None of you seem to mind my obsession with Ambergate, so I’m going to give it one more whack. Ambinder wrote:
And yet — we, too, weren’t privy to the intelligence. Information asymmetry is always going to exist, and, living as we do in a Democratic system, most journalists are going to give the government the benefit of some doubt, even having learned lessons about giving the government that benefit.
Talk to anyone who’s handled raw intelligence and s/he will tell you something on the order of this: “I thought it would be like a secret newspaper, but instead what’s already available in open-source materials is often more useful.” Rarely is there ever a clear policy option “implied” by intelligence — that’s a category error. Policymakers read intelligence, use it or discount it in whole or in part, and then make decisions. Intelligence is a text to be interpreted, not a compass pointing to true north. What’s more, those who acquire and analyze intelligence on a discrete subject use the same body of open-source information to shape their judgments as the rest of us do.
Which implies choices for journalists. We can choose to treat intelligence as more definitive than it is and enable the presumption of deference to those who say, Well, if only you saw the intelligence I saw… Or we can choose to treat intelligence-based claims as valuable but not definitive, and contextualize such claims within larger bodies of evidence.
In other words, “we weren’t privy to the intelligence” is the new “no one could have predicted”.
This shit never changes. Governments like to bamboozle people. One way they can do this is by claiming there is top secret intelligence proving whatever it is that they people to believe. In Ambinder’s world, even if this stop secret intelligence turns out not to mean what the government said it meant, we were still wrong to question it.
How is that not contrary to the first principles of journalism?
Update. Speaking of Marc Ambinder, this analysis of Fran Townsend’s remarks in an interview with Ambinder is spot on (from Michael Scherer, of all people):
In an interview with Marc Ambinder, Fran Townsend, a former Homeland Security adviser to Bush, says that the White House provided the language to Ridge only because he previewed his speech internally. “So I called him said, here’s what I think should go in it,” Townsend tells Ambinder. “It wasn’t an order. I didn’t regularly see his speeches in advance. He made speeches all the time without running it by us.” This is less of a denial than a startling admission: Townsend, whose job profile had nothing to do with politics, is admitting that she wanted political language praising the President inserted into an election-year statement about new measures to protect against terrorist attack.
Scherer’s whole piece, based on an advance copy of the book, is worth reading.