Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Not a few of the emails I get nowadays are from aggrieved but expectant 'wingers who say something like this: Aren't you gonna feel stupid for going on about the uranium documents when the president finds the VX nerve gas?

Well, in lieu of answering this question a gazillion times individually, let me try to answer it here ...

No, not really.

Before and during the war, I was pretty sure Saddam had at least some chemical weapons. I also figured he probably had some low-level biological weapons. I never thought he had a serious nuclear weapons program. And my confidence in that last assessment increased greatly after the IAEA got back into the country late last year (the rule of thumb here is that a credible nuclear weapons program is much, much more difficult to conceal than a chemical or biological weapons program.)

What began to change my mind, not surprisingly, was our inability thus far to find them. In particular, it was our inability to find them when we had so many regime leaders and scientists in custody.

So, if we find them, we find them.

But nerve gas was never a serious threat to the United States or our allies -- not in the US, not in the region. Nuclear weapons, big-time biological weapons, a serious long-range missile program -- these would have been a very big deal. And the difference between these two orders of WMD -- a phrase that confuses more than it clarifies -- bears directly on whether we needed to go to war when we did, and whether the nature of the threat merited our turning the world upside down to get into the country last spring.

Since I thought he had them before, I'm not wedded now to the idea that he didn't have them. It just seems increasingly unlikely -- at least that he had any sort of robust and on-going effort.

The bigger issue though is the utter lack of connection between the two issues.

If the White House knowingly deceived the American public about one of its key pieces of 'evidence' that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program, it's hard for me to see how that becomes less of a big deal because we find some nerve gas. I'd say it's still a pretty big deal, especially when you consider that it's just the most evident and egregious example of a much broader pattern of exaggeration, manipulation and in some cases outright deception.

It's also a big deal since it was precisely because some chemical weapons weren't that threatening that you'd decide to scam the public about the nuclear stuff.

Now, with that out of the way, let's move to a different point -- one that makes me at least a little less confident about the assumption that we would have found the chemicals or biologicals by now because we've got so many people in custody.

You've no doubt heard the story that CNN ran Wednesday about the Iraqi nuclear scientist who had the uranium enrichment hardware buried under a rose bush in his backyard. (In case you've been buried under a rose bush for the last few days, you can read the story here.)

Now, when I read CNN's story, what jumped out at me was the name David Albright. CNN was quoting Albright about what the scientist's story was, why he'd come forward, what kind of stuff he had, and so forth. And it made me wonder, how'd he know this stuff?

Albright is one of the legion of former UN Iraqi weapons inspectors from back in the 1990s. He does a fair amount of TV. And, if my memory serves me right, he was -- as the former inspectors go -- fairly dovish on whether we should go to war this time against Saddam. So that made me think even more, why were they giving Albright a crack at him?

Well, on Friday CNN ran another story which tells the tale -- one which they should have run with the original one.

It turns out that Obeidi was trying to give up the goods almost from the moment US troops stormed into Baghdad. But our operation was so poorly run that we ended up making the guy into some sort of friggin' nuclear Diogenes, practically wandering the streets trying to find one competent person to turn himself in to.

According to the CNN story, Obeidi wanted to cooperate from day one, but was afraid to talk to US soldiers. That's understandable -- on both sides. Question one is why no one else was there beside soldiers (who are going to be, in their nature, intimidating and not professional weapons inspectors) for him to talk to. Perhaps they were there. But it doesn't seem like he knew where to find them.

(Think it might have been a good idea to have brought the IAEA folks back in to help out? Yeah, me too.)

So Obeidi remembered Albright from back in the day and "approached international journalists at random outside the well-known Palestine Hotel in the Iraqi capital until he was able to convince one to contact" him.

Finally someone got him in touch with Albright. And Albright started making calls in Washington. But apparently he had a helluva time getting anyone to listen.

"I have never seen anything like it," he told CNN, "Obeidi is sending all sorts of signals, and they just missed it completely. They were going to walk away from him."

Finally, he got the Agency to take Obeidi seriously and Obeidi started talking. He said he just wanted assurances that he and his family would be protected. After he got those assurances, he handed over the stuff on June 1st.

Then, two days later, the US Army showed up at his house, busted his door down and took him into custody.

"They took me outside, and they handcuffed me," he told CNN. "I saw tens of soldiers and tens of tanks and Hummers and helicopters were all around. And then I was taken to the side, and I was put on one of these Hummers ... and they took me to the airport" where the US is incarcerating detainees.

Anyway, that got worked out after a day or so. Centcom now calls the incident "unfortunate." David Kay -- another former inspector and the CIA's new weapons supremo in Iraq -- apparently got things straightened out. According to CNN, he "blamed the mistake on a lack of coordination between the many units operating in the country."

