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On 9/11, CIA Chief Gets Off Easy

Despite the headlines, CIA chief George Tenet got off easy.

The day after Tenet testified before the 9/11 commission, The New York Times declared on the front page, "Sept. 11 Panel Cites CIA For Failures in Terror Case." The Washington Post blared, "Al Qaeda Unchecked for Years, Panel Says: Tenet Concedes CIA Made Mistakes." The news stories focused on a damning staff statement--one in a series of interim reports--issued by the commission that criticized Tenet's agency for years of misjudgments and errors related to its perceptions and handling of the threat posed by al Qaeda. But when Tenet sat before the ten commissioners, he was praised by the members and faced not a single round of truly discomfiting questions. Though several of its members have referred to 9/11 as a massive intelligence failure, the panel was rather tame when it had the chance to publicly query the fellow who was (and remains) in charge of the system that failed. More importantly, the commissioners neglected to ask key questions. They were doing what the CIA and the FBI have been accused of: failing to connect the dots.

Before examining the issues that Tenet did not have to confront, let's look at some of the alarming findings of the commission's staff statement on the "performance of the Intelligence Community."

* The report notes, "While we know that al Qaeda was formed in 1988, at the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the Intelligence Community did not describe this organization, at least in documents we have seen, until 1999. As late as 1997, the [Counterterrorism Center of the CIA] characterized Usama bin Ladin as a financier of terrorism." This is a brutal assessment. Al Qaeda had been involved in several attacks against U.S. targets years before 1999, and the CIA even had information prior to 1997 that showed that bin Laden was much more than a moneyman for Islamic terrorists. In 1996, according to the commission, a walk-in source told the CIA that bin Laden's organization had been involved in a 1992 attack in Yemen against U.S. military personnel, the 1993 shootdown of U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopters in Somalia, and possibly the 1995 bombing of an American training mission in Saudi Arabia.

* Although the intelligence community received several reports in the years before 9/11 noting that Islamic extremists were interested in hijacking airliners and turning them into weapons, the CIA did nothing in response. Its Counterterrorism Center (CTC) did not analyze how a hijacked airliner might be used as a weapon. It did not consider how to defend against such an attack. The CIA did not tell its spies and analysts--or those of other intelligence agencies--to look for signs that terrorists were pursuing such a scheme. (One indicator might be that a person linked to terrorist outfits was seeking flight training.) If it had, perhaps the hints that did come in--such as the August 2001 arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui, the suspicious flight school student, might have triggered action. In late August, Tenet and other CIA officials received a briefing on the Moussaoui arrest under the heading, "Islamic Extremist Learns To Fly." Imagine what response could have occurred, had the CIA been primed to pick up on clues that terrorists were interested in a 9/11-like scenario.

* German intelligence in 1999 handed the CIA a lead on a terrorist suspect named "Marwan." The CTC, which had a phone number for this person in the United Arab Emirates, pursued this lead for a "short time" but failed to develop any further information and dropped the matter, without asking any other intelligence agencies (say, the National Security Agency, which conducts electronic eavesdropping around the world) for help. This person was Marwan al Shehhi, who piloted United Airlines Flight 175 into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. And he had used that UAE telephone number in the period before September 11.

* The CIA put together a plan--dubbed "The Plan" to improve its efforts to collect intelligence on al Qaeda using human sources and had developed what the commission calls "ingenious efforts" to bolster its collection using signals intercepts. But, the report notes, "there was no comprehensive collection strategy to pull together human sources, imagery, signals intelligence and open sources. Even 'The Plan' was essentially a CIA plan, not one for the Intelligence Community as a whole."

* On December 4, 1998, Tenet sent out a directive to several CIA officials that referred to Islamic terrorists and declared, "We are at war. I want no resources or people spared in this effort, either inside CIA or the [Intelligence] Community." The commission reports, "Unfortunately, we found the memorandum had little overall effect on mobilizing the CIA or the Intelligence Committee." The memo supposedly was faxed to the heads of all the intelligence agencies. But most of them told the commission they had never seen it. The NSA director at the time, Lieut. General Kenneth Minihan, said that he believed the memo only applied to the CIA.

* Though Tenet characterized counterterrorism efforts as a "war," the commission notes, he "did not develop a management strategy for a war against terrorism before 9/11." Tenet takes exception to this finding. But, according to the report, in 1998 he called for reforms that would lead to better sharing of counterterrorism data among the CIA, the NSA, the FBI and other agencies. But no plan to do so was developed prior to 9/11.

* Many of the problems the commission identified certainly loom larger after 9/11, but what might be its sharpest criticism concerned an overall institutional failure that stands out as serious and unacceptable without the benefit of hindsight: "we did not find an institution or culture that provided a safe outlet for admitting errors and improving procedures." While Tenet has defended himself and the CIA against most of the commission's criticisms by claiming the CIA was short on money and staff in the years before 9/11, such a defense does not work against this charge.

Another commission staff statement, released the day before Tenet testified, examined the CIA's handling of information on Khalid al Mihdhar and Nawaf al Hazmi, two of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers. The basics of this tale have been previously revealed. The CIA learned in early 2000 that these two suspected al Qaeda operatives, after attending something of an al Qaeda summit in Malaysia, were heading toward or in the United States. But the CIA did not place their names on any watchlist for people entering the United States, nor did it tell the FBI about the two. The pair rented homes in San Diego and obtained driver's licenses using their real names and were in regular contact with an FBI informant. If the FBI had been alerted to their possible presence in the United States, it may well have been able to track the two--who were in touch with at least two of the other hijackers--during the year and a half prior to 9/11. Who knows what that might have yielded? The CIA did not pass this lead to the FBI until late August 2001. At that point, the FBI went looking for the men and did not find them before September 11.

The commission's latest report on this episode--the most significant screw-up of 9/11--makes the CIA look even worse. It notes that in January 2001, the CIA learned that the suspected leader of the October 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole had been at the January 2000 Malaysia meeting. This meant that Mihdhar and Hazmi had attended a gathering with the possible mastermind of an attack that had killed 17 American troops. (There even had been speculation within the CIA that Mihdhar and the suspected leader were the same person.) Yet the report says, "we found no effort by the CIA to renew the long-abandoned search for Mihdhar." In other words, the CIA knew that an al Qaeda operative linked to the al Qaeda lieutenant suspected of engineering the Cole attack had possibly come to the United States, and it did nothing.

There's more. In May 2001, as threat reporting surged, a CIA official reviewed old cables from early January 2000 that included information that Mihdhar had received a U.S. visa and that Hazmi had come to Los Angeles on January 15, 2000. This officer took no action. Then in the summer of 2001, an FBI official detailed to the CIA was asked to review material about the Malaysia meeting--in her free time. As the report notes (in an understated way), "She grasped the significance of this information." She learned from the Immigration and Naturalization Service that Mihdhar had entered the United States with Hazmi on January 15, 2000, and again on July 4, 2001. In late August, she and an FBI analyst initiated a search for Mihdhar, but higher levels of CIA and FBI management were not told about it. The search was assigned, on a routine basis, to a single FBI agent. This was his very first counterterrorism lead. He was given 30 days to open the case. He started the process a week later. He was still looking for Mihdhar on September 11.

