Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Blaming The Messenger

By Cernig

The Center for Public Integrity and its offshoot the Fund for Independence in Journalism have released a searcheable database of 935 false statements made by the Bush administration to sell the invasion of Iraq. The Associated Press and New York Times have both picked up on the release with the latter writing:
Warnings about the need to confront Iraq, by President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and two White House press secretaries, among others, can be combed line by line, and reviewed alongside detailed critiques published after the fact by official panels, historians, journalists and independent experts.

There is no startling new information in the archive, because all the documents have been published previously. But the new computer tool is remarkable for its scope, and its replay of the crescendo of statements that led to the war. Muckrakers may find browsing the site reminiscent of what Richard M. Nixon used to dismissively call “wallowing in Watergate.”
Most rightwing commenters (c.f. Memeorandum today, second item set) have chosen to attack the messenger rather than the message, noting that the CPI is largely funded by George Soros. See, they cry in an overarching Liberal Derangement Syndrome that eclipses any BDS they've ever accused the Left of harboring, it's only an "organization funded by known political activists...a website with shopworn quotes taken mostly out of context and misrepresented". It's a "moonbat" group with "ties to BDS sugar daddy George Soros." It's just "Left-wing extremist propaganda". Nothing newsworthy here, move along.

But the CPI, despite being funded by Soros and others, is not just a leftwing talking shop as they would have you believe. It's previous studies have included, for example, investigations of lobbyist power, travel "perks" to lawmakers and of the funders behind the last presidential election race which were even-handedly critical of both Democrats and Republicans. Indeed they're reduced to linking to the wrong foundation (The Sunlight Foundation, not the CPI) in trying to prove that the CPI is "many George Soros fronts". Here's the actual list of CPI funders.

The other tack is to argue against the CPI's contention that the hundreds of false statements made by the Bush administration in the run-up to war with Iraq are actually lies. James Joyner makes the best of this line today, agreeing with:
the consensus view of all but the most rabid pro- or anti-Bush observers that the administration 1) thought Saddam was dangerous, 2) believed he had an active WMD program if not WMD possession, 3) feared Saddam would transfer said technology to terrorists and other enemies of the United States and 4) cherry picked information that bolstered their case for action while downplaying dissenting views and evidence.

That’s bad. It’s not the way democracies are supposed to work and undermines the public’s confidence in their leaders. But it’s light years away from simply lying to the people about WMD known not to exist, which is what the report alleges. [emphasis in original]
Such an argument, however, relies heavily on a parsing of what the word "lie" means. Any parent is familiar with their kids using "lying by omission" to get out of trouble. That's where you don't present facts you know but which would would shed culpatory light on your false statements. In that respect, it isn't the many false statements themselves which are a mark of guilt - it's the many instances of "we are sure", "Certain" and "know without a doubt" - the "slam dunk" qualifiers - that convict Bush and his administration of lies. In every case, as James admit, they had alternative interpretations, contrary intelligence or flst-out evidence that what they were saying was untrue and continued to press their narrative anyway. That's lying by omission.

Then there's the long litany of others outside the Bush administration who were likewise "sure" and "certain" of Iraqi WMDs or Saddam's alliance with Al Qaeda. They include the UK government - who rigged the Butler Report to exonerate themselves of complicity in what the leaked Downing Street memos clearly showed was lying by omission in order to "fix the facts around the policy". They include many former Clinton officials - like it matters because Clinton was a Dem, even though his administration was just as gung-ho to demonise Iraq (if not as gung-ho to invade) as any other set of hawkish US vote-seekers seeing an opportunity to bang the fearmongering drum. They include congresscritters and foreign intelligence agencies even though much of their opinion was based on briefings from the final product of all that narrative-making intelligence fixed around policy by the Bush administration. None of those exculpatory arguments really fly.

Unfortunately, syncretic group-think is the single biggest endemic problem in all intel operations. Because you're compartmentalised from the raw data the next guy has, you tend to believe what he tells you is the correct analysis of what he has seen. Then supervisors draw conclusions without seeing much of the raw data at all. It's all very susceptable to "emergent narratives". The only way out is to have a "red team" contrary analysis which is deliberately and forcibly given as much weight as the blue team one - which can't happen if the decision-makers are predisposed to take one narrative as gospel.

When, in as in the case of the Bush administration's push for war with Iraq (and, lately, the similiar push to demonize Iran) the guy in the next department is analyzing his data - as are you - oftimes in full career-threatening knowledge of what his bosses want to see, and any contrary data or analysis is played down and ignored...

...well, at that point it's perfectly possible to push the wished-for narrative as "slam dunk" proven. Which is what the narrators know all along is a lie.

No comments: