WEDNESDAY, APRIL 14, 2004
IN RECOVERY: Were still in shock from last evenings press conference, and were doing radio about it today. For that reason, we offer a slightly truncated HOWLER. In Anything Goes, we continue to track the howlers about that 8/6 PDB. And in Ten Minutes from Dull-Normal, we take a preliminary look at last nights embarrassing conference.
Rice Under Oath continues tomorrow. And well take a closer look at questions from last nights event.
HARDBALLS HOUSE OF CANARDS: We cheered Jim Thompson, the 9/11 commissioner, when he corrected Chris Matthews on last evenings Hardball. He tackled a pleasing urban legend:
THOMPSON: One correction. Moussaoui did not say that he didnt care about learning to take off and land. What he did say was he wanted to learn how to fly a 747, and they were amazed by that because he had absolutely no prior training or no prior interest in flights.For the past several weeks, Matthews has showcased his lack of factual knowledge about all things 9/11. The Moussaoui legend has been one of his vehicles. Last night, the Hardball host said it again: Moussaoui was the interesting guy who was picked up in Minneapolis by the FBI for seeking training on how to command a flight, how to pilot a plane, a big commercial plane, but not how to take off or how to land. The host has been repeating this tale for weeks, although it was debunked years ago.
How soon after 9/11 was this entertaining tale shot down? In the New York Times of November 17, 2001, Philip Shenon reported an interview with FBI head Robert Mueller:
SHENON: Asked if Mr. Moussaoui had been ruled out as another possible hijacker, Mr. Mueller said, We have not ruled out any other individual.Eight months later, Nicholas Kristoff discussed the Moussaoui canard in his Times op-ed column. He offered more detailed information:
KRISTOFF: One of the most widespread canards since 9/11 is that [Moussaoui] wanted to learn to fly a 747 but not how to take off or land. That is completely false; on the contrary, repeated F.B.I. statements show that he specifically asked for instruction on taking off and landing.In October 2002, Shenon described a report from the House-Senate intelligence committee which investigated 9/11:
SHENON: The report includes a more detailed summary of Mr. Moussaouis actions in the months before his arrest, when he sought flight training on jumbo jets at the Pan Am International Flight Academy in Eagan, a suburb of Minneapolis, and quickly raised suspicions among his instructors.These facts have been established for yearsbut people like Matthews repeat old tales. But then, Matthews is a clown/entertainer, not an actual journalist. Last week, the Hardball host had his shorts in a wad about the title of that PDBa fact which had been public information since early 2002 (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/9/04). Last night, he seemed stunned by Janet Renos testimonytestimony which suggested that Clinton ordered bin Ladens assassination. Alas! Sandy Berger discussed this matter in detail at the 9/11 hearings just a few weeks ago. Last night, Matthews also wondered about several points which were clearly explained in yesterdays hearings. In any other profession, can millionaire stars be so thoroughly ignorant of even the simplest facts?
But if Thompson was right about one canard, he was eager to peddle another. Moments after correcting Matthews, the commish uncorked a real gem:
THOMPSON: I got to tell you something. Yes. Well, I got to tell you something. And I may get in trouble for saying this, but Im going to say it anyway because Ive had it. That August 6 PDB that they want to hang around the presidents neckits a bunch of junk. Look at it. Ninety percent of it dealt with things that were three years old and none of the predictions in there were proved out by September 11. And if you knewif you knew the circumstances on how it was prepared, youd be scared.None of the predictions were proved out by September 11! Lets remember one of the things that 8/6 PDB said:
PRESIDENTIAL BRIEF, 8/6/01 (pgh 10): FBI information since  indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacksConsistent with preparations for hijackings! Commissioner Thompson may not recall, but four hijackings did occur on the morning on September 11.
But so what? Thompsons bizarre remark about the PDB only extended the Bush-Rice pattern (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/13/04). And why not make such oddball claims? Matthews, impressed with his silly old tales, didnt manage to say Word The First when Thompson uncorked his new howler.
TEN MINUTES FROM DULL-NORMAL: What can we say about last nights press conference, in which Bush offered rambling, disjointed, irrelevant answers to questions that a high school kid could have composed in her sleep?
How jumbled were the presidents answers? Time after time, snatches of irrelevant spin were pasted together in crazy-quilt fashion. Late in the session, for example, ABCs Ann Compton asked this:
COMPTON: Looking forward about keeping the United States safe, a group representing about several thousand FBI agents today wrote to your administration begging you not to split up the law enforcement and the counterterrorism because they say it ties their hands. Yet you mentioned yesterday that you think, perhaps, the time has come for some real intelligence reforms. That cant happen without real leadership from the White House. Will you and how will you?According to Compton, FBI agents were urging the White House not to split up the law enforcement and the counterterrorism. No, that wasnt exactly coherent, but it was fairly clear that Compton was asking about possible intelligence reform. But by the time Bush concluded his stream-of-consciousness reply, he was praising the American people for feeding the hungry in Asia:
BUSH: And as the greatest power on the face of the earth, we have an obligation to help the spread of freedom. We have an obligation to help feed the hungry. I think the American people find it interesting that were providing food for the North Korea people who starve. We have an obligation to lead the fight on AIDS, on Africa. And we have an obligation to work toward a more free world. Thats our obligation. That is what we have been called to do, as far as Im concerned.I think the American people find it interesting that were providing food for the North Korea people who starve. Theres a phrase for that: Deeply embarrassing. Lets just say it: Thats what happens when a president who is wholly out of his depth runs out of scripted points which are even vaguely relevant.
But its also the kind of answer you get when you ask such a man hapless questions. Readers, when you question a public official in a forum like thisa forum which allows no follow-upyou cant ask questions which are vague and imprecise, and you cant ask questions with several parts. But the lack of specificity in last nights questions was truly a sight to behold. Beyond that, five different people asked some variant of the have you made any mistakes/should you apologize question. Again: A high school student roused from her sleep could scribble a question like that.
Last nights session showcased the troubling dull-normal style which increasingly defines American public culture. (Further example: Go see Jersey Girl, praised to the skies by Roger Ebert.) A hapless president met a press which is every bit as vacant as he. Tomorrow, well look at individual questions from the conference, and well suggest how those questions should have been phrased. In the meantime, we have a question for the press: Do you think you owe an apology to the American people?
COMPTON: Looking forward about keeping the United States safe, a group representing about several thousand FBI agents today wrote to your administration begging you not to split up the law enforcement and the counterterrorism because they say it ties their hands. Yet you mentioned yesterday that you think, perhaps, the time has come for some real intelligence reforms. That cant happen without real leadership from the White House. Will you and how will you?Note: Bushs response to Comptons actual question ended after two paragraphs. All the rest was a filibuster, designed to take time off the clock. For the record, that one last question to Bush was priceless. I guess Id like to know if you feel in any way that youve failed as a communicator, a puckish scribe said.