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Daily Howler: Wilkerson bungled his facts--again. But progressives seem to love his fine tales
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OUR OWN CHALABI! Wilkerson bungled his facts–again. But progressives seem to love his fine tales: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, MAY 18, 2009

OUR OWN CHALABI: What was Nancy Pelosi told by the CIA in September 2002? We don’t know, and neither does Maureen Dowd, who did a good job of pretending otherwise in yesterday’s New York Times. Dowd never explained the murky state of our knowledge about that particular briefing, contenting herself with wacking Pelosi on a vaguer basis. Soon, though, Dowd made this announcement. Does anyone think this is true?

DOWD (5/17/09): Of course, a lot of the hoo-ha around Pelosi makes it sound as if she knew stuff that no one else had any inkling of, when in fact the entire world had a pretty good idea of what was happening. The Bushies plied their dark arts in broad daylight.

Really? The entire world knew in 2002? In fact, Dowd herself showed no sign of knowing about the Bushies’ “dark arts” in the period under discussion. According to Nexis, Dowd’s first relevant mention of “torture” occurred on May 6, 2004—in reaction to the Abu Ghraib photos, which had just been broadcast. And in that column, she showed no sign of thinking the conduct displayed in the photos was part of a major display of “dark arts.” Here’s the silly, purring way the lady started that column:

DOWD (5/6/04): Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz were swanning around in black tie at the White House Correspondents' dinner on Saturday night, mingling with le hack Washington and a speckling of shiny imports, like John Kerry’s former Tinseltown gal-pal Morgan Fairchild, Ben Affleck, a Victoria's Secret model who was not Gisele and several ''Apprentice'' alumni who were not Omarosa.

The Pentagon potentates seemed unburdened by the spreading storm kicked up by the torture pictures shown on ''60 Minutes II'' and about to appear in The New Yorker—the latest example of a dysfunctional and twisted occupation warped by arrogance over experience, ideology over common sense.

When a beaming Mr. Wolfowitz stopped at my table to greet an admiring Republican, I wanted to snap, ''Get back to your desk, Mr. Myopia from Utopia!”

At the time, Kerry had wrapped up the Dem nomination for president. So of course Dowd had to start her piece with blather about his “former gal pal.” But if Dowd had “a pretty good idea of what was happening” when it came to the Bushies’ dark arts, she kept it to herself this day—and this column appeared in May 2004, twenty months after Pelosi’s briefing. In this column, the dysfunctional occupation of Iraq was being “warped by arrogance [and] ideology,” not by some major display of dark arts. But so what? Yesterday, we were told that the entire world knew about those “arts” almost two years before that.

So it goes when this Pulitzer Prize-winner (sic) types her twice-weekly column. You simply can’t run a modern nation with intellectual leaders like this. But this is the way your nation does run. This is the state of your nation.

Needless to say, Dowd did something dumber—and more revealing—in yesterday’s column. She cited the latest bombshell from former Powell aide Lawrence Wilkerson—several days after it became clear that his bombshell involved a large factual bungle. Does Wilkerson ever get anything right? The answer to that question seems to be no, as we’ll see below. But for many years, Wilkerson sat at the right hand of Powell. So Village sycophants—hacks like Dowd—rush to advance his fine claims. Indeed, Dowd cited the brilliant Powell aide in the 2004 column too. Darlings! Please! It’s a matter of Hard Pundit Law!

Unfortunately, progressives are now treating Wilkerson in this Dowdian manner too. Progressives pimped Wilkerson’s bombshell last week—a bombshell which, predictably enough, was built around a groaning bungle. Does Wilkerson every get anything right? Since the answer seems to be no, we progressives should stop advancing his bombshells until they’re fact-checked. Simply put, a bombshell isn’t a bombshell if it’s bungled or wrong.

