On the day that the OLC torture memos were released, Politico’s Mike Allen quoted an unnamed Bush official castigating that decision and questioning Obama’s motives.
A former top official in the administration of President George W. Bush called the publication of the memos “unbelievable.”
“It’s damaging because these are techniques that work, and by Obama’s action today, we are telling the terrorists what they are,” the official said. “We have laid it all out for our enemies. This is totally unnecessary. … Publicizing the techniques does grave damage to our national security by ensuring they can never be used again — even in a ticking-time- bomb scenario where thousands or even millions of American lives are at stake.”
“I don’t believe Obama would intentionally endanger the nation, so it must be that he thinks either 1. the previous administration, including the CIA professionals who have defended this program, is lying about its importance and effectiveness, or 2. he believes we are no longer really at war and no longer face the kind of grave threat to our national security this program has protected against.”
Journalists are under fire as it is for being too quick to agree to public or government officials’ requests for “on background” quoting or sourcing when the reasons are frivolous — such as wanting to avoid accountability or the embarrassment of attaching your name to controversial statements, absent any credible or serious risk to one’s professional life or to one’s physical or personal safety. Here, Mike Allen was permitting a top former Bush official to hide behind anonymity solely to make unsupported claims for the effectiveness of torture and to accuse Pres. Obama of endangering national security and handing secrets to our enemies by declassifying documents that show our government was, indeed, torturing detainees in U.S. custody.
Quite justifiably, jaws dropped:
Allen is allowing a member of the administration that broke the Geneva Conventions and commited war crimes to attack the current president and claim, without any substantiation, that the torture worked. He then allows that “top official” to proclaim things that are at the very least highly questionable. What journalistic standard is Allen following in allowing such a person to speak anonymously?
And how much lower can he sink in craving buzz and traffic?
Greg Sargent asked Allen in an email to explain his thinking:
… He replied:
Sometimes ya have to read beyond a blog snippet. When people read our actual article, they’ll see that the headline and top two-thirds are an exclusive on David Axelrod’s behind-the-scenes description of the President’s decision-making process, followed by a shorter Bush view from a very high-level official whose opinion was available only on background — not ideal, but better than making readers wonder what the official Bush view is.
… I’d argue that it’s unclear why anyone should enjoy anonymity for such claims at such a white-hot political moment. If Bush officials won’t attach their names to these views on the day the torture memos were released, then why should their position be represented at all?
Allen also defended himself — not very convincingly — in an article-length piece at Politico:
While I was writing the piece, a very well-known former Bush administration official e-mailed some caustic criticism of Obama’s decision to release the memos. I asked the former official to be quoted by name, but this person refused, e-mailing: “Please use only on background.” I wasn’t surprised: While Karl Rove and former Vice President Dick Cheney have certainly let loose in public comments, most top Bush officials have been reluctant to go on the record criticizing Obama. They have new careers, and they know it’s a fight they’ll never win. He’s popular; they’re not — they get it.
I figured that readers could decide whether the former Bush official’s comments sounded defensive or vindictive. And POLITICO readers aren’t so delicate that we have to deceptively pretend there’s no other side to a major issue. So at the bottom of the Axelrod story, I tacked on an ellipsized excerpt of the former Bush official’s quotes, removing several ad hominem attacks on Obama. I quoted less than half of the comment and took out the most incendiary parts — a way to hint at the opposing view without giving an anonymous source free rein. I also added a final sentence with additional White House perspective, so the former Bush official wouldn’t have the last word.
Over at Atlantic.com, Andrew Sullivan somehow turned that into, “Mike Allen: Bush Mouthpiece.”
Glenn Greenwald points out a rather stunning detail I hadn’t noticed until he said it. In the first paragraph from Allen’s apologia, which I quoted above, Allen writes that he got the email from the Bush official with the caustic comments, and then Allen phoned the official and asked for permission to identify him. It was only then that this individual said that he wanted the quote to be used on background only (emphasis below is Glenn’s):
So these quotes arrived in Allen’s email inbox with no agreement that the quotes were off the record. Thus, Allen was free to publish them and identity for his readers what Bush officials were saying about Obama. But — exact like Tim Russert — Allen apparently treats his conversations with Bush officials as “presumptively confidential,” i.e., like a good and loyal P.R. spokesman, he will only report what he learns if they give him permission to do so — even in the absence of an explicit off-the-record agreement. So, after the fact, he humbly asked permission to print what the “top Bush official” emailed him, was denied permission except on the condition that he print it anonymously, and Allen then complied. They take their orders from top government officials about what to print so reflexively and routinely that they’re not even embarrassed to admit it any longer.
Cross-posted at Comments from Left Field.