Fringe leftist losers: wrong even when they're right

Evidence was abundant that Bush was manipulating terror alerts for political gain. Why didn't journalists see it?

Published August 20, 2009 5:21PM (EDT)

(Updated below - Update II - Update III - Update IV - Update V - Update VI)

"There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty" -- John Adams, Journal, 1772.

"All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree" -- James Madison, speech at the Constitutional Convention, July 11, 1787.

"All governments lie" -- journalist I.F. Stone, addressing journalism students on the one truth they'd be well-advised always to recall.

"Information asymmetry is always going to exist, and, living as we do in a Democratic [sic] system, most journalists are going to give the government the benefit of some doubt, even having learned lessons about giving the government that benefit" -- The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder, today, reacting to Tom Ridge's confession that the Bush administration heightened terror alerts for political gain, and justifying why journalists such as himself "were very skeptical when anti-Bush liberals insisted that what Ridge now says is true, was true."


That little progression of thought explains much about our political and media culture.  Marcy Wheeler dissects and eviscerates Ambinder's remarkable reaction to the Ridge revelation (Ambinder has now retracted some (though not all) of his more irresponsible assertions).  But Ambinder's comments reveal a couple of other points worth highlighting.

Just as is still commonly said about opponents of the Iraq War (even though they were right, they were still wrong and unSerious because their motives were bad), Ambinder acknowledges that Bush critics were right that the terror alerts were being manipulated for political ends (he has no choice but to acknowledge that now that Ridge admits it), but still says journalists like himself were right to scorn such critics "because these folks based their assumption on gut hatred for President Bush, and not on any evaluation of the raw intelligence."  As always:  even when the dirty leftist hippies are proven right, they're still Shrill, unSerious Losers who every decent person and "journalist" scorns.

Ambinder's belief that there is nothing other than blind "Bush hatred" that could have justified such a belief -- and his accompanying self-defense that journalists like him had no way of knowing any of this -- is patently false.  Here is a 2006 Time column by Josh Marshall that details the ample empirical evidence suggesting that "that the Bush Administration orchestrates its terror alerts and arrests to goose the GOP's poll numbers."  And here is an exhaustive and lengthy (17 minutes) segment from Keith Olbermann early last year that "weaves from each revelation of an intelligence failure or a Democratic political victory to an almost immediate orange alert or 'new threat' from al Qaeda."  Olbermann's conclusion after examining all the evidence:  "what we were told about terror, and not told, for security reasons, has overlapped considerably with what we were told about terror, and not told, for political reasons" (Olbermann had been raising the same suspicion for many years).

The reason journalists such as Ambinder saw no such evidence wasn't because it didn't exist.  It existed in abundance; you had to suffer from some form of moral, intellectual or emotional blindness not to see it.  It's because they didn't want to see it, because -- as Ambinder said -- they trusted the Bush administration as good and decent people who might err but would never do anything truly dishonest.  It's because only loser Leftist ideologues distrusted Bush officials and the overriding goal of establishment journalists is to prove that they are not like them, that they're much more Serious and responsible and thus would never attribute bad motives to government leaders such as those who ran the Bush administration. 

That's the same reason most establishment journalists instinctively oppose investigations of Bush officials:  the people who rule over their Washington court may make mistakes, but they never do anything dishonest or criminal.  They certainly don't blatantly lie.  These journalists are the anti-I.F. Stones.  And that's why political leaders know they can get away with blatant lying and lawbreaking.  Why is that, Marc Ambinder?  Because "most journalists are going to give the government the benefit of some doubt, even having learned lessons about giving the government that benefit."

About Ridge's revelations, Atrios today observes:

Sometimes it's a bit hard to remember just how nutty the world was in those post-9/11 days. Suggesting that Bush was using the terror alert for political purposes would have made you a crazy person, the mere suggestion of it would've put you outside the bounds of acceptable discourse.

Indeed, so strong was the stigma against those who said such things that Josh Marhsall felt compelled to insert this qualifier into the first paragraph of his column:  "Now, I'm a respectable columnist. I don't want to draw rolled eyes. But think about it."  And in 2004, after Howard Dean argued that the Bush administration was raising the terrorist alerts for political purposes, John Kerry proved his Seriousness by attacking Dean for making such an irresponsible claim:

Kerry was campaigning Monday in Grand Rapids, Mich., where he dismissed suggestions that a decision to raise the terror alert level was politically motivated. . . .

Kerry dismissed former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's comment that raising the terror level might be politically motivated.

"I don't care what he said. I haven't suggested that and I won't suggest that," Kerry said. "I do not hold that opinion. I don't believe that.''

