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CIA contra Suskind: Operation Squelch Congressional Investigation

| Fri Aug. 22, 2008 6:11 PM EDT

The CIA has now joined the White House and former CIA director George Tenet in releasing a statement denying explosive charges at the heart of a new book by journalist Ronald Suskind, The Way of the World. In the book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former Wall Street Journal reporter charged that a letter falsely alleging that lead 9/11 hijacker Mohammad Atta had trained in Iraq, which was purported to have been written by former Iraqi intelligence chief Tahir Habbush and which was leaked to journalist Con Coughlin who wrote about it in the Sunday Telegraph in December 2003, had materialized as the result of a White House ordered CIA forgery plot. Newsweek quickly exposed the letter as a fake, and it was later revealed that the letter had been passed to Coughlin by an Iraqi exile politician close to the CIA Ayad Allawi, who reportedly happened to be in meetings at Langley around the time Suskind claimed the White House directive came down. So how did the letter purported to be from Habbush with the discredited claims come to be? In a statement today, the CIA writes:

Suskind claims that, in September 2003, the White House ordered then-Director George Tenet to fabricate a letter describing a level of cooperation between Saddam Hussein and al-Qa'ida that simply did not exist. The White House has denied making that request, and Director Tenet has denied receiving it. The former Agency officers Suskind cites in his narrative have, for their part, publicly denied being asked to carry out such a mission.
Those denials are powerful in and of themselves. But they are also backed by a thorough, time-consuming records search within CIA and by interviews with other officers—senior and junior alike—who were directly involved in Iraq operations. To assert, as Suskind does, that the White House would request such a document, and that the Agency would accept such a task, says something about him and nothing about us. It did not happen. Moreover, as the public record shows, CIA had concluded—and conveyed to our customers—that the ties between Saddam Hussein and al-Qa'ida were not as close as some believed.

Tenet released a new statement today too that closely tracks with the CIA denial and was apparently coordinated.

The timing is interesting. Just this week, the House Judiciary committee moved forward with plans to investigate Suskind's claims, issuing letters to several of the participants named asking them to testify. As a reader friend suggests, whether Suskind got details in his account wrong or not, "there can be no doubt whatsoever that what motivated this statement by CIA echoed by Tenet's new statement is an effort to scare off and squelch Congress from pursuing its investigation."

Suskind has said in media appearances that he wants the officials involved to testify under oath. He has also posted the partial transcript of an interview with Rob Richer, a former top CIA official he cites as telling him about the White House order on Habbush. Richer has denied the account took place as Suskind reported it. But his denial is carefully worded. And as my reader friend notes, "Richer's comments on the record on Suskindresponse contradict the CIA's official response, insofar as he simply acknowledges as a fact Habbush's defection while CIA acts like it knows nothing about it and as far as it is concerned Habbush is still a wanted man."

Let's see if Operation Squelch Congressional Investigation succeeds.

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"Houses" Releases the Creativity/Photoshopping Skills of the Blogs

| Fri Aug. 22, 2008 4:15 PM EDT

People will have their fun.

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mccaincribs1.jpg mccaincribs2.jpg

Hey, it's a Friday afternoon. We're just biding our time until the big news. Go find an adult beverage.

Friday Cat Blogging - 22 August 2008

| Fri Aug. 22, 2008 4:00 PM EDT

FRIDAY CAT BLOGGING.... So, how about if we see if Friday Catblogging works here at the new digs? Let's see: (1) take cute picture of cats, (2) upload to MoJo site, (3) click Preview.

Hey, how about that! It works just like it used to. What a relief. That new kid Benen over at the Monthly does have a cat — cute little thing, too — but I don't know if he's going to let himself get badgered into catblogging every week. I guess the regulars are going to have to work on him about that. Over here, though, the tradition continues.

Today we have a rare picture with both cats in the same frame. A couple of early Christmas presents arrived the other day, and for Domino, the box full of peanuts was an early Christmas present too. Inkblot, bless his tiny little feline brain, seemed pretty sure something was up but never quite worked up the energy to actually look in the box and confirm his suspicions. Instead he just rolled around beside it while Domino waited for the worst. Never happened though, and eventually he just fell asleep.

Obama on Withdrawal

| Fri Aug. 22, 2008 3:57 PM EDT

OBAMA ON WITHDRAWAL....Here is Obama's official statement on the news that we've reached a tentative agreement with the Iraqi government on a timetable to withdraw American combat troops:

I am glad that the Administration has finally shifted to accepting a timetable for the removal of our combat troops from Iraq. Success in Iraq depends on an Iraqi government that is reconciling its differences and taking responsibility for its future, and a timetable is the best way to press the Iraqis to do just that. I welcome the growing convergence around this pragmatic and responsible position.

