Bob Graham's much-scoffed-at little notebooks are more reliable than the CIA's records

Over at the Quantified Self blog, Gary Wolf wrote a fascinating post about ex-Senator Bob Graham's 30-year-plus-habit of writing every aspect of his day-to-day life in little spiral notebooks. The press likes to make fun of his obsessive note taking (he's filled almost 4,000 to date), but it comes in handy:
The CIA claimed that Pelosi had been briefed in detail about the torture, and didn't make any objection until long afterward. Therefore, if there is to be any kind of sanction for torture, it should hit the top Democrat who approved it as well as members of the Republican administration who ordered it. Pelosi, though, denies having been briefed about the torture.

Well, it turns out that Bob Graham was also supposed to have been briefed on these topics, and the CIA forwarded to him the dates of the meetings he supposedly attended. But the CIA records were inaccurate, according to his own personal records. Such was the respect for Graham's notebooks, that this line of attack was closed within 48 hours.

This is interesting for several reasons. First, it's worth noting that one man's spiral bound notebooks were able to accumulate enough credibility to defeat the records of an organization whose very reason for existence is to collect information, communicate it to trusted members of government, and keep records of these communications. Anybody who has been following some of the controversy about patient records can add this strange example to their list of favorite anecdotes. Personal data, kept by a dedicated and interested party, even using yesterday's technology, will trump large scale collection systems managed by bureaucrats.

For some reason, it comforts me to think of the CIA as a bunch of bumblers.

Politican as self-tracker - Bob Graham's notebooks


  1. I’d be interested in seeing a sample of his note taking. How detailed are they? How has his handwriting adjusted to fit on those wee little books?

  2. Of course it comforts you to think of the CIA as bumblers.

    The alternative is that they lied to Congress.

  3. They are bumblers. At least, numerous heads of the CIA have proven themselves to be mostly incompetent wannabe Joe Fridays and shameless war fetishists; really they’re just fall guys for when something goes wrong, usually.

    And anyone who says the CIA can’t possibly be politicized needs to wake the fuck up. There’re probably ten government employees total who don’t have some kind of horseshit axe to grind. I’m so sick of this. Pelosi should just totally freak out on the Senate floor one of these days, screaming about Cheney’s executive assassination ring. Please, someone elect Sy Hersh to office already.

  4. Wow, did it really take 15 minutes to rewind a VHS tape? It’s been years since I have done this.

  5. They’d be bumblers if their version wasn’t self-serving, and did not contain a subtle, modern, anachronistic euphamism: “enhanced interrogation techniques”.

  6. the bureaucrats in “Brazil” were also a bunch of “bumblers” wanting to pass the buck every time something went wrong. this “bumbling” didn’t stop them from wreaking havoc.

  7. “12:20-1:20: MLTH kitchen, family room. Eat lunch (tuna salad). Watch Ace Ventura”

    Apparently, he stopped Ace Ventura halfway through. Must’ve been one Hell of a movie.

  8. @takeshi

    Now I’m tempted to rent it and forward it to an hour, just to see exactly the point where Graham decided he’d had enough.

  9. This is like Rashomon of personal records…


    Dear Diary, yet again, I did nothing illegal. What’s more, I continued my streak of doing nothing questionable or culpable in any way. Since I say so now, it must be true. Also, it was overcast today.

    CIA record of the same date:


  10. An interesting account of the incompetent CIA interview process can be found in this episode of the Berkeley program “Conversations with History: Lewis Lapham”.

    If you only look for upper class culture, not real skill, this is what you get.

  11. @ grimc:

    I was tempted to do the same, but have since come to my senses. I’d probably only make it to the ten minute mark, anyway. Too much fart humor, not to mention Jim Fucking Carrey.

    Even the Police Academy movies are better, and they feature Steve Fucking Guttenberg.

  12. My understanding is that this is not totally uncommon for lawyers, who are used to tracking their time in 6min intervals (1/10th hr). DefSec Weinberger did much the same thing, and got in trouble for it during Iran-Contra.

  13. Wow, them’s some detailed notes. Of course, the cynic in me says it’d be perfect to take notes for thirty years so I could kill hookers, interns, and inconvenient witnesses with impunity — all I’d need to do is ‘pad’ my time watching Ace Ventura.

    He’s probably ok, though.


  14. the cia was begun as a place to utilize former nazi spooks against the “commie” ruskies and keep them from prosecution via the nuremberg trials. they should be dismantled. they serve no real, useful purpose and are, i submit, a hindrance to freedom, a stonewall to justice, and stand for everything this country is against.

