Donald Rumsfeld: the known unknown

I finally had the opportunity to watch Errol Morris’ latest film, The Unknown Known, last night. In the tradition of Morris’ earlier work on Robert McNamara, The Fog of War, The Unknown Known features a Donald Rumsfeld who speaks directly into the camera, confronting his interviewer and the audience head-on. This he does with the characteristic self-assuredness long associated, for better or (mostly) for worse, with virtually the entire George W. Bush administration.

The film’s title is borrowed from one of Rumsfeld’s most famous statements, initially spoken at a Department of Defense briefing on February 12, 2002:

As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

The title of Errol Morris’ film, then, refers to the omitted fourth category: unknown knowns. Although he chose, in his public briefing, to leave out any references to this final combination, Rumsfeld indeed ruminated on it later on. In an internal memo, or “snowflake,” to his staff in early 2004, Rumsfeld wrote:

There are known knowns. There are known unknowns. There are unknown unknowns. But there are also unknown knowns. That is to say things that you think you know that it turns out you did not.

At Morris’ request, Rumsfeld reads this memo aloud in The Unknown Known, the audio of which was repeated several times throughout the film. Each time I heard it, it grated on me: wasn’t it all backwards? An unknown known isn’t something you think you know that you actually don’t, but vice versa: something you don’t know that you know. Stranger still, Rumsfeld describes it correctly in the film itself, without acknowledging his opposite characterization in the 2004 memo.

Towards the end of the film, after repeatedly teasing the audience with this uncorrected interpretation, Morris finally raises the discrepancy with Rumsfeld. The former defense secretary, after asking Morris to display the text of the memo onscreen, subsequently reads it aloud, slowly, as if listening to the words for the very first time. (Earlier on, he’d told an incredulous Morris that he had yet to read the infamous “torture memos,” citing his lack of legal training as justification.)

Upon completing his recitation of his own memo from a decade before, Rumsfeld pauses for a moment, then says:

Yeah, I think that memo is backwards. I think it is closer to what I said here, than that.

This was, in its own way, the crux of the film. Although Morris neglected to prod Rumsfeld in the aggressive manner of an investigative reporter, “his questions” — to borrow David Denby’s line – “lead the Secretary to nail himself.” Donald Rumsfeld, steward of one of the most disastrous foreign policy eras in American history, swats away a fundamental philosophical error — one with enormous, fatal, and long-lasting implications for the United States, the Middle East, and beyond — with a metaphorical wave of his hand.

It is this very nonchalance that most strikingly contrasts Rumsfeld with McNamara. Where, in The Fog of War, McNamara revealed self-doubt and even regret for his role in the outcome of the Vietnam War, Rumsfeld’s performance is gripping for his utter detachment from the events that followed the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq.

It is as if the entire output of his tenure as Defense Secretary were simply an academic experiment he’d conducted in order to satisfy his own intellectual curiosity. (In one portion of the film, Rumsfeld demonstrates his obsession with the minutiae of semantics when he quotes a memo in which he asked his staff for the definition of the word “several.”) The tragic aftermath of his decisions, it necessarily follows, is just as theoretical, a reality thoroughly abstracted from the parallel one in Rumsfeld’s head. When Morris asks him if the United States would have been better off avoiding the Iraq invasion altogether, Rumsfeld replies: “Well, I guess time will tell.”

The statement bears a superficial resemblance to George W. Bush’s repeated assurances that he is comfortable waiting for history to judge his two terms in office. But beware the misleading comparison: it is nothing of the sort. Bush’s trademark is his unwavering belief in himself and his decisions (his memoir is called Decision Points): when he emphasizes his patience in the face of criticism, it is with the self-satisfaction of a man who knows himself to be right and the rest of the world wrong.

Rumsfeld, by contrast, appears not to care one way or another. Right or wrong, he is too concerned by theory and process to let a little thing like consequences trouble his conscience. That those consequences are now, and have long been, the embodiment of a “known known,” leaves one to wonder just what Donald Rumsfeld knows about anything at all.

Is the Electoral College doomed?

