June 19, 2005
The Downing Street Memo and the Court of Appeal in News Judgment
News judgment used to be king. If the press ruled against you, you just weren't news. But if you weren't news how would anyone know enough about you to contest the ruling? Today, the World Wide Web is the sovereign force, and journalists live and work according to its rules.
About the Downing Street Memo—which I think deserves sustained news attention, real Congressional hearings, questions and answers at White House briefings, continued blogging, serious examination by all Americans (including the President’s supporters) and the interest of future historians, essentially for the reasons articulated here—I have one thought to contribute.
“News stories,” Joshua Marshall once said, “have a 24 hour audition on the news stage, and if they don’t catch fire in that 24 hours, there’s no second chance.” His observation appears in the Harvard Kennedy School case study on the fall of Trent Lott (published in March 2004, a pdf.)
But that’s not the way world works anymore. The 24-hour audition still happens, and the big winners are still big news. But now there is a Court of Appeal in the State of Supreme News Judgment, and everyone knows the initial verdict can be reversed. Reversal on appeal came last week for the Downing Street Memo (now memos, plural) about 45 days after the first story broke.
We should use the opportunity to understand how the court works. (Others cases include the fate of Trent Lott, and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.) For if the news judgment of journalists is not final anymore, this only reminds us that it was never good enough to be as final as once it was.
The traditional press is “no longer sovereign over territory it once easily controlled,” I wrote in Bloggers vs. Journalists is Over (Jan. 15). “Not sovereign doesn’t mean you go away. It means your influence isn’t singular anymore.” The Court of Appeal for news judgment, which sits on the left sometimes, and other times on the right, is an example of that.
What journalists call news judgment used to be king. If the press ruled against you, you just weren’t news. But if you weren’t news how would anyone know enough about you (or care) to contest the ruling? That’s what having singular influence was all about. The way it works today, the World Wide Web is the sovereign force, and journalists live and work according to its rules.
Now if there’s something newsworthy coming out of the U.K. but neglected in America the political blogs in America and other activists online keep talking about it. Quickly the story’s unjust obscurity will reach a political player who can change that by acting in a newsworthy way, lending fresh facts and additional reason to cover the story.
By such means the appeal of news judgment starts to take shape. This happened within a week when Conyers began circulating a letter to President Bush—signed by 88 Democrats—that demanded from Bush an explanation. The Knight-Ridder Washington bureau, increasingly a dissident voice on these matters, treated that letter as news in a May 6 report. (The signers were up to 122 by the time Conyers sent his letter.)
Players in politics, reading the blogs (or in the case of Conyers, writing for them), pick up the chatter and amplify it. Radio talk show hosts, also reading the blogs, and getting the e-mails from activists, amplify the chatter some more. Columnists who weren’t a part of the consensus pay attention, seeking vindication for their own judgment. And all these players together mount the appeal. They go into Supreme News Court and say: “the press denied us, but we have a case.”
On June 7, for example, Jefferson Morley of the Washington Post (who wrote about the memo May 3 for the Washington Post, but only in the online edition) pointed out that “the so-called Downing Street Memo remains among the top 10 most viewed articles on The Times of London site.” All those clicks are part of the appeals process. Web users are speaking. “Reader interest” (one factor in news judgment) is being shown. So too with calls and e-mails to ombudsmen at newspapers. These helped trigger Barney Calame’s report about the New York Times’s coverage, and two Michael Getler columns about the Washington Post’s decisions.
At the Star-Tribune in Minneapolis, reader representative Kate Parry forwarded a reader’s e-mail to nation & world editor Dennis McGrath. She asked him if he knew anything about the story. Parry describes what happened:
McGrath knew about the memo — but not from the traditional news wires. In this country, wire services had provided only a brief mention of it May 2 deep in a New York Times advancer on the British election. McGrath knew about it because he had started getting the e-mails, too.
He and his wire editors began watching for a wire story. A week later, they were still watching.
“We were frustrated the wires weren’t providing stories on this,” McGrath said. Finally, he gave up waiting for the wires and assigned reporter Sharon Schmickle to write about it — despite the geographic disadvantage of reporting from Minneapolis on a story breaking in London.
Parry added that the Downing Street memo story had “played out almost identically to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth story last year. McGrath learned about the group and its ads from the Internet long before the wire services offered stories. He had a local reporter do that story as well.” That’s the Court of Appeal in session.
In any successful appeal, when the press digs in and ignores the story, this creates a second story, the subject of which is faulty news judgment. It’s usually phrased as a question: Did the (news) judges rule in error? (Christian Science Monitor, May 17: “Why has ‘Downing Street memo’ story been a ‘dud’ in US?”) Howard Kurtz finally made the case Thursday. The question, What about the Downing Street memo? had been asked so often, he wrote, it “forced the mainstream media to take a second look.”
