The Nation

Lying About Rwanda's Genocide

As a fellow who wrote a book contending that the current president is a serial prevaricator, I often am asked by conservative critics: So did you ever call Bill Clinton a liar? My reply: Yes; I am a nonpartisan accuser. But I'm not talking about the obvious lies. Back in those days, I did say that Clinton's lies about his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky were wrong and serious--but not worth impeachment. (And now they seem puny when compared with the assortment of untrue statements George W. Bush deployed to grease the way to war.) But what was more outrageous was a lie Clinton told about one of the greatest failures of his presidency: his inaction regarding the Rwanda genocide of 1994.

Why revisit this today? Two reasons. First, this month marks the tenth anniversary of the start of that horrific event, in which half a million people, mainly of the Tutsi minority, were slaughtered over three months by Hutu extremists, in one of the most time-efficient massacres of the 20th Century. Second, the National Security Archive, an independent, nongovernmental research institute that collects and analyzes government records, recently released a report that provides more evidence for the case that Clinton lied to the people of Rwanda.

That lie came four years after the genocide. During a 1998 presidential tour of Africa, Clinton stopped at the airport in Kigali, Rwanda, and issued an apology. Sort of. Speaking of those nightmarish months in the spring of 1994, he said, "All over the world there were people like me sitting in offices who did not fully appreciate the depth and speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror." He acknowledged that the United States and the international community had not moved quickly enough in response to the horrors under way. To emphasize his sorrow, he said, "Never again."

Clinton seemed to be taking responsibility, but actually he was making an excuse. He had inadequately reacted to the genocide, he said, because he had not really known what had been happening in Rwanda. That was a disingenuous cop-out.

The National Security Archive report, based on documents the group obtained, notes:

"Throughout the crisis, considerable U.S. resources--diplomatic, intelligence and military--and sizable bureaucracies of the U.S. government were trained on Rwanda. This system collected and analyzed information and sent it up to decision-makers so that all options could be properly considered and 'on the table.' Officials, particularly at the middle levels, sometimes met twice daily, drafting demarches, preparing press statements, meeting or speaking with foreign counterparts and other interlocutors, and briefing higher-ups. Indeed, the story of Rwanda for the U.S. is that officials knew so much, but still decided against taking action or leading other nations to prevent or stop the genocide. Despite Rwanda's low ranking in importance to U.S. interests, Clinton administration officials had tremendous capacity to be informed--and were informed--about the slaughter there."

The report, written by William Ferroggiaro, documents the pre-genocide warnings and concurrent reports of the massacre that Clinton's administration received. The National Security Archive, under the Freedom of Information Act, requested copies of the Presidential Daily Briefs for this period. The PDB is a highly classified document written for the president. (The current Bush administration refused to let the House and Senate intelligence committees even look at an August 6, 2001, PDB that mentioned Osama bin Laden and hijacking when the committees were conducting their 9/11 investigation.) These PDBs would show precisely what Clinton read each day about Rwanda. But the Archive's request for the PDBs was denied. It did, however, obtain copies of the National Intelligence Daily, which is also classified but has a wider circulation. NIDs are distributed to several hundred government policymakers six days a week. It is a fair assumption that they often reflect what is contained in the PDBs. And the NIDs gathered by the Archive indicate that the administration was aware a genocide was occurring in Rwanda. An April 23 NID referred to a negotiation "effort to stop the genocide, which relief workers say is spreading south." The April 26 NID item on Rwanda, entitled "Humanitarian Disaster Unfolding," reported that the "Red Cross estimates that 100,000 to 500,000 people, mostly Tutsi, have been killed in the ethnic bloodletting" and that "eyewitness accounts from areas where nearly all Tutsi residents were killed support the higher estimate."

But Clinton did not have to depend on the top-secret PDBs or NIDs to learn that there was a genocide transpiring in Rwanda. As the Archive notes, "beginning April 8th, the massacres in Rwanda were reported on the front pages of major newspapers and on radio and television broadcasts almost daily, including the major papers read by U.S. officials and policy elites." And at that time human rights activists in Washington--who had close relationships with national security adviser Tony Lake and staffmembers of Clinton's national security council--were pounding on the doors of the White House demanding action and suggesting options. The United States could have provided logistical support to the small U.N. peacekeeping force in the region. It could have deployed jamming devices to block the radio transmissions of the Hutu leaders coordinating the slaughter. It could have pressured France and Belgium to use their influence with the Hutus. It could have merely spoken out.