(Boy, I'd say that's a pretty big #$%@#& understatement, wouldn't you?)

At this point you half expect to hear that Obeidi woke up one morning to find he'd been transformed into a giant cockroach. (A little absurdist humor there ...) But actually it gets better.

After Obeidi got out of Army slammer, the CIA started hedging on its promises to get him out of the country. Or at least that's what Obeidi thought.

"First they have promised that they will make all the attempts to safeguard me ... and then what happened they told me that they have looked and they have investigated this matter, and they have discovered that there is more that I can offer, and they are ready to take the news to the media."

At this point, Obeidi apparently started to freak and asked Albright what he should do. Abright told him to go to the media. And this, it would seem, is how CNN got pulled in -- as Obeidi's insurance policy that our folks over in Iraq didn't completely screw-up the situation or end up FedExing him and his nuclear parts to Osama bin Laden off in the wilds of Central Asia.

So CNN went to the CIA and asked what the deal was. When asked, the CIA responded by saying that they were "moving Obeidi to a safer place and asked that the network refrain from airing anything until he and his family were out of Iraq."

Now, I can certainly see why CNN held off. But, contrary to how the story was played on Wednesday, you get the sense that the reason the CIA asked CNN not to move on the story was that they needed a few days to figure out what the hell they were doing and get their act together.

"CNN later interviewed Obeidi under an agreement not to reveal his location," the report says toward the end. "Obeidi in turn had consented with his handlers not to reveal much about his removal from Iraq or future plans."

Now, I have to tell you that I'm not sure quite what to make of this. I guess I'm not going too far out on a limb to say that this doesn't inspire a huge amount of confidence -- not least of which in the planning that went in to how we were going to deal with the WMD issues once we got there. At the same time, if something like this happened, maybe there are people out there dying -- hopefully not literally -- to tell their stories but just can't get anyone to listen to them.

I still think that our failure to find anything after ninety days most likely means that the sort of extensive chemical and biological weapons programs we thought were there probably weren't. But that doesn't mean stuff wasn't put on ice, literally or figuratively. When you hear stories like Obeidi's, who knows?

Some quick thoughts from Michael R.

From: [name suppressed by editor]
To: "'talk@talkingpointsmemo.com'"
Subject: WMD
Date: Fri, 27 Jun 2003 14:35:48 -0700
X-Mailer: Internet Mail Service

Do not the missiles fired from Iraq into Kuwait fall with in the realm of WMD? Just about everything the Iraqi's threw at our people were banded. So what is your problem? What does it take for you to realize that they have been finding the weapons all along, yet the media and the whiners of this country still can't accept the fact that we have a President that at least tries to do the right thing. Just a quick thought, why is it acceptable to spend millions upon millions of our tax dollars helping feed the poor of the world, yet when our government attempts to stop ONE SICK S.O.B. from killing 5,000 children in a year, burying thousands of people alive, using poison gas on civilians (boy, that is one nice person, Maybe he needs to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize), our government (which was fairly elected) is considered to be less than human. Maybe people like you that can not see the trees through the forest should wake up and be thankful that we live in a country that allows you to voice your opinion.

Michael R.

Quick thoughts ...

Let's watch really closely how the walk-back unfolds. And taking what was undoubtedly a hotly-debated stab at walking back the administration's WMD claims this afternoon was Secretary of State Colin Powell.

A little more than an hour ago NPR ran an interview with the Secretary on All Things Considered. Here's one of the key passages in which the interviewer asks Powell about why no toxins were found on the alleged chemical/biological weapons trailers found in northern Iraq (emphasis added in quotations below) ...

MS. BLOCK: There were no toxins found in those trailers.

SECRETARY POWELL: Which could mean one of several things: one, they hadn't been used yet to develop toxins; or, secondly, they had been sterilized so thoroughly that there is no residual left. It may well be that they hadn't been used yet.

Our concern was that Iraq was keeping in place this capability, waiting for the day when they were free of sanctions and could go about putting all of their programs back in place. This particularly applies to the nuclear program. What I said in February when I spoke to the UN, was that they had the brainpower, they had the plans, and they were working on acquiring the capability, and whenever they were free of UN constraints or other constraints -- nobody was breathing down their neck -- there was no doubt in my mind Saddam Hussein still had the intention of developing such a capability.

And as we have seen from material that's come forward in the last couple of days, and we've seen on television and in papers, we now have seen the plans, we have seen the scientists who said this is what he was supposed to be working on, and he was told to hide this material until times were better to get the program up and running again. That was the concern we had with Saddam Hussein. Not only did he have weapons -- and we'll uncover not only his weapons but all of his weapons programs -- he never lost the intent to have these kinds of weapons.

