Monday, October 31, 2016

Biased Much?

Yesterday's post The Power to Investigate sets forth the dangers to democracy of endless investigations of political figures. Today, Vox has posted on a related concept Clinton's critics know she's guilty, they're just trying to decide what she's guilty of. In this piece, Matthew Yglesias calls this the Prime Directive driving Clinton bad coverage, worthy of capitalization. Our reference to "double derivative" investigations is given more user-friendly terms by Vox - "The investigation pivots" and "Fishing into the next pond.". As Yglesias states in the final sentence, "What if Clinton has been getting away with it for all these years because she hasn't done anything wrong?"

Yglesias happens to be the author of American Democracy is Doomed from September 2015 which follows similar reasoning to the arguments in this blog, (The perils of presidential democracy, Constitutional hardball, raising the stakes), so his perspective on endless investigations is no surprise.

Two years ago, in the first days following the 60 minutes hit job by Lara Logan, but before the deeply biased flaws in the segment became public, I overheard a water cooler comment by a colleague at the office -- "I don't think we are ever going to know what really happened at Benghazi". My co-worker was in effect saying, "That Hillary Clinton is so evil, so obviously guilty of gross wrongdoing, if only we had the evidence to prove it, but we never will, because she is so slippery!" Biased much? Later that week, almost before you could shout "Lock Her Up!" three times, the incredible bias of the 60 minutes piece and the fraudulence of Logan's primary source were revealed. Now, in a healthy media environment, one might find calmer heads thinking - we better be more careful here, not just 60 minutes, but all investigative news outlets.

In a companion piece, Two experts say Donald Trump should be investigated for criminal tax evasion, Vox lays out reasons that Trump could be indicted for abuse of the rules that govern charities. The big difference between the Clinton and Trump situations is that the Clinton investigations always require a lot more digging and sifting to uncover new information, almost like panning for gold. The Vox article says "Trump should be investigated", but all of the salient facts are known about Trump, except that maybe he did not know what he was doing was illegal if he knew, but not necessarily illegal if he did not. Got that. It was wrong, which is why it was illegal, but white collar crime is difficult to prosecute because so much turns on intention.

The stories about Comey this week make the claim that FBI investigators have been pressuring Comey to prosecute Clinton. In some versions of the story, Comey was afraid the news would leak anyway and so decided to write the letter. We are not hearing about similar moves to prosecute Trump for the abuse of his charitable foundation. Nor have we heard about any investigations under way on Trump's relationship with the Russian leadership, despite his odd denial that the Russian government is behind the hacking of DNC emails.

Unfortunately the obsession with Clinton is only the latest instance of off-base FBI conclusions. The FBI was sure that Richard Jewell was the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bomber, but he was not. The FBI took years to figure out that Robert Hanssen was a mole in their operations. And the FBI was sure that Steven Hatfill committed the anthrax attacks in 2001 -- oh sorry, he was just a "person of interest" who necessitated agents in hazmat suits rifle through his home as news crews filmed. The FBI later settled on Bruce Ivins' guilt in the anthrax case. So in two of the cases, the FBI placed focus on an innocent person who was made to look guilty, and the press cooperated, as they often do. In the case of Hansen, the guilty party was their own guy -- the FBI took years to uncover Hanssen's role following many breaches and security lapses.

Investigations instigated from bias are an enormous problem. The Vox article correctly asks - what if she has done nothing wrong, but the problem goes well beyond the Vox question. If investigations are pursued primarily because they may turn up wrongdoing, or, if not, will result in a different investigation, that may turn up wrongdoing, or, if not will result in...and so on, forever, in an infinite loop,  the result is limited to either (1) wrongdoing uncovered or (2) something that can pass as wrongdoing is found, all without regard to significance or proportionality.  As a society, we need to recognize this is a serious threat to a democratic system of government.

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