WOODWARD (page 299): What was the best they had? Powell and Armitage reviewed an intercepted conversation between two senior officers of the Republican Guard...The intercept, from the day before inspections began in November, showed a colonel telling a brigadier general that he had a modified vehicle from the al-Kindi company, which in the past had been involved with WMD. The colonel then contradicted himself, saying, We evacuated everything. We dont have anything left. It was suggestive, and potentially incriminating, but what he was talking about was not clear. No one could tell from this intercept or any other intelligence. An alternative explanation was that the colonel and the general just wanted to make sure they had complied. Powell decided to use it because it involved senior officials and the evacuated quote seemed strong.Over and over during this four-day episode, Plan of Attack shows Powell deciding to use it anyway—deciding to use weak, shaky, inferential intelligence, intel which persuaded the nation but turned out, in the end, to be fake, bogus, wrong. (As we now know, much of Powells UN presentation was based on bogus intel from Curveball.) Here, for example, is the way he decided to pimp some iffy scuds:
WOODWARD (page 309): It had been four very, very difficult days for Powell as he sorted through the intelligence reports. So much was inferential, he thought. The intelligence people kept repeating that Saddam had a few dozen Scud missiles. The Scuds are not anything anyone has seen, he said. As he read, he saw that previous U.N. inspectors had accounted for something like 817 of the 819 Scuds. But there was other information suggesting that some still remained, so he agreed to refer vaguely to up to a few dozen Scud-variant missiles.So he agreed. According to Woodward, Powell agreed to refer vaguely to a claim that seemed semi-bogus. But so it goes throughout the pages where Powell assembles his crucial presentation. This was fascinating material when Plan of Attack first appeared, but its even more so today, when sixteen months of turmoil have provided more reason to rue the process by which we were marched off to war.
So yes—Woodwards book does show the Bush Admin fixing the facts and the intelligence. And yes, it does show them starting to do this shortly after the Downing Street memo appeared. But when this fascinating book first appeared, it wasnt used by the Washington press to batter the Bush Admin on this score. Quite the contrary—the book was used to praise Wise Leader Bush for the great depth of his honesty! How did this odd transaction occur? Lets go back to the front-page report with which the Post introduced this new book—a front-page report which took us straight to the books most ballyhooed passage.
Plan of Attack was released in April 2004. On Saturday morning, April 17, the Post ran a front-page report on its contents, written by reporter William Hamilton. In his second paragraph, Hamilton cited the puzzling anecdote which became the books most famous passage. Surely, you recall that slam dunk:
HAMILTON (4/17/04): Beginning in late December 2001, President Bush met repeatedly with Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks and his war cabinet to plan the U.S. attack on Iraq even as he and administration spokesmen insisted they were pursuing a diplomatic solution, according to a new book on the origins of the war.Ah yes, Tenets assurance to the president that the WMDs were a slam dunk! It became the books most famous passage. Hamilton set the scene early in his report:
The intensive war planning throughout 2002 created its own momentum, according to "Plan of Attack" by Bob Woodward, fueled in part by the CIA's conclusion that Saddam Hussein could not be removed from power except through a war and CIA Director George J. Tenet's assurance to the president that it was a "slam dunk" case that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
HAMILTON: [W]hen asked personally by the president, Powell agreed to make the U.S. case against Hussein at the United Nations in February 2003, a presentation described by White House communications director Dan Bartlett as "the Powell buy-in." Bush wanted someone with Powell's credibility to present the evidence that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, a case the president had initially found less than convincing when presented to him by CIA Deputy Director John E. McLaughlin at a White House meeting on Dec. 21, 2002.December 21, 2002? When we read Hamiltons report that day, we assumed that a typo had occurred. (The book was not yet available.) Why would Bush be getting his initial report on WMD in December 2002—four months after he and his aides had begun the drive to war? (Cheneys speech about Saddams scary nukes was delivered on August 26, 2002.) Hamiltons report didnt seem to make sense, but no, the date he used wasnt a typo. He was accurately describing Plan of Attacks most puzzling passage—the passage on which your credulous press corps would lavish the most attention.
Weve discussed this odd part of Woodwards book before, and even today, its puzzling to read it. Woodward never quite explains why this high-octane White House meeting is occurring—why major honchos were gathered with Bush to get this report on Saddams WMD. But one things still clear as we read this passage, sixteen months after it first appeared. In it, Tenet comes off as the hapless fall-guy—and Bush is an honest, far-sighted leader, wisely counseling all around him never to stretch the intelligence. In this pleasing anecdote, McLaughlin delivers a lousy briefing to Bush, and the wise president sniffs it out instantly. He also advises all around him never, ever to stretch the intel. McLaughlin makes his weak presentation—and then Bush rises to lead:
WOODWARD (page 249): When McLaughlin concluded, there was a look on the presidents face of, Whats this? And then a brief moment of silence.Bush, a wise leader, is underwhelmed by the presentation. But remember—this is happening in December 2002. Bush and his aides have been pimping the nukes since the previous August—and Bush has been making unequivocal charges about Saddams WMD since September 7 (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/24/05). Why was Bush out making these statements if he hadnt been briefed on the intel? Woodward is careful not to ask, and continues with the puzzling anecdote which pimps an inspiring Wise Leader:
Nice try, Bush said. I dont think this is quiteits not something that Joe Public would understand or gain a lot of confidence from.
Card was also underwhelmed. The presentation was a flop. In terms of marketing, the examples didnt work, the charts didnt work, the photos were not gripping, the [taped telephone] intercepts were less than compelling.
Bush turned to Tenet. Ive been told all this intelligence about having WMD and this is the best that weve got?
