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A SCRIPT GROWS IN WASHINGTON! Charlie’s script has spread like topsy. We think we know why that might be:


A SCRIPT GROWS IN WASHINGTON: We’ve discussed Charles Krauthammer’s misleading script on three occasions in the past week (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/2/04). Just what is his misleading tale? Richard Clarke said that his plan couldn’t have stopped 9/11. Left out is something else Clarke said: 9/11 might have been stopped if Condi Rice had “shaken the trees” during the summer of 2001. Could shaking the trees have stopped 9/11? Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t have a clue. But Krauthammer mentioned one thing Clarke said—and cleverly managed to deep-six another. It’s a way to keep voters barefoot and pregnant—and his script is now spreading quite fast.

Indeed, Krauthammer’s script has clearly become an official White House construction. During yesterday’s hearing, for example, John Lehman felt free to embellish it:

KEAN: Secretary Lehman?

LEHMAN: Thank you. Dr. Rice, I’d like to ask you whether you agree with the testimony we had from Mr. Clarke that, when asked whether if all of his recommendations during the transition or during the period when his, quote, “hair was on fire,” had been followed immediately, would it have prevented 9/11, he said no. Do you agree with that?

RICE: I agree completely with that.

“I agree completely with that,” Rice said, knowing she was misleading viewers. No, Clarke didn’t say that 9/11 would have occurred even if Rice had followed his lead “during the period when his hair was on fire.” In fact, he said precisely the opposite; he said 9/11 might have been stopped if Rice had “shaken the trees” in that period. And of course, Lehman and Rice both know what Clarke said. They just don’t want voters to know it.

But this script has now been widely recited. How many shills have now pretended that Clarke said nothing could have stopped 9/11? On last evening’s Newsnight, Aaron Brown asked Jeff Greenfield to critique the script. And he said that he’s heard it quite often:
BROWN: Let’s talk about—this has come up a lot, about whether Mr. Clarke said, in fact, that nothing could have prevented 9/11. It has been said on this program I think five different times in the last week. You hear it differently.

GREENFIELD: Well, I took the liberty of reading what Clarke said. What Clarke said specifically—he was asked, if all of your recommendations of January 25 with regard to Afghanistan had been implemented, arming the Predator, arming the Northern Alliance, would that have stopped 9/11? He had a one-word answer—No—because the muscle was here [translation: because the al Qaeda plotters were already in the U.S.]. But he also was clear about how unclear he was about whether shaking the tree in the spring and summer of 2001 might—

BROWN: Which he was also recommending.

GREENFIELD: Yes. So when people say he said that nothing could have stopped it, they’re half-right. Once again, it depends on what you want to hear, I guess.

Showing the lazy indifference of the Washington “press corps,” Greenfield said that his fellow scribes are “half right” when they recite Krauthammer’s misleading story. (By the way, note how garbled his “explanation” was, the better to avoid ruffling feathers.) But Brown had made a revealing statement; the host has heard the script recited on Newsnight “five different times in the last week.” Translation: This tale has become an Official Script. Shills are being rushed on the air to recite it again and again.

Indeed, we couldn’t help chuckling when Senator Robert Bennett (R-Utah) spoke with Chris Matthews after yesterday’s hearing. Bennett was eager to mouth the script too. As soon as Matthews mentioned Clarke, Bennett interrupted and swung into action:
BENNETT: Can you go back to the key question Slade Gorton asked Richard Clarke? Do you even know what the key question was?
“I may have forgotten it, sir,” Matthews said. “What was it?” In reply, Bennett recited that script—and said we should do so early and often:
BENNETT: All right, this is the question that I think needs to be repeated over and over again as we get all excited about Richard Clarke. Slade Gorton said to him, All right, Mr. Clarke, you made a series of recommendations to the Administration. If the Administration had carried out every single recommendation you made—every single one—immediately, is there the remotest chance we could have avoided 9/11? And Richard Clarke said No.
That was it! Bennett omitted the other thing Clarke said: 9/11 might have been thwarted if Rice and Bush had just “shaken the trees.”

