Opinions, Context & Ideas from the TPM Editors TPM Editor's Blog

A few days ago

A few days ago I did a radio interview where I went head to head with another one of these ridiculous conservatives who -- when thrown on the defensive about some aspect of Bush administration policy -- immediately launches into a tirade about how Bill Clinton is actually responsible for virtually everything that happened on September 11th.

(Did you know that Bill Clinton was actually the barber for three of the 9/11 terrorists!?!!? Or that he vetoed a bill which would have made it a felony to fly commercial jets into tall buildings??!?!!?)

In this particular case, the guy went on a tear about the Sudan-bin Laden handover fiasco, but he clearly didn't understand some pretty elementary details about what had happened.

In any case, clearly, by definition, we were not as prepared as we should have been for September 11th. And there's plenty of blame to go around. But one of the true ironies of the relationship between Clinton administration responsibility and Bush administration responsibility is this: most of the Clintonite policies which really were screw-ups were precisely those the Bush administration was most intent on continuing.

Here's an example of that pattern -- one which I'm surprised to say seems to have gotten quite little attention. It's described in an article in the Washington Monthly by Nick Confessore, a former colleague of mine from the American Prospect. (Actually, he's only 'former' because I'm not there anymore. He's still at the Prospect. But don't hold that against him. He's first-rate.)

Anyway, the article ... We all know the pitiful story about how the INS sent out visa approval notifications to two of the 9/11 hijackers almost six months after their planes plowed into the Twin Towers. This choice anecdote shined a bright light on how easy it apparently is for potential terrorists to slip into the country under the cover of student visas. Of course, sometimes they really are students, here to upgrade their jobs skills as international terrorists -- sort of Robert Reich meets Osama bin Laden. But that's another matter.

In any case, since then -- as the New York Times reported a couple weeks back -- the INS has been working to hurry along the new-fangled student visa tracking program -- SEVIS -- to make sure this sort of screw up never happens again.

But it turns out that there's a back story here that gives you a sobering sense of just how tough a battle the war on terrorism in Washington is going to be. SEVIS is actually just a ridiculously dumbed-down version of someting called CIPRIS, a pretty high-powered tracking system that the Clinton administration developed starting in the mid-1990s and ran in a pilot program in the Southeast a couple years ago.

CIPRIS was the sort of program you'd want if you were serious about keeping close tabs on whether foreign students were really in school, or out committing crimes, or kickin' it with the local al Qaida ward leader, or just hanging out in their boxers eating Fritos and watching the Flinstones at two in the afternoon. CIPRIS got a lot of info, had a more or less forgery-proof ID and efficiently and continually cross-checked this info with the relevant databases at Treasury, FBI, CIA and so forth so you'd have a good sense of whether their names or their funding sources were showing up on this or that watch-list.

The INS field-tested it and it worked great.

But it ran afoul of a series of organized interest groups: the immigration lobby and the Washington lobby for university employees who work as advisors to foreign students (yes, believe it or not ...) Anyway, through the standard Washington strategems of turning out effective bureaucrats and screwing around with funding these characters managed to get the system gutted and replaced with SEVIS, which did little more than put the existing info onto a computer without cross-referencing it with any other government databases. Basically SEVIS was a high-end, high-tech, New Economy, 21st Century, yada yada yada way of accomplishing nothing, which was more or less -- as the article explains -- what the interest groups who killed CIPRIS wanted.

Now, fast-forward to the Bush years. Some key folks involved in killing CIPRIS weren't run out of town on a rail. They got key appointments at INS under Bush. And the administration also helped keep CIPRIS on ice in an effort to cater to the Hispanic voters President Bush and Karl Rove are trying to lure into the Republican party. What's more, libertarian-minded Bush appointees at the INS are still blocking CIPRIS even after all that's happened. They're still there. And they're still pushing the lametonian SEVIS program even though the better CIPRIS program is waiting right there on the shelf waiting to be used.

The aforementioned article in the Times doesn't even mention the SEVIS-CIPRIS back story and it's not clear the author of the piece was even aware of it.

Definitely take a look at the story. It's a key piece of the 'what we could have done but didn't and still aren't' debate and it deserves more attention.

