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September 10, 2004

Cowering before possibility on the Killian memos

As Fontana Labs says, "Of course, the point is not whether the documents are fake; it's whether there's room for confusion. Quine-Duhem, anyone?"

The entire Republican strategy is to sow confusion. They can't discredit the memos outright, so confusion is the next best option. Liberal bloggers who write at length about their own skepticism and confusion only exacerbates the situation.

When Swift Boat Vets were riding high, the story trundled along with the moderate commentators who felt compelled to remind us that "there are legitimate questions" or even that "we can't know." These people propelled the Swift Boat scandal while congratulating themselves for their even-handedness. Pro-active epistemic self-flagellation is exactly what Rove wants from us.

Mark Kleiman:

But it's quite possible that the documents were, in fact, forged, and that CBS was fooled. There's no reason to think that only one side in this campaign has people on it willing to lie and cheat to destroy the other candidate's reputation.

All those of us on the Kerry side who aren't that desperate can do is to correct as new information comes in -- as happened with the false story about a Republican crowd booing Clinton when his illness was mentioned -- rather than insisting that obviously false stories are true, as is still happening with the Swifties' nifties.

Matt Yglesias duly notes and seconds Kleiman's remarks.

This is the sort of timorousness that gives liberals a bad name. Why has so much screen real estate already been devoted to the sober acknowledgments that forgery is a logically possible explanation? It's no virtue to revel in one's own fallibility prior to the unveiling of the evidence. It's far less labor intensive to quietly suspend judgment while placing the burden of proof squarely on the people yelling "hoax!"

At this point, nobody has any reason to doubt the authenticity of the Killian memos. Of course, we'll want to hear more about the CBS experts and their methods. The journalistic reputation of 60 minutes and the team's trust in its source counts for a lot. It's also worth noting that the White House implicitly accepted the authenticity of these memos. Most importantly, Killian's direct superior, Major General Bobby Hodges, has already vouched for the information the memos contain:

A senior CBS official, who asked not to be named because CBS managers did not want to go beyond their official statement, named one of the network's sources as retired Maj. Gen. Bobby W. Hodges, the immediate superior of the documents' alleged author, Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian. He said a CBS reporter read the documents to Hodges over the phone and Hodges replied that "these are the things that Killian had expressed to me at the time."Some raise questions authority of papers on Bush

Reporters are busy rounding up third-parties to raise doubts about the authenticity of the Killian memos. When assessing their opinions, we should keep in mind that all these outside experts are making pronouncements based on fragmentary and degraded evidence.

An expert examiner's assessment of authenticity is a holistic judgment. It depends not only on the typeface and spacing, but also on the physical characteristics of the original including ink, paper and signatures. The provenance of the document also makes a difference, as do the document's semantic, syntactic and stylistic features.

At the very least, an ethical forensic document examiner would wait to see the original document before pontificating to reporters. Bear in mind that, unlike the CBS experts, the outsiders have had to make do with low quality pdf images of the Killian memos. Nor do the outsiders have access to the materials they need to compare the Bush memos to other Killian papers, or to compare the Bush memos to standard TANG memos of the era.

If true, even the strongest objections raised so far would merely show that Killian wrote the memo on an unusual typewriter. The critical question is whether the Bush guard memos match the other documents in Killian's files, not whether Killian's used a common type of typewriter. We can't assess the overall balance of probabilities without the full spectrum of information that the CBS team was privy to.


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Point well taken. In contrast, one could take a slightly more aggressive (and less ethical) position by paraphrasing Dole:

“He’s got himself into this wicket now where he can’t extricate himself because not every one of these documents can be forgeries."

I think it was a setup. That Dark man of the night, Karl Rove, knew someone would take the bait.

I think the key point is that regardless of the authenticty of these particular documents, the White House has not disputed the information gleaned from them. Given their lies on anything and everything, you'd think they'd at least try to lie their way out of this by claiming loudly that not only are the documents faked, but the information in them is false as well.

They aren't doing that. And since the White House released the same documents, claiming (falsely, here) that they supported Shrubby's statements, they are left with very little maneuver room. Other than to let the "fog of war" blur the facts a little...

Okay, I think it's a probably a little counterproductive to get bogged down in the authenticity of this one document, given that even without it, there's long been a real slam-dunk case that George W. Bush was AWOL from the National Guard for at least nine months and somehow still managed to get an honorable discharge. (Without any intervention from his family, I'm sure.)

However, it's sad to see liberals like Mark Kleiman, Josh Marshall, and Matt Yglesias get played by the wingnut end of the blogosphere without first stopping to fact-check their emphatic -- but ever-shifting -- assertions. First, it was that typewriters with proportional spacing didn't exist in 1971. When that turned out not to be true, they said that such typewriters were ultra-rare and couldn't possibly be in use in the office of a National Guard Lt. Col. In fact, IBM started selling mass-market proportional-spacing typewriters back in 1941 And see this ad from the 1940's. Then, it was that the document was kerned. No, it isn't. That's just ridiculous. Anyone who knows the first thing about typesetting could have told you that the document isn't kerned. Anyone who knows anything about typesetting could also have told you that the document shows all the characteristic signs of having been typed with an electric typewriter (irregular baseline, irregular density, strike marks, etc). Yes, it would be possible to duplicate those things electronically -- anything's possible -- but here's where Occam's Razor comes in.

And yet, in the face of a terrifying wave of puffery and blustering from the LGF crowd and known liars, the self-styled "reasonable, moderate" leftist bloggers' first response is to retreat into, as she said, "pro-active epistemic self-flagellation."

Is it really too much to ask that we all stop taking assertions made by the wingnut right at face value? Regardless of how emphatically they make them?

Amygdala does it right, as always.

Via Kos: Hey wingnuts! Check out what a real forgery looks like!

Which is why I blogged about the ghost-detainees story instead. Fake memo or real memo, Bush is still a shitty president, and I really don't see any need to argue about subtleties of thirty-year-old evidence to figure that out.

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