Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Assignment 4

Reading Club Assignment 4

Looking for Truth in All That Lying


Published: June 12, 2011

“Tangled Webs” is James B. Stewart’s engrossing re-examination of a quartet of celebrated federal investigations, all of which culminated in convictions for lying: the insider-trading probe that ultimately ensnared the homemaking diva Martha Stewart; the complex inquiry to determine who leaked to reporters the identity of the former C.I.A. covert operative Valerie Plame Wilson, which led to the perjury conviction of the ex-vice-presidential chief of staff I. Lewis Libby; the long-running San Francisco grand jury probe into steroid use by athletes that implicated the sprinter Marion Jones and (after the book was finished) the home-run king Barry Bonds; and the Securities and Exchange Commission inquiries in which the reigning king of swindlers, Bernard L. Madoff, managed to gull overworked young investigators and keep his Ponzi scheme alive, prior to his ultimate undoing in 2008.

Mr. Stewart, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who this month will become a business columnist for The New York Times, is the author of several best-selling books, including “Den of Thieves,” his searing examination of the insider trading scandals of the 1980s debacle. The subtitle of “Tangled Webs” is “How False Statements Are Undoing America: From Martha Stewart to Bernie Madoff,” and that in a few words is the thesis of this book: that these high-profile instances are emblematic of “a surge of concerted deliberate lying by a different class of criminal — sophisticated, educated, affluent and represented in many cases by the best lawyers” that “threatens to swamp the legal system and undermine the prosecution of white-collar crime.”

Given that the cases remained in the headlines for years, Mr. Stewart has set himself a considerable task in ensuring that his book is not simply a rehash of yesterday’s news. It is far from that. In addition to scouring and synthesizing the vast public record, including court material, amassed in each case, he conducted extensive interviews, many of them “on a background or not-for-attribution basis” with sources normally forbidden to talk, including lawyers and federal investigators. The result is a hugely engaging book that significantly deepens our understanding of how, in each instance, the mighty fell.

Mr. Stewart provides steady revelations, even for a former federal prosecutor like me who followed the coverage of these cases closely. For example, it has always seemed incomprehensible to me that so many investment professionals had for decades unquestioningly entrusted their clients’ money to Mr. Madoff. Mr. Stewart explains that Mr. Madoff limited his compensation to a 4-cent-a-share brokerage fee. Because he was not taking the fee customarily charged by financial advisers, the investment professionals were able to charge their clients a larger fee themselves, a fact that surely dampened their curiosity about Mr. Madoff’s extraordinary results.

Despite the thoroughness of Mr. Stewart’s research I had a few quibbles. At one point, in tracing the subsequent career of Mr. Libby’s prosecutor, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, Mr. Stewart ends up badly confused about the facts surrounding Illinois’s suspension of the death penalty in 2000. The point, however, is no more than an aside, and I take it for granted, given the elaborate citation of sources, that Mr. Stewart’s fact checking on the principal matters in the book was far more careful.

It also appears, as is often the case in reported accounts, that those who talked to Mr. Stewart come off better in his book than those who did not. This is particularly true of Douglas Faneuil, the former assistant to Peter Bacanovic, Martha Stewart’s broker, who became the central witness in the case after Mr. Faneuil forsook his prior lies. Mr. Stewart (who is no relation to Ms. Stewart) rightly points out the inherent unjustness of the prosecutors’ forcing Mr. Faneuil to plead guilty to a misdemeanor, because paying a tangible price enhanced his credibility as a witness, while others who told more consequential lies went free because they weren’t needed on the stand. But over all Mr. Stewart’s full-throated sympathies for Mr. Faneuil, who is treated as a hero, seem off key in a book meant to lament a plague of lying to investigators, a sin in which he also engaged.

Part of Mr. Stewart’s magic as a writer is that he is both exhaustive and engrossing. The onrush of facts somehow never overwhelms a steady narrative current. The one place where this is less true is in the portion of the book about the Plame leak investigation, the book’s longest section, where the same conversations are replayed several times, first in an overview and then in a blow by blow of what the investigators learned.

While I can second-guess the authorial strategy, the payoff is an extraordinarily comprehensive and balanced account of an episode that has generally been viewed through the lens of enormous partisan ire, even among journalists. Those tempted to believe that President George W. Bush knowingly lied in his 2003 State of the Union address, when he claimed Iraq had tried to buy yellowcake uranium in Africa, or that Vice President Dick Cheney outed Ms. Plame as an act of pure vengeance against her husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV, for speaking truth to power in a 2003 op-ed article in The Times owe it to themselves to read this book.

In Mr. Stewart’s retelling, the Bush administration had valid reasons to be upset by Mr. Wilson’s “unfounded” claim that the president and the vice president had to have known that Mr. Wilson had been sent by the C.I.A., purportedly at Mr. Cheney’s behest, to Niger, where Mr. Wilson found no proof of uranium sales. Nonetheless Mr. Stewart concludes that the evidence as a whole points “to the possibility that Cheney initiated the campaign” to reveal Ms. Plame’s employment, not as a punishment, but as a way to show that she, not the vice president, was responsible for her husband’s trip.

By approving the leaking of classified information Mr. Cheney may well have committed a crime, and in the end, Mr. Stewart suggests, “Libby was covering for him” by lying. Mr. Stewart is equally clear that two more of the team of leakers — the Bush strategist Karl Rove and Richard L. Armitage, a deputy secretary of state then — were also less than forthcoming with investigators and were lucky to avoid indictment.

My only significant complaint about this book is that I differ with Mr. Stewart’s premise, which is that the increasing number of prosecutions for lying prove there is a national plague of white-collar liars, whose chronic false statements imperil the justice system. Criminal suspects, rich and poor, have always lied and lied with élan. But when I started as a federal prosecutor in 1978, charging defendants for lying, rather than for the underlying crime they were hiding, was taken as unsporting and likely to make you look like a pedant in front of a jury.

The rise in false-statements prosecutions is a reflection that today’s juries will convict for these crimes, which in turn evidences a significant change in public expectations. Americans are now far less willing to see the powerful lie their way out of trouble. It would be interesting to figure out why.

But that is the book I would have written. Mr. Stewart has done a grand job with his own, which is distinguished by indefatigable reporting, consistent narrative drive and admirable balance. I loved it.

Q 1 This passage is a ___________________.

Q 2. What is the profession of the author of this passage?

Q 3. What is main message from author of the book ?

Q 4. How the author of the passage differs from Mr. Stewart?

Q 5. What is the author’s criticism about the book?

Q 6. What are the meanings of the words in bold?

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