Thursday, November 20, 2003

The Feith Memo: The Weekly Standard Strikes Again
(1) Been trying to make sense of the leaked Fieth memo as reported in the Weekly Standard. It certainly does look impressive at first glance, but (a) if Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball are right in their Newsweek column, then the memo is pretty much worthless, and (b) Newsweek is far more trustworthy than The Weekly Standard. The DoD's more trustworthy, too, and they've weighed in as well.

(2) It really is extremely important to know your limitations, and it's pretty clear to me that I'm not qualified to evaluate the evidence in the memo as reported in the Standard. You wouldn't try to do your own reasoning about a complex health problem, nor about a complex engineering problem. In a very large percentage of cases, the smart thing to do is to hire an expert to do your reasoning for you. That's why we have the CIA for example. I haven't the foggiest idea whether the sources cited in the memo are reliable, nor whether most of the the kinds of contacts alleged between Saddam's people and Osama's people indicate likely collaboration or just ordinary contact among international bad guys. To analysts in the CIA, this may look like a strong case or it may look like total BS. Josh Marshall gets it right:

"...I am, needless to say, not a trained analyst. I'll be commenting on various points in the piece that I know something about. But there's really little point in my speculating on the meaning of the various data points raised in this memo. Much of the value of this evidence rests on the reliability of the sources and methods used to find it. And we on the outside have little way of knowing who the sources were or how reliable they are. Also, you'd want people who could put the data points into their proper context."

(3) Marshall also notes, however, that, given the source of the memo in Feith's shop, we need to be skeptical:

"More to the point, there's now a record. These are the folks, remember, who had the most outlandish reads on the extent of Iraq's WMD capacities and the most roseate predictions about the ease of the post-war reconstruction. So their record of interpreting raw intelligence is, shall we say, objectively poor."

Isikoff and Hosenball summarize their piece like so:

"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."

(4) Given all of this, I have to say I find it immensely irritating that the Weekly Standard had the gall to call their summary of the memo "Case Closed" and to end it with this sentence:

"But there can no longer be any serious argument about whether Saddam Hussein's Iraq worked with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda to plot against Americans."

The MOST this memo could possibly do is add another chapter to the investigation into whether Saddam and OBL were in cahoots--though it is not clear that it even adds anything at all. I simply do not see how anyone could reasonably think that this memo could justify the claim that the case is closed and the link between Osama and Saddam proven.

(5) Here's my guess as to why the memo was leaked: the strategy here is analogous to the administration's recent strategy of circumventing the major news organizations like the Post and the Times in favor of smaller, regional news organizations. One reason they did so was because those smaller organizations are likely to be less well-equipped to subject the administration's message to rigorous analysis. In the case of the Feith memo, the information therein has already been rejected by the professionals--but, as I noted, it looks impressive to non-experts. Consequently, my guess is that the administration leaked it in order to get out of it whatever mileage they could with the public.

Perhaps they also realized that their strategy would, in a sense, be unopposed: it is unlikely that anyone on the other side of the issue will leak the information and analysis that led the CIA to reject the allegations in the Feith memo.


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