Josh Marshall

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Here's an article in Jane's (the defense and intelligence bible) which says that Israeli military intelligence thinks the state sponsor behind the WTC attacks is Iraq. Actually, Iraq in concert with al-Qaeda (bin Laden's network) and a terrorist mastermind from yesteryear named Imad Mughniyeh. (You can find a similar article from a considerably more questionable source here.)

US sources have been reporting that the apparent ringleader of the recent attacks, Mohamed Atta, met an Iraqi intelligence agent in Germany. But the US seems to be playing down this angle, at least for now.

This raises a slew of questions.

The first (and I say this as a Jew and a staunch, though Oslo-philic, zionist) is that you don't have to think too long to come up with reasons why folks at Israeli military intelligence might want to get people looking in the direction of Iraq and particularly at one of their arch-enemies, Mughniyeh. It's one thing to tell this to the US government. The standard is much lower for leaking such info to the press. And these sorts of ops tend to be so complex and tie together so many different kinds of people that it may be largely a matter of intepretation saying who's really involved and who's not. Doesn't mean it's not true, just something to keep in mind.

On the other hand, if the question is, who has better penetration of Islamic radical groups, the Americans or the Israelis? That's not too hard a question to answer, is it? And I have my own very well placed sources who think this sort of non-Osama-centric scenario is very, very plausible.

Second, it's not completely clear to me why Iraq would want to involve itself in something like this. Don't get me wrong: I wouldn't put anything past Saddam Hussein. But at heart I think he is all about survival and power, not ideology and certainly not Islam. He plays the Islamist card occasionally, but in an entirely cynical way. Getting caught with a hand in something like this would lead to a devastating response from us militarily, and deeply undermine his efforts to get France and Russia to get sanctions lifted. And it's not completely clear what the Iraqis gain if no one knows they did it. Again, not saying it didn't happen; and there are many good answers to the questions I've raised. (They did after all try to assassinate then-ex-President Bush in the early 1990s.)

But again, just worth considering.

Third, if the web of interconnections sketched out in the Jane's article is accurate, then you've got something which really changes our understanding of the situation. That is, a confluence of Islamist terrorist organizations, secular terrorist organizations, and secular Arab states like Iraq working in concert.

This is a very post-9/11 Washington moment. It's 3:30 in the morning and I've just been woken from my sleep by a large helicopter buzzing over and over my apartment building. My tense nerves are probably also quickened by the news (overplayed, I hope, here but also mentioned elsewhere) of rumors that some new attack, could be in store somewhere on Saturday the 22nd.

Let me briefly explain what this is about. A number of associates of the hijackers had bought tickets for flights on Saturday. A couple of them are still at large. The London Times really beats the drums about it and it is mentioned in the Washington Post and other American outlets, though a lot less prominently and with denials of a sort by American officials.

Justice Department spokeswoman Mindy Tucker told the Washington Post that "There is no credible evidence of any threat for Sept. 22." And an "official" told the Associated Press that "We absolutely have no credible evidence to substantiate any major threat on that date although it did raise some suspicion" -- which in case you're asking, for my money, is a troublingly qualified response.

I spent part of the evening reassuring a friend that there likely wasn't anything to this issue of Saturday, when all she and I had heard were rumors. But reading this stuff later in the evening I can't deny that it made my body tighten and rippled at least echoes of tears under my eyes.

In any case, let me try to put the moment to some good use with this post. One of the occupational hazards of writing TPM is many readers' distressing lack of irony or discernment. When I got to my computer just now I got an e-mail telling me that my line from yesterday evening (that "Democrats now being a politically oppressed group in Washington") was "asinine." I think this message actually came from a reasonably well-known columnist, who I went on TV with once, but I can't be sure it's her. She just shares the same name.

In any case, I wrote back and tried to deal with the matter as failing of diction rather than stupidity, noting that the more appropriate word might be "ironic" rather than "asinine." But, to each her own, I guess.

I got another email from a conservative reader who agrees with me about Andrew Sullivan's regrettable over-the-topedness but still says one can't compare his scoring cheap political points with those who are, in essence, blaming the victims for this tragedy. I'm not sure I agree with the way this reader framed the distinction. But I think I probably do agree with him on the lack of a complete equivalence. So I take his point.

I had some questions about writing that post (which my friend Mickey Kaus has just linked to as a 'Mezine Melee') in large part because in person Andrew is mostly warm and kind-hearted; and he's been generous to me.

I once told a friend that another on-air commentator wasn't really an *$%hole, he just played one on TV. I'm not calling Andrew as $%#hole (far from it), but the broader concept, or rather distinction, applies. There are of course folks like David Horowitz who plays an *$#hole on TV and, as I learned from personal experience, really is an *$%hole. But I digress ...

