Companion site:


Google search...


Daily Howler: Aarrgh! Our favorite, Sidney, sexed up the facts, much like Pincus before him
Daily Howler logo
OUR SANDBURG, SANDING THE FACTS! Aarrgh! Our favorite, Sidney, sexed up the facts, much like Pincus before him: // link // print // previous // next //

HOW STUPID IS RAFFY: To paraphrase what Mother used to say: “When we make a logical error, we’ll tell you!” But let’s put gambols and mirth to the side and examine Digby’s sense that we blundered in our ruminations on Raffy. Maybe Raffy was simply stupid, Dig says. Why can’t that be the simple answer to the mystery of his positive steroid test?

And, of course, it could be the answer. It could be that Raffy—knowing he’d be tested this year—went ahead and took stanozolol anyway, making no effort to hide it. But that would be such stupid behavior that, by normal standards of inquiry, it invites us to look for another answer. Are “masking agents” involved in this story (i.e., did Raffy take an agent that failed)? Did Palmeiro’s test reflect steroid use from an earlier year? (That was Jose Canseco’s speculation.) Normally, when the proffered explanation makes little sense, analysts begin to look for another. But quite literally, we don’t think we’ve seen a single scribe question the Standard Story here—that Raffy dumbly took stanozolol knowing that he would be tested.

Of course, it could be that Raffy was simply bone-stupid. It’s also possible that that isn’t Raffy at all—that Raffy has been replaced by a Martian determined to destroy his reputation. But neither explanations seems likely to us, so we’ve gone in search of another. When sports scribes refuse to follow suit, we even start to wonder if they’re in the bag for MLB—an industry whose interests advance when people don’t ask these obvious questions about this odd event.

FINALLY, HUNTER DISSENTS: Today’s Post contains two reviews of The Aristocrats. If you’re interested, Michael O’Sullivan offers the Standard Review, and finally—we’d begun to think that no one would do it!—Stephen Hunter types up a dissent.

For ourselves, we’re massively dubious—but that tends to lead to pleasant surprise. But jeez! We’ve read the same review of this film twenty times! Finally, Hunter dissents.

OUR SANDBURG, SANDING THE FACTS: Aarrgh! How bad is the current state of progressive persuasion? The last time we discussed our favorite, Sidney Blumenthal, we even compared him to sainted Sandburg (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/31/03). That’s why our analysts came out of their chairs when Sidney summarized the Niger case like this, in yesterday’s Salon:

BLUMENTHAL (8/11/05): On July 6, 2003, former ambassador Joseph Wilson IV wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times, disclosing that he had been sent on a secret mission by the CIA before the Iraq war to assess whether Saddam Hussein was seeking to purchase enriched yellowcake uranium in Niger. Wilson had concluded that Saddam was not. Despite Wilson's finding, confirmed by two other reports to the CIA, Bush included 16 words in his 2002 [sic] State of the Union address declaring that Saddam was seeking Niger uranium to produce nuclear weapons.
Oof! How bad is current progressive persuasion? Mainstream and liberal writers have produced some version of that paragraph over the course of the past two years. For liberals, it provides a pleasing kick in the end; despite what Wilson said in his report, Bush said Saddam was seeking uranium! But this presentation depends on misstatement in order to get this pleasing kick. Even our Sandburg plays this game now—a game built on improved, sexed-up facts! (Note: Bush made his statement about Niger in the 2003 SOTU.)

What is wrong with Sidney’s paragraph? In his op-ed piece, Wilson did not say “that he had been sent on a secret assess whether Saddam Hussein was seeking to purchase uranium.” And in that same piece, Wilson didn’t say he concluded that Saddam hadn’t done this. Sidney’s paragraph builds to a nice contradiction—but only by misstating the things that Wilson plainly said.

What did Wilson say in his column? What follows is a three-paragraph chunk from that famous New York Times piece. It shows what Wilson actually said about why he was sent to Niger and what he reported on his return:

WILSON (7/6/03): In February 2002, I was informed by officials at the Central Intelligence Agency that Vice President Dick Cheney's office had questions about a particular intelligence report. While I never saw the report, I was told that it referred to a memorandum of agreement that documented the sale of uranium yellowcake—a form of lightly processed ore—by Niger to Iraq in the late 1990's. The agency officials asked if I would travel to Niger to check out the story so they could provide a response to the vice president's office...

