Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Bill Gertz: Terminally dishonest, analytically handicapped, or just a really bad writer? (UPDATED)

You guys do know that -- despite all evidence to the contrary -- I don't actually go out looking around on the internet for stuff to get pissed off about, right? (You: "Then why do you follow Bill Gertz on Twitter?" Me: Touche.) Really, I don't. And sometimes I even beat myself up about how negative I get on the blog, how it seems to be so much easier to criticize other people's work and call my e-nemeses dummies than to write something original and constructive and pioneering.

But seriously: my e-nemeses are dummies. 

So here I am last night just trying to mind my own business and get some work done (on Twitter? Shut up) when I see this:
@BillGertz: State Dept. report confirms secret missile defense deal with Russia
Well! That sounds interesting! Let's go read about a secret missile defense deal! And so I follow the link. There I am: the venerable Washington Times, home to venerable "geopolitics editor" Bill Gertz and the best damned China-hawkery you'll find this side of Air Combat Command. The same "news"paper that referred to Armenia as a "small Central Asian state" in an article last night until I childishly taunted the writer into fixing it with nary an acknowledgement of the mistake in the original, you ask? Yep, one and the very same. 

So what's all this about a secret deal with the Russians? I wish I could say it was easy to sort the whole thing out, but Gertz's prose is damned near impenetrable, what with his tenuous hold on grammatical convention, artless overuse of generic identifiers, and general inability to construct clear and meaningful English sentences free of loaded, leading pre-judgment. Here's the lede, largely (and mercifully) free of the sort of advocanalysis and debatable-contention-disguised-as-conventional-wisdom that fills the rest of the piece:
The Obama administration, despite public denials, held secret talks with Russia aimed at reaching a ballistic missile defense agreement that Moscow ultimately rejected in May, according to an internal State Department report.
Disclosure of the report to The Washington Times comes as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Tuesday pressed for a new anti-ballistic missile treaty, warning that a failure to reach an agreement would trigger a new strategic arms race.
The four-page document circulated on Capitol Hill stated that administration officials held four meetings with the Russians and last spring presented a draft Ballistic Missile Defense Cooperation Agreement (BMDCA) to Russian negotiators.
The internal report contradicts congressional testimony by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in June denying a missile defense deal was in the works.
I'm not sure about you, but it seems to me like this would be a good time to introduce some kind of concrete detail about the aforementioned report, right? But there's perilously little of that, aside from those few excerpts you'll see quoted here. In case you're confused already (and I was -- it took me three readings to sort through the whole thing), the "report" seems to be some kind of internal State Department communication referencing a proposed BMDCA that was discussed with the Russians. Gertz elaborates... sort of:
As part of the U.S.-Russia talks, the State Department submitted to Congress on May 5 a legal memorandum called a Circular 175 report that is required before reaching treaties and agreements.
"The BMDCA was designed to be a framework agreement under which the United States and Russia could begin missile defense cooperation while not limiting either party's missile defense capabilities in any way," states the report, which is labeled "sensitive but unclassified."
The draft 10-year agreement would have set up a BMD Cooperation Sub-Working Group. The Circular 175 was "approved by Under Secretary [of State Ellen] Tauscher on May 5, 2010," the report said.
Presumably the Circular 175 report to Congress is not the generically-titled "report" to which Gertz continually refers, and we're actually dealing with a completely separate document that communicated details about the Circular 175 from one part of the State Department to another. (I think.) Still with me? So this communication outlines the basics about the proposed BMDCA: "framework agreement... begin missile defense cooperation... not limiting either party's missile defense capabilities...", etc. What else does it say? Well, it tells us that "the Russian Government indicated... that they were not interested" in a BMCDA. So the USG wanted to talk to Russia about working together on missile defense in a way that wouldn't place any limits on American defenses, but Moscow decided to pass. Simple enough. Case closed.
Not so fast, says our intrepid correspondent!
The draft missile defense agreement was first reported in The Times on June 16, noting that U.S. officials feared it would limit defenses.
A day later, Mrs. Clinton was asked about The Times report and dismissed the idea of any secret draft agreement to limit defenses. "No. 1, there is no secret deal. No. 2, there is no plan to limit U.S. missile defenses, either in this treaty or in any other way. And No. 3, on that score, the story is dead wrong," she said.
Mr. Gates, appearing with Mrs. Clinton, also denied any draft agreement was being negotiated, stating that "whatever talks are going on are simply about trying to elicit [Russian] willingness to partner with us along with the Europeans in terms of a regional missile defense."
When asked whether the draft agreement was public, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told The Times on June 18 "there is no draft agreement to provide you."
Gertz modestly fails to mention that when "the draft missile defense agreement was first reported in The Times," it was in the June 16th edition of his own weekly "Inside the Ring" column. (Editorial aside: when he says "...noting that U.S. officials feared it would limit defenses," Gertz is presumably making a grammatical mistake. That is, he means to say that his column noted purported U.S. fears, and that wacky participial phrase in the latter half of the sentence isn't intended to indicate that the "draft missile defense agreement [noted] that U.S. officials" had fears. But I digress. Fears were noted!) So here's where we are now: Gertz has quoted from the Senate Armed Services hearing on START and has affirmed that Secretary Clinton and Secretary Gates both denied any talks with the Russians related to limiting missile defenses.
Because Gertz -- surely limited by space considerations and not tempted in the least to make questionable editing decisions out of bad faith or a desire to mislead -- only quoted part of Secretary Clinton's comments before the committee, it's probably worth referencing the transcript (pdf). Here's the first mention of "secret deals" -- the very first question out of the gate (p. 13) after Clinton, Gates, Energy Secretary Chu, and CJCS ADM Mullen have delivered their prepared statements:
[Senator LEVIN, Chairman:] Secretary Clinton, let me start with you. During the course of the negotiations on the New START, were there any side agreements, any informal agreements, any secret agreements with Russia that are not included in the treaty relative to any limitations on U.S. missile defenses or any other subject?
Secretary CLINTON. No.
There we are, right off the bat: no secret agreements. The next time this comes up if a few minutes later (p. 19-20).
Senator COLLINS. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Secretary Clinton, you were very clear in answering the chairman’s first question about whether there was any secret agreement or side deal associated with the negotiations of the New START Treaty that would affect missile defense. And you were very clear in saying that, no, there were not.
There’s a press report that came out last night that claims that the administration is secretly working with the Russians to conclude an agreement that would limit U.S. missile defenses. It goes on to say that the administration last month presented a draft agreement to the Russians. Is this report accurate?
Secretary CLINTON. No. I’m not aware of the report, Senator Collins, but, as Secretary Gates said, we have consistently told the Russians that if they wish to work with us on missile defense we are open to working with them. So maybe there is something lost in the translation here, because we have consistently reached out to them. We would like them to be part of a broad missile defense system that protects against countries like Iran, North Korea, both of which they border, by the way, so it is in their interest.
But Secretary Gates mentioned that in his opening remarks, so if I could ask him to just perhaps add onto what I said.
Senator COLLINS. Yes.
Secretary GATES. Well, I have seen—I have just seen a reference to the newspaper story that you described, and what I emphasized, what I added, frankly, in my opening statement was that whatever talks are going on are simply about trying to elicit their willingness to partner with us along with the Europeans in terms of a regional missile defense.
But there is nothing in the approaches that have been made to the Russians that in any way, shape, or form would impose any limits whatsoever on our plans.
Again we have Secretary Clinton responding to Gertz's assertion that "the administration is secretly working with the Russians to conclude an agreement that would limit U.S. missile defenses," and his further assertion that a draft of such an agreement had been presented to the Russians in May, with a firm denial. Both Clinton and Gates emphasize the administration's interest in working collaboratively with the Russians on missile defense while repeatedly insisting that any such cooperation would not place limits on American missile defenses. This point is made very clear.

