Sunday, June 24, 2007

Lies, Damned Lies, and Iraq

If you want to get a clear picture of the war in Iraq, you must read news sources of all political stripes. If you are a liberal and you get your information only from liberal politicians and news sources, you will be missing a vital part of the picture. The same is true if you are a conservative and you get your information only from conservative politicians and news sources.

The purpose of this post is to document the truth of the above. We will do this by examining how both liberal and conservative politicians have chosen to mislead the public about Iraq. Along the way, we will take a look at the different ways in which they have done this, and the degrees of guilt which they have.

First of all, the verb "to lie" is ambiguous. It is simply overbroad to talk about whether a certain statement is or is not a "lie". The law identifies at least five different levels of guilty thought with respect to certain actions, and they will be useful to us here. They are:

1. Intention. For instance, if a person plans to bring marijuana into the US from Mexico, then does.

2. Knowledge. For instance, a driver sees that a passenger has brought a backpack full of marijuana into his car, and then drives the passenger into the US. The law generally treats “willful blindness” at the same level of guilt as knowledge. For instance, if someone hands you a sealed backpack, and says he will pay you $1000 to bring it across the border, and you do so, without looking to notice the cocaine inside, you are complicit in the cocaine smuggling because of your willful blindness.

3. Recklessness. For instance, if you drive drunk at 80 miles an hour along a dark highway, and you crash and kill someone, you are guilty of reckless homicide.

4. Negligence. For instance, if you drive within the speed limit along an unfamiliar road, fail to notice a stop sign, then drive through the stop sign and kill someone, you may be guilty of negligent homicide. Or if you build a car without thinking about the chance that the fuel tank could ignite, and then the fuel tank does ignite and kills someone, you may also be guilty of negligent homicide. In cases like these, you may or may not be criminally charged, depending on how outrageous the prosecutor thinks your actions are or are not. You will, however, almost certainly lose a civil lawsuit.

5. Strict liability. This means that you did something that was wrong and are at fault, regardless of whether you had any idea that what you were doing was wrong or not. For example, in some jurisdictions, statutory rape is a crime of strict liability. It is no defense to say “she told me she was 16” if it later turns out that she was 15. (In other jurisdictions, this is a defense in that case, but not if it later turns out that she was 12.) Strict liability also applies in some civil cases.

The other issue is omissions. Can you be guilty of a crime for failing to do something, or to say something? It depends on the crime. For purposes of our discussion, the most relevant analogous crime is fraud. And you can be guilty of fraud for an omission. For instance, if you sell someone your home without mentioning that it is contaminated with dioxin, you are guilty of fraud. You are guilty even if everything you did say while selling your home was true.

With the above in mind, we will look at the level of guilt of the Bush administration with respect to the question of whether or not Saddam posessed weapons of mass destruction in 2003. Also we will look at the level of guilt of the Democrats and various media with respect to the question of whether or not the US is confronting Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2007.

Bush and Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction:

"Saddam Hussein has chemical weapons."

-- Colin Powell, speech to the United Nations, February 5, 2003.

“Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised.”

-- George Bush, ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, March 18, 2003

Let’s look at different levels of guilty knowledge and see where Bush and Powell fell:

1. Intention. It appears that neither Bush nor Powell intentionally lead the public to believe information which he knew to be false. In other words, it appears that the administration did not have proof that Saddam did not have weapons of mass destruction. So by causing the public to believe that Saddam did have WMD, the Bush administration was not committing an intentional fraud.
5. Strict liability. It is indisputable that under a strict liability standard, both Bush and Powell did mislead the public. Because it caused people to believe that Saddam’s regime did have WMD in 2002-3, when in fact it did not.
2-4. Knowledge, willful blindness, recklessness, and negligence. Here things get interesting.

Both Bush and Powell were relying on intelligence assessments when they made these statements. So the question becomes -- in their respective positions, how much control did they have over these intelligence assessments? And what signals did they send to the intelligence services?

For both of them, the cases will be circumstantial. When dealing with someone's state of mind, that is normal. You can't observe it directly.

