I saw another of Olbermann’s “Special Commentaries” last night. This time he tried to fact check the president’s SOTU claims of foiling four terrorist plots. One could almost imagine Olbermann’s outrage at the very idea of the president taking credit for any positive steps in the global war on terror, and his single-minded conviction to overturn those claims of counterterrorism success, no matter how far he had to stretch for evidence.
This time he stretched so far as to rely completely on the “facts” of a radical left-wing blogger who advocates impeachment of both Bush and Cheney.
David Swanson. After the SOTU, I recall seeing a number of blog posts discussing Bush’s counterterrorism claims, so I couldn’t help thinking as Olbermann delivered his sermon that he must have stolen his material from the left-wing blogosphere. Imagine my surprise to hear Olbermann actually fessing up to the theft: “I am indebted to David Swanson, press secretary for Dennis Kucinich’s 2004 presidential campaign, who has blogged about the dubious 96 words in Mr. Bush’s address this year…”
So Olbermann’s inspiration is one David Swanson. I had never heard of this guy, so I did some surfing on the Interwebs. David Swanson is indeed a young blogger who used to work for Dennis Kucinich. That alone would be enough to throw some doubt on Swanson’s objectivity (seeing as how his job would have been relating how President Bush didn’t deserve to be re-elected), but if you look at Swanson’s site you’ll find that it’s literally covered with ads for books on the topic of impeaching President Bush. Glancing at Swanson’s Career page reveals: “David Swanson is the Washington Director of Democrats.com and of ImpeachPAC.org. He is co-founder of the AfterDowningStreet.org coalition, creator of MeetWithCindy.org, and a board member of Progressive Democrats of America, and of the Backbone Campaign.” It goes on.
One has to wonder at this point why Olbermann chose to describe David Swanson as the former press secretary for Dennis Kucinich, rather than as the director of, say, ImpeachPAC.org (a site which proudly proclaims, “ImpeachPAC supports Democratic candidates for Congress who support the immediate and simultaneous impeachment of George Bush and Dick Cheney for their Iraq War lies”).
Obviously I’m not a lawyer, but I think I’ve made a pretty solid case that David Swanson has a personal and professional stake in spinning words and events to make President Bush look bad. And this is the guy Olbermann credited with inspiring his Special Commentary — the guy he is relying on for the “facts” in his “fact checking.”
The Library Tower Plot. Bush: “We stopped an al Qaeda plot to fly a hijacked airplane into the tallest building on the West Coast.”
In order to debunk this claim, one would need to show evidence that al Qaeda did not have any such plot, or that al Qaeda gave up on the plot. Instead of doing that, Olbermann chose to make fun of Bush for saying “Liberty Tower” instead of “Library Tower” in the 2006 SOTU address. Perhaps this is because it’s hard to debunk this particular terror plot when none other than the highly-respected 9/11 Commission Report confirmed its existence. And ABC News also confirmed the details of the broken plot as reported by the president.
That doesn’t leave Bush critics with much to work with, so they turned to the anonymous opinions of supposed government experts, who claim that, since this plot was foiled while still in the planning stages, that it doesn’t “count” as a counter-terrorism success. One has to wonder what exactly would count as a success to these supposed experts. I guess it doesn’t count unless the terrorists are foiled with last-second, Jack Bauer-style heroics.
Olbermann rhetoric: Busted.
The Southeast Asian Cell. Bush: “We broke up a Southeast Asian terror cell grooming operatives for attacks inside the United States.”
David Swanson, Olbermann’s blogger inspiration, suggested this was “fictional” simply because he didn’t understand the reference, and Olbermann also failed to nail down the reference. One has to wonder how hard they tried. But let’s say that Swanson and Olbermann are correct in describing this as just another name for the Library Tower plot. Even so, neither offered any evidence to suggest that the Southeast Asian terror cell didn’t exist or wasn’t foiled — they simply criticize the semantics of calling it a separate success.
Olbermann rhetoric: Partially Busted.
The Anthrax Cell. Bush: “We uncovered an al Qaeda cell developing anthrax to be used in attacks against America.”
Again, Swanson believes this al Qaeda cell was “fictional” because he could not locate any newspaper reports corroborating the story, as if the mainstream media is the official historical record of government counterterrorism activities. Olbermann went a step farther at least, asking NBC counterterrorism analyst Robert W. Cressey about it, who replied that he believed al Qaeda had only been “dreaming” about anthrax attacks. Both Swanson and Olbermann then inexplicably went on to conclude that Bush must have been talking about the highly publicized anthrax mailings to prominent newspeople and congressmen back in 2003, whose trail has long since run cold.
After a little Googling, I didn’t find this reference nearly as mysterious as they did. It wasn’t the first time Bush had referenced the al Qaeda anthrax program. He also mentioned it when he spoke about the Military Commissions Act and later when he signed it. In the first speech, President Bush described the al Qaeda anthrax program that was foiled in some detail, and how it was foiled, and it had nothing to do with the letters from 2003. I also found this interesting article discussing a CBS News report about the anthrax case, which suggests that al Qaeda may indeed have been behind the anthrax scare, but thanks to a bungled FBI investigation, we will probably never know for sure one way or another.
Olbermann rhetoric: Busted.
The British Airline Plot. Bush: “British authorities uncovered a plot to blow up passenger planes bound for America over the Atlantic Ocean.”
Again, to debunk this plot, we would need evidence that the plot didn’t exist or that the plot was called off by the bad guys. Swanson and Olbermann offer no such evidence. All they offered were the beliefs of unnamed “experts” that the plot couldn’t have worked and a quote from a British ambassador who hinted that the Pakistani prisoner who revealed the plot may have made it up under the duress of torture. The Pakistani prisoner was “only” charged with possessing bomb-making materials, Olbermann later assured us, as if it were perfectly normal for people to have bomb-making materials.
Swanson and Olbermann both failed to note that while 8 people have indeed been released, 16 people are still in British custody awaiting trial, and they failed to mention that the NY Times reported that police had recovered bomb-making materials and martyrdom videos from the suspects’ homes. I’m not an “expert” of course, but that sounds like a plot to me.
Olbermann rhetoric: Busted.
I’ve said this before, but this time I really mean it: Olbermann viewers should remember that, like comedian Rush Limbaugh, he’s an entertainer long before he’s a journalist.
Thomas Krehbiel writes The Krehbiel Strikes Back, a generally centrist commentary on news, media, politics, and culture.