Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

That’s it. I’m old.

Today I was making my way between my usual haunts --- my Starbucks, my favorite Mexican restaurant, my bookstore, and other stops: the places where I break up the time between reading, writing or reporting in my office. And from mid-day on, everywhere I went, there they were: roving gaggles of young people flooding into every place I spend my time, overcrowding them, and just downright getting in the way.

At first I couldn’t figure out what it was about them that seemed different and put me a bit on edge. And then it hit me: teenagers.

The real McCoy, not college underclassmen, but high schoolers --- a bit shorter than the rest of us, and each in their accustomed roles: the popular and the shy, the jocks, the pimply-faced, the fat and skinny, the geeky outcasts hovering on the edges of the crowd, the strutters and the preeners. The whole bit. Teenagers.

To the best of my recollection I once was one. But in the age-group isolation of my thirty-something bachelordom it’s a species with which I realize I’ve become almost wholly unfamiliar. Yes, of course, in their ones or twos, I see them all the time. And that's fine -- wonderful folks. But when they’re running in herds, that’s an altogether different experience. And one I now realize I’ve become weirdly unaccustomed to.

Certainly, somewhere in DC this weekend there’s some rally or Model UN, or National Association of High School Rabble-rousers convention or some such thing. Hopefully that’s it, and it’s just for the weekend. Otherwise, there goes the neighborhood.

"Some are now attacking the president for attacking the terrorists."

Is that how it is?

That's the line from a Republican party ad about to go on air in the primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Meanwhile, back on planet Earth we have a batch of unsettling news from the real war on terrorism.

In Turkey, the jewel of the democratic, western-oriented muslim Middle East, two more horrific suicide bombings kill 27 and wound hundreds.

As Craig Smith notes perceptively in the Times: "The attacks appeared aimed at disrupting the pro-Western secular axis many people in the Middle East believe the United States and Britain are trying to drive through the region with Iraq war. Such an axis would create a swath of territory friendly to the West from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf."

A five-member UN panel says it is "just a matter of time" before al Qaida attempts a chemical or biological attack.

And the Washington Post reports on an ominous process of what we might term 'alqaidogenesis' ...

Leaders of the al Qaeda terrorist network have franchised their organization's brand of synchronized, devastating violence to homegrown terrorist groups across the world, posing a formidable new challenge to counterterrorism forces, according to intelligence analysts and experts in the United States, Europe and the Arab world.

The recent attacks in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Chechnya and Iraq show that the smaller organizations, most of whose leaders were trained in al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, have fanned out, imbued with radical ideology and the means to create or revitalize local terrorist groups. They also are expanding the horizons of groups that had focused on regional issues.

It is, it would seem, a process which is proceeding a pace with little connection, for a good or for ill, to anything we are accomplishing or not accomplishing in Iraq.

Not so deep background <$NoAd$> (from a piece in tomorrow's Post) ...

Bush raised the possibility of increasing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq. When a reporter mentioned the United States' announced plans to reduce troop levels, the president responded: "We could have less troops in Iraq, we could have the same number of troops in Iraq, we could have more troops in Iraq -- whatever is necessary to secure Iraq."

A top aide to Bush, who briefed reporters after the news conference on condition that she not be identified, said that Bush was not announcing a change in policy and that expectations remained that troop levels would be reduced. "There is simply nothing to suggest that the number of American forces would need to increase," the official said. "In fact, the conversations with the commanders have gone the other way."

Who could that possibly be?

Marvelous, marvelous piece on Dick Cheney by Frank Foer and Spencer Ackerman in the new issue of The New Republic.

I can't say enough good things about this piece. It not only goes into fascinating detail about the back-and-forth between Cheney's Office of the Vice President and the CIA over the last two years, it also gives an insightful reading of the evolution of Cheney's own foreign policy views going back into the mid-1980s, placing that development in a sometimes rightly sympathetic light.

I think I have some quibbles with Foer's and Ackerman's judgment about the role of 9/11 as a transformative event for Cheney. But that's a small difference of opinion, and one I'm going to need to give some more thought to, before I make a final judgment.

But for now this is the piece on Cheney, the intel wars, and Iraq. It convinces me even more of something I've thought for some time: that Cheney's office is a rogue operation in this administration and one with the defining influence.

Money talks, and AARP walks.

To find out more about the ugly truth and what you can do to make your voice heard, go to this page at the Campaign for America's Future website.

Interesting update.

In late May, the UN's senior humanitarian relief official in Iraq, Ramiro Lopes da Silva, warned that the US reconstruction effort was too driven by "ideology" and said, in the paraphrased words of the British paper The Guardian, that "the sudden decision last week to demobilise 400,000 Iraqi soldiers without any re-employment programme could generate a 'low-intensity conflict' in the countryside."

