Howling Dog Graphic
Point. Click. Search.

Contents: Archives:

Search this weblog
Search WWW
Howler Graphic
by Bob Somerby
E-mail This Page
Socrates Reads Graphic
A companion site.

Site maintained by Allegro Web Communications, comments to Marc.

Howler Banner Graphic
Caveat lector

RICE UNDER OATH (PART 2)! Condi made a joke of her oath. Do you think that the press was upset?


FRIGHTENED AND DEFERENTIAL: On last night’s Hardball, Chris Matthews wondered how reporters will act at Bush’s 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 wasn’t 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, we’ll see how the press corps behaves. But one scribe won’t “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 Bush’s last press conference before Iraq (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/25/04). Bumiller’s statement was so astounding that it must be remembered:

BUMILLER: I think we were very deferential because…it’s live, it’s very intense, it’s frightening to stand up there. Think about it, you’re standing up on prime-time live TV asking the president of the United States a question when the country’s 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.
Let’s face it—Bumiller should be a White House scribe like Dennis Miller’s chimp should run the space program. A press corps should be tough but fair. They shouldn’t be “brazen”—but they shouldn’t be scared. We’ll see how the press corps functions tonight. Let’s hope that Bumiller’s 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 swore—and 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 Brief—the 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.

On August 6, 2001, the president’s intelligence briefing included a response to questions that he had earlier raised about any al Qaeda intentions to strike our homeland.

The [PDB] reviewed past intelligence reporting, mostly dating from the 1990s, regarding possible al Qaeda plans to attack inside the United States. It referred to uncorroborated reporting that—from 1998—that a terrorist might attempt to hijack a U.S. aircraft in an attempt to blackmail the government into releasing U.S.-held terrorists who had participated in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. This briefing item was not prompted by any specific threat information and it did not raise the possibility that terrorists might use airplanes as missiles.

Somewhat comically, that was Rice’s 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.” It’s ironic that she would say such a thing, since she herself goes on to give a highly selective account of the PDB’s 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.

(10) Nevertheless, FBI information since that time indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.

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 theme—her 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: Isn’t 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-Veniste’s 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 crucial—at the time of this testimony, the PDB was a classified document. Americans watching Rice on TV had never been able to see the brief—and 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 oath—her 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. Isn’t that so?
The answer to that question is obvious—Yes. As you can see from the text of the PDB, the language of Ben-Veniste’s 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 in—as part of the sequence?
Yes, that actually was her reply. So Ben-Veniste—his time being wasted—posed 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 preparations—not historically, but ongoing, along with these numerous full-field investigations against al Qaeda cells—that 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 president’s 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.

This particular PDB had a long section on what bin Laden had wanted to do—speculative, much of it—in ’97, ’98, that he had in fact liked the results of the 1993 bombing. It had a number of discussions of—it had a discussion of whether or not they might use hijacking to try and free a prisoner who was being held in the United States, Ressam. It reported that the FBI had full field investigations underway. And we checked on the issue of whether or not there was something going on with surveillance of buildings, and we were told, I believe, that the issue was the courthouse in which this might take place.

Commissioner, this was not a warning. This was a historic memo—historical memo prepared by the agency because the president was asking questions about what we knew about the inside.

Rice discussed every part of the PDB—except the part about which she’d 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 wouldn’t say it.

Ben-Veniste couldn’t have made it simpler. The answer was obvious—but Rice wouldn’t say it. You’d think the press corps would be upset. And by the weekend, the corps was upset—but not in the way you’d imagine.

TOMORROW: The press is upset

WHERE’S THE OUTRAGE: By Sunday, his cable fishing show in the can, Bush joined Rice in making weird statements about that PDB’s contents. In this morning’s Post, E. J. Dionne quotes one of Bush’s 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.”

Surely we don’t want to start arguing about how it depends on what the meaning of “attack” is, do we?

Dionne states what is merely obvious. Bush’s carefully-crafted, nuanced remarks recall the days when the press corps railed against language they called “Clintonesque.”

In this morning’s lead editorial, Post editors also note the obvious. “Mr. Bush’s dismissive characterizations of the document haven’t 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. They’re 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 Gore’s alleged lies that they simply invented a series of lies and pretended that Gore had said them! Now, their outrage is strangely subdued. We’ll explore their new standards all week.