In the first weeks of this tragedy, human rights advocates urged Clinton to issue a clear and forceful declaration that a genocide was happening and that the killers could expect to be tracked down and tried for crimes against humanity. But the Clinton administration dithered for weeks over whether to use the G-word, for doing so would have compelled the administration, under international law, to take direct steps to stop the killings. But after the disaster in Somalia, Clinton had no stomach for becoming involved in another messy conflict in Africa. In public, he had more to say about the caning of a young American in Singapore than the murders of hundreds of thousands in Rwanda.

As the National Security Archive report points out, Clinton was being pressed by prominent individuals to take action. On April 21, Rwandan human rights activist Monique Mujawamariya, whom Clinton had welcomed to the White House five months earlier, implored him to act against the "campaign" of "genocide against the Tutsis." She argued that the United States had "a moral and legal treaty obligation to 'suppress and prevent' genocide." Members of Congress lobbied Clinton as well. On May 13, Senators Paul Simon and James Jeffords sent a letter to Clinton criticizing his lack of "leadership" and declaring "swift and sound decision-making is needed." They urged Clinton to impose sanctions, establish an arms embargo, and boost the U.N. forces in Rwanda and allow them to intervene more directly. "An end to the slaughter is not possible without this action," they wrote.

The National Security Archive report notes, "Although stated policy was that Rwanda did not affect traditional vital or national interests before or even during the genocide, considerable resources were nevertheless available and employed to ensure that policymakers had real-time information for any decision they would make. In sum, the routine--let alone crisis--performance of diplomats, intelligence officers and systems, and military and defense personnel yielded enough information for policy recommendations and decisions. That the Clinton administration decided against intervention at any level was not for lack of knowledge of what was happening in Rwanda."

Four years after the killings, Clinton told the Rwandans (and the world) that he had not tried to stop the genocide because he had not known what was truly occurring. Ignorance was not the reason. It had been a political decision. Clinton was fibbing to the survivors of genocide. And this deceptive remark sparked practically no outrage. Today, ten years after the Rwanda massacre, the inaction of the United States and the world community should not be forgotten, nor should Clinton's untruthful excuse.


DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations....Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." For more information and a sample, check out the book's official website: www.bushlies.com.


Teresa Heinz Was Right

At a 1993 press conference, when Teresa Heinz-Kerry declined to run for her late husband's Pennsylvania Senate seat, she explained, "the best ideas for change unfortunately no longer come from political campaigns." She added: "Today, political campaigns are the graveyard of real ideas and the birthplace of empty promises."

Forgoing a Senate race, Heinz-Kerry instead took the reins of the Howard Heinz Endowment and became a board member of the Vira I. Heinz Endowment. Under her leadership, the foundations has supported smart environmental and women's programs.

Heinz-Kerry's statement was prophetic. Now more than at any time in recent memory, too many politicians--and their campaigns--lack the courage to debate, let alone adopt, big ideas in this country. As a result, America has a downsized politics of excluded alternatives. And, as Heinz-Kerry argued, we've lost sight of big ambitions.

Polls, 30-second attack ads and partisan sniping often drown out serious policy debates. The mainstream media shoulders a lot of the blame as well. Too often, the press, enthralled with scandals, fails to cover ideas and issues. The media is instead obsessed with the politics of style--the candidates' hair, clothes, favorite sports, vacation plans, and, of course, wives. After campaign debates, reporters descend on so-called Spin Alleys, where consultants dissemble, and journalists lap up the PR offensives.

In a December New York Times op-ed, Paul Krugman pointed to the problem when he urged reporters to reject "political histrionics" and focus instead on the candidates' records and policies. So far, too few reporters have failed to listen to him.

Finally, there's the Internet, which fueled Howard Dean's rise and empowers progressives in exciting ways. The web is a bubbling stew of big ideas and low gossip, and the political blogs I've started reading (Micah Sifry at Iraqwarreader.com, for example) actually have a fairly meaty conversation going. Yet many of the most popular sites, like Drudge or Wonkette or Gawker, attract eyeballs by plying gossip above all, eschewing serious debates about politics and policy.

