The Counter-deception Blog

Examples of deceptions and descriptions of techniques to detect them. This Blog encourages the awareness of deception in daily life and discussion of practical means to spot probable deceptions. Send your examples of deception and counter-deception to

Wednesday, February 22, 2006


SCL: Lie to save lives?

You Can't Handle the Truth Psy-ops propaganda goes mainstream.
By Sharon Weinberger
Posted Monday, Sept. 19, 2005, at 6:31 AM ET

LONDON—Over the past 24 hours, seven people have checked into hospitals here with telltale symptoms. Rashes, vomiting, high temperature, and cramps: the classic signs of smallpox. Once thought wiped out, the disease is back and threatening a pandemic of epic proportions.

The government faces a dilemma: It needs people to stay home, but if the news breaks, mass panic might ensue as people flee the city, carrying the virus with them.

A live "ops center" in a country SCL won't identify []

A shadowy media firm steps in to help orchestrate a sophisticated campaign of mass deception. Rather than alert the public to the smallpox threat, the company sets up a high-tech "ops center" to convince the public that an accident at a chemical plant threatens London. As the fictitious toxic cloud approaches the city, TV news outlets are provided graphic visuals charting the path of the invisible toxins. Londoners stay indoors, glued to the telly, convinced that even a short walk into the streets could be fatal.

This scenario may sound like a rejected plot twist from a mediocre Bond flick, but one company is dead set on making this fantasy come to life.

Strategic Communication Laboratories, a small U.K. firm specializing in "influence operations" made a very public debut this week with a glitzy exhibit occupying prime real estate at Defense Systems & Equipment International, or DSEi, the United Kingdom's largest showcase for military technology. The main attraction was a full-scale mock-up of its ops center, running simulations ranging from natural disasters to political coups.

Just to the right of the ops center, a dark-suited man with a wireless microphone paces like a carnival barker, narrating the scenarios. Above him a screen flashes among scenes of disaster, while to his right, behind thick glass, workers sit attentively before banks of computer screens, busily scrolling through data. The play actors pause only to look up at a big board that flashes ominously between "hot spots" like North Korea and Congo.

While Londoners fret over fictitious toxins, the government works to contain the smallpox outbreak. The final result, according to SCL's calculations, is that only thousands perish, rather than the 10 million originally projected. Another success.

Of course, the idea of deluding an entire city seems, well, a bit like propaganda.

"If your definition of propaganda is framing communications to do something that's going to save lives, that's fine," says Mark Broughton, SCL's public affairs director. "That's not a word I would use for that."

Then again, it's hard to know exactly what else to call it. (Company literature describes SCL's niche specialties as "psychological warfare," "public diplomacy," and "influence operations.") The smallpox scenario plays out in excruciating detail how reporters would be tapped to receive disinformation, with TV and radio stations dedicated to around-the-clock coverage. Even the eventual disclosure is carefully scripted.

In another doomsday scenario, the company assists a newly democratic country in South Asia as it struggles with corrupt politicians and a rising insurgency that threatens to bubble over into bloody revolution. SCL steps in to assist the benevolent king of "Manpurea" to temporarily seize power.

Oh, wait, that sounds a lot like Nepal, where the monarchy earlier this year ousted a corrupt government to stave off a rising Maoist movement. The problem is, the SCL scenario also sounds a lot like using a private company to help overthrow a democratically elected government. Another problem, at least in Nepal, is that the king now shows few signs of returning to democracy.

The company, which describes itself as the first private-sector provider of psychological operations, has been around since 1993. But its previous work was limited to civil operations, and it now wants to expand to military customers.

If SCL weren't so earnest, it might actually seem to be mocking itself, or perhaps George Orwell. As the end of the smallpox scenario, dramatic music fades out to a taped message urging people to "embrace" strategic communications, which it describes as "the most powerful weapon in the world." And the company Web page offers some decidedly creepy asides. "The [ops center] can override all national radio and TV broadcasts in time of crisis," it says, alluding to work the company has done in an unspecified Asian country.

The government's use of deception in the service of national security is not new. During World War II, for example, Allied forces conducted a massive misinformation campaign, called Operation Fortitude, designed to hide plans for the Normandy invasion. More recent efforts have met with controversy, however. In 2002, the Pentagon shuttered its brand new Office of Strategic Influence after public outcry over its purported plans to spread deceptive information to the foreign press.

