November 14, 2005
John Dean's memory - and Scooter Libby'sBy James Lewis
John Dean's testimony about Richard Nixon's words in the Oval Office brought about Watergate, and the fall of an American president. That is what our media believe; it's the biggest story of their lives. They have beaten their chests about it ever since.
The only trouble is that it is a half—truth at best. In critical details, Dean's testimony did not match the tape recordings of those Oval Office conversations. John Dean mixed up the dates and content of conversations, pointing the finger at Nixon and clearing himself. A memory researcher first pointed out the flaws in Dean's testimony.
The bottom line is that John Dean's story came from his personal interpretation of what Nixon said — not what he actually said.
Today, Lewis Libby faces up to thirty years in jail, but not for leaking secrets to a reporter. The indictment is based on contradictions in his Grand Jury testimony, based on memories of conversations that occurred two years ago. Mr. Libby works sixteen hour a day, seven days a week, for a total of about 11,000 hours over two years. If we assume he talked about Valerie Plame for just one hour out of those 11,000 hours, that would add up to almost 0.01 percent of his busy time. Question: Could you recall ——— word for word ——— what you said 0.01 percent of your time over 700 days?
Here is another question: Can you remember at this moment what you have just read, word for word? I can't, and I just wrote it. Human beings tend to remember their interpretations of words, not the exact words they hear. Over time, we can't even remember the gist of a conversation. Our memory is not only fragile, it is "reconstructive." It is ridiculously easy to set up the conditions for people to make up stories about their past; thousands of psychological experiments have done just this. Our minds are not tape recorders.
Story telling is what comes naturally to us, because we are always trying to make sense of the past. We don't need to lie, our minds do it for us.
As Professor Elizabeth Loftus, one of the pioneering investigators on this topic, has written in Scientific American,
Two decades ago a great hysteria gripped the country, when the media "discovered" thousands of adults coming up with memories of sexual abuse in childhood. Women in "consciousness—raising groups" often had amazingly accurate memories from decades before. Astonishing numbers of people "recovered" previously unsuspected sexual incidents. For years and years the headlines blared out that more and more families were discovered to be harboring horrific secrets. In time, every adult male became a suspect.
Families felt utterly betrayed and fell apart. It was a classic case of mass hysteria, what has come to be called False Memory Syndrome. The hysteria destroyed many lives.
Elizabeth Loftus and other scientists began to do careful experiments on memory distortions. Cops and lawyers have always known that eyewitness testimony is unreliable, even for things that happened just days ago. Crime witnesses contradict each other, they remember things that were not there, and the more they repeat their stories, they more they change them. Able defense lawyers can make mincemeat out of eyewitness testimony. Only liars tell consistent stories about the past.
That is the type of evidence that has now been used to indict Lewis Libby.
Lewis Libby must have had a few other things on his mind over the last two years, as Chief of Staff in the Vice President's office. But it makes sense that he and the Vice President were concerned that Joseph C. Wilson had launched an attack on the Bush administration in the New York Times, based on Wilson's bogus "mission to Niger" on behalf of the CIA. While Wilson initially lied about who suggested sending him at CIA, we now know it was Valerie Plame, his wife.
Two years ago a deadly struggle was under way at the top of the secret government. High officials at the CIA had leaked repeatedly against the Bush—Cheney ticket during the 2004 election, as Admiral Bobby Inman has pointed out.
Wilson was a well—known Bush hater, and his "mission" to Niger was an obvious set—up by CIA, which allowed him for the first time in its history, to publish his conclusions on the Op—Ed page of the New York Times. Wilson's clear aim was to damage the Bush administration, and to cover up for the Clintons' ineptitude. With the help of CIA, he forged a sword to bring the administration down. That has been his publicly stated goal ever since then.
The fact that Wilson was married to high society spook—around—town Valerie Plame was therefore a genuine concern. It showed a direct connection between Wilson and high levels of CIA, home of the prodigious leakers. Were Lewis and his boss, Dick Cheney, wrong to be worried about that? I don't think so. This wasn't just politics; it was also a grave matter of national security.
After eight years of hippie dopers in the Clinton White House, American national security was a disaster waiting to happen. It might have been a repeat of the 1994 World Trade Towers bombing, or another gush of strategic weapons intelligence to China. For many of us, some great national disaster was in the air after eight years of Bill and Hillary.
And so three thousand Americans died on September 11, 2001. They died in spite of the fact that the attack was entirely predictable, down to the hijackers and their targets. The TwinTowers had already been bombed once before by the same Islamist network, right at the beginning of the Clinton years. After three thousand innocents died on 9/11, the Bush administration went on a war footing, but the bureaucracy did not. It was too full of tenured radicals and careerists, who were deeply invested in the sucker logic of the Clinton years.
President Bush vowed to finally put an end to the culture of leaks — but media leaking has been the main lever of power wielded by the permanent bureaucracy, allied with the Left. The CIA therefore responded with an act that can only be called high treason in a time of war — a classic example of bureaucratic jiu—jitsu. They turned Bush's vow to prosecute leakers against the administration. And they won.
After two years of investigation — at the insistence of by media — Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has not been able prove that anyone was trying to expose Valerie Plame. Instead, we have an indictment based entirely on contradictions in Libby's memories. I doubt he will be convicted, because his defense attorneys will certainly dramatize the fragility of that kind of evidence to the judge and jury.
What will happen, however, is much more dangerous. Opposition elements in government are now more secure than ever before. They are protected when leaking secrets to the media, and therefore to our enemies abroad. The New York Times is read by the Mullahs in Iran, the madmen in North Korea, by Zarqawi and Bin Laden — in fact, by every intelligence agency in the world. Spies don't need to send secret radio messages any more. They can just leak them to the nearest reporter.
Any leaker can just shout "retaliation!" and get automatic protection from our whistleblower protection laws. Almost two weeks ago, the Washington Post exposed the existence of CIA "black" prisons for terrorists in Eastern Europe. How many friends of America will take the fall, because the Post craved another headline? How many Iraqis will now risk their families' lives to give away terrorist hideouts in Baghdad? How many al Qaeda moles will now warn us about a coming attack? We are in greater danger today, just because a newspaper decided with its astonishing arrogance to expose a national security asset.
The Libby case shows that prosecutors don't need to prove any specific charge. They only have to ask their targets to try to recall that conversation from 700 days ago. Would you just tell the jury that story again? Are you sure you didn't say anything else? Didn't you really mean to leak Valerie Plame's, Mr. Libby? Didn't you?
Pretty soon any prosecutorial targets will be dead meat. And when the next terror attack occurs, will it be guided by today's leaks?
James Lewis is a frequent contributor