So now the argument is that Iraq hadn't reconstituted anything, but rather that they were holding on to the plans and waiting for the day when they were out of the sanctions box and could go back into the WMD business.

Frankly, I believe that's true. I also thought they must have had some chemical and possibly biological weapons left over from the glory days before the inspectors came in. I still think they may have. And this is one of the reasons I strongly backed the need to threaten force to get inspectors back into the country and quite possibly war to remove Saddam's regime once and for all. As I discussed a year ago, I think that circa 2001 the sanctions were hurting us more than they were hurting Saddam and that time was on his side, not ours.

But this isn't the argument the administration made -- not even close.

If this is what the White House thought, then there was no reason whatsoever to turn the world upside down in order to pull the trigger this spring.

Dick Cheney knew that, of course. Thus the recourse to bogus Niger uranium documents.

Man, I've been pretty rough on Dick Cheney over the last few months, first saying he was the most incompetent member of the administration and more recently that he almost certainly knew the Niger-uranium documents were bogus when he signed off on putting them in the president's State of the Union address.

But I'll give the guy credit: he doesn't hold grudges. TPM just got a personal email from the vice-president offering to make me a "Charter Member of Bush-Cheney '04" and "serve as one of our first key grassroots leaders in Talk, Alaska" if I'll only contribute "$100, $500 or even $1000 today at www.GeorgeWBush.com/CharterMember/." (You can see the actual email here. Don't miss it.)

And when I say TPM got the email, I ain't kiddin.

"That is why President Bush and I are relying on grassroots leaders like you, Talking Points, who can help our efforts in Talk, Alaska and across the nation."

Mr. Vice-President, I'll make you a deal. You let me interview you about the Niger-uranium documents and I'll pony up a cool thousand -- and, believe me, that's a substantial amount of my net worth. I know it might sound like a quid-pro-quo but believe me the standards about that sort of thing have gotten really loose so I don't think we need to worry. And, yes, I know it might sound like checkbook journalism. But, in this case, well ... I'm willing to make an exception.

I don't recommend many sites. But definitely put this one down on your list of ones to visit: It's Ruy Teixeira's new blog, Donkey Rising. (We'll leave explaining how to pronounce his name for a future post -- a long future post.)

Teixeira is one of the sharpest progressive thinkers around when it comes to the interplay of demographics, politics, and public opinion. He's also coauthor, with John Judis, of the The Emerging Democratic Majority -- see the TPM review of it here.

His big issue is getting the liberal/populist and centrist wings of the Democratic party to be wings of a single movement rather than, fundamentally, antagonists -- without which both are sunk. Definitely stop by his new site to see his blog and his weekly newsletters on public opinion and political strategy.

Following up on the previous post, let's assume for a moment that neither the president nor any of his top advisors knew that the Niger-uranium documents were bogus when the president delivered his State of the Union speech. (Let's call it an extreme hypothetical.) Let's say it was just a snafu.

If it's really true that folks at the State Department knew the story was bogus, and folks in the intelligence community knew it was bogus, and folks at the NSC were told it was bogus, and folks at the OVP were told it was bogus ... If all those people knew, and somehow the information never got to the president or any of his top advisors, isn't that the kind of Category-5 screw-up that, almost by definition, costs a National Security Advisor her job?

If the president were given information to tell the public, even while many people in his own government knew the information was bogus -- and I think we now know that's true -- don't you figure he'd want some answers or explanations? From someone?

I think this is the sort of mystery Ockham's Razor slices right through.

Here's the question I'm wrestling with. How do you rebut or refute the White House's defense against the accusations that they knowingly peddled bogus intelligence when they put the Niger-uranium claims into the president's State of the Union speech?

Oh, wait a second. I forgot. They have no defense!

And I don't mean they have no defense, as in the evidence is too overwhelming. I mean, they have no defense -- as in, to the best of my knowledge, no administration figure has even tried to respond to -- let alone deny -- the allegations. They haven't even discussed the issue.

Have you noticed that?

Back a bit less than three weeks ago, on June 8th, Condi Rice said that none of the top level administration leaders knew the Niger documents were bogus at the time they put them in the president's speech. But that was before we knew most of the information we know now -- before Nick Kristof's June 13th column, before the Ackerman/Judis article in The New Republic, before Tom Gjelten's NPR report. (I discuss each in my column in The Hill this week.)

Without going into all the nitty-gritty details, Rice gave her loose denial when there was very little in the public record to contradict her. Now there's a lot to contradict her. And all I can hear is silence.

It's a pretty serious charge. And it's been leveled (in the three pieces I mentioned above) by some of the country's most respected political journalists. What does it say about the DC press corps that they can't or won't get the principals -- Rice, Cheney or any of their top aides -- to dignify the accusations with as much as a denial?

