When I was younger I used to imagine that the natural function of "public intellectuals" not necessarily people who are smarter than the average Joe, but reasonably intelligent people with a bent for policy analysis and thinking large thoughts on matters of public consequence was to speak truth to power, or, in the well-loved old journalistic saw, to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."
I’m afraid I was wrong. Apparently the more natural function of public intellectuals, at least most of them, is to explain the ways of power to the uninformed and perhaps unthinking public at large or in more cynical terms, to serve as apologists for those in power. In the wake of a certain amount of criticism of the Bush administration over the issues of "weapons of mass destruction" a misnomer from the get-go in that it lumps nuclear weapons with chemical and biological weapons that are difficult to use tactically and create less actual mass destruction than some artillery barrages Bush apologists are coming out of the woodwork.
One of the saddest is Byron York, who during the Clinton years acquired a reputation, mostly fairly well deserved, as a dogged investigative reporter rather concerned about following the evidence where it leads rather than to a predetermined destination. In a recent piece for National Review he offers a fullblown defense of George W. Bush’s veracity against some of his establishment-oriented critics.
Before dissecting the York Defense, it is worthwhile to note that he is facilitated in his self-assigned task by the fact that most public intellectuals turn out to be partisans. That is, their general inclination, as has been the case with countless courtiers down the centuries, is to defend or to provide respectable-sounding justifications for the regime (or permanent power-structure, the "two-party system," established procedures, even the permanent bureaucracy) in general, but they tend to choose up Democratic-Republican sides.
Thus some columnists and commentators are more inclined to find fault with one party (and its leaders) than another, while bending over backwards to find justifications for the more egregious. This is hardly surprising or even especially scandalous, and most reasonably well-informed readers have a certain capacity to don mental filters when reading such commentators, distinguishing between the occasional fact and the arguments that amount to (though usually stated with a little more elegance) "so’s your old man."
This phenomenon makes Byron York’s task a lot easier, since several of the critics he takes to task are the sort who wanted to spin Bill Clinton’s multifarious examples of stretching the truth as nothing more consequential than "lying about sex." In focusing narrowly on the specific claims of a few "Bush is a liar" critics and comparing Bush to Clinton, however, Mr. York ignores any number of more respectable (or more accurate) critics and bypasses a wealth of significant information, especially on the key question of the administration’s many statements on "weapons of mass destruction."
York first goes after an October story by Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank. Milbank starts with an October 7 address by Bush on Iraq "in which the president warned that Saddam Hussein had a growing fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that could be used, in Bush’s words, ‘for missions targeting the United States.’" Milbank says the statement was wrong because a recent CIA report said the Iraqi UAVs didn’t have sufficient range to threaten the U.S. York reprimands him because Bush’s statement was more nuanced, saying Iraq "was exploring ways of using these UAVs for missions targeting the U.S." and Ari Fleischer later "clarified the comment to say it referred to ‘being launched from a ship or a truck or by their being smuggled into the United States.’"
York’s criticism of Milbank is fairly well-grounded if a bit nit-picky. But it ignores the larger context of those UAVs. It turned out that the only UAV the weapons inspectors found looked more like a model airplane or a poor imitation of the Wright Brothers plane than a sleek and dangerous-looking drone. And the occupying troops haven’t found any more of them, leading to the possible conclusion that this was an experimental prototype rather than one of dozens or hundreds.
So Dana Milbank used a nit-picky reading to make Bush out to be more of a deceiver (or a different kind of deceiver) than the text of the speech supports, and Byron York calls him on it. But York ignores the obvious that drumming up fears about these UAVs was one of the many ways Bush and other administration spokespeople used to exaggerate the threat Saddam Hussein posed to the United States. Like many of the specific examples the administration and its apologists brought to the fore in speeches and statements, this "threat" turned out to be nothing Iraq’s neighbors had to worry about, let alone the mighty United States.
Does this make Bush a liar? Posing the question that way ignores the fact that most political deception, if done reasonably well, is not so much a matter of outright verifiable falsehoods as exaggerations, projections of facts into a putatively frightening future ("the only ‘smoking gun’ will be a nuke dropped on the U.S. Are you willing to wait for that?"), and interpretations of facts to create a big picture that might have some of the little details right but that in the end creates a misleading impression radically at variance with the facts on the ground.
York himself notes that a former administration official told him that "What 9/11 did was teach a generation of policymakers to interpret things in an alarmed rather than a relaxed way." He seems oblivious to the possibility that interpreting things in a perpetually "alarmed" manner carries any dangers of its own or can lead, step by step, to an ultimately inaccurate picture of the threats a country faces.
MISSING TEAM B
Like most Bush apologists, York chooses not to engage the article Seymour Hersh did for the New Yorker in May on the "Team B" group of analysts that Asst. Sec. of Defense Paul Wolfowitz put together in the Pentagon under the name Office of Special Plans, headed by Abram Shulsky. The OSP did not collect intelligence itself, but gathered intelligence collected by other agencies as well as information from the Iraqi National Congress and other exile groups. The CIA and the State Department tended to dismiss the INC and its head, Ahmad Chalabi, as unreliable or dubious sources, but the OSP tended to believe most of what the INC fed American intelligence as quite reliable.
The Office of Special Plans has gained enough notoriety that it is now mentioned from time to time in the general media, sometimes even as an example of administration tendencies to give credit to exaggerations. My inclination is to believe it was extremely important, not only as an example of the Pentagon’s willingness to set up a brand new agency specifically to massage intelligence to give higher officials what they wanted to hear, but as an example of the willingness of the administration perhaps most notably Mr. Bush himself, though I have no inside information to confirm this to believe the most extreme and exaggerated accounts of the Iraqi threat despite doubts expressed in respectable branches of the government itself.
