Archive for July, 2004

A Meal of Berger

Sunday, July 25th, 2004

Everyone loves a mystery and the challenge of reconciling seemingly contradictory facts. This is what makes the recent investigation if Sandy Berger, the former National Security Advisor for President Bill Clinton, so intriguing. In preparation for his testimony before the commission investigating the 9/11 attacks and as the person vetting documents for the Clinton Administration, Berger was reviewing thousands of pages of documents at the National Archives.

The details of what happen remain murky, but a few things are clear to all. Berger admits to leaving “inadvertently” the National Archives with highly classified materials. He further concedes that some of the documents from the National Archives have been accidentally discarded. In addition, Berger admits that, in violation of laws on handling classified materials, he took hand-written notes from the material with him out of the National Archives. The matter is still under investigation. The mystery lies in the fact that none of the most obvious explanations of Berger’s behavior appear entirely plausible.

Berger’s explanation, that the entire mishap is a consequence of disheveled clumsiness, does not quite explain all the facts. First, as a National Security Advisor the treatment of highly classified material whose disclosure could harm national security, should have become second nature. Berger knew the rules about removing notes and admits that he deliberately took those notes with him. Moreover, if one or two pages of material unintentionally slipped into a brief case one time, the absent-minded professor excuse would be very believable. But the withdrawal of materials on separate occasions requires believing of Berger a level of incompetence inconsistent with the respect associates generally accord Berger. Moreover, the former CIA Director John Deutch, appointed by Clinton in 1995 was investigated when he mishandled data that he brought home. One would have expected that the incident would have made clear to Berger the seriousness of sloppy handling of classified material, even inadvertent mishandling.

Another report that argues against the inadvertent removal of material is that off all the documents that he reviewed, on both occasions he only removed versions of the Millennium Report, a review of the security measures implemented for the year 2000 celebration. Apparently, the report was critical of the Clinton Administration. The accidental remove of only versions of this document twice seems unlikely.

However, removing this report would not hide its conclusions. There were other copies of the report and it was review by the 9/11 Commission. So what was to be gained by Berger or even the Clinton Administration by removing a few copies of the document?

Some of the more conspiratorially imaginative Republican partisans have suggested that perhaps there were embarrassing margin notes written in some of the copies of the Millennium Report. This explanation appears to explain the know facts, but that seems highly speculative and it is hard to imagine anything in the margins that would be worth the risk of prosecution for deliberate theft and unauthorized destruction of classified material.

Not to be out done in spinning the news, some Democratic partisans (including former President Clinton) suggest that the release of information about the investigation of Berger was a clever Republican plot to divert attention from the 9/11 Commission Report. This theory lacks plausibility for two reasons. First, the information did not come out at the optimum time for maximum political effect. Perhaps during the Democratic Convention or late in October would have been a better time. In addition, the Administration knew what was in the 9/11 Report before it was issued publicly. They had to vet it for security reasons. Since the Commission’s report was even-handed, not blaming either the Clinton or Bush Administrations for 9/11, there was little reason to exploit the Berger’s problems at this time.

There are even doubly clever Republican theorists who suggest that Democrats leaked the information now so it could not be used at a later, more effective time by Republicans. This seems too clever by half. Clear thought drowns at these depths of Machiavellian scheming.

A benign theory that has been floated is that Berger was simply gathering information for what just about everyone else in Washington does: writing a book. Yet even this does not explain removing copious notes about a report he could probably remember the key points of without notes. We will have to wait for more information before we can draw definitive conclusions about Berger and we ought to grant him guarded latitude until then.

What is most revealing is the reaction of the press to the Berger incident. Sure it was covered but not with the ferocious intensity that the New York Times usually reserves for all-male country clubs in Georgia. Where are the demands for more information? Where is the indignation?

It can not be proved with certainty, but if the current National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was caught removing and discarding highly classified documents that some thought would be embarrassing to the Bush Administration’s handling of the terrorist threat she would not be granted the same latitude accorded Berger.

In an amazingly self-contradictory editorial, the Washington Post criticized avid Republicans in the House for making suggestions about Berger’s motives on little information, while at the same time noting, “that news of the months-old investigation of Mr. Berger just happened to leak on the week before the Democratic convention.” You see, it is unfair to make negative inferences of Democrats on little evidence, but perfectly reasonable to use innuendo against Republicans in the absolute absence of evidence.