Secretary Clinton must have sensed how eager critics of the treaty were to focus on this bogus "secret negotiations" bugaboo, because she came back to it of her own accord later in the hearing (p. 36). This part's important, because it fleshes out the excerpt that Gertz provides in his piece.
[Secretary CLINTON:] Mr. Chairman, if I could, just on a follow-up to your last questions, which I very much appreciate. I want to ensure that the record is clear on one additional point. Senator Collins raised a certain press report about a U.S.- Russia deal to limit U.S. missile defenses and I want to be as clear as I possibly can. Number one, there is no secret deal.
Number two, there is no plan to limit U.S. missile defenses, either in this treaty or in any other way.
Number three, on that score the story is dead wrong. I want to be very clear about that because I don’t want anyone using what is yet again another inaccurate story to argue against this treaty. As Secretary Gates and I have both said, we will continue to explore missile defense cooperation with Russia, but the talks are not secret and there is nothing on the table or even in the wildest contemplation that would involve any limits on our missile defense. Instead, we’re seeing to see whether they can be expanded with additional capabilities for our security.
So here we are yet again: a firm denial of any "secret deal"; a firm denial of any agreements that would limit U.S. defenses; and an elaboration of the administration's consistent position that missile defense collaboration with Russia is a desirable opportunity to increase European and global security. Clinton notes that "on that score" -- that is, on the subject of possible limitations on U.S. missile defense -- "the story is dead wrong." Dead wrong. No two ways about it. It's very clear: there is no secret agreement that would limit U.S. missile defenses. Simple as.

