Truth and post-truth.
Those of us who have spent a lot of time in archives, trying to piece together what actually happened, will love this story about forgeries in a French art museum:
More than half the paintings owned by a southern French museum are worthless fakes, and authorities fear more forgeries may be on display at other public galleries.
The small museum in Elne, dedicated to local artist Etienne Terrus, a contemporary of Henri Matisse, learned that 82 of its 140 works are fakes after art historian Eric Forcadea raised the alarm.
Forcadea noticed while helping to prepare an exhibit that some of the paintings attributed to the Terrus featured buildings built after his 1922 death.
So the museum was tricked, as were those who visited it and thought they’d learned something about art history. In the big picture, no big cheese, you may say, but this is an important story. It shows us that the “truth” can be falsified with astonishing ease and effect. Who knows how many “experts” looked at the forgeries without noticing the anachronism—buildings that didn’t exist during Terrus’ lifetime—until one careful scholar sounded the alarm.
General Michael Hayden, who once headed CIA and also NSA, needs to ponder this. Instead, he lashes out at (not surprisingly) President Trump in the New York Times for saying things Hayden believes are false. And he claims that Trump thereby jeopardizes the very quest for truth in America.
“We in the intelligence world have dealt with obstinate and argumentative presidents through the years,” Hayden intones. “But we have never served a president for whom ground truth really doesn’t matter.” So Hayden thinks that Trump has issued in a new era, which he dubs “post truth.”
We don’t get to the truth very often, especially, as General Hayden should know better than most, when it’s buried (or not there at all) in a pile of “intelligence” that has been amassed through means that are often illegal, and where the “sources” have many incentives to provide false information.
I read a lot of material from “the intelligence world” way back in the 1980s, and frankly wasn’t very impressed. The intelligence folks, very much including General Hayden’s agencies, were very far from “ground truth” on subjects of consummate importance, such as Iran and the Soviet Union. Some of my colleagues suspected that the intelligence community must have known better, but were distorting the truth in order to support policy views that were very different from President Reagan’s. CIA has a long record of misreading Iran, starting before the Islamic Revolution. It failed miserably to analyze the piteous state of the East German system, and so forth.
The recent revelations by Israel about Iran’s secret nuclear program, which show that the Iranians have been violating their public promises, are the latest in a long series of American intelligence failures.
Surely General Hayden knows all this, and much more than I do. For him to hold up the intelligence community as a model of the search for truth is ludicrous. It isn’t qualitatively better than the French experts who stocked their museum with forgeries. In my world, most of the time we fail to correctly collect information, thus arriving at false conclusions, thereby ensuring misguided policies.
Not that General Hayden is wrong to warn us the perils of “post truth” claims; he’s quite right about that. But an intelligence professional should apply these important standards across the board. If you want to see a fine example of the quest for truth, read Mollie Hemingway’s outstanding deconstruction of the Times’ wildly inaccurate, clearly politically biased effort to slime Devin Nunes. Her bottom line:
The New York Times article is riddled with factual errors that are denied on the record by multiple sources. It fails to include information that was easily found and in the public record. And all for the goal of derailing rigorous oversight of intelligence agencies.
So by all means pursue the truth as best you can, but pursue it thoroughly. General Hayden doesn’t do that. He blames error on Trump, which is silly; error has long abounded, and will continue forever. And our intelligence desperately needs serious remedial attention. Pretending otherwise, blaming it on one president or another, just delays the reckoning.
Many years ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan called for the abolition of CIA. He thought we needed to reconstruct the whole thing. He was right then (the early sixties, as I recall) and the advice applies with greater force today.