Did the commissioners grill Tenet about the biggest missed opportunity of 9/11? After all, what is his explanation for this series of foul-ups? Had anyone been held accountable? Demoted? Fired? Why did it take an FBI official on loan to the CIA to make the right call? Why had CIA and FBI officials in late August not reported the Mihdhar connection to higher-ups?

No such questions were asked. In fact, there were no queries about the entire matter. Tenet, in his opening statement, did say, "We made mistakes" and cited "our failure to watchlist al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar." But this intelligence blunder--perhaps the worst single lapse in the CIA's history--deserved more than one sentence.

Other obvious areas were left untouched by the commissioners. Here is a sampling of questions that Tenet ought to have been asked.

* The recent release of the August 6, 2001 President's Daily Brief--titled "Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US"--caused a media storm regarding whether Bush had been aware before 9/11 that al Qaeda was aiming to conduct attacks in the United States. But the document also raises questions about the performance of your CIA. Why did this short report not refer to other information the CIA possessed indicating al Qaeda's intentions to hit the United States, such as material that emerged during the recent trial of al Qaeda operatives who bombed the U.S. embassies in Africa on 1998? Some of this information--such as al Qaeda's efforts to acquire uranium--had been in the newspapers. But Bush has said he does not routinely read newspapers and relies upon his briefers. Also, the PDB reported that the FBI had 70 anti-al Qaeda "full field investigations" under way throughout the United States. That number, according to testimony before the 9/11 commission, was higher than the actual amount. It turns out that the 70 figure had referred to the number of targeted individuals, not investigations, and that some of the targets were involved only in financing activities. How many investigations were there? Why did the CIA get this wrong? Did the PDB present a false impression that the FBI's anti-al Qaeda efforts were more extensive than they were? Do you believe this short briefing fully conveyed the domestic threat al Qaeda presented?

* What were the nature of your conversations with President Bush about the threat from al Qaeda during 2001? Did he ever instruct you to take any specific steps regarding al Qaeda? Did you tell him there was a "war" going on? Did he agree with this view?

* Richard Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism coordinator, has said that in 2001 he asked you to brief national security adviser Condoleezza Rice on the threat from al Qaeda because he was concerned that Rice was not taking the threat seriously enough. What happened at this briefing? How did Rice respond?

* What did you do after you were told in late August that Moussaoui, a suspicious Islamic extremist, had been trying to learn how to fly a 747? Did you ask for any follow-up action or further reports? Did you make sure the FBI was on top of this (which it was not)?

* Why did the CIA in general fail to respond to the various reports it received over several years indicating that al Qaeda and other terrorists were interested in using airliners as weapons? In 1999, for instance, a public report prepared for the National Intelligence Council, an affiliate of the CIA, by the research division of the Library of Congress noted, "Suicide bomber(s) belonging to al-Qaida's Martyrdom Battalion could crash-land an aircraft...into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), or the White House." Whatever happened to this particular report? And after Bush said shortly after 9/11 that "no one could have conceivably imagined suicide bombers burrowing into our society and then emerging all in the same day to fly their aircraft--fly U.S. aircraft into buildings full of innocent people," did you inform the president he had been mistaken? After Rice in May 2002 said, "I don't think anyone could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center," did you tell her that she was wrong?

* When did the CIA conclude that bin Laden and al Qaeda was responsible for the Cole bombing? Did Bush ever want to talk about the Cole in order to consider possible reprisals? Was he interested in the case? Did he ask to be briefed on it?

* Why did your 1998 declaration of war against the terrorists go unheeded throughout most of the intelligence community you oversee?

* You told the commission that you believe that Bush White House officials grasped the urgency of the al Qaeda threat prior to September 11. But why did deputy CIA director John McLaughlin tell the commission that he felt "a great tension...between the new administration's need to understand these issues and his sense that this was a matter of great urgency"? And if the White House was granting the matter sufficient attention, why did two veteran Counterterrorism officials report to the commission that they "were so worried about an impending disaster that one of them...considered resigning and going public with their concerns"?

* Why did the CIA's internal culture, under your watch (and probably earlier), not provide, as the commission notes, "a safe outlet for admitting errors and improving procedures"?

* In February 2002, you testified before the Senate intelligence committee and said that 9/11 "was not the result of the failure of attention and discipline and focus and consistent attention" on the part of the CIA. In light of the al Mihdhar/al Hazmi episode, would you care to revise that remark?

To his credit, Tenet was attuned to the threat from al Qaeda years before 9/11. Still, the agency he directed and the community he oversaw failed. Misjudgments and specific errors of the CIA and the intelligence community made it easier for the mass murderers of 9/11 to succeed. The 9/11 commission staffers have produced stunning indictments of the CIA and the FBI in their interim reports. But during the public hearings the commissioners have gently questioned the government officials who were in charge--such as Tenet--and avoided some of the more disturbing and difficult topics. It's as if the commission is operating on two separate levels. The staff fires away at the agencies; the commissioners let the responsible people walk away unmussed. No doubt, Tenet, one of the savvier players in Washington, felt the sting of the commission's staff statement when he read the newspapers the next day. But he probably realized that it could have been a lot worse.

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DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! The Washington Post says, "This is a fierce polemic, but it is based on an immense amount of research....[I]t does present a serious case for the president's partisans to answer....Readers can hardly avoid drawing...troubling conclusions from Corn's painstaking indictment." The Los Angeles Times says, "David Corn's The Lies of George W. Bush is as hard-hitting an attack as has been leveled against the current president. He compares what Bush said with the known facts of a given situation and ends up making a persuasive case." The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations....Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." For more information and a sample, check out the book's official website: www.bushlies.co

President on Probation

"The President is on probation with military voters," says Peter Feaver, professor of Political Science at Duke University and an expert on military-civilian relations.

It may be anecdotal but three stories in last week's newspapers offer a sharp sense of the growing ambivalence military veterans and families feel toward this Administration. The once rock-solid GOP military voting bloc could become a domestic casualty for Bush. And, as the New York Times reports, with a large number of military personnel living in battleground states like Florida, West Virginia and New Mexico, even small changes in military voting patterns could be decisive in November.

With the occupation into its first year, casualties rising daily and no coherent exit plan in sight, Samie Drown--who voted for Bush in 2000 and has a husband in the Army's 101st Airborne Division--told the New York Times that her view of the Administration has completely changed. "My husband is a soldier and his job is to fight for freedom. But after so many months and so many deaths, no one has shown us any weapons of mass destruction or given us an explanation." A mother of four young kids, she continued: "So a lot of military wives are now asking: 'Why? Why did we go to Iraq? The Administration talked a strong story, but a lot of us are kicking our butts about how we voted last time around. Now we're leaning the other way."

