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Screed: With Treason, Ann Coulter once again defines a new low in America's political debate

By Brendan Nyhan
June 30, 2003

With her new book Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism, syndicated pundit Ann Coulter has driven the national discourse to a new low. No longer content to merely smear liberals and the media with sweeping generalizations and fraudulent evidence, she has now upped the ante, accusing the entire Democratic Party as well as liberals and leftists nationwide of treason, a crime of disloyalty against the United States. But, as in her syndicated columns (many of which are adapted in the book) and her previous book Slander: Liberal Lies Against the American Right, Coulter's case relies in large part on irrational rhetoric and pervasive factual errors and deceptions. Regardless of your opinions about Democrats, liberals or the left, her work should not be taken at face value.

Context: The syndicated column and Slander

As we documented back in July 2001, Coulter's writing is not just inflammatory but blatantly irrational. For years, she has infused her syndicated columns with cheap shots and asides directed at targets like President Bill Clinton, the American Civil Liberties Union and Hustler publisher Larry Flynt (among many others). Liberals are indiscriminately denounced as a group as "terrorists" or a "cult" who "hate democracy." Slander, her bestseller from last year, quickly became notorious for its errors and distortions of the facts, which we detailed in our examination of the book. From deceptive footnotes to mischaracterized quotes to outright lies, Coulter broke all standards of reasonable political debate in her quest to paint a picture of a media that is unambiguously hostile to conservatives.

Jargon: How Coulter blurs distinctions in her rhetoric

In Treason, similar techniques are employed with aplomb. Consider her use of language. The accusation of treason is, of course, one of the most grave that can be made against a citizen of any country. Article III of the United States Constitution specifies that "Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort."

In latching onto a powerful word with a specific legal meaning and casually leveling the charge as a blanket accusation against a wide array of people (as she did with slander, which is a defamatory verbal statement), Coulter is attempting to smear virtually anyone who disagrees with her views on foreign policy as treasonous. "Liberals have a preternatural gift for striking a position on the side of treason," she writes on the first page of the book. "Whenever the nation is under attack, from within or without, liberals side with the enemy. This is their essence." (p. 1)

At times, Coulter portrays liberals and the left as engaged in a grand conspiracy to destroy the United States:

While undermining victory in the Cold War, liberals dedicated themselves to mainstreaming Communist ideals at home... Betraying the manifest national defense objectives of the country is only part of the left's treasonous scheme. They aim to destroy America from the inside with their relentless attacks on morality and the truth. (p. 289)

At others, she instead insinuates that disagreeing with her about US policy toward various hostile foreign countries or taking any action that could be construed as favorable to those countries' interests is equivalent to treasonous support for those countries. Here are two classic examples of this tactic:

As a rule of thumb, Democrats opposed anything opposed by their cherished Soviet Union. The Soviet Union did not like the idea of a militarily strong America. Neither did the Democrats! (p. 171)
Democrats always had mysterious objections and secret "better" ways, which they would never tell us. Then they would vote whichever way would best advance Communist interests. (p. 177)

In the end, Coulter doesn't care about such distinctions, and goes so far as to specifically reject any distinction based on motive in judging her standard of treason:

Whether they are defending the Soviet Union or bleating for Saddam Hussein, liberals are always against America. They are either traitors or idiots, and on the matter of America's self-preservation, the difference is irrelevant. Fifty years of treason hasn't slowed them down. (p. 16)

Of course, Coulter must engage in a complicated set of rhetorical tricks to accuse liberals of "fifty years of treason" (in a 2001 column, it was only "[t]wenty years of treason" - did inflation set in?). The book is primarily focused on the controversy over real and alleged Soviet espionage in the post-World War II era. We can certainly stipulate that Soviet agents who worked covertly inside the United States government did commit treason. But Coulter broadens the term to include virtually every liberal, leftist, Democrat or member of the media, in each case obscuring distinctions between individuals and stereotyping the entire group.

To do this, she condemns the left and liberals for defending the proven (and alleged) Soviet spies at the time and the Democratic Party officials for not taking the threat seriously enough. Many have offered serious critiques of the actions of individuals in this era. But Coulter implies that nearly every person left of center is culpable for failing to take action to prevent a small group of Soviet agents and their willful collaborators from infiltrating the US government (a conclusion based in part on evidence that did not come out for years, including decrypted Soviet cables released in 1995). She frequently implies that liberal attacks on Senator Joseph McCarthy and the alleged hysteria of McCarthyism were nothing more than an attempt to cover up this widespread treachery:

