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8 June 1999

Our current howler (part IV): “Pop” goes the weasel

Synopsis: Michael Kelly parsed hard for some slick “weasel talk.” Meanwhile, we thought that we saw some ourselves.

Clinton’s Compulsion
William Safire, The New York Times, 5/24/99

The Clinton Syndrome
Michael Kelly, The Washington Post, 5/26/99


It’s perfectly reasonable to ask President Clinton to explain his March 19 press conference. If he had seen the full Cox Report, he surely knew the committee had judged that espionage occurred on his watch. Even if his own advisers didn’t agree; even if he felt the report was still off limits; even then, his statement--that no one had told him they “suspected” such spying--was an artless account of the truth. (If he hadn’t seen the full Cox Report, explanations are due about that.)

Here at THE HOWLER, we have no way of knowing what Clinton had been told about spying. In fairness, though, Clinton’s overall statements on 3/19 gave a balanced view of the espionage matter. Clinton said that security had been lax on his watch, and made clear that specific investigations were ongoing. He accurately said that debate continued about alleged thefts all the way back to the 80s (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/7/99).

But certain members of the Washington press corps just aren’t happy unless Bill is lying. And William Safire, on May 24, was pretty sure that he’d spotted the dodge. Writing about Clinton’s answer to David Bloom’s question--“Can you assure us no nuclear secrets were lost on your watch?”--Safire deftly parsed away, deconstructing the latest deception:

SAFIRE: Clinton carefully rephrased the question: “Can I tell you that there has been no espionage at the labs since I have been President? I can tell you that no one has reported to me that they suspect such a thing has occurred.” And again: “To the best of my knowledge” (he wasn’t even under oath) “no one has said anything to me about any espionage which occurred by the Chinese against the labs during my Presidency.” [Safire’s emphasis]

Did Clinton deliberately rephrase the question? We don’t know, and neither does Safire. It would be a perfectly reasonable question to ask, but Safire sells guesswork as fact. And our faith in his judgment is hardly enhanced by his suspicion of the phrase, “to the best of my knowledge.” In that later answer, Clinton had been asked (by Wendell Goler) about a specific alleged theft. Had he been briefed on it? We have no idea. But it’s hardly shocking that he’d avoid an unqualified assertion--unless he was certain that he hadn’t been briefed.

Two days later, Michael Kelly wrote on the very same subject, and he also saw “weasel talk” in Clinton’s answers. But the analysts couldn’t help pointing out: he saw it in completely different places! When Clinton answered David Bloom, Safire thought he was slick-n-slippery. Kelly got Bloom mixed up with Sam, but he thought Clinton’s answer played straight:

KELLY: ABC’s Sam Donaldson asked the obvious question: “Can you assure the American people that, under your watch, no valuable nuclear secrets were lost?” Clinton was unequivocal in his answer. [Our emphasis]

Kelly then quoted Clinton’s reply. Kelly completely missed what Safire had spotted: Clinton’s devious use of the term “at the labs.” Weasel talk is in the eye of the beholder, at least as it’s parsed by these guys.

But Kelly then gave us a make-up. In Clinton’s subsequent answer to Goler, Kelly spied evasion that Safire had missed:

KELLY: Later another reporter returned to the subject. This time, Clinton prefaced his answer with his patented weasel talk: “To the best of my knowledge no one has said anything to me about any espionage, which occurred by the Chinese against the labs, during my presidency.” [Kelly’s emphasis]

“To the best of my knowledge” bugged Kelly too. But Kelly’s patented x-ray vision spotted something that Safire had missed. Kelly saw Clinton playing a dodge when he said, “[N]o one has said it to me.” It’s hard to know how The Weasel King was planning to gain from a phrase like this. No one told him about Chinese spying. Isn’t that pretty much what he’d been asked?

By the way, Kelly said this “weasel talk” was an example of Clinton’s “pathologically dedicated lying.” But we couldn’t help noticing that Kelly himself was a bit slick in some things that he said. For example, here’s how Kelly helped us see that Clinton was slick with Bloom:

KELLY: At this time [3/19], Clinton had already been briefed by his national security adviser, Samuel R. Berger, about DOE and FBI investigations into ongoing Chinese espionage at the labs. The Cox Report, released yesterday, states that Berger had informed the committee that he had briefed Clinton “about the theft of U.S. nuclear information in early 1998.”

Kelly plays a hip new double-entendre game here; the truth is, the briefing occurred in 1998, not necessarily any espionage which was discussed. But Kelly was slicker, in the next paragraph, with one crafty word that we spotted. Again, Kelly derides the idea that Clinton wasn’t told that espionage had occurred on his watch:

KELLY: What is more, Clinton had received, in January 1999, a written executive summary of the Cox Report, prepared by the president’s national security staff. Again, such a report surely included the report’s conclusion, as reported in the declassified version, that “the PRC has stolen classified information on all of the United States’ most advanced thermonuclear warheads, and several of the associated re-entry vehicles [in] an intelligence collection program spanning two decades, and continuing to the present.”

We note, by the way, that even the judgment quoted by Kelly does not affirm successful espionage at the labs under Clinton. Here again we see the lazy use of texts we have complained about before in these contexts. But we especially note Kelly’s assertion that Clinton’s executive summary “surely” included the conclusion he cites. Why do you suppose the hard-hitting scribe slipped in viper verbiage like that?

Well, it’s just a guess, but later on in the article, Kelly offers a detailed description of Joe Lockhart’s May 24 press briefing. Kelly even tells readers that “incredulous reporters spent 57 questions” grilling Lockhart on Clinton’s 3/19 statement. But, as we pointed out in the 6/4 DAILY HOWLER, the Washington Times quoted Lockhart, at that conference, explicitly denying that Clinton’s summary discussed specific thefts. In other words, if Kelly saw the conference he describes in detail, he heard the press sec explicitly deny his conclusion about what Clinton saw.

Had Clinton seen Cox’s specific judgments? At THE HOWLER, we have no way of knowing. But Kelly apparently saw Lockhart say that he hadn’t--and found a way to avoid telling readers. He craftily said the opposite was true--and slipped in “surely” as a dodge. Sounds like weasel talk to us--the very kind for which Clinton was being badgered!

Those pundits! They knew Wild Bill was playing the fox--though they disagreed totally on how he was doing it. It almost seems that “weasel talk” is found in the eye of the badger.


It gets better: Later, Kelly said this about Clinton’s executive summary of the Cox Report:

KELLY: Indeed, any competent summary must have gone into some detail on the subject of continuing Chinese espionage in the Clinton years.

Kelly had apparently seen Lockhart say that the summary hadn’t done that. We don’t know if Lockhart’s statement was accurate. We do know that slick weasel talk when we see it.