We gain further insight into Left-wing partisan analysis from the Capital Times, a “progressive” newspaper in Wisconsin. They editorialize that “Democrats should not waste an ounce of energy defending the former Clinton aide.” Why? Because he is perhaps guilty of mishandling classified material? No. Because “he tried to get former Clinton to launch a war with Iraq in the late 1990s.” If Berger had been on the other side of the Iraq issue, presumably Berger could be forgiven or at least defended.

Another Anti-Bush Slander Debunked

Sunday, July 18th, 2004

“Truth is generally the best vindication against slander.” — Abraham Lincoln.

An important principle for civil discourse is to never assume maliciousness when incompetence is a sufficient explanation. Even with the best of motivations, it is possible for the wisest of us to make errors and misjudgments. Errors can be remedied with more information or additional consideration. However, maliciousness requires greater effort to cure. Nonetheless, when someone accuses others of deliberate mendacity and is subsequently proved wrong, grossly wrong, they deserve to be treated by the same harsh and unforgiving criteria they eagerly applied to others. Having been unforgiving of others, they waive the right to expect forgiveness.

Former Ambassador Joseph Wilson is an adviser to Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry who boldly asserts that the “value system” of the Bush Administration “is distorted and not based on truth.” To much media attention, including a cover of Time magazine, Wilson also wrote a book with a title long enough to match his ego, The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My CIA Wife’s Identity: A Diplomat’s Memoir. Hence, Wilson has made much of being the proud and self-described bearer of the truth against the forces of deception.

New information now challenges Wilson’s assertions. With the release of the report from the US Senate Intelligence Committee and the Butler Report in Great Britain, we now have bi-partisan and bilateral conclusions that Wilson’s claims were radically wrong.

Most of the major media has ignored the determination that it was Wilson, if anyone was, who was lying. One exception is Susan Schmidt, staff writer for the Washington Post. She was quick to actually read the Senate Intelligence Committee Report and wrote on July 10, 2004:

“Wilson’s assertions — both about what he found in Niger and what the Bush administration did with the information — were undermined yesterday in a bi-partisan Senate Intelligence Committee report.”

Wilson became the poster boy for the Hate-Bush Fan Club as a consequence of disputing President Bush’s State of the Union address were Bush said that, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

Joseph Wilson followed with a triumphant article in the New York Times claiming that on his visit to Africa for the CIA he did not find evidence of such efforts by Iraq. Moreover, Wilson claimed that Bush knew or should a have known there was no evidence that Iraq was seeking uranium but irresponsibly made the claim anyways, with the implication that Bush was misleading the country to buttress the case for war against Iraq.

However, after a thorough review of the evidence, the Senate Intelligence Report now concludes that, the “Nigerian prime minister had told embassy personnel that there were buyers like Iraq who were seeking to pay more for Niger’s uranium…” Indeed, Wilson’s report to the CIA lent credence to the notion that Iraq was seeking nuclear materials. Wilson’s CIA report confirmed the claim by Nigerian officials that the Iraqi delegation in 1999 was “interested in purchasing uranium.” As the Senate Report concludes, “[f]or most analysts, the information in Wilson report lent more credibility to the original Central Intelligence Agency…reports on the uranium deal…”

The Butler Report in Great Britain came to much the same conclusion about Hussein’s nuclear ambitions. Given the evidence at the time, it was reasonable to conclude that Saddam Hussein was seeking uranium from Africa. The Butler Report was even more explicit in its support of Bush concluding, “that the statement in President Bush’s State of the Union Address of 28 January 2003 that: `The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa,’ was well founded.”

Perhaps it will assuage Wilson’s self-image to know that not many people can manage to be repudiated by two fact-finding commissions on two continents in a single month.

There was another small discrepancy in Wilson’s public assertions, small with respect to issues of weapons of mass destruction, but illuminating nonetheless. At the time of Wilson’s claims, it seemed peculiar that the CIA would send a former diplomat with no particular investigative background or WMD expertise to Niger to gather additional intelligence. Conservative columnists Robert Novak reported that Wilson’s wife, who worked for the CIA, suggested Wilson for the job. Wilson denied that his wife had anything to do with his hiring. The Senate Report found the actual memo where Wilson’s wife made the recommendation of her husband for the Niger mission, providing documentary evidence of Wilson’s misstatement.