One big (and under-reported) story is that America's communities are laboratories for progressive reform. Over the last few years, The Nation's series "What Works" has called attention to creative programs that have built affordable housing and reduced urban poverty; neighborhood initiatives that attacked inner-city blight; and a living wage movement that improved the lives of thousands of workers. We've also looked at victories of clean money and www.thenation.com doc.mhtml?i=20010611&s=sifry20010529"> clean elections in Maine and Arizona and reported on Maine's passage of a universal health care bill, which is putting pressure on other states to follow suit.

In countless cases, the unmet social needs of the American people are more extreme than in other rich industrialized nations. But, if you listen to our candidates, read our papers or watch our television, you wouldn't hear a lot about the tragically high rates of child poverty; the desperation of our inner cities; the absence of effective mass transit; or the lack of decent health care and housing for millions.

In 2004, the election could be a testing ground in which to clarify the stark choices facing this country. But where is the millennial equivalent of Roosevelt's Four Freedoms, Truman's Fair Deal, and Johnson's Great Society? Don't these times cry out for an electoral system that nurtures big debates over large issues?

'Conservatives for Nader. Not a Large Group.'

Ralph Nader continues to fantasize that his candidacy will succeed in peeling as many Republican and Independent votes away from Bush as progressive votes from Kerry. But, as comic Jon Stewart quips: "Conservatives for Nader. Not a large group. About the same size as 'Retarded Death Row Texans for Bush.'"

The problem is that, as Micah Sifry writes in his smart weblog, all the polls show Nader drawing anywhere between 3 and 7 percent of the vote, with the internals skewing heavily to the left. Sure, some people who will vote for Nader would otherwise not vote at all. But it's clear that most of Nader's support--whether he tops his 2000 showing of 2.7 percent or not--will come from many who would otherwise vote for John Kerry.

This does not deter Nader. In a front-page story in yesterday's New York Times and in a live on-air appearance on the brand new liberal radio network Air America, he seemed to relish tweaking friends and former allies. He even hung up the phone in a live on-air interview with one of Air America's hottest radio hosts, Randi Rhodes, who was challenging him about why he felt the need to campaign in swing states, among other key issues. The click came after the two engaged in a bitter discussion about progressive values and political strategy in this election and beyond.

Let's hope Nader has a more productive dialogue with Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry when they meet sometime this month in a meeting requested by Nader.

As for my position on Nader's candidacy, check out The Nation's " Open Letter" from the February 16, 2004 issue and our editorial from March 15.

The Burden of Conscience

Since the US invaded Iraq last year, hundreds of American soldiers have broken the law and abandoned their units on the battlefield. And, as Dan Frosch writes in Alternet, the GI Rights Hotline, a coalition of advocacy groups that offer legal advice to American troops, has received thousands of calls from active soldiers inquiring about conscientious objector status since the war began.

Tonight at 8:00pm, 60 Minutes II will air a segment on Camilo Mejia, a 28-year-old Florida National Guard Staff Sergeant who refused to return to Iraq in October, after being home on furlough. Mejia has taken a public stand of conscience against what he calls an illegal and immoral war, and has filed an application for conscientious objector status.

Despite this application, Mejia has been charged by the Army with desertion and is currently being held at Ft. Stewart in Georgia, where he is awaiting trial by a Special Court Martial, which will likely result in a one year prison sentence and a Bad Conduct Discharge. (For more about Mejia's decision, click here to read Christian Parenti's recent Nation Online article on his case.)

Mejia's mother, Maritza Castillo, is asking concerned activists to write two letters: one to Mejia himself expressing your support for his stand and another to the Commanding General asking that the Army accept Mejia's conscientious objection application, which would result in Mejia's release.

Mejia's Address:Ssg. Mejia CamiloA Company, USAG MED-HOLD, 865Hase RoadFt. Stewart, GA 31315.

The Commanding General's address:Major General William G. Webster, Jr.Commanding General, Fort Stewart42 Wayne PlaceFt Stewart, GA 31314.

Please take the opportunity to help this brave soldier and his courageous mother. And call the GI Rights Hotline at 1-800-394-9544 or click here for info on conscientious objector status.

Frists of Fury

Poor Bill Frist, he can't be proud of what he has become. He ran for the Senate with a simple mission: prevent health care reforms that might pose a threat to his family's $800-million stake in Columbia/HCA, the nation's leading owner of hospitals. There was never going to be anything honorable about his service, but nothing all that embarrassing in a Washington that welcomes self-serving senators with open arms.

