Journalists and secrets

by Henry Farrell on April 18, 2006

Also in the Chronicle, an “interesting article”: on controversies swirling around Jack Anderson’s archives, which have been donated to GWU. Kevin Drum said last month that the “AIPAC case”: was likely to be used as a weapon against leakers. Now we have this.

bq. During his life and career as a muckraking journalist in Washington, Jack Anderson cultivated secret sources throughout the halls of government — sources who passed on information that allowed Anderson to investigate and write about Watergate, CIA assassination schemes, and countless scandals. His syndicated column, Washington Merry-Go-Round, earned him the enmity of the corrupt and powerful — so much so that during the Watergate years, associates of Nixon had discussed assassinating the columnist. … His archive, some 200 boxes now being held by George Washington University’s library, could be a trove of information about state secrets, dirty dealings, political maneuverings, and old-fashioned investigative journalism, open for historians and up-and-coming reporters to see. But the government wants to see the documents before anyone else. Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation have told university officials and members of the Anderson family that they want to go through the archive, and that agents will remove any item they deem confidential or top secret. … The FBI eventually told Kevin Anderson that the investigation centered on Steven J. Rosen and Keith Weissman, two former officials with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee who have been charged with receiving and distributing national defense information. …Kevin Anderson doubts that his father gathered information related to the Aipac case. He points out that his father had Parkinson’s disease for the last 15 years of his life and that he had done his best muckraking in the 1960s, 70s, and early 80s.

Fear and loathing in the blogosphere

by Henry Farrell on April 18, 2006

“David Glenn”: has an article in the _Chronicle_ about Carol Darr, and the howls of outrage she provokes among both left wing and right wing bloggers.

bq. There is not much love lost between the liberal activists who blog at Daily Kos and their conservative counterparts at One entry at Daily Kos last month was titled “RedState Runs From Their Own Idiocy.” The same week, a commenter at RedState wrote, “I don’t visit Kos, because I am not enamored with wading through sewage.” Last spring, however, the two blogs found a common enemy: a “clueless embarrassment” (in the words of Daily Kos) who was peddling a “cheesecloth-flimsy” argument (RedState). The object of their ire was Carol C. Darr, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy, and the Internet, which is affiliated with George Washington University. Someone in her position, the bloggers believed, ought to be an enthusiastic defender of online politicking in all its forms. Instead she was urging the Federal Election Commission — where she had worked as a staff lawyer in the 1970s — to bring certain kinds of blogging under the umbrella of campaign-finance law.

Carol is a colleague of mine, and I’ve been getting increasingly pissed off at the abuse she’s receiving from prominent bloggers. It’s not Carol who’s the clueless embarrasment here. Take, as Exhibit One, this “post”: by Adam B at Daily Kos, which Duncan Black “approvingly linked to”: last week. For Adam B and Duncan, the argument that blogs are going to make Swiftboating easier is a version of “the Commies sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids, [and] they’re going to take over our blogs.” Come off it. I don’t seriously believe that Duncan wasn’t paying attention to the ways in which right wing blogs served as amplifiers for the original Swiftboating exercise (a feat afterwards “celebrated”: in the Weekly Standard). And if you don’t think that there are going to be John Thune style “astroturf blogs galore”: in the ’06 and ’08 elections, then God bless your naivete. Carol’s making a legitimate argument which is highly uncomfortable for bloggers – that blogs, as they exist today, are wide open to abuse, and specifically to becoming channels for the systematic spread of disinformation. It deserves a hearing – and a more serious response than puerile name-calling and appeals to the numinous self-correcting power of the blogosphere.

Update: I’ve received several comments along the lines of “you are being dishonest because Atrios is attacking hypocrites who say that bloggers should be regulated but not the mainstream press.” This doesn’t fly, since that has never been Carol’s position; in the piece linked to above, she makes that explicit. If someone can find a public statement where she says something different, I’ll happily eat crow. I’ve also changed the above link as the old link had stopped working.

Update 2: See “here”: for a transcript of Carol Darr’s symposium at the _Chronicle_ and “here”: and “here”: for responses from Atrios and Adam Bonin respectively. I should also say at this point that my original post was much snarkier than it should have been – while I stand by the basic claim that Carol Darr doesn’t deserve some of the nasty things that have been said about her – I used more intemperate language than I should have. For which, apologies.

