TUESDAY, APRIL 13, 2004
FRIGHTENED AND DEFERENTIAL: On last nights Hardball, Chris Matthews wondered how reporters will act at Bushs press conference this evening. He spoke with Howard Fineman:
MATTHEWS: Well, what happens tomorrow night if a reporter does manage to get his hand in the air, or her hand in the air and ask the question, You were briefed out there at the Crawford ranch, five weeks before we received the worst hit in our history And what did you do when you got that warning? You say it is not a warning. You say it was an historic come, you say it wasnt imminent. You were told, bin Laden determined to strike in U.S. What did you do?Matthews wondered if, before all the American people, us and everybody, reporters would dare to ask questions like these: Did you have any reaction to [the PDB]? Did you ask any questions? Did you do anything? Did you issue any orders? In short, Matthews wondered if reporters would dare ask the obvious questions.
Tonight, well see how the press corps behaves. But one scribe wont be brazen enough to ask. That scribe is timorous Elisabeth Bumiller, the sorry excuse for a White House reporter still employed by the New York Times. Recently, Bumiller explained why the corps was so timid at Bushs last press conference before Iraq (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/25/04). Bumillers statement was so astounding that it must be remembered:
BUMILLER: I think we were very deferential because its live, its very intense, its frightening to stand up there. Think about it, youre standing up on prime-time live TV asking the president of the United States a question when the countrys about to go to war. There was a very serious, somber tone that evening, and no one wanted to get into an argument with the president at this very serious time.Lets face itBumiller should be a White House scribe like Dennis Millers chimp should run the space program. A press corps should be tough but fair. They shouldnt be brazenbut they shouldnt be scared. Well see how the press corps functions tonight. Lets hope that Bumillers absent.
RICE UNDER OATH (PART 2): Condi Rice was under oath when she appeared before the 9/11 commission. But she made a joke of the oath she sworeand your press corps has no plan to say so.
How baldly did Rice make a joke of her oath? Consider the very first thing she said about that August 6 Presidential Daily Briefthe subject on which she was later questioned. After swearing to tell the whole truth, Rice delivered her opening statement. She described that key PDB:
RICE, OPENING STATEMENT: I want to address in some detail one of the briefing items we received, since its content has frequently been mischaracterized.Somewhat comically, that was Rices full description of the PDB.
As she begins this part of her statement, Rice complains that the content of this PDB has frequently been mischaracterized. Its ironic that she would say such a thing, since she herself goes on to give a highly selective account of the PDBs contents. As we saw yesterday, the PDB contained two separate references to hijackings (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/12/04). Yes, the PDB did describe, in paragraph 9, an uncorroborated report from 1998 about a possible hijack attempt. But in paragraph 10, it described other ongoing hijack threats, a fact Rice simply ignored:
PRESIDENTIAL BRIEF, 8/6/01: (pgh 9) We have not been able to corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting, such as that from a [REDACTED] service in 1998 saying that bin Laden wanted to hijack a U.S. aircraft to gain the release of Blind Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and other U.S.-held extremists.Rice had sworn to tell the whole truth. But even in her opening statement, she seemed determined to tell only half of it. She cited the hijack reference which served her themeher claim that this PDB was historical. And she simply ignored the very next paragraph, which warned about future attempts.
But this was minor compared to what happened when commissioners questioned Rice on this topic. Under questioning, she came close to outright deception. Some will say that she did cross that line.
Early on, Rice was questioned about the PDB by commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste. He posed a double question:
BEN-VENISTE: Isnt it a fact, Dr. Rice, that the August 6th PDB warned against possible attacks in this country? And I ask you whether you recall the title of that PDB.Rice gave the title, slightly inaccurately. (Actual title: Bid Laden Determined To Strike in US.) Then, she answered Ben-Venistes first question. Remarkably, this was her answer:
RICE: You said, did it not warn of attacks? It did not warn of attacks inside the United States. It was historical information based on old reporting. There was no new threat information, and it did not, in fact, warn of any coming attacks inside the United States.What a remarkable bit of testimony! The PDB did not warn of attacks inside the United States, Rice said. In fact, she made the odd statement twice. To state the obvious, this comes close to contradicting the language of the PDB, which warns about patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings and other attacks. Having sworn to tell the whole truth, Rice offered a highly crafted account of what the PDB said.
