Media Blog

Crystal Ball or Just Logic?

Thanks to Paul McLeary at CJR Daily for noticing my post about David Shuster’s recent reporting on the Plame case. McLeary complimented one aspect of my analysis but took issue with another. I don’t feel particularly compelled to defend my remarks, but McCleary’s criticism raises an interesting question I’d like to address.
In my post, I noted how Shuster signed off from his report:

… it’s because of jobs like agent Wilson’s that President Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush once declared that those who expose CIA sources are the most insidious of traitors.

According to McLeary, I erred by saying, “Shuster twisted Bush’s words so that — in the guise of an objective reporter — he could personally express the opinion that Scooter Libby and Karl Rove are traitors.” McLeary wrote: 

That’s Spruiell putting thoughts into Schuster’s head, not anything that Schuster said. Spruiell has no crystal ball that allows him to ascertain Schuster’s intent, nor do any of the rest of us.

I agree that media critics are often too quick to impute intentions to reporters — as McLeary notes, we aren’t psychics. But aren’t there some instances in which, using logical deduction rather than precognition, we can ascertain intent with a relatively high degree of certainty?

I think there are, and I think this is one of them. First, as I mentioned in my post, the George H.W. Bush statement Shuster quoted had a specific meaning and a specific context. Bush made that statement during a speech he gave at the dedication of the George Bush Center for Intelligence in April of 1999 — long before the world ever heard of Valerie Plame. But let’s look at his remarks and try to find Shuster’s justification:

Your mission is different now than it was back then. The Soviet Union is no more. Some people think, “what do we need intelligence for?” My answer to that is we have plenty of enemies. Plenty of enemies abound. Unpredictable leaders willing to export instability or to commit crimes against humanity. Proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, narco-trafficking, people killing each other, fundamentalists killing each other in the name of God. These and more. Many more. As our analysts know, as our collectors of intelligence know – these are our enemies. To combat them we need more intelligence, not less. We need more human intelligence. That means we need more protection for the methods we use to gather intelligence and more protection for our sources, particularly our human sources, people that are risking their lives for their country. (Applause)
Even though I’m a tranquil guy now at this stage of my life, I have nothing but contempt and anger for those who betray the trust by exposing the name of our sources. They are, in my view, the most insidious, of traitors.

Bush does mention “Proliferation of weapons of mass destruction” in the paragraph preceding his statement, and Plame did work in the CIA’s Counterproliferation Division. Thus, Shuster could have interpreted Bush’s remarks to mean that anyone who exposes CIA officials who do ”jobs like agent Wilson’s” is among the most insidious of traitors.
But that’s just one interpretation of Bush’s remarks. A more accurate interpretation is to say that Bush was referring specifically to people like ex-CIA officer Philip Agee – hard-left activists who made it their lives’ work to do as much damage as possible to the CIA by publishing, in books and in magazines like CounterSpy, the names of thousands of CIA officers and their foreign agents. In fact, we know this is what Bush meant. To take one of many examples of Bush openly expressing his loathing of Agee, the AP reported that, speaking at the CIA’s 50th anniversary celebration in 1997:

Bush singled out for criticism Philip Agee, a former CIA agent and later critic of the agency.
Remember Philip Agee, who I consider a traitor to our country?” Bush asked, referring to Agee’s efforts to expose CIA operations and identify spies.

When we choose one interpretation of the facts over another, that’s called stating an opinion, and Shuster formulated his opinion in a way that made it clear what he believes: That under George H.W. Bush’s definition, Scooter Libby and Karl Rove are traitors for exposing Valerie Plame. I think he twisted Bush’s words to arrive at this conclusion, but that’s what Shuster said, and he knew exactly what he meant when he said it.

UPDATE: I had to rush the end of this post. There were a few more points I wanted to make. I’ll phrase these in the form of objections to my theory:

Q: How can you be so sure Bush was talking about Agee? You only cited one article in which Bush used the same language to describe Agee, and you didn’t even link to it.
A: I had a professor in college who was a high-ranking official at the CIA. He assured me that Bush was referring to Agee in that speech. I didn’t link to the AP article because I found it on Nexis and not the Web, but there are plenty of other examples of Bush expressing his hatred for Philip Agee. ABC News reported that in 1991, Bush said, “I don’t care how long I live, I will never forgive Philip Agee and those like him who wantonly sacrifice the lives of intelligence officers who loyally serve their country.”

It’s pretty clear that Bush was referring to Agee and his ilk in that speech. I would argue that there is no way Bush would put Scooter Libby and Karl Rove in with that class of traitor.  

 

Q: But just because we know Bush thinks that Agee is a traitor, couldn’t he also think that Libby and Rove are traitors for exposing Valerie Plame? The former doesn’t preclude the latter.

A: Assuming Bush is a reasonable person and puts Libby and Rove in a different category than Agee, we don’t know what he thinks of their transgression. Perhaps he thinks they are traitors of a different sort. But Shuster’s statement was structured so as to leave the viewer with no choice but to conclude that Bush would in fact consider Libby and Rove to be traitors. My argument is that we don’t know that for sure. That’s just Shuster’s opinion.

Q: Isn’t it possible that Shuster didn’t know Bush was talking about Agee?

A: Even if he didn’t know Bush was talking about Agee, it’s quite a stretch to imply that Bush would consider Rove and Libby “insidious traitors.” Yet that’s exactly what Shuster did.
UPDATE II: One more:
Q: Let’s say everything you just said is true. You still can’t see into Shuster’s mind and know what he’s thinking. How do you know that Shuster thinks that Libby and Rove are traitors.
A: Ah, but I never said Shuster thinks that Libby and Rove are traitors. I just said that he twisted Bush’s words in order to express that opinion. No one in his right mind actually believes that Rove and Libby are traitors, or that they committed treason, or any of that hogwash. It’s just a talking point for the left, which is why it shouldn’t be packaged as hard news.

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