Capital Games | The Nation


Capital Games

 Washington: a city of denials, spin, and political calculations. The Nation's former DC editor David Corn spent 2002-2007 blogging on the policies, personalities and lies that spew out of the nation's capital. The complete archive appears below. Corn is now the DC editor at Mother Jones.

The Death of Mary McGrory

Washington is less today than it was yesterday. Mary McGrory is dead.

She was the best liberal newspaper columnist of the latter 20th Century. Sorry, Molly Ivins, Frank Rich, Anthony Lewis, Jimmy Breslin and others. But--as any sentient political writer would agree--there's nothing wrong with being in Mary's shadow. Just being in the vicinity of her shadow would be an accomplishment.

For those unfortunates unfamiliar with her work, Mary was a columnist in Washington for fifty years, first for The Washington Star, then after the Star perished in 1981, for The Washington Post. Last year she suffered a stroke, and on Wednesday she died at the age of 85.

Mary was truly unique among newspaper columnists: she left her office to do her job. Most op-ed pundits sit at their desks, go to lunch, work the phone. But Mary married the gumption and discipline of a beat reporter with the style and insight of an opinion journalist. For nearly two decades, I would cross paths with her at committee hearings, press conferences, campaign events. An anthropologist of political Washington, Mary believed in doing field work. She wouldn't just pop in and out of an in-the-news hearing. She would be there for hours, sitting with the poor journalistic grunts who had to stick it out gavel-to-gavel. You never knew when you might find something interesting, she once told me.

Nothing slowed her down--particularly not age. I can recall one set of hearings that she attended while her leg was in a cast. She had trouble walking but she managed to maneuver herself through narrow rows and find a place at the front of press table. When the hearing was over, she hobbled up to dais to ask senators why their questions had not been more penetrating. (You will never see George Will doing this.) She was independent--in her thinking, in her journalism, in her life. At the 2000 presidential debate in Boston, I saw her afterward walking away from the John F. Kennedy Library in the dark by herself. She was trying to find a bus that was supposed to take her back to her hotel. But the scene was a bit chaotic, and she appeared unsure where to head. I was about to get on the subway and offered to help--to find the bus, escort her home on the subway, or locate a taxi. I practically insisted. She pushed me away, and, with a twinkle in her eye, said, in her straightforward but graceful manner, "Need I remind you that we're in Boston." Mary was Boston Irish, and her decades in Washington never changed that. She quickly turned and walked off into the night, certain that she would find her way.

Mary reported the hell out of her columns. She was not shy--no, not at all--about sharing her views. But she made her case with information, not assertion. (The Post has reprinted some of her columns here.) For many years, the Post published her columns not on the op-ed page but within the news pages, showcased in a box. That was a testament to the undeniable fact that Mary was more reporter than pontificator. But she was so irrepressible she could not avoid telling her readers what the facts meant. And she had the knack for finding that one hearing-room exchange, that one fact that fully captured a story or brought home a point, and often that entailed shining a bright light on the phony argument or hypocrisy of her target.

The obituaries make the obvious points: she was a pioneering newswoman who covered and explained the great events of her day; she was a Pulitzer winner; she was a passionate and vigorous liberal voice; she made Richard Nixon's enemies list and took that as a great honor; she didn't just write, she wove words together with flare and strength. But what I've read so far about Mary misses what might have been the basis for her success. She loved to listen. A conversation with Mary usually began with her asking, "Well, what do you think?" She was less eager to tell you what she thought. That's what the column was for. The first time I met her, in the early 1980s, I was writing a lot about nuclear arms control issues, as she had been, too. I introduced myself and immediately she began quizzing me on what I thought would happen next with one arms control matter after another--the nuclear weapons freeze, the MX missile, the Euromissiles. Her sources were certainly better than mine. I was flattered. And what an ego-boost: to be treated by Mary McGrory as a colleague. I wanted to know what she knew, believing I had less to offer than she did. But for Mary, there was always another piece of information, another point of view to collect. You never knew where you might find something interesting.

Perhaps because she preferred listening to talking you didn't see her on television performing in the cable-news circus. She wouldn't do it. Once, when I was hosting a radio show, I managed to coax her on as a guest. But that took much effort. She was wonderfully irascible on air, but quick to defer to the other guests.

I would occasionally send Mary an article that I had written--only bothering her when I thought (rightly or not) that I had concocted a point or uncovered a fact that deserved wider circulation. She was always gracious in acknowledging receipt. But more often I would read her column and see that she had beaten me to the punch. Or I would read her column and reach for a favorite phrase of my pal Jack Shafer: "I was going to think that."

With Mary gone, those who labor in her wake will have to work harder, think better, and write more stylishly. She set a standard that intimidates and inspires. Her voice--needed as much now as ever--will not be replaced. But if we're lucky, the echoes will continue to reverberate. She was the tops. Her column was missed this past year, and now anyone ever touched by Mary and her work will miss it forever.


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 official website: www.bushlies.com.

Woodward on Bush

It's hard to know what is more disturbing. That George W. Bush misled the public by stating in the months before the Iraq war that he was seriously pursuing a diplomatic resolution when he was not. That he didn't bother to ask aides to present the case against going to war. That he may have violated the U.S. Constitution by spending hundreds of millions of dollars secretly to prepare for the invasion of Iraq without notifying Congress. That he was misinformed by the CIA director about one of the most critical issues of the day and demanded no accountability. Or that he doesn't care if he got it wrong on the weapons of mass destruction.

Bob Woodward's new book, Plan of Attack, illustrates all these points. The full book, which details Bush's march to war, is not yet out, but as is routine for a Woodward book, the more noteworthy passages have preceded the book's release via a well-orchestrated PR blitz ( 60 Minutes, installments in Woodward's Washington Post, and leaks). And before this book--which follows Woodward's Bush at War, a mostly pro-Bush chronicling of the war in Afghanistan--hits the racks, it is already possible to draw conclusions. (Isn't life in the information age wonderful?)

