Commentary Magazine


Topic: Carl Bernstein

Hagel Backers Trying to Redefine Pro-Israel

Yesterday Chuck Hagel told the Lincoln Journal Star there wasn’t “one shred of evidence that [he is] anti-Israeli.” President Obama’s nominee to be secretary of defense claimed the criticism of his record and statements on both Israel and Iran is nothing but “falsehoods and distortions.” That’s a message that is being taken up with gusto by Hagel’s defenders on the news talks shows this week. In particular, some of those who are fighting for his confirmation are taking the position that not only is Hagel pro-Israel but that those who have criticized his positions are in fact a noisy, extremist minority that doesn’t speak for American interests or those of American Jewry, or even the people of Israel.

This is a nasty piece of business that was best exemplified by journalist Carl Bernstein who, during an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program today, denounced Hagel’s critics as “Likud” supporters that didn’t speak for American Jews like him. Bernstein’s diatribe in which he claimed the prime minister of Israel also didn’t speak for Israel was then praised effusively by fellow guest Zbigniew Brzezinski, whose own reputation as a bitter critic of Israel seemingly gave him the authority to decide what is and isn’t pro-Israel (something that could perhaps only happen on a show hosted by his daughter). Bernstein—a typical example of a public figure who only cites his Jewish heritage so as to enable him to bash supporters of Israel—has as little authority to speak on the subject as Brzezinski, but his comments go to the heart of the effort to push back at criticism of Hagel. The point here isn’t really about false accusations, since Hagel’s opposition to Iran sanctions or the use of force to stop its nuclear program as well as his boasts about standing up to the “Jewish lobby” are a matter of record. The issue here is one more attempt by Israel’s critics to change the terms of discussion on the issue, in order to make those who are outside the national consensus on the U.S.-Israel alliance appear to be mainstream thinkers while those who support it are castigated as extremists.

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Yesterday Chuck Hagel told the Lincoln Journal Star there wasn’t “one shred of evidence that [he is] anti-Israeli.” President Obama’s nominee to be secretary of defense claimed the criticism of his record and statements on both Israel and Iran is nothing but “falsehoods and distortions.” That’s a message that is being taken up with gusto by Hagel’s defenders on the news talks shows this week. In particular, some of those who are fighting for his confirmation are taking the position that not only is Hagel pro-Israel but that those who have criticized his positions are in fact a noisy, extremist minority that doesn’t speak for American interests or those of American Jewry, or even the people of Israel.

This is a nasty piece of business that was best exemplified by journalist Carl Bernstein who, during an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program today, denounced Hagel’s critics as “Likud” supporters that didn’t speak for American Jews like him. Bernstein’s diatribe in which he claimed the prime minister of Israel also didn’t speak for Israel was then praised effusively by fellow guest Zbigniew Brzezinski, whose own reputation as a bitter critic of Israel seemingly gave him the authority to decide what is and isn’t pro-Israel (something that could perhaps only happen on a show hosted by his daughter). Bernstein—a typical example of a public figure who only cites his Jewish heritage so as to enable him to bash supporters of Israel—has as little authority to speak on the subject as Brzezinski, but his comments go to the heart of the effort to push back at criticism of Hagel. The point here isn’t really about false accusations, since Hagel’s opposition to Iran sanctions or the use of force to stop its nuclear program as well as his boasts about standing up to the “Jewish lobby” are a matter of record. The issue here is one more attempt by Israel’s critics to change the terms of discussion on the issue, in order to make those who are outside the national consensus on the U.S.-Israel alliance appear to be mainstream thinkers while those who support it are castigated as extremists.

Let’s first dispense with the disingenuous nature of the defense of Hagel as being a mainstream backer of Israel. During his time in the Senate, the outspoken Nebraskan made no secret of the fact that he did not wish to be seen as part of the bipartisan consensus on Israel. That was the whole point behind his refusal to sign letters on anti-Semitism and terrorism that virtually every other member of the Senate supported. It was also the whole point behind his now-famous rant recorded by Aaron David Miller in which he bragged that unlike his colleagues he was one politician who wasn’t intimidated by the “Jewish lobby.”