A bit of background: Wilkerson made a strange, insult-laden appearance on last Tuesday’s Rachel Maddow Show (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/15/09). The next day, Wilkerson expanded his presentation in this now-famous post at the Washington Note. His unreliable intellectual style was on vivid display—when he kept using an apparent quotation which wasn’t a real quotation, for instance. In our experience, people who cut corners this way often turn out to be unreliable. So too with the childish name-calling Wilkerson carried over from his Maddow appearance. It’s childish—but it pleases us rubes.

We were underwhelmed by Wilkerson’s post. But before he was done, he had seconded a fashionable new claim—a claim he hadn’t made on Maddow’s program. His writing is a bit murky here. But this claim was soon being hailed on the liberal web—and eventually, on Sunday, by Dowd:

WILKERSON (5/13/09): [W]hat I have learned is that as the administration authorized harsh interrogation in April and May of 2002...its principal priority for intelligence was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack on the U.S. but discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and al-Qa'ida.

So furious was this effort that on one particular detainee, even when the interrogation team had reported to Cheney's office that their detainee "was compliant" (meaning the team recommended no more torture), the VP's office ordered them to continue the enhanced methods. The detainee had not revealed any al-Qa'ida-Baghdad contacts yet. This ceased only after Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, under waterboarding in Egypt, “revealed” such contacts. Of course later we learned that al-Libi revealed these contacts only to get the torture to stop.

There in fact were no such contacts.

Wilkerson’s claim about this “furious effort” was quickly trumpeted by important progressives—as a “bombshell” by Digby, as an “incredibly important detail” by Marcy Wheeler. But uh-oh! Wheeler soon withdrew her statement, linking readers to a post by Spencer Ackerman “which makes it clear Wilkerson doesn't know what the timing of this was.” (Wheeler’s words. “I agree the timeline, as stated now, does not add up,” she added.) For himself, Ackerman had quoted the Weekly Standard’s Thomas Joscelyn, who had written this: “Wilkerson’s facts do not add up...when Wilkerson writes that ‘the [Bush] administration authorized [the] harsh interrogation [of al Libi] in April and May of 2002' and al Libi ‘had not revealed any al Qa’ida-Baghdad contacts’ until then, he is clearly wrong.”

The fact that Wilkerson bungled his time-line doesn’t mean that his larger claim about administration motives has to be wrong, of course. It does remind us of an important fact—Wilkerson is a highly unreliable source. In truth, he’s one of the worst fact-gatherers in recent American history. Beyond that, Wilkerson’s reply to Ackerman strikes us as embarrassing and weirdly revealing, for two reasons. (Be advised: Due to late-breaking information, today’s profile of Wilkerson gets much more embarrassing as it goes):

Where’s the basic research: It’s clear that Wilkerson’s time-line concerning al-Libi doesn’t make sense. In fact, al-Libi had already linked Iraq to al Qaeda by February 2002 (he later retracted)—long before the April-May date Wilkerson presented. (By February 2002, the Defense Intelligence Agency was already saying that al-Libi might be saying these things to curry favor with his interrogators.) Everyone can make a factual error of this type, of course. But in this case, the contradictory information presented by Joscelyn/Ackerman/Wheeler comes straight from the New York Times—and straight from DIA reports quoted in the rather well-known report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. These are extremely basic sources; obviously, Wilkerson should have been familiar with this material. Nor did Wilkerson present some contrary source when confronted by Ackerman (see below). We’re willing to be corrected on this. But it seems to us that, if Wilkerson had researched this matter at all, he would have known that his time-line didn’t make sense. (Note: This gets much worse below.)

We would find this shoddy fact-gathering odd—if we hadn’t seen this sort of thing before, from other players of Wilkerson’s rank. Sad but true: The higher up the ladder you go, the less careful players seem to be about basic information.