Government deception may even be justified in some cases, according to Michael Schrage, a senior adviser to the security-studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "If you tell the population that there's been a bio-warfare attack, hospital emergency rooms will be overwhelmed with people who sincerely believe they have all the symptoms and require immediate attention," Schrage says.

The problem, he adds, is that in a democracy, a large-scale ruse would work just once.

The U.S. government has generally sought to limit disinformation; some agencies—such as the CIA—are explicitly prohibited by law from misleading domestic press. And while the CIA is fond of concealment, it takes pride in the belief that truth is necessary for an open government, a sentiment chiseled into the agency's lobby.

What makes SCL's strategy so unusual is that it proposes to propagate its campaign domestically, at least some of the time, and rather than influence just opinion, it wants people to take a particular course of action. Is SCL simply hawking a flashier version of propaganda?

A successful outcome means thousands, not millions, will die in a catastrophe []

The spokesman's answer: "We save lives."

Yes, Broughton acknowledges, the ops center is not exactly giving the truth, but he adds, "Is it not worth giving an untruth for 48 hours to save x million people's lives? Sometimes the means to an end has to be recognized."

Who buys this stuff? Broughton declined to mention many specific clients, noting that disclosing SCL's involvement—particularly in countries with a free and open media—could make its campaigns less effective. However, he says that post-apartheid South Africa has employed SCL. So has the United Nations, he says.

The company's Web site is even vaguer, mentioning international organizations and foreign governments. A Google search produces only a handful of hits, mostly linked to the company's Web site. The company's work is based on something that even the spokesman admits you "won't find on the Web": the Behavioral Dynamics Institute, a virtual lab led by Professor Phil Taylor of Leeds University.

But the company, which is funded by private investors, is now taking on a higher profile, and visitors flocked to the flashy setup here at the show. "Basically, we're launching ourselves this week on the defense market and homeland security market at the same time," Broughton explained.

If SCL has its way, its vision of strategic communications—which involves complex psychological and scientific data—could be used to shape public response to tsunamis, epidemics, or even the next Hurricane Katrina.

Well aware that the company may face controversy, particularly with its push into the defense market, Broughton emphasizes the company's role in saving lives.

"It sounds altruistic," he said. "There is some altruism in it, but we also want to earn money."

Sharon Weinberger, a writer based in Washington, is working on a book about the Pentagon and fringe science.

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Cheney's Rules: How the VP argues by deception

Cheney's Rules of Evidence How the vice president argues by deception.
By John Dickerson
Posted Friday, Nov. 18, 2005, at 6:12 PM ET

Dick Cheney likes to play the heavy—or, as a top aide once put it, "sit in a loincloth with a knife in his mouth." After keeping silent for a couple of weeks following the indictment of his chief of staff, Scooter Libby, Cheney donned the loincloth this week and went back on the attack. He criticized administration opponents, saying that they have lost the "basic measure of truthfulness and good faith in the conduct of political debate." Their claim that the president "purposely misled the American people on prewar intelligence," said Cheney, "is one of the most dishonest and reprehensible charges ever aired in this city."

Welcome back, Mr. Vice President—you're always good for the headlines. What was striking about Cheney's assault was that while denying critics' charges of manipulation and dishonesty involving prewar intelligence, he resorted to exactly the tactics that inspired the criticism. As he did with the prewar intelligence, Cheney told no outright lies, but he exaggerated the case, picked only evidence he liked, and ignored the caveats. Here's how he did it:

Cheney said: "Some of the most irresponsible comments have, of course, come from politicians who actually voted in favor of authorizing force against Saddam Hussein."

By talking about "irresponsible comments," Cheney makes it seem that critics are welcoming insurgent bombs or inviting Saddam Hussein for dinner. But how outlandish, in fact, are these "irresponsible" claims by those who voted to authorize force? The most incendiary quote the administration and GOP committees can offer comes from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid: "[T]he administration engaged in a pattern of manipulation of the facts … as it made its case for attacking, for invading Iraq." Reid's charge is debatable, but it's hardly the combustible, irresponsible speech Cheney suggests it is. Cheney is setting the bar for irresponsibility so low that any questions about prewar intelligence can be dismissed.

Cheney: "These are elected officials who had access to the intelligence, and were free to draw their own conclusions."

