The 12 Hour Gap

So what can you do in twelve hours? Former White House counsel spent twelve hours sitting on the information that the Justice Department would be looking into who leaked Valerie Plame’s CIA affiliation to columnist (and certified Evil Minion) Robert Novak. Well, that’s almost accurate - after Gonzales was notified at 8:30 P.M. on September 29, 2003, he immediately informed the White House Chief of Staff, Andrew Card. Gonzales did not notify the rest of the staff until 8:00 A.M. the next day.

I heard Gonzales on CBS’ “Face the Nation” this Sunday and thought that I was hearing breaking (and fairly interesting) news. After all, you have to wonder why Gonzales didn’t immediately send a memo/email to the entire White House staff. Once they were notified, staff members would be prohibited from destroying any relevant documents and emails. So why would Gonzales inform Card, but nobody else on the White House staff for 12 hours? Joe Biden followed on the program and posed the question quite well: “The real question now is, who did the chief of staff speak to? Did the chief of staff pick up the phone and call Karl Rove? Did the chief of staff pick up the phone and call anybody else?” As summarized by Biden, a large sector of the public immediately became suspicious – why the delay? What if Card had secretly warned staffers to dispose of crucial documents? After all, it's not illegal to dispose of related documents until one has been notified of an investigation. I was wrong about the breaking news angle, though. Dan Froomkin pointed out in the Washington Post that Scott McClellan revealed the exact same sequence of events in a October 1, 2003 briefing. "Don't remember any of that? Not your fault. It didn't get much ink,” Froomkin noted, speculating that the press has become more suspicious of the White House as of late, and therefore pounced upon the rediscovery of the gap.

So why has the press and/or public become suspicious of an administration coverup now? What's the big deal about learning now about this twelve hour gap? After all, the administration has pretty much always shown a real penchant for not sharing information. I’ll list a few examples here, just off the top of my head. Remember when Vice President Cheney invoked executive privilege to block the release of documents showing the formulation process for his energy task force? That fight went all the way to the Supreme Court. During the bipartisan 9/11 committee investigation, the White House did its best to prevent sharing relevant documents (such as presidential daily briefings) with the committee, whose members complained that without access, the report would not be able to “withstand the laugh test.” General Taguba’s report following his investigation into the abuses at Abu Ghraib Prison abuse allegations was also classified, though Pentagon officials couldn’t come up with a national security-related reason for the secrecy. Time Magazine did find, though, that the Pentagon was worried about possible political reactions to the report. There are also reportedly 28 pages of the 9/11 Commission’s report that outline connections between Al-Qaeda and the Saudi government that the administration redacted for national security reasons. These are just examples that I remember, though. The man in charge of national security classifications spoke up last year, alarmed that the volume of classified material was growing at an amazing rate, and he warned that that “[i]n no case can information be classified in order to conceal violations of law or to prevent embarrassment to a person, organization or agency.” Even setting aside official classifications, The Federation of American Scientists’ Steven Aftergood recently compiled a laundry list of other government resources, many of which were quite useful to scientists, historians, wonks, and the general public, that have quietly been removed from the public domain.

And getting back to the subject at hand (the twelve hour gap, remember?), I find it pretty hard to believe that Gonzales immediately thought to give the heads-up/wink-wink to Card, and resulting window for document disposal, on the spot. This theory is about as close to plausible as the one that proposed that the entire L.A. police department decided at 5:00 A.M. on June 13, 1994 to frame O.J. Simpson for his ex-wife’s murder. But the reason why this conspiracy theory will persist (and may very well hold veracity) is that our government has already demonstrated a penchant for withholding information, sometimes for its own sake, sometimes to avoid embarrassment, and sometimes for genuine security concerns. Of course, part of the reason for withholding some information is that it means the public must increasingly rely on information that has gone through, or been influenced by the White House. With the absence of good independent information, White House logic goes, Americans will come to rely on the Administration’s information. Maybe that’s why reporters were thrown off the scent of Bush’s recent Supreme Court Nominee, or why news footage so often shows Bush in front of wildly enthusiastic (hand-picked) crowds at semi-public town hall meetings. And I doubt I need to remind you of repeated examples of the Administration’s spin melting with supposedly independent reports.

A large chunk of the public's reaction has become, however, that the absence of information proves any theory – classic conspiracy theory thinking. I can just see a whole new generation of crummy Hollywood movies based on the premise of a malevolent government using the CIA to do all sorts of bad things. By trying to control the information available to the public, the administration has ironically decreased its ability to effectively spread its message, since every statement is heard with suspicion. After all, the public has few, if any, ways to verify the Administration’s claims. I have to say that I really don’t think that Gonzales would have knowingly done anything to impede an investigation. But it’s just so easy for me to distrust the Administration that it’s also easy to believe that someone in the White House probably did do his best to take advantage of whatever opportunities presented themselves for obfuscation, delay, or outright lying. In short, I’ve become much more receptive to conspiracy theories, for better or for worse. I genuinely hope that the twelve hour gap is meaningless, but I'll remain just a little skeptical.


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