Hagel was always one of those members of Congress who would couch any expression of support for Israel in words that made it clear that he disdained the decisions of its democratically-elected government (where it was run by Likud or its opponents) and that it needed to be saved from itself by forcing it to make concessions to its enemies that the people of the Jewish state believe to be unwise, if not suicidal. Nor is there any point trying to spin his long opposition to sanctions or force against Iran or Syria, or his advocacy for outreach to Hamas and Hezbollah as just another way of being a backer of Israel.

These are not mainstream positions. Nor do they require much courage since advocating anything that smacks of opposition to the pro-Israel consensus or talk about the “Jewish lobby” is bound to generate applause among the chattering classes and the liberal media, where resentment of Israel’s popularity is widespread.

Chuck Hagel does not publicly advocate Israel’s destruction, but there is more to the issue than this. To be pro-Israel one needn’t be a fan of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu or of his hapless political opponents. But Americans who purport to care about Israel’s fate do need to respect its democratic process and understand that the idea that Americans have the right to override the judgment of the voters there is illegitimate. Israel, like any democracy, especially one that is still besieged by its enemies, has plenty of problems. But it does not need to be saved from itself, especially by those, like Hagel, who have long demonstrated little sympathy with its security dilemmas or alarm about the existential threats facing it.

People like Bernstein who claim that respect for the stands of Netanyahu’s coalition—which commands the support of a far larger share of Israel’s voters than President Obama won here in 2008 or 2012—is not consistent with supporting Israel are way out of line. So, too, are their attempts to brand the overwhelming majority of Americans who think Israel’s government deserves U.S. support as a conspiracy of neoconservatives and others who don’t speak for the best interest of this country or the Jewish community.

The failure of 20 years of peace processing and concessions to the Palestinians effectively destroyed the Israeli left. That is why Netanyahu is poised to be re-elected later this month with a coalition that is more right-wing than his last government. That may dismay many Americans, but they need to understand that it is the result of Israelis looking at the facts and drawing the inevitable conclusions from them. Unfortunately, many Americans prefer to ignore the reality of the Middle East. Such dreamers who insist on blaming Israel for the lack of peace can call themselves what they like, but that does not allow them to pose as the country’s ardent friends the way Hagel and his fans are trying to.

Hagel is a decorated veteran and a loyal supporter of President Obama. Those are both good reasons for him to sit in the president’s cabinet. But his views on Israel and Iran don’t mesh with the public positions of the president or most Americans. No amount of rhetorical overkill or disingenuous attacks on the pro-Israel community can disguise this fact. Nor can they transform him from the proud opponent of the “Jewish lobby” into the Jewish state’s friend.

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Watergate and the White House Leaks

In an interview today, Representative Peter King said that the growing scandal about the recent spate of national security leaks is not only worse than Watergate; it dwarfs it. There’s “no comparison” between the two. Watergate, according to King, “meant nothing.” Now I believe, with Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, that the leaks to the New York Times about the Osama bin Laden raid, the president directing drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen based on a classified “kill list” of terror suspects, and especially the cyber campaign to disrupt and spy on Iran’s nuclear weapons program are quite serious. I wouldn’t downplay their significance for a moment. But neither should Watergate be understated.

As Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote in an article commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, “at its most virulent, Watergate was a brazen and daring assault, led by [Richard] Nixon himself, against the heart of American democracy: the Constitution, our system of free elections, the rule of law.” It involved a “massive campaign of political espionage, sabotage and other illegal activities against [Nixon’s] real or perceived opponents.”