I certainly hope so. And so does The New Yorker‘s Hendrik Hertzberg, following New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s signing into law this week of the National Popular Vote Compact, making the state the 11th jurisdiction to do so and nudging the national movement closer to its ultimate goal (now at 61% of total electors needed). Here’s what the law does:

Here’s how it works: Suppose you could get a bunch of states to pledge that once there are enough of them to possess at least two hundred and seventy electoral votes—a majority of the Electoral College—they will thenceforth cast all their electoral votes for whatever candidate gets the most popular votes in the entire country. As soon as that happens, presto change-o: the next time you go to the polls, you’ll be voting in a true national election. No more ten or so battleground states, no more forty or so spectator states, just the United States—all of them, and all of the voters who live in them.

Unless you’ve been following this pretty closely, it will surprise you to learn that, before this week, ten states (counting D.C.) had already signed on. Now it’s eleven, and between them they have a hundred and sixty-five electoral votes—sixty-one per cent of the total needed to bring the compact into effect.

Hertzberg thinks the movement has a fighting chance:

But it’s not just the voters in those spectator states who are ignored. It’s also the politicians, including the state legislators—no matter which party they belong to, no matter whether their state is red or blue, no matter whether the sure winner in their state is the candidate of their party or the other party. Either way, they’re nobodies. The National Popular Vote plan would make them somebodies—and that, perhaps more than the high-minded stuff, is why N.P.V. has a pretty good chance of actually happening.

Nate Silver, meanwhile, is far more skeptical (his headline: “Why a Plan to Circumvent the Electoral College Is Probably Doomed“). He pays special attention to the swing states:

Soon after comes outright swing states, such as Ohio, New Hampshire and Colorado. These states, along with Florida, Virginia, Nevada, Iowa, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, collectively had a 98.6 percent chance of determining the Electoral College winner in 2012, according to the FiveThirtyEight tipping-point index as it wascalculated on election morning. In other words, these nine states are 70 times more powerful than the other 41 (which collectively had a 1.4 percent chance of determining the winner) combined. That’s part of the reason so many Americans object to the Electoral College. But states whose voters have a disproportionate amount of influence may be in no mood to give it up.

My personal view is that the Electoral College should be abolished (even if that means we’d have to change the name of this website). But based on the signatories to the compact, blue and red states seem to think of it as a zero-sum game. And the purple states, which might otherwise swing the balance, have the least incentive of all to sign on.

I’m onboard. But I wonder how a close national election — especially one that would’ve split the popular and electoral votes under the current rules (such as the 2000 election) — would play out under such a scenario. Would states whose voters selected the candidate that lost nationally grow disillusioned with the new system and revolt, by reverting to the old system and breaking apart the compact?

This leads directly into a second concern: although the movement technically needs only enough states to attain the 270-vote mark, in all likelihood it will need at least one or two additional states as a safety buffer. Without this, any state with sufficient electoral leverage (the bigger the state, the higher the risk) could take the rest of the country hostage by threatening to leave the compact.

I could imagine a situation, unlikely as it may seem, in which such a scenario may result in an even denser concentration of presidential candidates’ attention on one or two states in particular, in an effort to maintain — or vice versa, to abolish — their adherence to the compact, depending on each candidate’s standing in the national polls and in the electoral forecasts.

My instinct is that these unsavory outcomes are worth the risk of attempting to reform the status quo, which is terrible for much of the country.

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Death of a newsman

Like everyone else, I too mourn the impending demise of America’s favorite faux-anchor, Stephen Colbert. (Here I refer to the character; the man will, presumably, live on.) Unlike so many others on late-night TV, Colbert is left oddly without a protégé. Even The Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart — the closest thing Colbert has to a peer these days — returned from a hiatus last summer only to find his replacement, John Oliver, being popularly crowned as his successor. (Oliver now has a new show on HBO, but he’s still my odds-on favorite to return when Stewart eventually bows out.)

Colbert, meanwhile, occupies a rarified air all his own, a Bill O’Reilly facsimile for all of us who despise the real one. Which leads me to wonder, half-seriously, if that’s what all of the handwringing over his departure is about in the first place.

As I’ve written before, the idea of Stewart and Colbert as Heroic Liberals has always been more myth than reality. There is little evidence to suggest that either of them truly desires a progressive transformation of Stateside democracy: a little tax reform here, a little less voter discrimination there, sure. But one rarely gets the sense that the duo’s comedy informs their activism, rather than the other way around.

