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The scandal that wasn’t
Bloggers scavenging the Internet in July for scandals about Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. thought they had red meat. On July 20, Secrecy News, a Web publication of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, reported that Judge Roberts was involved in the Iran-Contra affair.
New Media had bested Old Media again. Secrecy News uncovered chinks in Mr. Roberts’s armor that NBC, ABC, CBS, the New York Times and The Washington Post had missed.
It was a sensational scoop and bloggers quickly circulated it. The Daily Kos.com reprinted portions of Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh’s final report about Mr. Roberts’s role in the Iran-Contra affair. Democrats were salivating.
Unfortunately for them, it wasn’t true. A day after breaking the story, Secrecy News retracted it.
One of the great downfalls of the 24/7 world of the Internet is the need for speed. For Web journalists, a matter of minutes can mean the difference between a scoop and being scooped. This creates pressure to rant first and worry about facts later. In their haste, the Federation of American Scientists confused me with my namesake. This journalistic error could have been avoided by using a pre-Internet technology like the telephone. Someone should have called to ask whether Judge Roberts and I were, or weren’t, the same person. Instead, Secrecy News rushed to publish.
I shouldn’t be too hard on Secrecy News. Yes, it’s pitiable that they relied on a public report issued almost fifteen years ago as the source for their scoop. Maybe their idea of “secret” means long-forgotten. But with so many Robertses running around in politics, government and the press, it’s easy to confuse us.
This problem predates the Internet. Back when John G. Roberts Jr. and I worked at the White House, we often got each other’s phone calls, although I worked in the Office of Planning and Evaluation, and later Political Affairs, while he was in the Counsel’s Office. This happened when outside callers rang the switchboard and simply asked for “John Roberts.” Periodically, we met to exchange mail and interoffice memos delivered to the wrong Roberts.
I remember him as a nice guy, not at all the type to be involved in shady dealings like Iran-Contra, unless perhaps someone solicited his legal advice about the fine line distinguishing the permissible and impermissible in covert matters.Beforeanyone makes another mistake, it was Senator Pat Roberts, not any of us other Robertses, who this week urged the new general counsel for the Director of National Intelligence not to be overly cautious and to go right up to the line in covert policy.
For the record, I don’t know whether Judge Roberts would be cautious or not in such matters. There was only one occasion when I consulted the White House Counsel’s Office about Iran-Contra dealings. But I went to Sherrie Cooksey, not him. Who would want a legal memo from John Roberts to John Roberts as exonerative? Although Secrecy News recanted, some bloggers won’t give up. Under the banner “Will the Real John Roberts Please Stand Up?” there is an “update” to the discredited scoop. It is attributed to a “knowledgeable individual who worked closely with the Reagan Administration.” This sure sounds more intriguing than a 15-year-old public report as a source. Still, the update looks to me like a conspiracy theory in its embryonic stages of development.
Before I get into the update, who is the “real” John Roberts who is supposed to stand up? Me? Judge Roberts? CBS’s John Roberts? Aren’t we all real?
The “update,” as best I understand it, is this: In the mid-eighties a John Roberts who used the nickname “JR” and was close to John Negroponte (now the Director of National Intelligence) attended a conference on Central America hosted by the company headed by the one of the two individuals I introduced to each other in 1985, and who later became the first two people indicted in the Iran-Contra affair. Somehow this tidbit from the “knowledgeable individual” supposedly ties in with John G. Roberts’s private investments, his wife’s work at Shaw Pittman and somebody else’s involvement with the Carlyle Group. There is speculation that the mysterious JR at the Houston conference could be me, or John G. Roberts, or some other Roberts who is the “real” John Roberts.
If you’re lost, well, it doesn’t make sense to me either. I feel like I’m living in the X-Files. What is clear to me is that in the lightning-fast world of blogging, it doesn’t take long for an embryonic conspiracy theory to gestate into a full-grown monster. So, let’s slay this one now.
To all bloggers, New and Old Media journalists, and Democratic researchers scouring yellowed memos at the Reagan Library for evidence of Judge Roberts’s Iran-Contra role: Stop looking.
By Joy Overbeck
Redemption by government is futile
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