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Daily Howler: Armando inquired about our ''strange crusade.'' Incomparably, we settle all points
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STRANGE BOAT! Armando inquired about our “strange crusade.” Incomparably, we settle all points: // link // print // previous // next //
SUNDAY, JULY 31, 2005

BLEW MONDAY: For scheduling reasons, we won’t be able to post on Monday. Hence, a rare Sunday edition.

STRANGE BOAT: Doggone it! We hadn’t seen this post by Armando before we posted yesterday’s HOWLER (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/30/05). But Armando raised some tangy questions about our current “strange crusade,” and we thought he provided an excellent framework for discussing the points we made yesterday.

Let’s start with a minor point. After quoting a chunk of our Friday post, Armando says this: “To be honest, this is as disingenuous a piece as Somerby has ever written. The issue, at least for me, is not what Novak wrote on October 3, but what he wrote on July 14.” But dudes! A writer’s work doesn’t become “disingenuous” because it fails to focus on the matter some other writer thinks most important. On Friday, I discussed a matter that was striking to me—the way David Corn reacted to the Pincus account of what Bill Harlow told Novak (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/29/05). As I’ve said, I consider David to be a superlative writer and a superlative person, and I was intrigued by the fact that this particular text struck me so differently from the way it struck me. That’s something I was struck by on Thursday, and I wrote about my reaction, not Armando’s. He raises other points in his piece, but this lapse in logic displays a problem I’ve discussed in the past few days—the way even very smart writers will fumble basic facts and logic in the grip of a highly-charged episode.

By the way, Armando also says I was “mind reading” Harlow in my Friday post. In fact, I was discussing a fairly detailed description of what Harlow told Novak—the same description David had discussed. I’m not sure how this gets described as “mind reading”—except for the fact that, in highly-charged episodes, our reasoning tends to drift in such ways.

At any rate, let’s take a look at Armando’s concern—that July 14, 2003 column by Novak. Here is Armando’s initial complaint about my treatment of it:

ARMANDO (7/29/05): The issue, at least for me, is not what Novak wrote on October 3, but what he wrote on July 14. Harlow's account contradicts Novak on the very reason the column was written—whether Plame sent Wilson on the trip.

Somerby chooses to ignore this blatant dishonesty from Novak. Who does Somerby think knew more about the Niger trip—the CIA or Rove?

According to Armando, Harlow’s account contradicts Novak about whether Plame sent Wilson on his trip. And I have “ignored this blatant dishonesty from Novak,” failing to grasp the fact that the CIA would know more on this matter than Karl Rove. For the record, Rove wasn’t Novak’s original source, a matter I’ll discuss below. But as he continues, Armando states these objections again:
ARMANDO: But the bottom line is this, Novak willfully published a July 14 column that suggested, against the best evidence, that Plame authorized Wilson's trip to Niger. This, apparently, does not matter to Somerby. What more can one say? A media critic who cares not one whit about a column that promotes a false smear? Hard to excuse.
In our view, Armando’s shorts are in a wad—and his facts are in substantial disarray.

First, this claim: “Novak willfully published a July 14 column that suggested, against the best evidence, that Plame authorized Wilson's trip to Niger.” As we said yesterday: At times of partisan fervor, even the very smartest writers will sometimes tend to embellish facts, and this strikes us as a good example. Novak’s column didn’t say or suggest that Plame had “authorized” Wilson’s trip. Here, again, is what Novak wrote, exactly as we quoted on Friday:

NOVAK (7/14/03): Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me his wife suggested sending Wilson to Niger to investigate the Italian report. The CIA says its counter-proliferation officials selected Wilson and asked his wife to contact him. "I will not answer any question about my wife," Wilson told me.
Who said anything about “authorized?” Yes, when Armando spins this fact up, it produces a more appealing claim, but Novak didn’t quote anyone saying or suggesting that Plame authorized Wilson’s trip. According to Novak, two senior admin officials told him that she “suggested” sending Wilson to Niger. Also according to Novak, the CIA (i.e., Harlow) said that CPD officials “selected Wilson and asked Plame to contact him.” Careful readers will note that these accounts aren’t contradictory; indeed, although the details of this trivia are still somewhat murky, it seems that both these claims are essentially true. But no one says anything here about Plame “authorizing” Wilson’s trip. This is exactly what I criticized in the columns of the past few days—the natural tendency to embellish facts in the grip of a partisan episode. This has been standard practice on the talk-show right for decades (something I’ve critiqued every day for seven years), and I think it would be a bad idea to adopt the practice on the left. But why didn’t it “matter to me” when Novak suggested that Plame authorized the trip? Duh! It didn’t matter to me because Novak didn’t say or suggest it! The simplest reading of this paragraph shows that—and this is exactly what I’ve been discussing: At least in this one narrow matter, Armando is angry at me because I didn’t charge Novak with a crime—a crime he didn’t commit.

