Thursday, July 1, 2004

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Jacob Levy asks the right questions

Before Operation Iraqi Freedom, I posted about the presence of Al Qaeda fighters in the parts of Iraq outside Saddam Hussein's control, and suggested that, hey, maybe the U.S. should take some action there (as well as challenge Europeans to honor their commitments to combat terrorism).

A year later, Kevin Drum highlighted this post in response to a disturbing NBC story:

NBC News has learned that long before the war the Bush administration had several chances to wipe out his terrorist operation and perhaps kill Zarqawi himself — but never pulled the trigger.

In June 2002, U.S. officials say intelligence had revealed that Zarqawi and members of al-Qaida had set up a weapons lab at Kirma, in northern Iraq, producing deadly ricin and cyanide.

The Pentagon quickly drafted plans to attack the camp with cruise missiles and airstrikes and sent it to the White House, where, according to U.S. government sources, the plan was debated to death in the National Security Council....

“People were more obsessed with developing the coalition to overthrow Saddam than to execute the president’s policy of preemption against terrorists,” according to terrorism expert and former National Security Council member Roger Cressey....

Military officials insist their case for attacking Zarqawi’s operation was airtight, but the administration feared destroying the terrorist camp in Iraq could undercut its case for war against Saddam. (emphasis added)

At the time, my response was the same as Jacob Levy's: "At first I assumed that it was so extreme and appalling a claim that there was almost certainly a credible counter-story or at least contrary interpretation to be offered. But I never saw it."

Jacob now has two in-depth posts on this -- here and here. Go read them.

The disturbing allegation, which remains unanswered, is whether the administration chose not to take out these camps -- and possibly Zarqawi -- in order to prosecute a war of choice. Like Ramesh Ponnuru, I find this deeply troubling.

It would be nice to see this story get the journalistic attention that, say, the impending nuptuals of Britney Spears... or the sudden weight loss of Anna Nicole Smith... or [You're drifting off point! Focus!--ed] anyway, you get my drift.

posted by Dan on 07.01.04 at 11:44 AM


Let's assume, arguendo, that your "disturbing allegation" is correct. Why do you believe that the administration should have jeopardized a strategic objective (removing Hussein and changing the dynamic in the ME) over the tactical objective of Zarkawi and his camp?

posted by: Hunter McDaniel on 07.01.04 at 11:44 AM [permalink]


Removing Saddam Hussein (who didn't have anything to do with 9/11) is a strategic objective in the war on terrorism.

Taking out the top operative in the middle east working for Al Queda (which was responsible for killing 3000 on American soil) is only a tactical objective in the war on terrorism.

I think you (and a few other people)are a little confused about who our enemies actually are. No wonder we've been bombing weddings.

posted by: Kevin Polk on 07.01.04 at 11:44 AM [permalink]

Nonsense, Kevin.


With al Qaeda as its foundation, Bin Ladin sought to build a broader Islamic army that also included terrorist groups from Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Oman, Tunisia, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, Somalia and Eritrea. Not all groups from these states agreed to join, but at least one from each did. With a multinational council intended to promote common gooals, coordinate targeting and authorize asset sharing for terrorist operations, this Islamic force represented a new level of collaboration among diverse terrorist groups.

Note that Iraq is included in that list, and then tell us again this fable about how there's no link, and no "stragic value"

Oh, before you do, you may wish to read the statement of the new President of Iraq, to a slightly Shocked Tom Terriffic:

Brokaw: I know that you and others like you are grateful for the liberation of Iraq. But can’t you understand why many Americans feel that so many young men and women have died here for purposes other than protecting the United States?

Allawi: We know that this is an extension to what has happened in New York. And — the war have been taken out to Iraq by the same terrorists. Saddam was a potential friend and partner and natural ally of terrorism.

Brokaw: Prime minister, I’m surprised that you would make the connection between 9/11 and the war in Iraq. The 9/11 commission in America says there is no evidence of a collaborative relationship between Saddam Hussein and those terrorists of al-Qaida.

Allawi: No. I believe very strongly that Saddam had relations with al-Qaida. And these relations started in Sudan. We know Saddam had relationships with a lot of terrorists and international terrorism. Now, whether he is directly connected to the September — atrocities or not, I can’t — vouch for this. But definitely I know he has connections with extremism and terrorists.

And by the way, how many weddings require large amounts of arms and a satalite phone?

posted by: Bithead on 07.01.04 at 11:44 AM [permalink]

Sorry about the double post and the cheap shot.

But surely the implication of Daniel's post is that the decision reveals genuine confusion on the part of this administration about who our enemy is, and a disquieting inability to set priorities that are consistent with the goals of the war on terror.