Frist was a comfortably forgettable legislator -- good hair, good suit, bad politics -- until former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, went all segregationist at States Rights Party presidential candidate Strom Thurmond's going-away party. The Bush administration needed another prissy southerner to ride herd on the Senate. Frist fit the bill, moved into the nice office and became a comfortably forgettable Senate Majority Leader.

With the Republican-controlled Congress rendered irrelevant by its complete subservience to the Bush administration's political agenda, Frist quietly went back to the business of protecting the family business.

Then the Bush administration got in trouble. The ex-Secretary of the Treasury, the former Senior Director for Combating Terrorism on the National Security Council Staff and, now, the former counterterrorism chief in the Bush and Clinton White Houses had all come forward to suggest that the Bush administration really had missed the point of the war of terrorism -- badly. Suddenly, Americans were waking up to the fact that the rest of the world already knew: Iraq was not tied to al-Qaeda, had no weapons of mass destruction and posed no serious threat to the United States or its neighbors.

The administration had few credible defenders left. They couldn't send Bush out in his "Mission Accomplished" flight suit. Vice President Dick Cheney was still trying to explain that Halliburton really hadn't set new standards for war profiteering. And National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was having a very hard time explaining that she really, really, really did know what al-Qaeda was before counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke explained it to her.

The administration needed a Spiro Agnew to go out and start calling people names. And Bill Frist was ready to mumble.

Last week, Frist took to the floor of the Senate to denounce Clarke. "Mr. Clarke makes the outrageous charge that the Bush Administration, in its first seven months in office, failed to adequately address the threat posed by Osama bin Laden," Frist began. "I am troubled by these charges. I am equally troubled that someone would sell a book, trading on their former service as a government insider with access to our nation's most valuable intelligence, in order to profit from the suffering that this nation endured on September 11, 2001."

That was rich, considering the fact that Frist's Senate service has been all about profiting from the suffering of the nation. By blocking needed health care reforms, pushing for tort reforms that would limit malpractice payouts and supporting moves to privatize Medicare, Frist has pumped up his family's fortunes at the expense of Americans who are lack access to health care. As Mother Jones explained some years ago, "Some companies hire lobbyists to work Congress. Some have their executives lobby directly. But Tennessee's Frist family, the founders of Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp., the nation's largest hospital conglomerate, has taken it a step further: They sent an heir to the Senate. And there, with disturbingly little controversy, Republican Sen. Bill Frist has co-sponsored bills that may allow his family's company to profit from the ongoing privatization of Medicare."

Frist has delivered well for his family. That $800-million stake in HCA that his father, and brother had at the time Frist was elected in 1994 shot up in value over the decade that followed. Frist's brother, Thomas, has moved up steadily on the Forbes magazine list of the world's richest people in recent years. In 2003, Forbes estimated that Thomas Frist Jr. was worth $1.5 billion. According to Forbes: "source: health care."

So Bill Frist certainly knows a thing or two about profiteering from human misery.

Of course, Frist wasn't really concerned about September 11 suffering. He was simply looking for any way to discredit Clark. The problem was that Clarke has already made a commitment to donate substantial portions of the earnings from his book, "Against All Enemies," to the families of the 9/11 dead and to the widows and orphans of Special Forces troops who died in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Frist didn't just come off as a hypocrite, he looked like a fool. But he looked like an even bigger fool when, in an attempt to claim Clarke had lied to Congress, Frist demanded that transcripts of Clarke' 2002 congressional testimony to be declassified. Clarke's response? "I would welcome it being declassified But not just a little line here and there -- let's declassify all six hours of my testimony." Then, Clarke added, "Let's declassify that memo I sent on January 25. And let's declassify the national security directive that Dr. Rice's committee approved nine months later, on September 4. And let's see if there's any difference between those two, because there isn't. Let's go further. The White House is now selectively finding my e-mails, which I would have assumed are covered by some privacy regulations, and selectively leaking them to the press. Let's take all of my e-mails and memos that I sent to the national security adviser and her deputy from January 20 to September 11, and let's declassify all of it."

Suitably shot down, Frist then took to defending Condoleezza Rice's refusal to testify in public and under oath before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United State -- only to have the administration decide to have her testify.

