The Unvarnished Truth?

May 6, 2007

The Unvarnished Truth?

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Every Sunday CUIP’s political director Jacqueline Salit and strategist and philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogue on Sunday, May 6, 2007 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show” and “Meet the Press.”

Salit: George Tenet, former CIA director, was on “Meet the Press.” Tim Russert tried to discover whether Tenet was an honest broker in the run up to the war or an enabler, someone who crossed over into politics, into marketing, into the business of selling the war to the American people, rather than being an objective analyst of the conditions in Iraq and Iraq’s role – if any – in 9/11. Let me begin by asking you whether you accept that framing, that bright line distinction between honest broker and enabler.

Newman: I don’t accept that distinction. Doesn’t he work for him?

Salit: Doesn’t Tenet work for Bush?

Newman: Last I heard that’s how it was. That doesn’t just blur the distinction. It seems to me it destroys the distinction.

Salit: Yes, he works for the president. He’s appointed by the president and he serves at the pleasure of the president. But there’s this idea that he’s supposed to deliver honest, unfiltered information and assessments to the president.

Newman: Well, on the one hand, in my opinion, there is no such thing as “honest, unfiltered information.” That doesn’t exist. All presentations of this kind – giving the “facts of the matter” – are going to be, in some critical ways, subjective. To me, the serious question is: are they going to be subjective in this direction or subjective in that direction? And if you’re giving this to someone you work for, it’s probable that the subjective direction will be consistent with the fact that this is the guy you work for. This notion of a god-like objectivity is, it seems to me, outlandish. You could raise the question of whether there was an excess of collusion between Tenet and Bush, between the CIA and the White House. I don’t know how you could ever prove that.

Salit: I suppose that’s what Russert was looking for.

Newman: If you had a memo that said something like: Mr. President, the following X is what’s the case, I, however, will write up a report for you which says not-X is the case, in order for you to better sell the war to Congress and the American people. If you had a memo of that sort, you could say that this does look like collusion. But, short of that, Tenet can say: Well, we gave them this stuff and they do with it whatever they choose to do with it. They’re the policy makers. How could that possibly be deniable? What’s the furor? So, Tenet writes this book. Russert wants to know, ‘Why didn’t you tell the president to not go ahead?’ Tenet says, ‘I didn’t have the responsibility to say that. I gave him what were, to the best of my knowledge, unvarnished facts.’

But, number one there are no “unvarnished facts.” And, number two, the “unvarnished facts” were wrong. They make it seem like no one was challenging the “unvarnished facts,” but there were people challenging those facts. Scott Ritter of the UN inspection team was challenging their assessment of WMDs. Tenet might say, Well, there were challenges, but on balance this is what the intelligence community believed. Maybe yes, maybe no. Who’s doing the balancing? Philosophically speaking, methodologically speaking, the reason you get into this trouble is that you’re mixing apples and oranges. On the one hand there are differences of opinion. On the other hand, there is something called the “unvarnished facts.” I don’t know how well they mix. That’s why Tenet and everybody else has to dance all over the place giving these answers, but that’s what it takes to get a book deal. He has to answer the question ‘Who got it wrong?’ Answer: They got it wrong. But, let’s face it. There are no provisions for throwing “they” out, not in our form of government.

Salit: In other forms of government, there are. But not in the U.S.

Newman: Here every individual that was part of the “they” tries to make the best book deal they can. That’s how America works.

Salit: What can the American people do with that?

Newman: We are currently quite limited in what we can do with it, as a people, because of how electoral politics works in this country. It isn’t easy to throw people out. It’s actually quite hard. Our government is constructed and set up for what they call “continuity” and “stability,” and what I would call “hanging on to their jobs no matter what they do.”

Salit: At one point, Tenet and Russert had a back and forth about the conversation in the Oval Office where Tenet said “It’s a slam dunk” in reference to whether the evidence showed that there would be weapons of mass destruction when they went in to Iraq. They had a ten minute discussion about the tone of voice that he used when he said this and whether or not he raised his arms, when he was sitting on the couch in the Oval Office. First, I thought to myself, wow, they’re really having a debate on national television about whether he raised his arms or not when he said “It’s a slam dunk.” Wouldn’t it be more fruitful to talk about how the whole lot of them got the thing completely wrong? If the war had gone well George Tenet wouldn’t have written a book called “In the Eye of the Storm.” It would have been called “In the Eye of the Needle,” how they threaded this thing right through the center of a complex set of circumstances. But, it didn’t. There weren’t WMDs, and, in some ways, that’s the least of it! That’s my review of the book, which I haven’t read.

Newman: Nice. How come they weren’t all busily preparing to invade North Korea, where everyone knew they had WMDs?

Salit: That wasn’t the story that they were writing. It’s not what they were looking to do.

Newman: They were looking to do something else.

Salit: Yes. And, on one more thing: the “Talking Points” letter that the CIA sent out to members of Congress before the vote authorizing the president to go to war. Russert says, ‘the talking points you gave provided members of Congress with a way to link Al Qaeda and Iraq, even though the CIA assessment was that there wasn’t a connection.’ Tenet says, ‘I wish the letter had said something else.’ Okay. That’s probably true. But, I saw the CIA talking points, since they presented them on the show. If I’m a member of Congress and I see those talking points, those talking points scream: We don’t have evidence of a connection. I’m not a foreign policy expert, but I do read English. You read those talking points and you say to yourself – the CIA doesn’t have a case! But most everybody voted for the war! They relied on that letter and that formulation of the information as what they needed in order to vote to enable the war. It’s somewhat unbelievable.

