This afternoon I om on a panel on "The Information Revolution" keynoted by Ambassador Joseph Wilson. The panel is part of the university's annual Research ShowCASE symposium. (See the schedule here.) Given the title of the program — and the potential for an interesting discussion — I'm liveblogging the panel.
Ambassador Joseph Wilson opens with a question: Why was he invited to address a symposium that is focused on the future? After all, he remarked, most of his career has been spent in parts of the world that – at least from a technological perspective – are “barely out of the 19th century” let alone in the present or the future.
Wilson’s frames his remarks as addressing the divide between spin and truth, and how this divide has been altered and challenged by the information revolution. Managing information flow has been an increasingly important task in government operations, particularly in the military and diplomacy. A pervasive question in these contexts is whether information should be controlled and acted upon in the field or from a centralized authority, such as the Pentagon or State Department in Washington, D.C. The ability to act and set policy based upon decentralized information is important, Wilson notes, but so is real-time experience in the field.
As Wilson tells the story, he was happily working outside of the public square, making a good living, before the events that catapulted him into the public eye. He came back into the public square “for one reason, and one reason only,” because those who were setting policy on Iraq were being driven by ideology and false information. Yet he did not enter the public debate as a partisan, Wilson stressed, because he had been a Republican political appointee in the first Bush Administration. In retrospect, he believes, it was a war to validate an "academic theory" embraced by the Project for a New American Century.
Wilson recounts that he was not unequivocally against a second war with Iraq. Rather, he says, he felt the argument had to be made in terms of U.S. national interests, or true international efforts through the United Nations. In this regard, he likened his position as similar to that of General Zinni or Brent Scowcroft. Wilson also believes it would have been legitimate to pursue the Hussein regime due to its complicity in genocide, but this was not the course the Bush Administration took, Wilson maintains, because of an "ideological commitment" to invading and occupying Iraq. This is also why, Wilson believes, the administration did not see the U.N. disarmament process through to its conclusion.
Wilson then turned to “The other issue I’ve been involved with is truth in government,” and when an individual has either a right or obligation to hold their government to account for what it says and does. This is how Wilson frames his decision to challenge the Bush Administration’s claim that intelligence agencies believed the Hussein regime was seeking uranium in West Africa. After “several months of petitioning my government privately,” seeking to get the Administration to retract its claim, Wilson decided to go public with his charge that the President had mischaracterized intelligence reports about whether Hussein sought to obtain uranium in Niger.
After the White House acknowledged that President Bush should not have mentioned the uranium claim, Wilson says, the issue would have gone away, had the administration not sought to attack him. “Had it not been for the fact that Valerie was a covert intelligence officer, I would have been destroyed,” he says. Her status, according to Wilson, caused the FBI and Justice Department to enter the fray and “level the playing field.” Now that Lewis “Scooter” Libby was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice no more exonerates him from the underlying crime than does Al Capone’s conviction for tax evasion (rather than mob activities), or Alger Hiss’ conviction for perjury (rather than treason).
Writing his infamous op-ed was not “a great act of political courage” but an act of “citizenship,” that only became a big deal because of how the Administration responded. As a result, no one knows the name of the person who wrote the infamous “sixteen words” in the President’s State of the Union address – “the person who put the lie in the President’s mouth” – and yet “everyone” knows the name of Valerie Plame, whose “only connection” to this controversy is being “my wife.”
Today, Wilson says, the “spin machines” of “all political parties” are “designed to shape the environment” and “win the battle of the 24-hour news cycle” rather than ensure that public debates and policy decisions are made on the basis of accurate information. Wilson acknowledges that this is not an entirely new phenomenon, as “yellow journalism” and partisan publications were once quite prevalent, suggesting that perhaps the U.S. is reverting to type. To stay informed, one cannot rely upon a single news source, but multiple sources to ensure one is getting the full story.
With Wilson done his opening remarks, it’s time for the panel – an interesting mix of folks who all have some perspective on something related to the control and dissemination of “information,” and truth in government. To start, the moderator asks me to make a few comments about whistleblowers and the government’s legal ability to prosecute individuals and journalists under the Espionage Act for disclosing classified national defense information. (For my views on that, see here.)