I spent [eight days in Niger] drinking sweet mint tea and meeting with dozens of people: current government officials, former government officials, people associated with the country's uranium business. It did not take long to conclude that it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place.

Given the structure of the consortiums that operated the mines, it would be exceedingly difficult for Niger to transfer uranium to Iraq...In short, there's simply too much oversight over too small an industry for a sale to have transpired.

What did Wilson actually say? He said he was sent to Niger to see if Iraq had purchased uranium from Niger. His conclusion? It was highly doubtful that such a sale had transpired; there was too much international oversight. Wilson’s statements are perfectly clear, and they’re easy to plug into Sidney’s paragraph. But uh-oh! When we do so, that pleasing contradiction fades like the morning dew:
BLUMENTHAL REVISED: On July 6, 2003, former ambassador Joseph Wilson IV wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times, disclosing that he had been sent on a secret mission by the CIA before the Iraq war to assess whether Saddam Hussein had purchased uranium from Niger in the late 1990s. Wilson had concluded it was highly doubtful that Saddam had done so; there was too much international oversight of Niger’s uranium for such a sale to have transpired. Despite Wilson's finding, confirmed by two other reports to the CIA, Bush included 16 words in his 2003 State of the Union address declaring that Saddam was seeking Niger uranium to produce nuclear weapons.
A person might still want to know: Why should we care if Saddam was seeking uranium if it was “highly doubtful” that he could have bought it? That would be a sensible question, built on an accurate account of what Wilson said. But it would also be a question a Bush-leaner could fairly easily handle. And that, of course, is why Wilson-leaners have altered the facts to this day.

How weak is the state of liberal persuasion? Yesterday, the liberal web was pushing these two claims:

  1. Bush made a statement based on British intelligence. To this day, the Brits say the statement is true.

  2. John Roberts prepared a legal case for the Supreme Court. Six of the Justices said he was right.
Good grief! With turkeys like this we confront the public, expecting to win the unaligned! After four-plus years of chaos, incompetence and deception from Bush, these are the weakling cases we choose to present to the public!

How sad is it to see liberal pundits forced to alter the facts about Wilson’s perfectly professional trip? Early last year, Washington’s most famous journalist produced a book about the path to war in Iraq. It was the most famous political book of the year—and it included a string of remarkable incidents. Again and again, it showed Bush, Cheney and Secretary Powell presenting weak or phony claims designed to lead the nation to war. In most of these cases, there is no need to play with facts to make the case about their open dissembling. And most of these cases were the real cases which actually drove the nation to war—unlike the inconsequential “16 words,” which produced almost zero discussion when Bush said it, just that one time. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/28/03. Scroll to “How to sex up a story.”)

Yes, Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack was full of portraits of Bush dissembling. But what happened when the book came out? Mainstream pundits, scripted as one, focused on a ludicrous episode—an episode which purported to show Bush warning others that they mustn’t stretch any facts (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/25/05). And as always, the liberal elite rolled over and took it. That ludicrous episode became the public face of Woodward’s widely discussed, best-selling book. It met with little dissent from libs—who quickly went back to “fixing” the facts about the story which they love to tell.

As we said, this isn’t just Sidney. Sexed-up versions of that paragraph have widely appeared for the past two years (for a Pincus variant, see below.). And why do we keep fixing the facts? Alas! If you want to produce a real contradiction, you have to change what Wilson said in his op-ed piece—or you have to change what Bush said in his speech. The facts don’t produce a strong enough contrast—so our writers keep changing the facts.

Mainstream writers have been tweaking the facts to produce this contradiction for two years. But here’s our question: Shouldn’t a real progressive politics start with the pledge to make accurate statements? That would certainly be our choice. But it seems that liberals’ persuasive skills are so withered that we’re wed to misstatements like these. Surrounded by an embarrassment of disasters by Bush, we’ve relied on this turkey for two solid years—and we wonder why we can’t topple Bush, or build a progressive consensus.

