Josh Marshall

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Deep in the wilds of Orange County, in my home state of California, a woman named Gerrie Schipske is challenging long-time incumbent Congressman Dana Rohrabacher in the 46th district. Rohrabacher is one of Congress's more colorful figures. He's both very right-wing on foreign policy (and most other things) and also a reformed surfer/stoner. Reformed only on the drug part it seems: his website features a picture of the middle-aged congressman catching a wave.

Recently Schipske posted a press release on her website alleging that in April 2001 Rohrabacher had a secret meeting with then-Taliban Foreign Minister Ahmad Muttawakil in Doha, Qatar. He leaned on the Qatari government to arrange a get-together. And at the meeting, she says, Rohrabacher gave Muttawakil some documents and proceeded to discuss his "personal peace plan" with the Afghan Foreign Minister.

Now, I did a little research on this and based on my interviews and wire reports I've read, the story is actually true. In April 2001, Rohrabacher travelled to Doha, Qatar to attend a conference on "Free Markets and Democracy." While there, he met with a Taliban delegation led by Muttawakil. Al Jazeera reported that the two discussed Osama bin Laden, the situation of women and civil liberties. Rohrabacher told Agence France Presse that the conversation was "frank and open." And he told the Associated Press that Muttawakil's response to his plan was "thoughtful and inquisitive."

[Note: Needless to say, it's wrong to call the meeting 'secret' since Rohrabacher gave interviews about it at the time. 8/15/02-5:36PM]

Now the Logan Act prohibits private citizens from negotiating with foreign governments. But that's a rather technical matter. So let's pass over that for the moment.

It turns out there's more. The Muttawakil meeting was attended by several members of the United States Congress, according to AP and AFP reports. Who those other members of Congress were is not clear. They don't seem to be jumping forward. Who are they? I'd like to know.

Still more interesting are the two groups who sponsored Rohrabacher's trip: the Egypt International Forum and the Islamic Institute. Those who follow Republican politics will recognize the Islamic Institute as the group Republican power broker Grover Norquist established to help corral American Muslims into the Republican party. Norquist has been a close friend and political ally of Karl Rove for a couple decades and he is now a close advisor to President Bush.

(The Islamic Institute and Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform are both run out of the same office in downtown Washington. For some of the details see Frank Foer's article Fevered Pitch: Grover Norquist's Strange Alliance with Radical Islam.)

Okay, a little more.

The Agence France Presse report implies that Khalid Suffari, head of the Islamic Institute, was at the meeting too. The AFP report says Suffari told an Al Jazeera reporter that "The position of the Taliban was flexible on most of the issues and the Afghan delegation showed itself to be ready for dialogue."

So this got me wondering. Was the meeting somehow under the auspices of the Islamic Institute? I wondered even more when I learned that Norquist himself was in Doha for the Free Markets and Democracy conference (See Norquist's October 3rd, 2001 OpEd in the Washington Times).

So today I called Norquist. Norquist told me that he was at the conference. But he denied being at the meeting with Muttawakil. "Dana ran into some guy who was a representative of the Afghan government," Norquist told me on Wednesday, "and since he [Rohrabacher] had worked in Afghanistan he sat down and talked to the guy. They literally met in the hallway. I just remembered Dana mentioning that he ran into these guys ... and he yelled at them about blowing up the Buddhist statues."

That sounds a little different from the press reports at the time. But that's his recollection.

So what exactly was going on here? Honestly, good question. Back in the eighties Norquist and Rohrabacher used to be known for what you might call extreme activism, basically heading out to remote spots in the Third World, mainly in Africa, and hooking up with various right-wing militias. Jonas Savimbi's group. Stuff like that. They both hung out in Afghanistan a bit too. And I suspect this was just more of the same. Still, given the context, you'd want to know who those other members of Congress at the meeting were, wouldn't you? And, again, given that this all happened only a few short months before 9/11, maybe Rohrabacher should give some accounting of just what he was up to.

