June 20, 2004

Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (Reading A1 Edition)

This time it is Reading A1 that bangs its head against the wall at the spectacle of New York Times reporter Richard Stevenson once again being

Reading A1: ..."too craven, and too lazy, to oppose Administration spin today with facts drawn from the record.  This is true in several places in the article, nowhere more embarrassingly than in the matter of the much-debunked fable of a Prague meeting between 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta and Iraqi intelligence...

Mr. Cheney said in an interview with CNBC on Thursday that the administration had never been able to prove the meeting took place but was not able to disprove it either.

"We just don't know," Mr. Cheney said.

Leave aside Cheney's transparent intellectual dishonesty, which turns the impossibility of absolutely proving a negative into a practical affirmation of the positive.  (Rhetorical notions, like plausibility, or degrees of proof, have no place in Cheney's Platonic la-la land.)  As nearly complete disproof of the Prague story as possible (to convince reasonable people) has, in fact, already been offered in the commission staff report—as noted by, among others, the NY Times' own James Risen earlier this week:

The report cited a photograph taken by a bank surveillance camera in Virginia showing Mr. Atta withdrawing money on April 4, 2001, a few days before the supposed Prague meeting on April 9, and records showing his cellphone was used on April 6, 9, 10 and 11 in Florida.

Needless to say, none of this manages to surface in today's article, which simply takes Cheney's "We don't know" at face value. I continue to marvel at Richard Stevenson's unwillingness, not just to commit the sin of reporting fact (where fact would irritate anyone in the Bush Administration, at least), but to read his own f***ing newspaper.

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Comments

This time, its Reading A1 that's being a tad disingenuous. The full quote from the NYT article:

"Mr. Kean and Mr. Hamilton said that, in particular, they wanted any information available to back Mr. Cheney's suggestion that one of the hijackers might have met in Prague in April 2001 with an Iraqi intelligence agent, a meeting that the panel's staff believes did not take place. Mr. Cheney said in an interview with CNBC on Thursday that the administration had never been able to prove the meeting took place but was not able to disprove it either."

"We just don't know," Mr. Cheney said."

I don't think anyone reading the above is going to come away with an impression that the paper is pushing Cheney's viewpoint.

Posted by: flory on June 20, 2004 09:21 AM

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Flory has a point about this article, which reports the effort of Hamilton and Kean to call Cheney out on his claim that he knows more than he has let on about these links. To get the flavor of the NYT, check out this one

http://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/20/weekinreview/20zell.html

After discussing the polling on who believes what, the reporter, Tom Zeller, writes:

Just what that relationship may have been, at what official levels it may have flourished, or, indeed, whether any real relationship ever existed, has never been conclusively laid out. Given the shadowy nature of international terror, it may well never be — which, strangely, should provide safe harbor to all sides and confuse the minds of Americans for decades to come.

In other words, facts are such silly things.

Posted by: masaccio on June 20, 2004 09:53 AM

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Flory, please read the post in question before you accuse me of disingenuousness. I'm not at all suggesting that the Times article is "pushing Cheney's viewpoint." The issue is the unwillingness of the paper's political reporters—Stevenson being one of the worst offenders—to make statements of fact, when fully warranted by the public record, against transparent Administration lies. Kean and Hamilton are, indeed, calling Cheney out on his distortion of the record: and in context, it's apparent that they're doing so precisely because the Times itself (pointedly chosen by the commission chairs as their weapon of choice in the current battle) has proven so consistently unwilling to assert the record. The fact that they're intervening as they are, in other words, is because of the failure of the Times to do its job.

Posted by: Michael on June 20, 2004 10:05 AM

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As much as I hate Bush & Cheney, the fact that Atta's cell phone was used - a cell phone that he would not have taken with him on an international trip -- does not disprove that he did not take the trip. I assume that inquiries could be made of the recipients of those phone calls to inquire whether the calls were indeed made by Atta, as well as checking the manifests of flights to Europe at that time, but I also suspect this administration prefers to leave it ambiguous so they can keep citing it.

Posted by: Steve Young on June 20, 2004 10:06 AM

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So, "It's elementary, my dear usual suspects"?

Atta is filmed at a bank withdrawing thousands of dollars from his bank a few days BEFORE he's placed in Prague by Czech intelligence sources. That's supposed to be evidence he couldn't have been in Prague shortly thereafter? Gee, I'd say it's evidence he had the money to make the trip.

