Etymologists study words. Entomologists study bugs.
But if it bugs you every time Washington officials use deliberately deceptive weasel words, you may need the services of a weasel-sniffing pundit. Reporting for duty!
Last Sunday, Washington Post investigative reporter Barton Gellman touched off a Washington week of minor shock and awe (see also: shuck and jive) with a front page story that began: “The Pentagon, expanding into the CIA’s historic bailiwick, has created a new espionage arm and is reinterpreting U.S. law to give Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld broad authority over clandestine operations abroad, according to interviews with participants and documents obtained by The Washington Post.
“The previously undisclosed organization, called the Strategic Support Branch, arose from Rumsfeld’s written order to end his ‘near total dependence on the CIA’ for what is known as human intelligence. Designed to operate without detection and under the defense secretary’s direct control, the Strategic Support Branch deploys small teams of case officers, linguists, interrogators and technical specialists alongside newly empowered special operations forces. …”
That prompted Rumsfeld’s Pentagon spokesman to issue a statement that began: “There is no unit that is directly reportable to the secretary of defense for clandestine operations as is described in the Washington Post article of January 23, 2005, entitled ‘Secret Unit Expands Rumsfeld’s Domain.’ Further, the Department is not attempting to ‘bend’ statutes to fit desired activities, as is suggested in this article.
“It is accurate and should not be surprising that the Department of Defense is attempting to improve its long-standing human intelligence capability. …”
And that prompted USA Today to run a story the next day that was headlined: “Pentagon denies news report of new spy unit.” Others also went with the denial story.
Time out! When an official chooses to respond to a news story not with a simple flat denial but with a sentence larded with qualifiers – the weasel words – there has to be a reason. Usually, it is that the story isn’t being denied because it is true.
In this case, Rumsfeld’s spokesman denied that there was a Pentagon spy unit “directly reportable” to the secretary. Alert weasel sniffers understand that the Pentagon carefully left open the probability that it has a spy unit – but it reports to a Rumsfeld deputy, who reports to the secretary. That’s what the Pentagon statement seemed to be admitting in adding that “it is accurate and should not be surprising that the Department of Defense is attempting to improve its long-standing human intelligence capability.”
Indeed, a week earlier, The New Yorker’s Seymour M. Hersh wrote a magazine article that, while not citing this Strategic Support Branch unit, focused extensively on Rumsfeld’s efforts to expand the Pentagon’s intelligence operations.
The New York Times did not get suckered by the Pentagon’s head-fake. On Monday, the same day that USA Today published its denial headline, the Times carried a front page story headlined: “Pentagon Sends Its Spies to Join Fight on Terror: Role May Encroach on Territory of the C.I.A.” The Times story, confirming the Post account, was attributed to senior Defense Department officials.
Meanwhile, on Sunday and Monday, Washington was awash in another of its mini-spectacles of shock and awe. In Congress, prominent Republicans joined leading Democrats in saying they’d never heard of this spy unit and demanded to be briefed on it. Sen. John McCain raised the prospect of holding hearings. The Pentagon rushed a team of top officials to Capitol Hill Monday to brief those members of congressional armed services and intelligence committees who had been kept uninformed.
Things got so desperate that the Pentagon even brought out top officials to brief the reporters who cover the Pentagon _ on the condition that their names not be divulged.
All of this, of course, was one of those typical Washington conflagrations that never had to happen. Rumsfeld, after all, had a strong case to be made for wanting to strengthen intelligence. Rumsfeld and others have complained for four years about the poor quality of human intelligence provided by the CIA.
Indeed, the tweedy ineptitude of the CIA’s ivy-trained best and brightest has been well documented by the post-9/11 investigations. Generals in the field and top civilians in the Pentagon E-ring have fumed at having to send troops into harm’s way without knowing all they should about friends and foes in Iraq and elsewhere.
But the Pentagon’s so-called experts in charge of crisis management and damage control were once again so obsessed with their compulsion for secrecy that they overlooked their best, but seldom-used, option: Just tell the truth. Not the partial, semi-, quasi-, elbow-in-the-ribs, wink-and-nod truth – but the whole truth. Right from the start.
This didn’t have to be a Washington Post revelation. It should have been a Pentagon announcement, long ago.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.)