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August 13, 2006

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Daniel Okrent, the Times' ombudsman

Byron Calame is now the Times' ombudsman. Okrent would never have written this column.

f the British success in shutting down this terrorist operation shows anything relevant to the NSA story, it's that in this case at least, the tools liberals approve of were up to the job.

You'd think this point might be obvious, but it has eluded an awful lot of commenters on the right.

I think it's not so much that the point has eluded them as that they know it's true, and are shouting louder / pounding the desk as a smokescreen.

You'd think this point might be obvious, but it has eluded an awful lot of commenters on the right.

As Mr. Heywood put it nearly 500 years ago:

Who is so deafe or so blinde as is hee
That wilfully will neither heare nor see?

That should not be understood to be an endorsement of Mr. Heywood's politics, of course.

To be fair, I think a great many of the conservatives who are buying the Liquid-Plot-Vindicates-Bush's-NSA-Thing are less about wilfully ignoring the truth in front of them, but lazily buying into a fairly rudimentary tribal worldview. If you oppose, in any way, some Bush policy, you must be on the side (in some degree anyway) of the terrorists. It is not necessary to actually pay attention to what you are saying -- it's for us or against us, and once you've revealed what side you're on, your sophistry in support of that position is meaningless. In this binary view, any triumph for "Our Team" is necessarily a defeat for "Their Team."

With the evident triumph of the Rule of law in this case, it's time to ask if there are any Republican politicians with any credibility on either National Security or the viability of the Constitution.

However, it's the Times' second reason that's truly outrageous: "Holding a fresh draft of the story just days before the election also was an issue of fairness, Mr. Keller said. I agree that candidates affected by a negative article deserve to have time — several days to a week — to get their response disseminated before voters head to the polls." It is, of course, true that if one has the time, it's fairer to give people "several days to a week" to respond to a story about them. And since the Times had been discussing this story for "weeks" before the election, they could have done this; in fact, Okrent's reference to "the administration’s claim that everyone involved was satisfied with the program’s legality" suggests that they had both requested and received a response from the administration. If so, I fail to see why "fairness" required holding off on the story.

But let's suppose that the Times felt that, ideally, they should give the administration "several days to a week" to provide a second response, and that they didn't have that much time before the election. Does this mean that they should not have published before the election? It seems to me that the answer to this question is obviously "no". The reason for this is not that they didn't owe the administration the right to respond to the story before publishing it.

I almost hate to be excessively cynical, but it seems that the release of the story immediately before the election would have seriously damaged Kerry's claim that Bush wasn't doing enough in the War on Terrorism from a non-military point of view. Kerry would have then only had about two weeks to do a very delicate reversal into "Bush is prosecuting the War on Terror too agressively in the policing sphere". As we see from how the story actually played when it did come out, many (most?) Americans didn't see the program as particularly bad. I was put in the rather odd position (in Southern California gay liberal circles) of arguing that the removal of procedural safeguards was unwise in the midst of discussions about how "of course we tap phones".

The story, if released just before the election, would have run directly counter to months of Kerry's arguments about Bush. A very skilled politician might have been able to finesse that into something helpful, but Kerry very likely could not.

"It reveals that the Times had the story before the 2004 elections...."

Um, this was known at the time the story came out; there was endless debate and blogging about it. Calame wrote about it, as well. But lefty blogs wrote at tremendous length about it. I realize this isn't the crucial point of your post, but it seems kinda worth mentioning.

"But it's unclear whether what the Times felt it didn't know for certain was the nature of the program or the legal arguments against it."

Odd; it seems quite clear to me, from all that was written then by Keller, and from this, that it was the latter.

"He has repeatedly indicated that a major reason for the publication delays was the administration’s claim that everyone involved was satisfied with the program’s legality."

This seems quite clear to me.

"It implied that the paper’s pre-election sources hadn’t been sufficiently 'well-placed and credible' to convince him that questions about the program’s legality and oversight were serious enough to make it 'responsible to publish.'"

So does that.

"All the news that's fit to print" - as soon as it no longer matters.

David Cole in the Aug 10 New York Review of Books says (with qualifiers) that the Hamdan decision makes Bush a war criminal. Which reporters have asked Bush for comment yet?

It's worth observing that almost exactly one year before, the Los Angeles Times published an expose on Arnold Schwarzenegger's history of sexual harassment the weekend before the California recall election. They stated flat out that they rushed publication for basically the reasons you outline here. And they got crucified; the story was seen as a blatantly timed partisan hit piece by a liberal newspaper and was almost completely discounted. Bill Keller can talk about credible sources all he wants, but it's hard to believe he wasn't shying away from that kind of backlash.