Springing naturally to their traitorous positions, the adversary press vilified HUAC [the House Un-American Activities Committee] for persecuting the charming State Department official. [Alger Hiss] (p. 20)
By screaming about "McCarthyism," liberals would force the nation to "move on" from the subject of their own treachery. (p. 30)
McCarthy's fundamental thesis was absolutely correct: The Democratic Party had fallen to the allures of totalitarianism. It was as if the Republicans had been caught in bed with Hitler. (p. 71)
Stalinist spies were passing secret government files to Soviet agents, and the Treason Party sprang to action by vigorously investigating the precise words McCarthy had used in a speech to a women's Republican club in West Virginia. (p. 103)
The primary victim of outrageous persecution during the McCarthy era was McCarthy. Liberals hid their traitorous conduct by making McCarthy the issue. They did to McCarthy everything they falsely accused him of doing to them. (p. 104)
Adding insult to injury, Nixon had the audacity to make a campaign issue of the Democrats' treasonous stupidity. (p. 196)

In the above quotes, the press is labeled as "traitorous" for treating HUAC unfairly, the Democrats are called the "Treason Party" and their alleged stupidity (which does not imply malevolent intent) is condemned as "treasonous." These cartoonish ad hominem attacks obscure key distinctions between individuals, particularly with regard to their involvement in these debates and the differences in motives that guided their actions. Put simply, being wrong about the scope and severity of the Soviet threat does not make one a traitor.

Coulter also salts the chapters she devotes to the post-war spy scandals with frequent and gratuitous references to President Clinton in an attempt to associate his scandals with those of Hiss and other accused or actual spies. For instance, she writes that Owen Lattimore, an alleged Soviet spy and the White House liaison to the State Department, "was the original Clinton. He stonewalled the truth, and liberals would never apologize." (p. 90) Later, she states that "The tactics used to prop up Soviet spies were later deployed to save a cheap flimflam artist [Clinton]." (p. 201)

After a long examination of this so-called "McCarthy era," Coulter jumps to Vietnam and the period since, and tries to lump liberals of this era in with those of the past due to their supposed sympathy for the enemy and attempts to undermine and weaken US foreign policy. Yet in contrast to the well-documented presence of Soviet spies in the US government, she provides no evidence that any liberals have taken actions intended to aid foreign enemies in the periods since (with a couple of possible exceptions). Instead, she attempts to leverage the McCarthy era to tar contemporary liberals and Democrats using guilt by association and innuendo.

First, she says Democratic foreign policy is essentially treasonous. "Democrats' gutless pusillanimity has emboldened America's enemies and terrified its allies." (p. 127) During Vietnam, she says liberals "[rolled] out all the usual arguments for treason ... The traitor lobby was ascendant and very loud. The media did its part, too, sowing fear and trying to undermine patriotism." (p. 129) In her opinion, Democrats in Congress undermined the war by forcing Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford to cease bombing of North Vietnam and aid to the South Vietnamese in the 1973-1975 period. This is described as "the Democrats' traitorous execution of the Vietnam War." (p. 151)

After a history of the Reagan presidency and the US victory in the Cold War, she moves on to the post-9/11 era, writing, "Liberals spent most of the war on terrorism in a funk because they didn't have enough grist for the anti-war mill. They nearly went stark raving mad at having to mouth patriotic platitudes while burning with a desire to aid the enemy." (p. 14) Liberals "clamored for America to be defeated, caterwauling about the ferocious Afghan fighters and proclaiming Afghanistan a Vietnam-style 'quagmire.'" (p. 133) She even implies that Democrats secretly support the terrorists who attacked America. "Unable to root for al-Qaeda openly, Democrats lodged surly objections to the Bureau of Prisons for listening to the conversations of prison inmates suspected of plotting terrorist attacks." (p. 267)

Liberal syndicated columnist Molly Ivins is described as coming "[f]rom the traitor lobby's women's auxiliary." (p. 134) Mark Danner, a professor and journalist, is described as having written an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times "[h]oping to erode the nation's resolve." (p. 136) Notice the logic here - criticizing the US or US policy is equivalent to hoping for its defeat.

In the Iraq war, she accuses Democrats of engaging in "treasonous calculations" by insincerely voting for the resolution to authorize the use of force in Iraq:

When the Democrats' bluff was called in a roll call vote in Congress, many voted for war with Iraq. Inadvertently performing a great service, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd revealed the Democrats' treasonous calculations. She explained that Democrats would be forced to fake enthusiasm for the war on terror or lose the American people forever. Democrats, she said, "fear that if they approach" Iraq the same way they did during the Gulf War in 1991, "they will be portrayed as McGovernite wimps." Consequently, liberals would lie and pretend to support America. With their votes duly recorded, they went right back to attacking the war. (p. 14-15)

Those celebrities who opposed the war are labeled "an instant sedition lobby" (p. 245).

