Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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Part One of TPM's interview with Ambassador Joseph Wilson coming up shortly. Check back soon.

Excellent news. Saudi Arabia considering going nuclear due to the "current upheaval in the Middle East." See the details in The Guardian.

I took a bit of a day off Wednesday and watched a lot of TV in the evening, including Paula Zahn's show. She interviewed Joe Klein and former Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke about the whole Cheney Halliburton business. They were chatting back and forth and at one point Klein said that Undersecretary of Defense Doug Feith shouldn't be rustling up clients who want to get business in Iraq for his old law firm, Feith & Zell.

Now, I hadn't heard that.

Is it really that bad? Have things really gotten to that level?

Well, I quickly found this piece by Al Kamen in the Post from September 10th. Here's the relevant portion ...

With a great chunk of President Bush's proposed $87 billion scheduled to flow to Iraqi reconstruction "big time," as they say, we've come across a most timely announcement from the highly regarded international corporate and commercial law firm of Zell, Goldberg & Co.

The firm "has recently established a task force dealing with issues and opportunities relating to the recently ended war with Iraq," its Web site announced. With offices in Israel and Washington, the firm says it "is assisting regional construction and logistics firms to collaborate with contractors from the United States and other coalition countries in implementing infrastructure and other reconstruction projects in Iraq. Through its Washington, D.C., office, ZGC is also assisting American companies in their relations with the United States government in connection with Iraqi reconstruction projects as prime contractors and consultants."

Interested parties can reach the law firm through its Web site, at www.fandz.com. Fandz.com? Hmmm. Rings a bell. Oh, yes, that was the Web site of the Washington law firm of Feith & Zell, P.C., as in Douglas J. Feith, former Pentagon official in the Reagan administration and now undersecretary of defense for policy and head of -- what else? -- reconstruction matters in Iraq.

It would be impossible indeed to overestimate how perfect ZGC would be in "assisting American companies in their relations with the United States government in connection with Iraqi reconstruction projects."

Infrastructure and other reconstruction projects, it says. Could that be telecommunications stuff? Cell phones? Stuff like that?

Now, I quickly walked back to the TPM archives and pulled Feith's government disclosure statement from 2002 (which we've just now added to the TPM Document Collection). Feith turns out to be a fairly wealthy man -- at least by TPM's plebian standards.

More to the point, though, his wealth seems almost entirely bound up in telecommunications stocks: AT&T -- $500,000 to $1,000,000, Bell South -- $500,000 to 1,000,000, Lucent -- $250,000 to $500,000, SBC Comm -- $1,000,000 to $5,000,000, Verizon -- $1,000,000 to $5,000,000, Qwest Comm Intl $500,000 to $1,000,000, Vodafone $250,000 to $500,000, more in trusts and so forth, the list goes on and on. See the whole thing here.

Is that the industry Feith & Zell, P.C. focused on? Is this the industry the 'task force' is going to help "in their relations with the United States government in connection with Iraqi reconstruction projects as prime contractors and consultants." Or did he just own a ton of AT&T stock back in the day and hold on to it as it broke up into the baby bells? Or is he just a deep believer in the power of phones? The spread of telecom stocks does seem to work with the one-time owner of tons of pre-break-up AT&T stock theory. So many questions.

Seems worth looking into ...

Interesting. I just watched Wes Clark on Aaron Brown. This was his first appearance on the show as a candidate. So Brown made a point of throwing a few policy questions at him and, conspicuously, switching to a more distant tone than the one they had when Clark was there as a CNN analyst.

He asked a question about Medicare, which Supreme Court justice he admired most, partial birth abortion. Clark's discomfort was evident, as, to be frank, was mine.

I won't mince words: it was a pretty awkward exchange. Not pretty.

Then after a few questions Brown moved to foreign policy and some more general questions that didn't turn directly on domestic policy issues. And Clark was smooth, articulate, polished, etc. For that matter, his pre-announcement to 'draft clark' supporters which ran online Wednesday morning (and which you can see here) was really good -- unrehearsed, not overly polished, but in a good way.

I know that one of Clark's concerns about getting into this race was not being up to speed on various domestic policy issues. And I suspect the issue here with these answers -- the awkwardness -- was not so much a lack of knowledge -- after all, most pols punch through those sorts of questions with a couple one-liners -- but an evident concern that someone's going to catch him out on some issue.

Now, it was day one. And I can imagine it's jarring if you've been going on TV a lot talking about subjects in which you have great expertise and then suddenly being asked questions on subjects in which you don't much expertise.

But it was a problem.

In all seriousness, following up on the previous post, this seems to be the first time that the press, the editorialists, everybody is reacting with mounting indignation over the Vice-President's habit of stating notorious falsehoods and unsubstantiated allegations on national television. The behavior isn't new; the reaction is. Something's changing. (At this point, Tim, don't you wish you'd followed up?)

