News flash: Don't believe news flashes.
Gate-crashers Tareq and Michaele Salahi are greeted at the White House by Barack Obama.
"Things happen and then unhappen by the time I hear of them." - William Faulkner, complaining in a letter to his mother of the slow pace of the mail. That things are later found to have "unhappened" actually speaks well of waiting awhile for the full story, something that the immediacy of today's electronic media works against.
The initial public reaction of the U.S. Secret Service to reports of the encounter above was that it did not take place. That was the agency's story when the tale first emerged last week of these two gate-crashers at the White House state dinner for the Indian PM. It could not have happened, they said. Our security procedures are simply too tight. These strangers got nowhere near the president.
I doubt that the Secret Service spokespeople lied. For these proud employees of the Treasury Department, I'm sure the initial instinct was that it was impossible for them to have screwed up so badly. To have allowed these two uninvited, unidentified intruders to come so close to the U.S. chief executive, who receives several hundred death threats a day.
Had they first run the above picture through the photo banks of America's 22 intel agencies, they would have determined - within maybe seven minutes - that this couple is a quasi-professional team in getting its photo taken with unwitting celebs, especially politicians. Absent the photo, they would have learned as much by Googling the intruders' names.
Thank God the the Salahi's weren't assassins. And I say that as much for the Indian PM's sake as Obama's. Singh is standing right next to Obama in the photo above, an assassin's dream two-fer. And Singh, three of whose predecessors have been assassinated, also gets plenty of death threats.
That Obama is not so quietly seething about this epic security breach is evident from the White House decision to release the above photo. It wasn't released for our benefit. No White House wants to worry the public about the personal security of the president. It's a warning for the Secret Service. Unlike the near-catastrophe in which Aline and Jean Chretien could easily have been murdered in their bed at 24 Sussex, heads will roll on this one, as they should have within the RCMP.
The U.S. Army's initial response to the Fort Hood massacre included a report that a woman police officer had cut down the gunman. Not true. It was a male African American police officer who pumped the four bullets into the deranged military psychiatrist, as officials sheepishly acknowledged days later.
The initial media narrative on the Hudson River hero pilot was that he was solely responsible for his heroics. This plays to an American phenomenon Tom Wolfe first identified in The Right Stuff, Americans' obsession with "single-combat warriors" - individuals who, David-like, take on insurmountable odds. Subsequent National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and other reports, plus a superb pilot/author's account of the event, show that "Sully" is indeed an extraordinary pilot. They also show he had an extraordinary collaborater in his Airbus A330.
Unlike conventional aircraft that mostly don't use Airbus's revolutionary fly-by-wire electronics, Sully's plane without instruction sensed what Sully was trying to do and took on the myriad but necessary menial tasks required to land the plane in the unconventional means Sully intended, freeing him to focus on just two or three critical tasks. In the usually confused if not chaotic cockpit environment of an emergency, that, no less than Sully's calm professionalism, made the difference in saving all aboard. The Airbus was as heroic as its crew. Yet Sully has not acknowledged the role of the Airbus. That's in keeping with commercial pilots' loathing of a fly-by-wire system that is frankly designed to be "pilot-proof" in protecting air travelers from the all-too-routine mistakes made by the 90%+ of commercial-airline pilots who fall far short of Sully's skill. Indeed, in his formal NTSB testimony, Sully complains - as all pilots do - that fly-by-wire robs the pilot of the sense of "real" flying, of the ability to "feel" his machine and surrounding airspace conditions. Which is beside the point. The vast majority of aircraft accidents result from pilot error, and by minimizing the consequences of widespread pilot incompetence (and not just in emergencies) the Airbus has saved thousands of lives. Pilots and pilot unions for 30 years have failed to acknowledge this. Indeed, they generally bad-mouth fly-by-wire at every opportunitity. And quite naturally so, given that fly-by-wire was devised by Airbus chiefly with pilot sins of commission and omission in mind, and is a standing indictment of a very proud (and stubborn) profession.
The intial report of the U.S. Army regarding Pte. Jessica Lynch was that she was a victim of an Iraqi field-hospital staff whose daring rescue by the U.S. armed forces saved her life, in what actually was an elaborate photo-op for the home audience in Week Two of the Iraq invasion when the Iraqis seemed to be gaining the upper hand. As we learned later, Lynch was brought to the hospital in the first place by Iraqi soldiers (i.e. the enemy). And the Iraqi hospital staff put Lynch in what amounted its best bed, closest to the equipment required to treat her, dislodging an Iraqi patient in the process. Also, Pte. Lynch had not been bravely engaged in a firefight with Iraqis when she was injured, but more prosaically had been hurt in a truck accident.