Let's assume Woodward has gotten the story right. He may not deserve the full benefit of the doubt. Everything in the book is apparently drawn from off-the-record interviews except for two sessions with Bush. And some longtime Woodward critics still maintain (reasonably) that his book on the CIA in the 1980s, Veil, ended with a supposedly secret deathbed interview with CIA director William Casey that did not pass the smell test. But after Bush at War was published, the Bush crowd did not take exception to Woodward's work. So it is clear that he has the access and contacts (particularly with Secretary of State Colin Powell) to pen an insider's account of the Bush crowd.

The disclosure that appears to unsettle the White House the most is Woodward's assertion that in mid-January 2003 Bush decided to proceed with the invasion of Iraq. Woodward also notes that in November 2001, Bush asked the Pentagon to whip up a plan for war with Iraq. Such an order can be defended by the administration as prudent planning. After all, in the post-9/11 world, you never know when you might need such a plan. (Yes, General Tommy Franks lied to the public in May 2002 when he said, "My boss has not yet asked me to put together a plan" for attacking Iraq. Who, though, expects a military commander to reveal his secret plans?) But in the months before the war, the White House insisted that Bush was pursuing diplomatic options in good faith. At a November 20, 2002, speech in Prague, Bush said, "Our goal is to secure the peace through the comprehensive and verified disarmament of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction." And in late January, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said, "Nobody, but nobody, is more reluctant to go to war than President Bush....He does not want to lead the nation to war."

But, according to Woodward, Bush was already leading the nation to war, having made the decision on January 11. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice--who has become the administration's explainer-in-chief--suggests that Bush was merely thinking aloud at the time. But Woodward's account is pretty strong, noting that the Saudis were informed before Bush bothered to tell his secretary of state.

Which brings us to Disturbing Matter Number Two. So you're president and you're about to go to war--wouldn't it be a useful exercise to have your secretary of state tell you all the reasons this might not be a good idea? But when Bush got around to sharing his decision with Powell, no such conversation ensued. Powell merely noted there will be "consequences." Bush did not ask for details. Nor did the two discuss what to do about such "consequences." In fact, Plan of Attack seems to contain few, if any scenes, in which Bush and his aides consider options other than a full-scale military invasion. (At the time, some non-government policy experts were suggesting more aggressive inspections or military action short of invasion and occupation.) Nor, according to the book, did Bush and his aides seem particularly interested in planning for the post-invasion period--or planning operations to secure the weapons of mass destruction that were supposedly in Iraq.

The Bush-Powell non-conversation comes across as representative of an overall shallowness that infected Bush administration deliberations on the topic of war in Iraq. (Just last week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that neither he nor anyone else thought that post-war Iraq would be as tough a mission as it has been. That is simply not true. Many experts--even in the State Department--predicted the exact sort of problems that are plaguing U.S. policy right now.) And while Powell does come out positively in the World According to Woodward, he, too, can be held accountable for enabling the simplism of the Bush gang by being the good soldier who promoted and defended in public a policy that he did not believe was best for the nation or the world. What good is being the grownup in the room, if you let the kiddies take control?

Powell's role in the Woodward book--as a source, as a character--makes for good public affairs soap opera. Conservatives have quickly attacked him for being disloyal and placing his own agenda ahead of the man he serves. (If only he had truly done so when it counted.) What has received less attention in the ongoing gabfest over Woodward's latest is his charge that in the summer of 2002, the Pentagon, following Bush's orders, spent $700 million preparing for war with Iraq--upgrading airfields, bases, weapons storage facilities--and did not tell Congress. Last time I checked Section Nine of Article One of the U.S. Constitution (this morning), it read, "No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law." This means Congress decides where the money goes. Congress did not appropriate funds for these purposes, according to Woodward. That is, Bush took money appropriated for other reasons and had the Pentagon use it for his war in Iraq. There are, of course, procedures governing secret spending by a president and the Pentagon, but such spending still--in theory--is supposed to be overseen by members of Congress. Then, at least, spending hidden from the public is not kept secret from the public's representatives. But in this instance, if Woodward is correct, Bush assumed imperial power and violated a basic premise of the republic. Are any of the Republican leaders of Congress interested in an investigation? Don't hold your breath.

Republicans and conservatives, instead, are paying more attention to Woodward's account of a December 21, 2002 meeting at the White House, when senior CIA officials briefed Bush on the evidence the agency had regarding Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction. When Bush expressed doubts, CIA chief George Tenet reportedly said, "It's a slam-dunk case." A-ha, Bush supporters cry, this shows Bush did not misrepresent the evidence. What's the president to do when his CIA chief tells him the evidence is solid? Well, Bush could have asked to read the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq himself. It was only 90 pages. And White House officials have conceded that neither Bush nor Rice read that document, which had been produced the previous October. The summary conclusions of the NIE did say that Hussein had chemical and biological weapons, but the NIE also noted that various analysts took exception to key findings of the NIE. If Bush had read the NIE he would have seen there was internal dispute over what Hussein had and whether he posed a serious WMD threat.

Moreover, Tenet's assertion does not get Bush off the hook for his own misleading assertions. Many times Bush exaggerated the WMD threat in public. He said Hussein might possess a nuclear weapon, when the CIA had told Bush he did not. He claimed Hussein was maintaining a "massive stockpile" of biological weapons, when the CIA had only reported Hussein had a development program. Bush accused Iraq of maintaining a "growing fleet" of unmanned aerial vehicles that could be used to strike the United States with biological and chemical weapons. The intelligence community said that Iraq, at most, was developing such UAVs (although U.S. Air Force analysts, the best experts on this subject, disagreed that these UAVs could be used for such attacks). And, as is well-documented, Bush said that Hussein was in cahoots with al Qaeda, even though U.S. intelligence had no evidence to support such a bold statement. Tenet might have believed--wrongly--that he had a "slam-dunk case" on the WMDs, but Bush still regularly misrepresented what his government knew about the WMD threat.

