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We Report... You Deride

Friday, April 02, 2004  
The Great Escape?

This afternoon, I actually got a chance to analyze my web stats for the first time. To my surprise, two of the pieces that got the most traffic were about hybred engines and direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical ads.

Well, never let it be said that I didn't give my public what they want. CBS had a nice story on the first hybred SUV: the Ford Escape. Probably the most impressive thing about the piece is the performance of CEO Bill Ford. Asked if he really believes there is a market for the car (it's going to sell for $4,000 more than a comparable SUV), Ford replies "We absolutely do, and we think the issue's going to be how many we can make-- it's not how many we can sell."

Smart guy-- the only thing that might get in the way of that prediction is W's economy. If you've got cash to spare, I'd buy some Ford stock. Having a smart boss doesn't guarantee anything. But it sure don't hurt-- and since the automotive industry is dominated by morons, they have a pretty good chance to beat up on the competition.

A good example of the morons who've infested Detroit for the last 50-odd years, the piece included some sentiments from a joker named John McElroy-- an exemplar of the type of thinking David Halberstam called "Old Detroit." McElroy, whose background suggests that he's made a career of smooching the Big Three's buttocks-- is sture fuel-efficient cars won't sell.

One comment on the car: If your connection will permit it, watch the video , because it shows something the transcript can't. The piece has a segment where the correspendent is driving the Escape. He starts on electric power. When he mashes the accelerator, the lurch as the gas engine kicks in says much of what you need to know about the technology.

Courtesy of the Washington Monthly's web site, we have a companion piece to the DTCA situation-- how stipends and rewards are corrupting the studies published in even the best medical journals.

In my earlier piece, I mentioned that Cox-2 inhibitors are much more expensive than Ibuprofen-- though no more effective-- with fewer side effects. Turns out my statement was false-- Cox-2 inhibitors present some pretty significant health risks, but the doctors who conducted the study jiggered the evidence to make the drugs created by their funders look good.

It's not fun reading-- it shows you just how morally bankrupt most physicians are. But it's better to know than not.

12:40 AM

Tuesday, March 30, 2004  
End of The Line

Well, the charade is finally over. W's regime has announced that Iraq has absolutely nothing worth going to war over.

Well, in their own sweet way, of course. When these guys announce that they're changing the scope of their mission-- 'expanding' it to include evidence that Saddam Hussein intended to build WMD and nukes, it means they've completely crapped out.

I can save them a hell of a lot of money: Of course he intended to. Just as I intend to have a wild fling with Elizabeth Hurley and then move onto Halle Berry and Shakira. I admit I might have some logistical problems making this happen. But I wanted to let John Ashcroft know.

Remember, to W.'s regime, intention is nine-tenths of the law.

11:17 PM

Monday, March 29, 2004  
Emergency Cheese Donations Required

The wingnuts are whining that Dick Clarke misled him. Clarke implied he voted for Bush on Wednesday (search for "Virginia" to get to the relevant info) and then told Tim Russert that he voted for Gore.

The reality: When he was accused of being a Democratic partisan-- specifically, of working to get John Kerry elected-- Clarke pointed out that (a) he had worked for three Republic presidents and (b) said he last declared his party preference in the 2000 presidential primary, when he asked for a Republic ballot, (c) he was not working for Kerry and (d) he vowed he would not accept a position in the Kerry administration.

How could any rational person conclude, based on that, that Clarke voted for W.? Based on Clarke's singleminded focus on terrorism, he probably uses the issue as a litmus test. Given the candidates' foreign policy positions in Primary Season 2000, Clarke's candidate of choice would almost certainly have been John McCain-- and that's why he pulled the Republic primary ballot.

With McCain out, Gore's position (stay the course) must certainly have sounded better than W.'s (ignore the rest of the world and build Star Wars so we can stamp out communism). Of course he voted for the guy whose worldview on that issue more closely matched his own-- why would you expect him to do anything else?

I wouldn't vote for a candidate based solely on that issue, but if Clarke wanted to, that's his right. And anyone who was misled by his statement needs to develop their critical thinking skills and stop jumping to conclusions.