NPR’s ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin told Salon, “It’s a bigger story than we’ve given it. It deserves more attention.” He added, “It may have been blog-induced in the beginning, but now it has legs of its own.”
When the second look was taken, some key editors judged themselves at fault. USA Today’s senior assignment editor for foreign news, Jim Cox said not reporting on the memo was a mistake. “I wish we’d had something in early on, and I wish we’d been able to move the memo story forward. I feel like we missed an opportunity, and that’s my fault,” he said to Salon’s Eric Boehlert. Deborah Seward, AP’s international editor, issued a statement, “There is no question AP dropped the ball in not picking up on the Downing Street memo sooner.” (See this weekend’s AP story.)
That’s called winning on appeal.
Mark Danner writes in the June 9 New York Review of Books that the ultimate importance of the leaked memo “has to do with a certain attitude about facts,” namely that they can be “fixed around the policy,” as the document states. He points out that this is “an argument about power, and its influence on truth.”
Power, the argument runs, can shape truth: power, in the end, can determine reality, or at least the reality that most people accept—a critical point, for the administration has been singularly effective in its recognition that what is most politically important is not what readers of The New York Times believe but what most Americans are willing to believe.
I don’t think the press has learned how to deal yet with “power shapes truth,” or the extreme contempt for reason-giving the Bush Administration has shown on matters of war and peace. For example, in judging whether a story deserves further play the press will ask, “were the facts in it previously reported?” (a news test) rather than asking: having the facts in it been successfully denied at the top? (which is a power-shapes-truth question.) Ultimately this confusion helps explain the original judgment that the memo was not news, and the success of the appeal.
Post-script, June 20. With “I don’t get it” irritation, someone asked in comments: Why are you making such a big deal of the Downing Street Memos, which are “old” and second-hand news?
Here’s one reply. A representative democracy requires an elected commander-in-chief not only to have reasons, but to give reasons, publicly, for what he chooses to do. This is all the more vital post-1945, where we Americans make war without officially declaring it in order to give the President a freer hand, suspending our own Constitution in the bargain.
With this war, the reason-giving part of the operation totally failed. But that isn’t, as Jeff Jarvis says, “a scandal of bad PR.” No. If you think reason-giving is PR you have already lost the battle for public choice in politics. It is a basic failure of national legitimacy to have your reason-giving go so awry as it did with this war. If you are a Bush supporter, my view is you should be doubly concerned because, as things stand, actions in Iraq you believe fully legitimate have seen their official rationale (that is, their reason-giving) fail.
I don’t agree with those who say that because no weapons were found, the war lacks all logic or legitimacy. It might have an alternative logic, a broader and more expansive rationale than: Saddam has weapons, he must be stopped. The broader case has been made, after the fact. Jarvis lists it, point-by-point, in his post. But that isn’t what people voted for, or Congress “voted” on. Something went seriously awry in the reason-giving. (Dan Gillmor: “What Jeff fails to note is that Congress would never have backed the war so fecklessly had the phony WMD issue been off the table.”)
Just as some of you don’t “believe” the big deal some of us are making about the Downing Street Memos, I don’t believe your small deal making about the Memo’s story of reason-giving and war. Doesn’t ring true to me.
After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…
Here’s another reply to why are the memos news? Tom Englehardt at tomdispatch.com: “If Post editorialists and Times journalists can’t tell the difference between scattered, generally anonymously sourced, pre-war reports that told us of early Bush administration preparations for war and actual documents on the same subject emerging from the highest reaches of the British government, from the highest intelligence figure in that government who had just met with some of the highest figures in the U.S. government, and was immediately reporting back to what, in essence, was a ‘war cabinet’ — well, what can you say?”
And see Mark Danner of the New York Review of Books at Englehardt’s site, explaining how the category “truths successfully denied” operates:
A story is told the first time but hardly acknowledged (as with the Knight Ridder piece), largely because the broader story the government is telling drowns it out. When the story is later confirmed by official documents, in this case the Downing Street memorandum, the documents are largely dismissed because they contain “nothing new.”
Set aside some time, get a glass of wine, and absorb Terry Teachout’s very absorbing and learned essay, Culture in the Age of Blogging, parts of which run parallel to ideas in this post and other posts in the archives. It begins: Two years ago next month, I started a blog—that is, a “web log,” a website on which I keep a public journal, written in collaboration with the Chicago-based literary critic Laura Demanski (who is known on the blog as “Our Girl in Chicago.”) Here is a main theme:
One thing of which I am sure is that the common culture of my youth is gone for good. It was hollowed out by the rise of ethnic “identity politics,” then splintered beyond hope of repair by the emergence of the web-based technologies that so maximized and facilitated cultural choice as to make the broad-based offerings of the old mass media look bland and unchallenging by comparison.
Teachout’s blog is About Last Night.
Michael Smith of the Times of London, who broke the original story, continues his reporting: British bombing raids were illegal, says Foreign Office: “A sharp increase in British and American bombing raids on Iraq in the run-up to war ‘to put pressure on the regime’ was illegal under international law, according to leaked Foreign Office legal advice.”
