David Corn is Mother Jones‘ Washington bureau chief. Until 2007, he was Washington editor of The Nation.
He has written for the Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Boston Globe, Newsday, Harper’s, The New Republic, Mother Jones, Washington Monthly, LA Weekly, the Village Voice, Slate, Salon, TomPaine.com, Alternet, and many other publications.
He is the co-author (with Michael Isikoff) of Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War (Crown, 2006).
His book, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown, 2003) was a New York Times bestseller. The Los Angeles Times said, "David Corn’s The Lies of George W. Bush is as hard-hitting an attack as has been leveled against the current president. The Washington Post called it "a fierce polemic…a serious case….[that] ought to be in voters’ minds when they cast their ballots. A painstaking indictment."
His first novel, Deep Background, a political thriller, was published by St. Martin’s Press in 1999. The Washington Post said it is "brimming with gusto….As clean and steely as an icy Pinot Grigio….[An] exceptional thriller." The Los Angeles Times called it "a slaughterhouse scorcher of a book you don’t want to put down" and named it one of the best novels of the year. The New York Times said, "You can either read now or wait to see the movie….Crowded with fictional twists and revelations." The Chicago Tribune noted, "This dark, impressive political thriller…is a top-notch piece of fiction, thoughtful and compelling." PBS anchor Jim Lehrer observed that Deep Background is "a Washington novel with everything. It’s a page-turning thriller from first word to last…that brings some of the worst parts of Washington vividly alive."
Corn was a contributor to Unusual Suspects, an anthology of mystery and crime fiction (Vintage/Black Lizard, 1996). His short story "My Murder" was nominated for a 1997 Edgar Allan Poe Award by the Mystery Writers of America. The story was republished in The Year’s 25 Finest Crime and Mystery Stories (Carroll & Graf, 1997).
He is the author of the biography Blond Ghost: Ted Shackley and the CIA’s Crusades (Simon & Schuster, 1994). The Washington Monthly called Blond Ghost "an amazing compendium of CIA fact and lore." The Washington Post noted that this biography "deserves a space on that small shelf of worthwhile books about the agency." The New York Times termed it "a scorchingly critical account of an enigmatic figure who for two decades ran some of the agency’s most important, and most controversial, covert operations."
Corn has long been a commentator on television and radio. He is a regular panelist on the weekly television show, Eye On Washington. He has appeared on The O‘Reilly Factor, Hannity and Colmes, On the Record with Greta Van Susteren, Crossfire, The Capital Gang, Fox News Sunday, Washington Week in Review, The McLaughlin Group, Hardball, C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, and many other shows. He is a regular on NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show and To The Point and has contributed commentary to NPR, BBC Radio, and CBC Radio. He has been a guest on scores of call-in radio programs.
Corn is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Brown University.
The question is not the 1970s cliché, What did the President know and when did he know it? The appropriate query is, What did US intelligence know--and what did the President know and do about that? The flap over the August 6, 2001, intelligence briefing of George W. Bush--in which he was told that Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network was interested in hijackings and looking to strike the United States directly--should not have focused on whether the President ignored that information and missed the chance to prevent the September 11 strikes. Still, a political dust-up ensued, as the White House, overreacting to the overreaction of the Democrats, went into full spin mode. The crucial issue was broached when National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice stated, "I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center."
Actually, it was predicted, and the recent hullabaloo called attention to the sad fact that the Clinton and the Bush II national security establishments did not heed hints going back to 1995. In that year a terrorist arrested in the Philippines said bin Laden operatives were considering a plot to bomb airliners and fly a plane into CIA headquarters--information shared with the United States. Two weeks before that arrest, Algerian terrorists linked to Al Qaeda hijacked a plane, hoping to crash it into the Eiffel Tower (French commandos killed the hijackers at a refueling stop).