The acknowledgment of his wife’s influence might have been embarrassing to Wilson for a couple of reasons. First, it would paint Wilson as a has-been diplomat reduced to using his wife’s influence to obtain assignments. Second, it made the release of his wife’s CIA association seem like a sinister plot to punish Wilson and his wife, rather than as just a whistle-blower at the CIA reporting on nepotism. It is much easier to play the role of an undeterred martyr valiantly standing up for the truth than a down-on-his-luck diplomat trying to relive past glories.

It could be the case that Wilson believed his wife had nothing to do with his CIA assignment. His wife might have hid her efforts on his behalf as an act of spousal tenderness. It is not clear now what Wilson would have us believe. Would Wilson rather be thought of as a person who deliberately misled the country in pursuit of a political agenda or an unknowing beneficiary of his wife’s charity and attempts to preserve her husband’s self-image?

Perhaps the most interesting thing to note is how quickly the Left and Democrats were to embrace Wilson when Wilson was charging duplicity on the part of the Bush Administration. Will they now be quick to distance themselves? Will Kerry dismiss Wilson as an adviser? The major media outlets were also quick to provide a forum for Wilson’s charges. How much attention will be now devoted to the definitive Wilson debunking? The media can always revert to old saw about what is news. If a dog bites a man, that is not news because that happens all the time. However, if a man bites a dog, that is news. If another charge against Bush is debunked that is not news, because that happens all the time.

In Search of an Election Surprise

Sunday, July 11th, 2004

The last two times a Bush ran for president, each was the victim of an “October surprise.” In the week before the Bush-Clinton election in 1992, Special Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh indicted former Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger in an apparent attempt to shower the elder George Bush with Iran-Contra fallout. The indictment was so transparently flimsy that it was soon dismissed by a Federal judge. The Clinton momentum was so strong at that point, that Clinton would have won even without the indictment, but the incident serves to illustrate a partisan attempt to influence the political process through a last minute dirty trick.

One week before the 2000, Bush-Gore election, Tom Connolly, a Gore delegate from Maine, released information that George W. Bush had been arrested for Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) some twenty-four years earlier. Connolly had been in possession of the information for some time, and while one may argue that the information should have been public, the timing of its release was deliberately calculated for maximum political damage, not for a thorough vetting of the issue. Given the closeness of the 2000 election and the fact that the last-minute poll movement was toward Gore, a plausible case can be made that this October surprise cost Bush the popular vote and threw the nation into weeks of divisive political and judicial conflict.

It is, therefore, no surprise when some on the Left engage in what psychologists term “projection” and fret about the possibility that the Republicans will manufacture a spectacular news event and dramatically tip the election toward Bush. In a recent New Republic article, John Judis and his co-authors suggest that the Bush Administration is not only pushing the Pakistanis to turn over high value Al Qaeda operatives, but precisely timing such an event for maximum political advantage. Now the Bush Administration would be negligent if it were not pressing Pakistan to be as forthcoming as possible with regard to rooting out Al Qaeda leadership, but the charge in the New Republic is that Pakistanis are being urge to time the news of such a capture for July 26, 27, or 28, during the Democratic National Convention.

This sort of paranoia would be humorous if it did not afflict writers for what generally is a more responsible journal. On one hand, the Left suggests that the Bush Administration is incompetent and not running the post-war Iraqi transition to a democracy correctly, and that the same Administration is so clever and omnipotent that they can arrange the timing of a capture of a member of the Al Qaeda leadership to a three-day window. One cringes at the mental gymnastics required to twist oneself into such an intellectual pretzel.

All of us have a world view, an understanding of the way the world works. If events or other evidence buttress this view, we tend to grant them high credibility. If the evidence conflicts with our perceptions, we are likely to be more skeptical it. There is nothing wrong with this, indeed it is an important coping mechanism. If someone claims there is a blue car on the street, we probably would accept the assertion because there is nothing in it that challenges any of our assumptions. If, on the other hand, the same person makes the claim that there is a blue flying saucer in the street, no matter how otherwise credible the source is, we would probably attempt to confirm the assertion by looking out the window for ourselves.

Allow us to respectfully suggest that perhaps Judis is infused with a world view that might tend to lend excessive credibility to sources that might suggest a nefarious Bush conspiracy. Judis graduated with a BA and MA from Berkeley, a garden in which Conservative ideas are thought to be weeds, not the beautiful political blossoms we know them to be. Judis strengthened his Left-wing credentials by co-founding the journal the Socialist Revolution and later joined the editorial staff of the New Republic. Of course, all this does not mean the Judis was trying to deliberately mislead his readers. A strong point of view is not inconsistent with honesty. Rather, we suggest that his world view and perhaps partisanship have made him susceptible to irrational notions of a conspiracy on the weak reeds of evidence he presented. Hopefully, he and the New Republic will soon recover from their ideological stupor.

