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HOWLER HISTORY! The press corps always gives Rice a free pass. We review an earlier episode:


BALT-WASH ALERT: For those in the Balt-Wash area, we’ll be appearing on today’s Marc Steiner Show, WYPR, 88.1 FM. Topic: Bush Admin credibility. Time: noon to 1 PM.

PROMOTING ICON CONDI: Condi Rice is a press corps icon. According to the White House, Rice failed to read the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, and therefore didn’t know about State’s objections to uranium-from-Africa. She also didn’t know the CIA’s thoughts on this matter, we are told. But when she appeared on last Wednesday’s NewsHour, Gwen Ifill didn’t mention these awkward matters (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/1/03). This morning we learn that Rice is next in line to replace Colin Powell at State.

Because Rice is a press corps icon, there is no attempt—repeat that, none—to hold her work to normal standards. Rice doesn’t read 90-page reports? The press corps completely ignored that matter (for a fuller chronology, see below). But it’s hardly the first time the slumbering press corps looked away from Rice’s odd performance. To help flesh out the amazing way the corps behaves toward Icon Condi, let’s review a previous howler which the press almost wholly ignored.

On May 15, 2002, CBS News reported that President Bush had been warned about possible al Qaeda hijackings on August 6, 2001. The Washington Post reported the story on May 16. “President Bush and his top advisers were informed by the CIA early last August that terrorists associated with Osama bin Laden had discussed the possibility of hijacking airplanes,” the paper reported. “White House spokesman Ari Fleischer confirmed that Bush had been told about the possibility of hijackings but he declined to say what had been revealed during his intelligence briefings.” On May 16, Rice held a press briefing; she insisted that no one could have envisioned the events of September 11. “I don’t think anybody could have predicted that these people…would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile,” Rice said.

Rice’s remark was surpassingly odd. No one could have predicted use of a hijacked plane as a missile? In fact, ever since September 11, news reports had mentioned earlier warnings about that very sort of activity. On May 18, 2002, the Post’s Bob Woodward and Dan Eggen challenged Rice’s statement. After quoting Rice’s remark, they outlined some previous warnings:

WOODWARD AND EGGEN: But a 1999 report prepared for the National Intelligence Council, an affiliate of the CIA, warned that terrorists associated with bin Laden might hijack an airplane and crash it into the Pentagon, White House or CIA headquarters.

The report recounts well-known case studies of similar plots, including a 1995 plan by al Qaeda operatives to hijack and crash a dozen U.S. airliners in the South Pacific and pilot a light aircraft into Langley.

“Suicide bomber(s) belonging to al-Qaida’s Martyrdom Battalion could crash-land an aircraft packed with high explosives (C-4 and semtex) into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), or the White House,” the September 1999 report said.

Woodward and Eggen recounted case studies which they said were “well-known.” But if these cases were well-known to some, they apparently weren’t well-known to Rice. On May 19, the Post’s Steve Fainaru examined the matter further:
FAINARU: A broad array of signals—from foiled plots to FBI field interviews—suggested for years that al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist groups had considered employing airplanes as missiles and U.S. flight schools as pilot training grounds.

The clues included a 1995 plot to blow up 11 American jetliners over the Pacific Ocean, then crash a light plane into CIA headquarters—a suicide mission to have been carried out by a Pakistani pilot who had trained at flight schools in North Carolina, Texas and New York.

FBI investigators visited two of the flight schools in 1996 after the plot was uncovered in the Philippines, school operators said. In 1998 and 1999, analysts warned federal officials that terrorists might crash hijacked aircraft into landmarks such as the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. Then, last July, the Italian government closed airspace over Genoa and mounted antiaircraft batteries based on information that Islamic extremists were planning to use an airplane to kill President Bush. “There’s a lot of stuff that was out there,” said Stephen Gale, a terrorism specialist at the University of Pennsylvania who presented an analysis warning of airborne attacks to Federal Aviation Administration security officials in 1998.

Fainaru provided more detail about that 1995 plot:
FAINARU: The plot was uncovered when a Pakistani national, Abdul Hakim Murad, was discovered mixing a bomb in his Manila apartment. He later confessed to Philippine authorities that he was part of a conspiracy to deploy five-man teams to plant bombs on 11 planes operated by United, Delta and Northwest airlines…

As part of “Project Bojinka”—Serbo-Croatian for “loud bang”—Murad was to crash a light aircraft loaded with explosives into CIA headquarters at Langley, he later told investigators…

Murad’s arrest came 13 days after four members of an Algerian terrorist group linked to al Qaeda hijacked an Air France flight as it prepared to leave Algeria for Paris. French authorities learned that the men planned to crash the plane into a Paris landmark such as the Eiffel Tower; commandos killed the hijackers during a refueling stop before the suicide plot could be carried out.

According to Fainaru, the Eiffel Tower had also been a target. For the record, earlier reports had described the plan differently, saying the Algerians had planned to explode the hijacked plane over the Paris landmark.

At any rate, Rice’s comment was hard to square with these earlier, “well-known” episodes. Was Rice really ignorant of these matters? Or had she been bending it—bending it good? You’d think a real press corps would want to know, but we have never seen Rice questioned about her odd May 16 statement. Nor was she asked last Wednesday night about the startling report from the White House, in which we were told that the president’s National Security Adviser hadn’t read last October’s NIE.

Rice couldn’t imagine planes used as missiles? Rice hadn’t read last October’s NIE? Wouldn’t you think that actual journalists would want to ask about such matters? Our question: Is PBS’ Gwen Ifill a real journalist? Or does she just play one on TV?

WAXING RICE: According to Rice, she didn’t know that State and CIA had concerns about uranium-from-Africa. How absurd is Rice’s account? Congressman Henry Waxman has sent Rice a detailed letter on the subject. We suggest that you read it in full. You know what to do. Just click here.