WEDNESDAY, APRIL 21, 2004
WHEN RUMMY MET KERRY: It was a Jodi Wilgoren Moment. On Monday, the scribe hammered Kerry for this Q-and-A, in which he dared say it depends:
QUESTION: If you were elected one year from now, will there be 100,000 American troops in Iraq?Wilgoren, using an Approved Press Corps Script, knew what this answer meant: Kerry avoids direct questions (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/20/04). But alas! Heres another Q-and-A, this one from Donald Rumsfelds April 15 press conference:
QUESTION: And youre fairly confident that after 90 days, youll be able to start drawing down to, say, 115,000, or you just dont know?In what way are Kerry and Rummy alike? Each gave the worlds most obvious answer! But so what? Wilgoren ran to her glowing screen. She accessed the software that takes Kerrys answers and converts them to Approved Press Corps scripts.
NO PLAN TO ATTACK: In our view, the official clips from Bob Woodwards book dont provide major bombshells. But Administration types are now suggesting that Woodward got various matters wrong, and press shills are helping them do it. But careful, readersBush Administration types wont always be truthful about such matters. One example: Colin Powell. Here was Woodward on last nights Charlie Rose:
WOODWARD: Everyone talked to me for this book, and [Powell] said in his case it was a couple of phone callsOf course, Powell has always been a press corps untouchable, so he can normally do this as much as he likes.
At any rate, we at the HOWLER arent overwhelmed by the official clips from Plan of Attack. We have been impressed by the press corps skill at overlooking obvious points and sticking to safe interpretations. How hackneyed has the press corps been in interpreting highlights from the book? Consider one of the books most widely-discussed scenesthat slam dunk briefing given to Bush in December 2002.
Last Saturday, the Washington Post published the first overview of Woodwards new book. William Hamilton ran through the highlights. He described that now-famous briefing:
HAMILTON: Bush wanted someone with Powells credibility to present the evidence that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction [to the UN], 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.Since Saturday, this episode has been discussed again and again. And everyone knows what the episode meansGeorge Tenet blew it again. But no one has raised an obvious question, a question concerning the date of this brief. The question virtually leaps off the pagebut everyone knows not to notice.
Readers, why was this briefing given in December 2002? As Woodwards book makes perfectly clear, this was very late in the game for Bush to be checking the evidence. This ballyhooed briefing is described on pages 247-250 of Plan of Attack. But as the book makes perfectly clear, Bush Admin typesincluding Bushhad been making unequivocal assertions about WMD for about four months when this briefing occurred. The briefing occurred in December 2002but Bush and Cheney had been saying slam dunk themselves ever since the previous August.
In chapter 18 of Plan of Attack (pages 192-204), Woodward describes the state of intelligence in the summer and fall of 2002. The intelligence community had a massive amount of intelligence about WMD, he writes, much of it old and not very reliable. What was the actual state of intelligence? The real and best answer was that [Saddam] probably had WMD, but that there was no proof and the case was circumstantial, Woodward writes (his emphasis). Indeed, when he describes the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (the one Condi Rice forgot to finish reading), Woodward says that its conclusions were speculative and showed tentativeness. (For example, when the NIE addressed the question of whether Saddam might aid al Qaeda, it used a triple set of qualifiers.) The NIE featured words like probably and possibly, Woodward notes. Againthis was the state of US intelligence in the months preceding that December briefing.
But none of this kept Bush Admin figures from making definitive public statements. First up was Cheney, on August 26, 2002four months before Bush got that briefing:
WOODWARD (page 164): Cheney Says Peril of a Nuclear Iraq Justifies Attack, read the headline in the New York Times on Aug. 27. Powell was dumbfounded. The vice president had delivered a hard-line address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Nashville and basically called weapons inspections futileFour months before Bush got that briefing, Cheney made a public statement which vastly exceeded the state of the intelligence. A few weeks later, Bush followed suit. On September 7, Woodward relates, Tony Blair visited Washington:
WOODWARD (page 178): Bush and Blair took questions from reporters. They said they were committed to ending Saddams threat once and for all. How or when went unanswered. Bush asserted unequivocally, Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction.Bush made this unequivocal public statement four months before that White House briefing. On September 26, he did it again:
WOODWARD (page 189): Repeating the new unequivocal charge about Iraqs WMD program she had adopted three weeks earlier, Bush said, The Iraqi regime possesses biological and chemical weapons. The Iraqi regime is building the facilities necessary to make more. Ratcheting up another notch, he added, And according to the British government, the Iraqi regime could launch a biological or chemical attack in as little as 45 minutes after the order were given.By the way, where was Bushs National Security Adviser while the president was out talking shit? She was on Sunday network TV, talking shit about intel herself. Condi was swearing that those aluminum tubes could only be used for nuclear weaponsa bogus claim which completely misstated the state of American intel (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/24/03).