Anyway, those were my thoughts about the Sullivan post below. Though I was again disheartened by this late-night post which hits the ground praising Christopher Hitchens with lines like "Not everyone on the left has been craven" ... and Hitchens "grasps what some other liberals haven't" ...

You get the idea.

So I still think my reader is right, that the equivalence is not quite there, that this kind of wild-eyed quality has just become Sullivan's trademark. But somehow I keep expecting better. From those to whom much is given, much is expected.

The helicopter's gone; so now I'm going back to sleep.

Pardon the slow flow of posts over the last few days, we'll try to bump up the pace. But for the moment be sure to look at Paul Krugman's column today in the New York Times. We're going to be talking over the next few days about how Democrats can, and should, strike a balance between the immediate need for national unity and concerted action and committment to their own priorities and beliefs.

Partisanship, per se, really should be temporarily set aside. But it would be wrong to turn a blind eye to matters of enduring importance in the name of our current crisis -- especially when the former can be shown to have little relation to the latter.

And here we have our case in point. Before last Tuesday we were already hearing some talk about a temporary cut in the capital gains tax. Then the argument was that it would scrounge together a few bucks to save the administration the embarrassment of dipping into the Social Security Trust Fund (which still matters and which we'll be talking about). Now it's a response to our national emergency.

This is cynical and crass on top of bad economics.

The arguments for cutting capital gains taxes as a way to stimulate growth are debatable at best. But honest supporters of this theory will freely concede that the argument only makes sense in the medium- to long-term. And plainly what the economy is in need of is short-term stimulus. In the long-term our situation is more or less exactly what it was ten days ago.

That of course doesn't even get to the rather obvious point that there doesn't seem to be any shortage of folks who want to cash in their investments.

Finally! Finally! Finally! As regular readers know, Talking Points' usual MO is slashing or biting political criticism and satire, which is, needless to say, entirely inappropriate at the moment.

(Note: I will be getting back to some constructive criticism momentarily; but more of that in a moment.)

In any case, in such a moment of national crisis it's hard to find people who are easily skewered and entirely appropriate to skewer. But I think I've found one.

As you may remember, during impeachment a law professor with a specialty in environmental law named Jonathan Turley became one of the most ubiquitous faces on chat shows high and low. He became the impeachment maven even though he had no clear expertise related to the questions at hand.

Well, now it turns out that there's no end to Turley's expertise! When I stopped by the website of The Hill -- the Capitol Hill newspaper -- today I noticed that today at 3 PM Hill editor Al "Eisele's guest will be terrorism expert Jonathan Turley, professor of law at George Washington University Law School."

Who woulda guessed?!?!?!

Now obviously when I saw this the first thing that came to my mind was, hey, I haven't had a good post in days, and this could be it! But I didn't want to let my cynicism get the better of me. So I did a Nexis search of how many times Turley's name has shown up within 25 words of the word "terrorism."

Answer? Ten Times. Ever. And seven of those came after last Tuesday. Turley's website doesn't seem to mention the terrorism expertise either.

Now the old cynical Talking Points would have accused Turley of being a self-promoting hack. But that was then. And this is now. What I am thinking now is that it's possible this expertise may have been based on undercover work Turley has been doing since impeachment. Perhaps even work undercover amongst the mujahids of Afghanistan. This would after all explain his absence from the airwaves since not too long after Bill Clinton sicced the CIA on bin Laden back in late 1998. It's either that or Turley is shamelessly repackaging himself as a "terrorism expert" to grab a bit more TV face time.

Say it ain't so, Jonathan!

Just a thought. Quite a bit is being made of the fact that Pakistan is one of only three countries to have recognized the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. But you don't hear so much about the fact that the other two are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The cable nets have been widely reporting Osama bin Laden's purported denial of involvement in the horrific attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon. Now obviously there's no reason to believe anything bin Laden says for any number of reasons.

But, in context, the denial isn't even a denial. The key line is "I would like to assure the world that I did not plan the recent attacks."

But according to many area experts and ex-intelligence types I've spoken to recently bin Laden's role is seldom to "plan" these events, as in exerting operational control. It's more a matter of funding them, okaying them, training the perpetrators, and so forth.

I mean, not like we're going to get into parsing with this #$%&@$*. But, you know, just FYI.

Alack! TPM has a rep for indicting others for being pitiful and lame. But this will have to be a TPM self-denunciation. Once before, a breakdown in the complex protocols used to update the Talking Points website resulted in the tragic loss of a week's worth of postings. Regrettably, it has happened again! That would explain the lack of a link in the archive below for the week of September 8th-14th.

Now in the earlier incident last June I discovered, to my great surprise and gratification, that quite a few readers had either saved the page in question or had it cached on their machines. A few committed Poinsters sent these copies in and this led to the eventual recovery of said Points. (hint, hint ...)