Where could the confusion be coming from here? How is it that Gertz is now claiming a win, telling "arms control wonks who argued my June 16 scoop was wrong: you're wrong," arguing that the newly-revealed "internal State Department report" shows that "Hillary misled Senate"? Well, yet again we're going to have to dig around and speculate; it's not easy to do in a 1,000-word article in a publication that one would assume has editors, but Gertz steadfastly refuses to apply clear thinking and narrative structure to make his point in any kind of meaningful way. So let's go back to the original piece that asserted secret negotiations, the one published the day before the hearing, and see how Gertz characterized the matter:
The Obama administration is secretly working with Russia to conclude an agreement that many officials fear will limit U.S. missile defenses, a key objective of Moscow since it opposed plans for a U.S. missile defense interceptor base in Eastern Europe, according to American officials involved in arms control issues.
According to the officials, the administration last month presented a draft agreement on missile defenses to the Russians as part of talks between Ellen Tauscher, undersecretary of state for international security and arms control, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Rybakov.
The secret talks and possible agreement have triggered alarm among pro-missile defense advocates who are concerned that the administration, in its effort to "reset" ties with Moscow, will make further concessions constraining current and future missile defenses.
Ok, now we might be on to something. "many [unnamed, obviously!] officials fear" that a BMDCA "will limit U.S. missile defenses," Gertz asserts, while also tacking on the misleading suggestion that Russia had made such limitation a priority in its negotiations with the U.S. (If that were the case, one might reasonably ask, then why wouldn't the Russians insert ANY limitation language in the actual text of the treaty -- beyond a mutual prohibition against modifying ICBM and SLBM launchers to host missile defense components instead -- rather than working to that end by negotiating a similarly non-binding informal arrangement, ironically one that focused on cooperation rather than limitation and reduction, as the treaty's main text does?) Senator Collins read the statements like the preceding as "claims that the administration is secretly working with the Russians to conclude an agreement that would limit U.S. missile defenses," which is perhaps a slightly misleading formulation if only because it implies that Gertz was suggesting the "secret" agreement would include concrete limits rather than simply limiting missile defense as a matter of uncharitable interpretation.

Let's try to sum this up, shall we? On June 16th, Bill Gertz writes that the U.S. and Russia are working toward a "secret agreement" that he alleges has some U.S. officials worried about possible limitations on missile defense. On June 17th, Secretaries Clinton and Gates both deny that any secret agreements to limit missile defense have been negotiated, and assert that while the U.S. seeks to cooperate with Russia on this matter, the administration will not accept any provisions that limit missile defense. (Oh yeah, and the U.S. side decided unilaterally to insert a statement in the treaty's preamble that yet again insists that missile defenses are not subject to the treaty, and also to include more than $10 billion for missile defense in its FY11 budget request.) On June 18th, P.J. Crowley responds to Gertz's question about whether the "secret draft agreement" is public by telling him that there is no such agreement. Then at some point in the intervening months, it emerges that there was in fact a draft agreement on missile defense cooperation that was not secret, was not concerned with limiting missile defense, and was not ultimately agreed to -- a draft agreement that seems instead to have been focused on precisely what the SECDEF stated before Congress was the object of ongoing discussions with Russia, which was to "elicit willingness to partner with us as well as the Europeans in terms of a regional missile defense" --  and somehow Gertz claims that this revelation "contradicts congressional testimony" by Gates and Clinton "that a missile defense deal was in the works" and feels vindicated for his earlier assertion that there was a "secret draft agreement to limit defenses." Except that 1) THERE STILL IS NO REASON TO BELIEVE THAT THERE WAS EVER A "SECRET DRAFT AGREEMENT TO LIMIT DEFENSES," 2) BOTH SECRETARIES INSIST THAT THERE NEVER WAS SUCH AN AGREEMENT, AND 3) THEY EACH TESTIFIED TO THAT EFFECT. Neither even briefly addressed the existence of a possible missile defense cooperation agreement except to indicate that such an agreement would be consistent with the administration's overall goals and policy.

So I am being totally serious when I ask: is Bill Gertz a liar, or is he just incredibly stupid?

UPDATE: Courtesy of Blake Hounshell on Twitter, here's the fact sheet the State Department issued this morning on the subject of Missile Defense Cooperation with the Russian Federation. Some highlights:
  • There are no “secret deals” with Russia on missile defense.
  • The Administration has repeatedly communicated to the Russian Government at the highest levels that the United States will not agree to any limitations or constraints on U.S. ballistic missile defenses, and that the United States intends to continue improving and deploying BMD systems to defend the U.S. against limited missile launches, and to defend our deployed forces, allies, and partners against regional threats.
  • The Administration has repeatedly made clear that it is pursuing missile defense cooperation with Russia. As one example, at a June 17 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Secretary Gates stated: “Separately from the treaty, we are discussing missile defense cooperation with Russia, which we believe is in the interests of both nations. But such talks have nothing to do with imposing any limitations on our programs or deployment plans.”
  • The Obama Administration believes that missile defense cooperation with the Russian Federation is in the national security interests of the United States, as did the Bush Administration. Restrictions or limitations on U.S. missile defense capabilities are not under discussion in any forum.
  • So yeah, pretty much what I said (/boom).

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