If we intend to sustain a posture of preemptive war against our terrorist enemies (and we should), we must determine who our enemies are with more rigor than by relying on dark imaginings, lies and the words of those with hidden self-interests.

Otherwise we will be at war with half the world.

posted by: Kevin Polk on 07.01.04 at 11:44 AM [permalink]

Allawi is a man put into power through us, sustained in power by us: he's not exactly an independent and credible source of such information. Besides which he had no access in order to know. If he couldn't know, then why the claims? Well often it's useful to assert something even if you don't or can't know.

Isn't it time we started asking if the Iraqis on our payroll are lying to us BEFORE we buy their stories hook, line, and sinker? It's not as if we didn't just get through a scandal where apparently the Iraqi on our payroll was telling us what he thought we wanted to hear and selling us out to the Iranians besides!

Or doesn't the name "Chalabi" ring any bells for you?

posted by: Oldman on 07.01.04 at 11:44 AM [permalink]

I don't think Jacob is asking all the right questions. There seems to be an issue: did the WH forego an attack on Zarqawi (46 pts in Scrabble!) to support a case for war in Iraq, and a non-issue: does the absence of denial lend any weight to the story.

I think Jacob's fixation on the non-issue - lack of a denial - is misplaced. As much as I am no fan of this Admin, expressed denial, or lack thereof, is an unreliable tool to use for focusing one's attention on any story. And offering the denial would set a bad precident for the accused - whether or not the story is true.

posted by: wishIwuz2 on 07.01.04 at 11:44 AM [permalink]

So, what you're saying is, we should check to make sure the speaker is NOT on the DNC payroll before acepting as valid their assesment of Mr. Bush's performance as President?

posted by: Bithead on 07.01.04 at 11:44 AM [permalink]

Btw, Bithead,

From your comment I would guess that you have not attended any kind of bedouin celebration in the middle east. I have. Gunfire is de rigeur.

And it's not any more unusual for them to have modern telecommunications and a lot of weapons than it would be to find such items in gangsta south central LA. The middle east is a dangerous place. A lot of these people would secede if they had the firepower.

My main point is that the circumstantial fluff you offer as proof doesn't make them any more the enemy of the US than I would be for owning a gun and a cell phone (liberal viewpoints notwithstanding).

posted by: Kevin Polk on 07.01.04 at 11:44 AM [permalink]

Oh, really?

Hell, man, I can't even afford a Sat phone.... (And given I tend to camp in the boons, I could really use it at times!) I'm making on the order of 1000 times what the Average Iraqi makes. How would THEY afford it, I wonder, eh?

posted by: Bithead on 07.01.04 at 11:44 AM [permalink]

Damned if you do and damned if you don't.
If Bush had attacked the "Zarqawi" base, he would have been blamed for trying to provoke a war. He also didn't want to repeat the "empty tent" eposide with UBL that Clinton did.

posted by: J_Crater on 07.01.04 at 11:44 AM [permalink]

It's probably also wise to take into account the possibility that the administration decided a combined air/ground attack on the complex during an Iraq invasion would be more effective than an isolated bombing.

posted by: Josh on 07.01.04 at 11:44 AM [permalink]

Well, yes, Josh, there is that.

How solid was the intelligence about Zarqawi's whereabouts at the time the air strike against his camps were being discussed? How many of his fighters were there? How much were administration discussions influenced by the unsuccessful 1998 cruise missile attacks on al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan? What was the risk of a really massive air strike resulting in bombs landing in Iranian territory? What was the plan to deal with Ansar and its facilities after the invasion started? How successful was it? What advice was the administration getting from the Kurds who had to deal most immediately with Ansar? From the Turks, whose territory was the best place from which to launch a strike by manned aircraft against that target?

I mean only to suggest that a fairly large number of details ought to be accounted for before we start diving into conspiracy theories or after-the-fact finger pointing by people who see a policy in difficulties and want to help themselves by leaking word that they favored another course beforehand.

posted by: Zathras on 07.01.04 at 11:44 AM [permalink]

"How would THEY afford it, I wonder, eh?"

This is why working from imagination rather than facts can give you such a headache.

You've got zip--some guns, some gunshots,a satellite phone--and a weak assertion that somehow this proves they were our enemies.

But since you want to play the imagination game, let's imagine that until recently, international sanctions limited the supply of goods to Iraq. Let's imagine further that Iraqi smugglers profited from selling black market goods in Iraq.

Now, imagine what tools those smugglers might need in their work. Imagine where they might live. Imagine whether or not they would at this time have ceased to go to work every day.

Doesn't mean they weren't our enemies. Just means we can't be certain.

