The Lies That Bind
American politics experienced a kind of harmonic convergence of bullshit at the end of the second week of November, as we were treated, during a twenty-four-hour period, to the following:
§ George W. Bush, speaking to a military audience on Veterans Day, announced that those who suggest the Administration "manipulated the intelligence" are "fully aware that a bipartisan Senate investigation found no evidence of political pressure to change the intelligence community's judgments."
§ Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi, speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the crowd: "There is no communal strife in Iraq"; "95 percent of the corruption in the [oil] contracts...has been eliminated"; and "the Iraqi people...have achieved freedom."
§ On Larry King Live former New York Times reporter Judy Miller termed Chalabi "very straightforward" in the information he gave her and added, "My conscience is clear, and I guess I wouldn't change much."
§ Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. told Charlie Rose that "morale is just great" at his paper and called the Miller affair "a rather small-bore issue in the big scheme of things."
OK, so it's not exactly a surprise that our President is an almost comically brazen liar. He would know, if he cared to, that the commission to which he refers was specifically enjoined from examining the question of whether he, Cheney and his advisers manipulated the intelligence they passed on to Congress and the American people. (As commission co-chair Laurence Silberman explained, "Our executive order did not direct us to deal with the use of intelligence by policy-makers, and all of us were agreed that was not part of our inquiry.") And he may also be aware that Dick Cheney and (Irv) Scooter Libby, as Murray Waas reported in National Journal, specifically refused to provide information to Congress about how they used prewar intelligence. Indeed, it's hardly controversial to say "Bush" and "liar" together anywhere but in the mainstream media. In a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 57 percent of respondents said Bush deliberately misled the country into war, and barely a third said they consider him "honest and straightforward."
Chalabi, too, is known to be a distant stranger to the truth. A convicted embezzler in Jordan and accused spy for Iran, he helped mastermind the campaign of deception necessary to fool America into this disastrous war with the help of Bush's neocon advisers as well as then-Times reporter Judith Miller. (According to an angry e-mail Miller sent to her more conscientious colleague, Baghdad bureau chief John Burns, Chalabi had "provided most of the front page exclusives on WMD to our paper.")
Miller does appear to have changed her mind ever so slightly. Not long after the Times issued its famously incomplete WMD Editor's Note, she gave an interview in which she remained, in author James Moore's words, "righteously indignant," telling him: "I was proved fucking right" in her WMD reporting. Today she admits those stories might have been the teensiest bit incorrect, but she cannot see why anyone would blame her or how any reporter could possibly have avoided it.
Still, for all the damage she did, Miller was just a reporter. None of it would matter if the Times did not stake its credibility on her reporting, going so far as to lift its own rules by reporting under her byline on its front page that Iraqi officials burned and buried their unconventional weapons just before the American invasion, based on Pentagon-provided information from an Iraqi "scientist" to whom Miller was not allowed even to speak. Miller went to jail, as everyone knows, for eighty-five days to protect her right to keep her conversations with Libby secret, during which time the paper put her court case above its readers' right to information, failing to pursue stories that might have angered the judge or prosecutor and allowing competitors to scoop it on a daily basis on one of the biggest stories in Washington. This was a fundamental breach of trust with its readers, and it is not one that can be easily repaired. As one angry Times editor put it to me: "Jayson Blair was a rogue cop. Judy is Chinatown."
Even with the evil spirit of Howell Raines exorcised from West 43rd Street, it's an unspeakably weird moment in the life of the once-Gray Lady. On the one hand the Sulzbergers are to be feted and thanked for their commitment to investing lots of money in what strikes everybody else as a dying business and for doing so in a manner supportive of its unique and crucial role in our political system. However, the paper's honchos are demonstrating an almost schizophrenic relationship to both the truth and simple logic, which strikes many observers as, one might say... tortured.
Why did the editors treat Miller as Joan of Arc one day and Lady Macbeth the next, with no explanation for the volte-face? Why did executive editor Bill Keller refuse to allow a correction when TV critic Alessandra Stanley slandered Geraldo Rivera by making an unsupportable allegation against him, even in the view of the Times public editor? Why will the Times not issue a long-overdue correction for William Safire's assertion that it was an "undisputed fact" that Mohamed Atta met with the head of the Iraqi secret service in Prague in April 2001, when just across the page the editors complained as recently as November 15 that "Vice President Dick Cheney presented the Prague meeting as a fact when even the most supportive analysts considered it highly dubious"? Finally, when will the Times give us a full accounting of how its reporters were fooled by the White House into this ruinous and counterproductive war--and what kinds of safeguards have been put in place to prevent another such violation of the basic principles of democratic accountability?
Here's one idea. Given that, as the Times editors accurately relate, "the only problem [with each Administration argument for the war] is that none of it has been true," how about a ban on anonymous Administration sources? If they're going to lie to us, let them lie under their own names, on their own dime (or Rupert Murdoch's). Why not, Messrs Sulzberger and Keller, rescue the Times by rescuing the news as well?