to get as close as we can get to a reliable understanding of our Iraq policy since the close of the Gulf War. No agency involved in this history is going to be capable of the objectivity and distance required to do the job right.

There's a lot of buck-passing mumbo-jumbo afoot right now coming from the chief war-hawks. But I think we can already see the makings of what we might call the big buck-pass --- a 21st century version of the 'stab-in-the-back' charge German militarists used against the fledgling republic which replaced Kaiserdom in the aftermath of World War I.

It would go something like this: To the extent that we're facing reverses in Iraq, we're not facing them because the plan was flawed or incompetently executed. We're facing them because the plan was sabotaged - by its enemies at home.

The saboteurs were the folks at the State Department and the CIA who stymied effective collaboration with the pre-war Iraqi opposition and members of the defeatist press who have a) demoralized Americans by exaggerating the problems with the occupation of Iraq and b)encouraged the mix of jihadists and Baathists, by creating that demoralization, to keep up their resistance and bombing by giving them the hope that America can be run out of the country.

For my part, I doubt it'll work. But I think that's where we're going.

One other point: if you have any doubt that the new neocon line that we need to turn Iraq over to the Iraqis really means turn it over to Ahmed Chalabi and the INC, read this column today by Bernard Lewis in the Wall Street Journal.

Thus reads the key graf ...

Fortunately, the nucleus of such a government is already available, in the Iraqi National Congress, headed by Ahmad Chalabi. In the northern free zone during the '90s they played a constructive role, and might at that time even have achieved the liberation of Iraq had we not failed at crucial moments to support them. Despite a continuing lack of support amounting at times to sabotage, they continue to acquit themselves well in Iraq, and there can be no reasonable doubt that of all the possible Iraqi candidates they are the best in terms alike of experience, reliability, and good will. It took years, not months, to create democracies in the former Axis countries, and this was achieved in the final analysis not by Americans but by people in those countries, with American encouragement, help and support. Ahmad Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress deserve no less.

Chalabi, Chalabi, Chalabi ...

Old lefties used to opine that you could never say that socialism or communisim had failed since they'd never really been tried. No need now to dip into that debate. But just before the start of the war I told a friend that you'd never be able to say the same about neoconservatism. This was really all their show, pretty much from soup-to-nuts. So at the end of the day the movement would either be vindicated in a very profound way or deeply discredited.

You'll never again be able to say that the whole cluster of ideas, personnel and tactics never got a good field test.

Of course, that's not going to stop people from trying.

And two articles out yesterday provide the first examples.

First is a report of an interview Richard Perle gave to Le Figaro.

(The quotes are translated from the French -- and, though I think Perle speaks French, it's possible that the interview was itself conducted in English and then translated into French. So keep in the back of your mind the possibility of some imprecision creeping in through translation or double translation.)

In any case, thus Perle ...

"Of course, we haven't done everything right. Mistakes have been made and there will be others ... Our principal mistake, in my opinion, was that we didn't manage to work closely with the Iraqis before the war, so that there was an Iraqi opposition capable of taking charge immediately. ... Today, the answer is to hand over power to the Iraqis as soon as possible."

The artfully passive 'mistakes have been made' construction invites the obvious question of who made them. But the second point shows where Perle's going: we didn't rely enough on the exiles.

Now, to most everyone who has their eyes open, the main story on the exiles (by which Perle means the INC) has been their general irrelevance to the situation in post-war Iraq. Indeed, this is a judgment many of the hawks themselves made not long after the invasion. Perle says we didn't rely on the exiles too much, but too little.

That's the problem: we didn't give enough juice to Chalabi.

That's a bit of an oversimplification of what Perle's saying. But not much. It's classic up-is-downism. Tax cuts didn't get rid of the deficit? It's because we didn't cut them enough.

You get the idea.

This argument gets elaborated in yesterday's column by George Will -- which appears to channel the thoughts of Wolfowitz or those in his orbit.

Will argues that the problem isn't too few troops, but too few Iraqis -- the meaning being that the real problem isn't too small an occupation force, but too few Iraqis to take on the job of rebuilding the country themselves, no Iraqi constabulary to police the country, insufficient intelligence which you can only get from locals, etc.

As far as it goes, that judgment is unquestionably accurate. We need an infrastructure of civilian authority and control to which to cede power -- even if political authority remains in the hands of the US or the UN or whomever for the time being. The problem is that one doesn't exist at the moment. Thus our bind.

