March 14, 2008

Summary Judgments on Iraq, Iran and Global Warming [Karl]

Dan Collins has already blogged about the new Pentagon report on Iraq and Terrorism, but the disconnect between the general media coverage of the report (all focused on the lack of a direct operational link between Saddam’s regime and al Qaeda)  and its actual contents (showing a “considerable overlap” between their activities which led to a “de facto link between the organizations”) raises a larger issue.

Stephen Hayes opines that the likely source of the disconnect is the report’s executive summary, while Ed Morrissey concludes that it is due to the reporting being based more on advance leaks coming out of the Pentagon.  These theories are not mutually exclusive.  Moreover, both fit into a general pattern of political journalism.

Russell Seitz, in a slightly different context, has proposed the maxims that “reports universally referred to on prime-time go universally unread” and “nobody reads anything with a fourteen page abstract.”  That context was the reporting on the most recent report from the UN International Panel on Climate Change.  Seitz’s truisms are particularly problematic in the context of the IPCC report, insofar as the report itself can be altered to conform to the “summary for policymakers,” rather than vice versa.  But the tendency of journalists to rely on such summaries, often published in advance of the underlying report, tends to ensure the over-simplification of what are over-simplifications in the first instance.

A similar phenomenon surrounded the media coverage of the most recent national Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear ambitions in December 2007.  According to a New York Times news analysis:

Rarely, if ever, has a single intelligence report so completely, so suddenly, and so surprisingly altered a foreign policy debate here.

An administration that had cited Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons as the rationale for an aggressive foreign policy — as an attempt to head off World War III, as President Bush himself put it only weeks ago — now has in its hands a classified document that undercuts much of the foundation for that approach.

According to the Washington Post:

The new intelligence report released yesterday not only undercut the administration’s alarming rhetoric over Iran’s nuclear ambitions but could also throttle Bush’s effort to ratchet up international sanctions and take off the table the possibility of preemptive military action before the end of his presidency.

The dissenting view at the time, as exemplified by the Wall Street Journal, was that the NIE (the declassified version, to be more precise) was drafted by three former State Department officials with previous anti-Bush reputations, who crafted it for the political effect it undoubtedly had, further noting:

In any case, the real issue is not Iran’s nuclear weapons program, but its nuclear program, period. As the NIE acknowledges, Iran continues to enrich uranium on an industrial scale–that is, build the capability to make the fuel for a potential bomb. And it is doing so in open defiance of binding U.N. resolutions. No less a source than the IAEA recently confirmed that Iran already has blueprints to cast uranium in the shape of an atomic bomb core.

By March 3, 2008, the New York Times reported that the NIE — or the NIE as reported by the media — had been essentially disavowed by director of national intelligence Mike McConnell (nominally the NIE’s aithor), foreign policy heavyweights like Henry Kissinger and James R. Schlesinger, officials at our nuclear laboratories, and our Western allies, notably France.  The NYT’s characterization of the NIE now reflects what was the dissenting view three months prior:

For decades, American spies assessed weapons programs mainly by a nation’s ability to make bomb fuel. That is because experts say that perfecting the process of enriching uranium or making plutonium is far more difficult than designing warheads or building missiles to deliver the weapons. With Iran, they looked at progress in making centrifuges, machines that spin faster than the speed of sound to enrich uranium ore.


Behind the radical change of tone — and the headlines — lay an inconspicuous footnote at the bottom of the first of the unclassified version’s three pages. “For the purposes of this Estimate,” it said, Iran’s nuclear weapons program is defined as including warhead design but excluding Iran’s “declared civil work” to enrich uranium.

Officials later said intelligence analysts had rarely if ever based a weapons estimate on such a narrow definition. So too, the footnote and estimate said nothing of Iran’s expanding effort to build long-range missiles.

The NIE’s authors, by dumping a key point into a footnote (the sole footnote in the declassified NIE, incidentally), were able to shape the media coverage of the report, the political environment and perhaps policy.

These examples are simply part of a pattern.  Federal bureaucrats know that journalists operate on deadlines.  In the case of broadcast television, the deadline may be formal.  In the case of newspapers, the deadline may be a remnant of tradition.  In the case of cable television and Internet journalism — including blog punditry — the deadline is informal, but the pressure to be timely with breaking news remains. 

Accordingly, official Washington knows that the important first impressions of a report are likely to be drawn from the executive summary, abstract or introductory text.  It follows that any bureaucrat seeking to advance an agenda would prefer to write the summary than the report itself.  The bureaucrat who summarizes a report need not rely on the general biases of the Washington press corps; he or she need only rely on the competitive pressure of journalism and the general sloth of journalists to advance a particular agenda.

(h/t Memeorandum.)

Posted by Karl @ 11:24am

Comments (35)

  1. Karl;

    You are starting, along with others, to get it, obliquely, at least.

    That’s the fundamental screw up of this admin.(lower-case mine).

    Credibility is key to international relations.

    Iran is a BIG problem.

    The last time we tried to deal with them we lost all credibility when we compromised our principle “don’t negotiate with terrorists” by
    money-laundering through the proxy, CONTRAvention (for the kiddies, here, that’s Iran/Contra).