One of the great

One of the great things about having a weblog is having a forum for expanding on points that must be dealt with briefly in conventional article writing. The article on Iraq which I just wrote for the Washington Monthly is a case in point. And I think I'll spend some time, as I get back to regular posts, expanding on some elements of the argument I tried to make in that piece.

One key point is the issue of sanctions and the broader matter of containment.

This was Clinton administration policy more or less throughout. And my sense is that it was a good policy for much of the 1990s. But a central premise of my article, a sine qua non really, is that containment is no longer a workable policy. So let me explain why.

One part of the equation is our ability to maintain sanctions and no-fly zones indefinitely. Simply stated, we can't. Every year we face more and more resistance from the rest of the UN Security Council. They don't want sanctions in place any more. At least France, Russia and China don't -- to varying degrees. So more and more diplomatic heavy lifting is required on our part every year simply to maintain the status quo. And every year our grip, if you will, loosens a bit.

That's point one.

Point two is the geo-political and diplomatic collateral damage created by sanctions. You don't have to believe the puffed-up claims of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children dying because of sanctions to recognize that they have caused very real suffering. They destroyed the middle class, impoverished everyone else, and certainly led to some deaths because of the crippling of the medical and social services infrastructure. It looks really bad and that's largely because it is really bad. It gets people in the Arab world and the Muslim world and to some degree the world more generally really mad at us.

Now, could Saddam have alleviated this suffering by putting money into food and medicine rather than military and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) research? Absolutely. But in the real world that just doesn't matter. In the latter Clinton years, the administration tried tweaking the sanctions in such a way that it would be clear that if kids weren't getting medicine it was because of Saddam's priorities not because of something we were doing. The idea was that if we put the lie to Saddam's lies that people would blame Saddam and not us. It wasn't a bad idea. But we tweaked, it was clear, but people still blamed us. It just didn't matter. We take the rap for whatever suffering takes place under sanctions, period.

This might not be so bad if we were slowly strangling Saddam's government with our sanctions. But no one -- and I mean no one -- thinks that's true. Through a perverse irony sanctions have only left Saddam's regime more deeply entrenched.

So here we have what I'd call the chronological issue. Sanctions cost us a lot internationally, more so every year. And our ability to maintain them diminishes every year. But Saddam can withstand them just fine. It may be terrible for the civilian population. But he's fine.

That means that if Saddam's "in the box" we're "in the box" with him. And the box is a lot more cramped for us than it is for him. Time, as the cliche has it, is not on our side. Frankly, he can wait us out.

And there's another problem. The sanctions don't work very well. At least not in terms of stopping WMD research. Nobody who I talked to who opposes military action against Iraq thinks that sanctions have stopped Saddam's WMD development. Not a one. And I talked to a lot of them. How much it's slowed things down is a more difficult question. But most of the people on the non-hawk side of this debate think he's still working on it, and is still making progress. The hawks have all sorts of scary reports about various stuff he's been able to import in recent years or develop. And I found a lot of this pretty iffy. The truth is that we just don't have much of a sense of what he's doing. All we reliably have to go on is that he kept working on stuff while inspectors were in the country and fiercely resisted giving stuff up while inspectors were there. So it's hard to figure he's shut everything down now that inspectors have been out of the place for almost four years. If we had inspectors in the country we could keep at least a limited read on what sort of progress he was making. But since 1998, and for now at least, we don't.

What we really have is not so much containment as deterrence. And this is the real question: whether deterrence is sufficient. I want to deal with that question separately. So let me put that aside and for the moment return to sanctions.

The best argument from the non-hawks about why not to attack Iraq is that it will gets the Arab and Muslim worlds really pissed at us and possibly create a very messy, chaotic situation. The hawks tend to pooh-pooh this argument. I don't. It's a damn good argument. What the non-hawks don't pay enough attention to, however, is how our current policy -- containment -- does something rather similar, only in slow motion.