Woodward also notes that after the December 21, 2002, session at the White House, Tenet told associates he should have said the evidence on weapons was not ironclad. So if Woodward's telling is accurate, this is the situation: the CIA director misleads the president, who then subsequently misleads the public and the world in order to start a war that causes the deaths of thousands and many other troubles. Is Bush upset by this? Not at all. How can we tell? First, he has retained and repeatedly praised Tenet, who committed one of the biggest errors ever made by a CIA director. Second, Bush says so himself.

In his 60 Minutes appearance, Woodward told Mike Wallace that when he mentioned to Bush that people were concerned about the failure to find WMDs in Iraq, Bush replied, "You travel in elite circles." Bush was not only saying that he was not mad about this, but that the missing WMDs were of minimal importance because the matter only bothered elite intellectuals. Discussing this, Woodward said he believed Bush had a disdain for "the fancy-pants intellectual world." Is this chilling? A president takes the country and the world to war for a very specific reason, and then this reason turns out to have been wrong. Yet that does not bother him in the least, and he brushes aside the matter by suggesting only elitists care about it. Talk about denial. A frightening mental mechanism is at work here. If Bush can dismiss all concerns and criticisms of his actions as merely the gripes of too-smart-for-their-own-good snobs, he then is free to live untroubled in a reality of his own (or Dick Cheney's) making, one unencumbered by competing views and ideas. The leader of the free world is in a bubble.

Bush told Woodward that he remained certain the war had been the right move because he has a "duty to free people." That is not how he had depicted his obligations before the war. Then he claimed his duty was to defend the United States. This remark--coupled with Bush's comment that "there is a higher father that I appeal to"--does make it seem that Bush believes he is on a mission from God. That might scare some, but it would not be so problematic if Bush also believed that God expects him to engage in self-examination and critical and honest discourse before mounting an action that claims thousands of lives and if Bush took into this heart the fact that God (assuming God exists) created intellectuals, experts, skeptics and critics as well as cowboys, oil rig workers, and truck drivers (not that any of these folks cannot be fancy-pants eggheads as well).

The Woodward book is not a full-fire blast like Richard Clarke's book. But it is in several ways more disquieting. Clarke assails Bush and Company for getting the policy wrong--before and after 9/11. Woodward depicts a president who eschews accountability and responsibility, who is embedded in a world detached from critical or challenging perspectives, who appears incapable of self-doubt, who mistakes stubbornness for leadership, and who, while looking to serve that higher father, is likely to provide Woodward more material for the next book--if he gets the chance.


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

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.


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

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

Rice on the Stand--And Afterward


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

Lying About Rwanda's Genocide

As a fellow who wrote a book contending that the current president is a serial prevaricator, I often am asked by conservative critics: So did you ever call Bill Clinton a liar? My reply: Yes; I am a nonpartisan accuser. But I'm not talking about the obvious lies. Back in those days, I did say that Clinton's lies about his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky were wrong and serious--but not worth impeachment. (And now they seem puny when compared with the assortment of untrue statements George W. Bush deployed to grease the way to war.) But what was more outrageous was a lie Clinton told about one of the greatest failures of his presidency: his inaction regarding the Rwanda genocide of 1994.

Why revisit this today? Two reasons. First, this month marks the tenth anniversary of the start of that horrific event, in which half a million people, mainly of the Tutsi minority, were slaughtered over three months by Hutu extremists, in one of the most time-efficient massacres of the 20th Century. Second, the National Security Archive, an independent, nongovernmental research institute that collects and analyzes government records, recently released a report that provides more evidence for the case that Clinton lied to the people of Rwanda.

That lie came four years after the genocide. During a 1998 presidential tour of Africa, Clinton stopped at the airport in Kigali, Rwanda, and issued an apology. Sort of. Speaking of those nightmarish months in the spring of 1994, he said, "All over the world there were people like me sitting in offices who did not fully appreciate the depth and speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror." He acknowledged that the United States and the international community had not moved quickly enough in response to the horrors under way. To emphasize his sorrow, he said, "Never again."

Clinton seemed to be taking responsibility, but actually he was making an excuse. He had inadequately reacted to the genocide, he said, because he had not really known what had been happening in Rwanda. That was a disingenuous cop-out.

The National Security Archive report, based on documents the group obtained, notes:

"Throughout the crisis, considerable U.S. resources--diplomatic, intelligence and military--and sizable bureaucracies of the U.S. government were trained on Rwanda. This system collected and analyzed information and sent it up to decision-makers so that all options could be properly considered and 'on the table.' Officials, particularly at the middle levels, sometimes met twice daily, drafting demarches, preparing press statements, meeting or speaking with foreign counterparts and other interlocutors, and briefing higher-ups. Indeed, the story of Rwanda for the U.S. is that officials knew so much, but still decided against taking action or leading other nations to prevent or stop the genocide. Despite Rwanda's low ranking in importance to U.S. interests, Clinton administration officials had tremendous capacity to be informed--and were informed--about the slaughter there."