Indeed, Stewart’s passion has not aged well. He won early accolades for his righteously indignant takedown of CNN’s Crossfire, a program with a premise so stupid that the hapless network couldn’t resist reviving it late last summer. Then in 2010, The New York Times made the dramatic comparison to Edward Murrow after Stewart successfully advocated (with evident feeling) for healthcare funding on behalf of 9/11 first responders.

But where Stewart’s satire cut viciously in the Bush years, his Obama-era humor has begun to feel almost formulaic. In January 2010, Stewart’s timid interview with torture memo author John Yoo was so universally panned that he apologized for his performance the next night. His later conversation with Donald Rumsfeld wasn’t terribly better (“I feel like we’re on the porch drinking lemonade,” Stewart remarked).

Colbert, on the other hand, didn’t initially enjoy the same reputation for edgy confrontation (although his 2006 speech at the absurd spectacle that is the White House Correspondents Dinner remains a masterpiece of the genre). But where Stewart has occasionally been known to throw a knockout punch or two in person (Jim Cramer springs to mind), Colbert’s victims are largely crucified in absentia. In between, he had his head shaved by a U.S. Army general on a base in Iraq.

Two years ago, Steve Almond took a long look at these two comedians and threw up his hands:

Our high-tech jesters serve as smirking adjuncts to the dysfunctional institutions of modern media and politics, from which all their routines derive. Their net effect is almost entirely therapeutic: they congratulate viewers for their fine habits of thought and feeling while remaining careful never to question the corrupt precepts of the status quo too vigorously.

Our lazy embrace of Stewart and Colbert is a testament to our own impoverished comic standards. We have come to accept coy mockery as genuine subversion and snarky mimesis as originality. It would be more accurate to describe our golden age of political comedy as the peak output of a lucrative corporate plantation whose chief export is a cheap and powerful opiate for progressive angst and rage.

His frustrations are certainly valid. But more to the point, it seems to me that Almond’s expectations scooted far away from reality. It’s one thing to excoriate the audiences of Stewart and Colbert for their complacency, and quite another to assume that they share Almond’s progressive ideals. For that matter, it seems even less justifiable to assume the two guys peering into our living rooms from behind their news desks four nights a week are all that different from most of the people staring right back at them — that is to say, mainstream urban America.

If Colbert’s upcoming exodus to late-night network TV feels like a betrayal, it’s a curiously one-sided one. It brings to mind my gradual realization, during my mid-teens, that the inveterate hatred I felt for the New York Yankees was not shared by my idols wearing Red Sox uniforms, who routinely exchanged jokes with Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter as they made their away around the infield diamond and, all too often, later donned the pinstripes themselves. Turns out the Sox and Yankees were not nearly the polar opposites I’d always supposed, and that they had more in common with each other as pro ballplayers than either of them had with me. It seems to be taking all of us a little longer to reach the same realization about our comedians.

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Justice Breyer’s Full Answer on Live Audio at SCOTUS Oral Arguments: Still Conservative with a Small “C”

During the question-and-answer portion of Justice Stephen Breyer’s international law lecture at the Brookings Institution yesterday, an audience member from the Coalition for Court Transparency asked the justice about the possibility of live streaming audio from Supreme Court oral arguments. Justice Breyer gave a nearly six-minute reply which reiterated some of the same arguments he has made against live video in the past, but the answer did contain an interesting new tidbit at the end in which he mentions recent audio “experiments” from the D.C. Circuit.

Michelle Olsen of Appellate Daily published a transcription of the last part of this answer yesterday evening. The following is my transcription of the full question and answer, which I have slightly edited for clarity.

Breyer at Brookings

The relevant question starts at the 2:12:00 mark of the Brookings Institution video.

Audience Member: Alright, this is not a hot political question; it’s a hot legal question. My name is Karl, I’m with the Coalition for Court Transparency.

You referenced five areas [where] American judges might do well to consult foreign sources or foreign legal thought. High courts in Canada and the U.K. and many, many other countries have cameras.

I don’t want to know if you support cameras, because I already know where you stand on cameras in the Supreme Court–but there’s a nice lounge at the Supreme Court where Supreme Court bar members are allowed to listen to live audio. Why don’t we allow the live audio to be transmitted outside the building, to everybody else who might not have the money or means to come to Washington, D.C. and wait in line outside in the cold, [so that they can] listen to such audio?

Justice Breyer’s answer to this question begins at the 2:14:08 mark.

