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A TALE OF TWO STORIES! A pair of tales helped and hurt Bush. But neither one made real good sense:
TUESDAY, JULY 13, 2004

STORY ONE—THE HONEST AMBASSADOR: HOWLER readers swung into action, eager to challenge heretical notions. Was it possible? Was it possible that Joe Wilson’s famous claims didn’t quite make sense? (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/12/04.) Readers raised assorted irrelevant points. But a sensible question was frequently asked:
E-MAIL: Good logical deconstruction as far as it goes, but why in the world did Bush administration admit that it was wrong to include the 16-word claim in the speech if believed it was correct regarding a non-Niger source? I am missing the logic on this part.
Many people asked this question. For what it’s worth, the Bush Admin said it was wrong to include the 16-word claim in the speech because it was based on British intelligence—intelligence the US couldn’t examine, confirm or refute. We have no idea if that explanation was sincere, but it has the advantage of making some sense. Please don’t send us e-mails saying that you—a good member of the liberal team—are quite convinced that it wasn’t sincere. Like us, you have no real way of knowing. Spare us the brilliant mind-reading displays! Ouija boards? Put them down too!

We’ll stand by what we said last year. It’s hard to see how Wilson could have known whether Iraq had been seeking uranium in Africa. He only went to one country—Niger. He hadn’t seen the British intelligence. Indeed, even when he wrote a 500-page book, he didn’t say how he could have known what was happening in Somalia or the Congo. To all appearances, Wilson’s claims went well beyond the things he actually seems to have known. Was Iraq seeking uranium in Africa? We don’t have the slightest idea. But it’s hard to see what made people think that Wilson could have answered that either.

But when Wilson arrived on the scene last July, the press corps had begun to come down from its “Bush is a conquering emperor” high. Things were getting shaky in post-war Iraq, and that may explain why they bought Wilson’s presentation so thoroughly. In doing so, they ignored better-founded stories about Admin deception. For example, those aluminum tubes played a much larger role in the run-up to war than the “sixteen words” did. (The “sixteen words” were ignored in real time. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/28/03.) And the evidence was rather strong—the Bush Admin had vastly misstated the intel about the tubes. But Wilson’s story may have seemed appealing because of its “cinematic” elements. It featured an “honest ambassador” on the Niger road, shooting down those “16 words.” At any rate, what followed was the lazy pseudo-journalism of which the modern press is so fond.

How could Wilson have known what was in the Brit intel? How could he evaluate the possibility that Iraq sought uranium in Somalia or the Congo? Indeed, how did his claim—the claim that Iraq couldn’t likely complete a purchase in Niger—relate to Bush’s actual claim—the claim that Iraq had sought uranium, not that they had obtained it? Wilson has done a thousand interview shows, but we’ve never seen these obvious questions asked. But this is common press corps conduct. When they get a story they like—a story which promotes a view they have formed—they tend to ignore the facts of the case. They recite the tale in its most pleasing form. All questions—all probing—tends to stop.

In Story One—The Honest Ambassador—the corps ran with a story which harmed Bush’s cred. But when Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack presented a story which helped Bush’s cred, the corps decided to run with that too. One story helped Bush; the other one harmed him. But each of the stories was largely a tale, made more pleasing by a lack of real inquiry.

STORY TWO—THE SCRUPULOUS PRESIDENT: On balance, we thought Tim Russert did a good job on Sunday’s Meet the Press, questioning solons Roberts and Rockefeller about the Senate intelligence report. But at one point, Russert turned to an iconic tale from Bob Woodward’s ballyhooed book. No, the anecdote never exactly made sense. But so what? Within the mainstream press, it became the most commonly-cited item from Woodward’s puzzling tome. The story concerns George Tenet’s “slam dunk.” Russert addressed chairman Roberts:
RUSSERT: Here’s the concern: In December 2002 there was a briefing in the Oval Office. And here’s how Bob Woodward describes it in his book Plan of Attack:

“George Tenet, the director, and [Deputy Director] McLaughlin went to the Oval Office. The meeting was for presenting the case on WMD...When McLaughlin concluded, there was a look on the president’s face of, ‘What’s this?’ and then a brief moment of silence. ‘Nice try,’ Bush said. ‘I don’t think this is quite--it’s not something that Joe Public would understand or would gain a lot of confidence from.’ [White House chief of staff Andrew] Card was also underwhelmed. The presentation was a flop...Bush turned to Tenet. ‘I’ve been told all this intelligence about having WMD and this is the best we’ve got?’ From the end of one of the couches in the Oval Office, Tenet threw his arms in the air. ‘It’s a slam-dunk case.’ It was unusual for Tenet to be so certain. From McLaughlin’s presentation, Card was worried there might be no ‘There, there.’”

