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The real stakes over that Democratic memo

You might have missed this one. For once, the Republican Party’s hyper-aggressive attempts to inject phony partisan talking points into the mainstream appear to have failed. (Although it’s still early; stay tuned.) But last week’s flap over a leaked memo by an aide to a Democratic member of the Senate Intelligence Committee was not merely much ado about nothing. It was also as pure an example as you’ll find of viciousness and cynicism in the service of George W. Bush.

The memo was leaked to Fox News Channel talk-show host Sean Hannity — an interesting choice in itself, since it’s hard to imagine that anyone would leak genuine news to that self-important blowhard. You leak to Hannity if you want spin, and spin is what he provided.

First, the memo. In a few paragraphs, the anonymous Democrat laid out a strategy for advancing the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into the failures that preceded the war in Iraq — failures that, as we now know, were made worse by the Bush administration’s duplicity with regard to Saddam Hussein’s weapons capabilities.

The memo’s basic point: cooperate with the Republican chair of the committee, Senator Pat Roberts, when possible, but be ready to forge ahead without the Republicans if necessary. "Prepare to launch an independent investigation when it becomes clear we have exhausted the opportunity to usefully collaborate with the majority," the memo said in part. "We can pull the trigger on an independent investigation at any time — but we can only do so once. The best time to do so will probably be next year." (You can read the entire memo at,2933,102258,00.html.)

On the November 4 broadcast of Hannity & Colmes, Hannity was ranting. You’d think he doesn’t want to get to the bottom of this intelligence scandal — and you’d probably be right. "Does this not turn your stomach?" he demanded of Democratic senator Jon Corzine, who defended the memo. A few moments later, Hannity challenged Corzine: "My sources told me that this memo was written on the direction of a senator on this committee. If that is proven, a Democratic senator, if that is proven, should that senator be removed from that position?"

Hannity and the rest of the Fox crew were at it all week, and still are. And the rest of the Republican Attack Machine quickly geared up. The Wall Street Journal’s right-wing editorial page denounced the memo as "a hit job, spelling out how to create the maximum embarrassment to President Bush during his re-election campaign." A bottom-fishing columnist for the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Washington Times, Frank Gaffney, actually compared Democratic senator Jay Rockefeller, the vice-chair of the intelligence panel, to Saddam Hussein, writing, "They both seem to have been so keen to defeat George W. Bush that their subordinates resorted to laying traps for the president and his administration." See how this works?

And, yes, the T-word has made the rounds as well. Conservatives from Hannity to Andrew Sullivan have approvingly quoted an idiotic press release put out by pseudo-Democratic senator Zell Miller: "If this is not treasonous, it’s the first cousin of treason." The right-wing New York Post somehow got former Democratic senator Bob Kerrey to tut-tut in print, although his op-ed piece was more a lamentation over the end of bipartisanship than an analysis of the memo.

Amazingly, though, the Republicans have failed so far to turn this into a big story, like the Paul Wellstone–funeral boofest that wasn’t, or the claim Al Gore never made that he’d "invented the Internet." Maybe the media are finally catching on. The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Boston Globe all covered the flap, and it got chewed over briefly on CNN and NPR as well. But it has yet to turn into the manufactured scandal that Bush supporters were hoping for.

The most sensible take on all this has come from the journalist Joshua Micah Marshall. Writing on his weblog,, Marshall saw the Hannity-led attack for what it was: a loud attempt to cover up some unpleasant truths and to discredit the Democrats at the same time. Marshall noted that Republicans such as Newt Gingrich and Senator Rick Santorum are already calling for the removal of Democrats from the intelligence committee, and for less sharing of information with the Democratic minority. The goal, Marshall wrote, is "to prevent any serious inquiry into what happened in the lead-up to the war."

Marshall gets it just right. This is how the Republicans stop debate. Question them, demand answers, and you’re a traitor, you’re a friend of Saddam Hussein’s, you’re a lowlife who makes that nice Sean Hannity want to puke his guts out on live television.

Just because it’s not working — this time — doesn’t make it any less reprehensible.

Issue Date: November 14 - 20, 2003
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