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Unfiled April 16, 2004
Punish the Pundits, Round Two
Will and Safire: Bad Cop/Bad Cop By John Dolan Browse author Email
Page 2 of 3
Well, that's one thing you can say for William Safire: he doesn't pretend to be a nice guy. He's the real thing, a hardcore creep from CREEP days onward. He started out writing speeches for Spiro Agnew, a man who made Nixon look clean, and he's been true to his vocation, backing pure evil every time. Far brighter, nobler folk come and go, but Safire hangs on to his corner of the editorial page like a snapping turtle, too malign and brainless to let go. You'd have to cut off his head to make him let go -- a good idea, but not practical.

Like the snapping turtle, he has one trick. He lies. And then repeats the lie. Again, and again, and again, until all the clever people are too worn out to oppose it any longer. Then it slips into general belief. Safire's big lie about Iraq has been that Saddam did have Al Qaeda connections, and that we have conclusive evidence, "a smoking gun" to prove it. Immediately after the WTC attacks Safire was at work, patiently testing various lies. First he claimed that Czech intelligence agencies had proof that Mohammed Atta met Saddam's agents in Prague before the attacks. That didn't work out, because the Czech agencies themselves loudly and clearly denied any such meeting.

Now this is the point at which Safire's utter lack of conscience shows its power. Other pundits might have retired in shame, but Safire simply went back to work, trying out new lies until he could find one that worked.

He found one a mere two weeks after the attacks. This one was from Kurdistan, not Prague, which was great for Safire because Kurdistan is in permanent chaos and lacks the access to western media demonstrated by those pesky Czechs. Safire said, "the clear link between the terrorist in hiding [Osama bin Laden] and the terrorist in power [Saddam] can be found in Kurdistan...Kurdish sources tell me (and anyone else who will listen) that the Iraqi dictator has armed and financed a fifth column of Al Qaeda mullahs and terrorists..."

You have to read this excerpt carefully to see how Safire works. The lie itself, the alleged link, is only one level of persuasion. At another more basic level all he needs is the chance to substitute tonally-charged words for the key players. So, for example, Saddam is never named; he is first "the terrorist in power" and then "the Iraqi dictator." These attacks can outlive the lie itself, because they are never the predicate, but simply the epithets used to introduce the subject of the sentence. You must accept them in order to make sense of the article at all. If, having done so, you then find out that Safire's claims are false, you've still got those epithets stuck in your head like a bad pop song. Safire's real link between Osama and Saddam is via linguistic parallels like the twin epithets "terrorist in hiding" and "terrorist in power." Other points are made as throwaway lines, little asides like "...tell me (and anyone else who will listen,") which suggests that the poor Kurds are desperate to expose the fatal link.

At a merely factual level, the claim was nonsense. Safire's "fifth column" was Ansar al-Islam, an Islamic faction holed up in a remote corner of Iraqi Kurdistan. In the first place, Saddam could hardly be blamed for this, because, as Safire neglected to tell his readers, it was entirely out of Saddam's control, run by the Kurds with US and British advisors.

This fact was pointed out by several smalltime dissident websites -- and ignored. Safire kept the lie going and even improved on it. Eventually David Corn of The Nation called Safire on his lies, and got into an indulgent little yuk-fest with Safire's editor at the NYT, Daniel Okrent. Corn tells the story of this attempt to compel Safire to face facts in an excellent article in the Feb. 24, 2004 Nation: "...Safire's recent work -- unburdened by factchecking, unchallenged by editors -- shows he is more intent on manipulating than interpreting the available information. Under the cover of opinion journalism, he is dishing out disinformation."

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