Posted by: Patrick R. Sullivan on June 20, 2004 10:34 AM

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But isn't of some interest that the Iraqi intellignece agent he was supposed to be meeting, Ahmend al-Ani has denied that the meeting took place?

(see http://econ4dean.typepad.com/lerxst/2004/06/nagourney_and_s.html)

For a good background piece also see David Corn's article in Nation.
(see http://www.thenation.com/capitalgames/index.mhtml?bid=3&pid=1280)


Also here's another critique on Stevenson and his co-author Nagourney in their recent suck up job on Cheney.
see http://econ4dean.typepad.com/lerxst/2004/06/nagourney_and_s.html

Posted by: lerxst on June 20, 2004 10:54 AM

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Lerxst: "But isn't of some interest that the Iraqi intellignece agent he was supposed to be meeting, Ahmend al-Ani has denied that the meeting took place?"

I'd add, especially given how utterly against al-Ani's interest it is to make the denial, and stick to it.

Posted by: Michael on June 20, 2004 11:21 AM

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Sadly, Kean has given Bush political cover, stating that there is no conflict between what the Administration has been saying and what the Commission reported, thereby giving real substance to the notion that the Commission is tainted by partisanship. Republican partisanship, unfortunately.

Mr. Sullivan would do well to note that the entire evidence for the Atta-al Ani meeting hinges on one unsourced allegation by the Czech intelligence services and one alleged and ambiguous entry in al Ani's notebook. This is precisely the sort of uncorroborated "intelligence" that the Niger uranium lie, like so many other of the Bush lies, was based on.

Tracing down whether Atta traveled to Prague should not be a particularly difficult process. Since the FBI and CIA and now the 911 Commission have concluded there is no credible evidence that the meeting took place, an honest president would stop trying to push the envelope on the evidence. This president, of course, is in no danger of that, nor is Mr. Sullivan in any danger of doing likewise.

Posted by: Charles on June 20, 2004 12:08 PM

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By the way, the definitive case FOR the Atta-al Ani meeting was made by Edward Jay Epstein (see, for example, http://slate.msn.com/id/2091354/). The heart of his case, really, is that media reports of Havel's repudiation of a quote in the NYT and of FBI statements to have examined hotel and car rental records have been mistaken. This would not be the first time for our press to have bungled.

Of course, the 911 Commission has the benefit of having seen everything the FBI has without benefit of the media filter. I'll take their word that "We have examined the allegation that Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague on April 9. Based on the evidence available—including investigation by Czech and U.S. authorities plus detainee reporting—we do not believe that such a meeting occurred." (staff statement 16)

It pays to read both sides of the case and make up one's own mind. The Republican Party is in danger of neither of those.

Posted by: Charles on June 20, 2004 12:24 PM

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Michael:
I read your post. In general I agree with your critiques of the Times. Their reporters can be lazy and have no compuctions about pushing the Bush agenda. I just happen to disagree that that's what's going on with this article.

Upthread you say "The issue is the unwillingness of the paper's political reporters—Stevenson being one of the worst offenders—to make statements of fact.."

In your post, you give details on the non-meeting in Prague and say "Needless to say, none of this manages to surface in today's article, which simply takes Cheney's "We don't know" at face value."

My point is that I don't think, in this case, that the authors are taking Cheney's statement at face value. They very clearly state, in the same paragraph, the *fact* that the commission staff doesn't believe the meeting ever took place. They also point out that the commission chairman has invited Cheney, if he has information to the contrary, to produce it.

As I said upthread, I think any reasonable person comes away from the article believing that Cheney's statements are not in agreement with the commission or the facts. While the detail in your post would've been nice to see, I don't believe its absence materially impacts the point of the article.

Posted by: flory on June 20, 2004 02:20 PM

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One reason for the dispute is one's opinion of the burden of proof. Bush critics say correctly that no collabortive linkage has been shown. In a court of law, the verdict would be "not guilty."

Bush says the various past contacts created a likelihood that, in the future, Saddam might well have supplied al Qaeda with WMDs or WMD knowhow. Saddam was believed to have WMD development programs. These have now been confirmed. Bush made war preemptively to avoid the risk of a massive terrorist attack using WMDs from Saddam.

