Thursday, March 22, 2007

Document Dump -- Analysis versus Manipulation and the Gap

I previously criticized the Iraqi Freedom Documents project, in which some 48,000 boxes of documents captured from Saddam Hussein's government were placed in the public domain for bloggers to analyze. I said:

They [Bush allies reviewing the documents] assume that any amateur can analyze raw data as well as a professional, that intelligence professionals who disagree with them are inherently biased, and that their own views are not biased. Above all, they fail to understand what is wrong with beginning with a conclusion and working backward to support it. Indeed, convinced from the start that their conclusion is right, they presuppose that the facts must support it and that anyone who disagrees can only be speaking from bias and preconception.
So, in the interests of consistency, what do I think of the Bush Administration's document dump of some 3,000 pages relevant to the US Attorney firings and blogger Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo's project to have his readers review them? Is this another example of starting with a conclusion and cherry picking documents, regardless of merit, to support it?

There are some obvious differences. The Iraqi Freedom Documents dealt with 48,000 boxes of documents over a period of 20 years. Talking Points Memo is dealing with 3,000 pages over a much shorter time frame. The documents at TPM were pre-screened to have some relevance to the subject at hand. The documents dump may contain gossip and hearsay, but is unlikely to have any really wild rumors, let alone forgeries. Futhermore, the underlying issue is much narrower and easier to establish than so broad a question as the nature of Saddam Hussein's relations with Al-Qaeda. The question is why eight individuals were fired, a question that may (or may not) be answered just a few e-mails.

Nonetheless, the dangers of cherry picking, citing out of context, and subjecting to maximum spin are all there. For instance, the documents released include a confidential list of the reasons for firing each attorney. Are these the real reasons, or after-the-fact talking points? What of an earlier draft of the same list, with handwritten changes and modifications of the reasons? Is this evidence the official reasons for the firings are false, or merely an attempt to understand the reasons?

Was Carol Lam fired for investigating Republican corruption too much? Well, there was an e-mail that says, "The real problem we have with Carol Lam leads me to conclude that we should have someone ready to be nominated on 11/18, the day her 4-year term expires." But it does not say what "the real problem" is. Is it an innocent reference to something everyone knows, or something too dangerous to include even in a confidential e-mail? The Justice Department says Lam was fired for being lax on illegal immigration and drug smuggling. One of the e-mails asks, "Has ODAG ever called Carol Lam and woodshedded her re immigration enforcement? Has anyone?" So, is this an expression of frustration at Lam's consistent underperformance? Or is it, as Marshall believes, an attempt to see whether there is anything in the record to support the purported reason for her firing?

Any attempt to evaluate whether the firings were legitmate should include an evaluation of the performances of the fired attorneys. But this is one of those very broad topics that includes a great deal of contradictory evidence and requires rising above the trees to see the forest. For instance, the document dump reveals that in April, 2004 New Mexico's David Iglesias was on the short list of candidates to be promoted to Director of the Executive Office. This is strong evidence that his performance was considered strong in 2004. But it does not tell us whether his performance was still strong in 2006, and, if not, why. There is also a letter signed by 18 Republican Congressmen, including the indicted Randy Cunningham, complaining that Carol Lam was lax in prosecuting illegal immigration. Is this evidence that she was lax, or an attempt to distract her from the prosecution of corrupt Republicans?

In short, Talking Points Memo and its investigators see the documents as incriminating. Other commentators, no friends of the Bush Administration, but less invested in the project, were skeptical. Legal commentators at the liberal Slate magazine found nothing "pointy, sharp, or smoking" in the document dump. Liberal commentator Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings, looking through the documents for larger patterns was struck by two main things: (1) the documents were extremely redundant, and (2) Attorney General Gonzales seemed oddly uninvolved. Even the TPM posters found most of the documents to be innocuous.

But then the TPM investigators came across something not easily dismissed as an anomaly, nor easily interpreted as something innocent - a mysterious gap in the record from November 15 (22 days before the firings) to December 4 (3 days before).

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