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January 03, 2006

I Am So God Damn Honest

Sometimes honesty demands you do things you don't want to do. Sometimes, as horrifying as it is, it requires that you defend Donald Rumsfeld. The truth is a swift and terrible sword.

For some time now I've believed Rumsfeld was screwed by Bob Woodward in Woodward's book Plan of Attack. Even worse, he was screwed again when he complained about being screwed. And Woodward came out of it smelling like a rose, with the entire false premise now entering the conventional wisdom. Here's a version of it from a NY Times story yesterday about how the internet is changing journalism:

While the publication of raw material is often aimed at putting the journalist in a bad light, it can sometimes boomerang on the source. The Pentagon got into a dispute with Bob Woodward of The Washington Post in 2004 over quotations in his book "Plan of Attack" that were attributed to Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld about the invasion of Iraq. The quotations had not appeared in the Pentagon's official transcript of Mr. Woodward's interview with Mr. Rumsfeld. But they appeared in full in Mr. Woodward's transcript, and the Pentagon had to admit that it had deleted those portions from its transcript.

I'm certain the reporter, Katharine Seelye, didn't actually investigate this for herself. She just read about it somewhere, and dumped it into the NY Times. Too bad it's extremely misleading.

Here's what actually happened:

1. In Plan of Attack, Bob Woodward describes a January 11, 2003 meeting between Prince Bandar (then Saudi ambassador to the US), Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Gen. Richard Myers (then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff). On p. 265, Woodward writes that Rumsfeld told Bandar there was no question America was going to invade Iraq:

Rumsfeld looked Bandar in the eye. "You can count on this," Rumsfeld said, pointing to the map [of the invasion battleplan]. "You can take that to the bank. This is going to happen."

2. This was news when Plan of Attack came out, because it indicated the decision to go to war had been made by early January, ten weeks before the invasion. However, the Pentagon complained Rumsfeld had never said that to Bandar. As evidence, they posted a transcript of Woodward's October 23, 2003 interview with Rumsfeld. There was no sign of the supposed "take that to the bank" comment.

3. Woodward produced a section from the interview the Pentagon had deleted from the transcript. It included this:

Rumsfeld: I remember meeting with the Vice President and I think [Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] and I met with a foreign dignitary at one point and looked him in the eye and said you can count on this. In other words at some point we had had enough of a signal from the President that we were able to look a foreign dignitary in the eye and say you can take that to the bank this is going to happen.

4. The Washington Post did a victory dance. Many progressives seized upon this as evidence of Rumsfeld's preposterous dishonesty.

5. But.

If you actually read the deleted interview material, Rumsfeld explicitly says that—while he did make those remarks to a "foreign dignitary" at some time—it was not Bandar and it was later than January 11.

On the timing:

Q: Do you remember when that was [you said that to a foreign dignitary]?

Rumsfeld: I do not. But I can't tell you who it was [I said it to] but I remember it was the Vice President, Dick Myers and me.

Q: [Was] that when Myers gave the briefing to Bandar in Cheney's office because I think you were there.

Rumsfeld: When was that?

Q: I have the date -- it was in February I think or maybe it was late January.

Rumsfeld: Sounds early.

Q: Sounds early yeah. It struck me as early too and it could be later in February.

On who the dignitary was:

Rumsfeld: I can't tell you who it was [I said it to]...I mean you just said Bandar and I didn't agree with that so we're going to have to -- I don't want to say who it is but you are going to have to go through that and find a way to clean up my language too.

6. Thus, Rumsfeld was almost certainly in the right—that is, he didn't claim he made those remarks to Bandar nor that he made them early in January, 2003—and those criticizing him (in this one instance) are almost certainly in the wrong.

Rumsfeld has the right to feel aggrieved about this, particularly since these were his first words to Woodward:

I've told you before that my memory tends to go toward concepts, principles and approaches as opposed to details, so if there are factual differences at anything I say, alert us and we'll check them.

7. Ow! I am so honest that it causes me physical distress!

Posted at January 3, 2006 07:35 PM | TrackBack

If you follow the deleted text link to the WaPo, you find a blank article entitled "The Deleted Text". Is someone at the the WaPo funning you? I do not have a copy of the printed paper either to verify.

I will reserve my judgement until the information you cite becomes available. The greatest strength of the internet is its ability to transmit, present, and search volumous first hand material, but its weakness is the ability to Orwellianly manipulate, republish, or unpublish the same.

Important side note:
I advise all ethical bloggers to begin to use strong assymetrical public key hashes to capture and republish original source material, as well as in their own publishing of their own material.

That way, if the Wapo or other source upon publishing a first hand document hashed the document and its contents with a strong a randomly generated assymetrically verifiable key then the text could be mathematically proven to be accurate when hosted by any mirror. This completely prevent sorwellian alterations to the text, given the strength of the crypto-scheme. However this crypto-scheme requires transparency in internet publishing infrastructure, which very few people are pushing for at the moment. BTW it is very possible to preserve anonymity while ensuring transparency between all parties.

This also assume a very lenient copyright protect regime, rather than one design to squelch published materials.

We need a clean congress an a large open debate to ensure these safe guards are created fairly. The guiding principle should be that "transparent" publishing should be easy to use, very hard to misuse, and easy to detect a given misuse. Further that norms copyright should permit broad republishing of information while preserving the details of authorship, as well as the chain of publishing and republishing.

Sorry this is way off topic by now.

Posted by: patience at January 4, 2006 09:58 AM

Brutal honesty is the new black.

Jonathan is so fashion-forward.

Posted by: oyster at January 4, 2006 12:40 PM

The content of the WaPo article is now present, however the links to the full transcripts are not working.
(as edited and released on April 20)
(as edited and released on April 20)

Your case seems solid but without access to the full transcripts for analysis, it can not be conclusive.

Johnathan I give you great credit for reminding us that we are often overly ready to paint everything a person does with a black brush, when they have a demonstrated history of disception and public misrepresentation. It certainly may not be the case that Rumsfeld committed early, but with these characters now in office it becomes a momumental task even for a dispassionate observer, of which I am not, to clear them of anything.

Posted by: patience at January 4, 2006 06:57 PM

I want to know how you managed to read all the way through Plan of Attack? That book was so damned boring that I managed about eighty pages as a matter of conscience, like it was something I had to do, but I never got beyond that because Woodward bored the hell out of me.

Posted by: DBK at January 5, 2006 03:01 PM