Cheney talks only about a narrow question: Did the administration fudge evidence it gave to Congress in advance of the vote to authorize the use of force? That's the most solid ground he can stand on, but even it's still shaky. Cheney does not repeat Bush's claim that members of Congress had access to the same intelligence, because they didn't. But he plays up their unprecedented access to the National Intelligence Estimate before they cast their vote—though Cheney knows that some important caveats were left out of that report. Congress had access to intelligence before bombs started dropping, but the administration decided, in the end, how much and what kind of intelligence that was.

And what the vice president doesn't talk about is all the other ways he, the president, and other members of the war council manipulated evidence in hundreds of speeches and interviews leading up to the war. Cheney, for example, insisted there might be a link between Iraq and the attacks on 9/11 after the administration's official position was that there was no such link. He presented the direst view of Iraq's nuclear program without discussing dissent within the administration about those claims. This was not intelligence data, but these claims were critical to shaping public opinion and putting pressure on Congress to vote for war. He could make a case about why the administration had to be aggressive, but he doesn't.

Cheney: "The saddest part is that our people in uniform have been subjected to these cynical and pernicious falsehoods day in and day out."

Cheney has branded administration opponents as hypocrites and wimps. His last blow is the fiercest: They are unpatriotic. The president and Cheney invoke "the troops" to shut down discussion. But the troops demand this kind of debate. Soldiers aren't in a position to be critical and shouldn't be, so their elected officials need to ask questions and argue on their behalf. American soldiers are smart and tough enough to weather the public debate. They can handle whatever Harry Reid has to say. Plus, Dick Cheney believes in his position and has plenty of backbone, so why won't he fight the opposition on the merits?

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent. He can be reached at

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MISLEADERS: Who is Cheney kidding?

The Misleaders Who is Dick Cheney kidding?
By Jacob Weisberg
Posted Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2005, at 7:05 PM ET

Dick Cheney calls it "dishonest," "reprehensible" and "not legitimate" to claim that the administration misled the public about prewar intelligence. In his speech at the American Enterprise Institute on Nov. 21, the vice president added for good measure that "any suggestion that prewar information was distorted, hyped or fabricated by the leader of the nation is utterly false."

Most Democrats in Congress think that prewar intelligence was indeed distorted and hyped—though not "fabricated," which, like the accusation that they have accused Bush of "lying," is a straw man of Cheney's. Democrats believe that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice, and others misrepresented what our government knew about Saddam Hussein's WMD capacity and his links to terrorists in order to make a stronger case for invading Iraq.

So, who's right? Did Bush officials mislead us, or didn't they?

Because the Republicans who control Congress have prevented any investigation into the administration's use of prewar intelligence (as opposed to the gathering and formulation of that intelligence), there's a lot we still don't know. Officials haven't yet had to answer questions about what they knew or did not know when they advanced various spurious claims. And even the kind of investigation that Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is demanding could prove frustratingly inconclusive, because proof of deception requires knowing someone else's state of mind. In the president's case, it may be possible to show that he should have known enough to avoid some inaccurate assertions, including the notorious "16 words" in his 2003 State of the Union address about Saddam seeking to buy significant quantities of uranium from Africa. But as with Ronald Reagan during the Iran-Contra scandal, Bush's combination of self-delusion, disengagement, and sheer mush-headedness nearly precludes the possibility of willful deception.

Here's what we do know already, without a congressional inquiry: Members of the Bush Administration were dishonest with the public and with Congress about prewar intelligence. We've known this for some time—see, for example, the comprehensive and damning story Barton Gellman and Walter Pincus wrote in the Washington Post in August 2003 ("Depiction of Threat Outgrew Supporting Evidence"). Over the past two years, several incidents of executive-branch dishonesty in the run-up to the war have turned into subscandals of their own: the aluminum tubes that Iraq used for missiles and not gas centrifuges, the yellowcake uranium that Saddam didn't try to buy from Niger, the mobile biological warfare laboratories that turned out to be hydrogen generators for balloons, the al-Qaida chemical warfare training that was based on a false confession, the meeting with Mohamed Atta that didn't happen in Prague.

If you examine these and other pillars of the administration's case for invading Iraq, a clear pattern emerges. Bush officials first put clear pressure on the intelligence community to support their assumptions that Saddam was developing WMD and cooperating with al-Qaida. Nonetheless, significant contrary evidence emerged. Bush hawks then overlooked, suppressed, or willfully ignored whatever cut against their views. In public, they depicted unsettled questions as dead certainties. Then, when they were caught out and proven wrong, they resisted the obvious and refused to correct the record. Finally, when their positions became utterly untenable, they claimed that they were misinformed or not told. Call this behavior what you will, but you can't describe it as either "honest" or "truthful."