Why is this script being pushed so hard? Most likely, this new Bush script is being pushed in reaction to news from the commission. In last week’s Newsweek, Evan Thomas reported a troubling fact:
THOMAS: Newsweek has learned that the commission is likely to conclude that 9/11 could have been prevented by the simple act of sharing information. In Phoenix in July 2001, an FBI agent wrote a memo warning that some young Arabs taking flying lessons might be terrorists. Had that warning made it to Clarke's counterterror shop, airlines might have begun bolting cockpit doors.
On last Sunday’s Meet the Press, chairmen Kean and Hamilton both seemed to say they thought 9/11 could have been avoided. None of this means that they plan to “blame” members of the Bush Admin. But the commission seems to be leaning toward some form of agreement with Clarke. We would guess that this has spawned the misleading script which Brown says he hears every night.

In this morning’s Post, George Will is the latest to mouth the script; Fred Hiatt just can’t seem to print it enough! Could “shaking the trees” have stopped 9/11? We don’t have the slightest idea. But powerful players don’t want you to know what Clarke actually told the commission. So they’re busy reciting a bowdlerized tale—“over and over,” as Bennett prescribed. To Aaron Brown, we offer one consolation—readers of the Washington Post hear this fake script each day too.

CLUELESS IN GENOA: Concerning Rice’s testimony, let’s start with the obvious—with her ongoing statements about airplanes-as-weapons. Chairman Kean raised the issue at the start of yesterday’s Q-and-A, saying his question “was given to me by a number of members of the families.” Kean asked this: “Did you ever see or hear from the FBI, from the CIA, from any other intelligence agency, any memos or discussions or anything else between the time you got into office and 9/11 that talked about using planes as bombs?” Finally asked about her past statements, Rice extended an astonishing tale:
RICE: I think that concern about what I might have known or we might have known was provoked by some statements that I made in a [May 2002] press conference. I was in a press conference to try and describe the August 6th [2001] memo, which I’ve talked about here in my opening remarks and which I talked about with you in the private session.

And I said, at one point, that this was a historical memo, that it was—it was not based on new threat information. And I said, “No one could have imagined them taking a plane, slamming it into the Pentagon”—I’m paraphrasing now—“into the World Trade Center, using planes as a missile.”

As I said to you in the private session, I probably should have said, “I could not have imagined,” because within two days, people started to come to me and say, “Oh, but there were these reports in 1998 and 1999. The intelligence community did look at information about this.”

To the best of my knowledge, Mr. Chairman, this kind of analysis about the use of airplanes as weapons actually was never briefed to us.

In fact, intelligence warnings about airplanes-as-weapons had been frequent since the mid-90s, a fact which Rice still seems not to know. It’s amazing to think that Rice was ignorant of this threat as of 9/11. But now she says, in sworn public testimony, that her ignorance continued right through 5/02! By that time, the history of these serial threats had been widely discussed in American newspapers (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/8/04). The average reader had heard about this. But Rice had not heard, she still says.

How bizarre is Rice’s statement? In July 2001, Rice accompanied President Bush to a G-8 summit in Genoa. On September 26, 2001, David Sanger described a security problem which developed at that event. He wrote on page one of the New York Times:
SANGER: The president of Egypt and the deputy prime minister of Italy say that Osama bin Laden’s network of Islamic terrorists threatened to kill President Bush and other leaders of the industrialized world when they met at a summit meeting in Genoa last July…

In an interview on French television on Monday, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt spoke in specific terms about the threat, saying that “on June 13 of this year, we learned of a communique from bin Laden saying he wanted to assassinate George W. Bush and other G8 heads of state during their summit in Italy.”

“It was a well-known piece of information,” Mr. Mubarak added in the interview broadcast by the network France 3.

Separately, he told Le Figaro, a major French daily newspaper, that Egyptian intelligence services had told the United States about the threat and that the warning included a reference to “an airplane stuffed with explosives.”

Several days before Mr. Mubarak’s interview, in an appearance on Italian television, Gianfranco Fini, the Italian deputy prime minister, discussed parallels between the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and warnings his government had received before the Genoa meeting in July.