2:24 PM

Sunday, March 28, 2004  
Where's the Beef?

Can the wingnuts indict Richard Clarke for perjury? Yeah, right. I took a good look at the text of the 2002 backgrounder where they claim he praised the anti-terrorist efforts of W.'s regime. I came to two conclusions:

1. Richard Clarke isn't just good-- he's very good.
2. The media people are really, really stupid.

Clarke was completely accurate about how little had been done by 9/11. But by phrasing his statements very carefully-- including some buzzwords that enabled the media to jump to conclusions--he made it sound a lot more impressive than it was.

If you want to learn something about communications strategy, you should study the first eight paragraphs of his briefing. In discussing what had been done to fight terrorism and when, Clarke says he has seven points to make. Let's analyze what he actually said:

1. The Clinton administration did not pass a "plan on Al Qaeda" to the Bush administration. In order to understand what's going on here, you need to remember that Clarke works in intelligence. Peoeple in intelligence speak in very precise terms; they have to, because they need to make extremely fine distinctions.

(Constantliar Rice isn't in intelligence. Nor is Rummy, nor Cheney. They're political appointees who have an interest in the field. That's a big difference.)

It's also clear from his use of language (both here and in point six) that Clarke has some formal training in project management. To someone with a PM background, a 'plan' has a very precise definition: a list of specific activities, each with clearly-defined success and failure conditions. Plans are concrete-- they are tactical instructions.

So what he is saying here is that the Clinton Administration hadn't passed on a list of projects designed to wipe out al-Qaeda, because they hadn't gone so far as to create one.

2. "The Clinton administration had a strategy in place, effectively dating from 1998" and "the incoming Bush administration was briefed" on it. The word "strategy" also has a precise meaning in PM terminology. It is a set of high-level objectives, which does not have activities attached to it.

For example, a strategy for dealing with terrorists might say "limit their ability to act by denying them access to resources." A plan would put it into effect, by proposing to "freeze bank accounts" or "bomb arms stockpiles" or "raid madrass sites and arrest instructors."

What Clark is saying, in other words, is "the Clinton administration knew where it wanted to go, but hadn't decided exactly how it was going to get there." Which is pretty consistent with how they did everything-- they ususually had good ideas, but typically had problems executing them.

3. "In late January"-- shortly after they took office-- the Bush administration decided to "vigorously pursue the existing policy." This point introduces the first bit of spin, and it's a fairly amusing one-- the use of the adverb "vigorously".

Now Clarke has just told you that the Clinton Administration wasn't actually doing anything, but they did know what they wanted to do. He now says the Bushies decided to do that vigorously. Now if you're not performing any activities, what difference does it make if you're acting it vigorously or not? That's like saying "my brother only hoped for a pony, but I really wished for one."

4. The Clinton administration left "a number of issues on the table since 1998." W's regime "decided to initiate a process to look at those issues... and get them decided." They decided to start to decide-- what more needs to be said? It's more substantive than deciding to postpone the decision to decide. More than that, deponent sayeth not.

5. W's fearless leaders "uh, decided in principle, uh in the spring to add to the existing Clinton strategy and to increase CIA resources, for example, for covert action, five-fold, to go after Al Qaeda." The two 'uh's should be a dead giveaway that something slanted is being transmitted. And they frame a real piece of work. Doing something "in principle" means that you've agreed that you're going to do it but you haven't actually done it.

Second, as I said in point two, a strategy has no impact until it is implemented. "Adding to" it simply means that you're making changes. The changes might make it better-- but since a strategy isn't doing anything, the changes have no practical effect.

The translation: In the spring, we decided that we were going to increase funding for the CIA's covert operations against Al Qaeda. We didn't do it, but we decided we would.

6. Once the deputies were appointed, they began "task[ing] the development of the implementation details" and "sending them out to the principals." This ia also artful. Clark makes it sound like tremendous progress has been made. But by avoiding the dates, he doesn't indicate how slowly the process actually moved along.

I've worked with governmental progress-- let me step out the timeline. The new deputies are appointed in "late March, early April". First they get briefed on the objectives and decide what they want to implement. Let's assume that this ramp-up takes about two to four weeks, because these people are pretty focused. (Consultants would take 4-6 weeks to create a plan if it were a rush job, and they'd ask for 8-12 weeks.)