Many of the White House's most serious misrepresentations involve the case that Saddam was trying to build nuclear weapons, which he had in fact stopped trying to do in 1991. "We now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons," Cheney said in August 2002, in one of his conclusive comments on the subject. This position was echoed by Bush and Rice, who both conjured the specter of a mushroom cloud, as well as by Rumsfeld and Colin Powell, who went into more detail about aluminum tubes and uranium. If you were on the inside and read even the now notorious National Intelligence Estimate of 2002, you at least knew that such statements were at the very least overdrawn. Analysts at the departments of Energy and State weren't buying the aluminum tubes and yellowcake theory that formed the basis of the nuclear case.

Or consider another component of that case that has gotten less attention, the description of fresh "activity" at Saddam's known nuclear sites. A draft paper produced by Andrew Card's White House working group on Iraq, and cited in the 2003 Post article, was characteristically distorted. The document inaccurately attributed to U.N. arms inspectors the claim that satellite photographs showed signs of reconstruction and acceleration of Iraq's nuclear program. It went on to quote something chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix told Time: "You can see hundreds of new roofs in these photos." But the White House paper left out the second half of Blix's quote: "[B]ut you don't know what's under them." In February 2003, American inspectors visited those sites as part of U.N. teams and saw that nuclear bombs weren't being made at them. But Bush officials acted as if such counterevidence didn't exist.

In retrospect, Cheney casts himself and his colleagues as uncritical consumers of what the CIA and DIA spoon-fed them. Bad intel, he gives us to understand, is like lousy weather—a shame, but nothing policymakers can do anything about. In fact, the Bush hawks were anything but victims of the intelligence community. They challenged any evidence that cut against their assumptions about Saddam, going so far as to set up their own unit within the Pentagon to reanalyze raw data and draw harsher conclusions. And remember that the trigger for the Valerie Plame scandal was the vice president's mistrust of the CIA.

Another giveaway is the administration's lack of outrage over the bad intelligence they now claim to have been victimized by. Only Colin Powell, before his U.N. speech, seems to have pushed back with any skepticism about charges he was being asked to retail. And only Powell has expressed any outrage after it became evident that his U.N. speech had been a case of garbage in, garbage out.

Powell's old colleagues now defend themselves by saying they didn't know their claims about Iraq weren't true. But the truth is most of them didn't care whether their assertions were true or not, and they still don't.

Jacob Weisberg is editor of Slate and co-author, with Robert E. Rubin, of In an Uncertain World.

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How George Bush ducks questions

All the President's Dodges How George Bush ducks questions.
By John Dickerson
Posted Thursday, Jan. 26, 2006, at 7:06 PM ET

George Bush is a quick wit. When a
camera fell and dangled from the briefing room ceiling at his Jan. 26 press conference, he quipped to those seated below: "Are you wearing your helmets?" Later, a radio reporter prefaced his question about the Jack Abramoff scandal by saying he wasn't interested in pictures of Bush and the disgraced lobbyist. "Easy for a radio guy to say," Bush interjected.

I wish the president's serious answers were as tart and on point. Dealing with delicate issues on camera, Bush's mind may work just as quickly, but he keeps his mouth shut. The pause to think gives him away. When he doesn't punch out a response, he's not puzzling out the answer. He's puzzling out the spin.

Here are three of the president's favorite dodges, as executed at the press conference:

Hamas: Put on a Happy Face

President Bush believes in a simple formula. Democracy is good. Terrorism is evil. When democracy is introduced in hostile countries it acts like enchanted water: Apply a drop and liberty flowers. That theory, never plausible, obviously has now been undone: The victory of the radical Islamic organization Hamas in the Palestinian elections demonstrates that democracy and terrorism are not mutually exclusive.

Instead of dealing with the topsy-turvy result, the president focused on the sunny side. He said the elections "remind me of the power of democracy" and added, "I like the competition of ideas." Groovy. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, one of Bush's strongest allies in the war on terror, was blunter. He said the result was "very, very, very bad."

The president did restate the U.S. position that he will not deal with Hamas, which advocates, among other things, the eradication of Israel. But he never tried to reconcile this position with his glowing remarks about liberty spreading across the Middle East. Nor did he explain how he reacts to the fact that his black-and-white world has suddenly gone gray.