See also his online chat with Washington Post readers (June 16) where Smith gives his view of reaction in the U.S. press:
Firstly, I think the leaks were regarded as politically motivated. Secondly there was a feeling of well we said that way back when. Then of course as the pressure mounted from the outside, there was a defensive attitude. “We have said this before, if you the reader didn’t listen well what can we do”, seemed to be the attitude.
I was on the radio with Michael Smith of the Times of London this week. We joined in Christopher Lydon’s venture in blog-aware public radio, called Open Source. Also a guest was Bob Fesmire of downingstreetmemo.com. You can listen here.
Michael Smith’s op-ed column in the Los Angeles Times: “The way in which the intelligence was “fixed” to justify war is old news. The real news is the shady April 2002 deal to go to war, the cynical use of the U.N. to provide an excuse, and the secret, illegal air war without the backing of Congress.”
Stephen Spruiell at National Review’s Media Blog responds to this post: “A quelling of the insurgency, a successful truce with Sunni leadership or some other triumph and the Downing Street Memos will be, if not forgotten, at least relegated to a more fitting place in the public discourse.”
See Captain’s Quarters for the Right’s attempt to suggest the memos are fake because, according to Smith, they were re-typed from the originals to protect the leaker. Kevin Drum calls this “desperate.” I would have to concur. It’s pretty thin reasoning to say: because they were re-typed they must be fake. And to proclaim it with such confidence!
I am a little surprised that otherwise intelligent people would go for “re-typed therefore fake.” You would think after this embarrassment for Powerline…
We have written extensively about the fake “talking points memo” on the Schaivo case that ABC News and the Washington Post publicized, beginning on March 18. We have pointed out, most comprehensively in the Weekly Standard, that there is no reason whatsoever to believe that the memo originated with the Republicans, and considerable reason to think it may be a Democratic dirty trick.
…where the “fake” memo turned out to be real and written by a Republican that a little caution would prevail. But the Dan Rather case has bred over-confidence on the Right, and this is another example of it. Now see John Hinderaker of Powerline on the Downing Street Memos: “I very much doubt that the documents are fakes.”
The “Downing Street memos” are much different from the CBS National Guard documents in this important respect: the CBS documents were ostensibly authored by Jerry Killian, who had been dead for twenty years. The Downing Street documents, on the other hand, were allegedly authored by, and relate to meetings recently conducted by, a group of men who are very much alive and well. I can’t conceive of a reason why they would fail to attack the documents’ genuineness if there were a basis for doing so.
Exactly. But ideology sometimes turns people’s minds to mush. Jonah Golderg of National Review separates himself from the mush: “I would also say that if I had to bet, I’d bet Drum is right and the memos are real.”
A key point made by Slate’s Fred Kaplan: the memos show that the Bush and Blair teams thought there were weapons of mass destruction in Saddam’s Iraq: “the memos reveal quite clearly that the top leaders in the U.S. and British governments genuinely believed their claims.” I agree the memos show that. It was this strong belief that led to the distortion of intelligence and the fixing of facts around a pre-determined policy.
The New York Times reporting on the unofficial hearing oganized by Rep. John Conyers (June 17):
Asked about Mr. Conyers’s letter and the British memo, Scott McClellan, the president’s chief spokesman, described the congressman as “an individual who voted against the war in the first place and is simply trying to rehash old debates that have already been addressed.”
“And our focus is not on the past,” Mr. McClellan said. “It’s on the future and working to make sure we succeed in Iraq.”
Dan Froomkin at White House Briefing has the full exchange, a miniature classic in non-communication. McClellan wasn’t just asked about the letter and memo. He was asked if there was going to be any reply at all, even a courtesy or form letter, to Conyers and the 88 (at the time) signers, all of them members of the United States Congress.
In the Washington Post (June 17) Dana Milbank ridicules the Conyers event: “In the Capitol basement yesterday, long-suffering House Democrats took a trip to the land of make-believe.” Here is the letter Conyers sent in reply, and a Michael Getler ombudsman column about it (June 19). It includes this e-mail from Milbank to Getler about his use of the term “wing nut” to refer to some of the meeting’s enthusiasts:
While you have been within your rights as ombudsman over the past five years to attempt to excise any trace of colorful or provocative writing from the Post, you are out of bounds in asserting that a columnist cannot identify as ‘wingnuts’ a group whose followers have long been harassing this and other reporters and their families with hateful, obscene and sometimes anti-Semitic speech.
The Washington Post editorial page: “The memos add not a single fact to what was previously known about the administration’s prewar deliberations.”
Paul McLeary in CJR Daily May 20: “If a nervous and uncertain runaway-bride who comes home can generate wall-to-wall coverage, laden with excruciating detail of that hapless soul’s forlorn 3,000-mile round trip, then surely a found document that cuts to the heart of just how two mighty nations find themselves mired in a two-year-old bloody guerilla war on the dusty plains and in the crowded cities of Iraq deserves more play than it has gotten to date.”