  15. > For some reason, it comforts me to think of the CIA as a bunch of bumblers.

    I’m not comforted by it. I want the CIA to be better than me at note-taking — at the very least.

    OK, my politics are showing here, but if there is a problem of accountability at the CIA (and though the pundits would have you forget the fact, both sides of the aisle have said there is), I have to blame the idiot that announced _”Government is the problem.”_ about 30 years ago and the wackos that have followed him.

    If you believe government should be drowned in a bathtub, you shouldn’t be put in charge of appointing people to run the agencies that staff it…

  16. When the CIA was saying those Iraqi artillery support weather balloon hydrogen electrolyzer semi trailers were “mobile bioweapons incubators” or whatever, I actually placed a call to Langley and talked to a public relations guy about all the reasons which had been published that they were wrong. The guy just laughed and said the same thing over and over. When we got to a point (I was reading from an LA Times article) which was more conclusive that the CIA was wrong, he just laughed more.

    I’m convinced they think we all know they are just a bunch of liars, and they think it’s funny.

  17. Something that nobody seems to get: the CIA (like any big organisation) can be both incompetent and malicious at the same time.

    You’d think we just tag government officials with always on electronic surveillance and stop the requirement/expectation for embarrassing excuses.

    Also OCD note taking for the win.

  18. @Hosidax (#22) –

    If I’m to live under an autocracy, let it be
    the autocracy of Frederick the Great: despotism
    tempered by inefficiency. An efficient autocracy
    scares me. (I won’t be the first up against the
    wall come the Revolution, but I’ll most likely
    be on the list. Despots *hate* geeks.)

  19. The idea of the CIA or any other 3 letter agency being a bunch of toolbags is scary. I expect these folks to be capable competent operators. I don’t mind black budgets, or secrecy as long as the job get’s done right. Their liberty of operation is directly tied to the ability to do job right. If they can’t keep their records straight about who you briefed when and about what then gentlemen and ladies of the CIA let me be the first to show you the door.

  20. #3 Takeshi: “Pelosi should just totally freak out on the Senate floor one of these days”.

    That sure would be some freak-out, given that she’s in the House of Representatives.

    For some reason, it comforts me to think of the CIA as a bunch of bumblers.

    See also: Watergate break-in, which Nixon may have gotten completely away with if his little crew had put the tape that held the lock open along the edge of the door, rather than horizontally across it.

  21. Does anyone else think that such obsessive record keeping is a sign of mental illness? It seems to me that a legislator should keep track of meetings with the CIA in any case, and could do so without also needing to record every detail of his or her life.

  22. “For some reason, it comforts me to think of the CIA as a bunch of bumblers.”

    I mean. I believe there are bumbling idiots at every level of corporation and government. In terms of the government in particular, I refuse to believe an organization like the DMV has all the idiots.

  23. He was just tweeting before there was Twitter.

    Politicians are strange people. When I met Sen Graham, he very purposefully asked me for my name and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s recorded in his notes or that he remembers it to this day.

    Monday, I saw Sen Tom Carper work a room at MIT. He made sure to introduce himself to everyone and shake their hands. I took the opportunity to ask him whether he had the moral and political courage to follow the torture investigations wherever they might lead. He said, “I support the President.”

    “And your oath to the Constitution?”

    “I’ll do my best.”

    I think Sen Carper is going to remember me.

  24. Bumblers? Why let them off the hook?

    They are liars, swindlers, thieves and crooks, not to mention torturers and thugs. Deceit is at the core of espionage.

  25. Well, would it be too much to ask that they do a good job of the things they’re supposed to do, and as for the things they shouldn’t, that they don’t do them at all?

    In a perfect world, yeah…

    But I take Mark’s remark in the spirit he obviously intended.

  26. I figure if I ever got into politics I’d want to do the same thing too, if my work was being subsidized by the tax payer I’d feel like if enough time went by every single aspect of my life should become public knowledge, the only reason I’ve been made allowed to live the life I would at that point would be because of the tax payer. 30 or so years after my appointment ends I’d fully expect every single citizen to be able to see every single aspect of my life if they so wish, and they have a right to it, they payed for it.

  27. There’s a line in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods where one spook says to the other spook: “How do you know the CIA wasn’t involved in the Kennedy assassination? Well, he’s dead isn’t he?”

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