This comment gets at another point. To disband or not to disband was not an either/or or a black and white question. At a minimum it would have been necessary at some point to purge the army of unreconstructed Baathists and those responsible for the worst sorts of human-rights offenses.

The question was whether it made sense to disband the institution and give these guys nothing else to do at a point when none of the infrastructure -- either physical or political -- of a stable post-war settlement had been created. Perhaps a year on, if things were proceeding in a good direction, it could have been done then.

As it happened, the decision didn't so much solve the problem of Iraq's almost half a million soldiers. It just left them unsupervised and jobless.

Here's an interesting question: whose idea was it to disband the Iraqi army? Formally, the decision was Paul Bremer's. But that only means that he executed the plan, not that he originated the idea or even necessarily agreed with it. He's taking the rap for it in a lot of corners. But I doubt very much the idea originated with him.

Here's what today's Washington Post article on the subject says ...

The demobilization decision appears to have originated largely with Walter B. Slocombe, a former undersecretary of defense appointed to oversee Iraqi security forces. He believed strongly in the need to disband the army and felt that vanquished soldiers should not expect to be paid a continuing salary. He said he developed the policy in discussions with Bremer, Feith and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz.

"This is not something that was dreamed up by somebody at the last minute and done at the insistence of the people in Baghdad. It was discussed," Slocombe said. "The critical point was that nobody argued that we shouldn't do this."

Slocombe recalled discussing the issue with Wolfowitz on May 8 and with Feith several times, including on May 22, the night before Bremer issued the formal order. Trying to put the army back together at that point, he said, "would've been a practical disaster."

Slocombe's an interesting possible author of the decision since he's a highly respected former official from the Clinton Pentagon and a Democrat, if one with a fairly non-partisan hue.

I have heard, reliably, that Cheney was the key force in the decision. And that he was convinced by Chalabi and others in his circle.

On the other hand, an article in the new Newsweek says this ...

When Bremer arrived in Baghdad in mid-May, the insurgency was just getting started, and clots of former Iraqi troops were reappearing, asking to be remobilized. Bremer, who has been widely blamed for reversing the decision of his predecessor, Jay Garner, to hire such men and pay them, was warned he would cause chaos by demobilizing the Army instead. The CIA station chief told him, “That’s another 350,000 Iraqis you’re pissing off, and they’ve got guns.” According to one official who attended the meeting, Bremer replied: “I don’t have any choice ... Those are my instructions.” Then Bremer added: “The president told me that de-Baathification is more important.”

Needless to say, the word coming directly <$Ad$>from the president is not at all inconsistent with Chalabi convincing senior officials, including Cheney, that this was the way to go.

A few other thoughts on this.

First, I sat down for an interview with a well-known defense policy expert at the very end of June. And the first thing out of his mouth was how bad an idea this was, and that no one could understand what they were thinking.

So I really don't think that it's correct to say that this is one of those ideas that seemed good at the time but has produced unintended results. Most people seem to have seen this as a pretty bad idea from word 'go'.

Second, the issue here, I think, isn't so much whose idea this was, as in a particular person, as just how it originated. Was it just bad decision-making by the people in charge -- not every call can be made correctly? Or was it another example of ideologues or those under the influence of Chalabi getting it into their heads that this was a great idea and then pushing it through over the objections of region experts, the CIA, the military, folks at State, etc.?

The Post on Thursday has an <$NoAd$>article on the growing consensus that disbanding the Iraqi army was a fundamental error and how the CPA is now racing to build a new Iraqi army in its place to help bolster security now and defend a new Iraqi government in the not-too-distant future.

In the course of the piece there's this section with views from different players.

"This was a mistake, to dissolve the army and the police," said Ayad Alawi, head of the security committee of the Iraqi Governing Council. "We absolutely not only lost time. The vacuum allowed our enemies to regroup and to infiltrate the country."

Retired Marine Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, a vocal opponent of the war, calls the move the Bush administration's "worst mistake" in postwar Iraq.

Supporters of the decision counter that the army posed a potential threat to a fledgling Iraqi governing authority and U.S. forces -- and that it was so second-rate and so infiltrated with Baath Party figures that it could not be salvaged.

"The Iraqi army was a pretty sick organization in a lot of respects," said Douglas J. Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy, who played a role in the demobilization decision. "There was quite a bit of cruelty -- abuse by the senior officers of the junior people -- and there was quite a bit of corruption."

Imagine that. Doug Feith thought (and still thinks) it was a good idea. And his judgment is usually so on the mark.

On the other hand, Chalabi convinced Cheney that disbanding the army was a dynamite plan. So he probably convinced Feith too.

Newsweek, in an article by Mike Isikoff and Mark Hosenball, has come in to bat clean up on the Feith Memo and the whole purported Saddam-al Qaida link. They even note the same sputtering performance by Fred Barnes praising the thing on Fox over the weekend that TPM mentioned Sunday morning. (Hmmmm...) It's good stuff. Definitely take a look.

