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June 14, 2006

Fighting "The Good Fight" Apparently Doesn't Involve Hiring A Fact Checker

I know an embarrassing amount about the Iraq/WMD story. Hopefully I'll never learn this much about any other political issue. If I do, I hope someone will have the decency to (1) tell me I've wasted my life and (2) shoot me.

One side effect of knowing all this crap is I'm acutely aware of the precise way in which every claim made by war proponents was inaccurate. I mean that literally: every claim. Moreover, I don't mean in hindsight, I mean based on what was known at the time.

Sometimes their claims were 20% false, sometimes 80% false, and sometimes 100% false. But they never once got things 100% right. And curiously enough, every "error" always fell in the same direction, that of making their case appear stronger.

With that in mind, it's useful to examine more of Peter Beinart's interview with Kevin Drum (reg. req.):

BEINART: ...there is a bit of a tendency sometimes amongst liberals to think that because George W. Bush has hyped this so much that it's mostly hype. If you look at the Lugar poll, which I cite in the book, Senator Richard Lugar, who is not an ideologue, gets together all these non-proliferation types and basically says what are the chances we're going to be hit with a weapon of mass destruction attack in the next ten years? They say 70 percent. He says what are the chances we are going to be hit with a nuclear attack? They say 30 percent. And 80 percent say it is most likely that one of those will come from a terrorist group. And these are not people who are on Karl Rove's payroll.

I thought this sounded interesting, so I read the Lugar survey (pdf) myself. And it turns out Beinart's characterization of it is in shouting distance of reality. But what he said certainly isn't 100% accurate. Moreover, every error falls in the same direction: that of making Beinart's case appear stronger.

Let's take a look!

1. "...these are not people who are on Karl Rove's payroll"


Lugar received responses from 85 people; they're listed on page 4. At least one, Robert Joseph, is literally on Rove's payroll as a high-level Bush appointee. Joseph is a notorious hardliner who was on the National Security Council for four years before replacing John Bolton as Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Joseph supervised the section on Iraq's WMD in the 2003 State of the Union, and was responsible for the uranium-from-Africa claim.

Quite a few others inhabit the Bush administration's Dr. Strangelove-flavored penumbra. There's Richard Allen, who's on the Defense Advisory Board; Frank Carlucci, of the Carlyle Group and Project for a New American Century; and James Woolsey, Patrick Clawson, Reuel Marc Gerecht and Fred Ikle, all well-known for their role with PNAC and similar places. Still more are on the standard conservative gravy train, such as Richard W. Fisher, Vice-Chairman of Kissinger McLarty Associates.

The rest are mostly Council on Foreign Relations-style centrists, with a smattering of genuine liberals.

An accurate way to express this would have been: "While a significant minority are on Karl Rove's payroll, figuratively and otherwise, the majority are not."

2. "[Lugar asked] what are the chances we are going to be hit with a nuclear attack?"


Lugar didn't ask specifically about a nuclear attack on America. The question was this: "In your opinion, what is the probability (expressed as a percentage) of an attack involving a nuclear explosion occurring somewhere in the world in the next 10 years?"

Of course, a nuclear attack on anyone would be very bad for America, as well as everyone else. But there's still a significant difference between what Beinart claimed and what the respondents actually were saying.

(Note that by "we" Beinart definitely does mean America. He says that explicitly when he mentions the poll in his book.)

An accurate way to express this would have been simply to quote the actual question.

3. "They say 30 percent"

Not exactly.

The survey reports both the median and the average of the responses. Beinart is right that the average is 30% (well, 29.2%). However, the median is lower, at 20%.

An accurate way to express this would have been to give both measures, particularly since there were a cluster of very high responses (see below).

4. "80 percent say it is most likely that one of those will come from a terrorist group"


Question #6 on page 15 is "In your opinion, if a nuclear attack occurs during the next 10 years, is it more likely to be carried out by terrorists or by a government?" 79% said terrorists, 21% said a government.


I certainly don't think it invalidates Beinart's point. Even if the respondents are overestimating the chances of a nuclear terrorist attack—which you might expect from people in their line of work no matter where they fall on the political spectrum—it's something to be taken very seriously, since the consequences would be so catastrophic. Besides all the dead people, we can be certain such an attack anywhere on earth would essentially kill democracy everywhere for the next 100 years or so.


