Thursday, February 05, 2004

Sex, lies, video tape, "Nunn's Nickel" and weapons of mass destruction

Mark Dorroh

Arms Inspector David Kay has spent the past week talking about his search for WMD in Iraq, but only selected portions of his remarks are being repeatedly cited in most news reports. Kay's belief that Saddam probably didn't have stockpiles of WMD immediately prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom is something one reads and hears often. Also mentioned frequently is Kay's belief that was a failure among U.S. intelligence agencies and the information they gave President Bush.

What doesn't get mentioned nearly so often is Kay's assertion that his post-war inspections have uncovered plenty of evidence that Saddam had WMD-related projects in the works and possessed a number of missiles with ranges in excess of Desert Storm armistice/Security Council resolution limitations.

The WMD research-and-development projects and illegal missiles are significant because, according to the language of Resolution 1441, Saddam had an obligation to report them (which he failed to do) and allow unfettered access to their sites (which he also failed to do). Violation of either of those provisions of 1441 was enough to trigger serious consequences for noncompliance, up to and including armed intervention.

Also, many news reports ignore the fact that Kay has repeatedly said it wasn't just American intelligence that miscalculated the presence of Saddam's WMD stockpiles. While the Russians were publicly skeptical on the matter, they were nearly alone in their skepticism. Intelligence services of the French, the Germans and the Brits all thought the same thing as President Bush: that Iraqis probably had WMD stockpiles. The argument preceding the invasion wasn't over whether or not Iraq had them, it was over what should be done about it, another factoid seriously underreported by the media.

Heavy (and heavy-handed) media emphasis on selected portions of Kay's remarks reminds one of the way in which the infamous Rodney King beating was handled by American media. We all saw, dozens of times, the portion of the videotape in which the helpless King lay on the ground as deputies wailed away on his prostrate form with truncheons. What I saw exactly once on television was the portion of the tape in which the six-foot-something, 230-pound Rodney King lunges at a deputy, nearly knocking him down.

Apparently, network news editors didn't think that part of the tape was as sexy (or as useful for ratings) as the helpless-on-the-ground video images. That left many with the impression that the beating was utterly arbitrary and unprovoked. And while King's actions did not justify the savagery of his beating, the underreported lunge was essentially censored by members of the 4th Estate whose professional and ethical obligation is to tell the whole truth, not just the bloody, exciting bits that make police look like monsters and criminals look like victims (lest we forget, King's extreme drunkenness behind the wheel initiated a police chase with speeds approaching 100 mph, and King was so loaded when they finally apprehended him, the cops thought he was dusted on animal tranquilizer).

Another interesting feature of the reporting done on Kay's WMD conclusions is the criterion by which reflexive Bush-bashers define a "lie." By any reasonable standard, relying on (nearly everyone's) flawed intelligence - intelligence which assumes the worst of someone with a history as bloodstained as Saddam's - does not rise to the definition of a lie.

On the other hand, a few years back, chronic Clinton-bashers did in fact catch a president in a lie when he testified that he'd not done what DNA evidence later proved he had.

Unlike George W. Bush, William J. Clinton was not relying on anyone else's flawed intelligence. He knew the truth, and chose not to tell it.

Yet many who defended Clinton then accuse Bush of lying now. And the classic Clinton defense, that the flawed testimony was all "just about sex" ignores the fact that, no matter what the underlying issue, the president intentionally lied about it in a deposition to a federal court investigating an alleged civil rights violation.

Compared to accepting possibly flawed intelligence - with which three out of four major national intelligence services agreed at the time - the chant, "Bush lied, people died" becomes a curiously empty and misguided mantra … sort of like that of the sheep in Animal Farm who would lie around in the pasture for hours, chanting "Four legs good! Two legs bad!" ad infinitum.

It should be noted at this point that Eric Arthur Blair, a former socialist who saw the light after serial depredations of human rights and dignity at the hands of his coreligionists in the 1930s, darn well knew the definition of a lie … and of an empty chant as well.

In a larger sense, our treatment of presidents Clinton and Bush shows how crazy we can get when we allow gut reactions to influence our higher-order mental processes. Even when Clinton did things Republicans loved (his support for meaningful welfare reform, NAFTA, GATT) many choked on giving credit of any sort to "Slick Willie." Similarly, "Cowboy George" gets precious little credit from the other side of the aisle for his support of No Child Left Behind and the Medicare drug benefit program.

Partisanship can get ugly, and seldom respects the truth. That was sadly illustrated by this week's funeral, in Kentucky, of former Governor Louie B. Nunn. I lived in Kentucky when Nunn won the race for governor in 1967. If memory serves, it was about a week after the vote was certified that the lame-duck, 100-year-old, opposition party administration announced a state budget shortfall of something in excess of $10 million. The week before Nunn took office, there was a second audit that put the total deficit at $20 million. When Nunn took office and did his own audit, the deficit turned out to be more like $24 million. A hundred-year reign of any single political party (in the case of Kentucky in 1967, the Democrats) will nealy always engender such monkey business … as will a 12-year reign, as Republicans in Congress are so busy proving in 2006.

Faced with the prospect of, among other things, being forced to throw mentally retarded adults out of state homes for lack of budgetary ability to continue caring for them, Nunn supported a two-cent increase in the existing three percent sales tax. It came to be known, in the bumper-sticker wisdom of the day, as "Nunn's Nickel."

So, just for grins, let's review the circumstances behind the promulgation of the "Nunn's Nickel" sales tax hike.

Former one-party administrations caused the deficit that made the tax increase necessary; 3/5 of the final "Nunn's Nickel" state sales tax existed long before Nunn ever even ran for office; a legislature controlled by the loyal opposition approved the two-cent increase.

But Louie Nunn, because of "Nunn's Nickel," never won another election. Once again, the hoary and cynical adage that "in the Real World, no good deed goes unpunished" has been certified Q.E.D.

The common denominator in these stories is that perception does not equal reality. Lamentably, truth becomes a dispensable luxury when partisan rhetoric and editorial agendas taint the delivery of information to the public.

We'd do well to remember those sorry facts when trying to wring the truth from stories about sex, lies and weapons of mass destruction.

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