From 1995 on, US intelligence and the military should have taken steps to detect and prevent a 9/11-like scheme. There was enough information in the system to cause the US air command to draw up plans for dealing with an airliner-turned-missile and to prompt the CIA and the FBI (and other intelligence outfits) to seek intelligence related to plots of this type. Apparently nothing of the sort happened. Not even when terrorism experts continued to raise airliner attacks as a possibility. In 1998 terrorism analysts briefed Federal Aviation Administration security officials on scenarios in which terrorists flew planes into US nuclear plants or commandeered Federal Express cargo planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, the White House, the Capitol and other targets. In 1999 a report prepared for the National Intelligence Council noted that Al Qaeda suicide bombers could fly an aircraft filled with explosives into the Pentagon, CIA headquarters or the White House.
In 2001 the FBI--not looking for signs of a suicide-bombing plot--failed to recognize the significance of information its agents received while investigating foreign students at a Phoenix flight school and Zacarias Moussaoui, a French national enrolled in a Minnesota aviation school, later charged with participating in the 9/11 conspiracy. In July Italian authorities warned the United States that bin Laden agents might try to attack Bush and other Western leaders at the Genoa summit using an airliner.
True, these leads were small pieces of data among the massive amounts of material swept up by the sprawling intelligence system. But what's the point of spending more than $30 billion annually on spies and high-tech eavesdropping if the system can't sort out the valuable nuggets? Hindsight is indeed easy. The Bush and Clinton administrations, based on what's now known, don't deserve to be faulted for not discovering the 9/11 plot. But both failed to oversee the intelligence and law-enforcement communities and make sure they were pointed in the right direction.
There is evidence that the Bush team didn't move quickly on the counterterrorism front. Newsweek reported that Attorney General John Ashcroft prodded the FBI to concentrate on violent crime, drugs and child porn more than on counterterrorism (a story the Justice Department denied). And Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld threatened to veto a move that shifted $600 million from the anti-ballistic missile program to antiterrorism. Was there a counterterrorism policy delay? Other questions linger. In July 2001 Richard Clarke, then the National Security Council official in charge of counterterrorism, put out an urgent alert, placing the government at its highest state of readiness for a possible terrorist attack. The alert faded six weeks later. What triggered it? What caused the stand-down? Should there have been a follow-up?
The multiple failures of policy, imagination and coordination over two administrations should be investigated. To assign blame? Accountability does have its place in a democracy. The public has a right to know who messed up and to be assured that those who did aren't in a position to commit further mistakes. The point, of course, is to learn from those mistakes and to be able to tell the public the failures have been addressed. Does the intelligence system deserve more billions, as Bush has requested, without demonstrating that it can use the money wisely?
After 9/11 the Bush Administration didn't rush to examine what went wrong. We're too busy fighting the war, it said, while urging Congress not to pursue the matter. Belatedly, Congress authorized a joint investigation by the House and Senate intelligence committees, two panels that traditionally have been cozy with the intelligence crowd. That probe has gotten off to a terrible start--the investigators fighting among themselves over whether to examine government failures or to concentrate on how best to reorganize the intelligence system and accusing the CIA and the Justice Department of not cooperating. One positive consequence of the maelstrom over the August 6 briefing is that it has prompted more calls for an independent commission, which Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman have been advocating. Yet so far no inquiry is committed to mounting a no-holds-barred examination and to conducting as much of it as possible in public.
"I don't have any problem with a legitimate debate over the performance of our intelligence agencies," said Vice President Cheney. But he has opposed sharing the August 6 briefing with Congress. How can there be worthwhile debate without information? After all, the recent tussle began when the press sensed that the White House had withheld a significant--or intriguing--fact. And how can there be information without investigation? The issue is not what Bush knew--but why he didn't know, and whether his Administration took sufficient steps before and after that awful day to deal with the failings of the agencies that are supposed to thwart and protect.
The question is not the 1970s cliché, What did the President know and when did he know it? The appropriate query is, What did US intelligence know-and what ...
By the way, we, uh, forgot to mention, that in August of 2001, while the President was taking a long vacation at his ranch in Crawford, the CIA told him tha...
It's a tale of big guns and a big gun. It's a Bush family melodrama, a story of personal connections, possible backstabbing and multiple intrigues, a Washin...
