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PMF Made Her Do It

Reno Asks the Tough Questions.
That's the Problem.


Posted Saturday, September 4, 1999

        "I asked question after question about anything that I could think of, trying to elicit as much information as I could to make sure that we had fully explored everything."

        -- Attorney General Janet Reno, testifying before the House Judiciary Committee

        My old boss Charles Peters, editor of The Washington Monthly, calls it the Perry Mason Fallacy -- the idea that cabinet heads (or the bright young aides to cabinet heads) can discover the truth about their agencies by asking smart, tough, skeptical questions of the high-ranking bureaucrats who report to them. As a young lawyer, fresh from a judicial clerkship, I resisted Peters' point. You mean a conscientious, uncorrupted guy like me couldn't find the right questions? Yes, that's what the PMF means. You can't find out by cross-examination, not so much because the people whom you're cross-examining will lie to you (though they might), but because the people whom you're cross-examining don't know the real answer because people lower down the chain of command have lied to them..

        Janet Reno is the most conspicuous victim of PMF in decades. She would like us to know that, regarding Waco, she "wanted and received assurances [from the FBI] that the gas and its means of use were not pyrotechnic." Just as Lyndon Johnson wanted and received assurances that we were winning the Vietnam War. And Jimmy Carter wanted and received assurances that the military's cracked plan to rescue U.S. hostages from Tehran would work. (The fantasy Perry Mason cross-examination, the one that will never happen, goes something like this: "Now commander, do you really think this plan can work?" "Well Mr. President, if you put it that way, no. We're all fucked up, sir!. The plan's got big holes in it and the pilots can't fly in a sandstorm. We're not up to the job, sir!") If you watch the documentary Waco: The Rules of Engagement -- which I recommend -- you may not come away convinced that the FBI started the climactic fire. But one thing is pretty clear: Janet Reno, asking her questions in the Justice Department headquarters in Washington, had no idea what was really happening on the ground at Mount Carmel.

        Okay, you say. She'd only been on the job five weeks. She was hardly the first newly-arrived official ever to be conned by the agency she commanded. Look at JFK and the Bay of Pigs. Yet in 1995, as Richard Leiby reports, Reno was still telling the Washington Post, "After two years of review, nothing has given me any indication that the FBI misled me." And now, after six years, she's shocked, shocked, that she wasn't told the truth. When she asked question after question! She's a fool, at best.

        If Masonic questioning from the top can't find out the truth, what can? The answer: spies! Peters argues that an effective agency boss needs informers he can trust, in the middle and at the bottom of the bureaucracy, who will tell him what's really going on, outside the manipulative, lily-gilding chain of command. If you can't seed the agency with your own people (hard to do at the FBI), have some friend or journalist go out and report back with the real story, as Lorena Hickok did for FDR in the Depression. If Janet Reno had even talked to some of the reporters covering the Waco siege (who had a more nuanced view of David Koresh, perhaps, or who had talked to law enforcement agents itching for revenge against him) she might have made a different -- and, almost by definition, better -- decision.

        Paranoids' Corner: The recently "discovered" videotapes tend to back up the FBI's story that the pyrotechnic tear gas didn't start a fire in the bunker at which it was aimed. Of course this makes the FBI look worse, in a sense, than if the tapes had been ambiguous. First, the bureau is forced to admit using the pyrotechnic tear gas. Then a few days later it just happens to discover new evidence that it had previously denied existed, and that evidence just happens to exculpate the FBI on the issue of whether these pyrotechnic canisters started the fire. Only a paranoid would be suspicious at this coincidence, and wonder what less-exculpatory evidence might still be hidden -- maybe even hidden from FBI director Freeh, who, we are told, is busy issuing full-disclosure orders from his headquarters in Washington. ...

Bush Blowback

        A reader points out that if George W. Bush used speed, or acid, or heroin, or some illegal drug other than cocaine (see earlier discussion here and here) that would help explain the private assurances Bush allegedly gave to supporters that he never used coke. ... Yes, the pieces are all falling into place! ...

        Another reader writes:

        You might be on to something here with the point that Gov. Bush is unlikely to have ceased whatever drug use he was involved with in 1974 because national trends were going the other way. An examination of the record shows that much of Gov Bush's biography might also be suspect.

        For example, he claims to have attended Andover, Yale, and Harvard. But statistics show most Americans did not attend those schools. How likely is his claim?

        He also claims to have spent a decade as an independent oil man -- but during this time the independents were shrinking. Can we believe his story?

        Finally, not even one American in a million manages a pro baseball team, yet Bush states he did exactly that. Statistics argue strongly that this could not be the case.

        But we must be fair. Bush also states he was born after WWII, which in fact did happen to many people. Perhaps some elements of his story ring true. But I thought you would want to look into these other points.

        Frank Lavin

        And a Washington journalist on the case writes:

        I don't think you took it far enough. I agree heroin seems unlikely. Acid is an interesting thought, but would it really explain-- in and of itself-- such stalwart silence and self-inflicted damage to his campaign? You are right to zero in on the more intriguing question: What did W. do on acid that he doesn't want to talk about?

        Herewith my contribution to the inquiry: If we look to the time period in question, circa early 70's, I keep thinking of the memorable line: "Acid is groovy. Kill the pigs!" Who said it? Remember? The still-unidentified intruders who burst into the home of Jeffrey MacDonald and killed his wife and two young daughters while he was asleep.

        Before dismissing this, keep in mind a couple of points:

        1) According to the Boston Globe, soon-to-be-conducted DNA tests may give new credence to MacDonald's scenario. Barry Scheck, literally, is on the case.

        2) It's not the acid, but the 'kill the pigs' line that would present a problem. Still, even if W. can be placed in North Carolina during the relevant time period, and linked to this grisly scenario, it needn't be fatal to his campaign. The appropriate spin is that it was W.'s accomplice who said it, a fellow Yalie with a family and a respectable position with a leading financial services firm, and W. -- being a Bush-- has been simply trying to protect him. Bushes, after all, don't squeal.

        [These last two are mocking you. You do realize that? -- ed. What doesn't kill me, makes me . . . stickier!]

        Recently archived:

        What If It Wasn't Coke? What If Bush Dropped Acid?

        George Bush, Early Adopter?

        Yes, There is 'Evidence' Against Bush

        The Real New Journalism: Hachette Hacks at Road & Track

        Kausfiles Doesn't Get It: L.A. Pol Overplays Latino Card; Plus Gwen and Warren

        Liberals Go Back in Time: The Snipe-O-Meter Returns!

        Will Tina Fire Lucinda?

Copyright 1999 Mickey Kaus.

Gore's Secret Weapon

posted 08.03.99