Wilkerson’s response: Even more embarrassing was Wilkerson’s reaction when Ackerman asked if he wanted to respond to Joscelyn. In response, Wilkerson described the way Powell was approached by CIA directors Tenet and McLaughlin in February 2003, four days before Powell made his fateful UN presentation:

WILKERSON (e-mail to Ackerman): If [Joscelyn’s] account is the accurate one, explain to me why Tenet and McLaughlin came to Secretary Powell in February 2003—yes, 2003—with the information about al-Libi as if it were fresh as the morning dew. Powell was ready to throw out almost everything Tenet had given him on the contacts of Baghdad with terrorists, particularly al-Qa’ida. Suddenly, on 1 Feb, there was the shocking revelation of a high-level al-Qa’ida operative who had just revealed significant contacts between al-Qa’ida and Baghdad. Powell changed his mind and that information went into his presentation to the [UN] on 5 Feb 2003. We were never told of the DIA dissent.

Back in 2003, Powell and Wilkerson were never told of the DIA dissent. On its face, that claim is plausible, of course—but Wilkerson was still pretending he hadn’t heard about the dissent last week, although it had long been highly visible public information. (Why do we say he was pretending? Keep reading.)

Is Wilkerson’s account of Tenet’s conduct accurate? We have no way of knowing. But for the record: As Ackerman, Joscelyn and Wheeler agree, “the information about al-Libi” was already a year old at that point. If Tenet and McLaughlin gave Powell the impression that it was “fresh as the morning dew,” they were presumably conning him. Anyone can get fooled that way, of course—although you’d like to think that seasoned players like Powell and Wilkerson would be a bit harder to fool. (Being sane, we do not assume that Wilkerson’s account of this matter is accurate.) But even now, some six years later, Wilkerson didn’t seem to have done the basic background research on this matter—research involving the New York Times and the Senate select report. And as he continued, a second problem appeared: He still didn’t seem to have come to terms with the possibility that Tenet may have conned him and Powell in 2003. He still seemed to be treating Tenet and McLaughlin as unimpeachable sources:

WILKERSON (e-mail to Ackerman): I am basing my conclusions on the fact that DCI Tenet and DDCI McLaughlin presented the information about al-Libi to Secretary Powell in Feb 2003 and not in Feb 2002. The strong impression was that the interrogation had just occurred or, at a minimum, that Tenet had just received the information (otherwise, why wouldn’t they have given it to Powell much earlier, say when he first expressed concerns over the terrorist links some days earlier?). I have no idea when the Egyptians waterboarded al-Libi other than what Tenet and McLauglin implied in their presentation to Powell—which, incidentally, was quite effective on him.

Wilkerson had no idea about al-Libi? Keep reading to see how fake that claim seems to be. But it’s strange to see Wilkerson seeming to vouch for Tenet as a reliable source—even now, after all the statements he’s made about the way the pluperfect Powell got played by lesser mortals.

Others know this material better than we do. But Wheeler and Ackerman, specialists both, agree that Wilkerson bungled his time line—and the sources they used to demonstrate this are extremely basic. Our point about this is quite simple. It returns us to Wilkerson’s repeated, absolutely-no-questions-asked appearances on the Maddow Show.

Can we talk? Wilkerson has an exceptionally bad track record when it comes to information gathering. Specifically, the gentleman played a leading role in the creation of Powell’s disastrously inaccurate report to the UN. Based on last week’s factual bungling, his skills at fact-gathering haven’t improved as the years have passed.

We don’t know why progressives would assume the accuracy of any claim by this person. But yesterday, someone else rushed to advance his recent claims; Maureen Dowd did so in her column, the column where she told the world that everyone knew about this stuff back in 2002. But even before Dowd vouched for Powell’s man (for about the ten millionth time), two leading progressives had done the same thing. Why on earth would we assume the accuracy of the guy’s latest “bombshell?”

Oh wait! We might know the answer!

You see, it almost seems that Wilkerson is becoming our own Ahmed Chalabi. He says the things we long to hear—and so we rush to affirm them. When he gets his basic facts wrong (as he constantly does), we write it off as a trivial error. After all, he’s willing to name-call Cheney! His larger view—a view we love—surely must be correct!