On April 3, a high-octane collection of thirty-three conservatives sent George W. Bush a letter urging him to lend Washington's "full support to Israel as it seeks to root out the [Palestinian] terrorist network." These hawks--including William Kristol, William Bennett, Rich Lowry, Martin Peretz and Richard Perle--called on Bush not to force Israel to negotiate with Yasir Arafat and to "accelerate plans for removing Saddam Hussein." They wanted Bush to adopt Israel's offensive as part of his war on terrorism and let Ariel Sharon roll. The next day, Bush replied, sort of, by declaring that Israel should withdraw from the West Bank. He slammed Arafat, but his aides noted that negotiations should resume, perhaps before a complete cease-fire has been achieved.
The hawks were not pleased. Bush's actions were "a show of weakness," says Marshall Wittmann, a signatory to the crush-them-now letter. Other parts of the hard-line pro-Israel coalition were disheartened. The Anti-Defamation League complained, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee protested, "It is no more appropriate to place a time limit on Israel's acts of self-defense than on America's acts in its own defense." Christian right supporters of Israel--many of whom believe that God granted Israel to the Jews and that Jewish control of Israel is a prelude to the Second Coming--had reason to be disappointed. The Rev. Jerry Falwell stated, "I believe Israel must aggressively defend its borders." Americans for Peace Now, however, praised Bush's new stance.
So Bush frustrated key elements of his support base and won huzzahs from peaceniks (even as he winked at Sharon's continuing operations). How did this come to pass? It was not because of domestic pressure. Democrats criticized Bush for not addressing the crisis, but that didn't mean they wanted Bush to lean on Israel. Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, for example, said, "I don't know that the Israeli government has any choice but to be as aggressive as they are." Senator Joe Lieberman remarked, "I believe strongly we should not ask Israelis to stop their war against terrorists until they have achieved greater homeland security." As Bush was pondering what to do, I contacted the Progressive Caucus of the House--no Bush friends there--and asked a spokeswoman if the group was responding to the crisis. "No," she said. Why not? "I don't know." Few if any Democrats were deviating from an Israel-first line. Before heading to the Middle East, Secretary of State Colin Powell remarked that he cared as much about Palestinian rights as Israel's security--a sentiment not echoed by lawmakers, Democratic or Republican.
"All the political pressure is on the side of the pro-Israel lobby," says Hussein Ibish of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. A staffer to a Congressman who occasionally voices concern for Palestinians notes, "There are not many of us in Congress." In fact, there are almost none, hardly enough for Bush to worry about. Kristol and neocon writer Robert Kagan claim that Bush caved because he "could not withstand a few days of heckling from the European Union and the New York Times." But once pressure from home and abroad forced a reluctant Bush into action, it could well be that he saw little choice but to press for Israeli restraint and negotiations, for the other option was to back Sharon's offensive. That would have risked rifts between Washington and its allies in Europe and the Middle East, undermining Bush's war on terrorism (and his designs on Saddam Hussein).
Hawkish backers of Israel are nervously watching how far Bush will go to rein in Sharon and restart negotiations. They vividly recall that Bush I opposed $10 billion in loan guarantees to Israel in an effort to force Israel to halt settlements in the West Bank. "There is a division within my camp," says Wittmann. "One school wants to cut the President slack for now, and the other believes Bush is already down the road of policy incoherence." Wittmann is hoping Bush's current stance is "ad-hocism, that his actions come from a desire to impose order upon chaos and out of a fear of destabilization in the Arab world. I'm not divining a long-term foreign policy message out of his handling of the current crisis--not yet."
Bush has not threatened to reconsider the fundamentals of US-Israel relations--such as $3 billion in annual assistance to Israel. The various groups that lobby for the Israeli hard-core retain influence in and out of the Administration. "There will be more Congressional involvement in the Middle East in the coming weeks," says the House staffer. That means further opportunity for pro-Israel hawks to shape the debate and Bush's decisions. Still, against the odds--and campaign donations and political clout--Bush spurned the Israel-all-the-way forces this round. A significant shift or a short-term plan? Bush himself probably doesn't know.