This post ran as one of the featured ones at The Huffington Post. Arianna Huffington then wrote her own commentary on it, in which she compared television news coverage thusly. Natalee Holloway is the missing-in-Aruba teenager:
ABC News: Downing Street Memo: 0 segments; Natalee Holloway: 42 segments; Michael Jackson: 121 segments.
CBS News: Downing Street Memo: 0 segments; Natalee Holloway: 70 segments; Michael Jackson: 235 segments.
NBC News: Downing Street Memo: 6 segments; Natalee Holloway: 62 segments; Michael Jackson: 109 segments.
CNN: Downing Street Memo: 30 segments; Natalee Holloway: 294 segments; Michael Jackson: 633 segments.
Fox News: Downing Street Memo: 10 segments; Natalee Holloway: 148 segments; Michael Jackson: 286 segments.
MSNBC: Downing Street Memo: 10 segments; Natalee Holloway: 30 segments; Michael Jackson: 106 segments.
Harry Jaffe of Washingtonian magazine lists his top political blogs— left, right, libertarian and non-partisan.
Posted by Jay Rosen at June 19, 2005 11:43 AM
The primary difference between CBS's use of the Killian memos, and the Bush administrations' claims regarding WMDs, is that CBS's larger narrative still holds up, even if the reliability of the memos can be questioned --- while we now know that by ignoring the contrary evidence and twisting the facts to fit the policy, the Bush regime was passing off nothing more than a pack of lies."
A lie is something you claim IS true when you know it's not true (i.e. "I never had sex with that women"). The DSM shows Bush, like Blair, like Clinton in 98, "knew" that Saddam had WMDs. Knowing something is "true" when it's not, and acting on that "truth", and spreading that "truth", is not lying. It's being wrong about something.
Bush was doing EXACTLY what the Leftist media does: take a "story", fix it, and report only the facts that fit that story. What facts were twisted? Intelligence gives only "estimates" -- taking only the half of the estimates you like is unbalanced, but not twisting.
But, as Tony Blair says -- AFTER the memo, they went to the UN. War wasn't the next step.
Burden of proof was on Saddam. In Feb. Blix said he wanted more time, he did NOT report that "He is 100% certain that Saddam has no WMDs". Why not?
Prolly because Saddam knew he had successfully bribed France to avoid any further UN Action resolution -- so Saddam thought he could keep feeding Blix "something" and one inspection at one place at one time; another at another time -- and at the end of the runaround, Blix would have found nothing and Saddam would be the "heroic Arab Fox" who is too clever for those silly UN and US. And of course, he still "has them". Ha ha!
If, after invading Kuwait, Saddam is unwilling to PROVE he had no WMDs, I'm glad he was invaded. And in summer 2002, it wasn't clear if Saddam would keep up his bluf or cave in and show his emptiness -- but I think Bush was pretty sure Saddam would never provide proof of "no WMDS". Good judgment on Bush's part about Saddam.
2500 American soldier lives is a big loss, yet also a small loss to free 25 mil. Iraqis -- even if too many prefer death squad gov't to democracy.
And the elections in Lebanon are FAR more important; so were the elections in Mugabe's starving Zimbabwe (weren't a lot of Leftists keen to give that guy power?); even the suddenly disappeared child-raping UN peacekeepers is more important (any accountability? No? Business as usual, and that's OK for the alternative world cop?).
But these stories don't have that Bush-bash cachet...
Tom, Bush lied. He acted with complete and reckless disregard for the truth, exaggerating and distorting the "thin" intelligence that he did have in order to present a false impression to the American people of what Iraq's true capabilities were. It doesn't matter if you believe something is true overall, when you support your position using lies and disinformation (not only on WMDs, but on the whole Iraq-al Qaeda connection which nobody's intelligence services were saying existed) you are telling lies. Period.
But, as Tony Blair says -- AFTER the memo, they went to the UN. War wasn't the next step.
If you read the minute and the memos, one thing stands out --- the entire British government understood that British support for an invasion of Iraq would be illegal absent a new UN resolution, because Iraq posed no threat to Britain or its allies. If you read all the memos, you will note that "going to the UN" was specifically designed to "wrongfoot" Saddam in order to get the Security Council to back the use of military force.
And Bush (and Blair) consistently lied about trying to "disarm Iraq" peacefully.
Digby at Hullaballoo has rather conveniently laid all of this out for people like you...
and (getting back to the topic at hand) digby also notes the utter dereliction of the US media on this issue...