Rhonda Wilson, of Astoria, Queens echoed Drown in remarks she made recently to New York Newsday. Her daughter, Shawna Herron, 26, is a cook with the Army's 225th Battalion.

"I don't know why President Bush don't let our children come home," Wilson said. "He would rather see our kids slaughtered. Who's he to say we're sticking it out? This is not our fight. It never was.

"He's busy trying to get himself re-elected and got all our babies over there risking life and limb," Wilson said. "It's wrong, wrong, and somebody needs to let him know it. So many people have lost their kids."

Samie Drown and Rhonda Wilson must be keeping Karl Rove wide awake in the wee hours of the night.

On the same base as Drown's husband in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Brittany Wood, 19, whose stepfather has spent most of the past 18 months in Iraq, says she was a Bush supporter a year ago but she plans to vote for Kerry this November.

"I was glad we were doing this because we need to help other countries fight for freedom, but now lots of people feel there's been a cover-up and it is a lie and we were not told the real reasons for being in Iraq," Ms. Wood says. ""That is making a lot of soldiers and their families think about voting. And for the first time they're thinking about voting Democratic." (A recent CBS News survey found that forty to forty-eight percent of people from "military families" would vote for Kerry.)

And buried in Sunday's Washington Post report on the small ANSWER-organized antiwar demonstration in DC on Saturday was a telling interview with a veteran on holiday who happened upon the demo unexpectedly. "What they're [the protestors] saying is correct," said T.J. Myers--who had recently returned from a year's stint in Iraq after leaving the Army after a seven year hitch. "It's all about money." Myers, who lives in Fort Benning, Georgia and was in Washington on vacation, said "It's my first time in DC, and I have never seen so many homeless people in my life and right near the White House. How can we send [billions] to another country when we have so many people in trouble here?"

Myers's sentiments are shared by groups like Military Families Speak Out, which together with http://www.unitedforpeace.org ">United for Peace and Justice, organized a press conference and walk to the White House on April 14 to deliver the message that it's time to end the occupation.

All this is showing that military families and personnel may be this election's newest swing voters. They certainly aren't Republican stalwarts anymore.

Voting to Help President Bush

At last night's press conference, President Bush was asked if he could name his biggest mistake in office. At first he said, "I'm sure something will pop into my head here." But then he couldn't name a single miscue. As he concluded: "I don't want to sound like I have made no mistakes. I'm confident I have. I just haven't--you just put me under the spot here, and maybe I'm not as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one."

A few Bush errors did pop into my head, as I'm sure they did yours. And the folks at the Center for American Progress, sensing a good opportunity to help the anti-Bush cause while having some fun, have unveiled a new online poll. They were able to think of five big Bush mistakes and are asking the public to vote on which one they consider the most egregious. Click here to vote today.

An Out-of-Control Occupation

As Anthony Shadid detailed in the Washington Post today, the US Marine siege of Fallujah has produced a powerful backlash in Baghdad and the rest of Iraq. Hospitals report as many as 600 Iraqi civilians have been killed by US troops so far, while media accounts this morning suggest an escalation of violence with US F-15 jet fighters firing cannons at unidentified targets in the city. And the http://www.thenation.com doc.mhtml?i=20040426&s=jamail">siege of Fallujah is only the most blatant example of an Iraqi policy in almost complete chaos.

The fierce fighting and lack of a coherent exit plan are also helping galvanize a new community of antiwar activists: military families. At 12:00 noon on Wednesday, April 14, at least fifteen people from among this community, as well as several Vietnam Vets, will participate in a press conference in Washington, DC, organized by United for Peace and Justice.

Speakers will explain why US troops should be withdrawn from Iraq and will call on people nationwide to contact their Congressional representatives to implore them to take action to end the occupation. (Tell them it might also be a winning electoral issue in November.) This week while Congress is still in recess and most members are home is a good time to make your voice heard. Click here to get in touch your elected reps.

UFP recommends trying to schedule an appointment with your representatives or their staffers in the next few days--either on behalf of a group or organization or as a concerned citizen. If that fails, flood them with calls and faxes and consider organizing a vigil in front of their offices to demand that they make time to speak with their constituents on matters of life and death.

Following Wednesday's press conference, the delegation will walk to the White House to deliver the message that it's time to end the war, end the occupation and bring the troops home. One flower for each of the US dead and thousands of petals for the nameless Iraqis who have been killed will be left at the steps of the White House. Hundreds of letters from military families around the country, all calling for an end to the senseless deaths, will also be left for the President.

Tonight also presents another good way to keep the pressure on the White House. This evening, for just the third time during his presidency, George W. Bush will hold a live press conference. Let him know what you think about what he says. Call the White House comment line at 202-456-1111 or the White House switchboard at 202-456-1414. And call your local talk-radio show and tell them what you think too. (Click here for contact info for media in your area.) They might not want to hear us but it can't hurt to call.

The Unsexy Ballot Initiative

Did you know that voter turnout in states with ballot initiatives is much higher in general elections? This year each additional initiative on the ballot could correspond to an increase in turnout of roughly three to five percent? 

Yet, although initiatives possess the power to draw voters to the ballot booths, their significance is often overshadowed by the sexier and louder parade of election activity created by candidate races. But initiatives shouldn't be flippantly tossed aside this year by candidates and political operatives alike--they certainly haven't been by rightwing organizations that understand the power and potential of ballot measures. Just take a look at my Top Ten list of hot initiatives for the year.

Top Ten Ballot Initiatives in 2004

1. Minimum wage increases in Florida and Nevada.

2. Anti-gay marriage bills in Missouri, Georgia, Utah and Mississippi.

3. Lottery funding for public education in Nevada and Oklahoma.

4. Conservation and open space battles in Arizona and Utah.

5. Ban on nuclear waste dumping in Washington.

6. Defense of Clean Elections in Arizona.

7. Tobacco tax for prescription drugs and health care in Colorado.

8. Defense of affirmative action in Michigan.

9. Progressive tax reform in Colorado.

10. Defense of healthcare insurance in California.

(Caveat: This is a constantly changing environment and although the campaigns mentioned in the list are highly likely to qualify, the initiative landscape won't be fully clear until August.)

And for the larger argument about why progressives need to start looking at 2004 initiatives as opportunities, check out the smart op-ed below by Kristina Wilfore, Executive Director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center.

The Political Opportunity of Ballot Initiatives by Kristina Wilfore

Today, initiatives are abounding in battleground states - largely in order to mobilize a conservative or progressive base, drive wedges into an opposing partisan coalition, and generate contributions to campaigns through what is increasingly considered a soft money loophole in a post BCRA world.

Tort restrictions, the denial of marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples, and immigration, are expected to be the hottest issues of the day and will frame the political rhetoric of a variety of campaigns throughout the country. Furthermore, several contentious tax-related ballot measures have been filed as part of a coordinated strategy among groups like Center for a Sound Economy and Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform to shrink government and put Democratic candidates on the hot seat in Maine, Nevada and Washington.

