Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Here's my second column for The Hill. The topic: the sad consequences of trying to run a manned space flight program on the cheap. Here's a snippet.

Critics contend that NASA is bloated and inefficient. And, to an extent, they’re right. Cost overruns are commonplace, and compared to old-fashioned rockets, the shuttle is very expensive to fly. But it’s possible for an agency to be bloated, inefficient and underfunded. In fact, the latter can sometimes lead to the former. The problem is like that of an under-capitalized business or a falling-apart old car that costs more money in upkeep than it would to buy a newer model.
As I am on Iraq, I'm probably a bit off the reservation in wanting big budgets for the manned space program. But there you have it. Click here to read the whole thing.

You may have seen that in the Times today Fox Butterfield has an article about how a former gun company executive and lobbyist, Robert A. Ricker, has basically seen the light and admitted in an affidavit that, in the Times's words, "gun manufacturers had long known that some of their dealers corruptly sold guns to criminals but pressured one another into remaining silent for fear of legal liability."

Here's the key passage at the end of the article ...

Mr. Ricker said in the affidavit that the idea that all dealers operate legally because they have a license is a "fiction." He added that "the firearms industry has long known that A.T.F. is hampered" by its shortage of personnel and loopholes in the gun laws. For example, he said, the bureau can inspect a dealer only once a year as a result of a law supported by the rifle association.
This month's issue of The Washington Monthly has a dynamite article about how the gun industry helped keep those ATF inspection limits in place.

If a tree falls in the forest and there's no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? Or, in our case, if there's a crisis on the Korean Peninsula and the White House doesn't pay any attention, does it even really matter? That is a proposition the Bush administration seems increasingly determined to put to the test.

Watch very closely what's happening.

According to American satellite intelligence, North Korea is now more or less openly hauling those 8000 spent nuclear fuel rods off to be reprocessed into weapons grade plutonium and then, presumably, into nuclear warheads.

Let's be clear, this is exactly the act we were prepared to go to war in 1994 to prevent.

Now, why are they doing this? There are essentially two theories. One says that they want a deal, which would likely mean diplomatic normalization, various forms of economic aid, and some sort of non-aggression pact with the United States. Under this theory, they're upping the ante because they want to force us to bargain and bargain on their terms. In that case, making a big show of cranking up the nukes makes a lot of sense.

Then there's theory two: the North Koreans wouldn't mind having all those things too. But what they're really set on is getting the bomb, thinking -- not unreasonably -- that it's the one true guarantee against the military overthrow of their regime (and not a bad export crop either). They're using America's temporary distraction with Iraq to 'break out' of the nuclear box so that they can present the Americans with a fait accompli once we're done dealing with Iraq.

Actually, there's a subset of theory two. Some say the North Koreans were always determined to get nukes no matter what. Others point to the Bush administration's 'regime change' and preemption rhetoric as the trigger.

The truth is that we don't really know which of these possibilities is the case. In fact, the North Koreans probably don't either. We tend to over-determine the intentions of our adversaries. Most Korea experts think the North Korean leadership is divided between ardent militarists and others more eager for rapprochement, even at the expense of dumping the nukes. In truth, most think Kim Jong-Il probably tends toward that latter camp.

All of this is perhaps a long way of saying that this is a hell of a complicated situation.

But what are we doing about it? In a word, nothing.

The Bush administration has ruled out force as a means of solving the problem and pretty much ruled out talking too. And that leaves you pretty much with nothing. And that's what we're doing.

It would be one thing if this were a stand off and we could just wait them out. But it's hardly that. They are walking the ball down field in our direction. Each day we do nothing brings those nukes and plutonium one step closer. So again, what are we doing?


It's like that really, really uncomfortable phone call that you so don't want to make. So you just ... well, you just don't make it and you pretend the problem will go away.

The truth is that the administration has blustered its way into a box, ruling out its two basic options -- talking or fighting -- and giving the North Koreans time to strengthen their hand by advancing their plutonium production. They're putting on a cool demeanor like they've got a master plan, but by not admitting that what's happening is a crisis, they're simply letting the situation drift until a nuclear North Korea becomes a fait accompli.

At which point they'll blame it on Bill Clinton.

It's a pitiful situation.

Meanwhile, in a Saturday article which was quickly overwhelmed by the Shuttle catastrophe, the Washington Post reported pretty much exactly what TPM and The Nelson Report were reporting three weeks ago: that the Bush administration had known about the North Koreans' uranium enrichment program for two years before raising the matter with them.

Washington is all abuzz over the nomination of Miguel Estrada to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The intensity of interest stems, in part, from the fact that many believe he is on the fast track to a Supreme Court nomination. The DC Circuit would be a stepping stone, as it often is, to a such a later appointment. In any case, there's a lot being said about Estrada's appointment both pro and con. On Crossfire Estrada's friend Ann Coulter told Paul Begala that, "the second [Estrada] gets in there, he'll overrule everything you love." But I'm not sure he's designated her an official spokesperson. In any case, what surprises me is that no one has raised the fact that Estrada was one of the lead lawyers on President Bush's legal team arguing the Florida recount cases. According to this article in The American Lawyer (helpfully reproduced on the Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher website), Estrada was one of four other "lead partners" on the team Ted Olson put together to make now-President Bush's arguments about why to shut down the vote-counting in Florida. That's certainly something I'd want to know more about.