So desperate is Coulter to call liberals of the contemporary era traitors that she suggests that President Jimmy Carter's acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize constitutes treason under the definition in the Constitution. When Carter was given the award, the chairman of the Nobel committee said it "should be interpreted as a criticism of the line that the current [Bush] administration has taken. It's a kick in the leg to all that follow the same line as the United States." This is Coulter's analysis of Carter's acceptance of the prize:

Carter would travel to Norway to accept the award in December 2002 - two months after Congress had authorized war against Iraq. Article III's definition of treason is narrow. But after Congress's action authorizing war, for any American to accept this award on the ground offered does sound terribly like "adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort." (p. 257)

During an appearance last Wednesday on the Fox News Channel's "Hannity & Colmes," Coulter went even further, insinuating that liberals today are collaborating with Saddam Hussein and saying their behavior is equivalent to collusion with Osama Bin Laden and Saddam in an exchange with co-host Alan Colmes:

COLMES: And who that is alive today would you accuse of treason?
COULTER: Look, I wrote the book, let me answer the question. I understand what the question is. I'm sorry, we're going to have to wait to get the cables from Saddam Hussein to, you know, the traitors today.
What we have now is the evidence from Stalin's agents in the United States -- evidence that was not released until 1995 and which Democrats sheltered, defended, ferociously attacked anyone who went after Soviet spies, agents of Stalin, a regime as evil as the Nazis. They were defended by the Democratic Party. It would be as if Republicans were caught in bed with Hitler.
COLMES: Ann, I'm asking you if there's anybody today you'll accuse of treason? Apparently, you don't want to make that accusation against anyone in particular, liberal or Democrat.
COULTER: You're consistently missing the point of this book. OK, I'm going have to wait for the Venona Project on today's traitors. But my question to you is how would liberals behave differently if they were in Saddam Hussein's pay? How would they behave differently if they were in Osama bin Laden's pay? Answer that question.
COLMES: If you're going to say treason, which is a very serious charge...
COULTER: Would they be screaming about a civil liberties crisis every time Ashcroft talks to a Muslim? What is the point of that?

Ironically, Coulter approvingly cites a quote from the historian Paul Johnson saying that "Those who treasure the meaning of words will treasure truth, and those who bend words to their purposes are very likely in pursuit of anti-social ones." (p. 292) If only she recognized how right he was.

Facts: An array of falsehoods and mischaracterizations

As stated above, Coulter presents a detailed historical argument regarding the McCarthy era and how it is portrayed in the media. She appears to make a credible case against the caricature that is often portrayed, but any statement beyond this is outside the scope of this column. The specifics of her analysis require close scrutiny by an expert conversant in the wide range of scholarship that is now publicly available about the era. But those factual claims that can easily be checked, particularly those that pertain to contemporary politics, are extremely suspect. An investigation of a relatively small number of suspect references from among the hundreds of sourced and unsourced factual claims presented in Treason revealed numerous factual errors and distortions, the worst of which are detailed below.

Misleading quotation and sourcing of claims

Coulter engages in a series of deceptive practices in quoting people and sourcing her claims. Most commonly, she distorts the authorship of articles she's citing. Throughout the book, she attributes outside book reviews, magazine profiles and op-eds to media outlets as if they were staff-written news reports, feeding the perception of bias on the part of these institutions. These include a New York Times Week in Review article by historian Richard Gid Powers cited as "According to the Times..." (p. 6); a Washington Post book review by Patricia Aufderheide described as "the Washington Post said..." (p. 97) and "The Washington Post called..." (p. 98); and a New York Times Magazine article by reporter Leslie Gelb cited as "the New York Times reported..." (p. 171). At one point, she cites a single Washington Post magazine article by journalist Orville Schell four separate ways (implying multiple stories to the casual reader), in one case calling it "a two-part, four-billion-column-inch Washington Post story" in which "the Post said..." (p. 92).

Coulter also repeatedly cites quotations out of context from the original source material, implying that reporters reached conclusions that were actually presented by sources quoted in the piece. In one particularly dishonest case, she claims that the New York Times "reminded readers that Reagan was a 'cowboy, ready to shoot at the drop of a hat'" after the invasion of Grenada (p. 179). However, the "cowboy" quote is actually from a Reagan administration official quoted in a Week in Review story who said, ''I suppose our biggest minus from the operation is that there now is a resurgence of the caricature of Ronald Reagan, the cowboy, ready to shoot at the drop of a hat.''