Much as I like the folks at the Washington Monthly, it's a small operation. They don't have a behemoth publicity operation like a Time or a Newsweek to push my new article (in the upcoming issue) on the myth of Republican competence. But somehow they've enlisted the White House itself in the effort to flack my piece. How else to explain the White House decision to ax this $5.1 billion?

Let's be honest, all else aside, this couldn't be more stupid -- purely in political terms. Set aside the fact that the president's own policies have busted the budget. Put all that aside. Let's just look at how dumb this hastily conceived ploy actually was.

Even I figured that this $5.1 billion would turn out to be mainly well-intentioned but not pressing funding projects, with a few homeland security things tossed in -- like money to monitor the health of the rescue workers at ground zero. But look at some of the other examples provided in this new AP article.

$82 million to enhance the FBI's counterterrorism technology.

You can sort of understand this one. I mean, the FBI did such a bang up job with those 386s and 3x5 notecards they currently use.

$165 million to strengthen security around food and water supplies.

Why spend money on this? Who's ever heard of terrorists attacking water supplies?

$100 million to improve the communications systems of firefighters, police officers and other emergency personnel nationwide. Radio problems hindered rescue workers' response to the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 because the various agencies' radios could not communicate with each other.

This one I can actually understand, I guess. With our crack intelligence agencies, when are we ever going to need local law enforcement as first responders to terrorist attacks?

Now there are a few instances of funding priorities you can sort of imagine the president may have wanted to cut. Like the $400 million for election reform. Or the $275 million for Veterans' medical care (as we reported a little while back, the White House is already trying to rein in costs at the VA by ending efforts to sign vets up for their health care benefits.)

For laughs, the president ridiculed the $2 million included for what he called "a new facility for storing the government's collection of bugs and worms." It does sound pretty lame. Until you find out that the president himself asked for it in his February budget request. (Memo from George to Mitch: Work with the speechwriters on this stuff. Stuff making look like such a goof!) And the reason is pretty clear. The current set up has the collection in 730,000 gallons of alcohol just a few blocks from the White House. "The issue is that, in theory, we have a potential bomb sitting there and it's in the middle of the mall in Washington," a spokesman for House Budget Committee Democrats told the AP.

Let's be honest. Set aside the White House's cynical dishonesty in trying to shift the blame for the return to deficit spending. The real story here is the folks running the White House were so desperate and panicked about what to do on the economy and so eager to come up with some way to salvage the Economic Forum that they came up with this joke which is sure to backfire.

As I've been saying, the gang that can't shoot straight.

"Times are kind of tough," President Bush told CEOs and investment gurus in Waco today. And how. Especially if you're the Bush administration. Most media outlets I saw today framed coverage thusly: was the Forum a genuine forum or a hollow PR exercise? That meant the White House had already lost the battle, since framed that way, the question pretty much answers itself. And not in a way the White House would like.

Yet the Forum -- and other similar exercises -- are beginning to illustrate an important reality -- one which the press corps is hard pressed to grasp, with its frequent emphasis on atmospherics and trappings and spin.

According to conventional wisdom, George Bush lost the presidency to Bill Clinton because he ignored the economy. He insisted it was good when it wasn't good; he didn't focus on it; he seemed not to care, etc. Bill Clinton beat him by doing the opposite. And this President Bush is determined not to make his father's mistake.

The conventional wisdom assumes it's all a matter of optics; but it's not. The White House and the media are engaged in a meta-discussion about the president's efforts to look engaged and focused on the economy. The hard reality, though, is that it's very difficult for a conservative president to actually do anything in a down economy -- because doing so goes against both his ideology and the interests of his key political constituencies.

(In this case you also have the president deeply and inextricably invested in long-term fiscal irresponsibility. But that's just icing on the cake.)

