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Caveat lector

GOOF SQUAD! Lisa Myers, clowning hard, went after one of Moore’s jokes:

TUESDAY, JUNE 29, 2004

ALL IN THE FAMILY: Thrilling conclusion tomorrow!

GOOF SQUAD: How has the press critiqued Michael Moore’s film? Here is another clip from Lisa Myers’ “Truth Squad” segment on Friday’s NBC Nightly News. (Here’s the same segment, from Friday night’s Countdown.) Only a full-fledged member of the Washington press could dream of being this silly:

MYERS: The powerful story of Lila Lipscomb, whose son was killed in Iraq, is also undeniable. But on other key points, critics say this so-called documentary is either wrong or deliberately misleading.

The war in Iraq: To drive home the point that the children of the powerful aren’t dying in Iraq, Moore ambushes politicians on Capitol Hill.

(Clip from Fahrenheit 9/11)

MOORE: Congressman? Michael Moore.

REP. MARK KENNEDY: How you doing?

MOORE: Good, good. Trying to get members of Congress to try to get their kids to enlist in the Army and go over to Iraq.

(End of clip)

MYERS: But Moore left out what Congressman Mark Kennedy went on to say.

REP. KENNEDY: My nephew had just gotten called up into service and was told he was heading to Afghanistan. He didn't like that answer, so he didn’t include it.

Incredibly, this is by far the biggest chunk of Myers’ “Truth Squad” segment. It’s also numbingly foolish. Myers is critiquing one of the film’s jokes—a segment in which Moore tries to get congressmen to sign up their children for Iraq. Before he runs the clip of these efforts, Moore has stated the relevant fact—out of 535 members of Congress, only one has a child serving in Iraq as an enlisted soldier. The interviews with members of Congress are presented because they’re funny. Kennedy’s name isn’t mentioned in the film, and his fleeting appearance (you see the full text of his segment above) is included for an obvious reason—Kennedy gave Moore a classic double-take, producing perhaps the film’s biggest laugh. To state the obvious, the fact that Kennedy’s nephew is on his way to Afghanistan doesn’t contradict Moore’s statement, and it doesn’t mean that “this so-called documentary is either wrong or deliberately misleading.” And yet, given a two-hour film to critique, this seems to be the biggest outrage Myers could find! Her “Truth Squad” segments have been a joke for years, but this hapless effort helps us see how utterly foolish your “press corps” can be—and it shows that Moore can generate unintentional humor even from those who attack him.

Yes, there are problems with Moore’s film, and there are major strengths as well. But you live in an age of propaganda—and no, you don’t have a serious press corps, as Myers is eager to show you.

CLARKE SPEAKS: Is there anything more depressing than watching the “press corps” critique a film? There are sensible things to be said, pro and con, about Fahrenheit 9/11. But in the “press corps,” standard propaganda campaigns have been launched in which outraged, phony critiques of the film go well beyond the faults of the film-maker. The same thing occurred several months ago in the case of Mel Gibson’s The Passion—and in each case, Christopher Hitchens has proven a natural-born leader when it comes to the faking and dissembling. But you live in an age of propaganda, and the forces of propaganda are once again ruling the day.

Along those lines, a few readers have questioned something from yesterday’s HOWLER—a statement about Richard Clarke’s role in approving the flights which took Saudi citizens out of the country on September 14, 2001. Let’s take a look at what we said, since the press corps’ approach to this issue typifies the way the corps have discussed Moore’s film as a whole.

First, a flaw with the film. Yes, Fahrenheit 9/11 does seem to suggest that these flights were leaving the country when all other flights were grounded—when “even Ricky Martin wasn’t able to fly.” (Please don’t send us irrelevant text from the film.) It turns out that this apparent suggestion is inaccurate, but it’s a minor flaw in the film; it doesn’t speak to the more serious claim that the departing Saudis should have been questioned more strenuously. Were the departing Saudis improperly questioned? We don’t have the slightest idea, and we’ve seen few serious attempts to examine that matter in the press. (In the film, a former FBI honcho makes the charge.) Instead, we’ve seen truncated analyses like this one by Myers on that same Nightly News:

MYERS: Finally, Saudi flights after 9/11. The film suggests that planeloads of Saudis including the bin Laden family were allowed to leave the US after 9/11 without proper vetting. However, the 9/11 commission says nobody was allowed to depart who the FBI wanted to interview.
But that doesn’t quite get at the charge. Ever since Clarke testified to the 9/11 Commission in March, we’ve more or less known that the FBI signed off on the departing Saudis (text of testimony below). Moore’s question is different: Should they have let the Saudis depart? On that, we don’t have the slightest idea, and neither, most likely, does Moore himself. But he has a perfect right to ask the question; in a slightly more rational world, his question might provoked serious attempts at an answer. Should the departing Saudis have been questioned more thoroughly? Let’s say it again: We don’t know.

However, a couple of readers challenged our claim that Clarke has contradicted himself on this matter. Upon further review, we’re not sure how to sort this one out. So we’ll show you the relevant texts.

The suggestion that Clarke had contradicted himself was made in The Hill on May 26. Alexander Bolton had interviewed Clarke about these flights. Here’s how his report started:

BOLTON: Richard Clarke, who served as President Bush’s chief of counterterrorism, has claimed sole responsibility for approving flights of Saudi Arabian citizens, including members of Osama bin Laden’s family, from the United States immediately after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

In an interview with The Hill yesterday, Clarke said, “I take responsibility for it. I don’t think it was a mistake, and I’d do it again.”