THE PINCUS VARIANT: Everyone does it! Everyone knows to tweak the facts; otherwise, the desired contradiction ain’t there. Here’s the way Pincus and VandeHei tweaked the facts back in July:

PINCUS (7/27/05): Fitzgerald began his probe in December 2003 to determine whether any government official knowingly leaked Plame's identity as a CIA employee to the media. Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, has said his wife's career was ruined in retaliation for his public criticism of Bush. In a 2002 trip to Niger at the request of the CIA, Wilson found no evidence to support allegations that Iraq was seeking uranium from that African country and reported back to the agency in February 2002. But nearly a year later, Bush asserted in his State of the Union speech that Iraq had sought uranium from Africa, attributing it to British, not U.S., intelligence.
Like the hair of that werewolf at Trader Vic’s, the contradiction here is perfect. But: “Wilson found no evidence to support allegations that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger?” That isn’t what Wilson “reported back to the agency,” if we’re to go by his own op-ed column. But so what? Like others, Pincus simply improved the facts to produce that wondrous sense of contradiction and outrage. Our question: Shouldn’t a real progressive politics start with accurate statements? And if the truth in this matter is so outrageous, why do mainstream and liberal writers insist on improving the facts?

SIDNEY’S FULL PARAGRAPH: Aarrgh! For the record, Sidney’s full paragraph only gets worse. We restore the final two sentences, which we dropped above for simplicity’s sake:

BLUMENTHAL (8/11/05): On July 6, 2003, former ambassador Joseph Wilson IV wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times, disclosing that he had been sent on a secret mission by the CIA before the Iraq war to assess whether Saddam Hussein was seeking to purchase enriched yellowcake uranium in Niger. Wilson had concluded that Saddam was not. Despite Wilson's finding, confirmed by two other reports to the CIA, Bush included 16 words in his 2002 [sic] State of the Union address declaring that Saddam was seeking Niger uranium to produce nuclear weapons. That fear became the ultimate rationale for the invasion of Iraq. "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud," said then national security advisor Condoleezza Rice.
The chronology here is, kindly put, a mess. Rice’s statement was made on September 8, 2002—long before Bush’s State of the Union (1/28/03). She made the statement on CNN’s Late Edition, where she baldly misstated American intel concerning those scary aluminum tubes. This is the actual discussion that actually drive the nation to war—and the misstatements here were much more clear-cut than in the little-discussed “16 words.” But so what? Rather than hammer these actual, clear-cut misstatements, we liberals fell in love with those colorful 16 words. Two years later, we still have to “sex up” the facts to squeeze contradictions from them. Our question: Why are we so inept at forming an argument, given the endless howlers and disasters Bush, Cheney, Rice and Powell have insisted on handing us?

BAGHDAD BOB, JUST ASKING: By the way, did Iraq seek uranium in Niger? We don’t have the slightest idea. The Brits, of course, still swear that she did, but that, of course, could be hot steaming horse-hockey. (Although the Butler Report, which sustained this judgment, shot down other elements of British intel, such as the claim by Bush which Tenet derided as “the 45-minute shit.” See THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/24/05, to recall that clear-cut howler—a howler our liberal elites have ignored, even though the CIA chief openly mocked Bush for making it.) For the record, though, Wilson’s 2/02 report to the CIA did contain one item which apparently suggested, for some analysts, that Iraq may have been seeking uranium during the period in question. When the Senate Intelligence report appeared last July, Richard Stevenson discussed this in the New York Times:

STEVENSON (7/17/04): But [the Senate report] also contained some information that tended to bolster the view that Iraq had tried to acquire uranium from Niger and possibly one or two other African nations. It cited a statement by a French official to the State Department in late 2002 that France, which was resisting Mr. Bush's efforts to make an urgent case for war, ''believed the reporting was true that Iraq had made a procurement attempt for uranium from Niger.” Neither report, however, found evidence that Iraq had actually purchased any uranium from Niger.

