National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  April 30, 2004

The facts: Have them your way

The results of an investigation are often determined by who's appointed to investigate


If you are a head of state whose public has such grave concerns about your administration’s judgment, competence, credibility or integrity that you have no choice but to establish an independent body to investigate, all is not lost. By picking the right person to head up the inquiry, you can all but guarantee a satisfactory outcome, no matter how deserving of censure you and your aides are.

I call this “appointment determinism.”

Although human beings have the capacity to surprise, far more often we act predictably. Tony Blair didn’t know for certain that Lord Brian Hutton, a pillar and protector of the British establishment, would be gentle with Blair and other government witnesses in the investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of David Kelly, or that Hutton, in his final report, would buy so completely the government line. But Blair did know his chances were much better with Hutton than with an inquisitor who had long been hip to and disgusted by the Blair team’s spinning ways.

Blair actually chose too well in this case. Part of Hutton’s investigation looked at portions of the Blair team’s September 2002 dossier on Iraqi WMD. Hutton absolved the Blair government and its intelligence chiefs of misleading the public -- a finding that elicited such widespread derision that Blair was forced to select another lord to head a committee that would conduct a broader investigation into pre-war intelligence. But not too broad.

Blair has appointed the right honorable and right timid Lord Robin Butler to lead the investigation. He and a few other establishmentarians picked by Blair will interview officials in private, and the investigation will focus “principally on structures, systems and processes rather than on the actions of individuals.”

That narrow focus is guaranteed to leave the British public dissatisfied. But it will buy Blair another five months (Butler’s “findings” are due in July), at which point I predict Blair will respond to renewed public outrage by appointing another lame lord with a slightly broader mandate to produce Act III of this farce.

Who gets appointed and why

Twelve-year-olds with blank slates are not picked to investigate governmental behavior. Adults are. Adults who have been around long enough to establish a track record. Adults who have a political viewpoint, a demeanor (lapdog, bulldog or somewhere in between), social standing, friends in high places or lack thereof, the willingness (or not) to burn bridges, a protective or antagonistic view toward the entity being investigated, and the need (or not) to be liked.

If you want the unvarnished truth, there are qualified people who, if picked, are likely to give you just that. If you prefer the truth varnished, there are respected, qualified people who can be counted on to provide a heavy coat and others who will reliably deliver a light coat. In most cases, the varnishers will see themselves as every bit as honorable and conscientious as the investigator who regularly delivers the unvarnished stuff. But that doesn’t mean they are.

A closer look at Kay

Let’s say you want to make the best of a bad situation, and your name is George W. Bush. The “bad situation” is the failure to find WMD in Iraq. So you ask CIA director George Tenet to find out why, and you OK Tenet’s proposal that David Kay, who investigated Iraq’s nuclear weapons program for the United Nations in 1991-92, look into the matter. From the Bush administration’s perspective, Kay would seem to be a good choice as well as a team player, having pushed for war and denigrated inspections as a waste of time from his perch as an objective NBC News “analyst” and occasional contributor to the pro-war Washington Post.

In May 2003, prior to his CIA appointment June 11, Kay returned to Iraq and pronounced with great certitude on NBC that two recently discovered trailers were bioweapons labs. He said claims by Iraqi scientists that the trailers were for the production of hydrogen for military weather balloons “didn’t pass the laugh test.” (Doubts among U.S. government experts emerged by the end of May, and the consensus today is that the Iraqi scientists told the truth.) Kay’s unjustified, premature certitude should have been the cue to the U.S. media to declare, upon hearing of Kay’s appointment, “David Kay doesn’t pass the laugh test.”

But it did pass, and Kay headed the investigation in Iraq until January. At that point, he cemented his wholly undeserved reputation as a straight shooter by acknowledging the obvious: We haven’t found any WMD, and we’re unlikely to ever find any WMD of significance because it appears that Iraq destroyed its pre-1991 stocks years ago and hadn’t produced any WMD since 1991.

Kay’s “credibility” thus established across the narrow spectrum of mass-media thought with his “sky is blue” pronouncement, he is now free to make all manner of dubious pronouncements favorable to the Bush team and to be taken seriously. “We were all wrong” about Iraq’s WMD, Kay tells us. He sees no evidence of CIA analysts being leaned on, or of the president and his aides improving on the CIA’s intelligence in their pronouncements to win over Congress, the media and the public. And it turns out that Iraq, despite not having the WMD we knew it had, was an even more dangerous place in the pre-war period than we had imagined.

The Post appoints ostriches

“Appointment determinism” is also a fine tool for analyzing the news media. If you’re curious as to why The Washington Post, proud possessor of a roster of capable reporters, waited till after the war to systematically scrutinize the Bush team’s arguments for going to war -- scrutiny that should have been all over the front page back in September and October 2002 -- it’s because the Graham family appoints people like Leonard Downie and Bob Woodward to direct the news operation. The Graham family owns the Post, and current publisher Donald Graham, like his late mother, Katharine, supports an aggressive, interventionist foreign policy, and he doesn’t want the Post doing anything that might restrain or even prevent a president from implementing such a policy.

The Graham family achieves that goal not by telling senior editors what to do but by appointing to such positions those who, over many years, absorbed Graham family values and now exude them. Such editors are inclined to proceed with utmost caution or look the other way if they suspect the administration is using deception to win public support for intervention abroad. So instead of a flood of carefully researched, hard-hitting articles when it might have mattered, the Post provided a trickle of stories -- often buried in inside pages and rarely amplified in editorials or op-eds.

The power to appoint is a mighty powerful power, and it’s a determining factor in what we read, hear and see, what gets investigated, and what investigators reveal and conceal.

Dennis Hans is a freelance writer who has taught courses in mass communications and American foreign policy at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. Prior to the Iraq war he published Lying Us Into War: Exposing Bush and His “Techniques of Deceit.”

National Catholic Reporter, April 30, 2004

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