But before progressives wring their hands in anticipation of doom and gloom at the ballot box, let's not forget the political opportunity that lies before us. Whether on defense or offense, ballot initiatives create an opening to define what we stand for and make the other side look as repugnant as they truly are. But this can only be achieved if the organizations and individuals on the left that constitute the fabric of voter engagement vehicles for 2004 start to acknowledge these initiatives, drive resources to them, and develop a viable strategy for victory.

The long-term political effect of even socially divisive wedge issues hasn't been all bad for progressives. After the passage of Proposition 187, the 1994 anti-immigrant initiative spearheaded by Governor Pete Wilson, Latino voters in subsequent elections become politically energized and increasingly hostile to Republican candidates. Measures modeled after Proposition 187 have been filed in Arizona, Nevada and Colorado for 2004. After Proposition 209, the 1996 measure to eliminate affirmative action in California, Republican candidate Dan Lungren received only 20 percent of the Hispanic vote, which at that time accounted for 14 percent of the state's electorate. That same year, Bill Clinton won 73 percent of the Hispanic vote against Bob Dole, who championed an English-only ballot measure. This climate persisted into the 2000 election when Al Gore received 71 percent of the Hispanic vote against George W. Bush, despite the fact that Bush, speaking Spanish, campaigned heavily to win over Hispanic voters.

On the flip side, turnout in Washington state in 1998 increased by as much as four percentage points thanks to the presence of a minimum wage initiative. This increase was even more pronounced among those with poor or inconsistent voting histories. That year, Democrats unexpectedly won 50 percent of the contests for the state House of Representatives and the state Senate switched to a Democratic majority. This is part of the reason why progressive activists in Florida and Nevada are sponsoring minimum wage ballot initiatives of their own. Both measures are being used for the dual purpose of identifying and registering disenfranchised voters and to embed progressive economic policies in the state law. Just imagine, Democratic candidates could have a positive, pro-active economic message to run on in these states rather than defining their fiscal agenda by being against the Bush tax cut.

There is a lot at stake for Democrats in this year's elections. In addition to possessing the power to take back the White House and other hotly contested positions where Republicans currently maintain tenuous control, a slew of state-based issues will hinge on the results of these ballot initiatives. Let's hope the political organizations that have the lion's share of election resources this year don't look at ballot initiatives as a burden, but rather as an opportunity.

Condi's Cover-up Caves In

A small but significant White House cover-up fell apart this past weekend.

When the White House finally released the August 6, 2001 President's Daily Brief, it marked the end of a two-year effort on the part of the Bush administration to prevent the public from learning that a month before the 9/11 attacks--and weeks after the U.S. government had collected "chatter" indicating Osama bin Laden was planning a major strike--Bush received information indicating that al Qaeda was intent on mounting attacks within the United States.

Condoleezza Rice was instrumental in the attempt to keep the contents of this PDB--which was entitled "Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US" and which noted that al Qaeda "apparently maintains a support structure [in the United States] that could aid attacks" and that the FBI had detected "suspicious activity...consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks"--from becoming known. And it is obvious why it was so important for her and the White House to smother this PDB.

The existence of the August 6 PDB was first revealed by CBS News' David Martin on May 15, 2002. But Martin's report only referred to the PDB in one sentence that noted the PDB had warned that an attack by bin Laden could involve hijacking U.S. aircraft. CBS did not report the title of the briefing or any other material it contained. A media furor erupted after the White House acknowledged Bush had received this PDB. The day after the CBS News report, The New York Times carried a front-page story with a headline declaring, "Bush Was Warned Bin Laden Wanted To Hijack Planes."

The disclosure of the PDB came at an especially awkward time for the White House. Two weeks earlier, news reports revealed that an FBI agent in Phoenix in July 2001 had written a classified memo suggesting that a group of Middle Eastern aviation students might be linked to terrorists (including bin Laden) and that the FBI had not taken any action in response to this agent's investigation. The "Phoenix memo" received a flood of media coverage, and the Bush administration--which heretofore had not had to field any tough questions about the government's pre-9/11 performance-- was confronted with queries about the negligent handling of the agent's prescient report. At the same time, the case of Zacarias Moussaoui was in the news. On May 15, the Times reported that before 9/11 an FBI agent had speculated that Moussaoui, the suspicious aviation student arrested by the FBI on immigration charges in the summer of 2001, might have been planning to fly a plane into the World Trade Center. News reports had previously indicated that the FBI had not pursued the Moussaoui case vigorously prior to September 11.

The Phoenix memo, the Moussaoui case--all of this placed the administration on the defensive for the first time since 9/11, as the White House fended off suggestions (and accusations) that the federal government, on Bush's watch, had missed crucial tips and opportunities to thwart the horrific attacks. Then came news of the August 6 PDB.

The White House reaction was predictable: stonewall. The Bush crew clearly did not want American citizens to discover that he had been told that bin Laden was aiming to conduct attacks in the United States, and they did not want to have to answer the inevitable questions (such as, what did the president do in response to this briefing?). So Team Bush started spinning, and its lead twirler was Rice.

On May 16, she held a briefing for reporters and described the PDB as "not a warning" and no more than an "analytic report that talked about [bin Laden's] methods of operations, talked about what he had done historically, in 1997, 1998. It mentioned hijacking, but hijacking in the traditional sense, and in a sense said that the most important and likely thing was they would take over an airliner holding passengers and demand the release of one of their operatives." She did not refer to the title or the other elements of the PDB unrelated to hijacking, including the report that al Qaeda members had apparently set up a support network in the United States. She did her best to make the PDB seem rather dull:

"This was generalized information that put together the fact that there were terrorist groups who were unhappy [with] things that were going on in the Middle East as well as al Qaeda operatives, which we'd been watching for a long time, that there was more chatter than usual, and that we knew that they were people who might try a hijacking. But, you know, again, that terrorism and hijacking might be associated is not rocket science."

That ho-hum description hardly matches the actual memo. And several days after the PDB story broke, Ari Fleischer, then Bush's press secretary, told reporters that the headline on the document was "Bin Laden Determined To Strike the United States." That is, he had changed an "in" to a "the"--an alteration of significance, since the White House line has been that the pre-9/11 chatter had the administration looking for attacks on targets outside the United States. A May 19 , 2002, front-page Washington Post story did report the correct title of the PDB and did state that the briefing had noted that al Qaeda members were living or traveling to the United States. But such reporting was overwhelmed by a White House, PR blitz that maintained the PDB was no big deal.

Rice, Fleischer and their colleagues succeeded more or less. The issue of the August 6, 2001, PDB went away. But there was another front to worry about. In 2002, the House and Senate intelligence committees were conducting a joint 9/11 inquiry. When the committees requested access to PDBs received by Bush and Bill Clinton, the Bush White House said no. As the final report of the joint inquiry noted, "Ultimately, this bar was extended to the point where CIA personnel were not allowed to be interviewed regarding the simple process by which the PDB is prepared."