The report, written by William Ferroggiaro, documents the pre-genocide warnings and concurrent reports of the massacre that Clinton's administration received. The National Security Archive, under the Freedom of Information Act, requested copies of the Presidential Daily Briefs for this period. The PDB is a highly classified document written for the president. (The current Bush administration refused to let the House and Senate intelligence committees even look at an August 6, 2001, PDB that mentioned Osama bin Laden and hijacking when the committees were conducting their 9/11 investigation.) These PDBs would show precisely what Clinton read each day about Rwanda. But the Archive's request for the PDBs was denied. It did, however, obtain copies of the National Intelligence Daily, which is also classified but has a wider circulation. NIDs are distributed to several hundred government policymakers six days a week. It is a fair assumption that they often reflect what is contained in the PDBs. And the NIDs gathered by the Archive indicate that the administration was aware a genocide was occurring in Rwanda. An April 23 NID referred to a negotiation "effort to stop the genocide, which relief workers say is spreading south." The April 26 NID item on Rwanda, entitled "Humanitarian Disaster Unfolding," reported that the "Red Cross estimates that 100,000 to 500,000 people, mostly Tutsi, have been killed in the ethnic bloodletting" and that "eyewitness accounts from areas where nearly all Tutsi residents were killed support the higher estimate."

But Clinton did not have to depend on the top-secret PDBs or NIDs to learn that there was a genocide transpiring in Rwanda. As the Archive notes, "beginning April 8th, the massacres in Rwanda were reported on the front pages of major newspapers and on radio and television broadcasts almost daily, including the major papers read by U.S. officials and policy elites." And at that time human rights activists in Washington--who had close relationships with national security adviser Tony Lake and staffmembers of Clinton's national security council--were pounding on the doors of the White House demanding action and suggesting options. The United States could have provided logistical support to the small U.N. peacekeeping force in the region. It could have deployed jamming devices to block the radio transmissions of the Hutu leaders coordinating the slaughter. It could have pressured France and Belgium to use their influence with the Hutus. It could have merely spoken out.

In the first weeks of this tragedy, human rights advocates urged Clinton to issue a clear and forceful declaration that a genocide was happening and that the killers could expect to be tracked down and tried for crimes against humanity. But the Clinton administration dithered for weeks over whether to use the G-word, for doing so would have compelled the administration, under international law, to take direct steps to stop the killings. But after the disaster in Somalia, Clinton had no stomach for becoming involved in another messy conflict in Africa. In public, he had more to say about the caning of a young American in Singapore than the murders of hundreds of thousands in Rwanda.

As the National Security Archive report points out, Clinton was being pressed by prominent individuals to take action. On April 21, Rwandan human rights activist Monique Mujawamariya, whom Clinton had welcomed to the White House five months earlier, implored him to act against the "campaign" of "genocide against the Tutsis." She argued that the United States had "a moral and legal treaty obligation to 'suppress and prevent' genocide." Members of Congress lobbied Clinton as well. On May 13, Senators Paul Simon and James Jeffords sent a letter to Clinton criticizing his lack of "leadership" and declaring "swift and sound decision-making is needed." They urged Clinton to impose sanctions, establish an arms embargo, and boost the U.N. forces in Rwanda and allow them to intervene more directly. "An end to the slaughter is not possible without this action," they wrote.

The National Security Archive report notes, "Although stated policy was that Rwanda did not affect traditional vital or national interests before or even during the genocide, considerable resources were nevertheless available and employed to ensure that policymakers had real-time information for any decision they would make. In sum, the routine--let alone crisis--performance of diplomats, intelligence officers and systems, and military and defense personnel yielded enough information for policy recommendations and decisions. That the Clinton administration decided against intervention at any level was not for lack of knowledge of what was happening in Rwanda."

Four years after the killings, Clinton told the Rwandans (and the world) that he had not tried to stop the genocide because he had not known what was truly occurring. Ignorance was not the reason. It had been a political decision. Clinton was fibbing to the survivors of genocide. And this deceptive remark sparked practically no outrage. Today, ten years after the Rwanda massacre, the inaction of the United States and the world community should not be forgotten, nor should Clinton's untruthful excuse.


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 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.com.


The Safire Rules

Is a New York Times columnist--or any columnist--free to make a false assertion and not have to correct it? According to the newly installed public editor of the Times, Daniel Okrent, the answer is yes.

Since the subject at hand is William Safire, a Times columnist who writes on language as well as politics, foreign affairs, and national security, let's start with a definition.

Smoking gun n. Something that serves as indisputable evidence or proof, especially of a crime. So says The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Not much ambiguity there. Sticklers for precise language, keep that in mind.

On February 11, Safire published a column under the headline "Found: A Smoking Gun." It stated that the Kurdish militia in Iraq had "captured a courier carrying a message that demolishes the repeated claim of Bush critics that there was never a 'clear link' between Saddam and Osama bin Laden." This letter appeared to have been written by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a terrorist connected to Ansar al-Islam, an Islamic extremist group that had been based in northern Iraq, and it was a request to al Qaeda for assistance in sparking a civil war in Iraq. Though the February 9 New York Times front-page article that first revealed the existence of this letter noted that the message "does not speak to the debate about whether there was a Qaeda presence in Iraq during the Saddam Hussein era," Safire pointed to this communication as indisputable evidence there had been an operational relationship between al Qaeda and Hussein. He wrote that this letter "is the smoking gun proving" that "a clear link existed" between the Iraqi dictator and al Qaeda.

But Safire was wrong. This postwar request for assistance from Zarqawi and Ansar al-Islam was not slam-dunk evidence of a prewar connection, even if it could have been read to suggest there might have been a preexisting relationship between al Qaeda and Hussein. And since Ansar al-Islam was operating in northern Iraq, in territory not controlled by Hussein's regime, the act of linking al Qaeda through Ansar al-Islam to Hussein was an iffy, if not disingenuous, exercise. But, more importantly, The New York Times reported on February 20 that, according to "senior American officials," US intelligence "had picked up signs that Qaeda members outside Iraq had refused a request from the group, Ansar al-Islam, for help in attacking Shiite Muslims in Iraq." Al Qaeda and Ansar al-Islam appeared to be operating separately.

So what happened to Safire's "smoking gun?" Did he issue a correction or inform his readers he had fired prematurely? No. The next time Safire referred to Ansar-al-Islam--in a March 22 column--there was no mention that he had made an erroneous claim on this important matter.