The Woodward and Bernstein article is most useful in quoting from the Watergate tapes, where the things discussed included blackmail, hush money, illegal wiretapping, political sabotage, abuse of power, and obstruction of justice. When the president of the United States approves a plan directing the CIA to impede a criminal investigation by the FBI in order to cover up his administration’s illegal acts, it means something. There is a reason that Nixon’s party abandoned him. His impending impeachment in the House and conviction in the Senate convinced Nixon to resign. “Too many lies, too many crimes,” in the words of Barry Goldwater.

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In an interview today, Representative Peter King said that the growing scandal about the recent spate of national security leaks is not only worse than Watergate; it dwarfs it. There’s “no comparison” between the two. Watergate, according to King, “meant nothing.” Now I believe, with Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, that the leaks to the New York Times about the Osama bin Laden raid, the president directing drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen based on a classified “kill list” of terror suspects, and especially the cyber campaign to disrupt and spy on Iran’s nuclear weapons program are quite serious. I wouldn’t downplay their significance for a moment. But neither should Watergate be understated.

As Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote in an article commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, “at its most virulent, Watergate was a brazen and daring assault, led by [Richard] Nixon himself, against the heart of American democracy: the Constitution, our system of free elections, the rule of law.” It involved a “massive campaign of political espionage, sabotage and other illegal activities against [Nixon’s] real or perceived opponents.”

The Woodward and Bernstein article is most useful in quoting from the Watergate tapes, where the things discussed included blackmail, hush money, illegal wiretapping, political sabotage, abuse of power, and obstruction of justice. When the president of the United States approves a plan directing the CIA to impede a criminal investigation by the FBI in order to cover up his administration’s illegal acts, it means something. There is a reason that Nixon’s party abandoned him. His impending impeachment in the House and conviction in the Senate convinced Nixon to resign. “Too many lies, too many crimes,” in the words of Barry Goldwater.

The Nixon presidency, whatever else it might have achieved, ended up as a criminal conspiracy. Richard Nixon brought the nation he was elected to serve to the edge of a constitutional crisis. No person – and certainly no member of Congress, who after all has taken an oath to uphold the Constitution – should minimize what Watergate was about.

Woodward would later say, “Accountability to the law applies to everyone. The problem with kings, and prime ministers, and presidents, is that they think they are above it, and there is no accountability, and that they have some special rights, and privileges, and status. And a process that says: No. We have our laws and believe them, and they apply to everyone, is a very good thing. … I happen to believe in the essentially conservative idea that concentrations of power are unsafe and that those concentrations of power need to be monitored and held to account regularly. Watergate did that like nothing else that ever happened in this country.”

Those are words worth pondering, even for – and maybe especially for – those who have forgotten the significance of what happened 40 years ago this month.

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All the Journalists’ Men

There are two revelations in Jeff Himmelman’s attention-getting piece in New York magazine, published last night online, about longtime Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee’s personal files and interviews on the Watergate scandal. It has been fascinating to watch the reaction to these new pieces of information–namely, which of the two stirred the hornet’s nest.

The first is that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s source known as “Z” was actually a member of the case’s grand jury. The duo have always denied this, but when presented recently with the evidence, they confirmed it. The second is that Bradlee had shared the Doubt That Dare Not Speak Its Name: that Woodward and Bernstein had taken the soft clay of truth they had uncovered and molded it into a more visually appealing finished product. It was only common sense to harbor such doubts, given the claims being made, and certainly even more rational for the editor of the newspaper running these stories. But Woodward’s reaction has been a revelation of its own.

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There are two revelations in Jeff Himmelman’s attention-getting piece in New York magazine, published last night online, about longtime Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee’s personal files and interviews on the Watergate scandal. It has been fascinating to watch the reaction to these new pieces of information–namely, which of the two stirred the hornet’s nest.

The first is that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s source known as “Z” was actually a member of the case’s grand jury. The duo have always denied this, but when presented recently with the evidence, they confirmed it. The second is that Bradlee had shared the Doubt That Dare Not Speak Its Name: that Woodward and Bernstein had taken the soft clay of truth they had uncovered and molded it into a more visually appealing finished product. It was only common sense to harbor such doubts, given the claims being made, and certainly even more rational for the editor of the newspaper running these stories. But Woodward’s reaction has been a revelation of its own.