The problem is that not only do more complicated stories require more time to rebut, they also require more time for the public to digest. It may take only a day to assimilate "Bush arrested for DUI", but it probably takes at least a week to sort through all the back-and-forth expected in "she says Arnold groped her, he says he didn't", and who knows how long for "NSA behaving illegally in an esoteric way".

The Hamdan decision didn't "make" the President a war criminal. His own conduct did that. All the Supreme Court did was state the law, which is as most informed people had always understood it.

If ever called to account -- which I truly doubt will happen -- the President will claim to have relied on his lawyers. For enough money, you can probably find a lawyer who will tell you that you can deduct the expenses for hookers and cocaine you provided to a congressman as bribes.* One shouldn't expect this to work, especially if it can be shown that other lawyers told you that this advice was idiotic.

* I'm not a tax lawyer, and this should not be considered tax advice.

* I'm not a tax lawyer, and this should not be considered tax advice.

Hah!

Any tax advice included in this written or electronic communication was not intended or written to be used, and it cannot be used by the taxpayer, for the purpose of avoiding any penalties that may be imposed on the taxpayer by any governmental taxing authority or agency.

The newspaper is beholden by what it determines to be the truth not some made up rules of allowing candidates to respond, etc. Bush was not just a candidate, he was the president. He doesn't get the luxury of responding for however long an arbitrary time the Times deemed necessary. The President not the candidate needs to answer for his policies, regardless of when they come to light. This is sheer tosspottery.

OT - Hersh on Lebanon as dry-run for Iran.

Also we should remember that the NYT decision came immediately after the 60 Minutes documents were exposed. If something about the sourcing turned out to be wrong in the NYT piece immediately after the 60 Minutes fiasco, it would have been incredibly damaging.

You'd think this point might be obvious, but it has eluded an awful lot of commenters on the right.

that's mighty charitable of you. i'd be inclined to say something more like : "Yes, this is obvious, but because an awful lot of commenters on the right refuse to break the My Party Right Or Wrong rule, we're all going to spend the next two weeks sweeping away the remains of their hastily constructed strawmen."

it seems that the release of the story immediately before the election would have seriously damaged Kerry's claim that Bush wasn't doing enough in the War on Terrorism from a non-military point of view. Kerry would have then only had about two weeks to do a very delicate reversal into "Bush is prosecuting the War on Terror too agressively in the policing sphere". As we see from how the story actually played when it did come out, many (most?) Americans didn't see the program as particularly bad.

I wonder. Suppose the NYT had told Bush they were going to print the story, but were willing to hold it until after the election if Bush felt that it was unfair to print it without leaving him adequate time to respond. In other words, suppose they gave him the choice of having it go into print before or after the election.

Which do you think he would have chosen?

Sadly, Sebastian is probably correct. The administration certainly managed to turn the tape from Osama "We're gonna smoke him out, dead or alive . . . actually, he's not all that important to me . . . " Bin Laden into an advantage.

And of course Osama knew that, Phil. The message was his endorsement of Bush for his PR efforts in building up Al Qaida into something that supposedly serious people can describe as more powerful than the WW2 Axis or the Cold War Soviet Union. Osama and Bush need each other, so neither wants the other to go away.

"The message was his endorsement of Bush for his PR efforts in building up Al Qaida into something that supposedly serious people can describe as more powerful than the WW2 Axis or the Cold War Soviet Union. Osama and Bush need each other, so neither wants the other to go away."

As believed by Michael Scheuer, former head of the bin Laden CIA station:

Anonymous, who published an analysis of al-Qaida last year called Through Our Enemies' Eyes, thinks it quite possible that another devastating strike against the US could come during the election campaign, not with the intention of changing the administration, as was the case in the Madrid bombing, but of keeping the same one in place.

"I'm very sure they can't have a better administration for them than the one they have now," he said.

"One way to keep the Republicans in power is to mount an attack that would rally the country around the president."

That's a story from June 19, 2004. More recently came Ron Suskind's testimony:
On Oct. 29, 2004, just four days before the U.S. presidential election, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin-Laden released a videotape denouncing George W. Bush. Some Bush supporters quickly spun the diatribe as “Osama’s endorsement of John Kerry.” But behind the walls of the CIA, analysts had concluded the opposite: that bin-Laden was trying to help Bush gain a second term.