When Dowd pimps someone, you know he’s wrong. In this case, though, Wilkerson has also been getting pimped by progressives, most absurdly by Maddow. Will Wilkerson’s larger claim turn out to be right—his fashionable claim about the motives behind those interrogations? That’s always possible, of course. But Wilkerson is a highly unreliable source. And he’s a devoted priest in the High Church of Sanctified Powell.

Here at THE HOWLER, we’re tired of seeing this squirrelly guy pimped like a lord on the Maddow Show. But then, he’s almost becoming Our Own Chalabi. He’s booked to tell us that Cheney was vile—not himself, and not Saint Powell.

Our dark hearts make us believe his tales, even though they are constantly wrong.

How deeply biazrre is Wilkerson: Wilkerson has been boo-hoo-hooing about these matters for years. In his accounts, he and Powell are always the innocent dupes of dark, malevolent players. (He tends to blame whoever is in the public spot-light that week.) We progressives seem to love the way he lowers the boom on other Bush players. We run to lap up his self-serving tales—even though they’re demonstrably wrong.

What follows is a typical presentation by Wilkerson. He made it in 2006 on the progressive PBS program, NOW. In this performance, Wilkerson was rolling over on Tenet, who was very hot at the time. He and Powell were pawns in Tenet’s game, at least in 2006:

BRANCACCIO (2/3/06): We’ve been talking grand policy. The then-director of the CIA, George Tenet, Vice President Cheney's deputy Libby, told you that the intelligence that was the basis of going to war was rock-solid. Given what you now know, how does that make you feel?

WILKERSON: It makes me feel terrible. I've said in other places that it was—constitutes the lowest point in my professional life. My participation in that presentation at the UN constitutes the lowest point in my professional life.

I participated in a hoax on the American people, the international community and the United Nations Security Council. How do you think that makes me feel? Thirty-one years in the United States Army and I more or less end my career with that kind of a blot on my record? That's not a very comforting thing.

BRANCACCIO: A hoax? That's quite a word.

WILKERSON: Well, let's face it, it was. It was not a hoax that the Secretary in any way was complicit in. In fact he did his best. I watched him work.

Unfortunately, there is plenty of evidence suggesting that Powell didn’t do his best—that he was “complicit in this hoax.” (For example, see this detailed post by Jonathan Schwarz—a post which covers some material we ourselves have reviewed in the past.) But so what? Powell and Wilkerson have peddled these self-serving tales for years—and Village People like Dowd lap them up. These tales absolve Saint Powell, after all. Within the Village, affirming this crap is required by Hard Pundit Law.

Now, progressives are pimping Wilkerson too—especially Maddow. By the way, how completely bizarre is Wilkerson’s conduct? Just review the following exchange, which came right at the start of that PBS program. On that program, Wikerson instantly cited the al-Libi matter—the same matter he didn’t seem to know about last week!

BRANCACCIO (2/3/06): Mr. Wilkerson, thanks for doing this.

WILKERSON: Thank you for having me.

BRANCACCIO: We now know that there was deep skepticism within the intelligence community about some of these pre-war claims than was being expressed publicly at the time. Is it reasonable to think that the administration knew about this skepticism?

WILKERSON: Six months ago I would have said "no." Since that time, however, there have been some revelations. Principally about Sheik Al Libi's testimony and how it was obtained. And how there was a DIA, for example—Defense Intelligence Agency—dissent on that testimony, apparently I'm hearing now, around the time the testimony was actually given.

And even more to the point than Al Libi, Curve Ball. And the revelations that have come out about Curve Ball. And in particular the German dissent from the integrity of Curve Ball's testimony.

Jesus Christ. That’s the same dissent about al-Libi Wilkerson seemed clueless about last week! Three years ago, he brought it up. Last week, he was thoroughly bollixed.