Thus you see the president doing politically foolish things like cutting $5 billion in funding for things like helping the firefighters at Ground Zero and sending aid to Afghanistan, which is currently crumbling under the weight of the White House's heavy inattention. The problem is only in small part one of appearances and political tactics. It's really a conflict between the White House's desire to appear to do something and its ideology which dictates that it do nothing.

Now to other matters.

Still no response from the Washington Post about the egregious pilfering of the name of this website. But new developments are brewing. We shall keep you up-to-date. And thank all of you again for sending all the emails to the Post. It's much appreciated.

Bob Novak had a very good column on Sunday about the more moderate wing of the Bush administration pulling out all the stops to beat some reason into the head of the president on Iraq -- particularly a face-to-face meeting the president had with Powell and his extremely influential deputy Richard Armitage. If you're following this issue, definitely take a look.

As regular readers know, I came to the reluctant conclusion that we should move against Iraq. But this administration seems intent on doing it in the most reckless, foolhardy and impetuous manner possible. Enough to make you think that if it's going to be done like this, it might be better left undone. It's a close-run thing as far as I'm concerned. And I'll be saying more on this soon. But if you're following this, definitely take a look at Novak's column.

Sometimes seriously, sometimes for little more than a laugh, administration officials argue that the permissive climate of the Clinton years was to blame for CEO and corporate boardroom shenanigans. The hapless Larry Lindsey tried out a version of this argument on Moneyline last week and Lou Dobbs actually burst into momentarily uncontrolled chuckles. "Mr. Lindsey, I understand it's a political year," Dobbs piped up after regaining his composure, "But you make it sound almost as if the administration and the respective law enforcement agencies and regulators will deal with only those criminals who committed those acts during the watch of President Clinton."

The argument is so transparently ridiculous that it's hard to know precisely how to test it. But here's a possibility. Fortune has just released its "Greedy Bunch," its list of the 25 greediest CEOs. That's an admittedly subjective category. And the methodology Fortune chose is a touch complicated. But the essence of it is a measure of who cashed out the most while their stockholders were losing the most.

I did a quick bit of research through the campaign filing data. And out of that 25 I came up with 10 who were Bush campaign contributors. Four out of the top five actually. Two of the 25 gave money to Al Gore. But those two also gave money to Bush. So it would seem that even if these flighty CEOs were beguiled by Clinton's seductive amorality the affliction didn't stop them from supporting George W. Bush.

(Note: With a quick run through the data, there might be some errors. It's not always clear whether this John Smith who gave money is the same John Smith who's on the list, and so forth. But the overall pattern seems clear.)

Two of the Bush donors on the cash-out-derby list are also participating in Tuesday's Economic Forum in Waco, Texas. In fact, number 11 on the list, Charles Schwab, is the keynote speaker at the panel on Small Investors & Retirement Security.

And what to make of the Forum itself? Much of the shine has come off the endeavor as it's become clear that the 'Forum' is basically a summit of the president's chief campaign contributors and CEOs who have been pre-approved because they already agree with his policies. But in an apparent effort to demonstrate some action, the president is going to announce he's rejecting $5.1 billion in spending already approved by Congress. This $5 billion in spending could, we are told, exacerbate the long-term deficit outlook that the President's own OMB says is overwhelmingly caused by the economic downturn and the president's tax cut.

But how smart is this $5 billion ruse, even in the most cynical political terms? As the Washington Post notes, this money is earmarked for, among other things, "aid to Israel and Afghanistan, funds for health monitoring at Manhattan's Ground Zero, and $44 million for police overtime reimbursement and other uses in the District of Columbia."

Those seem like rather worthwhile expenditures directly tied to the war on terrorism. The rejection of that money puts the administration's rhetoric at war with itself. Complaining about the deficit is supposed to be off-limits because spending is necessary for the war on terror. Okay ... Now the president is taking a tough line by cutting spending on the war on terror because it threatens to bump up the deficit. Which is it? Is it really too much to expect logically consistent cynical manipulation?

