There must be something about being in the news business that destroys intelligence. It's the only explanation I can think of for the delighted discovery by Tim Russert -- not, you would have thought, a stupid man -- on Meet the Press of a contradiction within the administration over the links between Iraq and al-Qaeda. "Vice President Cheney was on this program last week," he said to William Safire of the New York Times and other journalistic guests on his show, "and let me show you the question I asked him and his answer.
"'The Washington Post asked the American people about Saddam Hussein, and this is what they said: 69 percent said he was involved in the September 11 attacks. Are you surprised by that?'
"Cheney answered: 'No. I think it's not surprising that people make that connection.'
"'But is there a connection?'
"'We don't know.'
"George Bush, the president, this week, came out, a few days later, and said this: 'We've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with September the 11th.'
Well, of course nothing happened. Duh! The two statements are the same. "We don't know," and "we have no evidence" are practical equivalents, yet Russert clearly thinks the one amounts to a disavowal of the other. Is he just an idiot? Then, when Safire said that Cheney was quite right to say, "We don't know," Russert asked him, "Then why did the president say something different?" As noted, he didn't say something different at all. Nevertheless, Safire replied: "The president abandoned that position and said, 'We have no evidence on it.'"
"Why?" Russert persisted.
"I don't know," replied Safire.
So whatever stupid-virus had infected Russert had also infected Safire -- and presumably all the other high-powered reporters sitting around the Meet the Press table who raised no objection to the host's mistaken inference. Moreover, it may have started with the New York Times itself, which had published an editorial two days earlier claiming that Bush's "no evidence" comment meant that he had "finally got around to acknowledging that there was no connection between Saddam Hussein and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001."
Excuse me once again, but saying that we don't have any evidence of a connection is not the same as saying that there was no connection. "White House aides will tell you that Mr. Bush never made that charge directly. And that is so. But polls show that lots of Americans believe in the link. That is at least in part because the president's aides have left the implication burning." But why should they not leave the implication "burning" (if that is what implications do) when there were several unconfirmed reports of such a "link" -- including that of Czech intelligence on the meeting between Mohammed Atta and an Iraqi official in Prague -- that did not amount to hard evidence? Why should they give Saddam the benefit of the doubt?
Yet the eagerness of the Times to take Bush's "no evidence" as a concession to his critics was that of someone who has caught his enemy in the act of prevarication. This will now no doubt go into the catalogue along with the rest of the "lies" of which the anti-Bush left is continually accusing the President.
President Bush himself [the Times continued] drew a dotted line from the 9/11 attack in declaring the end of hostilities in Iraq. "The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on Sept. 11, 2001, and still goes on," Mr. Bush said. He continued the theme in his last major speech on the war.
But on Sunday, Vice President Dick Cheney went too far. He said it was "not surprising" that many Americans drew a link between Mr. Hussein and 9/11. Asked if there was a connection, he replied, "We don't know."
But the administration does know, and Mr. Bush was forced to acknowledge it on Wednesday.
They wish! To say "we have no evidence" does not mean that the administration "does know." It means that it doesn't.
But logic is no bar to the all-important imperative, if you are a journalist, of picking apart the administration's words in search of contradictions -- or anything that may for a moment plausibly be thought to be a contradiction. It all comes from the culture of mistrust that the reigning orthodoxy of those who call themselves "the journalistic community" thinks is healthy for a democracy. But the falseness and injustice of such reckless accusations cannot be healthy for anybody.
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