This is December of 2002. The president having doubts about the quality of the intelligence information on Iraq. What turned the corner? How did he become so emphatic and convinced during the first three months leading up to the war in 2003?

That was an excellent question—as far as it went. (Indeed, it’s a question which Woodward’s book notably fails to ask or answer.) But in this presentation, Russert became the three millionth scribe to put the weight of Woodward’s rep behind this pleasing scene with Bush—a scene in which Bush, The Scrupulous President, spots the weakness in the weapons intelligence.

This anecdote from Woodward’s book has been recited again and again. It’s a pleasing story from the White House perspective; it suggests that Bush was scrupulous and alert, then was led astray by George Tenet. But as we noted when Plan of Attack appeared, the anecdote doesn’t quite make sense. Earlier in his book, for example, Woodward said that Cheney and Bush had themselves begun misstating the weapons intel back in August 2002. By Woodward’s own assessment, Bush had been explicitly overstating the intel for three solid months by the time this meeting occurred. Why did Bush become so scrupulous? Woodward doesn’t try to say. Nor does Woodward ever say what happened after the December meeting. If Bush was concerned about the intel, what sort of follow-up sessions occurred? Woodward doesn’t report on that. We are left with only one thing—the pleasing image of The Scrupulous President, cautioning Tenet not to “stretch.” Scribes recite it again and again—failing to note that this scrupulous president, and his VP, had themselves been “stretching” the intel for months at the time that this meeting occurred.

On Sunday, Russert eventually mentioned the way Bush had been misstating the intel before that iconic meeting. But Russert only put Woodward’s imprimatur behind the tale of The Scrupulous President. He didn’t mention what Woodward had said about Bush’s own prior “stretching.”

So there you have two well-shaped stories. An Honest Ambassador refuted the sixteen words. A Scrupulous President cautioned George Tenet. Each story is pleasing in its own way—and each pleasing tale has floated around, one helping Bush, the other harming him. But the press corps hasn’t examined either story in the way real journalists would.

Meanwhile, there’s one clear difference between the two stories. When we critiqued the tale that helps Bush, readers responded with notes of high praise. But when we applied the same logic to Wilson’s presentation, readers offered helpful hints about our nefarious motives. Our readers know which team they’re on—and they’re happy to go after those who would dare spoil a good, pleasing tale.

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT: What happened after that “slam dunk” meeting? Was there an effort at follow-up, or did Bush and the others just take Tenet’s word? Plan of Attack doesn’t ask. But on last Friday’s NewsHour, David Kay discussed that iconic meeting. We thought his take was intriguing:
KAY: You know, that’s the missing guest at this table that really shocks me. Where was the NSC during this time? There should have been someone else protecting the president, asking questions about how sound is the intelligence, what are the uncertainties?

I mean, you have in the Bob Woodward book this amazing account of the president himself expressing doubt about the quality of the intelligence. He settles for a tired cliché, a sports cliché, “It's a slam dunk.” I know of no other NSC in modern history in which if that had happened in the Oval Office they would[n’t] have been down the neck with a tiger team on the intelligence community demanding that, “Look, the boss has concern about this; let's understand what his concerns are and how good your data is.”
Why did Woodward fail to explore the aftermath of that crucial meeting? We can’t say, but that’s very much the way modern journalism works. Kay was shocked that the NSC didn’t follow up on Bush’s alleged question. But to modern scribes, Pleasing Story is all. Everyone has recited the tale of The Scrupulous president—as they did with the tale of The Honest Ambassador. Everyone loves reciting these tales, although neither tale quite makes sense.