That was because, as Atrios suggested, anyone like Dean who uttered such a suggestion was demonized as being among "the less stable among us," as right-wing war reporter Michael Totten put it in 2004, who proudly noted that "Kerry dismissed Dean's ravings the way a picnicker treats a fly buzzing around his barbecued chicken."  An incredulous Chris Matthews interviewed Dean in 2004 about his accusations and could barely refrain from mocking Dean in every question:

MATTHEWS: But what you’re saying here, Governor, is that there’s a political brain somewhere in the administration which directs people like Tom Ridge and people like Ashcroft to exploit whatever info they have got to try to make it easier on the president for reelection, that someone is directing this timing? . . .

MATTHEWS:  Are you saying that there’s a political mind behind that, that is stirring these things up in a time the Democrats are trying to get some lift?

DEAN: We don’t know that, Chris, but what we do know is there’s a very disturbing pattern of...

MATTHEWS: Right, well, you sound like you’re... You do sound, Governor, like you do know. You’re not -- you’re acting like you are just speculating here out loud, when in fact you’re -- it’s almost like push-polling. You’re saying, “Could it be?” rather than just, “I’m thinking about these things” . . .

MATTHEWS: But is there any evidence that the administration is timing these releases of information to benefit themselves politically? Is there any evidence of that?

And an August, 2004 USA Today Editorial decried those, such as Dean, who were irresponsible enough to suggest such a thing:

Former presidential candidate Howard Dean said Sunday, without offering evidence, that terror warnings crop up whenever President Bush needs a boost. That statement follows the premise of Michael Moore's incendiary film Fahrenheit 9/11: that the alerts are used to keep the public in fear for political benefit.

It is the most serious of allegations -- that the nation's leaders would selfishly manipulate the gravest threat we face.

While no one should be naive enough to think that the White House -- or John Kerry's campaign -- doesn't discuss the politics of terrorism, any evidence of terror alerts called for political advantage is lacking.

And just to demonstrate how deceitful were the people who were running our government, here's what The New York Times reported in the wake of Dean's accusation:

Speaking to factory workers and invited supporters at a lawn and garden equipment manufacturer in Lee's Summit, Mo., Mr. Cheney lashed out at those who have implied that the terror alerts were at all politically motivated, specifically citing former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, an unsuccessful candidate this year for the Democratic presidential nomination.

"There has been some commentary from some of our critics - Howard Dean comes to mind - saying somehow this is being hyped for political reasons, that the data we collected here, the casing reports that provided the information on the prospective attacks is old data, i.e., four, five years old," he said. "That just tells me Howard Dean doesn't know anything about how things operate."

Even the very same Tom Ridge, in 2004, lambasted those who made such a suggestion

The AP also reports that Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge "spent a second day Wednesday defending the warnings, which came on the heels of the Democratic National Convention and drew attention from the presidential campaign of nominee John Kerry. 'I categorically state that the none of the terror threats are politically motivated,' Mr. Ridge said." Ridge also granted an extensive interview to CNN's Newsnight With Aaron Brown, in which he addressed the charges that the Administration was playing politics, saying, "I regret that there's an inference that this kind of public revelation of information is. . .political. It clearly was not and it never will be."

But that is how our political culture works.  Throughout the Bush years, those who said demonstrably true things were continuously dismissed as fringe, conspiracy-driven leftist-losers:   those who questioned whether Saddam really had WMDs; those who argued that the invasion of Iraq would lead to long-term military bases in that country; those who worried that warrantless eavesdropping and Patriot Act powers would lead to abuses; those who opposed the war in Afghanistan on the ground that it would be drag on for years with no resolution, etc. etc. 

Having been proven right about all of those things hasn't changed perceptions any at all.  As Ambinder's comments today reflect, the paramount unchangeable Beltway Truth is that those who distrust government claims are unSerious Fringe Leftist Losers.  Even when they turn out to be right, they're still that.   And no matter how many times journalists like Ambinder are proven wrong in "giv[ing] the government the benefit of some doubt, even having learned lessons about giving the government that benefit," they still continue to do it and believe it is the right and responsible thing to do.  

Powerful political leaders are, as Jay Rosen often puts it, the ruling priests in the journalists' church of Savviness.  Trusting the politically powerful is the establishment religion and carrying forth their message is the prime function of establishment journalists (note how Newsweek's Jonathan Alter, just two months ago, argued that the "public option" was crucial but then, like so many liberal pundits eager to maintain and build close relations with the White House, got dutifully on board with the White House message, by completely and shamelessly changing course the minute the White House did).  Distrusting the statements and actions of government leaders was once the central value of our political system and of basic journalism.  But now, especially in the eyes of establishment journalists, it is the hallmark of the unSerious, fringe, leftist loser, no matter how many times it is proven right.