What were Osama bin Laden's big rallying cries getting people to attack the US around the world and in New York? To a great degree it was troops on the Arabian Peninsula and the suffering of Iraqi children. Don't get me wrong and don't willfully misinterpret me. This isn't a matter of finding root causes or saying we brought it on ourselves or anything like that. It's just a cold-eyed realization that these have been a major irritant and stirred up a lot of trouble for us. There's just no denying that. Recognizing this is simply a matter of realistically judging costs and benefits. Garrisoning troops on the Arabian Peninsula -- and not just in the tiny coastal emirates where there's some precedent for it -- is just a losing proposition. For one thing it gets us deep in the sack with the Saudis. And, well ... that just ain't a good place to be. And why are those troops in Saudi Arabia? Lots of reasons, I suppose. And all other things aside, it's nice for a superpower to have some troops on the ground at the choke point of the world's oil supply. But there's one big reason: containing Saddam.

So for me, when I looked at the containment policy it seemed like a running wound for the United States, one that was hurting us in ways we weren't completely willing to recognize, and one that would continue to hurt us over time.

Perhaps it would be better, it seemed to me, to lance this boil rather than let the infection continue to fester.

More on related matters soon.

A little more than

A little more than a month ago I set to work on an article about how attacking Iraq -- once a hobbyhorse of right-wing think tank intellectuals -- had moved to the center of the American foreign policy debate. Clearly, President Bush's election and 9/11 had a lot to do with the change. But neither development completely explained the shift to my satisfaction. So I launched into the project eager to skewer the various propagandists and ideologues who've used all manner of underhanded methods and cheap media ploys to hustle the country into a second war against Saddam Hussein.

But along the way I came to an unexpected and for me troubling conclusion. I decided that the hawks were right. By that I mean that containment isn't working and that what the right-wingers like to call 'regime change' really should be our national policy. And, if necessary, we should do it by overwhelming military force. I also concluded that many of the most visible hawks really are reckless, ignorant about key issues about the Middle East, and -- not that infrequently -- indifferent to the truth. They have been underhanded and they have used cheap media ploys. But at the end of the day none of that changed the fact that their argument -- at least in its broad outlines -- held up better than that of their opponents.

Briefly stated, I changed my mind.

If you're interested in the details, check out the article in the new issue of the Washington Monthly.

If the Democrats have

If the Democrats have an ounce of strategic know-how or common sense they will not allow the Vice President and others in the White House to pull off this deeply cynical bait and switch. Here's the Vice President -- a chillingly arrogant man by all appearances -- speaking tonight:

When members of Congress suggest that the president of the United States had foreknowledge of the attack on September 11th, I think that's outrageous, that is beyond pale. Somebody needs to say, that ain't criticism, that's a gross outrageous political attack, and it's totally uncalled for.

Who's making this claim? What member of Congress beside possibly Cynthia McKinney? To the best of my knowledge, the answer to that question is: none. If there is a charge out there it's that the White House should have known about the attacks or perhaps could have if all the tidbits and shreds of evidence had been properly assembled and analyzed.

Whether that's true remains to be seen. And I for one remain quite skeptical of this sort of retrospective analysis of scattered intelligence data. But the whole topic is a very legitimate topic of inquiry. One which almost everyone except the people in the White House think should be looked into, and preferably by the Lieberman/McCain-sponsored independent commission.

But, look: earth to Democrats. You're being bullied. This is the oldest trick in the book. Lash out at your enemies for saying what they didn't say and see if they'll run scared. This man is a bully. He's arrogant. In the marketplace of ideas and argument he believes solely in force. Accepting it now will only encourage further untoward behavior. In any context, bullies can only be treated in one way. Call him on his lie. Be firm in what is a very reasonable position: support for an independent commission.

Don't get baited. Don't get scared. Don't get distracted.

Heard what the new

Heard what the new 'problem' is for Douglas H. Paal. It's not something that's really a 'problem' per se or something that'll likely keep him from going to Taiwan. Someone at the State Department is just getting him to jump through another hoop. My read is that there are still folks at State trying to delay his departure, hoping something else turns up. Also, from my sources in Taiwan, I hear the following: after Paal's announcement the government in Taipei was trying to make the best of it, trying to extend the hand, and so forth. But that seems to have changed. They're now back in suspicion mode and also, it would seem, thinking they may still have some levers to pull in DC. Are these two developments connected? Not clear.

If there was no

If there was no such thing as a Director of Homeland Security someone would have to invent one.