Does Dick Cheney need to revise and extend his remarks? Over the last couple days pretty much every member of the administration has come forward to knock down Cheney's claim on Meet the Press that Saddam Hussein might have played some role in 9/11. ("We just don't know."). Not that it's so surprising: they're just stating the obvious. But this does represent a slight improvement over past behavior. So under the guidelines set down by most child-rearing specialists some measure of positive reinforcement is likely in order. Today even the president said it.

In the last month I've become increasingly convinced that the effort to use Iraq to pad the pockets of friendly companies in the US is a real story. In the past I always sort of shied away from the Halliburton contracts storyline. After all, Halliburton and its subsidiary Brown & Root didn't get big into the government contracting biz because of Dick Cheney. They bought Dick Cheney because they were already so big in the government contracting business.

In any case, when this much money is flying around, you inevitably get a lot of it steered into friendly hands, even without systematic crony-ization of the whole process. And one hears more and more examples of contracts getting very inexpensive bids from local Iraqi companies, only to end up in the hands of American companies whose bids are an order of magnitude higher. I don't think you have to figure wholesale corruption or even favoritism is taking place, at least not only that. The people who award the contracts are likely acting under provisions which (understandably and rightly) give preferential treatment to American companies. And many of the people making the calls probably have little knowledge of Iraqi society or business practices and thus little way of evaluating the trustworthiness and reliability of local operators.

I don't put that forward as an excuse, just possible, partial explanations that may be figuring into the mix. The whole situation over there is so complicated and multi-faceted (and we're just talking about the contracting issue) that I don't pretend to have a handle on it yet. I'm starting to do more poking around. But I think there's enough information out there to seriously question whether American taxpayers are spending much, much more than they need to be spending in Iraq.

Today Juan Cole notes how Halliburton was given early contracts on a no-bid, emergency basis. But under government guidelines they now have 'experience' in the region and thus a big leg up on future contracts. Cole says "most other large contractors have given up even trying for those contracts." He also notes this article about how we've nixed a local provider of cell phone coverage in favor of MCI Worldcom, which of course did such a bang up job here in the USA.

There is, moreover, a serious question about how much this issue of contracts is a hang-up in our efforts to get other countries involved in getting Iraq back on its feet.

PS. I've had a number of comments, not a few rather intemperate, taking me to task for saying that "the contracts are likely acting under provisions which (understandably and rightly) give preferential treatment to American companies." I think the clear import of the whole post is that this may not be a good idea in this case. However, the regulations in question here are general ones. And as a general matter, when the US government pays to have this or that done, I think we rightly give preference to American companies. But the key is 'preferential.' And that means that all other things being equal we give preference to our own folks. But clearly in Iraq all things aren't equal.

Trouble signs out of the Balkans.

A week ago Misha Glenny wrote in The Guardian that we are in danger of squandering NATO's success in stabilizing and ending the bloodshed in the region by failing to secure a permanent territorial and constitutional settlement. The 'we' is slightly misleading since, as Glenny notes, there is common agreement that the EU should take the lead political role in the long-term stabilization of the Balkans.

Today, though, the Financial Times adds another worrisome piece of news. The Pentagon is making a serious push to pull US forces out of Balkans altogether. The Army has always wanted to get those troops out. And administration hardliners have always taken a dim view of the whole enterprise. But the problem today is real. After years of saying our military was overstretched, we are now extremely overstretched. According to that recent CBO report, we are faced with the possibility that we will have no choice but to dramatically reduce our troop deployment in what is very much an active theater of operations.

Their total number is fewer than 4,000. But they're at least of great symbolic value and quite possibly operational value as well.

What distresses me most is a quote like this, which the FT article has from an "administration official": "The Balkans have always been essentially a European challenge more than an American one. Much of Europe seems bound and determined to leave Iraq as primarily an American challenge. Perhaps, therefore, a more clear-cut division of labour is in order."

The pique there is unmistakable. And the one thing we really don't want is to torpedo our successes in the Balkans (which are looking increasingly well-handled in contrast to recent bumbling) with the acrimony over Iraq.

Plus, if you look at that quote, it really does seem to mix the worst of Bush I with the worst of Bush II, doesn't it?

Sage words from one of the sharpest political observers in town. By email this afternoon.

I don't think fundraising is that important now. I'd look for how [Clark] deals with the press. Is he comfortable? Is he brittle? The precedent is not Hart and McCain, but Perot. If he wins over the national press, everything else will fall into line, but if he gets a reputation as touchy or distant or ill-informed, he'll be in trouble regardless of how much money he raises or whom he hires.

Sounds right to me. My only addition to this would be that questions over how his tenure as Commander of the United States European Command ended may show how he'll do in comfort and brittleness terms. My sense is that he's got a good story to tell. But the press is picky, a temperamental beast.

Department of credit where credit is due ...

Today, when asked his opinion on whether Saddam Hussein played any role in the 9/11 attacks, Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld said: "I've not seen any indication that would lead me to believe that I could say that. We know he was giving $25,000 a family for anyone who would go out and kill innocent men, women and children. And we know of various other activities. But on that specific one, no, not to my knowledge."

Stating the obvious shouldn't win you a prize really. But in these days, a little honesty goes a long way.