The initial report of the U.S. Army regarding the death of Pat Tillman, a genuine hero before he even left America because he quit his promising football career to enlist, was that he was killed in a firefight with the enemy. In fact, as we later learned, he was killed by a fellow U.S. soldier in an act of "friendly fire" - one of the most cruelly stupid terms ever conceived. (Such accidents, as old as warfare, used to be called "blue on blue" - shooting an "enemy" wearing the same uniform as yourself.)
The initial reports on 9/11 were that the first responders and Rudy Giuliani were heroic. We learned later that the principal effect of the rush of way too many firefighters to the scene was to clog the one of four useable staircares in each tower with heavily equipped firefighters who basically just got in the way of people trying to escape the buildings.
No one above the the floors where the planes made impact could have been saved from below, something fire commanders on the ground figured out while their charges were still entering the building on a worse- than-futile mission, in which they actually were putting themselves and people trying to escape in needless danger. Yet they were not called back until it was too late to prevent the largest loss of life of firefighters in a single tragedy in U.S. history. Also, it was not easy to contact the firefighters when the ground commanders finally decided to call them back because their radios did not work very well.
We also learned later that many of New York's finest - police, firefighters and other first responders - picked the tragic site clean of Rolexes, laptops and other luxury debris. They were the only ones who could have done so, because Ground Zero that morning was sealed off and became by noon of that day the world's largest crime site. Which means it had to be first responders within the closed-off police scene to which no civilians had access who tried to blow the Bank of Nova Scotia safe under the WTC complex, long known by police to be one of the biggest gold bullion depositories in America. A fire pumper was lifted from the wreckage stuffed to the gills with jeans and other garments pilfered from a nearby Gap store.
The fire department command refused to act on warnings from police helicopters to escape the second tower when the first collapsed - because in New York, like many N.A. communities, police and fire departments basically loathe each other. And we later learned Giuliani had equipped his fire department with obsolete portable phones he was repeatedly told by the fire department and other experts were unreliable in emergencies. Why? Because Giuliani had a special relationship with the supplier, Motorola.
Giuliani of course had years earlier located the all-important emergency response centre in...the World Trade Center. Why? Because he insisted it be within walking distance of his office at City Hall in Lower Manhattan, overriding expert objections that Brooklyn - or anyplace distant from the likely scene of a repeat of the 1993 attack on the WTC - would be a more appropriate location. As you know, Guiliani's new emergency response centre was rendered useless in the early minutes of the attack. That's why we saw the mayor wandering around aimlessly all morning, camera crews in tow, when he should have been in front of bank of telecommunications equipment receiving coordinated reports and giving coordinated orders.
Giuliani failed to protect his city in advance and on 9/11 itself, and you can read about that and the fiasco of New York's unpreparedness for 9/11 here. All the same, he ran for U.S. president last year based entirely on his "expertise" in national security. The ignomy of the NYFD and to a lesser degree the police you can read about here. A balanced look at Sully's Hudson River heroics is here. (The happy-talk title of the latter book was at the insistence of the publisher, over the objections of the author.)
I've posted on this phenomenon before, at the time of the Fort Hood massacre, having myself erred in lionizing the woman police officer and wondering, like others, why women are denied combat roles in the U.S. Army if they're capable of taking out a crazed mass murderer. (And pointing out that Canada now does have women in combat roles, two of whom have died in Afghanistan. We've lost a third woman soldier there, a senior officer who died by her own hand.)
History is filled with "corrected" versions of first-day reports. And of first-decade and first-generation accounts. As Chou En-lai observed, it's still too soon to know the real impact of the French Revolution. He was exaggerating less than one might think. It is interesting to note that France has been on the decline as a world power ever since 1789, the French military having failed the Republic in every war from Waterloo to the shame of Vichy to Vietnam.
And the media's complicity? We had at least a day, while the initial Secret Service report about the White House intruders was taken at face value, to Google the names of this bizarre pair and instantly find photos of them with a galaxy of similarly unsuspecting prominent folks. See here and here for their prized collection of photos with the rich and famous. There motive is straightforward enough. They're struggling entrepreneurs with a track record that would not impress a banker - although photos of them with Matt Damon, Joe Biden, John McCain and the current U.S. president just might. (The shot of them with Donny Osmond, maybe not so much.)
This is just a reminder, not that you needed one - maybe this is more for my benefit as a blogger who craves the immediacy of the medium - that you just can't trust the initial reports on pretty much anything. Which means the spontaneous "analysis" in which bloggers specialize is also, obviously, suspect.
It's only human nature that "official sources" often are engaged in ass-covering. Even when the truth hits them, before we get it, their instinct switches to putting lipstick on a pig - how do we put the best face on our incompetence? Given what's at stake for the official sources - their careers, reputation among peers, self respect - it can be quite awhile before we get the truth. Or the whole, detailed truth, which reduces the our knee-jerk impulse to declare a hero and villain into a muddle as we parse the nuances.
Life is messy. The first things we hear will never be enough on which to base a sound judgment. But you knew that. We've just had too many examples lately.