By Dennis Hans
you are a head of state whose public has such grave concerns
about your administration's judgment, competence, credibility
or integrity that you have no choice but to establish an independent
body to investigate, all is not lost. By picking the right
person to head up the inquiry, you can all but guarantee a
satisfactory outcome, no matter how deserving of censure you
and your aides are.
I call this "appointment determinism."
Although human beings have the capacity to surprise, far
more often we act predictably. Tony Blair didn't know for
certain that Lord Brian Hutton, a pillar and protecter of
the British establishment, would be gentle with Blair and
other government witnesses in the investigation into the circumstances
surrounding the death of David Kelly, or that Hutton, in his
final report, would buy so completely the government line.
But Blair did know his chances were much better with Hutton
than with an inquisitor who had long been hip to and disgusted
by the Blair team's spinning ways.
Blair actually chose too well in this case. Part of Hutton's
investigation looked at portions of the Blair team's September
2002 dossier on Iraqi WMD. Hutton absolved the Blair government
and its intelligence chiefs of misleading the public - a finding
that elicited such widespread derision that Blair was forced
to select another lord to head a committee that would conduct
a broader investigation into pre-war intelligence. But not
Blair has appointed the right honorable and right timid
Lord Butler to lead the investigation. He and a few other
establishmentarians picked by Blair will interview officials
in private, and the investigation will focus
"principally on structures, systems and processes rather than
on the actions of individuals." That narrow focus is guaranteed
to leave the British public dissatisfied. But it will buy
Blair another five months (Lord Butler's "findings" are due
in July 2004), at which point I predict Blair will respond
to renewed public outrage by appointing another lame lord
with a slightly broader mandate to produce Act III of this
Who gets appointed and why
Twelve-year-olds with blank slates are not picked to investigate
governmental behavior. Adults are. Adults who have been around
long enough to establish a track record. Adults who have a
political viewpoint, a demeanor (lapdog, bulldog or somewhere
in between), social standing, friends in high places or lack
thereof, the willingness (or not) to burn bridges, a protective
or antagonistic view toward the entity being investigated,
and the need (or not) to be liked.
If you want the unvarnished truth, there are qualified people
who, if picked, are likely to give you just that. If you prefer
the truth varnished, there are respected, qualified people
who can be counted on to provide a heavy coat and others who
will reliably deliver a light coat. In most cases, the varnishers
will see themselves as every bit as honorable and conscientious
as the investigator who regularly delivers the unvarnished
stuff. But that doesn't mean they are.
A closer look at Kay
Let's say you want to make the best of a bad situation,
and your name is George W. Bush. The "bad situation" is the
failure to find WMD in Iraq. So you ask CIA director George
Tenet to find out why, and you okay Tenet's proposal that
David Kay, who investigated Iraq's nuclear-weapons program
for the U.N. in 1991-92, look into the matter. From the Bush
administration's perspective, Kay would seem to be a good
choice as well as a team player, having pushed for war and
denigrated inspections as a waste of time from his perch as
an objective NBC News "analyst" and occasional contributor
to the pro-war Washington Post.
In May 2003, prior to his CIA appointment on June 11, Kay
returned to Iraq and pronounced with great certitude on NBC
that two recently discovered trailers were bioweapons labs.
He said that claims by Iraqi scientists that the trailers
were for the production of hydrogen for military weather balloons
"didn't pass the laugh test." (Doubts among U.S. government
experts emerged by the end of May, and the consensus today
is that the Iraqi scientists told the truth.) Kay's unjustified,
ridiculously premature certitude should have been the cue
to the U.S. media to declare, upon hearing of Kay's appointment,
"David Kay doesn't pass the laugh test."
But it did pass, and Kay headed the investigation in Iraq
until January 2004. At that point, he cemented his wholly
undeserved reputation as a straight shooter by acknowledging
the bleeding obvious: we haven't found any WMD, and we're
unlikely to ever find any WMD of significance, because it
appears that Iraq destroyed its pre-1991 stocks years ago
and hadn't produce any WMD since 1991.
Kay's "credibility" thus established across the narrow spectrum
of mass-media thought with his "sky is blue" pronouncement,
he is now free to make all manner of dubious pronouncements
favorable to the Bush team and be taken seriously!
"We were all wrong" about Iraq's WMD, Kay tells us. He sees
no evidence of CIA analysts being leaned on, or of the president
and his aides improving on the CIA's intelligence in their
pronouncements to win over Congress, the media and the public.
And it turns out that Iraq, despite not having the WMD we
knew it had, was an even more dangerous place in the pre-war
period than we had imagined!