Bush: As President, Bush is the Commander in Chief. He has great influence over where the CIA should direct its resources and how it should report its findings. Persistent news reports indicate that people in the CIA knew that Bush wanted to continue to be told that Saddam had WMD. For example, a Newsweek story has this to say about an agent named "Curve Ball" who claimed that Saddam had chemical weapons:

After reading Powell's [as-yet-undelivered UN] speech, the analyst decided he had to speak up . . . . He wrote an urgent e-mail to a top CIA official warning that there were even questions about whether Curve Ball "was who he said he was." Could Powell really rely on such an informant as the "backbone" for the U.S. government's claims that Iraq had a continuing biological-weapons program? The CIA official quickly responded: "Let's keep in mind the fact that this war's going to happen regardless of what Curve Ball said or didn't say," he wrote. "The Powers That Be probably aren't terribly interested in whether Curve Ball knows what he's talking about."

As President, Bush was himself the top person among the Powers That Be, and he chose many of the others. The story does not suggest that Bush himself knew that Curve Ball could not be trusted. What it does suggest is that people under Bush realized that he didn't want to know. This is willful blindness by Bush with respect to the question of whether or not Curveball could be trusted. And it is recklessness with respect to the question of whether or not Saddam had WMD. It was not willful blindness with respect to whether or not Saddam had WMD, because even if Bush had learned the information from Curveball could not be trusted, he still would not have known whether Saddam had WMD or not.

The question then becomes -- how much credence can one put in this news report, and many others like it? After all, news organizations can, and frequently do, write misleading stories? I believe that in this case, the stories can be trusted. The reason is that Bush never made any public postwar statement in which he seemed particularly angry that the CIA mislead him about Saddam's WMD. Since this question was so important to Bush before the war, one would expect that if Bush were angry about being mislead, he would have said so. He didn't.

As for Powell, he was relying on the same CIA agents that Bush was. Unlike Bush, however, Powell has frequently made it clear that he wanted to be told the truth. For example, in his first major interview after he left the Administration, Powell had this to say about his speech:

I'm very sore. I'm the one who made the television moment. I was mightily disappointed when the sourcing of it all became very suspect and everything started to fall apart.

Powell has frequently made similar statements. It all makes it clear that he was a man who wanted to tell the truth. A hallmark of reckless behaviour is not caring what the consequences might be. So Colin Powell was not reckless. However, he was negligent. Because if he had thought about it carefully, he could have realized that Bush wanted the CIA to tell him that those weapons were there.

Al Qaeda, Iraq, and the Democrats

General Petraus talks all the time about the fact that his number one priority in Iraq is to disrupt Al Qaeda. The central fact of this war is that Al Qaeda blew up the Golden Dome of the Shiite Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra in February, 2006, setting off a wave of violence that continues to this day.

Yet when most Democrats talk about Iraq, they manage to ignore this. Here, for instance, is a major speech Hillary Clinton gave on Iraq. Ms. Clinton managed to go on for several pages without even once mentioning Al Qaeda. Here is a speech from Barack Obama in which he mentions the Iraqi "civil war" without mentioning that it is deliberately provoked by Al Qaeda. With a few notable exceptions, when Democrats do mention Al Qaeda in relation to Iraq, it is usually to criticise President Bush for "diverting resources to Iraq, thereby distracting the US from the fight against Al Qaeda".

But Chris Dodd topped them all by saying the following:

Not at all here. Again, this is a civil war going on in Iraq. This is not the United States versus Al Qaida. It's Shia versus Sunnis tearing each other apart. It's gone on for centuries, but particularly here right now.

By pretending that Al Qaeda is not the main enemy in Iraq, these Democrats are misleading the public. Since the evidence of Al Qaeda's involvement in the war is indisputable and plain to see (heck, they even talk about it on the web), these Democrats all are either intentionally misleading the public, or have willful blindness as to what is going on. Their exact degree of guilt depends on what information has been made available to them. For instance, if one of them has been briefed by General Petraus about his efforts to combat Al Qaeda, and then goes on pretending that this is not happening, it is an intentional deception. Otherwise, it is willful blindness.

In general, the higher someone's position is, the greater their degree of guilt is likely to be with regard to a deception. Thus, on the Republican side, Bush is the most responsible for falsely persuading the American public that Saddam had WMDs in 2002-3. On the Democratic side, the three influential Senators mentioned above all have high degrees of guilt for falsely persuading part of the American public that Al Qaeda is not our biggest enemy there today. By contrast, Joe Democrat who is a columnist in the local newspaper may only be guilty of negligence for helping to prepetuate that same deception.

This has been a long post. But the moral of it all is a vital point which bears repeating: if you want to have an accurate picture of a contentious issue, you must read information from people on different sides of that issue. Because all sides will mislead you when it suits their purposes. Remember that the next time you hear someone complain that "the Democrats" or "the Republicans" are misleading the public about something.

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