Preemptive war is an uncomfortable doctrine, but it's arguably justified because of the deadliness of nuclear and biological weapons. A first attack might kill many thousands of people.

Posted by: David on June 20, 2004 05:39 PM

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David states that, "Saddam was believed to have WMD development programs. These have now been confirmed."

Well, no, actually they haven't, unless by "programs" you mean the existence of microbiologists, chemists and nuclear scientists and a fervent desire to have weaponry. There was no capability of production, nor any likelihood of acquiring such capability.

When the US claims before the world that Iraq had mobile biological weapons labs and they turn out to be hydrogen generators for weather balloons, one should have a skeptical eye out. This sort of lie is shameful.

As for the claim that preventive war is acceptable because an Iraq armed with WMDs might kill thousands of innocents, the war accomplished that. Dwight Eisenhower said "When people speak to you about a preventive war, you tell them to go and fight it. After my experience, I have come to hate war. War settles nothing."

Nations that want to lead must accept the possibility of casualties as in Pearl Harbor or on 911-- while, of course, doing what we can to guard against such crimes. Refusing to engage in preventive war, accepting the possibility of American casualties rather than perhaps unnecessarily inflicting casualties on others, is the price we pay for maintaining moral leadership.

Posted by: Charles on June 20, 2004 10:37 PM

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Not that the facts are going to matter at all to the usual suspects, but the "911 Commission" has concluded nothing at all about the Prague meeting. You're relying on a staff report, not something agreed to by the Commission.

As the Ben Veniste-Lehman appearance on yesterday's Meet the Press demonstrated. (And, in which, Ben Veniste committed an egregious ad ignorantum fallacy.)

Posted by: Patrick R. Sullivan on June 21, 2004 08:20 AM

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Thank you!

The death of the 4th Estate, born 1776; died 2004.

Is that not what the current administration banks on!

Posted by: Dave S on June 21, 2004 08:52 AM

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Interesting that Mr. Sullivan received Republican talking points this late.

For Mr. Sullivan's information, it would be wholly unprecedented if staff were releasing conclusions without extensive discussions with Commission members. Yes, I know that the Republican members of the Commission are trying to weasel out of it now-- proving that there is indeed partisan politics at work-- but I suspect public outrage over this will force them to reconsider.

Posted by: Charles on June 21, 2004 12:14 PM

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If only Brad DeLong could be editor of the New York Times, all would be well once again.

Tip for Brad: Publish more, blog less. I guess Larry Summers is too busy to make the former happen :).

Posted by: Freddie Jones on June 21, 2004 05:08 PM

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Lerxst: "But isn't of some interest that the Iraqi intellignece agent he was supposed to be meeting, Ahmend al-Ani has denied that the meeting took place?"

Michael replies, "I'd add, especially given how utterly against al-Ani's interest it is to make the denial, and stick to it."

Is this meant to be sarcastic, Michael? It's ***against al-Ani's interest*** to deny being involved in plotting mass murder? Why in the world would it be against his interest to deny being involved in capital crime?

Posted by: Mark Bahner on June 22, 2004 02:34 PM

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Let's read what Tarik Aziz had to say about a meeting between Atta and Al-Ani:

"Even if that [the meetings] happened, that would mean nothing, for a diplomat could meet many people during his duty, whether he was at a restaurant or elsewhere, and even if he met Mohamed Atta, that would not mean the Iraqi diplomat was involved."

http://www.casi.org.uk/discuss/2001/msg01008.html

Hmmmmm...so even if they did meet, it was likely completely innocent. Because of course we can trust Tarik Aziz.


Posted by: Mark Bahner on June 22, 2004 02:51 PM

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The brand new string of evidence the Administration added to their bow seems to have snapped. Seems that there are more than one Iraqi with a name sort of like Hikmat Shakir Ahmad. Intelligence agencies are beginning to leak to urge the Administration to climb down before they set themselves up for too large a fall (http://www.realcities.com/mld/krwashington/8978562.htm)

As for the Atta story, it was always weak but (as with so many things in life) impossible to refute. As has been pointed out by others, even if one proves a meeting in Prague, what does *that* mean? There's never been an argument that there were *contacts* between al Qaida and Iraq. There are *contacts* between the US and North Korea, but that hardly means they're allies.

For the Administration to take the country to war on evidence this slender was a crime.

Posted by: Charles on June 22, 2004 05:24 PM

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