Might we tell you something basic? By any normal standard of judgment, this guy’s head is full of squirrels! But one thing never changes in Wilkerson’s reports; no matter who he’s blaming, he and Powell are always the innocent victims. In 2006, he was blaming Tenet, who was very hot at the time; last week, he was bashing Cheney and seeming to vouch for Tenet. But this guy has been feeding progressives this pap for years. And we lap it up:

WILKERSON (continuing directly): I can tell you that having been intimately involved in the preparation of Secretary Powell for his 5 February 2003 presentation at the UN Security Council, neither of those dissents in any fashion or form were registered with me or the Secretary by the DCI, George Tenet, by the DDCI, John McLaughlin, or by any of their many analysts who were in the room with us for those five, six days and nights at the Central Intelligence Agency.

BRANCACCIO: And they didn't give you any inkling that—

WILKERSON: Not a bit.

BRANCACCIO: —there was this debate about some of this information?

WILKERSON: Not a bit. In fact it was presented in the firmest language possible that the mobile biological labs and the sketches we had drawn of them for the Secretary's presentation were based on the iron clad evidence of multiple sources.

That specific claim may well be true. But last week, Wilkerson seemed to be citing Tenet as a reliable source—as the reason why he still doubted that claim about the al-Libi time-line. But then, in 2006, he seemed to know the facts about al-Libi. Last week, he seemed surprised.

Let’s say it again: By normal standards, this guy’s head contains a bag of squirrels, as anybody could have seen by checking his demeanor and claims on the Maddow Show last Tuesday. But we progressives keep buying his stories. In 2006, Brancaccio asked him no tough questions about his own conduct, or that of Powell. Three years later, Maddow’s lips are locked to his keister in a way which threatens blood flow of both parties.

You see, Wilkerson is our own Chalabi. We have become our own neo-cons, so much do we long to hear the stories we pre-adore.

How much do we love our own stories: How much do we love our pre-approved stories? You know—the way the neo-cons loved their tales? Consider Jane Mayer’s appearance on last Friday’s Maddow Show.

There was absolutely nothing “wrong” with anything Mayer said. But Mayer appeared as an expert guest—and her comments about Cheney’s post-9/11 conduct didn’t seem to jibe with the thesis Maddow presented in her long introduction. If anything, Mayer’s portrait tended to contradict Maddow’s thesis. But Maddow showed no sign of noticing. After all, Mayer’s portrait of Cheney was broadly unflattering, just as Maddow’s portrait had been. At present, that seems to be close enough for “progressive” “news” work.

(To watch the segment, just click this. If MSNBC ever posts the transcript, it will do so here. It hasn’t been posted on Nexis either. MSNBC’s other Friday-night programs have all been posted. More on this problem below.)

Please note if you watch that segment: In Maddow’s six-minute introduction, she advanced a developing theory—Cheney just promoted the use of torture as a way to invent a phony link between Iraq and al Qaeda. This theory could be true, of course—like almost any theory. But in Mayer’s six-minute interview, she doesn’t seem to advance this theory at all. Nor did Maddow ask a single question about this particular thesis.

What did Mayer say about Cheney? She said that, post-9/11, he was “becoming obsessive with the threat of terrorism.” She said he “demanded just every single piece of, scrap of information about threats that might be coming toward the United States.” She said he went through unfiltered threat information twice daily—first by himself, then with Bush. She suggested this was an unwise practice—a practice which would “just make anybody lose their judgment.” In her portrait, Cheney seems to work himself, and Bush, into a fear-based frenzy. This portrait doesn’t support—may even tend to contradict—the portrait Maddow had drawn.

What were Cheney’s actual motives? Here at THE HOWLER, we simply don’t know. But Maddow failed to ask a single pertinent question about the theory she’d just advanced. We’d like to know what Mayer would have said about this newly burgeoning theory. But alas. She wasn’t asked.

If MSNBC ever posts the transcript, it will do so here. On Nexis, Maddow’s shows from last Monday, Wednesday Thursday and Friday are still MIA—missing in action. Every other MSNBC evening show has long since been posted.

Strange, ain’t it? The “news channel” seems to play by Bush rules when it comes to public disclosure. Though only for one of its programs.