Coulter goes on to denounce the New York Times for putting terms like "evil empire" in quotes, which she claims "expressed contempt for the idea of winning the Cold War." However, the article she cites as proof of the use of quotation marks is actually directly quoting Reagan saying the term. (p. 158) Later, she condemns the Times for its response to Reagan's invasion of Grenada. "The Times rages that Reagan was 'Making the World "Safe" for Hypocrisy,'" she writes, not mentioning that the quote is the headline on an op-ed by a Times columnist, not an editorial. (p. 179)

She also denounces a New York Times obituary of Joel Barr for saying he was "suspected of passing secret information" to the Soviets, writing that "Dozens of Soviet cables had identified Barr as a Soviet spy" as though this information was not provided to Times readers. (p. 53) But the obituary actually states that "John Haynes, the co-author with Harvey Klehr of a forthcoming Soviet history to be published by Yale, said that the intelligence reports show that Mr. Barr and Mr. Sarant 'were among the K.G.B.'s most valuable technical spies'" -- the same experts she cites in the footnote backing up her claim!

And in a passage focused on contemporary politics, Coulter misrepresents a personal attack against her as one on all "people who support ethnic profiling of airline passengers" (p. 261), saying Senator Richard Durbin, D-IL, called such people "troglodytes 'crawling on [their] bell[ies] in the mud at a right-wing militia training camp in Idaho." (brackets hers) In fact, Durbin wrote the following in a letter to a Springfield, Illinois newspaper (notice how Coulter pluralized his wording with brackets to obscure the reference):

I often wonder whether Ann Coulter's political views are just a pose.
Having seen her on television, she is bright, witty and appears to be the product of a good education and good grooming. There is nothing about her which suggests she has spent any time crawling on her belly in the mud at a right-wing militia training camp in Idaho.
But when she opens her mouth or logs on her computer, Dr. Coulter is transformed into a political creature that could take Pat Buchanan's breath away.

Durbin goes on to denounce her views on ethnic profiling, but to suggest that his crack represents his view of everyone who supports her stance on the issue is patently false.

Utter falsehoods and egregious factual misrepresentations

Coulter makes at least five factual claims that are indisputably false. First, she writes "When the United States made an alliance with mad mullahs in Afghanistan against the USSR, no sensible American would go sign up with the Taliban." (p. 51) However, the Taliban did not form a militia until 1994, several years after the Soviet Union's withdrawal from Afghanistan (1989) and its subsequent collapse (1991).

Later, she denounces Congressmen Jim McDermott, D-WA, David Bonior, D-MI, and Mike Thompson, D-CA, for their trip to Iraq in late September 2002, asking, "Weren't any Democrats the tiniest bit irritated that members of Congress were meeting with a tyrant as the U.S. prepared to attack him?" (p. 225) The group did not meet with Saddam, who is obviously the tyrant in question, though they did meet with Iraqi officials.

Coulter also offers this supposed quotation from Clinton: "Bill Clinton, the man who deployed the best fighting force on the globe to build urinals in Bosnia, actually said of Muslim terrorists, 'They have good reason to hate us ... after all, we sent the Crusaders to try and conquer them.'" (p. 229) Clinton never said this according to searches of Google and the Nexis news database, nor do any sources repeat this quotation. The only clue to its source is its slight resemblance to a passage in a November 2001 speech at Georgetown University in which Clinton discusses a story from the Crusades and its enduring relevance today in far more nuanced terms. Given that the speech has been widely distorted in the media, it would not be surprising if this is Coulter's supposed source (she provides no footnote for the quote).

In one bizarre case, she misrepresents the reasons for Carter's Nobel Prize, stating that it was awarded "for his masterful negotiation of the 1994 deal [the Agreed Framework with North Korea], though, in candor, he got the prize for North Korea only because the committee couldn't formally award a prize for Bush-bashing, which was the stated reason." (p. 233) But the Nobel committee's award announcement cites the award as recognizing Carter's "decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development," of which North Korea was only a part. In the presentation speech at the Nobel ceremony, his work on the North Korea issue was not even mentioned.

Lastly, she claims that Ramsey Clark, the former Attorney General under President Johnson, "argued that Iran should be able to 'determine its own fate'" after returning from a meeting with the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran in 1979. "[D]etermine its own fate" is presented as a direct quote, but it turns out to be a quote from an abstract of a New York Times article, not a quote from Clark. In fact, it is an abstract paraphrase of the reporter's summary of Clark's statement summarizing the views of the Ayatollah! (The quote "determine its own fate" does not appear in any article in the Nexis news database along with Clark's name and Iran.)