UPDATE: In comments, Gator90 sums it all up:

The Maturation Cycle of Bush Administration Scandals

1. Crazy, hysterical, paranoid accusation by wild-eyed, partisan, left-wing loonies.

2. Old news

What's most amazing is that even when we reach Step 2, Step 1 still applies in full force.


UPDATE II: As he so often does, Tom Tomorrow, all the way back in 2005, perfectly captured the syndrome illustrated here (and which Gator90 described) -- click on image to enlarge:


UPDATE III: As Hume's Ghost noted on his blog back when it happened, Tom Ridge -- in early, 2005, shortly after he resigned -- strongly suggested that the terror alerts were raised for political reasons having nothing to do with legitimate security needs:

The Bush administration periodically put the USA on high alert for terrorist attacks even though then-Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge argued there was only flimsy evidence to justify raising the threat level, Ridge now says. . . .

Ridge, who resigned Feb. 1, said Tuesday that he often disagreed with administration officials who wanted to elevate the threat level to orange, or "high" risk of terrorist attack, but was overruled. . . .

"More often than not we were the least inclined to raise it," Ridge told reporters. "Sometimes we disagreed with the intelligence assessment. Sometimes we thought even if the intelligence was good, you don't necessarily put the country on (alert). ... There were times when some people were really aggressive about raising it, and we said, 'For that?' "

That apparently wasn't enough to make Ambinder and other journalists wonder why the official responsible for the alerts would have been "aggressively pressured" to raise it even in the face of "flimsy evidence" that there was a threat to justify that (we had no idea until today that this happened!).  Real Journalists knew that the officials exerting that pressure had Good Reasons for wanting the alerts raised even if those journalists -- or, for that matter, even Homeland Security Secretary Ridge -- didn't know what those reasons were.  Real Journalists just assume those officials had good reasons because they're trustworthy and entitled to the benefit of the doubt.  Only irresponsible Far Leftists hysteric conspiracy-theorists with gut hatred for George Bush would entertain suspicions that something nefarious might motivate those decisions.


UPDATE IV: Ambinder now has a separate post apologizing for his use of the phrase "gut hatred."  Whenever someone clearly apologizes for something that way, they deserve credit, but that offending phrase was only a small part of what I (and, I believe, Marcy Wheeler) were criticizing.  Far more significant is Ambinder's belief that journalists can and should vest the pronouncements of political leaders with faith and trust rather than the skepticism that should be at the heart of all political journalism (notably, Ambinder lauded the "skepticism" which journalists harbored for "activists' conclusions" critical of the Bush administration while defending the trust journalists place in the claims of Bush officials themselves -- a truly bizarre way for a journalist to look at things, if you think about it).  That mentality is far more consequential than Ambinder's careless public unleashing of standard Beltway journalist slurs against Bush critics.


UPDATE V:  There's one other point made by Atrios about the Ridge confession (he was a veritable font of wisdom today) that I want to highlight:

And just so it's clear: using the threat of terrorism to try to achieve political goals is, you know, what terrorists do.

No observation will cause one to be ejected from acceptable mainstream company more immediately than pointing out that what the U.S. Government is doing is "terrorism" by definition.  Ask Noam Chomsky about that, if you can find him.  That's because using Terrorist threats (or civilian-destroying violence) for political gain, or to keep a population in fear, is something that only other people do -- but never the United States -- even when it's as plain as day (as it is here) that the U.S. Government is doing exactly that.


UPDATE VI:  Tucker Carlson -- at the height of the August, 2004, controversy triggered by Howard Dean's accusation that the Bush administration manipulated terror alerts for political gain -- labeled those who believed the alerts were being exploited for political purposes as "insane conspiracy nuts" and said: "what they really need is psychological help, obviously."  Separately, Carlson said that Dean had gone "berserk" and demanded that the Kerry campaign repudiate Howard Dean for suggesting that this was the case.  I've emailed Carlson and asked him:

In light of Tom Ridge's belief that this is exactly what happened -- that, as the official responsible for assessing terrorist threats, he was pressured to raise the terrorist threat alert in order to benefit Bush's re-election campaign (something he also strongly suggested in 2005 after he resigned) -- do you still believe that?  Or do you merely now believe Ridge to be one of the berserk, insane conspiracy nuts in need of psychological help?

I'll post any reply I receive.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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