Thursday, March 25, 2004

It's time for another game of... Spin the Spinner!

Today's contestant is Romesh Ratnesar of Time Magazine. Welcome, Romesh!

Paragraph one of his little screed contains one obvious spin point:

Stephen Hadley, in that same 60 Minutes broadcast said that the White House has found "no evidence" that conversations Clarke claims to have had with President Bush even occurred.

Classic non-denial denial. One point for Romesh! We'd like to give him points for also omitting quotes that would have illustrated the contradictions between what Cheney ("He wasn't in the loop") and Condy ("He was in charge") have said, but our judges have ruled that simply ignoring things does not qualify as 'spin' for our purposes.

Romesh is just getting warmed up, however:

In several cases, the version of events provided by Clarke this week include details and embellishments that do not appear in his new book, Against All Enemies. While the discrepancies do not, on their own, discredit Clarke's larger arguments, they do raise questions about whether Clarke's eagerness to publicize his story and rip the Bush Administration have clouded his memory of the facts.

Ding-ding! Romesh has nicely set a Spin Cycle for his readers here. Let's see how many points he can rack up while making them dizzy! Remember -- he must establish discrepancies between what Clarke has said this week and what is in his book.

Here's how Clarke recounted the meeting on 60 Minutes: "The President dragged me into a room with a couple of other people, shut the door and said, 'I want you to find whether Iraq did this'.....the entire conversation left me in absolutely no doubt that George Bush wanted me to come back with a report that said, 'Iraq did this.'" After Clarke protested that "there's no connection," Bush came back to him and said "Iraq, Saddam — find out if there's a connection." Clarke says Bush made the point "in a very intimidating way." The next day, interviewed on PBS' The NewsHour, Clarke sexed up the story even more. "What happened was the President, with his finger in my face, saying, 'Iraq, a memo on Iraq and al-Qaeda, a memo on Iraq and the attacks.' Very vigorous, very intimidating." Several interviewers pushed Clarke on this point, asking whether it was all that surprising that the President would want him to investigate all possible perpetrators of the attacks. Clarke responded, "It would have been irresponsible for the president not to come to me and say, Dick, I don't want you to assume it was al-Qaeda. I'd like you to look at every possibility to see if maybe it was al-Qaeda with somebody else, in a very calm way, with all possibilities open. That's not what happened."

Wow, heavy stuff. Now let's have that discrepancy!

How does this square with the account of the same meeting provided in Clarke's book? In that version, Clarke finds the President wandering alone in the Situation Room on Sept. 12, "looking like he wanted something to do." Clarke writes that Bush "grabbed a few of us and closed the door to the conference room" — an impetuous move, perhaps, but hardly the image that Clarke depicted on television, of the President dragging in unwitting staffers by their shirt-collars. The Bush in these pages sounds more ruminative than intimidating: "I know you have a lot to do and all, but I want you, as soon as you can, to go back over everything, everything. See if Saddam did this. See if he's linked in any way." When Clarke responds by saying that "al-Qaeda did this," Bush says, "I know, I know, but see if Saddam was involved. Just look. I want to know any shred....." Again Clarke protests, after which Bush says "testily," "Look into Iraq, Saddam."

"...hardly the image that Clarke depicted on television, of the President dragging in unwitting staffers by their shirt-collars."? Genius spin, since Clarke depicted nothing of the kind!

Romesh also gets bonus points for "...Clarke finds the President wandering alone in the Situation Room on Sept. 12..." since Clarke, of course, has said that he saw Bush in the situation room complex, not the room itself.

And what, in the end, is the horrible discrepancy? Clarke paraphrases what the president said in a slightly different manner! Ye gods, what a crime! You'd almost think Clarke was having a conversation with his questioners, instead of reading from a script, the way I'm sure Romesh does whatever he repeats some work-related anecdote from his past.