WOODWARD (continuing directly): From the end of one of the couches in the Oval Office, Tenet rose up, threw his arms in the air. Its a slam dunk case! the DCI said.Remember—all this is happening four months after Bush and his aides began pimping the nukes. Its happening more than three months after Bush began asserting unequivocally that Saddam had WMD. But now, we see Tenet making the same unequivocal claim, an unequivocal claim which turned out to be false—and Bush is wisely, honestly, carefully trying to sort out the evidence. Cheney is completely honest too, although hes less sharp that Wise Bush:
Bush pressed. George, how confident are you?
Tenet, a basketball fan who attended as many home games of his alma mater Georgetown as possible, leaned forward and threw up his arms again. Dont worry, its a slam dunk!
WOODWARD (continuing directly): It was unusual for Tenet to be so certain. From McLaughlins presentation, Card was worried that there might be no there there, but Tenets double reassurance on the slam dunk was memorable and comforting. Cheney could think of no reason to question Tenets assertion. He was, after all, the head of the CIA and would know the most. The president later recalled that McLaughlins presentation wouldnt have stood the test of time. But, said Bush, Tenets reassuranceThat was very important.Several times he said it! End of passage—and birth of a fall guy. In this passage, Tenet makes a reassuring claim—a reassuring claim which turned out to be false. But everyone else is completely honest, above-board and concerned. Cheney? He could think of no reason to question Tenet. Card was comforted by Tenet, too. And Bush, of course, is an Honest, Wise Leader. Three months after he himself began stretching the intel, he sees the weakness in McLaughlins case, and honestly counsels everyone else that they should never do the thing he himself has been doing for months.
Needs a lot more work, Bush told Card and Rice. Lets get some people whove actually put together a case for a jury. He wanted some lawyers, prosecutors if need be. They were going to have to go public with something.
The president told Tenet several times, Make sure no one stretches to make our case.
If you believe that this fairy-tale happened as described, weve got a piece of land in Woodwards side yard that were now willing to sell you. This passage makes no earthly sense; months after Bush and Cheney begin faking the intel, it shows the two of them worriedly examining Tenet and McLaughlins presentation. And Woodward never makes any attempt to explain the odd chronology. Why was Bush getting briefed on the WMD now? How had he been briefed back in August? Woodward never attempts to explain—and the press corps agreed not to worry.
As readers will recall, this anecdote became the most pimped passage from Woodwards fascinating book. And the passage is fake as a two-dollar bill—except as a piece of pleasing propaganda, an attempt to pimp Wise Leader Bush. Four months into his drive to war, Bush is getting briefed on the WMD? As Hamiltons report quite clearly captures, this seemed to be his initial briefing—his first chance to go over the WMD case. No, that didnt make any sense. But thats the way the hapless press corp all agreed to play it.
This anecdote led the Posts preview story—and it was pimped far and wide after that. Yes, Plan of Attack is full of passages in which Bush and his aides fix the facts and the intel—but politely, your press corps agreed not to notice. Instead, what did the public hear about the book? Endlessly, they heard about a wise, honest leader—a leader who saw through McLaughlins report, then wisely warned all around him, several times, never to stretch the intelligence.
That passage is fake as a two-dollar bill. But all good scribes knew they should pimp it. Even today, voters have heard almost nothing about the many parts of Plan of Attack in which that same wise, honest leader fixed the intelligence and the facts. The mainstream press was too storebought to tell; and your liberal and Dem elites have simply been too inept.
PIMPING THE GENERAL: And of course, they also knew to pimp Dashing Powell, back when he made that iffy report to the UN in February 2003. As we know now, Powells report was full of bogus intel. But readers, cringe as you read Woodwards account of the press corps real-time reaction:
WOODWARD (page 311): The secretarys presentation took 76 minutes...Perfect! What was it, exactly, that Powell had done? Simple! Using a bunch of weak, iffy intel, he had gulled the mainstream press corps! The late McGrory was hardly alone, after all; Richard Cohen and William Raspberry also stampeded to praise Powells pimping. And at the White House, Bartlett laughed about the way Powell had made them buy in.
Mary McGrory, the renowned liberal columnist for the Washington Post, and a Bush critic, wrote in the lead column for the next days op-ed page of Powells Jaccuse speech, I can only say that he persuaded me, and I was as tough as France to convince. She said that she had been hoping Powell would oppose war, but The cumulative effect was stunning. I was reminded of the day long ago when John Dean, a White House toady, unloaded on Richard Nixon and you could see the dismay written on Republican faces that knew impeachment was inevitable. She added, I'm not ready for war yet. But Colin Powell has convinced me that it might be the only way to stop a fiend, and that if we do go, there is reason.
At the White House, Dan Bartlett understood the importance of what Powell had done. He began calling it the Powell buy-in.
Bartlett saw what Powell had done—he had gulled the fools of the Washington press corps. Here at THE HOWLER, we saw that too, and we howled as loud as we could. (In fairness, other fiery liberals believe that these people are, in fact, the current state of the art in human perfectibility.) And guess what? Fourteen months later, when Plan of Attack appeared, they also bought in to a laughable scene in which Bush—whos been stretching the intel for months—warns everyone else not to stretch it.
In 2003, they bought in to Good General Powell. In 2004, they bought in to Wise Leader Bush. A Wise Leader (whos been stretching the intel for months) sincerely cautions his staff not to stretch it. And Cheney, who began pimping the nukes four months earlier, is reassured by Tenets declaration. Yes, Bush was deeply insightful that day—more insightful than his reassured veep. If you believe that sweet fairy tale, we have good land next to Bob Woodwards hot tub that were now willing to sell you.
MONDAY: A few closing thoughts