AN OPEN LETTER TO RICHARD COHEN, HIS READERS, AND HIS EMPLOYER
Mr. Richard Cohen's column in today's Washington Post ("Let This Leak Go", Oct. 13, 2005) reveals a depth of ignorance so profound, about so many aspects of American political life, that it is difficult to imagine why the Washington Post believes he is qualified to comment about anything that requires logical thought or knowledge about the American legal system, American history, beltway politics, or the Valerie Plame affair.
Given Mr. Cohen's glancing reference to the film "Good Night and Good Luck," it is ironic that he begins his screed with a snarky remark that can only be considered a McCarthyism of low order: "The best thing Patrick Fitzgerald could do for his country is get out of Washington... ."
It was often said of Joe McCarthy that he loved the sound of his own voice more than the truth. Like McCarthy, Cohen seems more enamored of his tough-guy catch phrases than reason itself.
Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald did not volunteer to come to Mr. Cohen's Washington D.C. and it is absurd for Cohen to tell him to leave. Fitzgerald was drafted by the U.S. Justice Department because then-Attorney General John Ashcroft could not himself fully perform his job duties.
By his own terse admission, Ashcroft (as the embodiment of the Justice Department) had identified a potentially serious federal crime but was burdened by an irreconcilable conflict of interest. It is not only supercilious but delusory for Cohen to imply Fitzgerald has intruded on his precious city and should "get out" now.
Nor should it be necessary to remind any journalist that it was not Mr. Fitzgerald who 'sent' Judy Miller to jail, as Cohen misleadingly asserts. She was jailed by a federal judge because she violated a judge's order and, consequently, she was found by a judge to be in civil contempt of court.
As a prosecutor, Fitzgerald was empowered only to ask her questions, ariculate objections when she refused to answer, and ask the judge who is supervising the grand jury for a ruling to compel Miller to answer. The court's judgment that Miller should be jailed for contempt until she agreed to abide by the judge's order was affirmed by the entire federal court system and, indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court itself.
Would Cohen suggest, then, that the federal judges and grand jurors should "get out of Washington" too?
When Cohen further suggests that the "only" other thing Mr. Fitzgerald "has done so far" is "repeatedly haul this or that administration high official before a grand jury" he commits at least two high sins of journalism. Amazingly, they are nearly mirrored opposites:
(1) He consciously omits mention of specific facts which most readers would consider germane to the columnist's argument; and (2) he invents other facts that are entirely false.
It isn't just "this or that" high administration official who has been questioned. In addition to several present and former cabinet secretaries and the very highest White House aides, Fitzgerald has interviewed as potentially relevant witnesses the president and vice-president of the nation! Most readers would find that a relevant item Cohen should have mentioned. It's a little different, they would say, than less well known officials like "This" and "That."
At the same time, Cohen goes beyond all the facts which he, or anyone else for that matter, can know at this time when he confabulates that 'hauling' witnesses before the grand jury is the "only" thing Fitzgerald has done. Indeed, even the claim that the special prosecutor is responsible for all of the grand jury activities is untrue, as anyone even minimally informed about grand jury proceedings should know.
Competent criminal prosecutions typically involve a wide range of investigative activities outside the grand jury room, ranging from data gathering and analysis to sometimes-complex or detailed legal and factual research. Under the grand jury system, moreover, jurors themselves are free to question witnesses, demand that a prosecutor follow up on leads, summon witnesses themselves, and even take control of (or stop) an entire investigation.
Mr. Cohen cannot know what is really happening inside the ropes of this case so long as it remains at the grand jury stage and Fitzgerald remains prudently silent about the proceedings. To pretend otherwise is intellectually dishonest and journalistically unethical. It also makes Cohen look like an ignorant blow-hard.
The core opinion Mr. Cohen is trying to advance is that outing Valerie Plame as a CIA agent for purely political reasons was "not nice, but it was what Washington does day in and day out." After acknowledging that such conduct "might technically" be a crime, the columnist urges that the criminals should be excused because their intentions were "to assassinate the character of her husband."
The ruination of Ms. Plame's career and the safety of her worldwide spy networks were merely collateral damage, Cohen is arguing. "She got hit by a ricochet," he says. Let it slide.
This is not the reasoning of a competent columnist but the calculated excuses of an amoral ignoramus. Cohen cannot possibly know the mental intentions of those who outed Valerie Plame. To pretend otherwise is more than presumptuous; it deceives his readers and demeans the newspaper that prints his disinformation.
At a minimum, an informed columnist should acknowledge for his readers' edification that the criminal law punishes many gradations of a malicious mind other than one that harbors the specific intent to hit the same target at which it has aimed. Reckless indifference to anyone else's injuries caused by a calumny is just as culpable, in the right circumstances, as gross indifference about who might be killed by a bomb at the Atlanta Olympics or an automatic weapon discharged, even by accident, in a darkened theater.
Most offensive of all is Mr. Cohen's preposterous proposal that Fitzgerald and the grand jury should stop performing their legal duties and merely issue some kind of "report" because "the greater issue is control of information." On its face, that is a laughable proposition, as absurd as it would be to suggest that Richard Cohen switch from writing columns to drawing up indictments for the Washington Post.
The outing of Plame was done, as Cohen surely knows, to punish Joe Wilson for daring to write an op-ed article that broke through the near-monopoly of propaganda controlled by the White House Iraq Group (and given a large assist by the New York Times' Judith Miller). That was (and largely remains) a White House 'information monopoly' made possible only because of the willing complicity of the mainstream media and frightened, submissive, lazy, or stupid columnists like Mr. Cohen.
Long before special prosecutor Fitzgerald answers for any of his supposed shortcomings, Mr. Cohen -- and his readers and employers -- should ask themselves what has Richard Cohen done, if he knows so much, to publish the truth about "what Washington does day in and day out"? Has Cohen in any way broken the "control of information" that got us into a war we cannot win, one which is costing us more in lives, ill-will, moral standing, and money than we or our children can afford?
I am advanced enough in years and sufficiently well read that I cannot say I have seldom seen a newspaper columnist as bad as Mr. Cohen. I've seen plenty. But I can say that I have rarely read a single column, like that Cohen wrote today, that reveals such an ignorant, misleading, and fundamentally amoral understanding of the American legal and political system.
I would never suggest that Cohen should get out of town. I do think his editors should reconsider whether his work is worth publishing.
Either Richard Cohen doesn't know what he's talking about, or he does know and prevaricates, anyway. In either case, he's not worthy of my reading time anymore.
-- Larry Coates
P.S. Feel free to send your own views about Cohen's column to any
WaPo editors you think should be interested.