An important point for me to add regarding the Easterbrook piece mentioned below. Definitely read it. It's important. But I don't share the lack of enthusiasm about manned space flight which comes through in his new piece today in Time.com. Nor do I agree with all the particulars in the exhaustive earlier Monthly article. Just wanted to make that clear. More soon.

I was just flipping through the must-read Easterbrook article mentioned below when I came across this passage ...

The external fuel tank, for instance, is full of oxygen and hydrogen cooled to -400ƒ F. to make the gases flow as liquids. Ice will form on the tank. When Columbia's tiles started popping off in a stiff breeze, it occurred to engineers that ice chunks from the tank would crash into the tiles during the sonic chaos of launch: Goodbye, Columbia. So insulation was added to the tank. But while thermal cladding solves the ice problem, it adds weight. The entire vehicle, loaded, weighs 4.5 million pounds. Say you add one percent. Doesn't sound like much. One percent comes to 45,000 pounds. That's almost all of the payload.
Ugh ...

I'd meant to do this post yesterday. But with the sad events of Saturday morning it seemed inappropriate.

We have our traffic statistics in for January 2003. Unique Visitors 141,660; Visits 379,311; Page Views 1,049,175. Those numbers are a shade off the December clip. But December was a big month, what with the Trent Lott business and all.

To give some perspective, those numbers are roughly twice what they were last October (73,629; 187,877; 550,035) and roughly three times what they were as recently as July (53,800; 122,974; 371,601).

(For what it's worth, 'unique visitors' and 'visits' are to some extent questions of definition, judged differently by different web statistics programs. So I guess the closest there is to a 'hard' number is 'page views.')

In any case, I'd like to thank everyone who has visited the site, even more those who've returned again and again, and still more those who've helped spread the word to others. A sincere thank you.

One of the most chilling parts of yesterday's NASA news conference was one simple statement of fact, repeated again and again: Even if they'd known the thermal tiles on the underbelly of the shuttle had been fatally damaged, there was nothing they could have done about it anyway.


(It occurs to me that had they truly known something like this was going to happen, they could have housed the astronauts, on an emergency basis, on the space station until they came up with some way to get them down. I believe the Russians have unmanned capsules that bring supplies up and so forth. In any case, now it's moot. Late Update: It seems my surmise was wrong. I'm told there are at least two reasons why such a hook-up would not have been doable. A) The Columbia lacked the proper docking apparatus and B) Once in orbit, there was no way to get it to the Space Station.)

It turns out that back in 1980, while NASA was trying to work out the kinks on this particular ship, Columbia, Gregg Easterbrook wrote a lengthy article in The Washington Monthly questioning just how spaceworthy the whole design really was. Here's one passage ...

Some suspect the tile mounting is the least of Columbia's difficulties. "I don't think anybody appreciates the depths of the problems," Kapryan says. The tiles are the most important system NASA has ever designed as "safe life." That means there is no back-up for them. If they fail, the shuttle burns on reentry. If enough fall off, the shuttle may become unstable during landing, and thus un-pilotable. The worry runs deep enough that NASA investigated installing a crane assembly in Columbia so the crew could inspect and repair damaged tiles in space. (Verdict: Can't be done. You can hardly do it on the ground.)
The Monthly has a lengthy excerpt up now on their website (presumably the whole article is to follow). Definitely go take a look. Late Update: The complete Easterbrook article is now online at the Monthly website.

Just watched a heartbreaking and wrenching moment in the NASA news conference, just before 4 PM EST. Ron Dittemore, Shuttle Program Manager, was asked about the piece of insulating foam that apparently struck the shuttle's left wing on take-off. It now seems that what few sensor readings went off-line just before the accident were also on the left wing. (Whether there's a connection is, at least at this point, entirely speculative.) Dittemore was asked about whether that was the problem, why more wasn't done, etc.

Dittemore laboriously and seemingly convincingly went through what they'd done. They looked at the data. They called together the experts. They went over earlier experience. They went over everything. Taking that all together, they decided it didn't represent a problem.

His voice resonated with 'We did everything we should have done.' And yet, as he worked his way through the explanation, you could see in his occasionally-tightened face 'What did we miss?'

No real comment. Certainly, no criticism. Just one of those agonizingly human moments where the look on the face says everything.

Today reminds me of 9/11, of course, and of the day in 1986 when a fellow student burst into my high school American history class with the seemingly improbable news that the shuttle had exploded. I tried to explain how this really wasn't possible until -- with a growing number of people now saying the same thing -- it began to dawn on me that maybe I didn't grasp quite so much of the engineering, aeronautics and physics of the matter as I'd imagined.

I've always been a great enthusiast of manned space flight, something I get from my father. So, like everyone else, I find this simply devastating. I've spent most of the morning sitting dumb-faced and silent in front of my television. Watching the pre-flight interviews with the crew is heartbreaking.

Beside that, it's hard to know what else to say. The shuttle takes off in what is essentially a controlled explosion. It lands in a precipitous drop, racing at thousands of miles an hour, much of the time encased in a fireball. That is a terribly risky enterprise. Words fail. It's tragic -- an unimaginably violent, sudden catastrophe tucked away in the sky.