This stunning CIA disclosure is tucked away in a brief passage near the end of Ron Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine, which draws heavily from CIA insiders. Suskind wrote that the CIA analysts based their troubling assessment on classified information, but the analysts still puzzled over exactly why bin-Laden wanted Bush to stay in office.

According to Suskind’s book, CIA analysts had spent years “parsing each expressed word of the al-Qaeda leader and his deputy, [Ayman] Zawahiri. What they’d learned over nearly a decade is that bin-Laden speaks only for strategic reasons. …

“Their [the CIA’s] assessments, at day’s end, are a distillate of the kind of secret, internal conversations that the American public [was] not sanctioned to hear: strategic analysis. Today’s conclusion: bin-Laden’s message was clearly designed to assist the President’s reelection.

“At the five o’clock meeting, [deputy CIA director] John McLaughlin opened the issue with the consensus view: ‘Bin-Laden certainly did a nice favor today for the President.’”

McLaughlin’s comment drew nods from CIA officers at the table. Jami Miscik, CIA deputy associate director for intelligence, suggested that the al-Qaeda founder may have come to Bush’s aid because bin-Laden felt threatened by the rise in Iraq of Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi; bin-Laden might have thought his leadership would be diminished if Bush lost the White House and their “eye-to-eye struggle” ended.

But the CIA analysts also felt that bin-Laden might have recognized how Bush’s policies – including the Guantanamo prison camp, the Abu Ghraib scandal and the endless bloodshed in Iraq – were serving al-Qaeda’s strategic goals for recruiting a new generation of jihadists.

“Certainly,” the CIA’s Miscik said, “he would want Bush to keep doing what he’s doing for a few more years,” according to Suskind’s account of the meeting.

As their internal assessment sank in, the CIA analysts drifted into silence, troubled by the implications of their own conclusions. “An ocean of hard truths before them – such as what did it say about U.S. policies that bin-Laden would want Bush reelected – remained untouched,” Suskind wrote.

And, of course, George W. Bush duly popped up a six-point lead after bin Laden's message, from what had been a draw.

The predictable rebuttal to that, Gary, is that the CIA has become politicized, and has an axe to grind with Bush.

It's still a bit shocking to me that this administration's need to smear the ever-expanding group of people who disagree with it actually reached the point where it had to call the CIA a bunch of dirty hippies.

Hilzoy, that correction was by me, not lj. More and stronger coffee! ;>

The predictable rebuttal to that, Gary, is that the CIA has become politicized, and has an axe to grind with Bush.

But the rebuttal has no merit other than being predictable. Any moron could tell that the tape was meant to boost Bush.

Al-Qaeda, like the insurgents in Iraq, have demonstrated a great talent for pulling our chain.

(A new-to-me example: Tom Ricks in Fiasco doesn't come out & say so, but it certainly appears that the oh-so-public killing & dismemberment of the 4 contractors at Fallujah was done with an eye to provoking us into attacking the city, time-coordinated with the Marines' taking over from the Army.)

It's still a bit shocking to me that this administration's need to smear the ever-expanding group of people who disagree with it actually reached the point where it had to call the CIA a bunch of dirty hippies.

Has me almost wishing for Buckley to crank out one more Blackford Oakes novel ...

Nell: Apologies. Brain to world interface seems to have been on the fritz this morning. I am mystified.

I agree with Sebastian (surprise). If you see this as bias in favor of the administration then I think you have it exactly backwards. This is the key tidbit right here:

Keller - “Judging from the public reaction to the N.S.A. eavesdropping reflected in various polls, one could ask whether earlier disclosure might have helped President Bush more than hurt.”

Go back to Oct 04 and review the debates and campaign commercials. Kerry was hammering Bush on not doing enough to prevent terrorism:

I agree with the president that we have to go after them and get them wherever they are. I just think I can do that far more effectively, because the most important weapon in doing that is intelligence. You've got to have the best intelligence in the world.

And I'm going to put in place a better homeland security effort.

That's why I will never stop at anything to hunt down and kill the terrorists.

But you heard the president just say to you that we've added money.
Folks, the test is not if you've added money; the test is that you've done everything possible to make America secure.

And many more such gems. As Keller said – disclosing the plans existence before the election may have helped Bush, as later polling confirmed. Kerry would have had to flip (or is flop?) from hammering Bush about not doing enough to prevent terrorism to hammering him about doing too much.

Withholding this story may have cost Bush as many as 5 points. I still don’t agree it should have ever been published at all – but delaying it was clearly to help Kerry and hurt Bush.