NSA Spying: Just Trust Us

The president was asked six questions about the NSA's warrantless eavesdropping, which he carefully calls a "terrorist surveillance program." The questions and answers hopped around over well-worn territory. Finally, Bush played the trump card that shuts off further discussion: To talk any more about the program, or even consider legislation to codify it, would help the terrorists. This doesn't avoid the question so much as it makes asking too many pointed ones an act of treachery. "This program is so sensitive and so important that if information gets out to how we do it, how we run it, or how we operate, it will help the enemy," he said. "I think the American people understand that. Why tell the enemy what we're doing, if the program is necessary to protect us from the enemy?"

It's very hard to get past such a statement, which is why the issue has the potential to work for the president politically. Any Democrat or Republican who wants to poke at the premises behind Bush's assertion is helping the terrorists. Ultimately, Bush demands that we trust that he has asked the questions for us. He says it's legal and our civil liberties are protected. How does he know? He's asked his own staff. He asked Al Gonzales, now his attorney general, and other administration lawyers, and they gave the thumbs up. He's asked officials at the NSA and they've given the OK, too. If we don't trust him, the president is saying, we should at least trust his employees he's told to tell us to trust him.

Abramoff: Look at the Shiny Ornament!

Another trick: Distract the questioner with something else. Show reporters a sparkly ornament, and hope we'll forget the tree it's hanging on. (Talking about Saddam Hussein has served this purpose in ducking tricky Iraq questions.) When talking about Jack Abramoff, Bush focused on the pictures of the two together rather than the larger issue of what influence the lobbyist had with White House officials and what, if anything, he may have gotten in return for all of that campaign cash.

The president continued to define the photographs as a few of the thousand taken at "grip and grin" sessions. This wasn't a dodge: It was a deception. At least one of the snapshots with the chairman of the Kickapoo Indians was clearly something more. Bush had a scripted joke for this eventuality. "Having my picture taken with someone doesn't mean that, you know, I'm a friend with them or know them very well," he said setting up the gag. "I've had my picture taken with you at holiday parties."

Bush's questioners' fixation on the pictures helped him stay focused on just the pictures. (Have you seen how shiny the ornament is! Yes, and he just mentioned us!) The real questions are: What happened in the rooms where there were no photographs taken and where Abramoff met with White House staff? Whom did Abramoff meet with, what did he want, and what did the White House officials want from him?

Other White House officials have refused to answer those questions. And today, the president just ducked them. Asked about the staff meetings he said in his reply: "It's part of the job of the president to shake hands and—with people, and smile. And I do."

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent. He can be reached at

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Voting Fraud Reform?

Fraud Reform?
How efforts to ID voting problems have become a partisan mess.
By Richard L. Hasen
Posted Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2006, at 2:11 PM ET
With a
meltdown in our election system in 2000 and a near meltdown again in 2004, one might think states would use the off-season to get their electoral rules in order. Many of the legal problems in 2004 emerged from areas of uncertainty in the law. (Remember the disputes before the November 2004 election over whether officials would count "provisional ballots" cast in the wrong precinct?) It seems to be in everyone's interest for states to enact clear and fair rules so problems do not arise again during the 2006 midterm elections—or worse, during the 2008 presidential election. Make the rules clear and fair now, so the armies of lawyers won't have much ammunition even in close elections.

Unfortunately, election reform is becoming mired in partisan politics, and the resulting rules changes are increasing, rather than decreasing, the chances of future litigation and election meltdown. Case in point: voter-identification laws.

In looking at what is on the agenda in Republican-controlled legislatures, you'd think that voter fraud is rampant: Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Mississippi. In each of these states, Republicans have passed or proposed legislation requiring voters to show identification at the polls or risk casting a vote that will not count. In Arizona, Republicans backed an initiative denying public benefits to illegal immigrants that also included a voter-identification requirement.

Republicans defend voter-identification laws as necessary to combat voter fraud. But Democrats and civil rights organizations see these laws as a way of gaining partisan advantage—because it's the poor who will have a more difficult time securing voter identification. Poor people tend to drive less (meaning they won't have a driver's license, which is the most common form of ID), and they may not have the money to secure certified copies of documents, such as the birth certificates necessary to obtain a state-issued voter identification. The poor also happen to be more likely to vote Democratic.

