The Truth Is Out There—Right?

by Jonathan Bernstein | February 21, 2011

 This bothered me:

[T]hat’s what we learned in WikiLeaks over three years, that sometimes if you look at raw, unfiltered information, not a write-up by a media organization but a genuine document, then the truth is very blunt, and that is something that has a completely different impact on people. Also, it makes a huge difference whether you only believe something to be a fact or whether a third party — such as the embassy of a foreign country — actually confirms this as factual.

That's from the NYT Magazine interview with Daniel Domscheit-Berg, formerly of WikiLeaks and now of OpenLeaks.

What struck me is that it's a real mistake to believe that there are insiders who invariably know the "real" truth. That's simply not the case most of the time.

Believing otherwise gets into all sorts of difficulties. For example, consider the latest on "curveball," the Iraq weapons fabulist who the Germans did not believe, but George W. Bush's government—despite working only from German intelligence—chose to believe. One reaction
 is Andrew Sullivan's: "This gets to the core of the nagging question: was the Iraq war waged in good faith? We still don't really know, but put this in the evidence pile that suggests it wasn't." That's not exactly a wrong way of looking at it, but I think Neil Sinhababu has a better way of thinking about it:

What's interesting in this case is that the CIA believed this crazy guy. The story here is a pretty obvious one—the President wanted war, information to support that case would be rewarded, and the intelligence apparatus found whatever it was being driven to find. Exposing the particular people on the inside who accepted the bad evidence would be a more important story.

Now, we don't really know the whole story. We don't know, even at this late date, whether it was the president who wanted war, or if it was a faction within the administration that manipulated the president into it. Nor do we know exactly what the specific analysts who "accepted" bogus stories really thought. Perhaps they were blinded by either bureaucratic incentives or previous beliefs and honestly bought these stories; perhaps they just sort-of bought them but then hid their doubts to those above them; perhaps they didn't really believe them, but honestly believed that they were falsely proving things that they nevertheless fully believed were true;  or perhaps they neither believed "curveball" or the larger weapons narrative but were using those stories as a phony pretext for a war they wanted for other reasons. (I'd only call the last of those, and perhaps the second-to-last one, bad faith). 

Notice that a full and complete leak of internal Bush administration deliberations would, if the first of those possibilities was true, confirm the "fact" of dangerous Iraqi weapons and the entire "curveball" story. Or, if the second or third scenario applies, a complete leak would still confirm the "fact" of those weapons. And yet those facts, as we now know, were fictions. Indeed, while we don't know for sure what various Bush administration players believed, I'm willing to bet that a careful reading of the existing public records in 2002 would have been at least as good a way of finding out the actual truth, and probably much better, than reading a full and complete leak of Bush administration deliberations.

None of this is to suggest that it's a bad thing to learn more of what government officials say or believe. It's just that it's very tempting to believe that insiders possess special access to The Truth, and that therefore everything that they say is either honest or a deliberate lie. That's just not how it works.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/jonathan-cohn/83911/the-truth-out-there-right