Actually, of course, there is such a thing as the Director of Homeland Security but we're going to have to invent one anyway. Or create one. Or appoint one. Or something. Because clearly we don't have one.

Tom Ridge must be a stand-up guy and an all-around great American. But, my God, if he hasn't been reduced to something between administration roadkill and the bloody chum that saltwater fisherman put into the water to get the big fish biting.

I'd say put a fork in 'em, he's done. But in the writing biz we're scolded over and over again to avoid cliches, so I won't. But, look, to be honest with you and just between you and me ... put a fork in 'em, he's done!

The last several days have witnessed a hideous food fight of frightening statements. I'd like to blame the administration for this for being so undisciplined and reckless. But it's not just them. It's the media too.

The Vice President says that another terrorist attack is inevitable ... in the next couple years. The FBI Director says that there's no doubt we too will soon have Muslim teenagers and twenty-somethings blowing themselves up for fun and jihad in our major urban centers. Don Rumsfeld said something too. But I don't remember precisely what and I'm on a train so I can't look it up. Anyway, you get the idea.

One of the major reasons for having a Director of Homeland Security was that he was supposed to be the person who we'd listen to to get the scoop on ... well, homeland security. Otherwise we'd be at the mercy of every administration official who decides to put on his groove thing in an interview and rattle off some sizzling quote. And that of course is just the predicament we're in right now. And Tom Ridge gets so little respect that no one even seems to have asked him for his own scary quote.

Terrorism is really scary. And there's probably a lot of reason to be concerned. But are any of these quotes anything new? It doesn't sound like it to me.

Take Vice President Cheney's riff. Another terrorist attack is inevitable? Sometime between tomorrow and three years from now? Don't we know this. It doesn't sound like this is based on anything but logical reasoning and the fact that Cheney is the administration heavy who comes out and says stuff like this.

Or take FBI Director Mueller's statement that we will have suicide bombers here too. Again, is this based on any intelligence information? Or just logical reasoning? Sounds like the latter to me. It happens there, he seems to be reasoning. It's not that hard to do. So eventually they'll do it here too. And there's nothing we can do about it.

I guess that makes a certain amount of sense. But then isn't it just as inevitable that someone will blow up a building? Or anything else one can think up? (Frankly, I'm not so sure we will see Israel-style suicide bombings in the US, for several reasons. But that's another story.)

My point here is that high administration officials don't have the luxury of going out and brainstorming, thinking up things that could happen and being appropriately pessimistic. Why? Because when these folks say something we assume, logically enough, that we're being told something new. Something that we should pay attention to. You also don't want to have different administration officials saying different things based on what mood they were in when they gave an interview.

Of course, one issue here is that the administration may be intentionally bumping up the terror volume to brush back demands for an investigation into pre-9/11 foul-ups. I'm certain that this is at least some of what's going on. But, I mean, if the White House is going to shamelessly play with our emotions for political gain, can't they at least speak with one voice and exercise a little more message discipline? I mean, is that too much to ask?

The bottom line is that Tom Ridge was supposed to be that person, that single voice. But it hasn't worked out. He's been slapped down, and played with, and ignored so many which ways that it's not even funny. So it's just time for him to take his color-coded alert system, the terrorism smelly-stickers, and even the Garanimals-inspired terrorism mix and match clothes line he was about to announce and put them all in a box and head back to Western Pennsylvania. And after he's gone the President needs to find someone who can get the job done.

Ill be traveling off

I'll be traveling off and on for the next several days so posts will be sporadic and infrequent.

For months now many

For months now, many on the right ... no, scratch that, the stupid and the lazy on the right have resorted to the easy stratagem of painting a black and white rendering of recent counter-terrorism policy. Everything under Bill Clinton was feckless or negligent and everything under George W. Bush was serious and determined.

There were some mistakes under the former president. I spent the last couple months before 9/11 reporting on one of them: the failure to roll-up bin Laden in Sudan in 1996. This was a screw-up. What seldom gets mentioned is that the screw-up was more a matter of being too inflexible toward terrorists and those who harbor them, not too lenient. But more on that later.