....Senator McCain has stubbornly focused on maintaining an indefinite U.S presence in Iraq, but events have made his bluster and record increasingly out of touch with reality. While Senator McCain continues to offer unconditional military and economic support for Iraq, I strongly believe that we need to use our leverage with the Iraqi government to ensure a political settlement. In addition to a timetable, we should only train Iraqi Security Forces if Iraq's leaders reconcile their differences, and we must insist that Iraq invests its $79 billion surplus on rebuilding its own country.

That's a good tone to take. Also interesting is that despite the 2011 date we've apparently badgered the Iraqis into accepting, Obama is sticking to his 16-month/2010 guns.

Fundraising Woes

| Fri Aug. 22, 2008 3:35 PM EDT

FUNDRAISING WOES....Over in GOP-land, it looks like fundraising pleas are falling on deaf ears:

"It has become clear that my call has gone largely unanswered," Sen. John Ensign of Nevada fumed in a statement. "I have no control over the timing or content of (independent) ads, but I have had no choice but to decrease the total budget for our (independent expenditures) unit."

Republican lawmakers contributed $1.1 million to the NRSC through June, while Democrats chipped in nearly $5 million [to the DSCC, presumably, unless Dems are feeling unusually generous this year –ed.], according to FEC reports.

....Ensign had challenged his colleagues to step up back in July by increasing their fundraising efforts or by providing more of their own direct contributions. His statement amounted to a renewed call to arms.

That's a mighty sad state of affairs, isn't it? I wonder why no one wants to give Republicans any money this year?

Lobbyist Linked to NRA Spy Caper Co-Chairs McCain's Sportsmen's Committee

| Fri Aug. 22, 2008 3:22 PM EDT

Earlier this week, ABC News reported that the McCain campaign was seeking to distance itself from adviser James Jay Baker, a onetime NRA official and current lobbyist for the gun rights group, who is reportedly a member of McCain's "kitchen cabinet." Questioned by ABC, the campaign played down his involvement, describing him as a "high level volunteer."

It stands to reason why the campaign would want to draw a wide berth around Baker. Until 2002, Baker was the executive director of the NRA's lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action. During his tenure, the ILA engaged the services of a now defunct private security firm, Beckett Brown, which specialized in spying on activist groups. Beckett Brown's point of contact at ILA was Baker's deputy, Patrick O'Malley. O'Malley also served as an NRA contact for Mary Lou Sapone, who, as Mother Jones reported in July, is a freelance spy who infiltrated the gun control movement from more than a decade on behalf of the gun lobby. When we contacted Baker seeking comment on Sapone's work for the NRA, he said, "I don't have anything to say about any vendors at the NRA." And while maintaining that he had no knowledge of any efforts to penetrate the gun control movement while he was at the NRA, he added: "We got information from whatever sources we can." The NRA has refused to comment on the Sapone story, declining to explain any possible relationship between the ILA and Sapone.

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Four-Day School Weeks: For Real Now

| Fri Aug. 22, 2008 1:45 PM EDT

schoolbus-gas.jpgAbout a month ago, I wrote that a handful of school districts—due to rising fuel costs—said they could save thousands of dollars in school bus fuel by switching to four-day school weeks. Apparently things have really ramped up since then.

A recent survey says that 1 in 7 school boards nationwide are considering whether to drop a day off the normal five-day school week. About half surveyed said they were planning to cut out field trips, and more than 30% said they were consolidating or eliminating bus routes.

We've been down this road before. During the oil crisis of the 1970s about 100 districts implemented a four-day week also. One small study in Florida in 1973 found that half the students preferred it (Heck yeah: three-day weekends!).

But gas prices aren't the only issue: a shaky economy and some state budge woes led some districts to switch to a four-day week as many as four years ago.

Find Out Where a Gas Tax Holiday Might Have Some Serious Appeal...

| Fri Aug. 22, 2008 1:37 PM EDT

When you're done checking out our cool interactive map of America's global military footprint, check out this cool interactive map of global gas prices.

Some of the facts are really remarkable. Citizens of Scandinavia pay almost $10 a gallon and the Turks, who labor under a 72 percent gas tax, pay $11.18. Meanwhile, residents of Turkmenistan pay just $0.76 per gallon, and the first 32 gallons each month are free. Comparatively speaking, we get off pretty easy. (Via Andrew.)

