Following the report that former Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge has admitted that he was pressured by members of the Bush administration to raise the national threat level just before the 2004 election in what he understood to be a purely political move, political ace Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic Monthly wrote a column in which he admitted that the journalists who credulously reported these alerts had erred. But Ambinder added in their (and his own) defense that “Our skepticism about the activists’ conclusions [that the alerts were politically motivated] was warranted because these folks based their assumption on gut hatred for President Bush, and not on any evaluation of the raw intelligence.”
The sentence inspired blogosphere outrage on many levels simultaneously. First, and most egregiously, it attributed motives—“gut hatred”—to individuals without any evidence. Second, it attributed these suspicions only to “activists” as if it was not shared by anyone outside this small and (hateful) circle. Third, it treated opposition to George W. Bush—now roundly recognized to be perhaps America’s worst president ever—as a kind of irrational emotional disorder rather than a considered (and patriotically inspired) understanding of the consequences of his presidency in order to dismiss them out of hand. And finally, in doing all of these things, Ambinder paved the way for such views to be dismissed again without consideration of the respective accuracy. Liberals and other non-right-wingers have been hearing this now for more than five years: “Yes, you were right about:”
- 9/11-related failures of intelligence and action.
- The failed capture of Osama bin Laden.
- The failure to defeat of the Taliban.
- The failed invasion of Iraq.
- The use of torture.
- The abuse of wire-tapping powers.
- The politicization of the judiciary.
- The gutting of the Constitution.
- The ruinous effect of tax cuts.
- The failure of enrich-the-rich economic policies.
- The failure to address the threat of global warming.
- Etc, etc.
As one of Glenn Greenwald’s commenters smartly sums up the syndrome he calls “The Maturation Cycle of Bush Administration Scandals:”
1. Crazy, hysterical, paranoid accusation by wild-eyed, partisan, left-wing loonies
2. Old news
But never mind about any of that, Ambinder clearly implied. You see, liberals, you were merely motivated by “gut hatred” rather than the kind of reasoned analysis that led so many in the punditocracy to offer what frequently amounted to blind trust in the wisdom and veracity of Bush administration actions.
(For more, see these posts by Thoreau, Brad Delong, and here, and Paul Krugman.)
To Ambinder’s credit, he read the criticism, admitted his error, and apologized. (And it wasn’t the kind of apology my spouse often gets: “I’m sorry that you feel that way.”) He wrote, “My hindsight bias is no less offensive than the bias I attribute to these liberals. It was wrong to use the phrase ‘gut hatred.’ Had I spent more time thinking about the post, I would have chosen a different phrase. And I should have.”
But Marcy Wheeler of FireDoglake, who, together with Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, appears to have inspired Ambinder’s second thoughts, found the argument in his apology almost as offensive as the original post. She flags the fact that Ambinder’s assessment “then—and now—of the threat levels is that he resorts to ‘official’ sources, raw intelligence, and representations from the players after the fact. But he still doesn’t engage with the set of data that we DFHs [‘Dirty F-ing Hippies’] used to correctly interpret the threat assessments as politicized—the sheer number of elevated threat assessments, the timing of them, the absurdity of ‘threats’ that were treated as valid.”
What’s more, she continues, Ambinder “reifies ‘official’ sources both to the exclusion of a whole bunch of other evidence and in such a way that limits his ability to at least publicly challenge the credibility of those official sources based on their past record. These official sources are filtered—both through the natural egotistical self-promotion and by the conditions (such as torture) that underlie them.”
I published a lengthy book about the implications of presidential lying—including George W. Bush’s lying—before these events took place and it did not exactly tax my resources or researching abilities to come up with clear examples where Bush and top administration officials were routinely proven to have purposely misled Congress, the press, and the country. Indeed, with regard to these threat levels, there was ample evidence of manipulation, as Dan Froomkin demonstrated at the time. And Juan Cole at Informed Comment argued in the summer of 2004 that when Ridge did raise the terrorism alert, it led to the outing of an Al Qaeda double agent working with the Pakistani government to set a trap for Al Qaeda in the United Kingdom.
Meanwhile, what was the reaction when anyone questioned the wisdom, perspicacity, and honesty of the Bush administration actions taken in the name of national security? When Howard Dean suggested the likelihood of exactly what Ridge is telling us today, Dick Cheney tut-tutted that “That just tells me Howard Dean doesn’t know anything about how things operate.”