We'll see if that happens again.

With the horror and trauma unfolding in our midst it may seem too trivial or crass to venture some media criticism. But allow me this. Huge events often bring new reporters or commentators to the fore. In this case, I think it's an anchor: CNN's Aaron Brown.

Brown's not a new face. He's been around for a couple decades and mainly at ABC as far as I know. He recently got hired by CNN and he was the first person on the air for the network within minutes of the original WTC attack.

(This may make it seem like I'm sort of Aaron Brown watcher. But actually I just got this info from this page. When I saw him on Tuesday morning I only had the vaguest sense of ever having seen the guy before.)

In any case, he's just really, really good. In his TV manner he has an ingenuousness that feels, well ... quite genuine and elicits or explicates new information that more stuffy or programmed questioners and anchors would never arrive at. He's got this way of thinking aloud on air which, for me at least, really works.

In short, he rocks.

Many highbrow news commentators cultivate a rep for insight, wisdom and perspective but actually put out a product you might call 'insightfulism' - not insight, but a stylized way of talking about the obvious so that it seems penetrating, a way of packaging decent points with oblique language so that they seem like grand pronouncements.

Come to think of it, I think Brown's got one of these characters as a new colleague. But let's not go there.

The point is that CNN made a dynamite pick when they hired Brown.

This TPM post will likely be more undirected or unfocused than usual. Let me try to get out a few thoughts, though.

First are the video feeds (now wall-to-wall on the cable nets) of these family members with hastily pasted together xeroxes of their loved ones -- a picture, a name, a few vital measurements -- straining to get these images in front of TV cameras to spread the word -- and always with the word "missing."

I must say this was more than I could take. I don't mean that this as the accustomed phrase or as a euphemism. I mean it was more than I could take. Partly out of personal concern and also because I now have to write about this awfulness, I have like many of you been watching this coverage almost non-stop since Tuesday morning. But these images were too much. I found myself repeatedly, literally, lurching to grab my remote control and turning the television off.

What is it about these images? I guess it's the pure desperation of these people. And their human and terribly understandable unwillingness to come to fully recognize that desperation. It's their denial. There is just something (and I mean this in the most sympathetic sense of the word) pitiful about them, for those of us who are at least insulated from immediate personal loss in this case can immediately recognize that these people are "missing" only in the most grave and technical sense. They're dead. They're all dead.

Certainly there will be a few miraculous stories with grieving families who find a relative is one of the few John or Jane Does in a New York hospital. But only a very, very few.

And it's this denial, this desperation that just makes this stuff so unbearable because it is a pain beyond grieving. When you see families in full grief you have the sense that they have at least passed a first threshold, and in some unfathomable sense their grief has begun to find its way into graspable proportions. But these family members with these pictures have ... well it's just too much to describe. Hope against hope, at a certain point, becomes too searingly painful to watch, because the disconnect between the glimmer of hope and the inevitable grief is just too dissonant. And the presence of false hope just makes the true hopelessness more difficult to defeat or overcome.

For us, the rest of us, all these pictures just bring the awfulness of this to life in a way that goes completely beyond the numbers. And there are so, so many. They overwhelm you in the watching.

I thought I'd be less fatigued than it turns out I am. So the rest will come later this morning. Next up, the international reaction. And a few comments from politicians that make you wonder.

As it happens, when this horror began I had been doing reporting for a piece about Osama bin Laden for a couple months. A bit of this went into an article I wrote about bin Laden in this afternoon. The following, though, is a combination of information from a number of sources I spoke with today and just thinking the matter through myself.

It's been commonly stated over the last forty-eight hours that the twin attacks on the the WTC and the Pentagon were of sufficient sophistication that they necessarily required state support or the backing of a large and extremely sophisticated terrorist organization.

But is this really true? Don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying there aren't state sponsors of terrorism or that one wasn't involved in this tragedy. But was it necessary? I'm not so sure.

What was really needed. As nearly as I can figure, that would be ...

a) perhaps a dozen people with the ability to fly a commercial jetliner

b) some crude and easily obtainable weapons

c) detailed schedules and flight plans of commercial airlines

d) $500,000 or $1,000,000 to pay for miscellaneous expenses primarily including housing and board for a few dozen individuals

e) sophisticated organizational skills to coordinate the activities of a few dozen people while presumably keeping many of them unaware of the activities of the others

Of course, one could easily argue that the real issue is what superintending authority could bring all these people together. That's an extremely good question. And the point of bringing this up is not to exonerate anyone, of course. But I think it's worth noting that at least from what we've heard what was really needed here was not so much complex infrastructure, facilities, or resources as several knowledgeable, experienced individuals and lots and lots of time.