But as this example implies, the mistakes mainly came early. Those who have a sense of what was afoot in the late Clinton years know that counter-terrorism became a major focus of concern and more or less constant activity. The president himself became preoccupied with the possibility of al Qaida-linked terrorists mounting a chemical or biological attack.

Now, one of the unintentional effects of the recent revelations about missed 9/11 clues is that this reality is beginning to come out.

For instance, see this clip from the newly-released article from Newsweek ...

...under Attorney General John Ashcroft, the department was being prodded back into its old law-and-order mind-set: violent crime, drugs, child porn. Counterterrorism, which had become a priority of the Clintonites (not that they did a better job of nailing bin Laden), seemed to be getting less attention. When FBI officials sought to add hundreds more counterintelligence agents, they got shot down even as Ashcroft began, quietly, to take a privately chartered jet for his own security reasons.

The attorney general was hardly alone in seeming to de-emphasize terror in the young Bush administration. Over at the Pentagon, new Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld elected not to relaunch a Predator drone that had been tracking bin Laden, among other actions. In self- absorbed Washington, the Phoenix memo, which never resulted in arrests, landed in two units at FBI headquarters but didn’t make it to senior levels. Nor did the memo get transmitted to the CIA, which has long had a difficult relationship with the FBI—and whose director, George Tenet, one of the few Clinton holdovers, was issuing so many warnings that bin Laden was “the most immediate” threat to Americans he was hardly heeded any longer.

or later ...
By the end of the Clinton administration, the then national-security adviser Sandy Berger had become “totally preoccupied” with fears of a domestic terror attack, a colleague recalls. True, the Clintonites had failed to act decisively against Al Qaeda, but by the end they were certain of the danger it posed. When, in January 2001, Berger gave Rice her handover briefing, he covered the bin Laden threat in detail, and, sources say, warned her: “You will be spending more time on this issue than on any other.” Rice was alarmed by what she heard, and asked for a strategy review. But the effort was marginalized and scarcely mentioned in ensuing months as the administration committed itself to other priorities, like national missile defense (NMD) and Iraq.
Of course, there were always other signs of this difference in emphasis and failed interpretation. Richard Clarke -- Clinton's point-man at NSC for counter-terrorism -- was the only person kept on by Bush at NSC. George Tenet -- the only principal hold-over from Clinton's watch -- was apparently the only one who had a clear view of how critical an issue al Qaida was. Then there was the veto threat from the President in September when Senate Democrats tried to trim $1.3 billion in Missile Defense funding and shift $600 million of it to counter-terrorism (In fairness, that was basically a fight over NMD. But that in itself makes the point about priorities.)

There's more to come like this.

As they say, glass houses ...And one other thing, take a look at the mention of George Tenet toward the end of the first passage and compare it to Bill Safire's column in today's Times.

Seems to me Tucker

Seems to me Tucker Carlson should apologize to Rep. Alcee Hastings.

On Crossfire tonight he quoted Hastings saying ...

I think they should release the memo. I think they should be more forthcoming with a lot of information ...This is just the tip of the iceberg regarding information that is in their hands that is being held close to vest, and I think it's a mistake to do that for the American people ...He's the President. The buck stops with him and somewhere along the line he has to answer these questions. Otherwise, I think he serves his administration poorly.
Carlson then tried to tie what Hastings had said to what Cynthia McKinney said last month about 9/11 and possible presidential foreknowledge. (I'm going to stick with the ambiguous verb 'tie' because I don't have the transcript yet and don't remember the precise words. But it made my skin crawl.)

Looking at the quotes, what McKinney and Hastings said didn't sound too similar. Is it just that they're both outspoken black Democrats?

It was a quick exchange so perhaps I'm overstating. But watch it tonight on the rerun and if you think it's as sketchy as I did, write in to CNN and tell them what you think.

You can tell that

You can tell that President Bush is serious about pushing for change in Cuba and not just pandering to emigre whack-jobs because of the conditions he's setting for easing the embargo: free and fair elections next year and creating a market economy.

Actually, I believe this can be seen as an example of the greatness of American democracy: the way our government can simultaneously undertake grave and profound efforts like the struggle against al Qaida but still have time for goofball antics like playing the old Cuba game down in Little Havana.

If we don't make fools of ourselves in South Florida the terrorists will have won!