One of the greatest failings in journalism is the way that ideas, theories, nonsensical paranoid fears get ‘out there’ and then talked about, critiqued and so forth and yet there’s no point of stepping back where a considered, knowledgable, even common sense view would say that the entire concept is simply far-fetched, ridiculous or even impossible. There are two examples of that currently roiling the political terrain, albeit for very different reasons.
The first has to do with the purported looming indictment of Hillary Clinton. Over the weekend there was a stir because a New York Times reporter, Peter Baker, told CNN’s Sunday morning show that Democrats are “quietly absolutely petrified” of a mid-summer indictment. This ‘hot take’ was immediately picked by Mike Allen’s Politico Playbook. The stage was then set for yet another DC bubble derp freakout. Are Democrats “petrified”? I think that’s an overstatement. But are some nervous? I have no doubt they are. But I know people are stocking up on ammo for when ISIS mounts an operation against their house. For most people fear is generated by press coverage, often ignorant or tendentious press coverage. And with the breathless coverage of developments that more or less obviously have no legal impact whatsoever, I don’t doubt that many are nervous.
Here’s the reality. Who knows what we will learn in the future? And this has nothing to do with the political impact of the “emails controversy”. But as a legal matter, the chances of Hillary Clinton facing any kind of indictment are very, very low.
Start with the fact that as far as we know, she is not actually even being investigated for anything, let alone facing a looming indictment. The simple facts, as we know them, just don’t put her in line for an indictment. The first reason is the facts, which rest heavily on intent and reckless negligence. The second is tradition and DOJ regulations which make professional prosecutors very leery of issuing indictments that might be perceived or in fact influence an election. This was my thinking. But as the press coverage has become increasingly heated, I started trying to figure out if there was something I was missing – some fact I didn’t know, some blindspot in my perception. So I’ve spoken to a number of law profs and former federal prosecutors – based on the facts we know now even from the most aggressive reporting. Not like, is this theoretically possible? Not, what the penalties would be if it happened. But is an indictment at all likely or is this whole idea very far-fetched. To a person, very far-fetched.
So why the press coverage? I think it’s a combination of reasons. The most irreducible and perhaps most significant is simply prestige reporter derp and general ignorance of the legal system. Second is journalists’ perennial inability to resist a process story. And third, let’s be honest, wingnut page views.
As I’ve said, the political calculus and potential political damage is a different matter altogether. There is little doubt that this whole on-going controversy, along with stuff in the background about the Clinton Foundation, have hurt Clinton badly on public estimations of her honesty and trustworthiness. But again, on the possibility of an indictment, most of this chatter is just plain ridiculous – a mix of ignorance and tendentiousness.
And here’s another example – election-related but altogether different. Do we need to put up a Trump Wall along the Canadian border to keep out the terrorists?
In the closing days of the Iowa caucus campaign Ben Carson and Marco Rubio have been pushing the national security threat the US faces along its northern border.
Yes, from Canada. Particularly, terrorists infiltrated the US along the generally porous US-Canada border.
According to The Wall Street Journal, a man at a Rubio townhall on Friday asked the senator, ““Once the wall is placed down in Mexico, you and I know terrorists will try to come through Canada. What’s going to be done about that?”
Rubio was totally on board. “The threat to the Canadian border is real as well, We need an additional 20,000 border agents. Not just on the southern border, but to partner with the Canadians on the northern border.”
Added to the hysteria are the 25,000 Syrian refugees who Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has very conspicuously welcomed into the country. According to Ben Carson on Wednesday, “We also have to, you know, harden our defense at our seaports and our air terminals, everywhere. Our northern border in Canada, you know, because Trudeau is taking tens of thousands of Syrians. Believe me, those people, the radical Islamists, they will infiltrate those people, just like they will infiltrate them if we bring them here.”
One must almost become an full-fledged archeologist of derp to dig through the many levels of evidence-less assumptions upon which these fears are based. The assumption is that ISIS, al Qaeda or just “the terrorists” more generally are routinely infiltrating terrorists into the United States to mount terror operations. We need to secure the Southern border against terrorist infiltration. And having cut off that entry way they will focus instead on the northern border.
This is quite simply an entire edifice of bullshit.
Here is one chart from a very helpful data set looking at various statistics tied to terrorism plots and prosecutions in the US. First, the vast majority of post-9/11 terror prosecutions relate to people who wanted to aid or did travel to and fight with terror groups overseas. Of the ones plotting to mount domestic terror attack they are overwhelmingly US born. Of those that remain most are either naturalized or legal residents. The number going back to 9/11 who were “illegal” is 8.
Indeed, to the best of my knowledge, contrary to the idea that unsecured borders are a path for jihadist infiltration, since 9/11 there has not been a single documented case of terrorists coming into the US via either the northern or southern border.
Note, I’m not including in this analysis random articles on Breitbart or Drudge or things you heard on Twitter or from your Uncle Bart at Thanksgiving. I’ve applying a more stringent criteria. This is based on actual US government data. Homegrown terror plots are in many cases quite literally homegrown, people who were born here. In almost every other case, they are people here legally. And in the very few cases where they are “illegal” it is almost always a case of overstaying a legitimate visa. So basically, terrorist infiltration over our borders is simply not a thing. At all. And yet it is a core part of the Republican policy conversation.
I think the press is somewhat less on the hook the Canadian border nonsense since there’s probably no level of press fact-checking that would put a dent in this paranoia. The Hillary case is rather different. But again, a huge amount of the campaign discussion is based on demonstrable nonsense – only there’s little part of the press process which involves stepping back, applying some basic factual explanation and deductive reasoning which would identify it as such.