The joint inquiry did interview intelligence community officials aware of the contents of the August 6 PDB. And the final report of the committees, which was released last summer, strongly hinted at what had been in the PDB. The committees got it right, noting that intelligence material gathered in early August 2001 had informed "senior government officials" that bin Laden had wanted to conduct attacks in the United States and that al Qaeda had a support structure in the United States. But the committees were unable to portray the PDB definitively or to provide the title. Only a few reporters picked up on the obvious hints placed in the final report. For the most part, the cover-up was still holding.

The independent 9/11 commission finally forced the August 6 PDB out of Bush's clutches. But first the White House put up a fight, refusing to allow the full commission to see this and other PDBs. The commission and the White House negotiated an agreement under which one commissioner, Jamie Gorelick (a Democrat), and the panel's executive director, Philip Zelikow (a Republican), were able to review the PDBs and report back to the other commissioners, after the White House vetted the notes they had taken. September 11 family members complained about the arrangement. They believed the full commission should have access to the PDBs, and they worried about Zelikow's credibility. (He served with Rice in the first Bush administration, co-wrote a book with her, worked on the Bush II transition team with her, and was appointed by George W. Bush to be on the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.) This deal did seem to provide the White House the opportunity to continue to suppress specifics about the PDB.

But Richard Clarke got in the way. His book and his testimony to the 9/11 commission brought far more attention to the panel and to the issue of whether the Bush administration had not regarded the al Qaeda threat seriously before September 11. His dramatic appearance also highlighted the White House's refusal to permit Rice to testify. With the White House trying to limit the commission's actions, its attempt to sit on the August 6 PDB became one more example of the administration's reluctance to cooperate fully. (Earlier this year, the White House had opposed the commission's request to add two months to its end-of-May deadline and had said Bush would not consent to an interview with all of the panel's commissioners; it then retreated on each point.)

When Rice did appear, Democratic commission members--particularly Richard Ben-Veniste--grilled her on the PDB, disclosing information from the PDB and forcing her to reveal its title. But she tried to stick to her previous characterization of the PDB, noting it presented "historical information based on old reporting." That depends on what the definition of "historical" is. The PDB did run through material dating back several years to show that "bin Laden since 1997 has wanted to conduct terrorist attacks in the U.S." But it also noted that al Qaeda was currently maintaining a "support structure" in the United States. And it cited information obtained in May 2001 that suggested "that a group of bin Laden supporters was in the U.S. planning attacks with explosives." (The White House said it reacted aggressively to this tip-off and it was unrelated to 9/11.) Rice repeatedly referred to the PDB as a "historical" document and did not accept Ben-Veniste's invitation to call for its declassification. When Ben-Veniste asked Rice if she had ever told Bush before August 6, 2001, of the existence of al Qaeda cells within the United States, she did not answer the question.

With so much attention focused on the PDB, it became inevitable that the Bush White House would have to release it. The administration has established a rather clear pattern. When it comes to sharing information with the public about controversial matters, it holds the line as long as it can--until politics dictate otherwise. This is the SOP for elected officials. But Bush does seem to dig in his heels more than most. After two years of hiding the PDB, the administration let it out on a Saturday night--a rather convenient time to make inconvenient information available.

When the White House released the document, it held a background briefing with reporters on a conference call. During this sessions, one White House official said, "The release of this PDB should clear up the myth that's out there that

somehow the President was warned about September 11th." But the point of the PDB was not that Bush had been warned specifically about 9/11. At issue was what he had been told about the prospect of a bin Laden strike inside the United States, as well as what, if anything, he did in response. Under questioning from Commissioner Timothy Roemer, a former Democratic congressman, Rice had said the PDB was "most certainly an historical document that says, 'Here's how you might think about al Qaeda.'" But there are no public indications that after he received this briefing that Bush thought at all about the possibility of an al Qaeda attack in the United States. Maybe he did. But during the background briefing, a White House official declined to discuss how Bush reacted to the August 6 briefing: "That's a confidential relationship between the briefer who briefs the President each morning and the President. So not only do we not know, but it's not the sort of thing that we would discuss."

The day after the PDB was released, Bush held a short media availability at Fort Hood, Texas, and insisted that the August 6 briefing "said nothing about an attack on America. It talked about intentions, about somebody who hated America. Well, we knew that." When asked if he was "satisfied" that every agency had done all it should have prior to 9/11, Bush redefined the question: "I'm satisfied that I never saw any intelligence that indicated there was going to be an attack on America at a time and a place of an attack." It was a non sequitur. No one has suggested he saw such intelligence.

The PDB controversy is not about whether Bush received a specific warning a month before 9/11. It concerns his administration's attitude toward al Qaeda and the possibility of domestic attacks prior to September 11 and whether the White House has truly been willing to see the full 9/11 tale uncovered and told. The evidence is mounting that al Qaeda was not the priority it should have been in the first seven months of Bush's presidency. Yet the White House is unable to acknowledge that it made a misjudgment. Much of the public might even believe that it was a natural mistake for a new administration to underestimate the abilities and reach of a madman hunkered down in faraway Afghanistan. In a way, such a screw-up may be more forgivable than Bush and his lieutenants' efforts to cover up information and prevent the 9/11 commission from completing a thorough examination.

Bush lost the PDB battle, but the war is not over. The 9/11 commission is working hurriedly to finish its report by the congressionally mandated date of July 28. No doubt, the commission will have to tussle with the White House over the declassification of other material. Will the administration once more attempt to censor significant information? Could this delay the release of the report? Declassification fights tied up the congressional intelligence committees' 9/11 report for eight months. A repeat would push the unveiling of the 9/11 commission's report until after the election, but commission officials say they are determined to avoid such a fate.

The 9/11 commission has not constantly inspired confidence, but thanks to the panel, Rice's PDB cover-up, after two years, caved in. Still, suspicious minds would be right to wonder: Are there other cover-ups, which are not yet publicly known, that will end up more to Bush and Rice's liking?

*********

DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! The Washington Post says, "This is a fierce polemic, but it is based on an immense amount of research....[I]t does present a serious case for the president's partisans to answer....Readers can hardly avoid drawing...troubling conclusions from Corn's painstaking indictment." The Los Angeles Times says, "David Corn's The Lies of George W. Bush is as hard-hitting an attack as has been leveled against the current president. He compares what Bush said with the known facts of a given situation and ends up making a persuasive case." The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations....Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." For more information and a sample, check out the book's official website: www.bushlies.co

Off the Ticket

Condoleezza Rice's amen corner on the right was going to hail her Thursday appearance before the 9/11 commission as a stunning success no matter what she said. And so they did, with President Bush declaring that she had done "a terrific job," Senate Intelligence Committee chair Richard Shelby describing her as "very candid" and radio personality Gordon Liddy announcing, "a star is born."

