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The Narrative vs. The Truth

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  • Eric Alterman
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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman

Politics, particularly in a media saturated culture such as ours, works within the logic of a narrative. More often than not, the narrative constructed by politicians trumps more substantive issues, as we saw in 2000 when George W. Bush, who treads lightly on the matter of specific policy points, campaigned as an "ordinary guy" who had little interest in the endless pontificating of the shadowy eastern establishment. His opponent, Al Gore, the story line went, was stiff and wonky, and not the kind of guy you'd want to have a beer with. Once the plot points fell into place, so too did the coverage.

The most consistent narrative of the past four years — to say nothing of the last 30 — has been that conservatives are to be trusted when it comes to national security issues. It takes little effort to debunk this conceit, yet journalists seem unwilling or unable to break out of the prevailing narrative spun by conservative image handlers and the misleading comments of politicians themselves. While the dangers of this soft-headed method of political tastemaking are manifest at many levels, they have caused the most damage, and are most easily rebutted, when it comes to recent history. Conventional wisdom has it that the hearts of conservatives, who somehow understand the world on a more visceral level than liberals, are alleged to bleed at the sight of bomb-welding terrorists. Yet any clear-eyed examination of the recent stewardship of this nation's security apparatus over the past three and a half years gives lie to this indefensible cliché.

The most obvious starting point, of course, is the invasion and occupation of Iraq. This past Sunday, the New York Times published a graphic that breaks down how the administration could have spent the $144.4 billion it has spent on its war of choice in ways that would have actually made us, and our allies, safer. The statistics, complied by the Center for American Progress, demonstrates an almost criminal negligence in ignoring airline, airport and port security at home, securing weapons-grade nuclear material abroad, rebuilding Afghanistan and adding to the size and effectiveness of our Armed Forces. Since 9/11, we have allocated less than $500 million to securing our ports and waterways against attack, despite the fact that shipping is the most unregulated method of transport in the world, and al Qaeda almost certainly owns ships currently plying the oceans. Being the richest nation in the world, we could likely scare up some money to fund these programs while we throw money at the Iraq problem, but for this to happen, Americans would have to be called on to truly make a sacrifice — having their taxes raised, or at least not having them cut yet again. Since this is anathema to the far right, we let the homeland wait while we attempt to deal with the catastrophe that is Iraq.

We have also failed to fund the most basic programs for protecting chemical, industrial and nuclear facilities, which are obviously potential targets for terrorists. In fact, as Jonathan Chait pointed out well over a year ago in The New Republic, "The risk sufficiently alarmed Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham — a conservative Bush appointee — that he requested $379.7 million to protect various Energy Department facilities where nuclear weapons are designed, manufactured, and stockpiled." In response, the White House approved just $26.4 million for Energy Department security.

The problems continue to mount. Due to the fact that the Department of Homeland Security has issued a series of terrorist alerts that have shown fortuitous timing in coming on the heels of the president's fall in approval ratings, the DHS has lost credibility with the American public. In order to remedy this, after issuing the latest alert last week, an administration official disclosed to journalists that Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, a 25-year-old Pakistani computer engineer, who had been arrested in Pakistan in July, was the source of the information leading to the latest alert. The problem with this disclosure, of course, was that Khan had been working with the Pakistani government to track al Qeada suspects (including e-mailing six of them in the United States) as well as in the United Kingdom and Pakistan. This week, Pakistan announced that the outing of Khan also allowed several wanted terror suspects to escape, all in the name of trying to restore the damaged credibility of the administration and the DHS.

The New York Times, apparently unwilling to dig into the story any farther than the good guy/bad guy narrative allows, said on Tuesday that "The Khan computer files also led to the arrest of 11 Qaeda followers last week in Britain." What they fail to mention, of course, is that the outing of Khan probably destroyed what might have been one of the most valuable resources we had in rounding up bin Laden and al Qaeda's leaders. "The whole thing smacks of either incompetence or worse," Tim Ripley of Jane's Defence publications told the New Zealand Herald. "You have to ask: what are they doing compromising a deep mole within al Qaeda, when it's so difficult to get these guys in there in the first place? Running agents within a terrorist organization is the Holy Grail of intelligence agencies. And to have it blown is a major setback which negates months and years of work, which may be difficult to recover."

What kind of leadership outs a mole in the organization it has mobilized (at least in public) to overthrow? The same kind, apparently, that outs a mole in its own employ in order to try and deflect attention from its own blundering. The Valerie Plame story is heating up and journalists may go to jail. The Wall Street Journal, who leads the charge in conservative narrative spinning, thinks the case is a non-starter. On July 20 it said that "Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald should fold up his tent," because Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson "didn't tell the truth" about his wife recommending him for the Niger job and because of Wilson's "falsehoods" and his "remarkable record of falsehood." The paper says that it is leaving it up to the discretion of its readers if they feel that Wilson was "deliberately wrong." A masterful hatchet job on Wilson, this, and one which purposefully obscures the real issue facing Fitzgerald's investigation — just who it was that outed Plame to the press. Oddly silent in this is Robert Novak, who publicized Plame's name in the first place — leading to speculation that he has already squealed. In the end, despite conservatives best attempts to confuse issues of who is lying and who isn't, the fact remains that administration officials either outed Plame to Novak or they didn't, and it's either a federal offense or it's not.Yet the media continues to focus on the dead-end issue of Wilson's credibility, rather than the administration's cavalier treatment of U.S. national security.

Look around you. Just where has the country acted responsibly to protect U.S. national security? In Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden was allowed to escape at Tora Bora and the U.S. troop commitment remains woefully inadequate. In North Korea, where a nuclear program operated by an unstable totalitarian regime continues unimpeded? In Iran, where Moslem fanatics and terrorist supporters continue their work on a weapon of their own—having helped to dupe the U.S. into a counter productive invasion of Iraq? In the meantime, as with the 9/11 commission's recommendations, the president has continually flip-flopped on every major domestic initiative since 9/11 aimed at keeping the country safe. He opposed the Department of Homeland Security before taking credit for it, while leaving it woefully underfunded. He opposed any inquiry in the 9/11 attacks, then favored them, but again, failed to properly fund their operation. He continues to ignore the most basic safeguards against terrorist threats at home and abroad while chasing rumored chemicals in the desert and emptying our national coffers for his ill-advised adventure. Despite this, his conservative counterparts continue to feed misinformation and half-truths to an eager media, who appear unwilling or unable to imagine their own narrative. And we are all less safe as a result.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and author, most recently, of "When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences." Research assistance was provided by Paul McLeary.

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