Thursday, August 31, 2006

A hanging offense

The people at Annenberg Political Fact Check brought to my attention a mistake in an article I wrote for Insight magazine nearly three years ago.

My article began with this sentence: "Congressmen who willfully take action during wartime that damage morale and undermine the military are saboteurs, and should be arrested, exiled or hanged." I wrote those words. But I never said they were a Lincoln quote. A copy editor inserted quotation marks around them to make the sentence look like it had been said by President Abraham Lincoln.

I'm sure the editor thought he was trying to correct what he thought was poor punctuation. The fact is, President Lincoln never said it, and I never claimed the words were his.

When I saw the quotation marks in print, I asked a senior editor to insert a clarification in the next issue of the magazine and on the website. He never did. I unwisely failed to push the matter and went on, thinking that the magazine wasn't widely read anyway.

That was a bad move, and I should have pressed for a correction. I didn't receive any feedback at all until just over a week ago while on vacation, when Brooks Jackson at contacted me about it. A candidate running against Rep. John Murtha (D-Penn.) had used the quote thinking it was real, Jackson said. So did thousands of others. Jackson told me that he found 18,000 references to the so-called quote on the Internet.

My sentence, I thought at the time, was a vivid way of summarizing what President Lincoln had said about congressmen who sabotaged the Union during the Civil War. (One of my editors, a southerner in spirit, changed my "Civil War" reference to "War Between the States." I'm from New England and have always called it the "Civil War.") researched the question with Lincoln scholars and searched Lincoln's works in an electronic database. It pointed out a factual error I had made. But also made a factual error of its own by stating inaccurately that I had said that an individual had been hanged for his anti-war activism.'s words follow:

When we contacted Waller he said we were the first to ask him about it. He readily conceded that the quote is bogus and blamed the matter on editors at Insight magazine. Here is the pertinent portion of his reply, in full, to our emailed inquiry:

J. Michael Waller: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to correct this important issue. The supposed quote in question is not a quote at all, and I never intended it to be construed as one. It was my lead sentence in the article that a copy editor mistakenly turned into a quote by incorrectly inserting quotation marks.

Additionally, I filed my story with the lead sentence ending in the words 'Civil War,' which my southern editor switched to 'War Between the States.'

Oddly, you are the first to question me about this. I'm surprised it has been repeated as often as you say. My editors at the time didn't think it was necessary to run a correction in the following issue of the magazine, and to my knowledge we received no public comment. The magazine is no longer being published.

Again, thank you for asking about this and for providing the opportunity to correct it.

We followed up by contacting Insight's former managing editor Scott Stanley. He denied putting quote marks in Waller's copy, but said such a thing might have been done by one of six "formatting editors" at the publication, who sometimes "took liberties" with the copy. "I know Waller well enough to know that if Waller said it, he did," Stanley said. He said Waller might have put the phrase in italics, and that a formatting editor might have changed it to a direct quote by mistake, following an Insight policy of not opening a story with italicized quotes. "My guess is that somewhere along the line, somebody played with it thinking they were doing the right thing," Stanley said. also reported that I made errors of historical fact in the article. I used reprint of a letter by Abraham Lincoln from June 1863, and quoted directly from it for the article. That quote, in my view, satisfies my controversial summary.

I wrote in a note to readers at the articles conclusion: "Given the recent controversy about the authenticity of quotations attributed to President Abraham Lincoln, Insight went directly to the primary source for the presidential statements about how to deal with congressmen who sabotage the war effort. This reporter found the quotes in a June 1863 letter that President Lincoln wrote, published that year in pamphlet form as 'The Truth from an Honest Man: The Letter of the President,' by King & Baird Printers in Philadelphia and distributed by the Union League." says that I made a "vital error" in stating that Indiana lawyer-politician Lambdin Milligan, a Copperhead agitator sentenced to hang, was a member of Congress. The source I used identified Milligan as a congressman, but in re-checking today I find no other reference. FactCheck says a federal directory of former congressman shows no member by that name.