More important, it's not clear what the nonpartisan object of this exercise would be. Beyond a few isolated instances and anecdotes, there is precious little evidence of the kind of voter fraud a state voter ID card requirement would deter. I am aware of no studies finding evidence of any kind of systematic or serious problems with voters casting ballots in someone else's name, or with voters registering and actually voting using fictitious names. There is a great deal of registration fraud—such as when "Mickey Mouse" registers to vote. That problem is an artifact of paying bounty hunters to collect completed registration forms; some of those mercenaries will falsify information on registration forms. But, invariably, Mickey declines to vote on Election Day, so where is the fraud?

When voter fraud does occur, it tends to be in ways that state voter-identification cards can't catch. There is, for instance, evidence of folks who vote in two states, such as snowbirds who vote in Florida and New York; or people who vote in neighboring states, such as Kansas and Missouri. But voter identification is not checked across states, so how does voter ID help? There is also plenty of evidence of absentee-ballot fraud. Consider the facts of United States v. McCranie, a case in which supporters of opposing candidates for sheriff in Dodge County, Ga., "actually set up tables inside the courthouse at opposite ends of the hall, where supporters on both sides openly bid against each other to buy absentee votes." But most voter-identification laws do not require proof of identity when casting an absentee ballot, either.

Georgia is actually the best example of the increased partisanship and litigation that results when election reform is enacted on a partisan basis. There, the Republican legislature passed a voter-identification law in the name of fraud prevention over the loud protests of Democrats—some of whom noted that the law actually made it simpler to cast an absentee ballot and thus hardly succeeded as a means of combating fraud. Because Georgia is a jurisdiction covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, it must seek approval from the Department of Justice to put its law into effect, and to gain that approval it had to prove that the law would have no discriminatory effect on minority voters.

Career attorneys at the Justice Department concluded that the Georgia ID law was discriminatory and should not be approved, a decision overruled by DOJ political appointees (a fact the public learned when the internal DOJ memo was leaked to the Washington Post). The DOJ careerists had found that Georgia offered no proof of a problem with fraud and, as the Century Foundation summarized, the careerists' memo concluded that the law would hurt minority voters.

Unsurprisingly, civil rights organizations challenged the Georgia voter-identification law, and a federal district court granted a preliminary injunction against the law, finding that the costs associated with obtaining voter identification (even with a fee waiver) made the ID requirement a de facto unconstitutional poll tax. The court also found no evidence of voter fraud in Georgia to sustain the law, except in the area of absentee ballots—where the law actually made voting without identification easier.

Undeterred, the Georgia legislature passed a new version of the voter-identification law, which its supporters say eases the ability of the poor to obtain a voter ID. The new law awaits DOJ approval and, if approved, further scrutiny by the district court, where plaintiffs still contend that the law is discriminatory.

None of this means that all voter-identification laws are bad ideas. In fact, I think that as part of an overall bipartisan package of election reform—which would include universal voter registration conducted by the government—national voter identification makes sense, especially if structured to limit absentee vote fraud, and so that identification can be checked across states. A package that increased access through universal voter registration and dealt with a real (or imagined) concern about voter fraud through a 100 percent government-funded voter-identification program could gain wide support if both parties were more serious about election reform—and less concerned about gaining partisan advantage.

One of the controversial aspects of the recent Carter-Baker election reform commission report was its endorsement of a voter-identification requirement. (Its chief flaw was failing to provide a mechanism for voters to cast a vote if they lose their ID, such as allowing voters to verify their identification with a simple thumbprint—or at least to cast a provisional ballot.) But the Carter-Baker report is being co-opted for partisan advantage by those using it as cover for enacting voter-ID laws that will disproportionately disenfranchise poorer voters. At a recent forum for the new AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project, Robert Pastor, executive director of the Carter-Baker commission, made it clear that the voter-ID proposal should be enacted only as part of a package with government-funded universal voter registration, and that some Republicans supporting voter ID "are not really serious about making sure that voter ID is free for those who can't afford it …"

In the end, all this partisan jockeying is not going to increase public confidence in the outcome of elections just as we are witnessing a great partisan and racial divide emerging in public's confidence in the electoral process. (And it should be noted that Republicans are not the only ones who know how to enact election reform on a partisan basis. Witness the controversy over Maryland's new election reforms.) After 2004, 21.5 percent of Democrats thought the 2004 presidential election was somewhat or very unfair, compared with less than 3 percent of Republicans.