Yes, Kay was a great choice. This untrustworthy, right-wing
propagandist is now presented as The Man Who Speaks Truth
to Power. Now administration officials can say, "Even David
Kay" says Saddam was a serious threat, and "Even David Kay"
says we had to go to war.
Appointing the appearance of "balance"
Kay's "findings" led to more choices for Bush, because the
president desperately wants to find out how that "darn good
intelligence" - provided by that darned good CIA led so capably
by that man Bush has such great faith in - could be so "wrong."
So Bush announced he was creating an "independent commission,
chaired by Governor and former [Virginia] Senator Chuck Robb,
and Judge Laurence Silberman, to look at American intelligence
capabilities, especially our intelligence about weapons of
Beautiful. Give the commission a narrowly defined task,
and "balance" shady, hard-right political operative Silberman
with a dim-witted, conservative, DLC-oriented, pro-war Democrat.
And to guard against criticism that the Silberman-Robb duo
might be too protective of the man who appointed them, put
John "Maverick" McCain on the commission and hope that no
one notices that he's already on record dismissing the possibility
that Bush may have deliberately misled the nation into war,
or that McCain's maverickism doesn't extend to foreign policy.
In that area he's a proud "Reagan Republican" who can be counted
on to conclude that, to prevent future "intelligence failures,"
we need a huge investment in "human intelligence," including
much more vigorous recruitment of torture supervisors in the
security forces of allied governments.
The Post appoints ostriches
"Appointment determinism" is also a fine tool for analyzing
the news media. If you're curious as to why the Washington
Post, proud possesser of a roster of capable reporters,
waited till after the war to systematically scrutinize the
Bush team's arguments for going to war - scrutiny that should
have been all over the front page back in September-October
2002 - it's because the Graham family appoints people like
Leonard Downie and Bob Woodward to direct the news operation.
The Graham family owns the Post, and current publisher
Donald, like his late mother Katharine, supports an aggressive,
interventionist foreign policy, and he doesn't want his toy
(the Post) doing anything that my restrain or even
prevent a president from implementing such a policy.
The Graham family achieves that goal not by telling senior
editors what to do, but by appointing to such positions those
who, over many years, absorbed Graham-family values and now
exude them. Such editors are inclined to proceed with utmost
caution or look the other way if they suspect the administration
is using deception to win public support for intervention
abroad. So instead of a flood of carefully researched, hard-hitting
articles when it might have mattered, the Post provided a
trickle of stories - often buried in inside pages and rarely
amplified in editorials or op-eds.
Wondering why the editorial and op-ed pages of the Post
are so hawkish? Simple. The Graham family wants them that
way. In the late 1970s, Katharine handed over the editorial
pages to Meg Greenfield, who fancied herself a liberal but
was regarded by sane people as a domestic-policy moderate
and a foreign-policy superhawk conservative - a combination
that doesn't quite add up to "liberal." She and her opinon
pages led cheers for "Reagan Doctrine" policies that sponsored
monstrous governments and rebel groups that combined to slaughter
hundreds of thousands of civilians in Central America, Southeast
Asia and southern Africa.
Greenfield passed away a few years ago, at which point Fred
Hiatt took the reins. Liberals and moderates who are justifiably
disgusted with the Post might not want to hear this,
but Hiatt, in my view, is honest. (I presume Greenfield was,
too.) But he is an honest guy with a warped, Greenfieldian
view not only of U.S. foreign policy, but of what constitutes
a "range" of views. Now that a stroke has silenced the pen
of 85-year-old Mary McGrory, the Post has achieved
something that must surely delight Donald Graham: opinion
pages with not a single foreign-policy liberal or progressive.
The Post prefers liberals who know little about foreign
policy and, on those rare occasions when they write on the
topic, stick to a hawkish, center-right, inside-the-beltway,
conventional-wisdom script. Exhibit A is war-supporter E.
Dionne's views explain why timid National Public Radio appointed
him to be the "liberal" counterpoint to consistent right-winger
David Brooks in weekly chats on All Things Considered. And
we might add that NBC got just what it wanted when it hired
bellicose David Kay.
The power to appoint is a mighty powerful power, and it's
a determining factor in what we read, hear and see, what gets
investigated, and what investigators reveal and conceal.
Dennis Hans is a freelance writer who has taught courses
in mass communications and American foreign policy at the
University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. Prior to the Iraq
war he published "Lying
Us Into War: Exposing Bush and His 'Techniques of Deceit'"
Disinformation Age." He can be reached at HANS_D@popmail.firn.edu