Who's on the show this weekend, Tim?

Who can't love the Brits? I do. I'm an Anglophile. I admit it. They've all got such polished educations, at least the ones they send over here. And they turn arguments on a dime. They get it from those debates they have at that big university over there. (What's it called?) And, let's admit it, their accents just sound cool. Even the working class cockney ones sound refined to us -- that's how pathetic we are. (Michael Caine, Duke of London.)

Anyway, Christopher Hitchens has a piece today in Slate lambasting John Kerry for saying that President Bush "misled every one of us."

Hitchens says that this amounts to Kerry saying he's easily duped. So how can he be a credible presidential candidate? And many on the left, says Hitchens, believe the president isn't the sharpest tool in the shed so his campaign mantra amounts to "Kerry. Duped by a Dope." Actually, it's worse, says Hitchens, because the evidence that the president or his advisors were lying has been there for a long time! So he's not only easily duped. But he can't have been duped. Actually, no. He was twice duped! Because if he now believes there were no WMD then he's signing on to the unlikely proposition "that the Saddam regime had no plan to preserve or restart its long-standing WMD scheme, though the evidence for this may involve some complex study and not take a 'gotcha' or 'smoking gun' form." And why didn't Kerry do his own investigation if the president was lying to him? Who is this John Kerry joker? You still following all of this? Good. What a mess Kerry has gotten himself in, what with being fooled and a fool and also a liar and then doubly a fool. "We have learned," says Hitchens, "that Sen. Kerry considers himself to be gullible both ways, which ought to mean that he is ineligible for the nomination, let alone the presidency." Hitch is just running circles around the guy. I've gotta tell you this reminds me of those late night chats Hitch and Dorothy Parker and I used to have at the Algonquin Table back in the day.

Actually, now that I think about it, that wasn't me. Must have been a flashback from some under-the-influence moment back in college. But anyway, I think the whole spectacle, or rather the whole article, is an example of what we might call the diminishing importance of being earnest.

What exactly does any of this verbal rope-a-dope mean? If the folks at DOD or OVP knowingly passed on intell garbage, and Kerry accepted it as legit, is he really a rube? Isn't that more a knock on the president? Or if the charge isn't true, isn't it a knock on Kerry for leveling a reckless and irresponsible charge for political gain?

Kerry, it would seem, would like to base part of his presidential bid on the integrity of the material the Bush administration used to lead the country into war. That angle stands or falls on its merits, I would imagine. That is to say, whether or not it's true.

But Hitchens' article, Slate's front page story, seems less concerned with this point than spinning out so many logical conundrums and rhetorical culs-de-sac that the befuddled and presumably over-brained Mr. Kerry just scratches his head confusedly, decides mounting the charge is just too complicated, and gives up trying.

Oh Boy! Through the grapevine I'm hearing the next line from the precincts of DOD's civilian officialdom: FDR did it (lend-lease); Abraham Lincoln did it (Clement Vallandigham); even Clinton did it (the Sudanese medicine plant). Why are we getting so much grief? People make stuff up for the greater good. It comes with the territory!

I kid you not. That's the line now in the trial balloon stages. Let's call it the Franklin & Abe excuse (FAE).

Stuff like this reminds you what they meant when they came up with the metaphor of the $#@& hitting the fan.

It's really messy. It splatters everywhere. And you really don't want to be anywhere near it when it happens.


I was all set to write up a whole piece about how CNN got suckered into overplaying this story about the nuclear weapons scientist -- Mahdi Obeidi -- who had the parts and documents hidden under a rose bush in his back yard. But sometimes brevity and concision matter most.

Look closely: What was buried were components for a uranium centrifuge and a sheaf of documents detailing how to construct, or rather reconstruct, a uranium enrichment program. These were from the pre-1991 program. The CNN story says that regime leaders ordered him to hide them in expectation of the day when the inspectors would leave and the nuclear program could be restarted. But the CNN story says the call never came -- even though inspectors did in fact leave the country in 1998 and were absent for almost four years.

Former weapons inspector David Albright told CNN: "In a sense, the program was in hibernation. He was the key to the restart of this centrifuge program, and he never got the order. So in that sense it doesn't show at all that Iraq had a nuclear program. And Obeidi told me that he never worked on a nuclear program after 1991."

We knew the Iraqis had a pre-1991 nuclear weapons program. We knew there were probably parts from it hidden around the country in various stages of preservation or disrepair. If anything this finding seems to present some positive evidence that no effort to reconstitute the program was ever made -- though one would definitely want a lot more evidence to arrive at any conclusive judgment.

This is an important story, but as far as the bottom line on the big question of the state of Iraq's WMD programs in early 2003 it really changes nothing.