But Armando is angry with me for something else—because, he says, I “care not one whit about a column that promotes a false smear.” But what exactly is the “false smear” in the Novak column? I’m unaware of such a critter. On the contrary: Whatever one thinks of Novak’s wisdom in publishing this information about Plame (more on that below), the information he published that day was basically factually accurate. Minor quibbles still exist about the details of this matter. But Novak’s factual report this day has in fact stood up rather well.

What exactly is the “false smear” in the Novak column? As far as anyone knows today, the information that tracks to Harlow was perfectly accurate; CPD officials did select Wilson for the trip, and they did ask Plame to contact him. But Plame had been involved in the process before that, and the claim Novak tracks to his “senior officials” is also basically accurate; certainly, it’s sufficiently accurate that it’s just silly to describe it as a “false smear.” Indeed, when the Senate Intelligence Committee reported unanimously in July 2004, they reported the same thing that Novak says here. (Page 39: “Some CPD officials could not recall how the office decided to contact the former ambassador, however, interviews and documents provided to the committee indicate that his wife, a CPD employee, suggested his name for the trip.”) There are still minor disputes about these facts; Plame wrote a memo describing Wilson’s contacts and qualifications, and a pointless dispute has raged about whether she wrote this memo before or after she was asked to do so by her superiors. (Presumably, that paragraph from Pincus about “confusion” addresses this minor squabble. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/30/05.) As I have said, I regard this as a pointless squabble; I see no problem with anything Plame did, whenever the memo was written. But as a factual matter, where exactly is Novak’s “false smear?” At the time Novak’s column appeared, no one had ever heard that Plame was involved in this process at all. As a factual matter, Novak was the first to report This general matter, and his specifics have held up as essentially accurate—those he sources to the senior officials, and those he sources to the CIA.

Why did I choose to ignore Novak’s “blatant dishonesty” and his “false smear?” Because as a factual matter, I didn’t see any! Yes, it makes a pleasing tale to say different. But on a factual basis, Novak’s information was basically accurate.

But now we reach a basic questions: Should Novak have published this info at all? Before we move to that discussion, let’s note a familiar point of bungled logic concerning Novak’s various sources.

At one point, Armando complains about my lack of confidence in the brilliantly honest CIA. See above: “Somerby chooses to ignore this blatant dishonesty from Novak. Who does Somerby think knew more about the Niger trip—the CIA or Rove?” But this argument ignores simple facts of life—and it seems to misunderstand the identity of Novak’s sources. This argument has been quite common among those who are disturbed by this episode. But the argument is silly on the one hand—and factually bollixed on the other.

What is wrong with Armando’s claim? According to everything we know, Rove wasn’t Novak’s original source; instead, Rove seems to have confirmed what Novak had already heard. Who was the original source? In his October 2003 column, Novak described the source this way:

NOVAK (10/1/03): During a long conversation with a senior administration official, I asked why Wilson was assigned the mission to Niger. He said Wilson had been sent by the CIA's counterproliferation section at the suggestion of one of its employees, his wife. It was an offhand revelation from this official, who is no partisan gunslinger. When I called another official for confirmation, he said: "Oh, you know about it." The published report that somebody in the White House failed to plant this story with six reporters and finally found me as a willing pawn is simply untrue.
We now seem to know that the confirming source was Rove. But according to Novak, the original source, a “senior administration official,” was in fact “no partisan gunslinger.” But then, Novak had described this official in more detail in July 2003, before his original column appeared. In fact, Novak apparently described this official to Wilson himself, during a phone call. Wilson reports what Novak said in his book, The Politics of Truth:
WILSON (page 344): Novak called the next morning, but I was out, and so then was he. We did not connect until the following morning, July 10 [2003]....

...[Novak] asked if I would confirm what he had heard from a CIA source: that my wife worked at the Agency. I told him that I didn’t answer questions about my wife. I told him that my story was not about my wife or even about me; it was about sixteen words in the State of the Union address.

According to Wilson, Novak told him, on 7/10/03, that his information had come “from a CIA source.” When Novak’s column, published four days later, sourced two senior administration officials, “I called him for a clarification,” Wilson writes. According to Wilson, Novak replied: “I misspoke the first time we talked.” There’s no way to know just what that might mean, but one possible explanation is obvious: Novak’s source was a CIA official, but Novak had only agreed to identify him as a “senior administration official.” In short, it’s entirely possible that Novak’s original source was a CIA official, one “who is no partisan gunslinger.” If that’s true, one CIA official told him that Plame “suggested sending Wilson on the trip;” then Harlow, the official CIA spokesman, told him that “counter-proliferation officials selected Wilson and asked his wife to contact him.” In this case, it wouldn’t be a matter of trusting the CIA or Rove; both statements would have come from CIA officials. And by the way, as mentioned above: both statements still seem essentially accurate. These statements don’t “contradict” one another, and both still seem basically true.