The first, admittedly lengthy and multistoried, sentence sums it up:

A leaked Defense Department memo claiming new evidence of an “operational relationship” between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein’s former regime is mostly based on unverified claims that were first advanced by some top Bush administration officials more than a year ago—and were largely discounted at the time by the U.S. intelligence community, according to current and former U.S. intelligence officials.

Meanwhile, some are expressing the thought that what’s happening here is that interested parties in the <$Ad$>Intelligence Community and national security bureaucracy are scheming to keep the truth from us about the existence of the Saddam-al Qaida link.

Now, anything’s possible in this fallen world of ours. One never knows what the future holds. And certainly every possibility deserves to be looked into.

But sometimes simple logic can help give us a preview of what we might find.

The White House and various administration appointees bullied, pummeled and cajoled various members of the Intelligence Community into signing off on all manner of shaky, disputed, unsubstantiated and downright bogus intel because it suited the White House storyline. Now the same White House can’t get the Intelligence Community to come clean about rock-solid intelligence demonstrating a Saddam-al Qaida link --- information which, if revealed, would greatly bolster the White House?

That make sense to you?

In an article today in Slate, Jack Shafer wonders why almost no media outlets outside the Murdoch media empire have picked up on Steve Hayes’ story in the Weekly Standard. That’s the story --- ‘Case Closed’ --- about the Feith Memo and the alleged Saddam-al Qaida connection.

Among the possible explanations Shafer puts forward is the notion that the mainstream press is too invested in the idea that there were no connections at all between Saddam and al Qaida.

But, to me, that explanation doesn’t even come close to passing muster. The big papers and cable networks have grabbed on to so many weak but sensationalistic Intel related stories about WMD and Iraq-al Qaida connections --- even since the revelations about the Niger-uranium story --- that I don’t find that remotely credible.

A more probable answer --- which I set forth in greater depth today in my column in The Hill --- is that this information is not at all new.

If you’ve been following the intel wars you know that the group that put together this dossier started working in Doug Feith’s office shortly after 9/11 and that they presented these findings --- absent a few details subsequently culled from detainee interviews --- at Langley in August 2002. The methods used by Feith’s Pentagon analysis shop were widely panned and the consensus within the intel community was that the findings didn’t pass the laugh test.

It is almost certain that the dossier --- or rather the memo summarizing it --- was leaked now because Feith and his ideological soul-mates at the Pentagon are profoundly on the defensive because of the WMD debacle and poor planning for post-war Iraq.

Indeed, even within his group, Feith’s stock is close to its nadir --- partly because of these sorts of mad-scientist shenanigans, but for other reasons too. The Senate intel investigation, of course, looms. And perhaps Sen. Roberts (R-Kans) won’t be able to force all the blame on the CIA.

For all these reasons, they are trying to push back anywhere and everywhere they can.

So that’s the main reason, I think, that people haven’t picked up the story. No liberal media conspiracy. Sorry. Rather, the people who are following the intel story know that this is raw intelligence which the people in a position to know, and with access to all the information, say is either unreliable or doesn’t amount to anything.

Part of the difficulty in reporting it out, I suspect, is that the memo includes, say, allegation X. On background people at the CIA might tell a reporter that the report is unreliable. But, because it’s all classified, the reporter can’t get the actual details which are that the report that Saddam and bin Laden were brothers separated at birth actually came from Ahmed Chalabi’s aunt’s maid’s doorman who offered the scoop in exchange for getting bailed out of prison in Cairo where he’d gotten arrested for fencing gold crenellated TV sets smuggled in from Yemen.

In any case, presumably a different sets of facts, but you get the idea.

Also, having gotten burned so bad on the WMD mumbo-jumbo and earlier al Qaida Saddam stories, reporters are wary of these guys, especially since the hawkers of this stuff are just much better, much more effectively political than their opponents.

Having said all this, let’s get it all out there. I agree with Andrew Sullivan when he says that it would be worthwhile to get out on the record which of the Feith-based claims are utterly without merit (most), which are shaky (some) and which may turn out to be true (a few).

(While we're at it, let's also do some decent reporting into the administration's strenuous and comical warping of the intel process and some decent investigations into the now-well-covered-up Valerie Plame story. Note to Mike Allen: get your source on the phone again. What happened to him?)

It seems clear that there were contacts between Iraq and al Qaida during the 1990s. Yet, in the shadowy world of intel and global nogoodnikism all sorts of people meet up now and then. Meetings, contacts in themselves don't necessarily amount to much. And all that we have been able to verify has been extremely limited --- nothing to merit the claims of active collaboration the Iraq hawks made.

And when you consider that we now essentially own Iraq --- the regime leaders, most all the government records that survive, and so forth --- we shouldn’t need to go on hints and allegations. We should know something close to the whole story. And from what we know now, there's not much of a story.