Biden's Experience

| Fri Aug. 22, 2008 1:31 PM EDT

BIDEN'S EXPERIENCE....Over at the mother blog — a genuinely apt name at this magazine — Jonathan Stein comments on today's paean to Joe Biden from David Brooks:

So Biden is a liberal, not-evil Cheney. I'll agree that's a good thing. I'll further agree that having people like David Brooks on-board with the Obama VP pick is a good thing for Obama. But I won't agree that experience is the primary consideration when choosing a VP. Is Brooks not aware how that undercuts Obama's entire case for the presidency? If we value experience, why settle for a ticket with a VP who has 25+ years of experience in Washington? Why not pick the ticket with the nominee who has 25+ years of experience in Washington?

I imagine I'm probably more sympathetic to Biden than Jonathan is in the first place, but even aside from that I don't think this is right. By picking Biden, what Obama would show is that he's not afraid of experienced colleagues. Think of JFK picking Johnson or Carter picking Mondale as their running mates. It's basically a show of dominance.

And aside from that, there really is some value in Biden's experience. Maybe. All four of the most recent Democratic presidents have chosen their VPs from the ranks of the Senate, and I'll grant that the results have been fairly mixed. Still, the Senate is pretty clearly going to be ground zero for getting Obama's program passed into actual legislation, and Biden has a pretty decent track record of working the legislative process. So on that score it might be genuinely helpful. (Ditto, of course, for Jack Reed.)

My Brooks-related concern would be a little different. Remember how conservatives were singing hosannahs to Obama back before he actually won the nomination? That, um, didn't last long. So call me cynical, but I wonder if Brooks will continue to think so highly of Biden if he gets the nomination? Or will he suddenly discover a column or five's worth of reasons that he's actually a fatal albatross? I'm not saying he'd do that. I'm just saying.

Sunni Awakening Update

| Fri Aug. 22, 2008 1:01 PM EDT

SUNNI AWAKENING UPDATE....A couple of days ago McClatchy's Leila Fadel reported "Key U.S. Iraq strategy in danger of collapse":

A key pillar of the U.S. strategy to pacify Iraq is in danger of collapsing because the Iraqi government is failing to absorb tens of thousands of former Sunni Muslim insurgents who'd joined U.S.-allied militia groups into the country's security forces.

...."We cannot stand them, and we detained many of them recently," said one senior Iraqi commander in Baghdad, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the issue. "Many of them were part of al Qaida despite the fact that many of them are helping us to fight al Qaida."

He said the army was considering setting a Nov. 1 deadline for those militia members who hadn't been absorbed into the security forces or given civilian jobs to give up their weapons. After that, they'd be arrested, he said.

This has always been the risk in the bottom-up strategy of arming the former Sunni insurgents in hopes of giving them enough ground-level influence that Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite government wouldn't have any choice but to deal with them. After all, maybe Maliki would decide not to deal with them after all. What then? The New York Times picks up the story today:

West of Baghdad, former insurgent leaders contend that the Iraqi military is going after 650 Awakening members, many of whom have fled the once-violent area they had kept safe. While the crackdown appears to be focused on a relatively small number of leaders whom the Iraqi government considers the most dangerous, there are influential voices to dismantle the American backed movement entirely.

"The state cannot accept the Awakening," said Sheik Jalaladeen al-Sagheer, a leading Shiite member of Parliament. "Their days are numbered."

....The Shiite-dominated government has never been pleased with the continuing American plan to finance and organize Sunni insurgents into militia guards, charging that they will stop fighting only as long as it serves their interests.

"These people are like cancer, and we must remove them," said Brig. Gen. Nassir al-Hiti, commander of the Iraqi Army's 5,000-strong Muthanna Brigade, which patrols west of Baghdad, said of the Awakening leaders on his list for arrest.

That doesn't sound very promising, does it? Gen. David Petraeus, however, says Maliki has promised to get with the program. "This is how you end these kinds of conflicts," he said. "That's why they call it reconciliation. It's not done with one's friends, it's done with former enemies."

This is absolutely something to keep a close eye on. If Maliki continues to believe his own PR and figures that he's strong enough on his own to renege on his promise to incorporate the Sunnis into Iraq's security forces, the tribal leaders are almost certain to start the insurgency right back up. And if they do, Muqtada al-Sadr might decide to rejoin the fight as well. And who knows? Maybe the Kurds would decide that chaos in the south was a perfect cover for retaking Kirkuk.

Surge supporters have long been eager to play down everything that's happened in Iraq other than the surge, and even Petraeus isn't immune to that. Yesterday he spoke about the Sunni tribal leaders who teamed up with American forces before the surge to kick al-Qaeda out of Iraq. "They have made an enormous contribution," he said, before catching himself: "or a very significant contribution, to improved security." If Maliki continues to stonewall and the Sunni leaders finally get tired of it, I suspect that "enormous" is going to turn out to have been the proper adjective after all.