On February 24, I took a whack at Safire for shouting "smoking gun" without proof. And I wrote:

"If a newspaper columnist writes articles that defy the reality reported by the paper's own correspondents, how should the paper's editors and publisher respond? Should they question the columnist's judgment and powers of evaluation? Should they print corrections? Columnists are certainly entitled to their views. They are free to speculate and suppose. They can draw--or suggest--connections that go beyond just-the-facts reporting. But Safire's recent work--unburdened by factchecking, unchallenged by editors--shows he is more intent on manipulating than interpreting the available information. His February 11 masterpiece is evidence his commitment to scoring political points exceeds his commitment to the truth. Under the cover of opinion journalism, he is dishing out disinformation. How is that of service to the readers of the The New York Times?"

Afterward, Okrent and I exchanged some friendly emails on the topic of columnists and corrections. Then, in a March 28 column, he addressed the questions I had raised (along with those hurled at other Times columnists by other critics). His piece began:

"It sounds like a simple question: Should opinion columnists be subject to the same corrections policy that governs the work of every other writer at the Times? So simple, in fact, that you must know that only an ornate answer could follow."

Okrent noted that it was hard to devise a "clear, public stated corrections policy" for columnists who are hired to express opinion. After all, Okrent noted, "opinion is inherently unfair." Still, he recognized the need for some sort of corrections policy. And, with the help of Safire, he ended up defending a policy that--whaddayaknow!--protects Safire. Okrent wrote:

"At the very minimum, anything that is indisputably inaccurate must be corrected: there is no protected opinion that holds that the sun rises in the west. Same with the patent misuse or distortion of quotations that are already in the public record. But if Safire asserts there is a 'smoking gun' linking Al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein, then even David Corn's best shots (which include many citations from Times news stories) aren't going to prove it isn't so. 'An opinion may be wrongheaded,' Safire told me by email last week, 'but it is never wrong. A belief or a conviction, no matter how illogical, crackbrained or infuriating, is an idea subject to vigorous dispute but is not an assertion subject to editorial or legal correction.'"

Opinionated pundits, as I noted above, do deserve wide berth, and their claims and statements ought to kick-start rambunctious debate. That's the point. But wordsmith Safire is playing word games, and Okrent is along for the ride. Back to the dictionary:

Opinion n. 1. A belief or conclusion held with confidence but not substantiated by positive knowledge or proof. "The world is not run by thought, nor by imagination, but by opinion." (Elizabeth Drew).

Is the following statement an opinion? US intelligence found a letter that indisputably proves Saddam Hussein was conspiring with al Qaeda. With his use of the well-defined phrase "smoking gun," that is what Safire had maintained. And he presented his claim as a statement of fact, not merely an opinion. I suppose Safire and Okrent could argue that a "smoking gun" is open to interpretation. But that would be bending its definition to the breaking point. Of course, Safire could have said, This letter seems to be evidence..... Or, My hunch is.... Or, Just wait, you peaceniks, this may well turn out to be.... Or, I really, really, really hope this will be a smoking gun. (And, in doing so, he could have ignored the many pieces of evidence that weakened his case--a columnist's prerogative.) Instead, he engaged in purposeful exaggeration and distorted the available facts. It reminds me of the line Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld used when asked in September about his March 30 claim that "we know where [the weapons of mass destruction] are." He replied, "Sometimes I overstate for emphasis."

Okrent did observe that a columnist cannot claim the sun rises in the west and then hide behind the shield of opinion. But under his standard, if a columnist says there is indisputable proof when there is not, that is covered by a columnist's right to hold a wrong opinion. But what does "indisputable" mean? (No more dictionary references from me.) Back in 1974, when the "smoking gun" Watergate tape came out (which, indisputably, caught President Richard Nixon conspiring with aides to block the FBI investigation of the break-in), could a responsible columnist have reported to his or her readers that the substance of this tape indicated Nixon had not plotted to obstruct the inquiry?

In making the case that there is a difference between an opinion and an assertion of fact, I don't want to play semantics. Perhaps Safire, as a columnist, should have the right to exclaim and j'accuse away. Then folks like me can poke at him (though in terms of audience size, it's hardly a fair fight). And maybe Safire, in this instance, merely jumped the gun--for emphasis, as Rumsfeld might say. And maybe this sort of "wrongheaded" error is too tough for editors to evaluate and does not readily lend itself to publishable corrections. ("Editors note: When columnist William Safire noted in a recent column that a letter found in Iraq was the 'smoking gun' that proved al Qaeda was linked to Saddam Hussein, he was misusing the reports of this newspaper and way off-base. Still, please take seriously what he writes today about the United Nations.")

But after the basis for Safire's smoking-gun charge turned out to be all smoke, shouldn't he (if not the newspaper) have had the decency to tell his readers that--whoops--he had misled them, whether it had been unintentional or out of eagerness to have his previous claims about the supposed al Qaeda-Hussein link finally proven right? It may have merely been Safire's "opinion" that a "smoking gun" had been found, but consequent events showed he had peddled an untrue statement to his readers. Many of them may not have read the subsequent Times story that demolished Safire's claim. What does he and the paper of record owe their readers in terms of responsibility and accountability? In this instance, apparently nothing.

It is certainly the Times' privilege to employ a columnist who makes false declarations of fact--which he obviously intends his readers to accept as the truth, not as "illogical" or "crackbrained" beliefs--and who, when challenged on the veracity of his assertions, hides behind the phony cover of it's-just-opinion. But why would it want to?


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 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.com.


MIA WMDs--For Bush, It's a Joke

Only in Washington.

