Army Capt. James “Yousef” Yee and former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill might seem to have little in common. But both have recently felt the sting of high-profile accusations from high government officials — only to have the accusations turn out to be nothing but hot air or headline-hunting.
Unfortunately, while the accusations generally made front-page news, the ultimate exonerations were usually carried in small stories toward the back of newspapers, if they were carried at all.
Capt. Yee’s case was the more dramatic. He was the Muslim chaplain at Guantanamo, where prisoners captured in Afghanistan and elsewhere are still being held, often with no charges being filed. Last summer, when he was arrested, accusations of participating in a spy ring — maybe even death-penalty treason — made headlines around the world. With those kind of accusations hanging in the air, he spent 76 days in solitary confinement in a South Carolina brig, some of the time in leg irons.
By September the spying charges were reduced to mishandling classified documents. By November it became apparent even those charges couldn’t be proved, but the investigation had turned up the fact that he had downloaded pornography onto an Army computer and had had an affair with a female officer.
Finally, earlier this month, he was given an official reprimand for those offenses. No apology was offered for the false accusations or the detention based on what seem to have been false premises.
Former Secretary O’Neill, you may remember, cooperated on a book, “The Price of Loyalty,” critical of the Bush administration and arguing that members of the administration had been focused — maybe even obsessed — with attacking Iraq even before Sept. 11, 2001. During an O’Neill interview on “60 Minutes,” a document appeared on camera marked “Secret.”
“Ah, ha!” administration spokespeople and allies crowed. This guy must have taken secret documents with him when the president fired him. How can you trust the word of a guy like that? The Treasury Department announced it was launching an investigation.
It took a Freedom of Information request from The Associated Press and other media for the results of the investigation to be made public.
It turns out that as he was leaving, O’Neill made a request for copies of all the documents that had crossed his desk to which he was entitled. He received 19,000 documents on computer discs and turned them over to author Ron Suskind without reviewing them.
The investigation, however, showed that 140 of those documents should have been classified. Had the bureaucrats classified them properly, O’Neill would not have received them. Suskind says the book didn’t rely on classified material.
So the accusation fizzled. But the fizzle didn’t make the news as prominently as the sizzle of accusation.
We’re sure that’s just coincidence and the people lodging accusations didn’t calculate that it would turn out that way. Right?
The lesson is hardly new, but worth repeating. Just because powerful government figures accuse somebody of something doesn’t mean the accusation will hold up — or even that it is based on anything very substantial. You have to wait until the entire story is told. It’s worth keeping in mind as the campaign year unfolds.