Before last week, there was talk that Frist might replace Dick Cheney if the Bush political team decided to force the vice president off the 2004 ticket -- an admittedly dubious prospect, as Cheney remains firmly in charge both of the policy and political operations at the White House. After last week, however, even Republican loyalists had to be wondering whether Frist is good for anything other than taking care of the family business.

Sean Hannity's Sense of Humor

As the editor of a magazine with one of America's greatest humorists-- Calvin Trillin--I love a good joke. But there's a time and a place for humor. President Bush's joke about the failure to find WMD in Iraq--made at the annual black tie dinner for radio and television correspondents last week--was callous and tasteless. As one Iraq war veteran put it, "war is the single most serious event that a president or government can carry its people into. This cheapens the sacrifice that American soldiers and their families are dealing with every single day." Or as David Corn wrote in his Nation weblog, "Imagine if Lyndon Johnson had joked about the trumped-up Gulf of Tonkin incident."

Over at MSNBC's Hardball Chris Matthews--who attended the March 24 dinner-- grilled GOP spinmeister Tucker Eskew:

Matthews: Would you have him [Bush] tell those jokes as he tours the VA hospitals?

Eskew: He tours the hospitals an awful lot. He doesn't need a lesson in compassion toward the American soldiers, Chris.

Matthews: Maybe there's a question here of taste.

Eskew: I think the president has very good taste.

Matthews: You felt the jokes were right?

Eskew: That's self-deprecation, Chris. I think you misinterpret it.

Matthews: So, you think the guys who got hurt and killed in this war thought it was funny? I just don't think it was funny.

But over at that joke of a news operation, Fox "Fair and Balanced" News, Sean Hannity thought it was all a big laugh. When I went on his show last Friday I listened to him huff and he puff as he tried to pin the blame on liberals for not having a sense of humor. (I'd link to it but the show, oddly, doesn't make transcripts available.) Sean--hang it up! What Americans need from this President is truthtelling--not joketelling.

The letter below suggests there are others out there--in this case, a man who served his nation in a previous war--who agree.

March 26, 2004

Dear Ms. vanden Heuvel,

I saw you on Hannity & Colmes this evening. You are absolutely right on. As a Vietnam veteran I thank you for standing up to Sean Hannity (and Alan) regarding George Bush's rather distorted sense of humor regarding his inability to find WMDs in Iraq. May all the souls of those who have died in this insane war rest in peace.

Thank You,Bob Luce

The Children Soldiers

I recently received the letter below. It's so moving, powerful and illustrative of the situation of many young US soliders in Iraq that I thought it was worth sharing. I am grateful to Marianne Brown and Michael Shepard for their kind and thoughtful words. Everyone at The Nation hopes that their son will return safely and quickly.

Dear Nation,

My stepson, who is in the 428th Military Police reserves, was just sent to Iraq. Needless to say, my husband and I now live daily lives of terror and worry. I want to thank Katrina vanden Heuvel for her persistence in bringing up the fact that 547 (and probably more) of our loved ones have died and thousands more wounded each time she speaks on TV.

She is one of the only people who has the goodness to remember these young people, some of them teenagers, who are being thrown into this bloodbath for who knows how many years. I did everything I could to talk our child out of going. He was a weekend warrior, a kid, a twenty one year old whose lack of worldly expertise and hopes of a grand college education would allow him the option to serve as a police officer someday.

If I hear one more flag draped miscreant sniff and tell me "well he signed up," I may slap them. No, he did not sign up for this bloodbath and occupation. I offered to send him overseas to hide. I offered him a lawyer to get out. I begged him to embrace jail time and a dishonorable discharge. But all to no avail.

How do you tell a twenty one year old what to do? He detests Bush, as do we, but he said, "I can't say anything bad about Bush in front of my unit commander. I'll lose my promotion." He didn't want a dishonorable discharge. The folly of youth. Now he is in Iraq. We don't know where yet. We don't know if we will ever see him again. What we do know is that he just walked into a civil war which, as I speak, is erupting daily into unadulterated hell on earth. We know he may come home in a box, or maimed for life, or psychogically damaged beyond comprehension.

He grew up in a small town and has no clue as to what he will see. When in 2003 my husband and I marched against the war in DC, when in 2001 we marched against the stolen election in DC, we had no idea this would become so personal, that it would hit us in the face and hearts by removing a loved one and put us in the position of being antiwar activists even more radical in our opposition to this occupation.