Once the deputies make their decisions, they call in their assistants and tell them to figure out how to get it done. Again, let's assume they need 2-4 weeks to work up the details.

Then the deputies have to approve the plan. That takes another 2-4 weeks (assuming there are no revisions.)

At that point it goes to the other deputies-- Clarke and his peers. And then the principals-- the CIA director, the cabinet secretaries, the VP and the President--who have final call on the decisions. Let's add 2-4 weeks for the first group and 4-8 for the second,.

(Very little of this time, by the way, is spent deciding. These people are extraordinarily busy and it's hard to find a date and time when they can all be in the same room at the same time. 50-75% of the delay is the time lag before the meeting takes place.)

In the best-case scenario, this process takes 8-16 weeks-- between two and four months, Factoring in the start data (late March, early April) the low-end estimate means this process ends in late May to early June. The high-end estimates take you into late July or early August. (Since the plan was approved September 4, there were obviously several delays-- probably caused by revisions requested along the way.)

Doesn't sound like such a smooth process anymore, does it? Sounds like a bogged-down bureaucracy, wasting ungodly amounts of time when you plug in the times.

Maybe a reporter shouldn't be expected to know how the planning process works. But Clarke's narrative gives anyone a clear picture of how many layers of management there are: the principals, Clarke and his peers, the new deputies and their assistants.

That's four layers of management to move through. That's a ton of bureaucratic weight. And if you know how large organizations work--and Washington correspondents should-- it's an indication of how low-priority the project is. Priorities get handled by senior people-- they don't get tasked down three levels.

7. "The principals met at the end of the summer [and] approved them in their first meeting." This approval changed the policy toward al-Qaeda from "rollback... over the course of five years" to "the rapid elimination of Al Qaeda." Clarke mentions how long the process took, but he obscures the exact date. But by saying the policy changed from "roolback" to "elimination", he implies that it was all worthwhile.

From points two and seven, we learn that the changes "authoriz[ed] the increase in funding five-fold, chang[ed] the policy on Pakistan, chang[ed] the policy on Uzbekistan [and] chang[ed] the policy on the Northern Alliance assistance." During the follow-up questions, we learn that the changes in policy consist of urging the governments to do something about the local al-Qaeda .

In other words, they took eight months to decide to throw some money at one problem area (by funding the Afghan rebels), and offer incentives to two governments, to induce them to crack down.

To paraphrase Bob Dole, where's the praise? Clarke makes exactly two positive statements:

1. W's regime approved three proposals that the Clinton Administration hadn't acted on.
2. They decided to increase funding for CIA covert operations by 500%.

But even these are qualified by omission. Clarke doesn't say that the Bushies approved every item that the Clintons left on the table. He mentions three items at the beginning and later says all three items were approved. He never says there were only three open items.

And while a fivefold increase isounds pretty large, there's no amount mentioned. Mentioning a percentage without an amount is one of the oldest spin techniques in the book.

Looking both at the questions that were asked and the stories written about it, there's no question that the reporters were convinced that Clarke delivered a roaring endorsement of everything W.'s regime had done. But that's their fault. Reporters don't have Miranda rights-- as long as the person doing the briefing is being honest, he or she isn't required to point out how or where their statements could be misinterpreted.

Clarke didn't bend over backwards to say what he really thought. But he didn't say anything in the backgrounder that contradicts his interviews and public statements. And, according to Bob Graham--who heard the classified testimony and is as punctillious an observer as you can find (he's the one who keeps the obsessive-compulsive diary), he didn't say anything bogus to congress.

And if the wingnuts have the guts to declassify his testimony before Congress, I'll bet you find exactly what you see here: Clarke constructed his testimony artfully and picked and chose his words very carefully when he was asked questions. But if you look at what Clarke actually said--not what you think he said or what it seems like what he said-- he didn't say anything false.

Unless it has become a crime to be smarter than the people trying to get you, the wingnuts won't get anything on Clarke.

4:14 AM

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