Last night I was at the Radio and Television Correspondents' Association Dinner. It's a formal-and-fun affair where thousands of media folks assemble at the Hilton for a fancy dinner and fab pre- and post-parties. I'm not going to denigrate such soirees. I enjoy them. While bookers and producers jiggled and jostled on the dance floor and media and political celebs dissected the news du jour (this time it was Richard Clarke's dramatic appearance before the 9/11 commission), I was able to chat with former weapons hunter David Kay and learn about some troubling developments in the intelligence community (more on that down the road). And there was free sushi.

But an awful you're-all-alone moment came during George W. Bush's comments that followed the sit-down dinner. The current president is often the honored guest at this annual affair, and the audience toasts him in what is supposed to be a sign of communal and nonpartisan spirit. And the tradition is that the president has to be funny; he has to provide us with an amusing speech that pokes fun at himself and his political foes. After all, political journalists love to see politicians engage in self-deprecating humor. Bill Clinton was quite good at these performances. Bush seems to enjoy them less. Rather than do straight standup, he sometimes relies on a humorous slide show, and that was how he chose to entertain the media throng this time.

It's standard fare humor. Bush says he is preparing for a tough election fight; then on the large video screens a picture flashes showing him wearing a boxing robe while sitting at his desk. Bush notes he spends "a lot of time on the phone listening to our European allies." Then we see a photo of him on the phone with a finger in his ear. There were funny bits about Skull and Bones, his mother, and Dick Cheney. But at one point, Bush showed a photo of himself looking for something out a window in the Oval Office, and he said, "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere."

The audience laughed. I grimaced. But that wasn't the end of it. After a few more slides, there was a shot of Bush looking under furniture in the Oval Office. "Nope," he said. "No weapons over there." More laughter. Then another picture of Bush searching in his office: "Maybe under here." Laughter again.

Disapproval must have registered upon my face, for one of my tablemates said, "Come on, David, this is funny." I wanted to reply, Over 500 Americans and literally countless Iraqis are dead because of a war that was supposedly fought to find weapons of mass destruction, and Bush is joking about it. Instead, I took a long drink of the lovely white wine that had come with our dinner. It's not as if I was in the middle of a talk-show debate and had to respond. This was certainly one of those occasions in which you either get it or don't. And I wasn't getting it. Or maybe my neighbor wasn't.

At the end of the slide show, Bush displayed two pictures of himself with troops and noted these were his favorites. The final photograph was a shot of special forces soldiers--with their faces blurred to protect their identities--who were posing in Afghanistan where they had buried a piece of 9/11 debris in a spot that had once been an al Qaeda camp. Bush spoke about the prayer the commander had said during the burial ceremony and noted he had this photograph hanging in his private study.

So what's wrong with this picture? Bush was somber about the sacrifice being made by U.S. troops overseas. But he obviously considered it fine to make fun of the reason he cited for sending Americans to war and to death. What an act of audacious spin. One poll recently showed that most Americans believe he either lied about Iraq's WMDs or deliberately exaggerated the case to justify the war. And it is undeniable that in seeking public support for the war he made many false assertions that went beyond quoting intelligence that turned out to be wrong. (I've written about this in many other places. If you still don't believe Bush mugged the truth, check out this short guide.) As the crowd was digesting the delicious surf-and-turf meal, Bush was transforming serious scandal into rim-shot comedy.

Few seemed to mind. His WMD gags did not prompt a how-can-you silence from the gathering. At the after-parties, I heard no complaints. Was I being too sensitive? I wondered what the spouse, child or parent of a soldier killed in Iraq would have felt if they had been watching C-SPAN and saw the commander-in-chief mocking the supposed justification for the war that claimed their loved ones. Bush told the nation that lives had to be sacrificed because Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction that could be used (by terrorists) against the United States. That was not true. (And as Kay pointed out, the evidence so far shows these weapons were not there in the first place, not that they were hidden, destroyed or spirited away.) But rather than acknowledge he misinformed the public, Bush jokes about the absence of such weapons.

Even if Bush does not believe he lied to or misled the public, how can he make fun of the rationale for a war that has killed and maimed thousands? Imagine if Lyndon Johnson had joked about the trumped-up Gulf of Tonkin incident that he deceitfully used as a rationale for U.S. military action in Vietnam: "Who knew that fish had torpedoes?" Or if Ronald Reagan appeared at a correspondents event following the truck-bombing at the Marines barracks in Beirut--which killed over 200 American servicemen--and said, "Guess we forgot to put in a stop light." Or if Clinton had come out after the bombing of Serbia--during which U.S. bombs errantly destroyed the Chinese embassy and killed several people there--and said, "The problem is, those embassies--they all look alike."

Yet there was Bush--apparently having a laugh at his own expense, but actually doing so on the graves of thousands. This was a callous and arrogant display. For Bush, the misinformation--or disinformation--he peddled before the war was no more than material for yucks. As the audience laughed along, he smiled. The false statements (or lies) that had launched a war had become merely another punchline in the nation's capital.


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 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.com.


The Worst of Bush's Iraq Whoppers

For months now I have been contemplating a grand project: chronicling every misleading statement George W. Bush and his crew uttered before the war about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and the supposed operational connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. I covered much of this in my book The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception. But there was only so much room I could devote to the task; I had to reserve space for Bush's untruthful remarks about tax cuts, global warming, missile defense, homeland security, the energy bill, Enron and many other topics. Sadly, I was forced to highlight only the most illustrative examples of Bush's pre- and postwar dis- and misinformation. In the months since my book was published, I have often come across various Bush administration assertions about Iraq that have made me exclaim, "Shoot, I wish I had this one earlier."

Several Democratic members of Congress, including Senators Carl Levin and Ted Kennedy, have recently assembled decent compilations. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace put out a report in January that presented a good sampling of the best--or worst--of the administration's false remarks about Iraq's WMD and the al Qaeda-Iraq relationship. But the prize goes to Representative Henry Waxman.