Justice Breyer: Now, to give my unsatisfactory answer to [the question] about cameras in the courtroom under the guise of radio, you have to understand that it’s a pretty tough question, and we’re pretty conservative–with a small “c”–when you start talking about our institution. I mean, we don’t know what would happen if we let cameras in the courtroom. And the risks would be–two [risks], and we don’t know what the answer is. Three [risks], actually.

One risk is that people would begin to think that the oral argument–which is about 5% [of what the Supreme Court does], almost all of our material is submitted in writing–they would begin to think that that was what we’re about. The oral argument! That would be misleading, but not deadly.

What might be worse is that people do relate to people. That’s good. You relate more to your family than you relate to your friends, than you relate to people you don’t know, and people you see you relate to more than people you just hear about, and statistics you relate to not at all. OK. That’s the human condition, and I think it’s probably a good one. But the job of an appellate court–and particularly our court, which is about three levels of appellate courts, or two–is to think about how our decision is affecting the 300 million people who aren’t in the courtroom. They’re not there. But they will possibly be affected by our ruling. And people might, well, just look–to the good guy and the bad guy. And that might have an impact on the effectiveness of the Court.

Or, what is the most obvious thing, and you get privately–opposite advice from different members of the press on this one. [Voices perspective of a SCOTUS justice] “It won’t affect us! I mean, we’re grown up, we hope. And there’s the press there anyway, And why will it affect what questions I ask? I have to watch what I say anyway!” Well, apparently, I don’t. But nonetheless, you have to watch it, it’s public and the press is there, so why would this make a difference? To which some members of the press will say, you just wait ’til you see how you react when you ask a question in good faith on A, and then it’s reported on various shows on television and they show a picture of you. You’ll be pretty careful, and maybe you’ll be careful to stop asking. That might be a public benefit, but nonetheless, you see the point. And you say, go see what happens in the Senate or the House, which perhaps has to respond to public opinion.

But the reason you have a court–the reason we decide constitutional questions–if you go back to Alexander Hamilton, is–why? Because this document [takes out pocket copy of Constitution]… it treats exactly the same way the least popular and the most popular person in the United States. That’s what it’s supposed to be. And by the way, he said, we better give the Court the power to review laws–why? Because if we give the President the power to say whatever he does is constitutional or not, he’ll always say it’s constitutional, and he has enough power already.

Why not give the power to Congress?  After all, they’re elected, and many countries have done that. To which Alexander Hamilton says–he doesn’t say it in these words–he says, what happens when the decision is right but unpopular? He says, I’ll tell you about Congress–they are experts in popularity. He says, believe me, they know popularity. But what will they do when it’s unpopular? So let’s take these judges nobody’s ever heard of–they don’t have the power of the purse, they don’t have the power of the sword–fabulous. They’re weak. And give them the authority. And when it’s unpopular–unpopular and important, and by the way, possibly wrong–I mean, I’ve participated on both sides of 5-4 decisions. Not as many as you think–there may be 20% [of decisions that] are 5-4, 50% are unanimous–but somebody’s wrong in these cases. Alright, so–and that is the question I get from the President of the Supreme Court of Ghana, a woman who is trying to further democracy and civil, human rights in Ghana, and from Ouagadougou [in Burkina Faso], and from countries all over–why do people do what you say?

That’s a pretty good question. And it’s taken us–I say, there’s no answer in this document [the Constitution], and Hamilton didn’t answer it, either. He didn’t know. Nobody knew. It’s two hundred years of history. You want people in your country to follow courts and the rule of law–go out to the villages. Don’t just talk to the lawyers. Don’t just talk to the judges. By the way, there are in our country–contrary to popular belief–309 of the 310 million are not lawyers. Alright? And I say, they’re the ones that had to support sending the troops to Little Rock to enforce integration. They’re the ones that have to decide they will follow decisions that they think are really wrong and really unpopular. And that takes time. But that’s part of our job. And who knows? So I say we’re conservative with a small “c.”

And the radio? I mean, the radio–[unintelligible] they tried that in the D.C. Circuit [which has since September 2013 provided same-day audio for its oral arguments], didn’t hurt anything. Could we experiment with that? Maybe. But that’s not right in front of us. So therefore, that’s [my] not answering [the question].