But that was just spin. On Thursday, a star flamed out. Permanently.

Despite the praise from her president and the Republican establishment that since the 1980s has been grooming her as a candidate for national office, Rice's appearance dealt her political ambitions a fatal blow.

This is not to say that Rice's performance was the complete disaster that her bitterest critics imagined. The national security adviser stayed on message, remained reasonably composed and delivered her talking points about as ably as a deputy press secretary. Admittedly, she seemed brittle and ill-prepared when questioned by Democrats Bob Kerrey and Tim Roemer. She filibustered when it would have been better to be frank. And she did not inspire confidence in her abilities with the complaint that, while she had been warned about the presence of terrorist sleeper cells in the United States, she had not been told how to deal with them. But Republican commissioners, especially former Illinois Governor Jim Thompson, eased the tension by tossing Rice enough softball questions so that she could appear to be in only slightly over her head.

Unfortunately for Rice, however, her testimony will be remembered for a single exchange.

Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste asked Rice if she could recall the title of President Bush's daily briefing document for August 6, 2001, which crossed her desk more than a month before operatives associated with Osama bin Laden's al-Queda network attacked the world Trade Center and the Pentagon. After several inept attempts to avoid the question, Rice finally answered, "I believe the title was, 'Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States."

Rice knew she was in trouble; she claimed immediately that the August 6 briefing paper was a speculative document, not a real warning. The administration's defenders then spent the rest of the day trying to convince Americans that they had not heard what they had, in fact, heard. But, as 9/11 widow Lorie Van Auken correctly noted after the title was revealed, "That pretty much says it all."

What it says, above all, is that Condoleezza Rice will forever be remembered as the national security adviser who knew bin Laden was determined to attack inside the United States but who, by all indications, felt no great sense of urgency about that threat. On "The Daily Show," host John Stewart simply played the tape of Rice's response to Ben-Veniste's inquiry. It got the best laugh of the night.

Fair or not, the impression that Rice created on Thursday will spell the end of her political prospects. She will never win a place on a national Republican ticket as a candidate for president or vice president. No matter how much Republican operatives may try to spin her back onto the short list, it is simply impossible to imagine that Rice, or anyone else, could survive the repeated airings of that exchange in an election year.

Because Rice has always been a political player, as opposed to a genuine security analyst or strategist, this is the dramatic news from her appearance before the 9/11 commission.

Remember, as recently as late February, political reporters and strategists were buzzing about the prospect that Rice would end up on a 2004 or 2008 GOP ticket. In late February, when rumors swirled that Vice President Dick Cheney might be dumped from Bush's ticket this year, the National Journal mentioned two possible replacements: former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Rice. The Reuters news service sent the story of the Rice-replaces-Cheney speculation around the world. Former presidential adviser Dick Morris announced that Rice was one of only two Republicans who could win the presidency in 2008 -- the other being Secretary of State Colin Powell. Conservative activists launched a "Bush-Rice '04" website at www.bushrice04.org, and declared, "our mission is to convince President Bush that his best chance at reelection, and the Republican party's best chance for victory in 2008, is to choose Condoleezza Rice as his running mate in the 2004 presidential election."

The Bush/Rice website will keep campaigning to make the national security adviser the Republican nominee for vice president. In low-level Republican circles, Rice will continue to be portrayed as vice presidential or presidential timber, just as some of the faithful continue to imagine that former Florida Secretary of State Katharine Harris will someday be a U.S. Senator.

But it is a fool's mission now.

Condoleezza Rice is not finished as a Bush administration insider. But she is, unquestionably, finished as a candidate for vice president or president.

Rice on the Stand--And Afterward

[FOR AN UPDATE ON THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION'S RELEASE OF THE CONTROVERSIAL PRESIDENTIAL DAILY BRIEFING OF AUGUST 6, 2001, SCROLL DOWN TEN PARAGRAPHS.]

Condoleezza Rice is fortunate that she only has to speak under oath when she appears before the 9/11 commission.

Her much-anticipated testimony to the panel investigating the 9/11 attacks overall was predictable. She vigorously defended herself, her administration and her boss from the charge that they had not assigned the al Qaeda threat sufficient importance prior to September 11. She could not bring herself to utter what Commissioner Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator, called "the m-word"--that is, "mistake." Instead, she only would note that "America's response [to the growing al Qaeda threat] across several administrations of both parties was insufficient," and she blamed that on the general tendency of democratic societies to be slow in reacting to "gathering threats." (To prove her point, she cited the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania.) She repeatedly referred to "structural problems" that had long existed in the national security community as the primary reason for the failures--another word she did not mention once in her opening statement--that occurred on and before 9/11. As could be expected, the Republican-appointed commissioners tossed her easy questions, and the Democrats tried to zing her but were hampered by tight time restrictions. Still, the hearing produced information indicating that she and the Bush administration have not been straight with the public as they have attempted to convince America they were fully vigilant in the fight against al Qaeda prior to September 11.

This was particularly true of one of the main issues covered at the hearing: the Presidential Daily Briefing George W. Bush received on August 6, 2001, which included information on Osama bin Laden and hijackings. (PDBs are highly sensitive memos prepared by the intelligence community for the chief executive.) Rice's handling of this dicey topic undermines her credibility. In May 2002, the White House, responding to a CBS News report, acknowledged that Bush had received this PDB and that the briefing had noted that bin Laden was interested in hijacking aircraft. This news caused a brief media and political frenzy. Had Bush ignored a warning that 9/11-like attacks were coming? The White House insisted (correctly) that the PDB did not state that al Qaeda was looking to hijack airliners and turn them into weapons. But Rice bent the truth to downplay the significance of this politically inconvenient PDB. The day the story was on the front pages, she held an on-the-record briefing at the White House. The August 6 PDB, she maintained, was "not a warning" but an "analytic report that talked about [bin Laden's] methods of operations, talked about what he had done historically, in 1997, 1998. It mentioned hijacking, but hijacking in the traditional sense, and in a sense said that the most important and likely thing was they would take over an airliner holding passengers and demand the release of one of their operatives."

She made it seem that the PDB had been a well, duh sort of report:

"This was generalized information that put together the fact that there were terrorist groups who were unhappy [with] things that were going on in the Middle East as well as al Qaeda operatives, which we'd been watching for a long time, that there was more chatter than usual, and that we knew that they were people who might try a hijacking. But, you know, again, that terrorism and hijacking might be associated is not rocket science."

Since then, the precise contents of the PDB have been a matter of contention. At issue is whether Bush did receive a warning--or, at the least, troubling information--about al Qaeda a month before the attacks, and whether he responded appropriately. The White House has refused to declassify and release the PDB. It has also only allowed two of the ten members of the 9/11 commission to examine the document. And as the price for this limited access, the commission had to turn over the notes taken by the commissioners regarding the PDB to the White House for vetting. During her opening statement to the 9/11 commission, Rice noted that the PDB's "content has been frequently mischaracterized."