I take the point, but must note that FactCheck is flat wrong says that I wrote that Milligan was hanged. I said no such thing. I wrote that he (1) "awaited the gallows," (2) that a military commission "sentenced him to be hanged on May 19, 1865," and (3) quoted Judge Williams as saying that Milligan had been "condemned to hang." Lincoln was assassinated and the war was over before the execution date, and Milligan was not hanged.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Fake I.D.

Will driver's licenses packed with biometric data really make the country a safer place? Some national security figures think so, and the industry, seeing billions of dollars worth of opportunities, is pushing it hard.

But it's a phony solution to a real problem. Government-issued personal ID cards with the most private of information - fingerprints, retina scans and other unique bodily data - are just a fig leaf to make the public look like those in charge are actually keeping the country safe.

They are almost worthless as long as the federal government continues to let millions of illegal aliens enter the country without any documents.

They are almost worthless as long as federal and state governments accept foreign ID cards for illegal aliens to substitute for legal documents.

They are almost worthless as long as our leaders allow millions of illegal aliens to remain in the country, even when many if not most have been using counterfeit IDs or other false information.

They are almost worthless as long as the government turns a blind eye toward crooked federal employees in the Social Security Administration and elsewhere who routinely issue fake Social Security numbers and real Social Security Cards for illegal aliens.

Biometric cards are almost worthless as long as the government continues to appoint known Islamist sympathizers to key intelligence and security posts in government agencies (including the Department of Homeland Security.

To say nothing of criminal negligence throughout government agencies where personal information on millions of citizens is stored on laptops and other portable devices that can be - and have been - easily lost or stolen.

Et cetera.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Recycled propaganda

Watching how the nation's "newspapers of record" are covering Fidel Castro's health, I'm reminded again of the precipitous decline of American journalism.

The New York Times and Washington Post are uncritically feeding us the controlled propaganda of the Cuban Communist Party as if it was news.

Compare the Castro coverage with how they have covered the health problems of Vice President Dick Cheney, treating White House statements of the veep's heart condition with all the appropriate skepticism and then some.

The Washington Post story on the afternoon of August 2 ran with the headline, "Cuban Media Suggests Castro is Doing Well."

The New York Times' lead story repeated the unsubstantiated Cuban claim that Castro's condition was "stable."

An Associated Press story began with the lead, "Fidel Castro still appeared to be running the show in Cuba." Its sole sources were Cuban Communist Party publications and regime officials.

Even the Voice of America acted like a mouthpiece of the Cuban regime. A VOA item headlined, "Castro Said to be in Stable Condition" began with a reprint of a Cuban government communique. VOA's supposed biography of Raul Castro contained nothing that would offend Cuban government censors, even crediting the younger Castro with being behind the regime's economic reforms.

After Fidel

Fidel Castro's health - or lack thereof - is officially a "state secret," Cuban government officials say, leading one to conclude that the tropical generalissimo is not doing very well.

Even if the New York Times tells us in a front-page headline that Fidel's condition is "stable."

Brother Raul is in the comandante's chair, as has been the transition plan since 1959. "I do it not because he is my brother - the whole world knows how much we hate nepotism - but because on my honor I consider him to have sufficient qualities to replace me tomorrow in case I die in this struggle," Fidel said the month he took power.

The Castro brothers made sure that all the others with sufficient qualities, such as General Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez found their lives ended prematurely.

This brings us to a key point about the anticipated post-Fidel transition, a point that nearly all the media coverage of Raul manages to miss.

In addition to controlling the military, the intelligence services, other state entities, and an empire of hard currency business operations, Raul Castro controls the ruthless East German-trained secret police. And with it, he dominates what passes for a judicial system on the island.

No post-Fidel government can be legitimate with such Stasi-like machinery (and personnel) in place.

Any transition plan for Cuba must confront the legacy of the secret police: how to undermine it, how to break it up, and what to do with the archives and informant networks.

Those working Cuba should take lessons from the Soviet and East European transitions. The Czech Republic, Estonia and the former East Germany offer some of the best examples. Russia and Nicaragua offer the worst.

For in-depth discussion of historical examples, see Dismantling Tyranny: Transitioning Beyond Totalitarian Regimes the book that Ilan Berman and I edited at the American Foreign Policy Council.

Without uprooting the secret police system immediately, any transition will take decades.

["The Great Reunion" graphic courtesy of]