But the next paragraph contains the real winner:

Despite Clarke's contention that Bush wanted proof of Iraqi involvement at any cost, it's just as possible that Bush wanted Clark to find disculpatory evidence in order to discredit the idea peddled by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that Baghdad had a hand in 9/11.

Wow! Romesh has managed a spin dizzifier! He offers one of Clarke's central arguments -- that the administration was too focused on Iraq, and not enough on al Qaeda -- as an unsupported-by-any-facts defense of Bush asking for proof that Iraq was involved! That's worth a stunning ten points!

Clarke's liberties with the text don't stop there. On 60 Minutes he said that after submitting to the White House a joint-agency report discounting the possibility of Iraqi complicity in 9/11, the memo "got bounced and sent back saying, 'Wrong answer.'" The actual response from Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, shown later in the program, read "Please update and resubmit."

How could Clarke possibly interpret 'Please update and resubmit' as 'Wrong answer'? Three points!

On 60 Minutes, Clarke went further, saying that Bush's deputies never showed the President the joint-agency review, because "I don't think he sees memos that he wouldn't like the answer." This is pure, reckless speculation. Contrast that with the more straightforward account in Against All Enemies: after his team found no evidence of Iraqi involvement, Clarke writes that "a memorandum to that effect was sent up to the President, and there was never any indication that it reached him."

On 60 Minutes, Clarke was reduced to reckless speculation that Bush never saw the memo, whereas in his book he merely points out that there was no evidence that Bush saw the memo. Of course Stephen Hadley said earlier that there was no evidence a conversation took place, and that was good enough for Romesh. And reckless speculation was good enough for Romesh when he was guessing at Bush's reasons for asking about proof of Iraq's involvement. Another three points! Romesh emerges from the Spin Cycle with an impressive score of 17!

While Clarke claims that he is "an independent" not driven by partisan motives, it's hard not to read some passages in his book as anything but shrill broadsides. In his descriptions of Bush aides, he discerns their true ideological beliefs not in their words but in their body language: "As I briefed Rice on al-Qaeda, her facial expression gave me the impression she had never heard the term before." When the cabinet met to discuss al-Qaeda on Sept. 4, Rumsfeld "looked distracted throughout the session."

In other words, any negative word about any administration official is by definition driven by partisan motives. Romesh would like you to believe that any criticism of the administration cannot possibly be impartial! Two more points!

As for the President, Clarke doesn't even try to read Bush's body language; he just makes the encounters up. "I have a disturbing image of him sitting by a warm White House fireplace drawing a dozen red Xs on the faces of the former al-Qaeda corporate board.....while the new clones of al-Qaeda....are recruiting thousands whose names we will never know, whose faces will never be on President Bush's little charts, not until it is again too late." Clarke conjured up this chilling scene again on 60 Minutes. Only in this version he also manages to read Bush's mind, and "he's thinking that he's got most of them and therefore he's taken care of the problem." The only things missing are the black winged chair and white cat.

How dare Clarke use a literary device in a book! And what's more, preface it by making it clear it's something he imagined in his own head!

No points for Romesh here, according to the judges. This isn't spin; it's just stupid. At least he didn't accuse Clarke of thinking bin Laden has psychic powers.

...these passages reveal the polemical, partisan mean-spiritedness that lies at the heart of Clarke's book, and to an even greater degree, his television appearances flacking it. That's a shame, since many of his contentions — about the years of political and intelligence missteps that led to 9/11, the failure of two Administrations to destroy al-Qaeda and the potentially disastrous consequences of the U.S. invasion of Iraq — deserve a wide and serious airing. From now on, the country would be best served if Clarke lets the facts speak for themselves.

Romesh scores a late point under the 'Pot v Kettle' rule with this one, reinforced as it is with the repeated 'partisan' charge. Indeed, Romesh, let the facts speak for themselves.

Romesh's final tally -- 20 points! An excellent score! We may just be seeing him again in our Tournament of Chumpions at the end of the year...

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