The moderator then turns to Victoria Lovegren, a Case mathematician and “election activist” who founded Ohio Vigilance Election Reform and is concerned about the potential for election fraud. In her view, current problems with electronic voting is the “tip of the iceberg.” In her view, election problems threaten to undermine the citizenry’s primary means of trying to hold the government accountable. “I don’t think we have a very strong democracy” here, she says.
Next up is forensic accountant (aka “accounting detective”) Lewis Baum, who is asked to briefly address how financial fraud is detected and “war profiteering.” The latter is difficult to address because such activities, and public fraud, are so prevalent in so much of the world. Here, as anywhere, understanding the source and nature of information – and how to interpret it – is essential.
The moderator then turns to Dr. Benigno Rodriguez, who focuses on the privacy of medical information, to provide some broader perspective on the consequences of being “outed” – having truthful information about oneself disclosed by someone else – as happened with Valerie Plame. Such involuntary disclosure can be a problem. At the same time, Dr. Rodriguez notes, collecting and compiling medical data is important for medical research, particularly data that is collected in the course of routine medical treatment (as opposed to, for example, data collected for litigation purposes).
Returning to Wilson, he is asked why he thinks the Administration went after him and his wife, in particular. The reason, Wilson suggests, is that those in the White House had thin skins and sought to send a “shot across the bow” and discourage others from challenging the Administration and its justifications for war in Iraq.
Asked whether the first Gulf War was “not also based upon a lie,” Wilson first plugs his book The Politics of Truth (which discussed the lead-up to the first Gulf War), and what the U.S. government told the Hussein government before Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. According to Wilson, Ambassador April Glaspie did not green light the invasion in a meeting with Iraq leaders, as some have claimed, and instead reiterated traditional U.S. policy. According to Wilson, Iraq had grievances with Kuwait, but wasn’t seeking to negotiate with Kuwait so much as to make demands, and that Iraq invaded when the Kuwaitis refused to acquiesce to Iraqi demands (and were, perhaps, insulting to the Iraqi delegation during the negotiations).
The moderator, my colleague Michael Scharf, chimed in that governments have often mispresented facts in order to justify military actions, going back to the "Remember the Maine" campaign. Is this something we have to live with, he asks, or is there a way to challenge and prevent government misinformation? I suggest that blogging, dispersed information networks, and the like make it more difficult than ever to keep a lid on information (though I also note the problem of "cocooning" as people self-select the sources of information that will reinforce their worldview. Ms. Lovegren gives a slightly different perspective, warning of media concentration and the misinformation that media corporations promote. "I can't even listen to NPR" anymore, she says, because of its misleading information reports. Mr. Baum suggests a slightly broader perspective, suggesting that even outside of politics, one must evaluate the sources of information and analysis, recognizing that most people, most of the time, will assume that they are presenting honest and accurate information.
In response to a somewhat disillusioned question, Ambassador Wilson makes a plea for greater citizen involvement in politics. Politicians listen to their constituents because they want to be reelected. Congress becomes progressively more skeptical of the Iraq war after each congressional recess, he says, because they are hearing from their constituents who oppose current policy.
Asked about the British government’s role in pre-war intelligence, Wilson suggests that there are several different theories as to why British PM Tony Blair has been so supportive of the Bush Administrations, ranging from him being duped or double-crossed by “the neo-cons” who always wanted to “invade and occupy Iraq,” to him becoming a “fellow traveler” with the Administration’s worldview in the Middle East.
Provoked by the moderator, Wilson and I have a little back-and-forth over the theory or preemption and whether it is justified. My small point is that the choice between preemptive action and a more defensive posture is, in many respects, a choice between the risks of doing too much and doing too little about potential international threats. Hindsight is always 20/20, but we have to confront the fact that there is no "risk-free" approach to potentially foreign threats.
NOTE: In answer to those who ask why my account doesn't challenge Wilson's narrative. the primary reason, I suppose, is that my multi-tasking abilities only go so far. Second, I am not an expert in all of the intricacies of the Wilson-Plame-Libby affair, so I felt it would be a better use of my time to try and recount what was said so that those of you who know more about these matters can comment.