USA Today’s editors complained that Dean offered no evidence and sounded like Michael Moore. And Tucker Carlson went completely off the deep end, calling those who raised the issue “insane conspiracy nuts” in need of “psychological help, obviously.” Carlson also opined that Dean had gone “berserk” and insisted that the Kerry campaign repudiate him at once.
But regarding the solid, nonofficial, but inarguable reasons not to trust “official” Bush sources way back when, it’s not as if respectable, nonbloggy, nonacademic, non-“activist” sources had not already demonstrated the degree to which Bush & Co. were willing—even eager—to stretch the truth in pursuit of their ideologically driven policies.
To take just one for instance, Ron Suskind’s reporting had already shown the lengths to which the administration was willing to go to try to prove its false assertions of an Iraqi connection to Al Qaeda and 9/11. He reported, for instance, that CIA officials had threatened to kill Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s children—which turns out to be perhaps the most shocking disclosure from the CIA inspector general’s report—and this appeared in his book in considerable detail.
Given that the book was number two on the New York Times bestseller list (edged out, Suskind observes, only by Marley and Me), and that he described this and incidents like it on “The Today Show,” NPR, and other places, if mainstream media journalists did not report it, it was only because they purposely chose to ignore it, based on blanket administration denials. That is where relying on only official sources can get you and it is, alas, nowhere near the truth. And while Suskind was among the best, he was hardly alone. Shelves groaned by late 2004 with well-researched exposes of the Bush administration.
Another issue raised by the Ridge/Ambinder matter is that of expertise. Despite their apparent invisibility to most of the mainstream media—except for the purposes of insult and derision—there was no shortage of people who recognized both the dishonesty and incompetence of the Bush administration back in 2002-03 when the war was being sold and who realized that the task would be much tougher than anyone in power was allowing, even in the unlikely event that what they were saying turned out to be true. Instead, punditocracy debate was dominated by those who swallowed the administration line, together with hook and sinker. Here are a just few golden oldies:
“I think Iraq is, actually, the big unspoken elephant in the room today,” Kristol said on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” the day after the attacks. “There’s a fair amount of evidence that Iraq had very close associations with Osama bin Laden in the past.”
“There’s been a certain amount of pop sociology in America … that the Shia can’t get along with the Sunni and the Shia in Iraq just want to establish some kind of Islamic fundamentalist regime. There’s almost no evidence of that at all,” he reassured NPR listeners in April 2003. “Iraq’s always been very secular.”
Victor Davis Hanson:
“In the same way as the death of Hitler ended the Nazi Party and the ruin of the Third Reich finished the advance of fascist power in Europe,” he predicted in 2002, “so the defeat of Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi dictatorship will erode both clandestine support for terrorism and murderous tyranny well beyond Iraq.”
“I can only hint at how much I despise a Left that thinks of Osama bin Laden as a slightly misguided anti-imperialist.”
“So I am for invading Iraq only if we think that doing so can bring about regime change and democratization. Because what the Arab world desperately needs is a model that works, a progressive Arab regime that by its sheer existence would create pressure and inspiration for gradual democratization and modernization around the region.”
What is worth pondering is the fact that not only has there been no diminution in the respect and admiration these folks appear to have garnered from mainstream media journalists—Kristol has been hired by Time, The New York Times, and The Washington Post to spout off opinions like those—but there hasn’t been any correlative rise in the relative reputations of those who happened to be right. And lest we forget, this was the single most important—and ultimately damaging—decision that has faced this country’s leadership since Vietnam.
So perhaps it’s time that mainstream media commentators stopped treating those who were right not only about the war but the entire Bush administration as a kind of stopped clock who just get lucky every once in a while and deal with the analysis they present. It’s not as if this country can afford many more such catastrophes as the one to which the geniuses marched so blindly and yet so enthusiastically.
P.S: And let’s remember another one of those brave voices who tried to warn us against the folly of the war we were being sold: Edward M. Kennedy. Kennedy, we are reminded by our friends at Thinkprogress.org, called his vote against authorizing the invasion "the best vote I’ve made in my 44 years in the U.S. Senate." We could not agree more.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals, was recently published in paperback. He occasionally blogs at http://www.thenation.com/blogs/altercation and is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.