“Many people joked about the Italian Intelligence Force,” Mr. Fini said, “but actually they had information that in Genoa there was the hypothesis of an attack on the American president with the use of an airplane. That is why we closed the airspace above Genoa and installed antiaircraft missiles. Those who joked should now reflect.”

As far as we know, the specific nature of the Genoa threat has never been fully explained. But Sanger’s article graced the Times’ front page in late September 2001. According to Rice, she was still clueless about airplanes-as-weapons eight months after that.

As one 9/11 widow recently said, either Rice is lying—or she’s stunningly incompetent (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/29/04). But as far as we know, yesterday marked the first time Rice has ever been asked about this in public. For the past two years, every “journalist” who interviewed Rice has observed a tenet of Hard Pundit Law—Icon Condi must never be challenged. Rice’s story remains amazing. But don’t expect any further questions. Your Washington “press corps” serves etiquette rules, not the challenged American public interest. They’ve long avoided this puzzling matter. They’ll most likely do so again.

350 WAYS TO FOOL A VOTER (PART 3): The Bush camp has peddled the claim all around: John Kerry has voted 350 times for higher taxes. But don’t confuse that with a similar claim—the claim that Kerry cast 350 votes for actual “tax increases.” Indeed, when the Bush campaign assembles its list, it even includes a set of cases where Kerry voted to lower taxes! So it goes as Bush continues his effort to distort and mislead (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/7/04).

Yes, the Bush campaign applied “madcap logic” (Michael Kinsley) when it assembled this ballyhooed list. That’s why Kinsley called it a “phony statistic,” and the Concord Coalition said that the list “does not pass the straight-face test for credibility.” As we’ve noted, Brooks Jackson has also reviewed the Bush list—and he too found Bush’s claim deceptive. “Bush’s own words mislead reporters,” he judged at his Annenberg site.

Bush’s claim is tortured and “phony”—the latest attempt to mislead. But what has the Washington press corps done when confronted with this oddball charge? The claim doesn’t “pass the straight-faced test,” according to the Concord Coalition. But many scribes have kept faces quite straight when Bush’s minions have lodged this charge. Your press corps has frequently failed to warn the voters about this statistic.

For example, we watched Zell Miller lodge the claim on Inside Politics—and Judy Woodruff didn’t say Boo (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/26/04). There was no way for viewers to know that Miller’s claim was basically bogus. But then, CNN viewers are often left on their own when it comes to this matter. Here was Candy Crowley on April 2:

CROWLEY: The Bush team didn’t take long to respond to Kerry’s new TV ad on jobs and the economy. The latest Bush/Cheney spot goes after Kerry’s voting record in the Senate.

BUSH TV AD (videotape): John Kerry’s record on the economy? Troubling. He opposed tax relief for married couples 22 times. Opposed increasing the child tax credit 18 times. Kerry supported higher taxes over 350 times. He even supported increasing taxes on Social Security benefits and a 50-cent a gallon gas hike for gasoline.

CROWLEY: That new ad hits the airwaves tomorrow in 18 states and on national cable channels.

Crowley broadcast an ad which made the misleading claim. After that, she made no attempt to interpret the claim for her viewers.

Should journalists attempt to untangle claims like this? Without some effort at clarification, voters have little hope to understand what this claim actually means. So let’s say three cheers for a big west coast paper! On March 30, the Los Angeles Times made a real effort to help its readers interpret this claim. Vice President Cheney had made a speech. In her report, Maria La Ganga quoted the veep—then offered some help to Times readers:
LA GANGA (pgh 1): Vice President Dick Cheney took the lead in a coordinated Republican attack Monday, charging that John F. Kerry has voted “at least 350 times for higher taxes” during his Senate career. But the claim was disputed by nonpartisan watchdog groups as being based on an inaccurate interpretation of Kerry’s record…

(pgh 5) The Bush campaign’s list of Kerry’s votes for “higher taxes” includes votes in which the senator voted to leave taxes unchanged, said Brooks Jackson, director of, a private nonpartisan policy organization based in Washington.

