I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

What does this say about their judgment?

People like Mickey Kaus, David Frum, Glenn Reynolds, and National Review's Andrew McCarthy and Byron York have spent the last week disseminating claims that the Clinton administration eavesdropped on Princess Diana. They've been insinuating all sorts of wrongdoing based on these reports, all which came from unreliable British press accounts.

Some of them -- Kaus and York in particular -- were spewing all sorts of speculative accusations that the Clinton administration broke the law and that the real target of the eavesdropping was Diana's boyfriend, New York billionaire Ted Forstmann. That led Kaus to speculate that the whole thing was all a plot by Hillary, because Forstmann was a potential rival for her Senate seat and she wanted to eavesdrop on his conversations with Diana for that reason.

The official British Government investigative report was released today, and as it turns out -- and as was painfully predictable -- the whole story is a sham, completely untrue. As York is forced to admit today: "Did the Clinton Administration Spy On Princess Diana? No." And Frum: "The bugging Diana story turns out to be a hoax or anyway an error. " And Kaus: "That official police report on Diana's death appears to be a bust, as far as alleging spying by the Clinton Administration on Republican magnate Ted Forstmann."

But just look at what these individuals said over the past week -- the kinds of accusations and insinuations they so recklessly spewed. Kaus, for instance, spent virtually the entire week hysterically spitting out one vapid conspiracy theory after the next about the entire matter, repeatedly citing Drudge and similar gossip rags (breathless emphasis in original):

The Brit papers are breaking the story that the Clinton-administration "secret service"** secretly bugged Princess Diana "over her relationship with a US billionaire" Ted Forstmann. Initial questions: What was the grave high-level concern about Forstmann, a big-deal investor, Republican, and education activist? ... What, were they worried Diana might endorse school choice?*** ... And did they have a warrant? ... Plus, of course: What did the Clintons know, etc.?... Intriguingly, Forstmann once made noises about running against Hillary Clinton in 2000. ...

***KEY UPDATE*** Even better, according to a September 15 , 2006 New York Daily News story [via NEXIS]:

CLAIMS THAT Princess Diana dreamed of moving into the White House as America's First Lady were confirmed yesterday by a source close to the politically minded mogul she hoped would take her there.

Update: Carefully worded U.S. denials here. ...

More: The NSA is "working on a statement"! ...

Observed Kaus: "Wow. I guess there's no way Hillary and Bill would be interested in what Forstmann and Diana were saying to each other, is there? ... See also. ...[via Drudge] ... " And on and on . . .

Then we have National Review's Byron York, who wrote one of the most amazing "news" articles I've seen in an awhile, with the headline: "What the new revelations could mean." The whole article is nothing but a series of speculative claims discussing all the laws which the Clinton administration may have broken and all of the nefarious plots they were pursuing, all based on a series of hypotheticals about what they "might" have done:

Forstmann is what is known in the intelligence/legal world as a “U.S. person.” If there were a conversation between him, in the United States, and Diana, outside the United States, it would resemble, at least in structure, the conversations between people in the United States and those in foreign countries that have been at the center of the controversy over what President Bush calls the terrorist-surveillance program and what Democrats call “domestic spying.” . . .

If the Clinton administration did engage in surveillance of Diana/Forstmann, it is not clear if it was done with or without a warrant. . . .

If the Clinton administration did engage in surveillance of Princess Diana and Theodore Forstmann, without a warrant, it would appear to run contrary to statements made by former administration officials during the Bush warrantless-wiretap controversy. . . .

Nevertheless, the law required that the administration seek a warrant if it intended to wiretap a U.S. person’s — in this case Forstmann’s — communications.

Then we have Glenn Reynolds, who reliably is at the center of every baseless accusation and dirt-mongering story: "MICKEY KAUS is staying on the Diana-bugging story." And Reynolds again:

MICKEY KAUS: "The Brit papers are breaking the story that the Clinton administration 'secret service' ** secretly bugged Princess Diana 'over her relationship with a US billionaire' Ted Forstmann. Initial questions: What was the grave high-level concern about Forstmann, a big-deal investor, Republican, and education activist? ... What, were they worried Diana might endorse school choice?*** ... And did they have a warrant?" I'm guessing the answers are no, and no.

UPDATE: Lots of updates to Kaus's post, so be sure you follow the link.

Meanwhile Byron York has more on the Diana-bugging story. Is this what Sandy Berger was trying to cover up?

Then there is Andrew McCarthy, in the Corner: "To echo Byron's excellent piece today, the breathtaking hypocrisy of those who played partisan politics with our national security by railing about the NSA's terrorist surveillance program has long been evident. . . .Would that the mainstream press took time out from Bush-bashing to cover it."

John Hinderaker: "I agree with Mickey that, while, absent Diana, Forstmann's political ambitions would have been a long shot at best, this would explain why the Princess could have been a source of anxiety to the Clinton regime."

I could go on like that all day. I won't even mention David Frum (too late), who -- before the "story" was even a few hours old -- demanded to know why all of those opposed to Bush's illegal eavesdropping on Americans hadn't condemned Clinton's legal eavesdropping on a British citizen. Frum, at least, had the decency today to sheepishly acknowledge his error.

Here is the real point: like anyone who blogs, I get email tips and links every day to all sorts of sensationalistic claims and stories. Sometimes those stories are not merely floating around in the Internet gossip swamps frequented by Mickey Kaus (places like Drudge and Lucianne), but can be found in perfectly legitimate media outlets.

But having "judgment" means that you are able to discern what stories are likely credible and what ones aren't. Nobody is going to be perfect in that regard, but you at least make the effort. You don't just leap like a drooling, rabid bat for every story that reflects poorly on political figures you dislike, and then use it to unleash every irresponsible accusation and speculative charge your brain can churn out.

So often, preliminary, sketchy stories like this are plainly unreliable, just wrong. And that was clearly the case with this "Diana spying" story from the beginning.

What kind of judgment do these people have that they have been running around for the last several days all but accusing the Clinton administration of lawbreaking and dark eavesdropping plots? That, of course, led to the standard campaign to start heaping all the blame on Hillary and her amoral, monstrous quest for political power.

Fox News linked to York's National Review original article, touting it as a story suggesting the need for a "Clinton probe" over wiretapping. Between the multiple National Review items (York, Frum, McCarthy), Instapundit, Kaus at Slate, the Fox link, not to mention all the right-wing blogs linking to them -- how many people were subjected to this completely baseless innuendo, all of which was designed to suggest that Bush's eavesdropping is unnoteworthy because Clinton did the same (if not worse) and/or that Hillary illegally bugged poor Princess Diana all for selfish political reasons, etc.

It was so obvious from the beginning that there were gaping holes in the story and that the "sources" for it were extremely unreliable. York even prefaced his article with this acknowledgment: "The first thing to remember in trying to evaluate reports that U.S. intelligence services wiretapped Princess Diana is that British press accounts can be notoriously unreliable."

But that isn't good enough. In fact, that makes it worse. Gossip columnists pass on rumors. Responsible, credible analysts, political pundits, and journalists do not. And they certainly don't spend day after day, like Kaus did (with Reynolds cheering on every word) building one scurrilous accusation after the next based on chatter.

Among Bush followers, making up false stories about political opponents and loudly broadcasting them to the world does not seem to undermine the credibility of those who do it. It actually seems to have the opposite meaning; it seems to be viewed as a virtue.

It is to be expected that such fabrications would seem to satiate those who want nothing more than to have their immovable political biases fed with mindless bile. But at some point, do other more independent types (if there are any left who read them) actually start to assess what behavior like this says about the judgment and credibility of those who are doing it?

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