PMF Made Her Do It
Reno Asks the Tough Questions.
Posted Saturday, September 4, 1999
"I asked question after question about anything that I could think of, trying to elicit as much information as I could to make sure that we had fully explored everything."
-- Attorney General Janet Reno, testifying before the House Judiciary Committee
My old boss Charles Peters, editor of The Washington Monthly, calls it the Perry Mason Fallacy -- the idea that cabinet heads (or the bright young aides to cabinet heads) can discover the truth about their agencies by asking smart, tough, skeptical questions of the high-ranking bureaucrats who report to them. As a young lawyer, fresh from a judicial clerkship, I resisted Peters' point. You mean a conscientious, uncorrupted guy like me couldn't find the right questions? Yes, that's what the PMF means. You can't find out by cross-examination, not so much because the people whom you're cross-examining will lie to you (though they might), but because the people whom you're cross-examining don't know the real answer because people lower down the chain of command have lied to them..
Janet Reno is the most conspicuous victim of PMF in decades. She would like us to know that, regarding Waco, she "wanted and received assurances [from the FBI] that the gas and its means of use were not pyrotechnic." Just as Lyndon Johnson wanted and received assurances that we were winning the Vietnam War. And Jimmy Carter wanted and received assurances that the military's cracked plan to rescue U.S. hostages from Tehran would work. (The fantasy Perry Mason cross-examination, the one that will never happen, goes something like this: "Now commander, do you really think this plan can work?" "Well Mr. President, if you put it that way, no. We're all fucked up, sir!. The plan's got big holes in it and the pilots can't fly in a sandstorm. We're not up to the job, sir!") If you watch the documentary Waco: The Rules of Engagement -- which I recommend -- you may not come away convinced that the FBI started the climactic fire. But one thing is pretty clear: Janet Reno, asking her questions in the Justice Department headquarters in Washington, had no idea what was really happening on the ground at Mount Carmel.
Okay, you say. She'd only been on the job five weeks. She was hardly the first newly-arrived official ever to be conned by the agency she commanded. Look at JFK and the Bay of Pigs. Yet in 1995, as Richard Leiby reports, Reno was still telling the Washington Post, "After two years of review, nothing has given me any indication that the FBI misled me." And now, after six years, she's shocked, shocked, that she wasn't told the truth. When she asked question after question! She's a fool, at best.
If Masonic questioning from the top can't find out the truth, what can? The answer: spies! Peters argues that an effective agency boss needs informers he can trust, in the middle and at the bottom of the bureaucracy, who will tell him what's really going on, outside the manipulative, lily-gilding chain of command. If you can't seed the agency with your own people (hard to do at the FBI), have some friend or journalist go out and report back with the real story, as Lorena Hickok did for FDR in the Depression. If Janet Reno had even talked to some of the reporters covering the Waco siege (who had a more nuanced view of David Koresh, perhaps, or who had talked to law enforcement agents itching for revenge against him) she might have made a different -- and, almost by definition, better -- decision.
Paranoids' Corner: The recently "discovered" videotapes tend to back up the FBI's story that the pyrotechnic tear gas didn't start a fire in the bunker at which it was aimed. Of course this makes the FBI look worse, in a sense, than if the tapes had been ambiguous. First, the bureau is forced to admit using the pyrotechnic tear gas. Then a few days later it just happens to discover new evidence that it had previously denied existed, and that evidence just happens to exculpate the FBI on the issue of whether these pyrotechnic canisters started the fire. Only a paranoid would be suspicious at this coincidence, and wonder what less-exculpatory evidence might still be hidden -- maybe even hidden from FBI director Freeh, who, we are told, is busy issuing full-disclosure orders from his headquarters in Washington. ...
A reader points out that if George W. Bush used speed, or acid, or heroin, or some illegal drug other than cocaine (see earlier discussion here and here) that would help explain the private assurances Bush allegedly gave to supporters that he never used coke. ... Yes, the pieces are all falling into place! ...
Another reader writes:
And a Washington journalist on the case writes:
[These last two are mocking you. You do realize that? -- ed. What doesn't kill me, makes me . . . stickier!]
Copyright 1999 Mickey Kaus.