She did not say that she had been one of the first to mischaracterize this intelligence memo. But that is what the hearings showed.

In her opening statement, Rice noted that the team that had prepared the briefing had reviewed "possible al Qaeda plans to attack inside the United States." That is not what she had told reporters in May 2002. And under forceful questioning from Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democrat, she disclosed the title of this PDB: "Bin Laden Determined To Attack Inside the United States." She still maintained that the PDB had been only "historical information" and not a warning of any specific information. But the title suggested it was more than a restatement of the obvious, which is how Rice had first depicted it. Ben-Veniste further revealed that the briefing had noted that al Qaeda operatives had been in the United States for years and that bin Laden's network had long maintained a support system in America.

As Ben-Veniste continued to question Rice about the August 6, 2001, PDB, she repeatedly argued it could not be considered a warning because it contained no specific information on where and when an attack might occur, and she declined his invitations to call for its release. But Bob Kerrey later noted that this briefing said that the FBI had gathered information on al Qaeda indicating "a pattern of activity in the United States consistent with preparations for hijackings." Nevertheless, Rice said the information in the PDB was not "actionable"--meaning it was not specific enough to warrant a direct response.

Whether that is true or not, the PDB appears to be much broader--and more frightening--than Rice had said previously (when she was talking to reporters and not under oath). She certainly made sure back in May 2002 not to mention the alarming title--which had been classified until the hearing. In fact, the classification of the PDB's title demonstrates how an administration can abuse the classification system. In theory, the classification system is supposed to keep secret any Information that if released would harm the national security of the United States. But how could releasing the title--"Bin Laden Determined To Attack Inside the United States"--cause any injury after bin Laden had already succeeded in attacking within the United States? The reason for keeping the cloak over the title for so long is clear: the White House did not want the public to see that Bush had received a document with such information--warning or not--five weeks before 9/11. So Rice disingenuously portrayed the PDB when its existence first became known in May 2002.

[UPDATE: On April 10, two days after Rice's appearance before the commission, the White House released the August 6 PDB. Its official title was "Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US." The release proved that Ben-Veniste had accurately characterized the briefing and that Rice, back in May 2002, had falsely described the PDB. The briefing did more than merely report that bin Laden had been generally interested in hijackings. One passage read, "Al-Qa'ida members - including some who are US citizens - have resided in or traveled to the US for years, and the group apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks." While not a specific warning of any particular action to come, the PDB reported a list of indicators that bin Laden was aiming to hit the United States directly. Its release raises the question, why did Bush, Rice and their administration--after a summer full of "chatter" suggesting that al Qaeda was planning something big--not devote more attention to the possibility that this event might happen in the United States and not abroad? Presumably that is the sort of query that Rice had been trying to avoid when she dishonestly claimed in 2002 that the PDB had contained merely no-big-news information.]

Now that the PDB is (partially) out of the bag, Rice and the Bush administration have to deal with the obvious follow-up question: even though most of the intelligence "chatter" in the summer of 2001 focused on a possible attack overseas, what did Bush and Rice do concerning the prospect that bin Laden might strike the United States directly? To deal with this difficult question, Rice noted that Bush did not have to take any special steps because he already knew that the FBI and the CIA were "pursuing" information about al Qaeda in the United States. She claimed that the FBI had "full field investigations under way" and that in the summer of 2001 it "tasked all 56 of its U.S. field offices to increase surveillance of known suspects of terrorists and to reach out to known informants who might have information on terrorist activities."

But Jamie Gorelick, a Democratic commissioner, challenged Rice on this point. She revealed that the commission had examined all the messages sent from FBI headquarters to its field office and had found no evidence of such a tasking. The memos that were sent out, Gorelick noted, were "feckless....They don't tell anyone anything." Gorelick maintained that Bush should have been the one to send a message to all the bureaucracies urging that everything be done regarding the threat from al Qaeda: "There is a greater degree of intensity when it comes from the top." Rice replied by noting, "The president was meeting with the [CIA director]. That was well understood at the CIA."

Rice's opening statement, in which she attempted to answer the harsh allegations hurled at her and the White House by Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism coordinator, was rather selective. She noted she had taken the "unusual step" of retaining Clarke at the National Security Council without mentioning she had downgraded his position. She claimed that the administration had pressed Pakistan to abandon support for the Taliban without saying that, unlike the Clinton administration, it had done nothing to pressure the Saudi government to join Washington's anti-al Qaeda efforts. She did not directly address the testimony and statements that the commission has obtained from several government officials--including Deputy CIA director John McLaughlin, counterterrorism experts at the Pentagon, and officers at the CIA's Counterterrorism Center--who each reported that the Bush administration was not taking the al Qaeda threat as seriously as necessary. When asked about Bush's now infamous comment to Bob Woodward--"I didn't feel that sense of urgency"--she explained that Bush had only been referring to the issue of assassinating bin Laden.

Through her testimony, Rice claimed that the policy had been moving at an adequate pace, as the administration was developing a "more strategic, more robust" plan for dealing with al Qaeda. Clarke and others argue that the plan finally adopted days before 9/11 was not all that different from the proposals Clarke had shared with the Bush administration in its first weeks. Nevertheless, Rice maintained that the speed of the deliberations, the decisions rendered, and the piecemeal actions undertaken in the meantime were, in a way, unconnected to the tragedy of September 11: "As your hearings have shown there was no silver bullet that could have stopped 9/11."

That is a strong element of the Bush defense. But it is not the opinion of Thomas Kean, the chairman of the 9/11 commission and a former Republican governor of New Jersey. Last December, he said he thought that 9/11 could have been prevented: "I do not believe it had to happen." Rice is wrong: the commission's work and previous investigations show that the U.S. government had been in a position to track at least two of the 9/11 hijackers but failed to do so. In early 2000, the CIA learned that two al Qaeda suspects were in or heading to the United States, yet it never placed them on a State Department watchlist or notified the FBI. The two settled in San Diego and were in frequent contact with an FBI informant. Had the FBI been told by the CIA seventeen months before 9/11 to look out for these two suspected terrorists, it well could have located them through the informant or through various records (the two had rented a home and acquired driver's licenses using their real name). There's no telling what would have occurred had the FBI trailed these men (who were in touch with two other would-be 9/11 hijackers), or had the FBI done a better job of responding to information in its possession about suspected al Qaeda operatives taking flight instruction. But it's a cop-out to say that more competence on the part of the CIA and the FBI--hardly a "silver bullet"--would have made no difference.

When Rice noted that the CIA's failure to share that information with the FBI had been one of those "structural problems" that her administration could not have been expected to resolve in its first 230 days in office, Kerrey exploded: "Everyone who does national security in this town knows the FBI and the CIA don't talk....What was your follow-up? What's the paper trail that shows that you...followed up?"