This hits home like nothing else does, not like losing my job or my elderly mother filing for bankruptcy. We can handle that, we can work that out. This time it's wondering daily, as our kid travels in inadequate Humvees, whether we will ever see him again, or see him again in one piece.

As a sidenote: the military is so desperate for warm bodies, they sent him over with scoliosis of the spine, which they verified he had at Fort Dix with an x-ray exam. I told my stepson to send me his medical records. I wanted a paper trail. The next day they loaded him onto a plane and took him away. The army says now, they lost his x-rays. How convenient for them.

I ask Ms. vanden Heuvel to please continue to speak with her eloquence she shows on TV to the anger many military families feel who watch the laughing, tittering talking heads on corporate TV make jokes all day, run puff pieces as news, and ignore the very real horrors of wondering where a child is in Iraq, will he come home, is he okay, what's it like for him to endure 120 degree heat, is he afraid, will someone be with him if he dies, or is wounded, will someone hold his hand and tell him we love him, is there a way out of this, when will he come home, will we ever see him again?

Thank you for remembering to bring up the children soldiers who have died and continue to be used as cannon fodder for this corporate bloodbath.

Respectfully, Mrs. Marianne Brown and Mr. Michael ShepardParents of Michael Shepard, Jr. (428th MP army reserves)South Haven MI

The Safire Rules

Is a New York Times columnist--or any columnist--free to make a false assertion and not have to correct it? According to the newly installed public editor of the Times, Daniel Okrent, the answer is yes.

Since the subject at hand is William Safire, a Times columnist who writes on language as well as politics, foreign affairs, and national security, let's start with a definition.

Smoking gun n. Something that serves as indisputable evidence or proof, especially of a crime. So says The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Not much ambiguity there. Sticklers for precise language, keep that in mind.

On February 11, Safire published a column under the headline "Found: A Smoking Gun." It stated that the Kurdish militia in Iraq had "captured a courier carrying a message that demolishes the repeated claim of Bush critics that there was never a 'clear link' between Saddam and Osama bin Laden." This letter appeared to have been written by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a terrorist connected to Ansar al-Islam, an Islamic extremist group that had been based in northern Iraq, and it was a request to al Qaeda for assistance in sparking a civil war in Iraq. Though the February 9 New York Times front-page article that first revealed the existence of this letter noted that the message "does not speak to the debate about whether there was a Qaeda presence in Iraq during the Saddam Hussein era," Safire pointed to this communication as indisputable evidence there had been an operational relationship between al Qaeda and Hussein. He wrote that this letter "is the smoking gun proving" that "a clear link existed" between the Iraqi dictator and al Qaeda.

But Safire was wrong. This postwar request for assistance from Zarqawi and Ansar al-Islam was not slam-dunk evidence of a prewar connection, even if it could have been read to suggest there might have been a preexisting relationship between al Qaeda and Hussein. And since Ansar al-Islam was operating in northern Iraq, in territory not controlled by Hussein's regime, the act of linking al Qaeda through Ansar al-Islam to Hussein was an iffy, if not disingenuous, exercise. But, more importantly, The New York Times reported on February 20 that, according to "senior American officials," US intelligence "had picked up signs that Qaeda members outside Iraq had refused a request from the group, Ansar al-Islam, for help in attacking Shiite Muslims in Iraq." Al Qaeda and Ansar al-Islam appeared to be operating separately.

So what happened to Safire's "smoking gun?" Did he issue a correction or inform his readers he had fired prematurely? No. The next time Safire referred to Ansar-al-Islam--in a March 22 column--there was no mention that he had made an erroneous claim on this important matter.

On February 24, I took a whack at Safire for shouting "smoking gun" without proof. And I wrote:

"If a newspaper columnist writes articles that defy the reality reported by the paper's own correspondents, how should the paper's editors and publisher respond? Should they question the columnist's judgment and powers of evaluation? Should they print corrections? Columnists are certainly entitled to their views. They are free to speculate and suppose. They can draw--or suggest--connections that go beyond just-the-facts reporting. But Safire's recent work--unburdened by factchecking, unchallenged by editors--shows he is more intent on manipulating than interpreting the available information. His February 11 masterpiece is evidence his commitment to scoring political points exceeds his commitment to the truth. Under the cover of opinion journalism, he is dishing out disinformation. How is that of service to the readers of the The New York Times?"

