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What the fake Sinabung volcano simulation can teach us about how to watch Robert Mueller testify

Updated: Jul 24, 2019

It almost fooled me too.

My father, visiting from the east coast, has a years-long habit of mistaking information received in chain emails as "news." The latest episode occurred with the arrival of a recent July email, which ironically, coincided with the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, an event that a too-sizable portion of the world's population, lacking critical-thinking skills, continues to doubt.

With a few clicks, my father and I were watching a spectacular underwater volcano erupting. It was "filmed" from a land-based vantage point overlooking the bay in what appeared to be a well-developed residential neighborhood. The caption claimed it was a video of the 2019 Mt. Sinabung eruption in Indonesia.

As the video progressed, jets of black ash and plumes of steam rose from the bay's depths, breaking the surface in a slow-building crescendo similar to a July 4th fireworks finale. Then, in spectacular fashion, the plume expanded and engulfed the coastal residences...and, a moment later, the camera recording the event.

But the camera didn't move, It was unaffected by the hot ash that had engulfed it.

Too many years of watching too many YouTube tsunami videos told me it should have. And, in that moment I knew it wasn't real, something I should have recognized at least a minute earlier based on a half-dozen other factors.

A quick Google search confirmed we had just watched a 2017 animation made by a New Zealand geologist to show an underwater volcanic eruption. The video had gone viral after being passed off as the Mt. Sinabung eruption. No doubt, a sizable portion of the world's population continues to believe it was Mt. Sinabung.

This brings me to my point.

How should you apply this same sort of critical thinking when watching and drawing conclusions from Robert Mueller's upcoming testimony in front of the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees?

As a former FBI agent of 23 years, but more importantly, as a human being of 53 years, what follows is how I will do it.

It doesn't mean my conclusions will be valid. But the point is that I am going to take what I know of the world and marry it with what I like to call subjective objectivity. This means I will be objective, avoiding tunnel vision, but with a tacit awareness that my objectivity is influenced by my education, experience, and culture -- or what I refer to as my life lens.

Here goes:

First, I have read the special counsel's report and it has not changed my opinion about whether President Trump is fit for office. So, I will be watching from the vantage point of how Mueller's testimony might influence the undecided 2020 vote.

Make no mistake. These hearings are entirely about 2020.

No judgment here.

My experience tells me it is a natural part of the political process. We have a two-party system. One party has executive power and the other party wants it. But it's not just about power. It's about the dollars power brings. Both parties are the same in this regard.

So is the media.

Since the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, to the news media -- both left and right -- you and I are not blue or red. We are green. Green, as in naïve. Green, as in good 'ol American greenback.

Put another way, there is a fight among media outlets for limited advertising dollars.

To those who control the media and those who make their living from it, the policies -- especially the tax policy -- of any administration or party mean nothing if they cannot earn the dollars they will be taxed on in the first place. Consequently, in a two-party system, where there is very little profit in the middle, every time a news organization moves farther left or farther right than their nearest competition, usually accomplished with evermore sensational, shocking, entertaining, conspiratorial, and vilifying commentary, their competition must follow.

To do otherwise is to risk losing their audience and the advertising dollars that come with it.

With the proliferation of new media organizations over the past dozen years, and more Americans getting their news from nontraditional sources, many of which are adept at taking market share, the divide between left and right news organizations has grown.

Doubt this?

Ask yourself, has Fox had more influence on Breitbart, or Breitbart on Fox? On the other side, ask yourself what impact MSNBC's move to the left has had on CNN? If a media competitor outflanks you, your options are limited. Move with them or get slaughtered.

From a critical-thinking perspective, what does this all mean? The loss of the moral middle for one, but that's not what I'm writing about.

What I am writing about is that what the left and right news media covers and how they cover it is largely a function of the need to sell more soap and vitamins. It's ass backwards, I know. But from my perspective, when I listen to a "news" analysis of what Robert Mueller said or did, I know to flip around, read around, and think around what I am hearing and reading. I know to apply what I know of the world, consider the motivations of those I am listening to, and decide for myself.

So, presuming I do a good job of seeing through media motivations, what is my expectation of Mueller himself.

Mueller is a man who says what he will do, and then does it. It's his most admirable trait.

I don’t expect many bombshells from Mueller's testimony. He's been clear about what he will and will not talk about, at least publicly, in front of Congress. He will talk about what is already in his report, including Trump’s alleged obstruction. He won’t say what he thinks of how Attorney General William Barr handled the report’s roll-out or anything else not in the report’s 500 or so pages. And, he certainly will not disclose whether he thinks obstruction could or should have been charged had the president been a private citizen.

But I know a different side of Mueller. The one that suffers from the same Achilles heel of law enforcement that James Comey suffered from. That is, a Mueller who believes in the supremacy of his own judgment.

In 2016, Comey stood before the world and pronounced US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton "extremely careless." In a few moments of what can only be retroactively described as really bad theater, Comey thrust the FBI into the nontraditional role of final arbiter -- something it was not intended to be.

If not for the precedent Comey set, Mueller's investigation might very well look more like Ken Starr's Whitewater inquiry. In that inquiry, Starr, quite unfortunately, ran with the role of prosecutor as opposed to investigator, something -- unlike Mueller -- he was statutorily required to do.

Put another way, with the benefit of hindsight, Mueller understood that he must preserve the "check and balance" that needs to exist between an investigator and prosecutor. Wisely choosing investigator, Mueller learned from the mistakes of Starr and Comey and left it up to the House of Representatives to make the tough call whether to "prosecute" by holding impeachment hearings.

I know Robert Mueller well enough, however, to know that he has an opinion about what course should be undertaken. Like everyone else, I will listen for any indication of that opinion, particularly about whether he believes the president obstructed justice.

I know this because for all the good Mueller did in transforming the FBI into an intelligence-driven agency that allocated resources according to the most serious threats the country faced, the dark side of his tenure was that he developed and approved personnel systems that subordinated the judgment of others to his own. FBI culture and morale were affected. The organization, to its detriment, became more insular, and consequently, more susceptible to the possibility of being co-opted for political advantage.

Put another way, Mueller is a judge first, a prosecutor second, and an investigator third.

On July 24, 2019, I look forward to seeing which one shows up.

James S. Davidson was an FBI special agent for 23 years. He investigated major crimes in Texas and California and served in Ukraine, Israel, and Washington, D.C. He is now president of Protect the FBI, a non-partisan organization whose mission is to safeguard the FBI from the partisan politics of both political parties. Twitter: @protectthefbi

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