Monday, October 14, 2013

The Sanger, not the song

Image from The Inspiration Room.
As I was about to say, I haven't been shy about expressing admiration for the New York Times's David Sanger for the quality of his reporting and synthesis; nor, hooligan that I am, have I refrained from mocking him for the curious idea that it is unsporting of the White House to tell staff not to talk to him after he published a detailed account of the secret cooperation between Israel and the US in disabling Iran's uranium purification efforts.

Not because he shouldn't have published it, but because he shouldn't have been so surprised. It's like if I'm worried, as a friend, about your binge drinking, and decide to empty the contents of your wine cellar and distribute it to the poor, I may feel myself to be
completely in the right morally speaking, but I ought to be prepared for you to not see it the same way, or not invite me over again any time soon.

Or not exactly, since stealing the wine would be kind of dickish whereas reporting the story is literally Sanger's job, but you know what I mean. Rightly or wrongly, the administration feels it has secrets to keep; Sanger has divulged them; and the administration has taken measures to stop him from doing it. It's all very well for me to say 98% of what is classified shouldn't be, and I do, but you can't really fault their logic there.

Now the thing has come up again, with the arrival of Leonard Downie's report on "The Obama Administration and the Press", which quotes him in the opening paragraphs:
“This is the most closed, control freak administration I’ve ever covered,” said David E. Sanger, veteran chief Washington correspondent of The New York Times.
And then later, on the Stuxnet issue,
“A memo went out from the chief of staff a year ago to White House employees and the intelligence agencies that told people to freeze and retain any e-mail, and presumably phone logs, of communications with me,” Sanger told me. As a result, he said, longtime sources would no longer talk to him. “They tell me, ‘David, I love you, but don’t e-mail me. Let’s don’t chat until this blows over.’”
It occurred to me to wonder how he gets any work done at all under these conditions, and to get a kind of fix on the question by comparing something he's written recently on the White House to something on a less closed, control freak administration, that of President Bush, at a comparable point in the first year of his second term, which landed me, comically enough, right in Hurricane Katrina. Here's a kind of skeleton version of the two stories focusing on Sanger's sources:
AP photo, via Politico.
David Sanger, September 1, 2005, as President Bush returned to Washington to deal with the storm:
Joseph M. Allbaugh, one of Mr. Bush's closest friends and his first head of FEMA, said in an interview Wednesday... "If anyone is telling you that Iraq is getting in the way, well that's hogwash".... 
Mr. Bush's instinctive response to such moments, his longtime aides and friends say, is to set up measurements to determine whether his efforts are adequately addressing a problem. "He likes being a hands-on manager," said Mr. Allbaugh. "He wants numbers, he wants to be able to show that the ball is moving down the field."...
"The great thing about this president is that he doesn't try to use tragedy to gain immediate attention for himself," said Bob Martinez, a former governor of Florida who has endured his share of hurricanes and other disasters. "He talks to those with knowledge, and then he acts."...
Mr. Martinez noted that "the risk is that there is sometimes a big disconnect between you when you speak and when bottles of water end up in people's hands." 
David Sanger, September 25, 2013, on the evolution of Obama's foreign policy:
To Mr. Obama’s mind, his aides say, his worldview has changed little since he came to office in 2009, after a campaign promising to end a “dumb war” and to renew outreach to America’s adversaries....
When his defense secretary at the time, Robert Gates, and his national security adviser, Tom Donilon, told him that he would be crazy to intervene in Libya — a country where, in Mr. Gates’s words, the United States had “no significant national interests” — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mr. Donilon’s successor, Susan E. Rice, recalled the massacre of 800,000 Rwandans during the Clinton presidency, and said Mr. Obama could not allow another genocide in the making....
But last month, as he debated with his staff what looked like imminent American strikes on Syria, he talked about how the box he found himself in differed from what he had faced on Libya.

“He made the case that Libya was a lot simpler,” one participant in the conversation said recently, recounting the stages the president went through as he moved from tentatively embracing a bombing plan, to a failed effort to secure Congressional authorization, to the Russian-authored diplomacy now in place. “In Libya, he had only a narrow window of time to make the decision, or it would have been too late. He had a U.N. Security Council resolution.”

The president, the aide said, ran through his long list and concluded that in Syria, “all that is missing.”...

Mr. Gates said last week that he saw, in the Syria gyrations, a president absorbing the lesson of a decade of American mistakes, and coming to the right conclusion after the worst possible process. 
The sourcing of the two stories is indeed quite different, but not in the way you'd expect from the tenor of Sanger's complaints; while the Bush story is told mainly by a couple of Formers now safely out of the fray, Allbaugh and Martinez, the Obama story is almost entirely in the voice of anonymous staffers, the very people that have supposedly been stopped from speaking to Sanger. The Obama story, on the other hand, quotes Formers Gates and Donilon as if Sanger had interviewed them, but if you read carefully you realize he is quoting their public statements; and the Bush story makes a throwaway reference to "longtime aides and friends" but they don't in fact seem to have given him any information at all. Thus it appears that the Bush White House was in fact less friendly to Sanger than the Obama White House remains, a year and a half after the publication of Sanger's "astonishingly revealing insider's account" in

Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power

and what he is missing that he had before is the cooperation of famous people who don't in fact work there. (How exactly was the ex-governor of Florida supposed to be an expert in Bush's greatness and resistance to politicizing tragedy, anyway?) So WTF is that about?
Magisterial David Sanger. From Wikipedia.
Another important difference is that the Bush story is a big lump of steaming merde, if you'll pardon my French, and the Obama story is not. As we now know, Bush was in no sense prepared, temperamentally or professionally, for Katrina. He had hired an incompetent FEMA administrator to replace Allbaugh, knew seemingly nothing about what was going on and took even less interest in anything other than photo ops, and responded entirely differently to the needs of white Republican voters in Mississippi and black Democrats in New Orleans, though inadequately in both cases. What Sanger learned from Allbaugh and Martinez was pure self-serving propaganda, proven false by subsequent events, and should never have been published at all. The Obama story, on the other hand, neither supports nor opposes the president, but says something (mildly) interesting about his personal style allowing the reader to conclude that maybe Obama is guilty of fewer "gyrations" than he appears to be, but we report and you decide, really.

We know about the unprecedented number of leak prosecutions with which the president has arguably had nothing to do and the dread Insider Threat program so obviously doomed to failure that it might as well have been designed for that. (By the way, how did the terrorized staffers manage to leak the vast amount of information we now have on these subjects?) But there has to be something else going on: the rocky relationship with the Obama White House has in some way or other made Sanger a better writer. 

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