Afterward, Okrent and I exchanged some friendly emails on the topic of columnists and corrections. Then, in a March 28 column, he addressed the questions I had raised (along with those hurled at other Times columnists by other critics). His piece began:

"It sounds like a simple question: Should opinion columnists be subject to the same corrections policy that governs the work of every other writer at the Times? So simple, in fact, that you must know that only an ornate answer could follow."

Okrent noted that it was hard to devise a "clear, public stated corrections policy" for columnists who are hired to express opinion. After all, Okrent noted, "opinion is inherently unfair." Still, he recognized the need for some sort of corrections policy. And, with the help of Safire, he ended up defending a policy that--whaddayaknow!--protects Safire. Okrent wrote:

"At the very minimum, anything that is indisputably inaccurate must be corrected: there is no protected opinion that holds that the sun rises in the west. Same with the patent misuse or distortion of quotations that are already in the public record. But if Safire asserts there is a 'smoking gun' linking Al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein, then even David Corn's best shots (which include many citations from Times news stories) aren't going to prove it isn't so. 'An opinion may be wrongheaded,' Safire told me by email last week, 'but it is never wrong. A belief or a conviction, no matter how illogical, crackbrained or infuriating, is an idea subject to vigorous dispute but is not an assertion subject to editorial or legal correction.'"

Opinionated pundits, as I noted above, do deserve wide berth, and their claims and statements ought to kick-start rambunctious debate. That's the point. But wordsmith Safire is playing word games, and Okrent is along for the ride. Back to the dictionary:

Opinion n. 1. A belief or conclusion held with confidence but not substantiated by positive knowledge or proof. "The world is not run by thought, nor by imagination, but by opinion." (Elizabeth Drew).

Is the following statement an opinion? US intelligence found a letter that indisputably proves Saddam Hussein was conspiring with al Qaeda. With his use of the well-defined phrase "smoking gun," that is what Safire had maintained. And he presented his claim as a statement of fact, not merely an opinion. I suppose Safire and Okrent could argue that a "smoking gun" is open to interpretation. But that would be bending its definition to the breaking point. Of course, Safire could have said, This letter seems to be evidence..... Or, My hunch is.... Or, Just wait, you peaceniks, this may well turn out to be.... Or, I really, really, really hope this will be a smoking gun. (And, in doing so, he could have ignored the many pieces of evidence that weakened his case--a columnist's prerogative.) Instead, he engaged in purposeful exaggeration and distorted the available facts. It reminds me of the line Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld used when asked in September about his March 30 claim that "we know where [the weapons of mass destruction] are." He replied, "Sometimes I overstate for emphasis."

Okrent did observe that a columnist cannot claim the sun rises in the west and then hide behind the shield of opinion. But under his standard, if a columnist says there is indisputable proof when there is not, that is covered by a columnist's right to hold a wrong opinion. But what does "indisputable" mean? (No more dictionary references from me.) Back in 1974, when the "smoking gun" Watergate tape came out (which, indisputably, caught President Richard Nixon conspiring with aides to block the FBI investigation of the break-in), could a responsible columnist have reported to his or her readers that the substance of this tape indicated Nixon had not plotted to obstruct the inquiry?

In making the case that there is a difference between an opinion and an assertion of fact, I don't want to play semantics. Perhaps Safire, as a columnist, should have the right to exclaim and j'accuse away. Then folks like me can poke at him (though in terms of audience size, it's hardly a fair fight). And maybe Safire, in this instance, merely jumped the gun--for emphasis, as Rumsfeld might say. And maybe this sort of "wrongheaded" error is too tough for editors to evaluate and does not readily lend itself to publishable corrections. ("Editors note: When columnist William Safire noted in a recent column that a letter found in Iraq was the 'smoking gun' that proved al Qaeda was linked to Saddam Hussein, he was misusing the reports of this newspaper and way off-base. Still, please take seriously what he writes today about the United Nations.")