He just released a report that identifies 237 specific misleading statements made by Bush, Vice President Richard Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice in 125 separate public appearances. There's even an on-line database. (Click on the link above to reach the website.) Want to peruse the whoppers about Iraq's supposed biological weapons? Plug "biological weapons" into the search feature, and up pops 91 examples of Bush officials claiming there were bioweapons in Iraq. The evidence to date, of course, indicates they were wrong. And there is indisputable evidence that Bush and his underlings were mistaken not because the intelligence was off but because they exaggerated or ignored the available intelligence. One example: in an October 2002 speech, Bush said Iraq had a "massive stockpile" of biological weapons. But according to the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, the intelligence community had not reached such a conclusion, and CIA director George Tenet said a few weeks ago that the intelligence analysts had possessed "no specific information" on bioweapons stockpiles.

What's your favorite prewar untruth from the Bush gang? When Cheney in August 2002 said there was "no doubt" that Saddam Hussein was amassing weapons of mass destruction "to use...against us"? When Bush in May 2003 said "we found the weapons of mass destruction"? (Bush was referring to two tractor-trailers discovered in northern Iraq. From the start, analysts questioned the administration's claim that these were mobile biological weapons factories. And Tenet has noted the jury is still out on the tractor-trailers. It seems more probable they were designed to produce hydrogen for weather balloons.) These unforgettable lines--at least they ought to be unforgettable--are among the Waxman's Top 237.

Is the Waxman list complete? Not entirely. Comments made by Ari Fleischer, Paul Wolfowitz and other significant administration figures are not included in the database. (Are there bandwidth limitations?) And I could not find one of my favorites: Rumsfeld on September 13, 2002, exclaiming, "There's no debate in the world as to whether they have those weapons....We all know that. A trained ape knows that." (I guess it depends on whether that trained ape was trained to misread and hype intelligence reports.) But Waxman and his staff deserve credit for rounding up and archiving many of the false and disingenuous assertions Bush and his gang used to grease the way to war.

If the commission Bush begrudgingly appointed to study the prewar intelligence on Iraq's WMDs is going to investigate whether Bush abused the intelligence, this website would be of tremendous value to it. As of now, though, it seems that the commissioners--all chosen by Bush--will duck that mission and that Waxman's site will not be on their computer browser's list of favorites. But Waxman's report practically makes it unnecessary for the commissioners to worry if Bush falsely characterized the prewar intelligence. After all, why bother bother investigating a question with such an obvious answer?


Happy Birthday, C-SPAN!

The mud is flying, as a bitter presidential campaign is under way. With eight months remaining until E-Day, commentators are already pointing to the vicious and caustic debate as yet another sign of the coarsening of America's political culture. The mainstream media hypes the charges and countercharges exchanged by the candidates without fully evaluating them and fixates on who's up and who's down (and who is screaming) rather than what's at stake. With the rise of the cable-news gabfests, there's more information but not necessarily more understanding. Despite the McCain-Feingold law, special-interest money continues to pour into electoral politics. Democrats are bending, if not breaking, the rules to keep soft-money alive. On the Hill, conservative Republicans are using mob-like tactics to control legislation. Are all the trends in the political-media world negative?

No. In recent decades, there has been one undeniable advance in the land of politics-and-the-media: C-SPAN. On March 19, the cable network that airs the proceedings of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, will turn 25 years old. Anyone who gives a damn about politics, policy, and public affairs ought to wish it a happy birthday and, more importantly, say thank you. They should also pay attention to regulatory and legislative actions that could threaten C-SPAN. More on that below. First, some praise.

C-SPAN has opened up Congress and Washington, broadcasting to the citizenry the (public) workings of the House and Senate: the deliberations on the floor, committee hearings, press conferences conducted by legislators. No longer do Americans have to page through the Congressional Record to see what their representatives have said. They do not have to rely upon reporters to learn what has transpired at a hearing. They can directly witness the actions of the legislative branch--without leaving the couch. The network has covered presidential speeches and showed White House press secretaries spinning and squirming as they conduct their daily press briefings. C-SPAN has also smashed the Beltway border by airing conferences and events sponsored by the various policy and political organizations of Washington. A C-SPAN viewer can become a Washington insider by watching think-tank wonks debate budget policies, the head of the Republican Party address political strategy, and consultants discuss technical changes in campaign-finance law.

And C-SPAN has delivered more than inside-Washington policy and politics. It focuses on books and provides an essential venue for discussions of nonfiction works. ( Book TV on C-SPAN2 airs 48 hours of literary programming each weekend, including the signature show Booknotes.) C-SPAN imported to the United States question time from the British House of Commons, showing Yanks that the Brits were playing hardball long before Chris Matthews came along. And it aired campaign events--uncut and uncensored. Would-be voters who might never see a presidential or congressional candidate up close and personal have been handed front-row seats. They can watch incumbents and challengers speaking at dinners or working the crowd at state fairs. C-SPAN conveys the scripted moments--such as the entire Democratic and Republican presidential conventions--and the unscripted. I remember watching Rep. Dick Gephardt a few years ago on C-SPAN. He was shaking hands at a campaign event, trying to engage with each person he briefly encountered. Whatever anyone said Gephardt found a way to agree and to move on. One man grasped Gephardt's hand and told him it was essential to get rid of the U.S. Postal Service. Yeah, yeah, Gephardt replied, we can do that. Then he pushed on--a politician on automatic pilot, brilliantly captured by C-SPAN.

More recently, C-SPAN did a wonderful job of covering the Iowa caucuses. On caucus night, it broadcast the deliberations of a caucus at a YMCA in Dubuque. This was the most gripping reality TV I have watched in years. Whoever directed the show deserves an Emmy. Several video crews tracked the lead organizers for each of the Democratic candidates. We could see them recruiting supporters and haggling with the other campaigns--sometimes quite desperately. There was emotion; there was drama. How could a viewer not share the sadness when the most ardent Gephardt backer--a young woman who had tried mightily to persuade her neighbors to back the Missouri congressman--trudged over to join the John Edwards crowd after her man failed to reach the 15 percent threshold? This was far more gripping than watching some prescreened make-believe real person get voted off an island.