And it appears, perhaps not surprisingly, that the losers have less confidence than the winners. Consider voter attitudes toward the fairness of the Washington state gubernatorial election in 2004. After a series of recounts and court battles, a Democrat was declared the winner. In a January 2005 Elway Poll of Washington voters, 68 percent of Republicans thought the state election process was unfair, compared with 27 percent of Democrats and 46 percent of Independents. This means Republicans can just as easily lose confidence in the electoral process, should they be on the wrong end of a close presidential election next time. It's in everyone's interest to fix the problems in a nonpartisan way.

In the meantime, the number of election challenges going to court has increased dramatically since the 2000 Florida debacle. The average number of cases in the 1996-99 period was 96 per year, compared with an average of 254 cases per year from 2001 to 2004. It is no wonder that there is such a rise, when the suggestion that election rules are being rigged for partisan advantage starts to look reasonable. Unless political parties are willing to put aside the hope for partisan advantage in election reform and instead enact fair reform with bipartisan cooperation, we can expect more of the same in 2008. Don't say you were not warned.

Richard L. Hasen, the William H. Hannon distinguished professor at Loyola Law School, writes the Election Law Blog.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2006


Impostor in Chief

February 21, 2006

'Rebel in Chief' and 'Impostor'

Disparate Conservative Assessments of Bush


The portraits of President George W. Bush served up by these two new books could not be more at odds.

Both authors are die-hard, dyed-in-the-wool conservatives. Bruce Bartlett ("Impostor"), former executive director of the Joint Economic Committee of Congress, worked in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush and wrote the 1981 supply-side manifesto "Reaganomics." Fred Barnes is executive editor of "The Weekly Standard" and a co-host of the Fox News program "The Beltway Boys." The two authors, however, have come to diametrically opposing views of the current president.

Mr. Barnes views Mr. Bush as "a president who leads," an action-oriented "visionary," an executive who combines "F.D.R.'s cool optimism" and Teddy Roosevelt's "pugnacity and determination." Mr. Barnes had unusual access to members of the press-phobic administration: he interviewed Mr. Bush as well as Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for this volume. But he did not use this access to ask hard-hitting questions. Instead, his book echoes the administration's own portrayals of itself, even employing the same sort of macho adjectives the White House and Bush campaigns have used to characterize the president: "bold," "audacious," "steadfast," "unflinching."

As Mr. Barnes sees it, Mr. Bush's brand of conservatism — activist, forward-leaning and willing to use the government to solve problems — is "the conservatism of the future."

Mr. Bartlett, in contrast, sees Mr. Bush as a "pretend conservative" — "a partisan Republican, anxious to improve the fortunes of his party" but "perfectly willing to jettison conservative principles at a moment's notice to achieve that goal." He writes that the current White House is "obsessive about secrecy," argues that Mr. Bush has pursued "what could be described as a Nixonian agenda using Nixon's methods" and declares that when it comes to the federal budget, "Clinton was much better." Mr. Bush, he contends, has set the country on "an unsustainable fiscal course," resulting in a ballooning deficit that will inevitably lead to tax increases.

As Mr. Bartlett sees it, "the 2002 collapse of Enron" — the giant energy trading company, which "borrowed heavily, paid little in taxes, and made big profits in ways that were known to be contrary to sound business practices" — "may in some ways be a metaphor for the Bush Administration's economic policy."

His critique extends well beyond the economic sphere. He argues that "Bush has driven away and even humiliated the few intellectuals in his midst, preferring instead the company of overrated political hacks whose main skills seem to be an ability to say yes to whatever he says and to ignore the obvious." And he declares that the president's "unwillingness to properly utilize the traditional policy development process" lies "at the heart of the failure of his Social Security proposal and possibly the Iraq operation as well."

"One of the hallmarks of George W. Bush's approach to policy that is disturbing both to friends and foes alike," Mr. Bartlett writes, "is an apparent disdain for serious thought and research to develop his policy initiatives. Often they seem born from a kind of immaculate conception, with no mother or father to claim parentage."

Mr. Bartlett argues that the failure of "the administration to chart or articulate a consistent economic policy" stemmed, in large measure, from "Bush's disinterest in serious policy analysis" and his sidelining of people with genuine expertise. He writes that Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and his successor, John Snow, were treated as "little more than errand boys," and that the Council of Economic Advisers was accorded little influence as well. It became clear, Mr. Bartlett writes, that the main job of the Council's chairman, R. Glenn Hubbard, "was not to devise economic policies, but only to offer support for those Bush had already decided upon."