But that was slick spin that the press was too lazy to unwind. What is stunning is that all through the campaign, almost until election eve, Bush continued to say that Saddam refused to disarm, defying the world and the UN. The truth was that even at the time the consensus was that Saddam was giving the inspectors unprecedented cooperation. And more importantly,by the fall of 2004, for at least a year we had known definitively that Saddam had no arms. Therefore, Bush's reasonsing, quite artfully put together I admit, is nonetheless adsurd --- so much so, I suspect, that people couldn't quite figure out a way to approach it. It truly is the best example I've seen of "The Big Lie." It's almost as if Bush was daring people to refute him, knowing full well that it was such an illogical claim that it would make people uncomfortable to call him on it. (Indeed, he had ample reason to think so --- nobody had called him on his earlier assertion that Saddam refused to let the inspectors in at all, which is simply delusional.)
Today the media are yawning and telling us that Bush making an irrevocable decision to go to war almost immediately after 9/11 is old news. "Everybody already knew that," they say. And yet the president of the United States, time after time after time, lied directly to Americans in his campaign speeches, in addresses to fundraisers and, by extension, on the local news throughout the country by saying that the United Nations backed his decision to invade on the basis of the fact that Saddam refused to disarm. Everything about that statement is false. And yet even though he said it hundreds of times, and the press also now says they knew that Bush had decided tyo go to war as early as 2001, nobody said a word.
I didn't either. I'll be honest. I didn't because I couldn't bear to listen to Bush's stump speech so I didn't realize that he said this every day. However, the campaign press corpse, if they could hear the speech over the cacophany of piped in applause and the sound of their own drooling over all that delicious campaign food, never bothered to report this glaring lie. Neither, for some reason, did the Democrats. It's almost as if everybody just accepted the fact that the Big Lie was unstoppable and assumed that there was nothing they could do about it.
But there is really no excuse for the press to let this lie go unaddressed. He was saying this constantly all over the country and it was being picked up by local news and newspapers and repeated verbatim. I know it's hard to believe, but not everybody reads the NY Times and the Washington Post. A hell of a lot of Americans heard, without refutation, that Bush had the backing of the UN for the invasion and that he invaded as a last resort because a defiant Saddam refused to disarm. Again, that entire premise is false.
This is another reason why the Downing Street Memos mean something. It's not just that Bush and his cadre decided to go to war long before they admitted it --- they also lied repeatedly after the fact about their reasons and legal basis for doing it. It may be the most baldfaced lie a president has ever made to the American public --- even eclipsing "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" which Clinton only said on television once (and was repeated as evidence of his lying, thousands of times by the news media.)
On another note, Milbank seems to be intent upon digging himself an even deeper hole on his coverage of the Conyers hearings.
Rick Heller of the Centrist Coalition writes to the Post about Milbanks' response to the controversy over his report, and copies the letter to TPMCafe
On Sunday, June 19, 2005 on page B06, Ombudsman Michael Getler wrote
'Here's Milbank's view: "While you have been within your rights as ombudsman over the past five years to attempt to excise any trace of colorful or provocative writing from the Post, you are out of bounds in asserting that a columnist cannot identify as 'wingnuts' a group whose followers have long been harassing this and other reporters and their families with hateful, obscene and sometimes anti-Semitic speech."'
The group that Mr. Milbank was referring to is Democrats.com.
As a centrist who favored going into Iraq, I have frequently been subject to abuse from "wingnuts," including charges that I am a bigot and that I have the blood of thousands of Iraqis on my hands, wishes that I suffer grievous bodily harm and die, and also some statements I consider anti-Semitic.
But in dealing with Bob Fertik, President of Democrats.com, I have found him to be not of that ilk, but rather a left-wing activist who is interested in building bridges with political moderates. On listening to a conference call sponsored by Democrats.com, I was impressed that the participants, while clearly hoping to target Republicans, were concerned about professional standards of evidence-gathering, and did not leap to conclusions as is so common among "wingnuts."
I don't know if Mr. Milbank's view was meant to be communicated publicly, because I doubt he can prove the vile individuals who harassed him are associated with Democrats.com. Because this statement, especially the charge of "anti-Semitic speech," is damaging to the reputation of Democrats.com, he should either back it up or back off the allegation.
Rick Heller Centrist Coalition
If you can be bothered to ask a direct question, what do the memos tell us that we didn't already know?
That depends upon who "we" is.
If you are a Red State wingnut, it doesn't tell you anything you didn't know already, because you are impervious to information that is inconsisent with your opinions.
If you are a Blue State moonbat, it tells you that all of your conspiracy theories were correct.
If you are somewhere in between it tells you that:
1) The presentation of intelligence materials was specifically designed to provide public support for the invasion of Iraq, rather than allow for informed debate on the question of whether an invasion was justified. (This is the most generous reading of the "fixed" quote possible.)
2) In the opinion of the British government, it would have been completely illegal for Great Britain to provide any support whatsover (i.e. US planes could not even stop at British air bases to refuel) to an American invasion that was not specifically sanctioned by a new resolution of the UN Security Council.
