- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 24, 2005

In the 1950s, the phrase “the facts ma’am, just the facts” was the recurring plea of television character Sgt. Joe Friday on the hit series “Dragnet.” The line became famous, underlying a public sentiment then that fact and truth were inseparable, despite the occasional outrages of a Joe McCarthy. But that was a long time ago.

In the poisonous political atmosphere that shrouds debate in Washington today, facts have fallen on harder times. Either they are noticeably missing in action or tortured and bent to tell a “truth” based on preconceived or preferred notions of a world as it might be, not as it is. From Social Security to tax reform and from the size of pension fund liabilities to what we are actually spending on the global war on terror, getting “just the facts ma’am” and therefore the truth is elusive and often illusory. Ask President Bush and those who believed Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Several disparate yet relevant stories suggest the fate of facts in contemporary politics and reinforce these points: (a) getting the facts right doesn’t always count; (b) getting the facts wrong doesn’t always matter either; and (c) on some big (or even many) issues, facts are not relevant.

Regarding (a), the so-called Downing Street Memo, purposely leaked and then published in London’s Sunday Times just prior to this month’s British general elections, unequivocally proved that the British government got the facts right about Iraq and American intentions to deal militarily with Saddam Hussein nine months before war was launched in March 2003. The memo, classified “secret and strictly personal — UK eyes only,” summarized the July 23, 2002, meeting of Prime Minister Tony Blair and his “war cabinet.” The memo revealed a stiff warning to Mr. Blair by his intelligence chief that “military action [by Washington] was now seen as inevitable” and would be “justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD.” “But” the memo acidly noted, “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy,” not the other way round, and there “was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath” and consequences of going to war in Iraq.

The memo quoted a skeptical attorney general advising Mr. Blair that “the desire for regime change was not a legal basis for military action,” and concluding that only a U.N. Security Council Resolution would suffice. As a result, Mr. Blair and his key advisers would shortly persuade the Bush administration to take the U.N. route because Saddam’s egregious violation of U.N. resolutions was the only sellable case for war.

The facts won out and, despite the “dossier” Mr. Blair had prepared to document Iraqi WMD, the memo reflected doubts over the existence of these weapons. Three years later, the British voters, reacting against the war, took no notice. In their minds, deed was more important than fact. While Mr. Blair won an unprecedented third term, his majority in Parliament was drastically cut.

Regarding wrong facts (beyond the stupendous failure to find Iraqi WMD), in its May 9 edition, Newsweek magazine’s “Periscope” section reported that U.S. guards and interrogators at Guantanamo Bay intimidated prisoners by flushing a copy of the Koran down a toilet. Few took note. Given prior abuses in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, the story was plausible.

Eleven days later, riots broke out in Afghanistan and then Pakistan over the alleged abuses. Fortunately, no Americans were killed. Withering under fierce criticism from the administration, Newsweek embarked on a frantic damage-control program and repudiated the story.

That Newsweek got the facts wrong made no difference to the outbreak of violence. Had the story been true, the outcome would have been similar. Indeed, it does not take much imagination to ponder what disinformation or outright lies our adversaries may concoct to discredit the United States and its friends by exploiting the anti-Americanism resident in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Last, when it comes to “big” political issues such as the “nuclear option” in the Senate over preserving or eliminating the filibuster regarding judicial nominations, the absence of fact is obvious. This is a case where there may be no relevant “facts” to bring to bear other than understanding tradition, precedent and the consequences of ending de facto minority rule through terminating extended debate.

We are living in a political world in which facts appear no longer to matter, or matter little-overshadowed by ideology, pummeled by cavalier attitudes toward the truth in a rush to prosecute the war on terror and driven by normative values not of how things really are but how we would wish them to be. Whether the day of “the big lie” looms or not, it still will be a very long time before a future Sgt. Friday can plead for “the facts ma’am, just the facts” and expect to get them.

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