In short, whats the striking thing about that December briefing? The fact that it occurred in December! The press corps knows how to play this item: Tenet gave Bush a lousy briefing, and the wise president said to do better. But everyone knows not to mention the obvious. At the time this briefing occurred, Bush and Cheney had already spent four months making flat statements about the intelligence. Why was Bush being briefed in December when his statements had started that fall?
This question would occur to almost anyoneexcept to the Washington press corps. Do you mind if we tell you the truth? Woodwards book is full of scriptsscripts that flatter a bold, daring president. (Such may be the price of full access.) The December briefing is one such narration. Tenet is the fall guy here, brought up short by an eagle-eyed president. And everyone knows not to ask the obvious: Why was this president making unequivocal statements long before this briefing occurred?
Readers, you have to keep an eye peeled for scripts. What follows is a priceless examplethe pleasing conclusion to Woodwards account of that December briefing:
WOODWARD (page 249-250): From McLaughlins presentation, [Bush chief of staff Andrew] 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.Its the perfect bold leader script. Bushwho has now been stretching the intel for monthstells Tenet, several times, to make sure no one does any stretching! Does Woodward really know that Bush said this? Or is this one more script from the Rove script machine? Of one thing we can be quite certainno press member will ever ask. This odd story begs for analysis. We promiseyou wont see that happen.
The sequence of that famous briefing doesnt seem to make much sense. It leaped off the page of last Saturdays Post. But the stewards of your discourse have walked off their posts, and they only discuss the topics Conventional Wisdom provides them.
THE MOTHER OF ALL CAMPAIGN SCRIPTS: To state the obvious, Woodward knows the Controlling Bush Script. Indeed, he describes Karl Rove giving Bush a PowerPoint presentation on the campaigns strategy, themes and timetable. The presentation was made in Crawford around Christmas 2002:
WOODWARD (page 255): Opening his laptop, [Rove] displayed for Bush in bold letters on a dark blue background:Those were the points at the top of the list. And the bold leader theme was soon apparent in every single thing Bushs shills in the Washington press said and did. Here at THE HOWLER, we incomparably noted this theme as early as January 10, 2003. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/10/03 and 1/15/03. No, it really isnt hard to notice these widely-typed scripts.
Everyone knows that its Bushs lead script. But variations of this script appear throughout this new Woodward book, the possible price of getting full access. Bush-told-Tenet-that-no one-should-stretch is only one comic example.
By the way: If Tenet called Bushs statements shit in September, who decided that he would be the dumb-ass fall guy three months later? Do you feel sure that this story make sense? Dont worry, kidsno one will ask.
FROM THE DESK OF THE GOOD SHIPWRECK OKRENT: Yesterday, we emitted mordant chuckles about public editor Daniel Okrent (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/20/04). As youll recall, HOWLER readers had written Okrent, asking why his New York Times keeps printing Elisabeth Bumillers fawning White House Letters. Okrents answer completely failed to address these readers complaints.
Our post inspired other readers to share past exchanges with Okrent. Yesterday afternoon, in fact, one more reader wrote to Okrent, raising the matter of Bumillers fawning. He made his point abundantly clear:
Dear Mr. Okrent,The writera doctorkept his post short and sweet. His complaint could not have been more clear. He complained about propaganda for the Bush campaign, advertisements for the Bush campaign, and one-sided advertising for Bushs team. Just in case Okrent missed his point, he also slammed Bumillers fawning.
The doctor will have to try it again. Heres what he got for his trouble. Sound trumpets from hills before reading:
Dear Dr. S,Hopeless! Bovino sent the good doctor the same non-response he had sent to our other readers! He completely ignored what the doctor had said. Meanwhile, several frustrated readers sent us their past exchanges with Okrent. The details are too much to go into now. But like the good doctor, these readers got scripted, word-for-word replies that completely avoided their questions.
Life is good if youre a Times scribe. Life is good if Daniel Okrent is the gumshoe you have on your tail.