—–

As mentioned in the beginning of this post, most of Justice Breyer’s answer, which focuses on insulating the Court from the misconceptions of the public, retreads his previous statements about cameras in the courtroom. In March 2013, in response to questioning from a House Appropriations subcommittee, Breyer mentioned the Court’s conservatism with a small “c” on the issue, the potential distortion by the press, and the self-censoring effects televised arguments could have on the justices’ questioning. He said then: “I’m not ready yet. I mean, I want to see a little bit more of how all this works in practice. I’d give people the power to experiment. I’d try to get studies–not paid for by the press–of how this is working in California, of how it affects public attitudes about the law. I’d like some real objective studies–I know that’s a bore, but that’s where I am at the moment.”

In January 2014, Justice Breyer told an audience at The Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars that he suspects it is a matter of when, not if, oral arguments are televised, but worried about the “demonizing and angelizing” of certain members of the Court.

What made yesterday’s answer different (and encouraging for advocates of live streaming) was his begrudging acknowledgment at the end that the D.C. Circuit has adapted its procedures to make oral arguments more accessible to the public, with no harm done to the integrity or the perception of the court. I would not go so far as to call it Breyer’s endorsement of live audio–as Michelle Olsen pointed out, the D.C. Circuit still doesn’t have live audio, only same-day audio, and it’s unclear which of these two practices Justice Breyer’s musings on “experiments” referred to. Given that the Supreme Court currently releases its argument recordings just once a week on Fridays, though, even moving toward same-day audio at One First Street would be a small step in the right direction.

What Do the Changes to the SAT Really Mean?

In college, I took an intro-level microeconomics course with a professor who had taught for a long time at the university. Every few years (even though it seemed like an annual ritual), he would put out a “new edition” of his microeconomics textbook, slap a new cover photo on it, and jack up the price – all while requiring students to buy the newest edition.

So, was this “new edition” really all that new?

Of course not. None of my classmates nor I ever found any major (or even minor) differences between the editions. It was still an overpriced textbook, and requiring the newest edition really only helped boost the professor’s textbook royalties.

Naturally, when the College Board announced “major changes” to the SAT, I thought back to my intro to econ course. How “major” are these changes to the SAT really? Is reverting back to the 1600 scale truly all that new?

The answer to these questions depends on your frame of reference:

Now, we know what most of the media thinks about these latest developments with the SAT:

  • CBS called the announcement “sweeping changes
  • The New York Times called them “major changes” (Note: An updated headline has now removed the phrase “major changes” from the title, but the URL still reflects the original title)
  • NBC News labeled them “big changes
  • The Wall Street Journal said that the College Board “shakes up” the SAT

You get the picture.

In large part due to this deluge of news coverage calling the changes such “big news,” I went on a bit of a Twitter rant to point out that the new developments were not, in fact, all that major. Here are a few highlights:

The truth is: the SAT is a charade. For all the College Board’s talk about “delivering opportunities” and making college more accessible for students, the SAT represents an unnecessary — and useless — barrier on the road to college.

Just last month, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) released a report that found virtually no difference in college completion rates for students, regardless of whether they submitted SAT scores or not. The study affirmed what previous research had already found: including or not including the SAT (or ACT, for that matter) in college admissions considerations really doesn’t make much of a difference.

So then, why do the SAT and ACT remain such a major part of the college admissions web? There are a couple of factors, but at the root of these is one common denominator — money.

Consider that the test prep industry generates over $1 billion each year (this doesn’t even include the profits from actual testing), and consider that the SAT is better at predicting a student’s socioeconomic background than his or her college success.

So, while the news of this week has focused on the College Board and what it has done to retool the SAT, the deeper issues that impede college access still remain. The true culprits in this equation are the colleges and universities that still feed into the testing frenzy, allowing concerns over institutional prestige and rankings to cloud their ability to enact truly impactful policies for expanding access.

When colleges and universities require the SAT or ACT, families with the means to put their children through test prep courses are at an even greater advantage over low-income and even many middle-income families who simply cannot afford such extraneous luxuries. Frankly, what does it say about the test itself when an entire industry is built around prepping students for it? And, truthfully, a nice PR move like partnering with the Khan Academy is nothing but a band-aid solution to a much deeper issue (and what does it say about the Khan Academy, too?).

It’s time to throw out an anachronistic component of college admissions that is doing nothing but driving an academic arms race among higher education institutions. Instead, let’s focus our efforts on real, substantive issues such as trimming the costs of administrative bloat, addressing the mountainous student debt bubble, and boosting declining state investment in higher education. The bigger news focus this week should have been on efforts such as the new Higher Ed, Not Debt initiative launched by a number of education champions, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.

