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Think Again: John Bolton and the Problem with On-the-One-Hand Objectivity

SOURCE: AP/Steve Ruark

John R. Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, speaks to the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs in May 2006.

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In a front-page story in Sunday’s New York Times dealing with the specter of corrupted pre-Iraq invasion intelligence and its potential influence on the debate over whether the United States or Israel should attack Iran, star national security reporter James Risen offers the following quote from one of his sources:

“The intelligence analysts I’ve dealt with have always been willing to engage in debates on their conclusions, but there is top-down pressure to make the assessments come out a certain way,” said John R. Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former ambassador to the United Nations in the Bush administration.

John Bolton is a particularly curious choice as a quotable source given that, as Risen himself notes much later, Bolton is among the “conservative critics” who have “blasted C.I.A. officials, saying that the intelligence community was freelancing and trying to influence the political debate, and to make up for its shortcomings on Iraq by now trying to stop a war with Iran.” Risen also notes that Bolton dismissed as “famously distorted” a 2007 National Intelligence Assessment casting doubt on alarmist assessments of the Iranian program and even demanded a congressional investigation into why neoconservatives did not get the kind of result they wanted.

The irony in Risen’s choice of Bolton as a source is as thick as it is painful. Think back to 2002. Bolton was the director of former President George W. Bush’s arms control agency at the time, and according to one of his deputies speaking to the Associated Press in June 2005, it was Bolton himself who “orchestrated the firing of the head of a global arms-control agency in 2002.” His victim was Jose Bustani, a Brazilian diplomat who was trying at the time to send chemical weapons inspectors into Baghdad. The former deputy told the Associated Press that Bolton did not want that to happen because "it might help defuse the crisis over alleged Iraqi weapons and thereby undermine a U.S. rationale for war.”

Bolton also played a key role in undermining honest intelligence during the infamous “yellowcake” episode, in which war hawks inside the Bush administration sought to undermine the honest reporting of U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson—sent by the CIA at the behest of former Vice President Dick Cheney’s office to Niger to investigate reports of a transfer of uranium from that nation’s government to the Iraqis.

The fact that President Bush so famously misled the country in his State of the Union address with “16 words” about the phony nuclear transfer of this uranium was the product of a confluence of events—one of them being Bolton’s role in passing along intelligence data that had already been discredited by Wilson’s report. Bolton’s principal aide and chief enforcer, according to ex-CIA man turned antiwar activist Ray McGovern, was an agency analyst on loan named Frederick Fleitz. In McGovern’s view, this made Bolton’s “behavior in trying to cook intelligence to the recipe of high policy even more inexcusable. CIA analysts, particularly those on detail to policy departments, have no business playing the enforcer of policy judgments, have no business conjuring up ‘intelligence around the policy.’"

Bolton can hardly be said to have learned the error of his ways. For instance, according to a recent report in the Jerusalem Post, Bolton advised Tory delegates in Britain to press for a “pre-emptive strike” on Iran. After everything that has gone wrong in Iraq, the trillions of dollars wasted, the millions of refugees displaced, and hundreds of thousands of people killed—all based on lies, deception, and intellectual error—Bolton went on television in England to argue that the U.S. invasion of Iraq proved that the U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein was a model for the “policy of regime change,” which he proposes that the United States repeat in Iran. Seriously. Bolton argues that:

Knowing everything we know today, I think it’s unquestionably the case that we were right to overthrow Saddam. We achieved our strategic objective. I think the world is better off for it. … I don’t think you should conflate what happened in the post-Saddam period. And whatever happened and however bad it’s been, doesn’t change the fundamental analytical point that we’re better off without Saddam.

Bolton even went so far as to accuse the Obama administration (without any evidence, he later admitted) of intentionally leaking a story about Israel’s covert military relationship with Azerbaijan in an attempt to sabotage a potential Israeli attack on Iran.

So why is The New York Times quoting this man as if he were a sensible, unbiased expert source when he is actually the living, breathing embodiment of the very problem the article is allegedly addressing? Truth be told, I don’t know. It might have worked better in The Onion.

We can probably chalk it up to a bad case of “on-the-one-hand” journalism practiced by the mainstream media, which inevitably entails an effort to “balance” the reporting by giving equal weight to two sides of a debate—even when one side of that debate has thoroughly discredited itself on the very issue in question. (Remember, New York Times readers received no clue from the article about Bolton’s role in the Iraqi debate.) Just before quoting Bolton, Risen quoted Greg Thielmann, a former State Department intelligence analyst who heroically resigned from his job in protest over the Bush administration’s doctoring of the prewar Iraq intelligence. Thielmann quit because senior administration officials—meaning the likes of John Bolton—“have what I call faith-based intelligence. They knew what they wanted the intelligence to show.”

So by the standards and practices of this kind of on-the-one-hand version of “objectivity,” if a reporter quotes a source who turned out to be right, he must also quote one who not only turned out to be wrong but whose dishonesty and ideologically driven obsession also ensures that he can only be wrong. By the standards of journalistic politeness and respect for even formerly “official” sources, one cannot inform one’s readers of any of this.

Tell us that one about the biased “liberal media” again…

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His newest book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, to be published in April. This column won the 2011 Mirror Award for Best Digital Commentary.

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