This really, really irritates me.

A) I hate this kind of corner-cutting on principle. But it's particularly inexcusable when, like Beinart, you're being paid $600,000 for it. (He supposedly got that for a two book deal including The Good Fight.) At those rates you can afford to include actual accuracy.

B) When you're criticizing people for believing something is "mostly hype," it's polite not to hype it.

C) Most importantly, as I said a million words ago, Beinart et al did exactly this kind of thing regarding Iraq. You'd think he couldn't continue doing it now and still live with himself. Fortunately, every graduate of Stutts University like Beinart undergoes highly toxic chemotherapy to kill their sense of shame.

Whew! Well, that was something no one on earth but me will be interested in. But if on the off chance you're dropping in from Mars and want to dig deeper, the relevant page from the survey is below.

Posted at June 14, 2006 07:28 AM | TrackBack

I think that if some jihadists get ahold of a nuclear explosive, or even a "dirty bomb" (a conventional explosive that spreads radioactive material to contaminate a large area), they will find it very hard to resist the temptation to blow it up in Washington DC. Everything the Cheney Administration has been doing increases the chance for this regrettable contingency.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at June 14, 2006 09:19 AM

nuclear attack? only if jeb got elected and cheney held on to his vampire bed aka the veeps office, and rove got to be the information minister.

then of course, it would be described as a polite ,misunderstanding

Posted by: almostinfamous at June 14, 2006 09:41 AM

30%? Why not 32? or 31.987? Since we've produced nothing to measure this against? And if it doesn't happen, well, we're not wrong, are we? Why not say there's a 99.689% chance? Again, if it doesn't happen, we can always say "Whew! That was close."

This "data" is being pulled out of the ass of think-tank denizens who have their own agenda. No matter how many agenda-carrying ass-spewing sheltered government stooges you put in a room, the answer follows the same principles: what is true doesn't matter. More important is, what do you want to be true?

Until some pundit comes forward and says, "100%. In Alsace-Lorraine. In the next three months;" and it proves to be I going to put any credence to this crap. In the meantime its akin to the elephant rock. "Yep, no elephants around here. Rock must be working."

Posted by: Alexis S at June 14, 2006 09:44 AM

I agree with Alexis - that was my first reaction as well. What was their methodology? "We ran simulations of the entire world geo-political and economic history for the next ten years. In 30% of simulations, a nuclear explosion occured sometime during that period."

Also, I think what Beinart said and what Lugar asked are VERY different. The questions, whether the United States is going to be nuked, or whether SOMEONE is going to be nuked, possibly BY the United States, are extremely different.

Posted by: saurabh at June 14, 2006 10:39 AM

On the anniversary of 9/11, the NY Times reported -- as a tiny sidenote -- that captured documents showed that al Qaeda considered crashing planes into nuclear power plants, but rejected the idea. The story indicated that they rejected the idea for moral reasons; it was too much to create a massive nuclear incident. Of course, I can't figure how they accept crashing into the Twin Towers as morally OK, but it showed there was some twisted consideration of how much innocent killing was "too much."

There is little chance that they would "restrain" themselves in a similar manner now, since Chimpy has given them the all-out brutal war they so desired.

Posted by: Whistler Blue at June 14, 2006 12:36 PM

So facts bounce off people's heads, true enough and what was the truth about Iraq. Instead of looking at what politicians and pundits say why not look at what the anthropologists say?

The first question to ask our anthropologist would be what causes war in the first place?

Answer: When one country builds up a surplus of some kind of goods that another country needs and does not have this will always be the basis and cause of ALL wars. Not some wars, ALL wars. So if you hear about WMD or spreading democracy or liberation it will always be pure bullshit.

But of course what do anthropologists know? Their job is to study humanity in all its glory. I have pointed this out before but all I get is disbelief because it could not be that simple. It has to be some kind of grand strategy or it has to be some kind of lunacy on the part of our leaders. Somehow it is just so disappointing to realize that it was no complicated many tiered objective it was that Iraq had something our government wanted.

Anthropology will always outrage certain people because it reveals too much about ourselves and we don't like that, we would rather garb it in something more spectacular and intellectually challenging because it makes us feel more important.