OCSteve: That's presuming that the media spin on the story was the dishonest pro-Bush "look what the administration is doing to catch terrorists" and not the more accurate "Look how the Bush administration is illegally spying on Americans rather than trying to catch terrorists".

The reason why people are outraged about warrantless eavesdropping is that it's fairly easy to guess that the reason it's being done without a warrant is because there is no evidence to justify a warrant - and therefore no good reason for spying.

I don't know if anyone's pointed it out already this thread, but all the surveillance done to catch the suspected terrorists arrested last Thursday was done with warrants - legal surveillance, which no one seriously objects to.

But it's true that I assumed that when the news broke at the end of October 2004 that the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003 had not included any forces devoted to securing/destroying stockpiled weapons, this would definitively prove to anyone paying attention that the Bush administration had been lying about their claimed reason for invading Iraq. But loyal Republicans were able to spin it otherwise... so I guess it's possible to spin anything.

Kerry would have had to flip (or is flop?) from hammering Bush about not doing enough to prevent terrorism to hammering him about doing too much.

nope. just as Kerry said the test is not about "adding money", it would be prefectly reasonable for him to say the test is not about seeing how far outside the law you could go. Kerry said he wanted a 'better' effort, not a more-intrusive, less-accountable, extra-legal one.

Bush still isn't doing enough to prevent terrorism. he's doing a lot of other things and saying it's related to fighting terrorism; but that's not the same thing.

but delaying it was clearly to help Kerry and hurt Bush.

oh, clearly. how could it be otherwise ? we all know the treasonous liberal NYT would do anything to help the Democrats. isn't that right, Ms. Miller?

Even though Sebastian's point is the standard right-wing blogospheric response to this story (example), it's not insane. I have little confidence that Kerry would have been able to overcome the media's usual parroting of the Republicans' "Democrats are weak" spin on the story. We saw that when it came out, in the wording of the questions in most of the polls, which avoided the issues of legality and specificity of targeting.

OCSteve: That's presuming that the media spin on the story was the dishonest pro-Bush "look what the administration is doing to catch terrorists" and not the more accurate "Look how the Bush administration is illegally spying on Americans rather than trying to catch terrorists".

And that's a really good presumption, actually.

Charles Pierce had a hilarious take at Tapped:

At best, the Kerry campaign would have bungled the issue. At worst, the Kerry campaign would have kept silent, probably because President Kerry would want that same power for himself. (Nobody runs for president on a platform of weakening the office vis a vis the Congress, although these days I'd vote for someone who did.) At the absolutely most appalling, the Republicans would have used it in a commercial, probably with wolves wearing earphones.

"At the absolutely most appalling, the Republicans would have used it in a commercial, probably with wolves wearing earphones."

I'd have paid good money to see that. Second best hypothetical political commercial I've heard of (best was a suggested "Stripping down to his skivvies, turning his head, and coughing for Pennsylvania" -- if you want details, I'll supply them).

Anyone else remember that the LA Times blew the whistle on accusations of Arnold groping women who worked in the film industry with him just days before the special election in 2003? They were charged with raving bias, but it didn't seem to hurt Arnold much. Of course, the election was not close.

I'm not sure voters, even in a Presidential, can be swayed by last minute facts. Voting is more atmosherics than intellect. Maybe the NYT held the story because they didn't want how little influence they wield to become clear.

I was thinking of the reaction to the Lancet study on mortality in Iraq, myself.

delaying it was clearly to help Kerry and hurt Bush.

This kind of double-reverse-bank-shot thinking lets you prove anything. If the Bush administration had wanted the story out, they could have leaked it. Instead, they tried to keep it secret. Claiming that revealing it would have helped Bush's chances of re-election, while it could possibly be true, is not what the Bush team was thinking at the time of the election.

"This kind of double-reverse-bank-shot thinking lets you prove anything. If the Bush administration had wanted the story out, they could have leaked it. Instead, they tried to keep it secret. Claiming that revealing it would have helped Bush's chances of re-election, while it could possibly be true, is not what the Bush team was thinking at the time of the election."

Not to put too fine a point on it, but perhaps the Bush administration thought it was a more effective secret spying operation if he didn't put it in campaign ads.

Wow, been up in the wilds of Hokkaido and am now at the Mac store in Sapporo. Apologies for impinging on Hilzoy's interface, I hope the hotel wifi works tonite

"Apologies for impinging on Hilzoy's interface...."

Is that, like, a euphemism, or something?

:-)

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