Which is why I think that in the post-saddam world, we should kill more carefully.

posted by: Kevin Polk on 07.01.04 at 11:44 AM [permalink]

Some of you are really bending over backwards to explain the Admin's bungling here. What happened to all the moral clarity? If Bush has a chance to destroy terrorists possibly producing chemical weapons you are willing to cut him some slack? Isn't this kinda his perceived strenght over, say a democrat. Bush will have no qualms attacking terrorists, international law be damned? God... the irony.

posted by: Carlos on 07.01.04 at 11:44 AM [permalink]

Another thing, the article states this group planned attacks in the UK using Ricin.

In January 2003, the threat turned real. Police in London arrested six terror suspects and discovered a ricin lab connected to the camp in Iraq.

And they still demurred! Powell had his speech long on conjecture short on facts to the UN mentioning Zarqawi. How bloody convenient.

posted by: Carlos on 07.01.04 at 11:44 AM [permalink]

The US took out that camp decisively at the outbreak of the war. Where is the evidence or even a credible allegation that Zarqawi was ever at the camp? Where is any evidence that any of the assets actually at the camp escaped and are part of the current problem? Obviously there have not been any ricin attacks. Its one thing to say we could have taken out the camp earlier, but there is no indication that waiting until the actual start of hosilities caused any casualties. Powell specifically that Zarqawi he was in Bagdad before the war getting medical attention. And this column by Novak asserts that the people who made the original charge that they could have gotten Zarqawi but chose not to were not in an official capacity during the relavant time frame. Making the jump in logic that because Zarqawi was associated with the terrorists at the camp, or even controlled them, that ergo he was at the camp is deeply flawed. Gen. John Abizaid stated "I would be very surprised to find out that we had a precise location on Zarqawi."
Whatever you think of Novak, the Plame affair proves he has good sources. I'd expect better of Drezner than going along with this sort of drivel, but I don't expect any better of Levy, he is definitely the weakest link over at the Conspiracy.

posted by: Kozinski on 07.01.04 at 11:44 AM [permalink]

“It would be nice to see this story get the journalistic attention that, say, the impending nuptuals of Britney Spears... or the sudden weight loss of Anna Nicole Smith... or [You're drifting off point! Focus!--ed] anyway, you get my drift. “

That’s absurd. This story deserves no journalistic attention if there is no substance to back it up. It would be analogous to publishing unsubstantiated rumors concerning wife beating by Dan Drezner. Severe damage would be done even if they were utterly false. So far, this story appears to be no more than a smear job.

posted by: David Thomson on 07.01.04 at 11:44 AM [permalink]

Have we already forgotten that some folks like Daniel Davies saw nothing wrong with Jason Blair’s lies? The liberal media and their vile allies are looking for anything to harm the Bush administration. When did the truth ever get in their way? These slime balls have no hesitation in running false and misleading headlines. They know that few people will read the corrections a few weeks later---buried in the back pages. In the meantime, President Bush’s poll numbers take a beating. If they can keep this crap up, John Kerry will be our next president. It’s as simple as that.

posted by: David Thomson on 07.01.04 at 11:44 AM [permalink]

My imagination is going crazy this morning. I can see it now:

“Witnesses Claim that Daniel Drezner Beats Wife”

“Daniel Drezner Denies Charges”

“Wife Denies that Daniel Drezner Beat Her---but Many Wives Lie to Protect their Abuser.”

“Rumors Continue Concerning Drezner’s Wife Beating Allegations”

“Should Daniel Drezner Seek Counseling? What do the Experts say?”

“How Much Jail Time Could Daniel Drezner Receive?”

“Officials of University of Chicago Refuse to Comment on Daniel Drezner Wife Beating Charges? Is there a Coverup?”

posted by: David Thomson on 07.01.04 at 11:44 AM [permalink]

Dear Bithead,

oldman; So, what you're saying is, we should check to make sure the speaker is NOT on the DNC payroll before acepting as valid their assesment of Mr. Bush's performance as President?
If you're implying that a Democrat's assessment of GWB is suspect for purely partisan reasons, then you're correct.

I never disliked Bush because of anything a liberal said. I started disliking him when he gutted McCain using lies. Then when his staff fell apart - including Powell - I knew for sure he was the wrong man for the job. Everything else has just been icing on the cake.

As the Gipper said, trust but verify. Fact check. Ask does this person have an interest in pushing this view? Do they offer evidence for their views? Can we check this evidence? Do they have a conflict of interest.

Personally I think the last four years have shown how completely inept the Democratic party has become. If GWB hadn't picked some real losers to implement his policies, he'd still probably be in the upper 60's in approval.

posted by: oldman on 07.01.04 at 11:44 AM [permalink]


I almost feel sorry for you. Almost. If you choose to back fools, they'll make a fool of you. And this defaulting on Zarqawi thing makes perfect sense. Zarqawi always was a two bit player. He was just made a convenient bogey man. It's just that when the press was presented with him as a two bit player, someone made the (correct) decision not to tip our hand by attacking one insignificant and minor guy.