    Now we’re screaming like ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’ that they are developing weapons of Mass Destruction.

    See any problems there?

    That’s the lasting legacy of our wrongheaded, misadventure in Iraq.

    I blame Bush.

  2. Leo, you’re going to eventually have to put me down somewhere.

  3. I blame semenLeo, and its ilk.

  4. Pedanticliar:

    Even before I finished Karl’s excellent post, I knew yours would be one of the first comments and predicted to a “T” what you’d write.

    Am I prescient?

    No, I’m bored. Yours is not an argument, it is a litany, a tiresome, tiresome litany.

    I believe I will nap now.

  5. Great piece, Karl. Shaping the bafflefield.

  6. Urgent to panic-producing publishing deadlines? Well, it’s not like Reporters really have to get and analyze facts, anyway – which they are not capable of doing to begin with – especially what wit all Dem ‘layers and layers’ of progressively higher editorial Peer Review omnipresent as their Overseers.

    Hey, it’s just like the U.N.’s IPCC process itself, after all.

  7. I blame Bush.

    Of course you do. It’s easier than thinking for yourself.

  8. Journalists is cunts. It’s really that simple.

  9. Except for the ones I like.

  10. Pamela Hess, mainly.

  11. And, Yea, immediately bad-fruit #1 appears as another prime example of the kind of product the very process which Karl talks about wants to produce so badly – a nishi-cult Teratoma?

  12. “It follows that any bureaucrat seeking to advance an agenda would prefer to write the summary than the report itself.”

    Do these people ever suffer any consequences for their treachery? I understand that they are Civil Servants, but somehow lowly Linda Tripp got it up the *.

    Just sayin’.

  13. Iran/Contra was because of Bush invading Iraq? Did he really just type that?

  14. Yes, B Moe. He typed that. Apparently Karl Rove has access to a time machine. Or something.

    I blame Diebold, and Halliburton.

  15. Unelected bureaucrats push the public debate leftward on Iraq, Iran and Global Warming.

    I blame Bush.

  16. Karl, did you here a good news about FISA?
    The reason, the democracy, the constitution was a winner.
    Yoo/Stalin, fear mongering and lies were the losers today in the house.

  17. Who the hell is yoo?

  18. Fine result on FISA and way to never let go, Karl. Never surrender, never give up, heh?

    Maybe if you and Dan visit a medium, you can talk to the ghost of Hussein and find out he’s really Obsama! No one’s ever seen them together.

    Good news, though, you can get remainder copies of Stephen Hayes “The Connection” on the cheap and I bet the jack-ass will even autograph for you! What else does he have to do to prove the Pentagon, the CIA, the Senate, virtually everyone that he’s right.

    Hitchens, Karl, Hayes, and Collins: What a line-up! Take that on tour!

  19. Yoo-hoo, no news is good news?

  20. fear mongering and lies were the losers today in the house.

    Catch me up. Has Pelosi and Obama finally quit fear-mongering about Big Phone? That’s great!

  21. Fine result on FISA and way to never let go…

    Back at you. Good luck this November on explaining to people how their phone rates getting jacked up is protecting the Constitution.

  22. Good thing you are only “Just Saying”, because that’s also the very best credit what you just said can be given. Lucky you.

  23. IJS is full of the non sequiters today.

  24. [must have finally got its bottle]

  25. Techie, how did that redundant word get added to the end of your comment?

  26. “…he or she need only rely on the competitive pressure of journalism and the general sloth of journalists to advance a particular agenda.”

    True enough. The bias is just icing on that way-stale cake. Or a guarantee, if you’d rather.

  27. That IJS is full of non-sequiters is a given. Sure as the sun rising in the East.

  28. Gee. I thought we’d have a little discussion about the ‘Blowback’ from US foreign policy thanks to the iraq occupation and how that augers for any
    real threat from Iran.

    I Blame Bush.

  29. 1 & 28

    So you’re saying we should’ve invaded Iran?

  30. I blame Carter for not laying the lumber to them when they were relatively weaker.

  31. Imagine the blowback from that. I’d argue less Islamonuttery.

  32. the iraq occupation and how that augers for any
    real threat from Iran.

    Ok, all things considered, it remains the right thing to do and the right place to be.

  33. The biggest “blowback” is that it’s quite clear that there is a Disloyal Opposition in this country acting as a Fifth Column for any enemy the US has; they aren’t choosy. Iran is just their latest excuse for treason.

  34. Lying is ‘normal’ to some people.

    I remember one of Hillary’s slip-ups back in the nineties: she said casually (I think this was around the time the Rose Law Firm accounts turned up in her office), “Everyone tells lies.”

    Then her hubbie got impeached for lying, and the Arthur Anderson accounting frauds were found-out, and Tyco’s CEO got busted, and the tech-bubble burst…and then the Daley Machine bought us “Election 2000,” and “Count every vote.”

    And now that a Clinton is running for President, the media are lying to get her party elected…

    Gee. Why am I not surprised?

  35. Pingback: That Saddam-Terrorism Report, Again [Dan Collins]