Can you follow the bouncing fact?

I agree with Alexis as well, what qualifies these think tankers to say this about that or that about this? Nothing, not their credentials that they wear like cabbage on a generals uniform and remember it was think tankers that told Bush war was a good plan and I think that is all we really need to know about think tankers and what they claim.

Posted by: rob payne at June 14, 2006 05:37 PM

I think saurabh hints at the most absurd part of this--many of those surveyed are in positions to increase the odds of a nuclear attack: Either by provoking terrorists or other countries to launch one, or more likely, given that they've got the largest nuclear arsenal at their command, launching one themselves. Let's hope they're not out to prove themselves right.

Posted by: bob at June 14, 2006 08:14 PM

It's ALL just shoveling shit to swing a realestate deal. A basic case of ARMED ROBBERY.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at June 14, 2006 08:59 PM

Hedgehog, remember the Bushies thought this was going to be easy, they talked themselves into that one and found out they were wrong.

Posted by: rob payne at June 14, 2006 10:24 PM

Hold a gun to the Iraqis' head, steal the shirt off AMERICA'S back.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at June 15, 2006 12:41 AM

The Bushies could have known the cost if anyone had asked. There were already those predicting numbers above $50 billion; I suspect that by just dropping that on Iraq we could have gotten everyone on our side.

No, they didn't do it because it would be cheap or because they needed to steal what Iraq had. I don't know the full reason but I can speculate. Growing up I heard plenty of conservatives lament that the U.S. had grown soft and needed a bracing experience like the Depression or WWII to make us manly again.

It apparently never occurred to them that what made Americans more independent and tough then could have been their leaders calling on them to contribute to the greater good, rather than telling them to consume citizenship like a Big Mac.

Posted by: hedgehog at June 15, 2006 01:07 AM

This is a little like when we were polling Information Technology Security professionals about whether a Millenium Bug catastrophe was a high or low probability. The higher their estimate, the more valuable the expertise they were selling. As I recalled, they overestimated a bit as to how easily and completed it would be fixed.

Next let's survey burglar alarm salesmen on how likely it is for your house to get broken into.


Posted by: Michael Pollak at June 15, 2006 04:02 AM

Lugar is either being deliberately disingenuous, and acting like an effing hypocrite, or (more charitably), he's got a blind spot as big as an Indiana cornfield--or a sprawling subdivision, which is what many Indiana cornfields are being turned into. The essence of the NPT is that non-nuclear nations agree not to pursue the acquisition of nuclear weapons IN EXCHANGE FOR real and substantial reductions, and eventual disarmament, by those already in the nuclear club. And what is the U.S. regime doing? Violating international treaties and conventions (on chemical, nuclear and biological weapons, the militarization of space...), developing new generations of "more usable" lethal weapons, threatening, invading and occupying other nations, "keeping all options on the table", including the first use of a nuclear bomb and the "right" to attack a country "pre-emptively"--i.e. for no good reason. Also, refusing to criticize or even publicly acknowledge Israel's illegal arsenal (while having conniptions over Iran), and sanctioning and rewarding India's nuclear status. Among other things. Odd how none of this appears in Lugar's report. The focus, and the onus, is entirely on other countries of the world, when the United States is the single worst offender and biggest driving factor in the nuclear arms race.

But then, Lugar IS an ideologue. Pure Republican partisan hack underneath that moderate and respectable-looking veneer. I lived in Indiana during Bush's first term, and made a couple of trips to Lugar's Indianapolis office with other activists to express our views on the Iraq invasion and occupation. We implored him, courteously but passionately, and backed with strong factual evidence, to use his intelligence and his influence in Washington to restrain the scaremongers and warmongers. He blew us off completely. By going along with the Bush war plans, he is as responsible as the neocon architects themselves for the horrendous consequences that followed--and that we predicted at the time. Our second visit was just before the Congressional vote on the additional $87 billion Bush wanted for Iraq in the fall of 2003. Lugar (along with sidekick Biden) was all over the talk shows, pretending to ask serious questions and act responsibly regarding the request; he wanted credit from skeptical constituents for "asking hard questions" (the actual phrase the head of his Indianapolis office used on us). This was exposed as the charade it was/is when he stated outright even as he was raising those supposed questions that he would definitely vote in favor. What kind of accountability and oversight is that? Pure charade. And I saw, too, how he willingly prostituted himself in Indiana on pro-Bush campaign commercials.