"I followed up with Dick Clarke," Rice replied. But Kerrey's argument--and that of other Bush administration critics--is that if Bush himself (or the cabinet secretaries), in response to the August 6 PDB or the earlier warnings of a coming attack, had gone, more or less, ballistic, then perhaps that would have shaken up various government agencies and caused dots to be connected or suspicious information to be reevaluated. Rice rejected such a view. Instead, she said that until the Patriot Act was passed, "we couldn't do what we needed to do" to go after suspected terrorists. Yet there had been no legal obstacles that had prevented the CIA and FBI from making effective use of the information they possessed before September 11. And Rice dismissed the suggestion of Commissioner Timothy Roemer, a former Democratic congressman, that some government officials should have resigned after the failures of 9/11. The terrorists, she replied, "are the responsible party."

Through the morning, Rice was able to interject the usual administration rhetoric into her statements. She offered Bush's simplistic explanation for 9/11: "they attacked us for who we are, for no other reason." That's a rather unsophisticated view for a foreign policy scholar who could be expected to know that bin Laden and al Qaeda have strategic aims (perverse as they are) to establish a fundamentalist theocracy stretching across Arabia and see the United States (which supports governments they oppose, such as in Saudi Arabia and Israel) as an obstacle and an enemy. She also took the occasion to cheerlead for the war in Iraq, claiming that by striking Iraq the administration attacked the threat of terrorism "at its source." How was Iraq the source of the terrorist threat posed by al Qaeda? She did not say.

Rice yielded no ground. No mistakes were made. Nothing else could have been done. The war in Iraq was a wise response to 9/11 and will, once successful, "inspire hope and encourage reform throughout the greater Middle East." For those who want to believe in the Bush administration, she did a good job. For those who don't, she was not convincing. But if the 9/11 commission becomes seen as mainly another Washington partisan mudpit that hosts such melodrama as the Rice-Clarke face-off, the White House wins. Not because Rice was persuasive, but because the Bush administration will benefit if the work of the 9/11 commission--which has contradicted the Bush administration's we-did-everything-possible assertions--comes to be overshadowed by business-as-usual political tit-for-tat. Rice did not have to vanquish Clarke for the White House to triumph. She only had to be articulate and poised as she obfuscated. That she accomplished.

The commission will be holding hearings April 13 and 14. Attorney General John Ashcroft, CIA director George Tenet, FBI director Robert Mueller III and others are scheduled to appear--including J. Cofer Black, the former director of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, who last week testified in Congress that the war in Iraq has created a breeding ground for international jihadists and has caused Islamic extremist groups around the world to rally around al Qaeda and bin Laden's agenda. The commission has a private interview pending with Bush. (The White House told the commission it wanted Vice President Dick Cheney to attend this session, and the commission agreed.) And the commission has only a few months left before it must produce its final report by a July 26 deadline. Will the panel be hobbled by declassification battles with the White House? It would be surprising if the commission avoids such tussles.

There is much to come, and it remains unclear if the commission, which does seem divided along partisan lines, is up to the job of producing an unflinching, let-the-chips-fall report. Rice's appearance is not the end of the story. Her testimony showed that there are still many difficult questions for the panel to investigate and to resolve. *********

DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! The Washington Post says, "This is a fierce polemic, but it is based on an immense amount of research....[I]t does present a serious case for the president's partisans to answer....Readers can hardly avoid drawing...troubling conclusions from Corn's painstaking indictment." The Los Angeles Times says, "David Corn's The Lies of George W. Bush is as hard-hitting an attack as has been leveled against the current president. He compares what Bush said with the known facts of a given situation and ends up making a persuasive case." The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations....Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." For more information and a sample, check out the book's official website: www.bushlies.co

A New Populist on the Block

South Dakota has a proud populist tradition. In the late 19th-century, the state's farmers faced plummeting wheat prices and mounting piles of debt at the hands of large Eastern banks. But they responded by forming agrarian alliances to prop up prices, pooling their resources for bulk purchasing and becoming politically active in the People's Party--AKA, the populists.

Now more than a century later, there is a new populist on the block--and her name is Stephanie Herseth. A 33-year-old lawyer, teacher and South Dakota native, Herseth is running in the June 1 special election to fill former Congressman (and convicted felon) Bill Janklow's seat. (She came very close to beating him in 2000.) Raised on her family's fourth-generation farm and ranch 35 miles from Aberdeen, Herseth represents the best of South Dakota's progressive populist traditions.

Her grandfather served as South Dakota's governor from 1959-1961. But it was her grandmother who was the first one to run for public office. As superintendent of schools in Brown County in the 1930s, she helped put her nieces through college, and was elected Secretary of State in the 1970s after her husband died. Herseth's father also spent 20 years in the state legislature.

Herseth, however, might be the most skilled politician in her illustrious clan. Smart and poised, she exudes hope about the state's future and refuses to sling mud at her GOP opponents--which is part of the reason why, according to last week's Zogby Poll, Herseth enjoys a 16-point lead over State Senator http://legis.state.sd.us/sessions/2002/mbrdt149.htm ">Larry Diedrich, her main Republican rival.

The stakes are extraordinarily high. Herseth is pro-choice, and South Dakota, which has never elected a woman to Congress, needs her voice on this issue now more than ever. Last February, South Dakota's rightwing legislature passed a draconian bill banning virtually all abortion procedures even in cases of rape and incest. The governor finally vetoed the bill on technical grounds but the issue remains a controversial flashpoint in the state. One newspaper reporter even described Herseth as "untested, unmarried, no children, for abortion." Emily's List, NARAL and Planned Parenthood have responded by raising contributions and visibility for Herseth's campaign.

A skillful tactician, Herseth seems to be pushing the right buttons. In 2002, she ran a campaign against Janklow in which she encouraged South Dakota's youth to live and work in the state. After a narrow defeat, Herseth, true to her word, remained in South Dakota. She launched the South Dakota Farmers Union Foundation, which promotes agrarian prosperity and educates youth in rural communities. She taught politics at South Dakota's colleges, too.

Most importantly, Herseth has broad appeal in rural South Dakota. In 2002, she criticized agribusiness monopolies for damaging South Dakota's economy. Today, she supports fair trade, defends family farmers and advocates for affordable health care for rural America. She fights for military families on issues like veterans' benefits and better equipment for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a recent interview for the Emily's List newsletter, Herseth also promised to reach out to "Native American voters and increase turnout among younger women. They will be a core of my support in June and November."

As John Nichols noted in an November 4, 2002 Nation piece, Herseth "will provide her party with a desperately needed model for reaching voters in states where it cannot afford to be uncompetitive." And a Herseth victory this June 1st will demonstrate that progressives can win rural districts--and in Tom Daschle's state, where he faces a fierce re-election battle against Rep. John Thune this November.

When Herseth defeats Larry Diedrich this June, she will weaken Tom DeLay's iron grip on the anti-women, Republican-run House of Representatives. If you want to kindle a populist prairie fire, go to www.HersethforCongress.org and make a donation today.