10/07/2010 05:39 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Losing Their Gulf Cred

I'm thinking of a number.

The number is 5,000. (You were expecting a little suspense? A drum roll, perhaps? Sorry to spoil the fun -- but, don't worry: you'll have another chance soon enough.)

Now, 5,000 is a perfectly good number, a nice round number. It's a pretty big number, too. Or at least it is compared to some other numbers, like 11, or 249. Just for instance. Of course, 5,000 can also be a pretty small number, too, when you compare it to certain other numbers.

So here's your chance: I'm thinking of another number. It's a much bigger number than 5,000. It's a number that dwarfs the number 5,000, as big as 5,000 can sometimes look. Want to guess? Go right ahead.

Need a few more seconds? No problem.

OK -- time's up. This other number I've thinking of is -- insert drum roll here -- 60,000. Now, 60,000 is also a perfectly good number. But you'll agree that it's a much bigger number than 5,000 is. In fact, 60,000 is about 55,000 bigger than 5,000 is. Or put it this way: 60,000 is about 12 times bigger than 5,000 is, if your interests run toward multiplication.

As opposed, say, to obfuscation.

If your interests run toward obfuscation, then 5,000 and 60,000 are practically the same number. There's almost no difference between those two numbers, even when you're estimating -- just for instance -- how many barrels of oil are spewing every day out of a ruptured pipe on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico.

Just for instance.

Which is why a special presidential commission looking into the BP oil spill is less than impressed with how the president's own administration initially described the spill to the American people. Seems the administration kept pitching the 5,000-barrels-a-day number long after it was clear that the correct numbers were much, much higher. About 12 times higher, in fact.

Seems the administration -- at least according to the commission's just-released preliminary report -- kept pitching the 5,000-barrels-a-day number even after government scientists at NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, asked for permission to put out the much larger (and much more accurate) numbers. The White House Office of Management and Budget blocked the release, the report reveals, and sent NOAA's numbers right back with questions about the scientists' statistical "modeling," and their "assumptions."

Bonus question: What in the name of oyster po'boys is the Office of Management and Budget doing deciding how to handle oil-spill data? Or does OMB also stand for Office of Major Bull?

One result of the fudging: The 60,000-barrels-a-day number was months late in making into the public conversation. (The administration insists that it used big numbers in public, too -- but those tended to be hypothetical, "if-things-suddenly-go-to-hell-in-a-handbasket" numbers. When it came to the actual volume of actual oil actually spilling into the actual Gulf, the folks in charge mostly played low-ball.)

The administration also insists it went full-force at the problem from the get-go, however large or small it might have thought the spill was. That makes perfect sense -- to anyone who believes that a one-alarm fire and a five-alarm fire need the same number of fire trucks.

And when BP finally -- finally! -- managed to shut the spill down, the report finds, the administration's public statements about how much of the oil had, miraculously, already vanished from the Gulf were entirely too optimistic.

In a nutshell:

"(T)he federal government created the impression that it was either not fully competent to handle the spill or not fully candid with the American people about the scope of the problem."

Either "not fully competent" or "not fully candid" -- pick your poison. There's a remedy for this sort of thing, you know. The technical term is "Telling the truth."

Rick Horowitz is a syndicated columnist. You can write to him at