The Loyal Opposition

Sunday, July 4th, 2004

In fantasy baseball, erstwhile managers construct their best fantasy team by “drafting” current professional players. Competing fantasy managers draft from the remaining players in the same pool. Under such circumstances, fantasy mangers are likely to acquire players on their fantasy teams who in actuality compete against the favorite real teams of the fantasy managers. If during the year, the players on the fantasy team do well in actual play, the fantasy team becomes more successful. A fantasy manager is thereby placed in the awkward position of having dual interests in the outcome of any particular baseball game. Fantasy managers root for their real favorite teams to win and at the same time hope the players on their fantasy team do well. Sometimes those wishes come into conflict. Managing a fantasy baseball team can thus strain the normal bonds to one’s favorite real team.

This similar divided interest plagues the political party out of power. It is so hard to be the loyal opposition. It is not intellectually difficult to be loyal, while maintaining an honest agreement with the policies of a current Administration. However, it can put someone in the awkward position of realizing that if the country does well, then their party’s chances of reclaiming political power shrink.

Yet, most of the loyal opposition are “loyal” and would rather see their country prosper even if it means reducing political opportunities. This remains true even though sometimes, the animal spirits of competition will temporarily blind some to their true desires. It is also politically imprudent to be seen to be rooting against the country’s good fortune.

It is, unfortunately, sometimes difficult for the loyal opposition to distance themselves from those extreme elements for whom party is more important than country, for whom personal animosity toward a political adversary is a greater virtue than honesty, and for whom hunger for notoriety exceeds constraints of civility. Old political pros know how to do this; less experience ones do not. That is one reason that retired Army General Wesley Clark, a presumed moderate, failed in this bid for the Democratic nomination. Not only was his standard campaign stump speech intemperate (he repeatedly called Bush “unpatriotic”), but when given an opportunity to distance himself from Michael Moore’s assertion that Bush was a “deserter” he fumbled and stuttered and failed to do so. Clark looked so pathetic. He was struggling between two natural impulses. He did not want to forgo the red meat issue Moore uses to inflame partisans, but he also knew it was ignoble to support unsubstantiated accusations. It would have been politically wise for him to do the right thing and dismiss the charge, but the rookie politician succumbed to the temptation of excessive partisanship.

The popularity among the Left of Michael Moore’s movie Fahrenheit 9/11 runs the risk of doing to the Democratic Party as a whole what Moore did to Wesley Clark. The movie has been described, by no less a Leftie than Christopher Hitchens, as “a sinister exercise in moral frivolity, crudely disguised as an exercise in seriousness … a spectacle of abject political cowardice masking itself as a demonstration of `dissenting’ bravery.” There is always such silliness on the fringes.

The real danger is that Democratic leaders have not distanced themselves from the movie or from Moore. Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe gives credence to Moore assertion that Bush defeated the Taliban in Afghanistan War to help Dick Cheney’s old company, while Democratic Tom Harkin of encouraged Americans to see the film. Indeed, the fill is so factually incorrect that by even remaining silent about it constitutes an ignoble acquiescence.

It might be politically advantageous for Republicans to watch gleefully as Democrats hang their political fortunes to a person who believes that Americans are “possibly the dumbest people on the planet.” Surely mainstream Democrats do not want to explain to American voters why the Democrats’ most prominent (or at least most conspicuous) polemicist derisively believes that we Americans ”have got that big [expletive] grin on our face all the time because our brains aren’t loaded down.” Democrats should not want to be attached to a cynical analysis that the problem with the 9/11 attacks is that the terrorist struck at areas that voted for Al Gore. According to “If someone did this [9/11] to get back at Bush, then they did so by killing thousands of people who did not vote for him! Boston, New York , D.C., and the planes’ destination of California — these were places that voted against Bush!” Does Moore really suggest that the attack would have warranted against Dallas or Topeka or that the killing of Americans who voted for Bush might be understandable?.

However, like Democrats who might wistfully long for bad economic news or problems in Iraq but in more lucid moments dismiss this feeling as contrary to their fundamental loyalties, Republicans ought not wish for a country divided by a bitter and vicious propaganda even if it ultimately works to their political advantage.