But, instead, we’ve been hearing all about this “new SAT.” As a higher education access and affordability advocate, I could certainly break down the ways in which the changes to the SAT might impact how we work with students as they prepare for and apply to college. But that’s for another day, since — as a higher education access and affordability advocate — I also feel the need to point out when the discussion is heading in the wrong directions.

And that’s the point — because, in the grand scheme of things, until we really shake our college admissions processes free of these measurement tools of privilege and focus on true systemic ways to increase access for low-income, underrepresented, and first-generation students, changes to the SAT really aren’t that major after all.

Propaganda, or the other side of the story?

At around 5 PM on Wednesday afternoon, RT (formerly Russia Today) anchor Liz Wahl decided to call it quits on-air, accusing the channel of “[whitewashing] the actions of Putin.”

Wahl’s announcement created quite the buzz in media circles. The New York Daily News, temporarily losing track of the date by several decades, declared: “A ‘Russia Today’ anchor broke through the Iron Curtain.” The New York Times ran a piece headlined “Russian Channel’s War Coverage Continues to Cost It Journalists.” MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell dubbed Wahl “today’s bravest person on TV.” And Business Insider helpfully proclaimed: “Anchor For Russian Propaganda Channel Dramatically Quits In Protest Live On The Air.”

Perhaps no one was more effusive in his praise for Wahl than James Kirchick, a contributor to The Daily Beast. In an “exclusive” post-resignation correspondence with Wahl, Kirchick reports that, as far back as last August, “Wahl felt morally compromised working for the network, she told me, but wasn’t yet prepared to quit.” (Wahl had first contacted Kirchick last year after he had taken a brief hiatus from agitating for whistleblower Chelsea Manning’s execution in order to stage a bizarre one-man TV protest against Russia’s undeniably pervasive homophobia — a stunt that lasted two minutes and was utterly unrelated to the panel on which he’d been asked to participate.)

“Wahl did a very brave thing,” Kirchick concluded. “Unlike [Abby Martin, another RT anchor who had expressed her displeasure at Russia's Crimea intervention, two days prior to Wahl], who will continue to cash Putin’s paychecks, Wahl is now out of a job. But that’s the price real reporters—not Russian-government funded propagandists—have to pay if they are concerned with quaint notions like objectivity and the truth.”

Aside from the obvious absurdity of calling an American anchor working from Washington, D.C. “brave” for publicly denouncing the editorial decision-making process of her foreign employer, Kirchick’s article failed to define what exactly differentiates “real reporters” from “Russian-government funded propagandists.”

This is especially surprising given Kirchick’s own background as a reporter for a government-funded propaganda network. As a recent writer-at-large for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Kirchick and his employer were funded entirely by the United States Congress. RFE/RL got its start in 1949, when it was founded by the anti-Communist organization National Committee for a Free Europe. That organization was launched, in turn, by none other than Allen Dulles, who just four years later would take the helm of the CIA as the Director of Central Intelligence. (He still holds the record for the longest tenure as DCI.)

RFE/RL was itself funded by the CIA as late as 1971, a fact that brought the radio network no small amount of notoriety. During the Cold War, Radio Free Europe headed up an American anti-Soviet propaganda operation that “sent 590,415 balloons that carried 301,636,883 leaflets, posters, books, and other printed matter from West Germany over the Iron Curtain to Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland from August 1951 to November 1956.” (The historical legacy of this “extensive propaganda campaign” is recounted on RFE/RL’s web site.)

Today, RFE/RL is overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), an entity that also supervises other bastions of independent journalism such as Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting. (This is the same Office of Cuba Broadcasting that, during the George W. Bush administration, paid ten reporters varying totals of up to $240,000 each to disseminate anti-Castro opinion — the revelation of which resulted in the termination of three of them by El Nuevo Herald, The Miami Herald‘s Spanish counterpart.) The BBG is itself under the watchful eye of foreign relations committees in both the House and the Senate, and its budget is set annually by Congressional appropriations committees as well. Last year a former board governor, commenting on an inspector general’s report portraying widespread dysfunction at the BBG, explicitly described the organization’s purpose as “telling [the American] story worldwide.”