The new reports also raised questions about one of the White House's chief critics over the issue, Joseph C. Wilson IV, a former ambassador sent to Niger in 2002 to investigate whether Iraq had tried to purchase uranium there. Among other things, the [Senate] report pointed out that Mr. Wilson's official account to the C.I.A. noted that a former prime minister of Niger had told him that he had been approached in 1999 about meeting with an Iraqi delegation interested in ''expanding commercial relations'' between Niger and Iraq. The former prime minister told Mr. Wilson that he interpreted the approach to mean the Iraqis were interested in acquiring a form of uranium.

Why would this official—former Prime Minister Ibrahim Mayaki—interpret this inquiry in this way? Because Niger has almost nothing to sell except uranium. The Senate report discusses this matter on pages 43, 44 and 46. On page 46, the reports says that the CIA reports officer “said he judged that the most important fact in [Wilson’s] report was that the Nigerien officials admitted that the Iraqi delegation had traveled there in 1999, and that the Nigerien Prime Minister believed the Iraqis were interested in purchasing uranium, because this provided some confirmation of foreign government service reporting.”

We don’t have the slightest idea what lay behind that approach to Mayaki. However, in his 2004 book, The Politics of Truth, Wilson provided some new information about this matter. Wilson has his thumb on the scale a bit, trying to downplay the significance of the inquiry. But he does identify the inquisitive Iraqi. The inquiry came from a major insider hack; it came from “Baghdad Bob:”

WILSON (page 28): Before I left Niger, I provided a member of the American Embassy staff with an executive briefing. In it, I outlined all that I had learned about the uranium operations. Additionally, I described a conversation with one of my sources [presumably Mayaki]. He had mentioned to me that on the margins of a ministerial meeting of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1999, a Nigerien businessman had asked him to meet with an Iraqi official to discuss trade. My contact said that alarm bells had immediately gone off in his mind. Well aware of the United Nations sanctions on Iraq, he met with the Iraqi only briefly and avoided any substantive issues. As he told me this, he hesitated and looked up at the sky as if plumbing the depths of his memory, then offered that perhaps the Iraqi might have wanted to talk about uranium. But since there had been no discussion about uranium—my contact was idly speculating when he mentioned it—there was no story. I spoke with this Nigerien friend again in January 2004, and he recollected our conversation in 2002. He told me that while he was watching coverage of press conferences in Baghdad prior to the second Gulf War, he recognized the Iraqi information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, known to Americans as “Baghdad Bob,” as the person whom he had met in Algiers. He had not known the name of the Iraqi at the time he told me about the conversation in 2002, and so this had not been included in my report.
How does that flesh out the story? The Iraqi official who inquired about trade was the major insider hack, Baghdad Bob. To us, the fact that such a high-level hack made this inquiry raises the profile of this story. Might the Brits have more on this? There is, of course, no way to tell.

Should the U.S. have gone to war about this? Obviously, no. But the record is full of open dissembling by Bush and his honchos—high-level, blatant dissembling that actually drove the nation to war. (To all appearances, for example, Rice was lying through her teeth when she made the statement Sidney quotes.) And yet, we wed ourselves to this shaky tale from Niger—a story where we have to keep “sexing up” facts to produce the contradictions we crave. Are you surprised that we can’t seem to forge a progressive consensus when our message selection is so faulty?

By the way, libs have had an evil enabler in their love for this turkey talking-point. In the past dozen years, Wilson’s trip was the rare case where the mainstream press corps adopted the liberal/Dem framework. In our view, that Baghdad Bob story is very colorful—and it tends to raise the sense that Iraq may have been nosing for uranium. But so what? Despite its color, only the Washington Post ever reported it. Result? We’re still asking people to be upset because Bush said something that may yet be true—and because Roberts took a legal position with which six Justices agreed. These are the turkeys we bring to the public—and we wonder why our case doesn’t fly. So it goes as we bulldoze our way to the role of permanent minority.

ET TU, SOUTER: David Souter agreed with Roberts. So apparently, David Souter is also someone “whose ideology leads him to excuse violence against Americans!” Do you see how liberal elites drive voters away when they try to fly turkeys like that? Bush has handed us endless tools—and we just keep playing “Born Loser.”