C-SPAN makes politics and policy real. It does the same with commentary. As a television pontificator--I'm a contributor to Fox News Channel--I've grown accustomed to debating world-changing matters in two-minute snippets. C-SPAN, though, affords pundits, journalists, analysts, politicians, and authors whole swaths of time--from half an hour to 60 minutes--to discuss the crucial matters of the day. With no commercial interruptions. This can lead to the sort of in-depth conversations that are nearly impossible on many cable news shows. (Then again, there was the time I appeared on C-SPAN with conservative author David Horowitz for a full hour. That was more of a food-fight than an enlightened exchange of competing views, mainly because he kept shouting and accusing me and other war-in-Iraq skeptics of trying to destroy the United States. He even decried The Nation for having used French words on a recent cover. This was not a debate; this was a therapy session for Horowitz.)

Brian Lamb, who founded C-SPAN, is a true visionary. In 1977, he first pitched the idea of a public affairs network to the cable television industry. He then persuaded the House to let television cameras into its chamber. (It took the Senate nine years to catch up.) In all this time, he has kept the programming fair and balanced. As an interviewer and moderator, Lamb has played it straight down the middle. My hunch is that he's a Main Street-kind of Republican. But who knows? First and foremost, he wants a serious discussion that serves the viewer.

Lamb has also been a public affairs missionary. Not only has he expanded the reach of C-SPAN in the media (C-SPAN radio began a few years ago); Lamb has developed an extensive educational component for C-SPAN. The C-SPAN bus brings civics and history to school kids across the nation. Months ago, I participated in a new C-SPAN project: tele-teaching. A poli-sci professor was conducting a class on how Washington works for university students in Colorado, but he was doing it from a studio in C-SPAN's Washington offices. Thanks to a two-way video flow, he could see his students, as they sat in a classroom watching him--and me--on a video screen. The session worked, and this setup enabled him to bring in a string of Washington guest lecturers for the student's benefit.

C-SPAN is perhaps the closest-to-perfect Washington (and media) institution there is. Do I say this because it has always been kind to me? (It did put me on Washington Journal to discuss my latest book, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception.) Not entirely. I am an unabashed fan. And as a journalist, I appreciate that C-SPAN makes life easier for those of us who cover politics, Congress, the White House, and public affairs. There are times when I cannot make it to a White House press briefing, a congressional hearing, a campaign event, or a think tank conference. Yet they appear on the little box in my office, and--presto!--I have the information or quote I need.

Twenty-five years old, C-SPAN is thriving. But it does face threats. The Federal Communications Commission has for months been putting off a decision on whether cable systems must give local broadcast stations two channels--one for an analog signal, the other for a digital signal. The point is to ease the transition from analog broadcasting to digital broadcasting. Yet if the FCC does require cable operators to assign two channels to each local broadcaster, that could create pressure on cable systems to dump other cable programming. The folks at C-SPAN fear this rule would cause some maxed-out systems to eliminate C-SPAN or C-SPAN2 to make room for the broadcasters' extra channels. "We are a niche service that does not provide revenue," says Bruce Collins, the corporate vice president and general counsel of C-SPAN. "How virtuous do you expect the cable operators to be? People think we're a public utility that will always be there, but that's not true."

Cable systems are not required to carry C-SPAN. They do not offer C-SPAN as a public service. It's part of most cable menus because there are enough Americans who want to watch their government in action. Cable operators use C-SPAN as a selling point for their services, and they pay C-SPAN for this privilege. C-SPAN, unlike PBS and NPR, receives no government funding and accepts no corporate sponsorships. It relies 100 percent on the license fees paid to it by the cable guys. In fact, Lamb pioneered a business model. He developed a public-interest media organization that is unsubsidized and generates no revenues and found a home for it within the for-profit jungle of the cable television industry. But if cable systems are forced to hand out a second channel to local broadcast stations and conclude they can make more bucks without C-SPAN than with C-SPAN, local citizens could be cut off.

Another threat to C-SPAN materialized just days ago. On March 9, in a narrow vote--12 to 11--the Senate commerce committee barely beat back an effort to extend the decency standards that now apply to broadcasters to all cable programming (with the exception of premium and pay-for-view channels). How could this harm C-SPAN? After all, it's not as if it airs Howard Stern. But C-SPAN routinely shows events--campaign rallies, protests, and press conferences--where occasionally words deemed "indecent" by the FCC are uttered. That's what happens in real life. And there have been times when C-SPAN has covered a march or demonstration when a Janet Jackson-like moment has occurred. Lamb's guiding editorial philosophy has been that viewers in their living rooms should be able to see and hear exactly what they would see and hear if they were sitting in a hearing room or standing on the Washington Mall. But an indecency standard applied to C-SPAN could destroy its commitment to a showing events unedited in their entirety. "We don't want to edit and pixilate," Collins says.

Since C-SPAN has become such an essential part of the nation's political-media infrastructure, it should be able to handle the challenges it now faces. But let's hope it also continues to expand its (and our) horizons. Oral arguments at the Supreme Court ought to be carried on C-SPAN. Perhaps one day, Lamb will overcome the resistance of the robed ones. And imagine if C-SPAN could somehow facilitate the creation of question time in the U.S. House--when members of Congress could confront the president with queries.

That is raising expectations high. But Lamb and C-SPAN deserve high expectations. Who (besides Lamb) thought that C-SPAN would go so far--and enrich the national discourse so much--when it first started showing House members orating (or bloviating) in 1979? Many happy returns, C-SPAN. The Republic is better for your efforts.


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 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.com.


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