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Chait: ‘There, There. There’s No ‘There’ There.’



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Twice in as many paragraphs New York magazine’s Jon Chait executes a maneuver I call the Argument from Nonchalance. Instead of making a case for some proposition, he merely asserts it with an insouicance verging on boredom:

The Benghazi scandal was considered a non-scandal, and would still be considered one, if not for some erroneous reporting by Jonathan Karl that set off the entire cycle. The only thing that happened here is a bunch of agencies that were confused about events tried to agree among themselves. Jake Tapper, who broke the story that refuted the erroneous report, notes:

There were internal disagreements within the CIA about a number of issues, including whether the attack was a pre-planned act of terror or the result of spontaneous demonstrations because of similar protests in Cairo over an anti-Muslim video produced in the United States.

You can almost hear him yawning. Trouble is, Tapper’s story didn’t refute Karl’s at all. To review, Karl quoted from a source who had seen the e-mails, but who could not or would not actually turn them over. Karl was thus paraphrasing a paraphrasing of a document. This happens often enough in reporting, it’s less than ideal, and Tapper was right to be on the lookout for it. Some interested party (I wonder which one?) noticed that the upshot of Karl’s report — that the State Department commandeered the talking-points process — wasn’t in the actual verbiage of the (deputy NSA) Ben Rhodes e-mail in question. And so this party leaked the e-mail to Tapper.

Tapper made a little too much, in my humble opinion, about the fact that Rhodes verbatim didn’t mention State, whereas the Karl paraphrasing did, and that fed the idea that Karl had been duped by his source (I’m guessing a congressional GOPer, but it would be awesome if it were a secretly Machiavellian Joe Biden trying to drone HRC out of 2016).*

But as Karl rightly responded, and as yesterday’s release of (some? most? all?) of the e-mail thread confirms, the evidence of State’s taking a heavy hand in the rewriting of the talking points is all right there. It’s one of the elided subjects of Rhodes’s concern for the various “equities” involved. The other parties on the thread (the White House, the CIA, the FBI, etc.) had all basically reached agreement [EDIT: on an already heavily edited set of talking points] when Clinton spokeswoman Toria Nuland comes in at the 11th hour and vetoes the whole effort. Nor is Nuland satisfied by a first round of changes, which she writes “don’t resolve . . . issues of my building leadership.” That building, by the way, is a big one in Foggy Bottom. And that leadership might want to run for president in 2016.

Now, the thread doesn’t reveal an intentional cover-up or an attempt by State to obfuscate the known truth. What it does show is that the talking points weren’t the unvarnished product of the CIA, but had been worked over by political appointees with principals to protect. Which is basically what Karl reported.

Onto the second Argument from Nonchalance, this one about the IRS:

The IRS story is likewise looking less and less like a scandal, too. Noam Scheiber smartly points out that the IRS didn’t so much single out conservative groups as conservative groups singled themselves out by applying en masse for tax-exempt status: “So the crime here had nothing to do with ‘targeting’ conservatives. The targeting was effectively done by the conservative groups themselves.” It’s obviously vital for the IRS to develop ideologically neutral criteria to enforce its guidelines for what is a tax-exempt group. But plenty of liberal groups were targeted as well. The IRS may have gotten its response to the tea-party-application wave wrong, but it was not indicative of a general bias against the right, and it was a low-level failure.

What? You people didn’t know that conservative groups singled themselves out by existing? How wearying. I’ve made this argument twice now, but the mere fact of a surge in filings by conservative groups has absolutely nothing to do with whether they deserved extra scrutiny relative to other filers. At least police profiling looks at demographic groups who have actually committed crimes. The IRS’s profiling looked at groups who had merely showed up. If police worked this way, they’d look at the last family to move into town, discover they are Methodists, and start knocking down doors at Grace United over on Main Street.

Then there is the casual assertion that “plenty of liberal groups were targeted as well.” You’ll note that the story Chait links to is headlined “Report: The IRS also targeted at least three liberal groups.” At least three??? It’s a goddam epidemic! Also, of the three groups in question, one is ambiguously named “Emerge America”, and the names of the other two feature the word “Texas.” Considering the IRS wasn’t exactly using an MIT algorithm to target conservative groups, would anyone be surprised if this wasn’t enough to lump them in with the conservatives?

The last sentence is of course the most casual of all, particularly the double-whammy of clauses “but it was not indicative of a general bias against the right, and it was a low-level failure.”

Hard to argue with that. I mean, why hold hearings? Why call for a DOJ investigation? Why ask any questions at all, when you can just beg them?

*UPDATE: It occurs to me I wasn’t quite hard enough on Karl qua journalist. In his original story, he represented the quote as taken verbatim from the e-mail, rather than as a paraphrase of it, and that’s bad business.



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