It really is the gang that can't shoot straight.

Still no response from the Washington Post to complaints from me and others that they've purloined the name of this column for Terry Neal's new online-only column on the WaPo website.

Thanks very much to everyone who's written to Neal and the Post (they've already received quite a few) registering their displeasure. Please keep sending those emails. Meanwhile the TPM legal department will continue considering its options.

P.S. The Washington Times, of all places, has picked up on the story of the Post's outrageous behavior. Intellectual Property, it seems, makes strange bedfellows.

I wanted to ignore Bob Somerby's continued attacks on me. But his new one today is so tendentious and misinformed that I can't hold my tongue. Today Somerby says that over the weekend on Reliable Sources I "finally acknowledged" that one of Gore's major problems in 2000 was the press corps' deep antipathy to him.

"There’s only one problem with Marshall’s statement," writes Somerby, "he didn’t say a word in real time, when voters deserved—indeed, needed—to be told." I'm only saying it now, says Somerby, not before or during the election when it would have counted.

I don't want to clutter these pages any more with this inanity. But for anyone who wants proof that Somerby is either wildly misinformed or deeply tendentious (I suspect the former) please peruse this article about the press's deep antipathy for Gore which I wrote during the Democratic National Convention in August 2000 (The American Prospect, cover date: Sept. 11th, 2000 Volume 11, Issue 20).

I'm quite pleased, honored really, to bring you our second guest post at TPM, this one from John Judis of the New Republic ...

HENRY KISSINGER WAS, perhaps, our most brilliant Secretary of State. Certainly he was one of the few who had an overarching theory of foreign relations, first articulated in his book on the Congress of Vienna. But his post-scholarly writing has been too corrupted by his own determination to remain a player in the Republican party. And he's still at it as a member of Richard Perle's influential Defense Policy Board Advisory advisory committee, which is leading the charge for an invasion of Iraq.

Yet Kissinger can never entirely abandon his European realism - his view of nations as rival centers of power rather than forces for good or evil - and so his books and columns have been exercises in equivocation. Witness his latest effort in today's Washington Post. The Post's op-ed editor, who seems to favor invasion, bills it, "How a preemptive war could lead to a new international order," but a close reading reveals a war between Kissinger's conviction and his opportunism. The former Secretary of State praises Bush's "eloquent" address at West Point, and appears to argue for a pre-emptive attack against Iraq. But at the same time, he quarrels with the logic that produced that strategy and puts a set of onerous conditions in the way of its execution.

Before the U.S. can strike, the Bush administration must gain public and Congressional support. But also it must develop a "comprehensive strategy for itself and the rest of the world," "a common approach" that would bring along America's allies, and a "program of postwar reconstruction." And, most important of all, it must "propose a stringent inspection system" through the U.N. That last condition means that Kissinger agrees with Senator Carl Levin and with European leaders like Tony Blair who want to see whether they can contain Saddam's nuclear program through the U.N. before undertaking an invasion. By contrast, the administration, as Vice President Dick Cheney made clear last Friday, insists that an invasion will be necessary even if Saddam were to agree to arms inspections. So contrary to appearances, Kissinger completely disagrees with administration policy.

The real tip-off is what Kissinger says about Bush's "eloquent" strategy of pre-emption. He calls it "revolutionary." In Kissingerian terms, that is a synonym for reckless or irresponsible. And Kissinger takes issue with the administration's most basic approach to Iraq. The administration has declared itself in favor of "regime change," but Kissinger writes, "The objective of regime change should be subordinated in American declaratory policy to the need to eliminate weapons of mass destruction as required by the U.N. resolutions." That's the Levin-Blair position. And he concludes, "A conspicuous American deployment in the region is therefore necessary to support the diplomacy to destroy weapons of mass destruction and provide a margin for quick victory if military action proves the only recourse." "Proves the only recourse" - that is also the Levin-Blair position, not the Bush administration stance. But don't tell the op-ed editor of the Washington Post.

