Who is “Bush” and what did he know?

Eugene Volokh points out that the headline on the CBS News story cited below (without the headline) is misleading, and remains misleading even after being changed.

The original version read “Bush Knew Iraq Info Was False,” and Eugene reasonably objects that the story doesn’t back the assertion that the claim about uranium was known to be false, only that it was known to be unreliable. It might still have been the case that there was an attempt to buy uranium from Niger, or elsewhere in Africa, even though the claimed documentation for that assertion had proven to be fraudulent. (This is the old principle that it’s possible to frame a guilty man: I might falsely swear to having seen John strike Jane even though John did, in fact, strike Jane.)

Now one could still defend the original headline: if “info” refers to the information about Niger in the forged documents, that was known to be false. You could know that I was lying when I said I saw John strike Jane, because it turns out I was in Timbuktu at the time of the alleged striking — that is, you could know that my “info was false” — while still uncertain about whether John had in fact hit Jane. Still, “info” might reasonably be taken as referring to the assertion about uranium rather than the evidence behind that assertion, and the assertion wasn’t known to be false. So the headline was, if not false, at least misleadingly ambiguous.

CBS, apparently challenged on that point, revised the headline to read “Bush Knew Iraq Info Was Dubious.” But Eugene still objects: the story, he points out correctly, says nothing about what Bush personally knew, as opposed to what his aides knew.

This point seems to me more complicated than the other. “Bush” is media shorthand for both the natural person George W. Bush and the institution that is the Bush White House. “Bush Rescinds Clinton Executive Order on Wetlands” may reasonably refer to a document that neither Bush the human being nor Clinton the human being ever actually read. JFK is supposed to have responded to someone’s bright idea with , “Well, I agree with you. We’ll have to see what President Kennedy thinks about it.”

I fully agree with Eugene that the headline would have been clearer had it read “White House Knew Iraq Info Was Dubious.” Still, in a political rather than a legal context it’s not utterly improper to attribute to Bush knowledge that is known to have reached the circle of people close enough to him to write his speeches.

Nonetheless, if the question is whether, in this instance, “Bush [the human being] lied,” Eugene is right that CBS hasn’t made out a case, and that the headline-writers for its website ought to be more careful when they’re playing with such dynamite.

But CBS has made out a case — assuming of course that the text of the story is substantially accurate — that a key sentence in the most important speech of the Bush Presidency contained a material falsehood. Whatever Bush [the human being] knew or didn’t know then, he knows that now, or has deliberately chosen not to know it. If he doesn’t take action now to correct the record and punish the people who made him tell a stretcher to the Congress and the nation, he will retroactively ratify their decision to deceive him, and, through him, the people he and they work for.

[Glenn Reynolds who is a hot-under-the-collar type like me rather than a cool cucumber like Eugene, and who seems to be largely in denial about the chronic veracity problems in the Bush White House, goes, in my view, well beyond the facts in claiming that Eugene had caught CBS in “not one, but two lies.” That seems to me clearly unjustified, and consistent with the general shoot-the-messenger approach taken by Bush’s defenders.]

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com