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1 June 1999

Our current howler: When Larry met Sally

Synopsis: CelebCorps GroupThink was never so plain as in the case of Janet Reno and Wen Ho Lee.

Commentary by Lawrence O’Donnell, Howard Fineman,
Susan Eisenhower, Bruce Herschensohn, Steve McMahon
Hardball, CNN, 5/28/99

FBI ‘Never Came Close’ To Threshold in Lee Case
Vernon Loeb and Roberto Suro, The Washington Post, 5/29/99

The Wiretap Debate
Editorial, The Washington Post, 5/29/99

We wouldn’t mind press corps GroupThink so much if the GroupThink wasn’t so often wrong. Indeed, complaining about GroupThink in the Washington press is like complaining about howling from beagles. Most often, Opinion Leaders at some dinner party somehow come up with the Official Approved Story. From that point on, little else is ever said. Most scribes, if honest, when asked the source of their views, would simply reply, “Ben and Sally.”

And so it was on Friday night’s Hardball, during its segment on Reno and Lee. Guest host Lawrence O’Donnell just laid down the line on that wiretap that never got issued! Steve McMahon had tried to describe the legal rules guiding the wiretap decision. Here’s how O’Donnell replied:

O’DONNELL: You can go through all the procedure you want, Steve. Everybody agrees that the decision was the wrong decision. You can go through all the procedural stuff that you want. [Our emphasis]

You see right there? “Everybody agrees!” Howard Fineman was one of those bodies. He jumped in right behind Larry:

FINEMAN: And also there were hundreds of other wiretaps approved in somewhat similar circumstances. This was the only one out of a hundred that wasn’t.

Surely you see the logic. Because other taps were approved--in somewhat similar cases--this one should have been approved too! Indeed, except for McMahon’s twice-voiced complaint, all the pundits did agree with O’Donnell. Susan Eisenhower, for one, was appalled:

EISENHOWER: It’s extraordinary. I think the thing that is so apparent here is that [Reno] certainly isn’t willing to take any responsibility for herself. In most democratic countries, the buck stops with the minister and they resign over something like this. I think it’s extraordinary that we’re even talking about her being dismissed. She ought to resign herself.

Sounded about right to Bruce Herschensohn:

HERSCHENSOHN: Susan mentioned the old Harry Truman, what he had on his desk, the buck stops here, and of course that’s true and that is exactly the way people in government ought to act. I would assume Janet Reno would resign, not have to have people ask for her resignation but just that she would do it. [His emphasis]

There. Except for McMahon’s disquisitions on procedure, the pundits had pretty much settled that.

But the GroupThink misstated some facts. O’Donnell said “everyone agreed” the decision was faulty, but one person didn’t seem to agree, and that, of course, was Janet Reno, who had made it clear several times in the course of the week that she agreed with the wiretap decision. This fact wasn’t mentioned all night. Also never mentioned was the basic fact that Reno hadn’t made the decision. You’d never have thought it, hearing O’Donnell respond to Herschensohn like this:

O’DONNELL: The principled resignation. When you find that you’ve made a colossal mistake, you step forward and resign yourself. [Our emphasis]


What viewer could have dreamed, from this recital, that Reno herself hadn’t made the decision, and that Reno had said that, after review, she believed the decision was correct? No viewer would ever have dreamed those facts as the pundits spun out their group dogma.

McMahon had tried to do better. He had tried to explain the basic procedures under which the decision was made:

MCMAHON (first attempt): Janet Reno was operating under a constraint that nobody else was and that is the Constitution of the United States. She has to have probable cause in order to authorize a wiretap, probably cause of the same magnitude that you’d have to have to charge someone. This guy hasn’t been charged yet because there’s no probable cause to charge him with a crime, which means, by virtue of that fact alone shows there’s no probable cause to wiretap. It’s a career prosecutor who makes the decision, then it goes to Reno, then it goes to a judge. This didn’t even get past the career prosecutor...

Phew! We’re not sure if everything he said is right, but you’d assume the pundits would want to know--would want to see if McMahon had the juice. But that, of course, would be in a rational world--and this is the celebrity press corps. O’Donnell responded with his quoted statement that “everyone agrees the decision is wrong.” Ben-and-Sally (or whoever) had sent out the word. McMahon was wasting time pushing facts.

Well, the next morning, by gorry, someone else disagreed, and that was the editorial board of the Washington Post, who must have missed the dinner party where the pundits were handed their story. The Post said, “Nobody who has not seen the highly classified proposal squelched by the department can really know” if the warrant gave probable cause, and the Post admirably says, “We do not know whether the [evidence] constituted probable cause.” Neither, of course, do O’Donnell, Fineman, Eisenhower, or Herschensohn. Being pundits, they prefer not to say it.

In the same paper, Loeb and Suro quoted Justice officials saying the wiretap request “never came close” to probable cause. They wrote, “[O]ne high-ranking department official added that no one who reviewed the case thought a warrant or wiretap could be justified.” Let’s say it: no one on Hardball had any way of knowing whether that judgment was right or wrong. Their discussion provided a stunning look at the intellectual sloth at the heart of this press corps.

For the record (not that anyone ever checks it): Here was McMahon’s second attempt to burden the crew with “procedure:”

MCMAHON (second attempt): Listen, I know it’s a minor detail that I keep coming back to, this whole constitutional thing. Janet Reno’s hands were tied. The career prosecutor’s hands were tied by probable cause. It happens every single day...It’s how we protect freedom in this country. The standards for espionage, the standards for wiretaps, the standards for probable cause are very high.

Completing the gong-show logic of the session, Herschensohn interjected, “Well then who is responsible?” Under the circumstances, the question made so little sense that it would take a whole new HOWLER to limn it. In our view, of course, NBC is responsible--for putting this mess on the air.

This week: We review the way the Washington press corps evaluated Cox’s report.