3) The British government was fully aware of the challenges that would arise from the overthrow of Saddam Hussein as they pertained to the political organization of a post-Saddam Iraq.
from these facts, we can draw certain conclusions
1) Bush lied, people died. The effort to present a completely false and misleading view of Saddam's WMD capacity, the Iraq-al Qaeda connection, and the overall threat represented by Saddam Hussein was deliberate and pre-meditated.
2) There was no effort to achieve a peaceful disarmanent of Iraq. The sole reason that Bush went to the UN was military necessity -- absent some kind of UN figleaf that would allow Britain (and one can assume, other nations) to legally support US preparations for the invasion of Iraq, it would have been logistically impossible for the invasion to have taken place.
3) The British government communicated its concerns about the post-invasion political situation in Iraq, and those concerns were completely ignored by Bush administration officials who were more concerned with setting up permanent US bases in Iraq and privatizing Iraq's oil resources than ensuring the establishment of a stable and democratic Iraq after Saddam had been deposed.
Finally, what we learned from the Downing Street Documents was what might have happened if the adults had been in charge in Washington DC. The documents make it clear that Britain was as concerned with the post-invasion period as it was with the invasion itself, and that is born out by their success in maintaining civil order in those parts of Iraq that the British military occupied.
As a litigator, I spent years evaluating the strength of the evidence and law which supported my client and that which supported our opponent. A failure to accuractely make such assessments is harmful to one's client.
Looking at the Swift Vet claims, all the Kerry claims which proved to be lies, and the rather pitiful, often illogical, efforts to disprove the Swift Vets leads to the inescapable conclusion that a lot of the posters on this thread have completely lost their minds. Just a few of the facts:
-- Kerry's "Christmas in Cambodia" listening to Pres Nixon say we weren't there was obviously a lie. Kerry was never in Cambodia, Nixon wasn't yet president, and the whole Cambodia issue wasn't raised until 3 years later.
-- Kerry's war "wounds" were, indeed, mere band-aid scratches.
-- Kerry's website did, indeed, post action reports for fights in which he was not present.
-- Kerry did write in his diary that he had yet to see combat at a time which was one week after the date for which he requested his first purple heart. That request was denied, but Kerry waited until a new commanding officer rotated in and asked again.
-- Kerry did have a vet speak at his convention about his leadership on "their" boat despite the fact that the vet had actually been severely wounded and sent home before Kerry joined the boat.
There are plenty more.
As for the arguments about the run-up to the war, some folks have lost sight of reality. For example, I hope and expect that we have comprehensive plans for war with China and Russia (and a number of other countries). Since the US was still in a state of war with Iraq ever since the end of the Gulf War, war plans against Saddam were certainly prudent.
The war in Iraq looks to be paying enormous dividends. The only way to reduce the threat of terror in the region is to introduce democracy in as many places as possible. Bush is trying to do that.
Liberals haven't suggested jack squat for how to deal with the problem. Like Bill Clinton who couldn't pull the trigger on Bin Laden when given the chance to take him out and who was too busy partying to talk to his NSA to give final authorization to hit Saddam (the whole fleet had to call off the strike after pilots had been waiting in the jets for the signal to go), they live in never, never land.
“The Washington Post editorial page: ‘The memos add not a single fact to what was previously known about the administration's prewar deliberations.’”
This response from the Post – echoed in other bigfoot news outlets – is more damning of major media institutions than has been acknowledged. A more honest statement would’ve read something like this:
“There were strong indications at the time, from a variety of credible news sources, that during the Spring and summer of 2002 President Bush and senior administration officials were deliberately misleading Congress and the American people in order to gain approval for a war in Iraq which it had already decided to wage for reasons not connected to the war on terrorism as it was understood and supported at the time. The so-called Downing Street Memos simply provide official documentation of what we knew then, but didn’t investigate.”
The major press wasn’t just negligent in accepting the administration’s claims about Iraq’s WMD leading up to the war -- as the NYT acknowledged in its famous Judith Miller mea culpa -- it was complicit in the administration’s lies about its stated intention to seek diplomatic solutions short of war. If the Post editorial board, for example, “knew” that the decision for war had already been taken by early to mid-2002, why didn’t the paper assign its best reporters to dig out proof in order to disprove the administration’s emphatic claims to the contrary? What would’ve happened if a latter-day Woodstein had unearthed a U.S. version of the DSM in, say, June of 2002? Here are several likely consequences:
1. The Congressional resolution authorizing war as a last resort would never have passed.
2. If the administration had nevertheless persisted in its actual course of conduct, it would’ve been clear that its posture toward the U.N. was calculated to alienate our allies, not to forge a genuine multilateral effort to disarm Saddam short of war. Recall that it was at the very time when we were supposedly seeking European support for dealing with Iraq that Cheney, Rumsfeld et al. were making snarky public statements about “old Europe,” the feckless French “surrender monkeys,” and weak Germans. It was Bush who yanked the U.N. inspectors out when they were on the verge of proving, at the very least, what Colin Powell himself had said in Congressional testimony in January, 2002, while advocating modified sanctions: Iraq was not a threat to us or its neighbors, it was successfully “contained.”