Funny how of all those "experts" in his study group, not a single one mentioned U.S. foreign and defense (sic) policy as a top non-proliferation priority. This survey looks to me like little more than a plug for the Nunn-Lugar program, dressed up as a "scientific" (sic) survey. And that program, while it has some achievements to its credit, completely misses the larger context and dominant driving forces behind nuclear proliferation. Lugar needs to take a closer look at his own country's policies and actions before lecturing others.

Posted by: Jean at June 15, 2006 04:12 AM

Hedgehog, if you believe Bush invaded Iraq to make us more manly than you are fucking idiot.

Posted by: rob payne at June 15, 2006 09:57 AM


As Sitemom, I would prefer more reasoned disagreement and less profane, interpersonal sniping.

Profane, intrapersonal sniping remains fine, however.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at June 15, 2006 12:16 PM

seems to me that the two interlocking reasons for invading Iraq are

1) to control—not obtain, but control—the Iraq oil, and, more important, control who gets it. We easily could have continued buying it. That's not the point. We have to be able to hold it over China's head like a club. Which is merely a subset of:
1a) control over the Entire Middle East—meaning a permanent presence in Iraq, biggest embassy in the universe, more bases ringing China, etc.

2) let's not forget turning on the afterburners on the fleet of jets carrying money from the middle class of the US to the war profiteers. Look at the billions, nay, soon to be trillions, going directly from the US treasury (us) to Lockeed-Martin, Bechtel, General Dynamics, Halliburton, et al, with only a feigned slight of hand momentary stop in an account labeled "for Iraq" or "against Terrorism" but never actually getting anywhere near any Iraqis, or Afghans for that matter.

The ironic corollary of this is that we've run out of our own money to give to these profiteers, so the US is using Chinese and Japanese money. Yes, that's right. Using China's own money to finance the building of bases ringing China! Fortunately, this is so cleverly hidden that China will continue to buy up our debt indefinitely, just to insure the continued proliferation of Walmarts.

well, maybe not.

Ironically, the best way for inhabitants to get some of this cash is to be there when the Allied Special Forces are handing out bags of hundred dollar bills, pre-invasion, as has been going on in Iran for months already.

Posted by: steve at June 15, 2006 02:50 PM

What was said above about Luger is true for John Edwards too. I wrote long, long letters telling him how Iraq had no nuclear WMDs or anything else that threatened the USA.

And, I imagine, John Kerry.

AFter the war started, I wrote him and said "I hope you find those WMDs to justify this immoral and illegal war."

Before the war, I thought it was a stupid idea. I was wrong about that. It is a oh-so-breath-takingly stupid idea. Like in stupid beyond all belief. I never suspected they would fuck up so badly, and I am coming to the conclusion that they are doing this on purpose.

Posted by: Susan at June 15, 2006 05:05 PM

I have long thought that war has transitioned from its historical roots as a means of wealth/power redistribution (for better or worse) and nation-consolidation to something that is more than the sum of those two parts--an excuse to funnel large sums of money without any oversight or thorough justification. I'm not saying the former two never happen, but they're pretty rare, especially around here.

SiteMom, I want milk and cookies. And if I don't get it my left hand is going to slap my right hand. See if you can stop that intrapersonal sniping!

Posted by: Saheli at June 15, 2006 05:23 PM

""I think that if some jihadists get ahold of a nuclear explosive, or even a "dirty bomb" (a conventional explosive that spreads radioactive material to contaminate a large area), they will find it very hard to resist the temptation to blow it up in Washington DC.""

Yes but Washington DC != All of America. The US fire bombed Tokyo, nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan survived. The USSR lost 20 million in WWII and went on to crush Germany. We lost New Orleans and America still rumbles onward.

The point is that terrorsists with a loose nuke just are not an existential threat to the US. Slavery, now there was an existential threat it lead to civil war and the loss 700,000 men and it's still an issue.

