PolitiFact Embraces Equivocation, the Truth Gets Squeezed

After documenting why my claim that Halliburton had defrauded taxpayers of "hundreds of millions of dollars in Iraq" was true, PolitiFact.com rated the statement "Half True." It's worth returning to the scene of the crime to see what we can conclude from PolitiFact's conclusion.
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Whenever I speak about the future of media, I get the most positive reaction when I talk about the urgent need to create an online tool that makes it possible to instantly fact-check politicians and commentators as they speak (a bubble pops up, containing the actual facts supporting or contradicting what's been said). Truth 2.0.

That's why I had such high hopes when it was announced that PolitiFact.com, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking project of the St. Petersburg Times, was going to evaluate the truthfulness of statements made each Sunday an ABC's This Week. It wasn't going to be instant, but it was a step in the right direction.

Then my dust-up with Liz Cheney on the show last month was given the PolitiFact treatment -- and I saw firsthand why the pursuit of Truth 2.0 is going to be harder than we think.

PolitiFact's finding that my statement that Halliburton had defrauded American taxpayers of "hundreds of millions of dollars in Iraq" was "Half True" -- after first documenting example after example of why it was completely true -- was an object lesson in equivocation, and a prime exhibit of the kind of muddled thinking that dominates Washington and allows the powerful to escape accountability.

Despite the ludicrousness of the Half True rating -- and since I was in the final throes of finishing my new book -- I let it stand, feeling that the absurdity of PolitiFact first making my case for me, then falling back on the safety of a split-the-baby conclusion spoke for itself.

Then, over the weekend, I read this entry detailing PolitiFact's readers' reaction to the Half True finding. Rummaging through its Mailbag, PolitiFact quoted three readers who said I was right (while castigating the site for "rhetorical tap-dancing" and "falling victim to the ills of pious fairness"), one who said I was wrong, and one who thought Half True was "right on."

Because this kind of hedging-your-bets thinking runs rampant in our media and political circles, and allows the corrupt no-accountability status quo to continue wreaking havoc on our country -- and with my book at the printers, and a long weekend on my hands -- I've decided it's worth returning to the scene of the crime to do a little CSI exam of the evidence and see what we can conclude from PolitiFact's head-scratching conclusion.

First, a quick refresher on the incident that started things. While discussing the connection between the Bush-Cheney administration's lax approach to regulation and the BP disaster in the Gulf, Liz Cheney and I had this exchange:

Me: Right here we have the poster child of Bush-Cheney crony capitalism, Halliburton... They, after all, were responsible for cementing the well. Here's Halliburton, after it defrauded the American taxpayer hundreds of millions of dollars--

Cheney: Arianna, I don't know what planet you live on --

Me: -- it's involved again.

Cheney: -- but it's not -- it's not facts.

Me: I'm living on this planet, you're living in a planet that is --

Cheney: Arianna, what you're saying has no relationship to the truth. No relationship to the facts.

Notice that Cheney didn't just deny what I said -- she acted as if this was the first she'd ever heard of it. If ABC had had a fainting couch on the set, no doubt Cheney would have taken to it, so shocked -- shocked! -- was she to hear the charge that Halliburton might have been involved in some malfeasance in its glorious history of serving our nation.

At the end of the exchange, I mentioned how glad I was that PolitiFact -- with its motto, "Sorting out the truth in politics" -- would be fact-checking the show. Unfortunately, the "fact check" turned into a model of how to avoid the truth.

This is a favorite trick of those in positions of power: using ambiguity and complexity as a sort of chemical dispersant on the truth. Dilute it enough and it becomes unrecognizable.

This isn't to lump PolitiFact in with Liz Cheney, but its attempt to bend over backwards to find the comfort of the middle ground is part of the problem it was presumably formed to combat.

What makes this particularly troubling is that PolitiFact's "fact check" was well-researched and well-sourced. The truthiness part was that PolitiFact's facts clearly supported a conclusion different than the one its editors came to.

For instance, they noted how Halliburton's then subsidiary KBR charged "inflated prices for gas" (PDF). Or, as the House Oversight report put it: "...these unnecessary charges increased the costs to the government by $167 million, an increase of over 90%."

They noted how KBR billed for "meals it didn't serve," to the tune of, as the Washington Post reported, "$4.5 million more than was necessary."

They noted that "the Defense Contract Audit Agency found that $553 million in payments should be disallowed to KBR."

They noted that "the Defense Contract Audit Agency was recommending withholding $289 million in contract costs not yet paid and asking for the return of $121 million already paid."

They noted that, aside from all this, KBR has, in fact, been officially accused of "fraud," for having, in the words of the Justice Department, "knowingly included impermissible costs" in its accounting to the government -- for which the Justice Department filed a civil fraud suit against KBR in April of this year. "This case is being brought as part of a National Procurement Fraud Initiative," says a release by the Department of Justice.

And all of this happened right here on the planet I'm living on. And yet, when it came time to draw the obvious conclusions from all the facts that it had just marshaled, PolitiFact backed off. After all, certain things are just not said in polite society. Even after you've just said them.