On its face, the more damaging disclosure would seem to be that Z was a member of the grand jury. A case built on witnesses is only as strong as the credibility of those witnesses, and this story has two prominent sources: Z and “Deep Throat,” the FBI’s Mark Felt. Yet this year we have seen the credibility of both witnesses suffer greatly. Felt’s suffered from the publication of Max Holland’s Leak. Holland confirms that, in the reporting of the Watergate affair, unrelated details were forced into arranged marriages to tidy up the storyline, and that Felt was actually a disgruntled employee attempting to tarnish the reputations of those above him so he could replace them at the top of the heap. His selected leaking was designed to impugn the reputation of acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray. And there was more, as Andrew Ferguson writes in COMMENTARY:

The notes Woodward took at this meeting with Felt, now in a university archive, differ markedly from the account that Woodward gives in All the President’s Men. “Many sentences [in the book] are moved around and the progression of Felt’s remarks rearranged,” Holland writes. “Occasionally the meaning of what [Felt] said is substantially changed….The account in the book contains words, phrases, and sometimes whole sentences that are not present in the type-written notes at all.” Here, then, is what we’ve been dealing with all these years: an inaccurate account explaining an erroneous newspaper article containing facts supplied by a double-dealing source who knew them to be untrue. A messy business, journalism.

But even with Felt’s integrity reeling, our heroic journalists still had the other source: Z. Woodward and Bernstein had always assured the public that Z was not a grand juror–that would have landed everyone involved in serious legal trouble. Just as significantly, in 1973 Woodward, in Himmelman’s description, “put Z’s information on the same level as Deep Throat’s. That’s a pretty high level.”

But now it seems Z’s cooperation on the story was unlawful, and that Woodward and Bernstein had been misleading the public about her true identity. That would call her credibility into serious question. In response, Woodward changed his tune. “This is a footnote to a footnote,” he said, dismissing her importance. (Politico quotes Woodward and Bernstein now saying Z was of “little consequence.”)

The controversy around Z, in the wake of Himmelman’s story, is being treated as a footnote itself, however. Logic would dictate that this piece of information is the true blockbuster. Instead, however, everyone involved is consumed by the human drama of Bradlee’s doubts. Bradlee is a mentor and something of a father figure to Woodward; Woodward was a mentor to Himmelman. And now there is a triangle of mistrust. Privately, to Himmelman and Bradlee, Woodward reacted as though there is now a knife in his back. Publicly, he has blamed Himmelman, because that is the easy thing to do. He lashed out at Himmelman after imploring him not to publish the fact that Bradlee once had doubts about Woodward’s story. But the knife is Bradlee’s–if there is a knife at all.

It turns out Woodward’s credibility isn’t faring much better than that of his sources. He says Bradlee’s doubts were fleeting, or never really there. He told Politico that there’s another interview in which Bradlee says he doesn’t doubt the veracity of the story. But he’s grasping at straws–Bradlee confirmed his doubts again more recently, in the runup to this story and in discussions about whether those doubts should be mentioned at all.

But then he drops the hammer: “It’s almost like the way Nixon’s tapings did him in, [Himmelman’s] own interview with Bradlee does him in.” Woodward, in his panicked paranoia, reaches for his vanquished enemy, because that victory is what still defines him. Later, he adds: “He can write what he wants, but his own transcript undercuts his premise. It’s one of those Perry Mason moments.”

Woodward, searching for comparisons, conjures a fictionalized television hero, who pieces together the evidence that the show’s Hollywood scriptwriters make sure fit neatly into place just as the viewers at home brace for the episode’s denouement.

Woodward is more right than he knows. This whole story is a lot like that–and Bradlee knew it.

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