It seems reasonably certain now that the OSP was set up precisely because the administration wasn’t getting an alarming enough picture of the dire threat posed by Iraq from the usual sources the CIA, the DIA, the State Department. Intelligence is hardly ever the kind of cut-and-dried proof most humans would prefer, but sometimes scattered bits of information that makes sense only when put together knowledgeably and creatively by informed analysts. What the standard intelligence sources were giving the administration last fall and summer was to some extent ambiguous or ambivalent because of the nature of intelligence work, but all the standard sources were presenting a picture of a fairly puny threat from an exhausted and weakened regime despite, as several anonymous and a few named intelligence community sources have testified, fairly severe direct and indirect pressure to produce more compelling evidence. They weren’t even sure Iraq had those dreaded WMDs.
This would hardly do as a justification for war. So the hawks in the administration set up an agency in the Pentagon to reinterpret the evidence. The best evidence to date (government always classifies much more information than is remotely justifiable so it’s hard to be sure) is that the OSP consistently and on every issue interpreted the evidence in the most alarming way possible. That was more like it. More and more the Bush administration took to parroting the briefings from the OSP. Quite possibly they came to believe themselves that this was the real scoop, the result of bold and imaginative analysis rather than the tepid stuff those stodgy old sticks-in-the-mud in the traditional "intelligence community" had been preparing. Red meat was preferable.
In part because it is still impossible to know all the motivations involved, it is difficult to analyze all this in straightforward, black-and-white lie-versus-truth terms, if only because it is hard to know what to do with a mistake or falsehood that the speaker sincerely believes is the truth. Perhaps Dubya and Condi and Colin really did believe all the unequivocal statements they made during the run-up to the effect that there was simply no question at all that Saddam possessed those dread WMDs. Perhaps they were deceived by intelligence spun slickly and didn’t go to the raw data. Perhaps, like most of us, they wanted to believe and with whatever degree of self-consciousness internally validated the apparent intelligence that seemed to support what they wanted to believe and discounted or ignored information that didn’t fit into or called into question the preferred belief system.
Here are a few fundamental facts, however. War advocates were willing to go through elaborate and expensive procedures to set up bureaucratic institutions and mechanisms that would reliably feed "friendly" information into the White House with a certain stamp of authenticity. Was it just Wolfowitz, or did Bush directly or indirectly ask him to set up a shop to massage intelligence to make it look more threatening? Whatever the details, the result was an elaborate exercise in what we night call meta-deception on a grand scale.
For whatever weapons sites or evidence of destroyed weapons might eventually be found (the military, having already checked into the sites cited as most likely by the OPS crowd and found nothing, is moving on to other missions, especially in light of the burgeoning resistance to U.S. occupation), there is simply no questions that those weapons were not ready to be deployed with any rapidity (let alone at a moment’s notice). They posed no particular threat, let alone an imminent threat, to Iraq’s neighbors, to the United States itself, or even to American "interests," using the broadest interpretation possible.
So that justification for war and it evolved into the main justification in part because it evoked the most actual fear or uncertainty on the part of the general public was simply deceptive. Was it an outright conscious lie? It might be impossible to know. The top Bushies might have actually believed what they said. If that’s the case, however, we have an instance of incompetence at analyzing complex data, and/or massive problems in the U.S. intelligence system. And that might actually be more troubling in the long run than the likelihood that like most politicians several of the Bushies lied along the way.
MORE LAME EXCUSES
The best poor Byron York can do on the WMD issue is the increasingly frequent assertion that before the war just everybody, including Germany, France and multiple war crtitics, believed Saddam did have WMDs. "Such a consensus," York claims, "makes it extremely difficult to argue that the president lied about Iraq and WMD; if the administration’s case was a lie, then everybody, including much of the political opposition, was in on it.."
Sorry, but that’s more than a bit lame. For starters, much of the opinion of others about WMD was based on informastion and leaks from the administration which, as we understand in retrospect, were systematically and probably consciously spun in the direction of finding maximum feasible threat. And in the case of most critics, acknowledging that Saddam probably had nasty weapons was more of a fallback position, a way of deflecting future criticism if and when weapons were found, than a firm conviction. "Everybody knew," people kept saying, that Saddam had weapons, but the people with possibly countervailing evidence in the intelligence community and the administration weren’t making their doubts public. So the apparently safe and respectable thing was to acknowledge that it was probable.
DID IT JUSTIFY WAR?
The important question was never whether Saddam Hussein actually had this or that weapon. The important question was whether the possession of this or that weapon ever justified what was a war of choice rather than necessity in which the United States openly and unabashedly assumed the role of aggressor against a country that had not threatened its neighbors for more than 11 years.
Byron York wisely does not choose to engage this question. Instead he engages in nit-picking against a few specific critics, including some who had a different attitude toward the lies of Bill Clinton and are therefore vulnerable. He therefore is able to ignore more substantial and responsible critics of the administration and its inexorable path to war. However (although I was hardly the only critic making good points) I would suggest that my Antiwar columns of September 10 and October 8 on the differences between pre-emptive and preventive war, and my September 3 and October 15 on the flimsiness of the justifications for war hold up rather well.
It matters little whether Dubya told this or that specific lie. What he and his subordinates did was to organize a large-scale, systematic program, including the creation of new bureaucracies, to create a groundswell for war with Iraq that included a great deal of deception on an almost awesome scale.
I’ve heard conflicting reports as to whether Dubya himself and some of his top people in the White House are angry about this and disinclined to trust Wolfowitz and his merry neocons the next time they beat the war drums. But the American people should remember, and perhaps they will if we keep reminding them in a systematic, intelligent and non-hysterical fashion.