But after the basis for Safire's smoking-gun charge turned out to be all smoke, shouldn't he (if not the newspaper) have had the decency to tell his readers that--whoops--he had misled them, whether it had been unintentional or out of eagerness to have his previous claims about the supposed al Qaeda-Hussein link finally proven right? It may have merely been Safire's "opinion" that a "smoking gun" had been found, but consequent events showed he had peddled an untrue statement to his readers. Many of them may not have read the subsequent Times story that demolished Safire's claim. What does he and the paper of record owe their readers in terms of responsibility and accountability? In this instance, apparently nothing.

It is certainly the Times' privilege to employ a columnist who makes false declarations of fact--which he obviously intends his readers to accept as the truth, not as "illogical" or "crackbrained" beliefs--and who, when challenged on the veracity of his assertions, hides behind the phony cover of it's-just-opinion. But why would it want to?


DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations....Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." For more information and a sample, check out the book's official website: www.bushlies.com.


Striking Where Bush Is Weakest

If the Bush administration had gone after Osama bin Laden with anything akin to the energy it is expending to discredit Richard Clarke, the story of America's response to terrorism might have been dramatically different. That, of course, is the point that Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism adviser, makes when he says that Bush and his aides "ignored" the terrorist threats before September 11, 2001, and, even more significantly, when he suggests that the administration diverted attention from the real war on terrorism with an unnecessary war on Iraq.

Those are powerful charges, and Clarke has made them convincingly in his testimony before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States, in various media appearances over the past few days, and in his book, Against All Enemies. Predictably, the White House spin machine has been churning out increasingly-visceral attacks on Clarke, a self-described Republican who still praises Bush's father as a masterful leader. Amid the tit-for-tat that has developed, however, Clarke has already prevailed. No matter what the Bush administration throws at the man who served in four White Houses, Clarke has already trumped his attackers.

Clarke did so by opening his testimony before the commission on Wednesday not with a bold pronouncement about the failings of the administration, but with an apology: "I welcome these hearings because of the opportunity that they provide to the American people to better understand why the tragedy of 9/11 happened and what we must do to prevent a reoccurrence. I also welcome the hearings because it is finally a forum where I can apologize to the loved ones of the victims of 9/11," he began. "To them who are here in the room, to those who are watching on television, your government failed you, those entrusted with protecting you failed you and I failed you. We tried hard, but that doesn't matter because we failed. And for that failure, I would ask -- once all the facts are out -- for your understanding and for your forgiveness."

In that statement, Clarke proved to be a more masterful political strategist -- and, be clear, a duel between a renegade aide and a president in an election year is about politics -- than White House electoral strategist Karl Rove. Why? Because Clarke recognized the ultimate vulnerability of the Bush administration: An absolute inability on the part of Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and, above all, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, to admit when they have failed, when they have been proven wrong and when they have been caught in lies.

The administration that began by neglecting George Bush's popular-vote deficit in the 2000 and claiming a mandate for radical change has been consistent in nothing so much as its refusal to accept unpleasant realities. Bush and his aides always refuse to take responsibility for anything that goes wrong. As such, they are always pointing fingers of blame at others. September 11? Blame evil or Bill Clinton -- pretty much the same thing in the Bush administration's collective mind. False information about Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction program gets into the State of the Union Address? Blame the CIA or someone, anyone, in Europe. Economic downturn? Blame Democrats in Congress for not backing bigger tax cuts for corporations and more-of-the-same trade policies. False figures on the cost of Medicare reform go to Congress? Blame, well, er, gee, gay marriage?

No matter what goes wrong, the ironclad rule of the Bush administration has been to find someone outside the administration -- preferably a Democrat or a foreigner -- to blame. And if there is no way to blame someone else, the policy has been to keep expressing an Orwellian faith in the prospect that the failure will become a success, or that the lie will be made true -- witness Cheney's refusal to back away from his pre-war "they'll greet us with flowers" fantasy about the Iraqi response to a U.S.-led invasion.

Supposedly, this refusal to bend in the face of reality is smart politics. But a constant pattern of avoiding responsibility tends, eventually, to catch up even with the smartest politicians. Richard Nixon never recognized that fact and it destroyed his presidency. Bill Clinton, for all of his failings, did recognize it and, with his televised apology for mishandling of the Monica Lewinsky mess, thwarted Republican attempts to destroy his presidency.

Richard Clarke, who lived inside the belly of the beast that is the Bush administration, recognizes its many vulnerabilities. And, by reminding the American people that apologies are owed for failings before 9/11 and since, he struck Bush and his aides where they are weakest.