-- John B. Judis

(August 11th, 2002 -- 12:28 PM EDT // link)

Saudi diplomat Adel al Jubeir made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows. But no one asked him about the incident early last year in which one of Paul Wolfowitz's close advisors essentially threatened him after a meeting at the Pentagon. And there's another dimension to the unfurling story of the anti-Saudi briefing to the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board. Last December, in what I imagine was likely my final article for the American Prospect, I noted that Richard Perle was having it both ways: He was going on every talk show in the world as a "former administration official" or "AEI scholar" and attacking the more moderate administration policy stance emanating from the State Department. At the same time he was actually a de facto member of this administration. He has an office in the E-Ring of the Pentagon because he is Chairman of the Defense Policy Board - a once somnolent outfit which Perle has reshaped into a highly partisan and quite influential pressure group in the administration. The briefing in question was clearly given at Perle's behest. Now that Perle's actions are themselves becoming issues in our relations with foreign powers, isn't it time he got a bit more scrutiny?

Hmmmm. Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery? Or did just snag the title of this column for its own nefarious purposes? For the last couple weeks Terry M. Neal has been calling his online column at "talking points."

True enough, "talking points" is a common phrase. But for another column which is a) online, b) about politics, and c) based in Washington, DC. can't they find another title?

What gives? The corporate media behemoth can just run roughshod over the small independent?

That seems to be the idea.

I'm under no illusion that everyone in journalism knows about this column. But Howard Kurtz writes a daily media column on and he's been picking up bits and morsels from this site (for which, don't get me wrong, I'm extremely appreciative) about once a week for almost two years. Plus, the site has been written about several times in the Washington Post itself. So I have to imagine that someone at knows this site exists.

Alas, the small TPM legal department probably can't outgun the big-city law firm sharks who work for the Washington Post Company. But by all means drop Terry Neal a line and tell him to put a stop to this egregious trespass.

As I mentioned today in my Salon article on nasty in-fighting at the Pentagon, Iraq isn't the only country in line for the 'regime change' treatment. In many ways the neo-cons are even more interested in tossing the regimes in Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Which brings us to the Voice of America and Iran.

As I've mentioned to you before, The Nelson Report is Washington's bible for the hottest scoops and gossip on Asian diplomacy and trade negotiation politics -- Nelson's sort of like the Drudge of Fast Track.

Anyway, Robert R. Reilly is the extremely conservative Bush political appointee in charge of Voice of America. According to Wednesday's Nelson Report, at last month's meeting of the Voice of America Board, Reilly proposed and got approval to shut down "all the major [VOA] news bureaus in Asia, Latin America and Europe" in order to free up money to create a new station dedicated exclusively to broadcasting youth-oriented popular music in Iran -- the idea being of course to channel the incipient rebelliousness of Iranian youth (of which there is actually quite a lot) to overthrow the mullahs by pumping the Iranian version of Britney Spears into the country 24/7.

I can just hear the morning radio lead-in now ... "Yo, yo, yo Tehran, we got some cra-a-a-a-zy bumpin' and grindin' comin' your way this morning from Michael Ledeen and his fly peeps at AEI..."

Truth be told, on its own, I'm not sure this is such a bad idea. The issue is more gutting the rest of VOA to do it. The career people at VOA are, as you might imagine, not happy about this. The decision was apparently made without consultation with any professional journalists or the American diplomats with responsibility for the regions in question. The bigger story, though, seems to be that this is administration payback for the career people at VOA being too independent from the administration line.

P.S. Independent reporting from the TPM research department has revealed another possible angle on Reilly's Iranian radio station: Reilly's bio at the VOA website says he "has written music criticism for 20 years for such publications as High Fidelity, Musical America, Schwann Magazine, and Crisis Magazine." So in addition to ideology, this may also be about tunes.