There’s a very interesting conversation going on at Leiter’s site (post by Jason Stanley) about the purpose of the academic discipline of Philosophy. The title is a giveaway (In Defence of Baroque Specialization). Jason says:

a university’s primary mission should be to advance the disciplines it represents. In short, a university should seek to promote work that will give that university prestige in the future and not in the present. So, a university’s mission with regard to its philosophy department should be to support those who are attempting to formulate new positions and arguments, rather than those who seek contemporary relevance.

I agree that this is part of the university’s mission. A good university wants to promote work of lasting importance. But that is only part of what it does, or should do. Very few scholars are going to contribute in a discernable way to that part of the mission (not me, not most of the people who think of themselves as at or somewhere near the top of their disciplines at any given time), and in the long run we’re all dead anyway. Furthermore, we have no reason at all to want Universities to promote their own, individual, reputations, except in so far as some sort of reputational competition helps to advance the other fundamental goals of the institution of academia.

Another part of the University’s mission is to contribute, right now and in the near future, to the intellectual life of the larger community; if universities don’t do that, who will?

[click to continue…]

Plagues and polygraphs

by John Q on April 18, 2006

Following our seminar on The Republican War on Science I heard from John Mangels, science writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, who pointed me to this series of reports (free registration required) on Dr Thomas Butler, an infectious disease researcher who (apparently mistakenly) reported missing 30 vials of plague bacteria, and ended up being railroaded into prison by an FBI determined to get a conviction even after it became apparent that the events they were supposedly investigating had never occurred.

It’s an amazing story, which as Mangels says is a metaphor for the clash between science and the Bush administration, and between fear and reason in the post-9/11 world. Much of is the kind of thing that can happen anywhere once the wheels of criminal investigation are set turning.

I was struck, though, by one particularly American feature of the story – the crucial role of the polygraph or “lie detector”. This method is (literally) a piece of witchdoctor magic, tricked out with enough electronic gadgetry to impress the class of believers in technology, as opposed to science, we discussed in the seminar. This group plays a much bigger role in the US than elsewhere, which may be why the polygraph is taken seriously only in the US.

Lip service

by Chris Bertram on April 18, 2006

When someone says of their adversaries that they pay “lip-service” to something, they are trying to devalue some of the substance of what those people say. This may be a claim that their opponents are insincere, or simply that they lack a suitable degree of commitment. The suggestion is that someone is making a merely token acknowledgement of the importance of some matter or value but that it is merely incidental to their view of what matters, a view that is actually focused on other things. It is a charge that the authors of the “Euston Manifesto” have been happy to dish out:

bq. We have no truck, either, with the tendency to pay lip service to these ends [Iraqi democracy], while devoting most of one’s energy to criticism of political opponents at home (supposedly responsible for every difficulty in Iraq), and observing a tactful silence or near silence about the ugly forces of the Iraqi “insurgency”.

(Get the “silence or near silence” there! So if your opponent has actually said that beheading hostages or blowing-up civilians is a monstrous crime but hasn’t said it as often or as loudly as you think fit, you can still point the finger!)

Others can judge how much of the Eustonites’ energies have been devoted to criticism of political opponents at home and how much to the material promotion of Iraqi democracy (writing about it on your blog doesn’t really count, in my book). Anyway, here’s a list of the things that the Euston Manifesto pays “lip service to”, a charge I am as entitled to make, without supporting evidence, about them as they are about others:

  • “racism against people from Muslim countries and those descended from them, particularly under cover of the War on Terror.”
  • The right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.
  • “The violation of basic human rights standards at Abu Ghraib, at Guantanamo, and by the practice of ‘rendition’, must be roundly condemned for what it is: a departure from universal principles, ….”
  • Pure lip service, if you ask me, since issues such are rarely mentioned on the blogs in question without some degree of contextualization, minimization, relativization, whatabouterry, and so on. (Of course torture is bad, they acknowledge, but the real outrage is committed by those torture critics who compare Guantanamo to the Gulag.) These are the same verbal manoeuvres that, when applied to acts of terror, are condemned by said blogs as amounting to de facto apology.

    Incidentally, it seemed odd to me for the Manifesto to include among the events that have made the democracy-and-human-rights package the heritage of us all, blah blah blah, the “anti-colonial transformations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries”. “Transformations” is a strangely euphemistic term to describe the various anti-colonial struggles of the last century. Still, I suppose it wouldn’t do to look too closely at the methods employed by the FLN, the Mau Mau, the NLF etc. just in case they resembled the “ugly forces” of the Iraqi insurgency rather more closely than would be comfortable. Some insurgents, it seems, have contributed to the great Enlightenment bundle, and some have not.