Newman: Yes, but the other side says in the kind of Catch-22 fashion which is at the core of how this government works: talking points don’t determine what you say. They merely give you an idea of what you might say, if this is what you happen to believe. So, he’s not responsible for what they said, by virtue of having been the author of the talking points.

Salit: I agree with that.

Newman: I don’t agree with that. But, I think that’s what they’re going to say in response to what you’re saying. In a “free country,” someone can urge what they choose to urge, including a department of government. That doesn’t mean that they are determinants of what you say. But, once again, the coherent position to take, it seems to me, is that this whole relational structure called “the government of the United States” got this completely wrong. But you can’t do anything about that. You can’t subpoena the whole government of the United States. You can’t throw out the whole government of the United States. You’re pretty limited in what you can do. And so the country is forced into this situation where the war goes on and on. Growing numbers of people believe that it’s a failure, but it’s not transparent what you can do about that.

Salit: On that topic “The Chris Matthews Show” panelists discussed the Republican debate on Thursday night. They said a few things about how different candidates performed, but the fundamental issue that they raised, which Matthews underscored, is that the country is against the war, but all the Republican candidates – except Ron Paul, whom they didn’t mention – are for the war and for the continuation of the war. As Gloria Borger put it ‘the person who wins the election has to be an agent of change.’ But, in effect, the Republicans are asking for a third term. Here’s a typical political pundit-type question. In your view, is this essentially the position that we’re going to see in this early stage of the Republican primary? And, as things move closer to the general election, is the Republican candidate, whomever he is, going to distance himself further and further from the Bush White House?

Newman: That depends on what the Bush White House does and whatever it is that’s going to happen in the upcoming period, between now and primary day.

Salit: Meaning if there’s a drawdown in troops…

Newman: There could be a drawdown or an increase in troops or neither. The Bush White House could declare victory in Baghdad. So, now what are the presidential candidates going to do? Not line up on the side of victory?

Salit: I doubt that.

Newman: I think what Bush and Cheney, et al. are looking for is for something to happen which makes that sufficiently plausible to do.

Salit: Claiming victory.

Newman: Yes.

Salit: That’s what David Ignatius called the “Baghdad primary.” In other words, between now and sometime this summer, can you show demonstrable change in the military and security situation in Baghdad?

Newman: It isn’t even a question of showing it because, once again, that makes the assumption that there is something called “the facts.”

Salit: Okay.

Newman: But there are no facts. It isn’t whether you can show that this has happened but whether you can come up with a plausible account which enough people will buy in on to take you from here to there.

Salit: So, basically what you’re saying is the Republican field is biding its time.

Newman: Yes. As is the Democratic field, though on other critical issues.

Salit: What do you think the Democrats are biding their time on?

Newman: It’s a little more complex there. I think what they’re biding their time on is how far they can go with a campaign which is completely oriented to negating Bush and his war policy. How far can they go without saying something positive about something else? That’s a complicated issue that each of the candidates will have to decide. Because it’s as clear for them that they have to be anti-Bush through the primaries as it is for the Republicans that they have to be pro-Bush through the primaries. Post the primaries, Bush is no longer an issue. Then they’re going to have to start talking about other issues. I don’t think they’re going to do anything about other issues. But, they’re going to at least have to start talking about them.

Salit: Right.

Newman: But how far can you go in the primary period without doing that? That depends on how they read where the electorate, the country and the world are at. I don’t think Bush is ever going to give his stamp of approval to leaving Iraq. They might come up with a plan for declaring that they won in Iraq, in which case they have to leave, because the job is done. That could be a play that would at least put the Democrats in check. What would the Democrats do with that? I don’t know. It’s hard to say. Are Hillary and Barack going to say: No, we haven’t won. They’re just declaring a victory. We haven’t won at all. We lost these many troops. We spent billions of dollars, trillions of dollars. That’s not a victory. It’s really a defeat? If they do, then the Republicans are going to say: You see, even when we win, they’re defeatists. A system which permits that kind of debate – which is a sham debate – to go on is what needs to be dealt with. But nobody wants to deal with that because it’s not sexy enough. Or it’s not possible. Or it might put all of these major party players, so-called, out of work. No one wants to talk about that.

Salit: We talk about that. But, most people don’t.

Newman: It’s like the discussion about the killings at Virginia Tech. Nobody wants to talk about the obvious necessity to transform the entire system of psychology and mental health which failed here. People want to say: That’s well and good, but you can’t transform an entire system. So let’s find somebody who’s at fault within this system. They’ll have endless shows, endless debates, endless attempts to correct things because they’re saying at the outset that you can’t talk about something being wrong with the entire system. Well, then you’re not going to come up with useful or valid answers. This is analogous to that. We’re having a big debate on Iraq. Sounds like it should be a good thing. A debate is a good thing if the debate takes place within a system in which debates have some significance. I’m not at all sure that this system is one of those systems.

Salit: That’s bad news, if it’s true.

Newman: I keep thinking of Jack Gargan in this regard and his famous “Throw the Bums Out” thing. He ran ads in a lot of Florida newspapers 15 years ago saying “Throw the Rascals Out.” People were very excited about it. He got very popular in Florida. Throw the bums out, throw the bums out. It seemed like a good thing to say. And then people ran smack into the reality of you can’t throw the bums out.

Salit: Well, the bums run the system for throwing the bums out.

Newman: I don’t even think it’s that sophisticated. You just can’t do it. So what happens next? Well, Jack runs for chair of the Reform Party.

Salit: Yes. And we supported him.

Newman: And then, he gets thrown out. He becomes the new bum.

Salit: Okay, Fred. Thanks.