3. The public -- and Congress – would likely have been more skeptical about the administration’s casuistic efforts to link Iraq with al Qaeda and the terrorist attacks in people’s minds, if not in fact. The solid reporting debunking scary claims about Saddam’s supposed nuclear program -- the nuclear material from Niger, the aluminum tubes, the super-drones -- would likely have received more prominent and sustained treatment. Remembering public sentiment at the time, just imagine how quickly the impeachment resolutions would’ve proliferated if Bush had announced in April of 2002 that he was going to war in Iraq to save Iraqis from Saddam, or to promote democracy in the Middle East.
And so on. Of course, the Washington Post had its own reasons for its complicity in the Bush Administration’s fraud: it supported the war, probably for reasons similar to Thomas Friedman’s (their justification is bad but it’s the right thing to do). That might explain, in part, its nasty defensiveness with respect to the DSM.
But other press outlets, like the NYT, have more difficult explaining to do: they opposed the war, yet didn’t lift a finger to prove what they “knew”: that the Bush administration was proceeding on knowingly false premises to gain support for a war of choice on another country. They have yet to rationalize why they remained silent, and refused to perform their most important public function, at the one time when it would’ve made the most difference, literally, between war and peace.
The focus on what we knew or should’ve known about Iraq’s WMDS -- How many? What kind? How dangerous? -- while important, is serving as a dangerous smokescreen. The more important issue is far more serious than bad or credulous reporting, it is this: at the very time we needed one, our “independent” press was knowingly functioning as an adjunct of a dishonest government.
Very true, Lisa. I tried to describe something that could be seen to be happening--the new court of appeal--regardless of how you feel about the memos. I was looking forward to learning whether I had described the pattern correctly, and whether others saw it, or saw it, but differently. That is what one always hopes for: corrective discussion that expands the post.
Of course, I also let it be known how I feel about the memos, and so I introduced the "too hot" politics of the matter. Mainly, however, I was trying to describe a new pattern. The pattern has more often been in evidence on stories the Right thought newsworthy.
Lee: when you treat people's arguments about the Memos as so many ways to "get Bush" you reveal a lot about how you see other people, but not very much about their arguments.
You weren't, I realize, speaking specifically to me, but while we're on it, I don't write "get Bush" posts and I don't think I engage in "get Bush" instrumentalism, either; and if that is what you hear I would adjust the dials. There's such a thing as a partisan ear, you know.
I try to describe things I see Bush doing, knowing that many will disagree with my sketches. I try to raise things that Bush supporters should also be alarmed about, or interested in.
The way in which the war gets legitimated and explained in 2002-03, and in ongoing debates today is not, in my view, a trivial matter to supporters of the war, to people in the military, to the coalition around the President, to the American project in the Middle East, to the rest of the world. On the contrary, reason-giving and the success of argument are central to American aims in the region, critical to military success, and a big part of winning, including the battles for history and public memory that ought to concern Bush supporters very deeply.
Get Bush? No. Get some more legitimacy. You're going to need it to win the war.
Danner, who argued against the removal of Saddam before the fact and argued that it was a disaster immediately after the fact, is not the first person I would turn to if I wanted to justify the almost prurient interest that the Left has in the memos. But in fact Danner doesn't answer the question I asked, and neither do you, although maybe you think pointing me to such articles is a useful way of responding.
One of the links doesn't work, so let me focus on the NYBooks piece (I assume the point of posting a link was to allow it into discussion). Danner quotes the yarn about a nefarious Bush advisor (anonymous, of course) telling a journalist all that stuff about "reality-based community"--and you ought to know, Jay, that this is the kind of stuff that fits very neatly into partisan mythology, and hence should never be taken at face value--but the interesting part is that Danner, along with many others, never grasps the "senior advisor"'s point: that the tribe that was against the removal of Saddam is almost always against taking action, except in exquisitely measured and ineffective doses. So, you get: Rwanda, Bosnia, Africa, and what Mark Steyn called the Tsunami Tshakedown. Everyone sits down, studies the matter, and does something that makes them feel good even if it doesn't achieve anything, even if it allows a larger evil to prevail in the end.
I'm not just dragging this into discussion: Danner uses this story to introduce the memos (about which he has comparatively little to say) and he thinks it's quite relevant. Do you share Danner's take on this? That that aside, taken as read, is a regurgitation of the most cynical rhetoric of Goebbels? I'm not one to find such comparisons tasteless--they're too dumb to be offensive.
If you agree with Danner, perhaps it is because getting the wrong answer about the point of that little story makes you feel good. The guys who disagree with me are being conned by an evil genius in the Bush White House. Truth couldn't prevail because a sinister puppet-master prevented it.