Later, Bolton suggested that these statements contradicted Clarke’s earlier testimony:
BOLTON: This new account of the events seemed to contradict Clarke’s sworn testimony before the Sept. 11 commission at the end of March about who approved the flights.

“The request came to me, and I refused to approve it,” Clarke testified. “I suggested that it be routed to the FBI and that the FBI look at the names of the individuals who were going to be on the passenger manifest and that they approve it or not. I spoke with the—at the time—No. 2 person in the FBI, Dale Watson, and asked him to deal with this issue. The FBI then approved...the flight.”

“That’s a little different than saying, ‘I claim sole responsibility for it now,’” [9/11 commissioner Tim] Roemer said yesterday.

We’ll provide a larger chunk of Clarke’s testimony below. But if you read further in Bolton’s article, you will see that this issue remained fairly murky as of late May. In particular, commissioner Roemer remained unclear about what had actually happened:
BOLTON: Clarke’s testimony did not settle the issue for Roemer, either.

“It doesn’t seem that Richard Clarke had enough information to clear it,” Roemer said Monday.

“I just don’t think that the questions are resolved, and we need to dig deeper,” Roemer added. “Clarke sure didn’t seem to say that he was the final decision-maker. I believe we need to continue to look for some more answers.”

Should the Saudis have been questioned harder? The question seems a bit less simple than Myers implied in her “Truth Squad” segment. Have Roemer’s doubts been set aside now? Don’t expect to find out in the press. The questions raised in Fahrenheit 9/11 are being met in the usual way, with propaganda campaigns and with pseudo-analysis. We don’t know if the Saudis should have been grilled, and given the way our modern world works, it’s unlikely we’ll ever find out.

WHAT HE SAID: Here’s a chunk of Clarke’s televised testimony in March. Should you be concerned about any of this? At THE HOWLER, we simply don’t know:

CLARKE: Someone—and I wish I could tell you, but I don't know who—someone brought to that group a proposal that we authorize a request from the Saudi embassy. The Saudi embassy had apparently said that they feared for the lives of Saudi citizens because they thought there would be retribution against Saudis in the United States as it became obvious to Americans that this attack was essentially done by Saudis, and that there were even Saudi citizens in the United States who were part of the bin Laden family, which is a very large family, very large family.

The Saudi embassy therefore asked for these people to be evacuated; the same sort of thing that we do all the time in similar crises, evacuating Americans.

The request came to me and I refused to approve it. I suggested that it be routed to the FBI and that the FBI look at the names of the individuals who were going to be on the passenger manifest and that they approve it or not.

I spoke with at that time the number two person in the FBI, Dale Watson, and asked him to deal with this issue.

The FBI then approved—after some period of time, and I can't tell you how long—approved the flight.

Now, what degree of review the FBI did of those names, I cannot tell you. How many people there are on the plane, I cannot tell you.

But I have asked since: Were there any individuals on that flight that in retrospect the FBI wishes they could have interviewed in this country? And the answer I've been given is no, that there was no one who left on that flight who the FBI now wants to interview.

ROEMER: Despite the fact that we don't know if Dale Watson interviewed them in the first place.

CLARKE: I don't think they were ever interviewed in this country.

ROEMER: So they were not interviewed here. We have all their names. We don't know if there has been any follow-up to interview those people that were here and flown out of the country.

CLARKE: The last time I asked that question, I was informed that the FBI still had no desire to interview any of these people.

ROEMER: Would you have a desire to interview some of these people that—

CLARKE: I don't know who they are.

ROEMER: We don't know who they are—

CLARKE: I don't know who they are. The FBI knew who they were because they—

ROEMER: Given your confidence in your statements on the FBI, what's your level of comfort with this?

CLARKE: Well, I will tell you in particular about the ones that get the most attention here in the press, and they are members of the bin Laden family. I was aware, for some time, that there were members of the bin Laden family living in the United States. And, let's see, in open session I can say that I was very well aware of the members of the bin Laden family and what they were doing in the United States. And the FBI was extraordinarily well aware of what they were doing in the United States. And I was informed by the FBI that none of the members of the bin Laden family, this large clan, were doing anything in this country that was illegal or that raised their suspicions. And I believe the FBI had very good information and good sources of information on what the members of the bin Laden family were doing.

ROEMER: I've been very impressed with your memory, sitting through all these interviews the 9/11 commission has conducted with you. I press you, again, to try to recall how this request originated. Who might have passed this on to you at the White House situation room? Or who might have originated that request for the United States government to fly out—how many people in this plane?

CLARKE: I don't know.

ROEMER: We don't know how many people were on a plane that flew out of this country? Who gave the final approval, then, to say yes, you're clear to go, it's all right with the United States government to go to Saudi Arabia?

CLARKE: I believe, after the FBI came back and said it was all right with them, we ran it through the decision process for all of these decisions we were making in those hours, which was the Interagency Crisis Management Group on the video conference.

I was making or coordinating a lot of decisions on 9/11 and the days immediately after. And I would love to be able to tell you who did it, who brought this proposal to me, but I don't know. Since you pressed me, the two possibilities that are most likely are either the Department of State, or the White House Chief of Staff's Office. But I don't know.

ROEMER: Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.