Of course, it may be that the original source was not a CIA official. (Presumably, we’ll find out in the end.) But does Armando really mean to say that Novak, or any journalist, should simply accept an agency’s official statements, if they contradict reliable information he has received from some other source? Good grief! Washington agencies misstate all the time, especially about their own controversial conduct. In this case, that doesn’t seem to have happened, although we don’t know exactly what Harlow may have said or left out when he spoke with Novak. But as a general theory, “The CIA provides the best evidence about the CIA” comes straight out of the “Dick Nixon knows more than the rest of us do” handbook—a handbook that was widely cited during a more foolish time. Libs keep making Armando’s argument, because it produces a pleasing story—but it’s absurd to think that the CIA always says things that are true.

In short, I didn’t complain about Novak’s “blatant dishonesty” or “false smears” because I’m unaware of any. As a factual matter, his claims still seem basically accurate. This leaves a different question: Should he have published this information at all? On that, I don’t feel equipped to judge, for a variety of reasons. First, I don’t know enough about what he was told; hopefully, this will become more clear in the future. (Yes, this includes the question of how strongly Harlow waved Novak away, a matter which still seems unclear. Armando isn’t intrigued by that fact, but I am. This too may become more clear.) Second, I have no background in judgments like this; I really don’t know what the typical journalist would have done in a situation like this. And finally, I still don’t know if the outing of Plame led to serious consequences for U.S. intelligence. As I have frequently said, I get the impression that Patrick Fitzgerald may have reached the judgment that it did. That, of course, would still beg the question of what Novak was actually told.

I understand that many liberals have had a good time battering Novak. I think the matter is less clear, and Armando’s reflexive exaggeration of the facts helps make that basic point for me. No, Novak didn’t suggest that Plame “authorized” Wilson’s trip, although Armando scolded me for not saying he did. No, Novak didn’t publish “false smears;” the info he published was basically accurate. And no, it doesn’t make a lick of sense to say that, in matters involving the CIA, the CIA automatically gives “the best evidence.” The sheer absurdity of that last claim helps point to the problem I’ve been discussing. We’re all inclined to dump facts and logic when we’re gripped by a partisan incident. I don’t think that’s a productive way for important liberals to proceed.

For the past seven years, I’ve written, every day, to absolutely no effect, about bogus facts and faulty logic. During that time, bogus facts and faulty logic have routinely been use as effective tools against Dems. In my view, progressive interests are served, in the long run, by higher standards of clarity and accuracy. Yes, it’s much more fun to make like Rush, and I think many liberals now seem to be going there; in the past few monthgs, we seem to be engaging in silly, tribalist cant of the type Rush churns out every day. But inevitably, power is served by intellectual chaos, and if liberals decide to spin facts and logic as Rush and Sean have done for twenty years, I suspect we’ll see in the end that this was an unwise decision.

Avoiding the tangy tone of TDH, I sent Armando the following e-mail after reading his post. I disagree with him on this matter, but I obviously think that he and The Daily Kos have done tons of superlative work. Good for ‘em!

A LIGHTNING-FAST REPLY (7/30/05): My e-mail to Armando:

Hi Armando:

Sorry—I just saw your piece, or I would have addressed it today.

I think you're wrong about what Novak wrote in July 03. You say: "Novak willfully published a July 14 column that suggested, against the best evidence, that Plame authorized Wilson's trip to Niger." But that simply isn't what he wrote; he never reported that anyone even claimed that she had "authorized" the trip. Instead, he wrote this:

NOVAK: Two senior administration officials told me his wife suggested sending Wilson to Niger to investigate the Italian report. The CIA says its counter-proliferation officials selected Wilson and asked his wife to contact him. "I will not answer any question about my wife," Wilson told me.
In short, he said that two Admin officials said that Plame "suggested" (not "authorized") Wilson. He also wrote what Harlow told him (which doesn't necessarily contradict what the Admin officials said). For the record, the Senate Intel Committee (9 Reps, 8 Dems) ended up saying exactly what those Admin offcials said ("suggested"). As I have said many times, I don't think Plame did anything wrong in this matter, and I think the dispute about her role, whatever it may have been, is essentially trivial. But "authorized" doesn't even come up in the Novak piece.

There isn't much of a disagreement (if any) between the Admin officials and the CIA statement. But if there were, it's absurd to think that a journo should assume that the CIA is giving "the best evidence" in a matter like this. Like other bureaus, the CIA misstates all the time, especially about its own conduct. I know of no reason to think that they misstated here, but it's absurd to think that they will always provide "the best evidence" about their own business.

I was mainly intrigued by this matter because I thought David Corn's reading of the evidence was so odd. (I see absolutely no "contradictions" between what Novak and Harlow said.) But beyond that, I do think Harlow gave a rather weak warning, if Pincus' piece presents its real flavor. Why can't that be an issue too? And of course Harlow could have said more than what Pincus has him saying! Indeed, if there were serious assets tied in to Plame, he should have said more (maybe did).

One last thing, a minor point: A column doesn't become "disingenuous" if it doesn't address "the main issue" for you. The column I posted today may address your general puzzlement about my reaction to this. RE Novak: I don't know what to think about whether Novak should have published in 7/03. That depends on what he was told (and what the facts are). Both matters remain somewhat unclear. I'm hoping that Fitzgerald provides a lot of info.

I love your work, and I appreciate your concern, although I don't exactly agree with you on this.