These remarks by Mr. Bartlett echo earlier observations about the administration's mistrust of experts and often haphazard decision-making process, made by journalists like George Packer (writing about the Iraq war) and former administration insiders. Richard A. Clarke, the former counterterrorism adviser, has written that on issues like terrorism and Iraq, "Bush and his inner circle had no real interest in complicated analyses; on the issues that they cared about, they already knew the answers, it was received wisdom." Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill once told Vice President Cheney that he felt administration members needed to bring more "analytical rigor, sound information-gathering techniques and real, cost-benefit analysis" to the decision making process. And John DiIulio, the former head of the Bush administration's faith-based initiative, wrote a 2002 memo to the reporter Ron Suskind, in which he lamented that "in eight months, I heard many, many staff discussions but not three meaningful, substantive policy discussions."

The descriptions of the Bush White House in "Rebel-in-Chief" do not exactly contradict those in "Impostor," but where Mr. Bartlett sees slapdash decision-making, Mr. Barnes sees decisiveness and visionary leadership — an admirable contempt for "small ball" and a practical desire to focus on results, not means. Mr. Barnes seems to think that being "a risk taker" who "loves to smash conventional wisdom" is a positive thing in a president, and he points out that Mr. Bush "hates to manage a problem or a dispute or a broken relationship," preferring to cut to "what's the solution?"

The account that Mr. Barnes gives of the president's approach to speech-making is especially telling, ironically ratifying Mr. Bartlett's observation that Mr. Bush likes to spurn traditional policy-making channels.

In "Rebel-in-Chief," Mr. Barnes writes that Mr. Bush "has used his presidential speeches to advance policies far beyond where his aides expected him to go," that "rather than reflect policy, his speeches dictate policy." Typically, he notes, the Bush speechwriting process begins with a meeting between the president and Michael Gerson, his former chief speechwriter turned policy adviser. Once drafted, the speech is circulated at the White House but "is not open to debate."

"This is the first time most White House and administration officials see a speech," Mr. Barnes writes. "It already has the president's imprimatur. Advisers are free to recommend a change in wording, but Bush does not tolerate attempts to alter the general direction of a speech."

In the case of the second Inaugural Address, which declared that spreading liberty around the world was "the calling of our time," Mr. Barnes reports that Mr. Bush teased Condoleezza Rice, saying "You're not going to believe what I say." Ms. Rice reportedly responded, "I hope I get to see it before you give it." What she and other senior Bush advisers later saw, Mr. Barnes goes on, "was a near-final draft to which only minor changes could be made." He continues, The thrust of the speech — the new direction, the policy declaration — had been set."

Not only does Mr. Barnes fail to make a persuasive case for the virtues of Mr. Bush's go-it-alone management style, but his narrative is also so replete with blinkered predictions, ridiculous generalizations and absurdly rosy pronouncements as to undermine any trust whatsoever in the author. He writes that "America's strategic position has indeed been fortified" by the president's Middle East policy, that "Afghanistan and Iraq are pro-American democracies" now, and that "Bush had received vindication both abroad and at home" when Iraqis turned out to vote in last year's elections — as if that meant that the war had been deemed successful and wise.

Mr. Barnes assails the press for contending that Mr. Bush has "indulged in more God-talk than his predecessors" (he contends that Bill Clinton "mentioned Jesus Christ more than Bush has"), even though Mr. Barnes himself writes that "Bush has been more powerfully affected by his faith than any other president" and that his "faith has had an enormous impact on his policies." He says "the Bush approach to foreign policy and key domestic issues, and his use of government, will stick as key elements of the conservatism of the future," despite the president's low standing in the polls, despite the public's unhappiness with the war in Iraq, despite many conservatives' worries about his administration's lavish spending ways. And he writes that "President Bush revealed his proactive tendencies after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and coastal Mississippi in the late summer of 2005," despite the fact that Mr. Bush and the federal government were painfully slow to respond to the emergency, as a scathing report issued by House Republicans noted a week ago.

As for Mr. Bartlett's book, there is one gaping omission: a reluctance to grapple with the huge federal deficits run up by his hero, Ronald Reagan. But while this omission blunts the author's complaints about President Bush's deficit spending, it does not detract from his larger criticisms of the current administration: namely, its subversion of many traditional conservative beliefs (like a wariness of Wilsonian efforts to export democracy and a wariness of big government); its willingness to subordinate long-term policy goals to short-term political gains; and perhaps most important, its distrust of the government's traditional policy-making apparatus and its inclination to make decisions based on ideology and grand ideas rather than on substantive analysis and debate.


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