But Will goes into 'through the looking glass' mode when he explains how we found ourselves in this situation. What went wrong, says Will, is that the CIA and State Department a) stiffed the exiles and b) didn't correctly predict the situation we'd find in post-war Iraq. The key passage reads ...

If, in the run-up to war, the CIA and State Department had been less opposed to the war, and less hostile to what they called "externals," meaning Iraqi exiles. This hostility expressed a perverse premise: Those who remained in Iraq under Hussein were somehow morally superior to those who went into exile to work for liberation. Absent hostility toward "externals," more Iraqis competent to work on public safety and civil administration would have arrived immediately behind coalition troops.

If the CIA had more accurately anticipated the continued opposition of Baathist remnants and had been less optimistic about the postwar performance of the Iraqi police, the problems faced now might have been substantially reduced.

It's hard to know where to start with this. I don't know the details about the Agency's predictions about the postwar performance of the Iraqi police force. But my understanding is that they were pretty close to the mark in their estimation of continuing Baathist resistance to the American occupation, something the hawks at the Pentagon entirely missed. And that is really the key issue.

Much the same on the hostility to the Iraqi exiles. The hostility wasn't so much to exiles as the neocons' exiles, i.e., the INC and Ahmed Chalabi. And our experience thus far in Iraq has pretty thoroughly validated the CIA's and the State Department's dim view of the Chalabi's usefulness and trustworthiness. The idea that we didn't rely enough on Chalabi doesn't pass the laugh test.

What's more, as has already been reported, the State Department did a lot of civil society, reconstruction type planning in the months before the war, only to see it dismissed and shelved by the folks at the Pentagon who were running the show. I can't say how effective those plans would have been or whether they would have measurably improved the current state of affairs. But to say that State and the CIA are responsible for holding back such plans is just the worst sort of make-it-up-as-you-go-along flim-flam, classic up-is-downism.

There is a real truth to the argument that infighting between the various agencies hampered our planning for postwar Iraq. And, as the saying goes, it takes two to tango. But by and large, the plans it would now be nice to have were coming from the State/CIA side and were scuttled by the civilians at the Pentagon. So this is really the old patricide begging sympathy because he's an orphan.

One other point.

Could this spouting of Wolfowitz's line be an effort to mend fences after the dig Will took at the Deputy Secretary last week? Sounds right to me.

I sincerely hope the author of this article in today's Boston Globe gets all his calls returned at the White House for a good long time. Because, boy, did he earn it. The piece lays out the "case" the Kay report is going to make about Iraqi WMD or, what the author calls, "the White House's best case so far that Hussein hid an outlawed weapons program."

The strategy behind the Kay report will apparently run something like this: Present a body of evidence that utterly discredits the administration's pre-war arguments about WMD. But dress it up with tons of documents and details. Say it confirms the administration's arguments. And then hope no one notices.

Here's the lede from the Globe article ...

Investigators searching for Iraq's suspected weapons of mass destruction will report next month that Saddam Hussein's regime spread nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons plans and parts throughout the country to deceive the United Nations, according to senior Bush administration and intelligence officials.

Once freed of inspections and international sanctions, the weapons programs were intended to be pulled together quickly to manufacture substantial quantities of deadly gases and germs, the investigators will argue, although the development of a nuclear weapon would probably take many months, if not years.

That "many months, if not years" line is really one for the chronicles of egregious understatement. But look at the broader point. What they're talking about is stuff like the centrifuge parts Mahdi Obeidi had under his rose bush.

Basically, Saddam had shuttered his 'programs' but kept the knowledge base on ice in expectation of a future point when sanctions would be relaxed and he could start back into the WMD business. The author of the Globe piece says "inspections and international sanctions." But clearly the issue was sanctions since inspectors had been out of the country since 1998.

Then there are gems like this ...

Officials said the investigators plan to paint a picture of an Iraqi government intent on expanding its ability to produce chemical and biological weapons and continuing its search for a nuclear bomb, while ensuring that the parts, if uncovered individually, would not be condemning or could be explained away as legitimate scientific and manufacturing endeavors.

A key aspect of the case, the sources said, will be so-called "dual use" equipment designed for making, for example, pesticides, but also useful for producing chemical weapons.

The argument here is that the thoroughly shuttered and static state of the Iraqi WMD 'programs' are a sign of how ingeniously covert they were.

Or another pearl like this ...