Posted by: gibbon1 at June 15, 2006 06:10 PM

Jonathan, sorry about the profanity, my apologies.

Posted by: rob payne at June 15, 2006 07:38 PM

So, why am I still paying these people? I suppose so they can stesl the kids' lunch money till they get grown, buy a rifle and 2 bullets with what's left, put it in their hands and send them out a conquering.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at June 15, 2006 09:03 PM

My comments were a little oblique especially in my haste to get milk and cookies.
My point was that we may very well and, I say, probably do go to war so we can spend the money that it costs in a very particular way, one which been championed continuosly and consistently by powerful people. I'm not sure exactly what hedgehog means, but I'd wager "that way" has some Venn overlap with the list of budget items Joe Schmoe considers "Manly"--and that his considerations thereof are not coincidental.

And anyway, I'm willing to line up my IQ behind hedgehog's and vouch for it, not that that carries much weight.

Posted by: Saheli at June 15, 2006 09:57 PM

I think that controlling the oil is the same as stealing it, I think Iraq is sitting on top of, if I recall correctly, about one third of the world supply of oil. No matter how you cut it, control the Middle-East or control the oil it is still a stock pile of goods that is there for the taking. If you control it you own it. I don't know why this is so hard to believe that the Bushies would start a war that they thought would be over in a couple months for capitol gained. They are stealing our money right now and giving it to the oil companies in the form of tax breaks and subsidies do really think stealing Iraqi oil would be beneath them somehow? The problem is they totally misjudged the situation and now three years later they still have their hand stuck in the cookie jar and are making up all kinds of crap to save face i.e. spread democracy, liberation etc. You know liberals are supposed to believe in science but apparently not when it does not agree with their misconceptions.

Posted by: rob payne at June 15, 2006 10:40 PM

I don't know how anyone could possibly believe we went to Irag to make us manly. Give me a break, please.

Posted by: rob payne at June 15, 2006 10:49 PM

I guess it all depends on your definition of MANLY. If you believe going out and killing someone, or a lot of people and siezeing their possessions is MANLY, the point may be well taken. That's because that's exactly what's happening. When you kill someone, when you take their life, you've taken ALL they ever had, ALL they could ever be.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at June 15, 2006 11:33 PM

Mike, I understand what you are saying however watching a rich and powerful nation literally destroy another nation which was perceived as weak and defenseless and therefore an easy target and then present it as an act of benevolent kindness I find it extremely hard to swallow. I know I am pounding this into the ground but being manly is just not even remotely related to why America invaded Iraq, you can look at if from any angle, up, down, inside out or right side up but it is still the most asinine thing I have ever heard in my life.

Posted by: rob payne at June 16, 2006 12:13 AM

Oh come on, Mr. Bush invaded Iraq because our "lifestyles are non-negotiable," & because of 911 & because Saddam was "another Hitler," & because Mr. Bush didn't want "the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud over an American city," & because "911 taught us that our oceans no longer protect us," &, most of all, to spread freedom jelly on the oppressed Iraqi muffin.

See, it's pretty simple.

Now if Mr. Bush follows this brilliant strategy of his with enforced homage to Poseidon so the goddamn oceans get off their asses & start protecting us again, then, sirs & ladies, & only then, will I be proud to call this president MY president.

Posted by: Richard at June 16, 2006 01:26 AM

At last a voice of reason, don't forget mom and apple pie.

Posted by: rob payne at June 16, 2006 01:45 AM

As I stated above, it looks like ARMED ROBBERY to me. Just another violent crime that will go unsolved.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at June 16, 2006 02:32 AM

I think you are right about armed robbery Mike Meyer.

Posted by: rob payne at June 16, 2006 03:37 AM

I agree that Washington DC is NOT equivalent to the entire U.S. However, it IS a "high value target" - and also, a number of people dear to me personally live in the immediate vicinity. That is why I hope it will NOT be attacked with a nuclear explosive or radioactive dirty bomb. The Cheney Administration's policies are increasing the probability of this unhappy outcome. My suggested course of action - change the policies, change the administration, try to be a good neighbor instead of the boss of the world, c'mon people, smile on your brother (everyone you meet), get together and love one another right now.

And a pony.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at June 16, 2006 08:59 AM