So the "rhetorical tap-dancing" began:

"In evaluating Huffington's statement," said PolitiFact, "we're most bothered by her use of the word 'defrauded.' Some of the overbilling in Iraq appears to have been done from haste or inefficiency, or even in a desire to please military officials in the field without regard for cost. Whether the waste in contracting constitutes fraud is still being examined."

Yes, of course, there's always something "still being examined," but can't we simply say what we know we know? There are, as Don Rumsfeld told us, "known knowns." But these are the things never to be mentioned in front of the kids -- i.e. the American public.

A few graphs later it got even worse:

"Certainly there have been hundreds of millions of dollars that Halliburton's KBR attempted to charge the government that have been denied," conceded Politifact. "There's also much evidence that makes us believe that hundreds of millions of dollars were lost to waste and inefficiency, not deceitful fraud."

Really? "Hundreds of millions" lost due to "waste and inefficiency"? Sure, no program is perfect, but when "hundreds of millions of dollars" just disappear, they don't fall between the sofa cushions. And why is it that all of Halliburton/KBR's "inefficiency" somehow redounded to the company's benefit and not the government's? In any case, the best defense PolitiFact could muster is that Halliburton/KBR was only a little fraudulent, and simply hugely, massively, and spectacularly incompetent. Thus, my statement was adjudicated Half True.

If only PolitiFact had been more willing to heed the facts established by its own report. And there were plenty of other facts PolitiFact left out. Like the details in this 2006 Washington Post story:

"Halliburton had exclusive rights to provide the military with a wide range of work that included keeping soldiers around the world fed, sheltered and in communication with friends and family back home. Government audits turned up more than $1 billion in questionable costs. Whistle-blowers told how the company charged $45 per case of soda, double-billed on meals and allowed troops to bathe in contaminated water."

Or the 2004 GAO report (PDF) that found "significant problems in almost every area, including ineffective planning, inadequate cost control, insufficient training of contract management officials, and a pattern of recurring problems with controlling costs, meeting schedules, documenting purchases, and overseeing subcontractors."

Again, a "pattern of recurring problems" that always seemed to end with taxpayers getting the short end of the stick. Strange that such innocent incompetence only worked in one direction.

Then there was this, from Media Matters: "DOD audits of Halliburton's Iraq and Afghanistan contract found at least $1.4 billion in questioned and $441 million in unsupported costs." And this: "DOD audits noted 32 examples of suspected 'fraud or other suspected irregular conduct' by Iraq and Afghanistan contractors, the 'vast majority' of which were from KBR.'"

Keeping track of Halliburton's "waste and inefficiency" is such a monumental task there's a website, Halliburton Watch, devoted to doing only that. Its founder, Charlie Cray, isn't afraid to describe what PolitiFact seemed so reluctant to: "We've got a recidivist corporate criminal, basically, with a long track record of violations and seeming impunity from significant enforcement consequences for their most egregious transgressions."

If you're a mom and pop store owner and you jack up the cost of a bottle of water after an earthquake, you'll be charged with price gouging, yet what Halliburton does gets excused in a fog of manufactured ambiguity, complexity, and talk of "withholding conclusion due to pending litigation."

There are two other words for what Halliburton did besides fraud: war profiteering. When "hundreds of millions of dollars" just disappear, while teachers and policemen are getting laid off, perhaps it's time for a two-fisted investigation like the one Sen. Harry Truman spearheaded during World War II. But that's not the way of Washington these days.

Which is why I'd like to borrow two of the busiest letters of the day, and take this BP: Beyond PolitiFact. In the end, this is not about me, or Liz Cheney, or even Halliburton. It's about our accountability double standard. It's actually not that complex, nor is it ambiguous. It's plainly obvious and the American people know it. And the refusal of our political and media leaders to acknowledge it is contributing to the widespread anger and cynicism sweeping the country right now.

In 2006, AIG paid $1.6 billion to settle charges of accounting trickery but was allowed to do so without admitting wrongdoing. Two years later, taxpayers ended up getting stuck with a $182 billion bill for bailing the company out. Nothing, it seems, gets a company like AIG or Halliburton tossed out of Washington's good graces -- their survival is, of course, made much easier when obviously fraudulent behavior is masked with euphemisms like "waste and inefficiency."

We're seeing this pattern repeated with BP. The company has an atrocious safety record. In the last three years, BP racked up 760 "egregious, willful" safety violations, defined by OSHA as demonstrating "intentional disregard for the requirement of the [law]" or "plain indifference to employee safety and health." That accounted for an astounding 97 percent of the "egregious, willful" violations OSHA handed out during that time. And more than 40 BP workers have been killed in three separate on-the-job disasters, including the 11 who died on the Deepwater Horizon. But the company's officers are much more likely to be handed bonuses than jail sentences.

As long as we allow truth backed up by a mountain of evidence to be, in the name of "pious fairness," downgraded to Half True, that's the way the planet we're all living on is going to continue to operate. And that's a fact.

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