The Iraqis' so-called "break-out" program -- which could rely on small, dispersed teams of specialists and hidden equipment and supplies to build weapons of mass destruction in the event of relaxed scrutiny -- also could explain why the Republican Guard did not use chemical weapons against American troops in the war, as US commanders feared. Kay is expected to unveil evidence to support assertions by US officials before the war that Iraqi troops had been ordered to launch gas attacks on invading troops.

Let's translate this: the Republican Guard's failure to use weapons of mass destruction might be explained by the fact that Saddam had shuttered his WMD programs until sanctions were lifted.

That logic is pretty hard to dispute, isn't it?

I don't want to make light of this stuff too much. Weapons proliferation is a deadly serious issue. And we really do need a comprehensive report to tell us not just about the lead-up to this war, but everything we can glean about the history of the last dozen years of inspections and sanctions, not least of which how so many people -- certainly, myself included -- bought into many assumptions that simply weren't true.

But Kay's report is clearly going to be as political as it gets. And full of funny business. This is a deadly serious issue. But as long as they're approaching it in this way, it merits ridicule.

For a couple months a question has been hanging -- often unspoken -- over the WMD search. There were a lot of Iraqi defectors circulating through DC who claimed some very specific and direct knowledge about post-1991 weapons production.

Now we've looked; and a lot of those stories turn out to be baseless.

Intelligence analysts whose stories don't prove out may be guilty of poor judgments or even incompetence; but alleged eyewitnesses whose stories don't pan out are, almost by definition, liars. Not all the cases are so clear-cut certainly. But there are a number of celebrity defectors who showed up in a lot of articles and on a lot of panels who have some explaining to do.

Bob Drogin has a must-read story in the LA Times out yesterday evening which seems to do a bit of the explaining for them: Drogin says that the intelligence analysts and inspectors working the WMD case have decided that quite a few of those defectors were either double-agents working for Saddam or else dupes who innocently passed on disinformation that Saddam's agents wanted them to spread in the West. Others, not surprisingly, were just in the hunt for money, asylum and greeen cards. The intelligence agencies are apparently applying a new round of scrutiny to all the defectors. And, though the article is a touch fuzzy on this detail, they're also giving another look at the person who handled a lot of those defectors -- Ahmed Chalabi.

Among other things the article includes the most concise and -- I suspect -- accurate synopsis of what the inspectors operating in Iraq under David Kay have actually found ...

Evidence collected over the last two months suggests that Saddam's regime abandoned large-scale weapons development and production programs in favor of a much smaller "just in time" operation that could churn out poison gases or germ agents if they were suddenly needed. The transition supposedly took place between 1996 and 2000.

But survey group mobile collection teams are still unable to prove that any nerve gases or microbe weapons were produced during or after that period, the officials said. Indeed, the weapons hunters have yet to find proof that any chemical or bio-warfare agents were produced after 1991.

Drogin's collection of comments from inspectors and intelligence analysts demonstrates another point: the folks actually doing the work on the ground in Iraq and the analysts back home are in fullscale reevaluation mode. Only the DC pundits and the White House press office are still pitching the "you'll be sorry when we find the WMD" line.

More to come on the CIA/State versus the Pentagon political appointees front, who got scammed and who didn't, and a murky event from the mid-1990s which may be in line for some fresh scrutiny.

Just a quick note on the TPM redesign. The redesigned site should be debuting in the near future. The front-end look won't be very much different from what you see now, with the exception of a wide text window, which has heretofore been a source of some complaint -- the same simple, unadorned look. The new site will have an RSS feed for all you tech geeks out there, a printer-friendly function for those who don't want to print out a particular post without having to waste paper on a whole week's worth of material. (There won't be a 'mail-to-a-friend' function or an email list, for reasons I'll explain later.) The real changes will be on the back-end, which will make TPM more smooth-functioning, easier to update, and hopefully make it possible to put more content online. Let me thank everyone who's continued to contribute to help keep the site up-and-running and to every reader who's helped keep the site traffic growing month to month. More soon on the new site.

Wow. This new Zogby poll has Howard Dean leading John Kerry by a margin of 38 percent to 17 percent in New Hampshire. Equally striking is the fact that none of the other candidates even show up significantly in the poll. Gephardt and Lieberman both show up with a pallid 6 percent; and the rest of downhill from there. I seldom draw too many judgments from a Zogby poll. I think he has moments of real statistical insight or intuition, but is often wide of the mark. But a 21 point margin can't be an illusion based on flawed modeling. Dean is clearly way out ahead of everyone else in New Hampshire.