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NO PLAN TO ATTACK! That December briefing doesn’t seem to make sense. Pundits all know not to notice:


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?

KERRY: It depends on what the situation is you find on the ground on January 20th of 2005.

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! Here’s another Q-and-A, this one from Donald Rumsfeld’s April 15 press conference:
QUESTION: And you’re fairly confident that after 90 days, you’ll be able to start drawing down to, say, 115,000, or you just don’t know?

RUMSFELD: You know me, I’m not going to set—it depends on the facts on the ground.

In what way are Kerry and Rummy alike? Each gave the world’s most obvious answer! But so what? Wilgoren ran to her glowing screen. She accessed the software that takes Kerry’s answers and converts them to Approved Press Corps scripts.

NO PLAN TO ATTACK: In our view, the official clips from Bob Woodward’s book don’t 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, readers—Bush Administration types won’t always be truthful about such matters. One example: Colin Powell. Here was Woodward on last night’s Charlie Rose:

WOODWARD: Everyone talked to me for this book, and [Powell] said in his case it was a couple of phone calls—

ROSE: That’s what he said.

WOODWARD: That’s what he said. I checked my records. “A couple” means two, maybe three. It was six interviews on the telephone. I recorded them with Secretary Powell’s permission. One of them is a 26-page transcript. Another is a 32-page transcript. It is a very comprehensive effort to reflect fully and accurately his perspective on all this.

ROSE: Then Bob, I’m left with this…I have great admiration for him personally and professionally. Having said that, to say it was just a couple of phone calls does not reflect the truth of the contact as you describe it.

WOODWARD: That’s right. Exactly. And that’s my whole point in this. There’s this backing and filling and moving away…

Of 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 aren’t 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 book’s most widely-discussed scenes—that “slam dunk” briefing given to Bush in December 2002.

Last Saturday, the Washington Post published the first overview of Woodward’s new book. William Hamilton ran through the highlights. He described that now-famous briefing:

HAMILTON: Bush wanted someone with Powell’s 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.

McLaughlin’s version used communications intercepts, satellite photos, diagrams and other intelligence. “Nice try,” Bush said when the CIA official was finished, according to [Woodward’s] book. “I don’t think this quite—it’s not something that Joe Public would understand or would gain a lot of confidence from.”

He then turned to Tenet, McLaughlin’s boss, and said, “I’ve been told all this intelligence about having WMD, and this is the best we’ve got?”

“It’s a slam-dunk case,” Tenet replied, throwing his arms in the air. Bush pressed him again. “George, how confident are you?”

“Don’t worry, it’s a slam dunk,” Tenet repeated.

Tenet later told associates he should have said the evidence on weapons was not ironclad, according to Woodward.

Since Saturday, this episode has been discussed again and again. And everyone knows what the episode means—George 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 page—but everyone knows not to notice.

Readers, why was this briefing given in December 2002? As Woodward’s 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 types—including Bush—had been making unequivocal assertions about WMD for about four months when this briefing occurred. The briefing occurred in December 2002—but 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. Again—this 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, 2002—four 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 futile…

The vice president also issued his own personal National Intelligence Estimate of Hussein: “There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction [and] there is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us.” Ten days earlier, the president himself had said only that Hussein “desires” these weapons. Neither Bush nor the CIA had made any assertion comparable to Cheney’s.

Four 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 Saddam’s 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 Iraq’s 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.”

Tenet and the CIA had warned the British not to make that allegation, which was based on a questionable source…Tenet referred privately to this as the “they-can-attack-in-45-minutes-shit.”

By the way, where was Bush’s 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 weapons—a bogus claim which completely misstated the state of American intel (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/24/03).

In short, what’s 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 anyone—except to the Washington “press corps.” Do you mind if we tell you the truth? Woodward’s book is full of scripts—scripts 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 example—the pleasing conclusion to Woodward’s account of that December briefing:

WOODWARD (page 249-250): From McLaughlin’s presentation, [Bush chief of staff Andrew] Card was worried that there might be no “there there,” but Tenet’s double reassurance on the slam dunk was memorable and comforting. Cheney could think of no reason to question Tenet’s assertion. He was, after all, the head of the CIA and would know the most. The president later recalled that McLaughlin’s presentation “wouldn’t have stood the test of time.” But, said Bush, Tenet’s reassurance—“That was very important.”

“Needs a lot more work,” Bush told Card and Rice. “Let’s get some people who’ve 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.”

It’s the perfect “bold leader” script. Bush—who has now been “stretching” the intel for months—tells 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 certain—no press member will ever ask. This odd story begs for analysis. We promise—you won’t see that happen.

The sequence of that famous briefing doesn’t seem to make much sense. It leaped off the page of last Saturday’s 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 campaign’s 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:

Strong Leader
Bold Action
Big Ideas

Those were the points at the top of the list. And the “bold leader” theme was soon apparent in every single thing Bush’s 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 isn’t hard to notice these widely-typed scripts.

Everyone knows that it’s Bush’s 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 Bush’s 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? Don’t worry, kids—no one will ask.

From the annals of public editing

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 you’ll recall, HOWLER readers had written Okrent, asking why his New York Times keeps printing Elisabeth Bumiller’s fawning “White House Letters.” Okrent’s “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 Bumiller’s fawning. He made his point abundantly clear:

Dear Mr. Okrent,

Ms. Bumiller recently published another “White House Letter.”

These “articles” are thinly veiled propaganda for the Bush campaign. Virtually every one of them is a fawning piece of bunk.

Why on earth is the Times publishing what amount to advertisements for the Bush campaign?

If you insist on continuing this one-sided advertising for Bush’s team, will you at least have the sense of fairness to publish similar pieces about John Kerry?

Please, do the right thing.


The writer—a doctor—kept 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 Bush’s team.” Just in case Okrent missed his point, he also slammed Bumiller’s “fawning.”

The doctor will have to try it again. Here’s what he got for his trouble. Sound trumpets from hills before reading:

Dear Dr. S—,

Several readers have voiced their concerns about the White House Letter.

I include Mr. Okrent’s response below:

“As for the White House Letter, it’s part of a longstanding Times practice of trying to provide a glimpse into the personal side of newsmakers’ lives. I do think the paper could do a better job of labeling these pieces and making clear that they are not about, nor meant to be about, life-and-death issues.”

Arthur Bovino
Office of the Public Editor
The New York Times

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 you’re a Times scribe. Life is good if Daniel Okrent is the gumshoe you have on your tail.