And please remember, because this is crucialat the time of this testimony, the PDB was a classified document. Americans watching Rice on TV had never been able to see the briefand as far as Rice knew, they never would. All they would know of this PDB would come from the things Rice was saying. And what was her first account of the brief? It did not, in fact, warn of any coming attacks inside the United States, she said.
Was Rice living up to her oathher pledge to tell the truth, the whole truth? Possibly puzzled by her remarks, Ben-Veniste narrowed his question. Indeed, in his next question, he took his language straight from the brief itself:
BEN-VENISTE: As of the August 6th briefing, you learned that al Qaeda members have resided or traveled to the United States for years and maintained a support system in the United States. And you learned that FBI information since the 1998 blind sheik warning of hijackings to free the blind sheik indicated a pattern of suspicious activity in the country, up until August 6th, consistent with preparation for hijackings. Isnt that so?The answer to that question is obviousYes. As you can see from the text of the PDB, the language of Ben-Venistes question came straight from the brief itself. And Rice had sworn to tell the whole truth. So what did she do? She evaded:
RICE: You have other questions that you want me to answer inas part of the sequence?Yes, that actually was her reply. So Ben-Venistehis time being wastedposed his question again:
BEN-VENISTE: You have indicated here that this was some historical document. And I am asking you whether it is not the case that you learned in the PDB memo of August 6th that the FBI was saying that it had information suggesting that preparationsnot historically, but ongoing, along with these numerous full-field investigations against al Qaeda cellsthat preparations were being made consistent with hijackings within the United States.Again, Ben-Veniste used the language of the briefing itself. Again, the answer was obvious: Yes. But Rice evaded her oath. She offered a rambling, irrelevant speech, which ended with another misstatement:
RICE: May I address the question, sir? The fact is that this August 6th PDB was in response to the presidents questions about whether or not something might happen or something might be planned by al Qaeda inside the United States. He asked because all of the threat reporting, or the threat reporting that was actionable, was about the threats abroad, not about the United States.Rice discussed every part of the PDBexcept the part about which shed been asked! This was not a warning, she finally said. Each person will have to decide whether to call that a lie.
Readers, keep that one key point in mind. When Ben-Veniste questioned Rice, the American people had no way to check the accuracy of her statements. The PDB was a classified document; as far as Rice knew, it always would be. So what happened? Two separate times, Bern-Veniste questioned Rice using the language of the PDB itself. The answer to his question was simple. But under oath, Rice wouldnt say it.
Ben-Veniste couldnt have made it simpler. The answer was obviousbut Rice wouldnt say it. Youd think the press corps would be upset. And by the weekend, the corps was upsetbut not in the way youd imagine.
TOMORROW: The press is upset
WHERES THE OUTRAGE: By Sunday, his cable fishing show in the can, Bush joined Rice in making weird statements about that PDBs contents. In this mornings Post, E. J. Dionne quotes one of Bushs odd statements. I looked at the August 6 briefing, Bush said. I was satisfied that some matters were being looked into. But that PDB said nothing about an attack on America. Continuing, Dionne state the obvious:
DIONNE: But the PDB did talk about attacks on the United States. It talked about al Qaeda members who have resided in or traveled to the U.S. for years, and the group apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks. It spoke of FBI information on patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks. It referred to a call to the U.S. Embassy in the United Arab Emirates in May saying that a group of bin Laden supporters was in the U.S. planning attacks with explosives.Dionne states what is merely obvious. Bushs carefully-crafted, nuanced remarks recall the days when the press corps railed against language they called Clintonesque.
In this mornings lead editorial, Post editors also note the obvious. Mr. Bushs dismissive characterizations of the document havent been accurate, they write. But the eds show little outrage, as you can see by reading their timorous piece. Indeed, press corps outrage has been hard to find as Rice and Bush have made their odd statements. In the matter of Rice, the press has been more upset at Ben-Veniste, who kept asking an obvious question, than at Rice, who refused to answer. Theyre mad at Ben-Veniste for asking. Darling Condi, under oath, gets a pass.
By way of contrast, we remember the days when the Washington press claimed to care about truth-telling. Four years ago, for example, they were so upset by Gores alleged lies that they simply invented a series of lies and pretended that Gore had said them! Now, their outrage is strangely subdued. Well explore their new standards all week.