(6) The list also includes votes in which Kerry backed proposals to cut taxes, though not as much as Republicans advocated.

(7) “Such a standard does not pass the straight-face test for credibility," said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group.

Clearly, the Times found Cheney’s claim so misleading that it felt it should be explained. And yes: When major pols make misleading statements, this is what news orgs should do. Without LaGanga’s explanation, few Times readers would have understood the meaning of Cheney’s tortured construction. LaGanga helped her readers know what the VP had actually said.

For the record, other orgs have made an attempt to explain this tortured presentation. But when the Washington Post and the New York Times covered Cheney’s speech, their readers got little help. But alas—the fault didn’t lie with the papers alone. Some of the fault was John Kerry’s.

TOMORROW: A hapless rejoinder

Annals of fact avoidance

CLUELESS IN WASHINGTON: Pundits reacted with great surprise to one part of yesterday’s hearing. Scribes were stunned by the title of a Presidential Daily Briefing—the intelligence briefing given to Bush on August 6, 2001. Under questioning by Richard Ben-Veniste, Rice recalled the PDB’s title. “I believe the title was Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States,” the security czar pleasantly said.

Pundits reacted with vast surprise—and showcased their grinding incompetence. For example, Ceci Connolly is a Fox “all-star.” But she was still amazed, seven hours later, when she did Special Report:
BRIT HUME: Ceci, what was your—what’s your take? What you do take away from this today?

CONNOLLY: Well, I think as expected, [Rice] gave a very strong performance, Brit. Dr. Rice is very knowledgeable, articulate, composed for three solid hours there. How many of us would be that calm with 50 flash bulbs flashing in our face? I do think, though, that there are still some big unanswered questions. And one was learning today that tantalizing headline on the August 6 briefing to the president—the headline being, “Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States.” Now, Dr. Rice felt that there was an explanation that that was merely a historical document, but today that was a bit of new information.

Through the years, Connolly has showcased her vast expertise at making up stories, inventing “quotes,” reciting scripts and starting weird rumors. Last night, though, she was comically clueless. Was that PDB headline “new information?” Consider a front-page story from the scribe’s own paper, the Washington Post. The front-page report, by a guy named Bob Woodward, had appeared almost two years before:
WOODWARD (5/18/02) (pgh 1): The top-secret briefing memo presented to President Bush on Aug. 6 carried the headline, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.,” and was primarily focused on recounting al Qaeda’s past efforts to attack and infiltrate the United States, senior administration officials said.

(2) The document, known as the President’s Daily Briefing, underscored that Osama bin Laden and his followers hoped to “bring the fight to America,” in part as retaliation for U.S. missile strikes on al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan in 1998, according to knowledgeable sources.

And this was hardly a Woodward exclusive. According to Nexis, the title of the PDB went out on the May 17 AP wire; from there, it went into papers all over the country. On May 19, 2002, it was discussed on This Week and Meet the Press; it was discussed the next day on Morning Edition. Meanwhile, how recently had this fact been reported? Two weeks ago, it found its way into the Daily Egyptian, the student newspaper at Southern Illinois University:
JESSE NELSON (3/24/04): When Clarke was finally allowed to meet with deputy Cabinet members in April, he warned them that al Qaeda posed “an immediate and serious threat to the United States.”

Then, on Aug. 6, CIA Director George Tenet presented the president with a report titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.,” which warned of likely al Qaeda hijackings.

College students knew about this! But since it wasn’t a rumor or phony “quotation,” Ceci was still in the dark!

For the record, what’s most amazing is Connolly’s ignorance as of show time last night. Was she surprised when Rice read the title? There’s a phrase for that: No Big Deal. But eight hours later, Connolly still hadn’t conducted the thirty seconds of Nexis research which would have shown that this fact isn’t new. Connolly deals in rumors and scripts. She don’t stoop to checking out facts.

No, that title wasn’t a “bombshell” (as Chris Matthews called it right after the hearing). The title has been known for two years. But eight hours after Rice answered Richard, Ceci Connolly still didn’t know. Like many members of her tribe, she works best with the “facts” she makes up.