Kirchick’s role at RFE/RL included filing American-friendly stories with headlines such as this one, from August 26, 2011: “As Libyan Rebels Assert Control, Calm Descends Over War-Torn Capital.” In that particular piece, published five months after the U.S. and its allies launched a military intervention in Libya that quickly obliterated the operation’s stated objectives (as described by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973), Kirchick bizarrely declared:

As fighting continues in the Libyan capital between rebels and fighters loyal to deposed leader Muammar Qaddafi, a sense of calm has finally settled over most of the city, putting something of an end to what has been the most intense conflict to emerge in the “Arab Spring.”

And everyone lived happily ever after. As The New York Times summed up last month:

Precious little has been achieved in Libya since the war that killed Colonel Qaddafi and ended his 42 years of autocratic rule. The country held its first free elections amid much euphoria in 2012, creating a General National Congress that then appointed a new government.

But both bodies have come under criticism for failing to manage the country effectively. Security is deteriorating amid growing corruption and perceived incompetence, and the Congress has been frequently gridlocked by a strong divide between Islamist parties and the more liberal groups that are nervous about the growing power of the Islamists.

Tensions have been rising in recent weeks as the militias that fought the war against Colonel Qaddafi have tried to influence the political process. Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was abducted from his hotel and held for hours in October by militia members who wanted to force his resignation. On Tuesday, two militia groups demanded that the Congress dissolve itself or face the arrest of its members.

You know, “something of an end” to the conflict. It’s almost enough to make one wonder whether Kirchick’s coverage was influenced by the government that funded him.

Indeed, given the reality of his former employer’s history and present (an association which Kirchick happily touts on his own site), it seems particularly incongruous of him to call Liz Wahl brave for stating the below today:

Last night RT made international headlines when one of our anchors went on the record and said Russian intervention in Crimea is wrong. And indeed as a reporter on this network, I face many ethical and moral challenges — especially me personally, coming from a family whose grandparents, my grandparents, came here as refugees during the Hungarian revolution, ironically to escape the Soviet forces.

I have family on the opposite side, on my mother’s side, that sees [sic] the daily grind of poverty, and I’m very lucky to have grown up here in the United States. I’m the daughter of a veteran. My partner is a physician at a military base where he sees every day the first-hand accounts of the ultimate prices that people pay for this country. And that is why personally I cannot be part of network [sic] funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of Putin. I’m proud to be an American and believe in disseminating the truth. And that is why, after this newscast, I’m resigning.

Even leaving aside the above confusing litany of digressions — which reads more like a checklist of patriotic cliches than a plausible justification for quitting one’s job on a live television show — there is little courageous about Wahl’s pronouncement. And the timing, coming just two days after her colleague Abby Martin’s more measured criticism of Russian foreign policy — statements that did not, as it turned out, culminate in a melodramatic abdication of the anchor’s perch — is certainly interesting, to say the least. Perhaps strangest of all, however, is Wahl’s apparently sudden epiphany as to RT’s source of funding. One can only surmise, of course, that James Kirchick remained just as blissfully unaware of his own benefactors during his time at RFE/RL.

RT, in responding to Wahl’s accusations, stated:

When a journalist disagrees with the editorial position of his or her organization, the usual course of action is to address those grievances with the editor, and, if they cannot be resolved, to quit like a professional. But when someone makes a big public show of a personal decision, it is nothing more than a self-promotional stunt.

Even given the blatant pro-Kremlin slant of RT’s entire oeuvre, it is hard to disagree with the network’s assessment. Wahl leaves RT for an almost certainly brighter future in American journalism: by feuding with her employer — whose bankrollers in the Kremlin are particularly vilified in the popular American mindset at the moment — in such a public manner, she managed both to significantly raise her media profile and to solidify her mainstream American bona fides at the same time. (Hey, it worked for Juan Williams.) Fox News must already be on the phone.

But RT’s editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan, speaking in the wake of Abby Martin’s on-air critique, scored the most on-point observation:

Media outlets do not exist in a vacuum. Can you really expect any American corporate-owned news network to report a story in a way that goes against the U.S. national interest? Or Euronews to not advocate [European Commission] positions?

Given our own recent history with unjustified violations of other nations’ sovereignties, Simonyan’s question seems fair — “Russian-government funded propagandist” or not. As for James Kirchick, well, it takes one to know one.

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