In several other cases, Coulter thoroughly twists and misrepresents her source material to support her ideological agenda. Most of these are related to her claims that the media engages in "total suppression" of the religion of Muslim terrorists who kill people. (p. 279) She criticizes the New York Times for a March 5, 1993 headline about the first World Trade Center bombing, which read "Jersey City Man Is Charged in Bombing of Trade Center," saying the Times was "[e]merging as al-Qaeda's leading spokesman in America." (p. 279) However, the first paragraph of the article states that the man was "described by the authorities as an Islamic fundamentalist." In addition, on the same day, the Times ran an 1100 word article titled "Suspect in Bombing Is Linked To Sect With a Violent Voice" detailing how Mohammed A. Salameh "is said by law-enforcement officials to be a follower of a blind Muslim cleric who preaches a violent message of Islamic fundamentalism from a walk-up mosque in Jersey City."

She also condemns the Times for its reporting on an Egyptian immigrant named Hesham Hadayet who went on a shooting rampage at an El Al terminal in Los Angeles. "In the past," she writes, "Hadayet had complained about his neighbors flying a U.S. flag, he had a 'Read the Koran' sticker on his front door, and he had expressed virulent hatred for Jews. The Times reported straight that his motive for the shooting may have been 'some dispute over a fare.'" (p. 279-280) In fact, all three of those facts about Hadayet came from the initial Times story on him, which straightforwardly presented two possible motives for his actions as a hate crime against Jews or a terrorist attack (El Al is the Israeli national airline). The quote "some dispute over a fare" came in a separate story that day based on an interview with Hadayet's uncle, who, the reporter summarized, "said his normally well-mannered nephew was always prickly about being taken for a fool by customers, and so he expected that some dispute over a fare had erupted at the El Al counter." This is clearly not written as though it is the reporter's opinion that it is true. It is pure conjecture and described as such (the uncle "expected" that it was a dispute).

In addition, Coulter denounces coverage of the sniper case, saying "you need a New York Times decoder ring" to find out "John Allen Muhammad was a Muslim. The only clue as to the sniper's religion was the Times's repeated insistence that Islam had absolutely nothing to do with the shootings." (p. 281) But on the same day that the suspects' capture was first reported, another "clue" might have been two separate stories that prominently described Muhammad as a Muslim. Two days later, the Times ran an entire story about the role of religion in the shootings, though it framed the issue mostly in psychiatric terms and did not speculate about the potential influence of extremist Islamic beliefs. In all four of these cases, it simply was not clear what the suspects' motives were from the facts available to the reporters writing in the earliest possible moments of the investigation. Would Coulter have them simply presume to know, as she claims to, that the the suspects' actions were driven by their religious beliefs?

And finally, in a similar accusation, Coulter claims the Times "barely mentioned" the release of decrypted Soviet cables (the Venona Project), saying "[i]t might have detracted from stories of proud and unbowed victims of 'McCarthyism.'" The Times actually ran a 1000 word story on the declassification of the Venona cables. It did not run on the front page, but neither did the stories in the Washington Post, USA Today, Newsday or the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (among others). Among major newspapers, only the Los Angeles Times put the story on its front page.

In short, Ann Coulter has once again revealed herself as one of the most destructive forces in American politics, repeatedly making outrageously irrational arguments and demonstrably false claims. Treason is the culmination of a dismaying trend toward factually misleading and inflammatory books from pundits such as Michael Moore, Sean Hannity and Michael Savage (Salon Premium subscription or viewing of ad required for Savage column). These authors may delight partisans and make their publishers rich, but their work impoverishes our political discourse.

Related links:
-Savage with the truth (Ben Fritz, 2/19/03)
-New York Sun suggests treason prosecution for free speech (Brendan Nyhan, 2/7/03)
-The blowhard next door (Ben Fritz and Bryan Keefer, 8/26/02)
-Throwing the book at her (Bryan Keefer, 7/13/02)
-One Moore stupid white man (Ben Fritz, 4/3/02)
-Bully brigade (Brendan Nyhan, 3/4/02)
- Clinton Speaks, Pundits Spin: The Washington Times and the Spread of a Media Myth (Bryan Keefer, 11/19/01)
-"Patriotism" and "Treason": A New Trend in Irresponsible Wartime Rhetoric (Ben Fritz, 10/29/01)
-Ann Coulter: The Jargon Vanguard (Brendan Nyhan, 7/16/01)
-Spinsanity on Ann Coulter

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Related links:

-The strategically ambiguous George W. Bush (Bryan Keefer, 6/12/03)
-The discourse of mental illness (Brendan Nyhan, 10/16/01)
-Spinsanity on Robert Scheer

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