Now that the Admin is making him out to be the like the third biggest guy in Alqueda however, the former decision looks rather embaressing. However the Admin has no evidence that he's such a big wig. I mean if they can't even find the terrorist cells to root them out (and they've been trying for over a year now in Iraq) how are they gonna tell that Zarqawi is that big?

It's all a snow job beginning to end. But some people buy into it, so they sell it.

posted by: oldman on 07.01.04 at 11:44 AM [permalink]

So, how much stronger would the "wife beating" allegation appear if DD offered no denial?

(oldman- my disfavor with the BC'00 campaign began when they outbid Forbes on a tax cut, and quickly regained the lead. Seemed like the GOP primary was essentially for sale)

posted by: wishIwuz2 on 07.01.04 at 11:44 AM [permalink]

If I may - it has been reported that three separate plans to get Zarqawi were drafted, and that these were "endlessly debated" at the White House. This would seem to give the lie to any theory that either the White House or the Pentagon thought Zarqawi was small potatoes.

Further, the idea that delaying the attack of the camp out at the beginning of the war didn't result in casualties is irrevelant. The argument is that early attacks in the camp were rejected because the camp's existence was "proof" of the neccessity to attack Iraq.

To have successfully attacked the camp without attacking the nation of Iraq would have demonstrated a LACK OF NECCESSITY for the larger war.

posted by: evan on 07.01.04 at 11:44 AM [permalink]

To have successfully attacked the camp without attacking the nation of Iraq would have demonstrated a LACK OF NECCESSITY for the larger war.

Yeah. Launching a few cruise missiles into Iraq would have meant war wasn't necessary. Too bad Clinton didn't try that in the 1990s.

posted by: Victor on 07.01.04 at 11:44 AM [permalink]

“Jacob Levy asks the right questions”

Nope, Jacob Levy asks dumb questions. I’m trying to be polite, but his line of argumentation borders on the absurd. It’s nuttier than a fruit cake. Levy is merely indulging in idle speculation---and no intense damaging investigation (and it most certainly would harm the Bush administration) should be launched on such flimsy evidence. It would indeed be analogous to a humiliating investigation of a possible wife beating merely because she had a minor scratch on her face.

There is simply no reasonable way to ascertain the decision making of those responsible for not bombing these camps. Unless, of course, Levy is hinting that we may be able to read minds. Is that possibly what he is suggesting? If there is any chance that these theories are true, common sense dictates that we will likely find out via a death bed confession. Is anyone truly entertaining the bizarre notion that an investigation might produce an explicitly stated memo? Does this make any sense? I realize that Levy is a personal friend of Dan Drezner’s, but that still doesn’t justify his jumping onto this weird bandwagon.

Would I be saying the exact same thing if a Democrat resided in the White House? The answer is an unhesitating yes. My position is based on rational thought and not political expediency. Can Jacob Levy make the same claim---or is he merely trying to be popular with the liberal intelligentsia?

posted by: David Thomson on 07.01.04 at 11:44 AM [permalink]

This is why working from imagination rather than facts can give you such a headache.You've got zip--some guns, some gunshots,a satellite phone--and a weak assertion that somehow this proves they were our enemies.

Again, explain their being there.

And was that the only evidence to go on? You know it wasn't.

posted by: Bithead on 07.01.04 at 11:44 AM [permalink]

Jacob Levy must be some sort of comedian:

“But when genuine reporters from a major news organization that I know to be bound by mainstream American journalistic rules about sources (i.e. not a British tabloid) report such a claim and source it to the Pentagon, with supporting statements from a named former NSC member, that has some serious evidentiary weight. It creates some presumption that there's truth to it.”

Levy is right to describe British tabloid journalism to be less accurate than standard American journalistic rules. Still, the Washington Post is only one step ahead of a lying rag. This newspaper will do just about anything to destroy a Republican presidency. The problem with launching an investigation premised on sources in the Pentagon and a named former NSC member---is that they can likely only offer vague opinions. They are unable to read the minds of the top Bush administration officials! This is the key point which Levy conveniently ignores. If there was indeed a plot, we probably would have to wait until one of the key conspirators is lying on their death bed. Any current investigation is therefore viciously unfair, and would only bring down President Bush’s poll numbers. Of course, maybe that’s what Levy is trying to achieve? “Kevin and Brad DeLong have both made efforts to keep the story alive, to no great avail.” Yup, the Bush haters are doing their best to bring down the president.

posted by: David Thomson on 07.01.04 at 11:44 AM [permalink]

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