What Danner actually says the memos establish is that Bush made up his mind to invade Iraq 11 months before he invaded, and that he insisted later that war could yet be averted. Does anyone remember the last minute offers to allow Saddam to vacate the presidency? Danner, along with others, is not really aware of how the British use the word "fix", which carries a somewhat different meaning overseas, so he puts it in sneer quotes throughout as if pointing to the smoking gun, proof of a conspiracy to lie, lie, lie his pants off.
To get back to my earlier point, Danner writes, "Which is to say, the simple desire to overthrow the leadership of a given sovereign country does not make it legal to invade that country." The imperative of "legal" invasion of a country (what a concept) is precisely what the spooky senior bogeyman was talking about, only I wouldn't call the people who hew to such nonsense "reality-based", because that way of thinking only works when one is shielded from reality by bureacracies, committees, and foreign ministers trying to protect their oil interests (something that never bothered the anti-war crowd).
As for your main point, I think by now it's clear enough for you and probably most of your less fervent posters that the "court of appeal" on the memos seems to have concluded, "nothing new, and nothing particularly objectionable". These weren't exactly the Pentagon Papers, were they?
Both links work on my computer.
This is President Bush addressing the press when someone asked about the Memo:
"And somebody said, well, you know, we had made up our mind to go to use military force to deal with Saddam. There's nothing farther from the truth."
The President is not telling the truth when he says that. They had made up their minds: "he's going down." They took a purely instrumental view of facts, intelligence and truth from there. It doesn't matter that we basically knew that before, what we don't know is why Bush so easily and breezily denies these things today. He is possibly deluded, in denial, or just denying because he can, knowing the press is weak. Or all three. Or some fourth thing.
If you want to know why I think the Memos, plural, are important, don't go to Danner or Donner or Blitzen. Just go to those words. What is the President saying, and why does he say it? I know it's no mystery to you. But it sure is to me.
And somebody said, well, you know, we had made up our mind to go to use military force to deal with Saddam. There's nothing farther from the truth.
I am not with those who shout "Bush lied" about the war. I think it's a foolish battle cry. The Memos, as I said in the post, tend to establish that policy-makers believed the intelligence they had themselves influenced to give back a proper outcome. A more interesting story than "Bush lied," but harder to rally people around.
Instead what you have proven is a case of massive self-deception in matters of war and peace, a politicalization of intelligence that is extreme by historical standards. My views on this were shaped by three other articles in NYRB by Thomas Powers, longtime analyst of American intelligence.
Secret Intelligence and the 'War on Terror'
How Bush Got It Wrong
We'd be better off, now and later, concentrating on the consequences, not on the tangled motivations for an utterly irrational act. Of course, concentrating on the consequences is not real popular right now; but it's beginning to build a base.
I like this idea a LOT, Steve (but DSM is only about motivations.)
Had Saddam given "unconditional surrender" to Blix, and proven that he had NO WMDS with total cooperation, I suspect there would have been no war. But I wasn't surprised in Feb, 2003, when Blix asked for more time, without being certain Saddam had no WMDs.
And I'm glad Bush said no -- UN Res 1441, obtained AFTER the DSM, requiring Saddam to prove NO WMDs, was enough for Bush to give the "go" to war. And implement the actions his neo-cons had been planning for since before his election. At any time before the actual invasion, Saddam could have surrendered.
It was clear to me that Saddam's intention was to survive as Iraq's leader without proving he had no WMDs, so as to continue to act as if he DID have them. (Big Man On Campus-like)
The true logic of invasion is fear. Fear that a ME with an uninvaded Iraq will get nukes and let terrorists get them and use them. That fear is both less, thanks to invasion, and more, thanks to time and Iranian development. I'm sure my own fear would have been more today without Bush's successful Liberation.
On topic, I look forward to a re-examination of the US Leftist policy of leaving Vietnam. Consequence -- genocide. Despite Nixon's lies, and bombing, and at least one My Lai. Two policies, fight evil commies or leave. Leftists wanted to leave, the US left, the consequence was genocide.
On Rwanda, two policies. Take action and stop it, or no action. Leftist policy, no action. Consequence -- genocide.
On Darfur, two policies. Take action and stop it, or no action. Leftist policy, use the ICC, call it a war-crime area but NOT genocide, indict some 53 war criminals ... no effective action. -- accept genocide.
I see most criticism of Bush as an argument using Unreal Perfection as the unspoken "higher standard" alternative -- to rationalize no action.
The world needs a cop. The US is not quite that cop -- but the UN is a joke. Show me a better real alternative and I'll happily support it. (I suggest a NATO based Human Rights Enforcement Group.)
The Left hates Bush so hysterically right now because we can all see the sproutings of democratic freedom -- successful consequences -- in Iraq, in Lebanon; in Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgystan; in other ME elections. None are perfect, but they're a lot better than I expected before 9/11.