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BORA BORA BORA! As usual, Russert made a bogus attack. And as usual, Bob Kerrey didn’t know it: // link // print // previous // next //

PART 4A STILL TOMORROW: We still plan to bring you closing remarks of your Big Major Press Corps Scribes. (Meanwhile, if it’s mordant humor that you enjoy, do not miss Chris Wallace on last Sunday’s Booknotes!) For today, though, let’s review a closing episode as a certain Nantucket Squire seemed to dive-bomb Candidate Kerry. He seemed to yell, Bora Bora Bora!!

BORA BORA BORA: When Russert says it, we swing into action, assuming that it’s most likely wrong. And on Sunday’s Meet the Press, it happened again! Russert hit Dem spokesman Bob Kerrey with a familiar charge from the late campaign. After the bin Laden tape appeared last Friday, John Kerry had criticized Bush again, saying he had allowed bin Laden to escape at Tora Bora. But was Kerry playing fair? Or was he just talkin’ smack? At the outset of his Meet the Press session with Bob Kerrey, Russert tossed his grenade:

RUSSERT (10/31/04): In December of '01, Senator, John Kerry was on CNN after Tora Bora. He was being asked about this [bin Laden’s escape from Tora Bora]. He said, “I think our guys are doing a superb job. I think they've been smart. I think the administration leadership has done it well. We're on the right track.” Why the change? Politics?
Russert’s insinuation was obvious. John Kerry had appeared on CNN “after Tora Bora”—and he had praised the way the operation was run! Bob Kerrey gave a weak, evasive reply (text below). So Russert jumped him again:
RUSSERT: But it was after Tora Bora and he seemed to be praising them back then and now he’s—
Bob Kerrey interrupted and evaded again. Viewers had heard Russert say it two times: Even after Tora Bora, John Kerry had praised the operation—but now he was saying something different. And two separate times, they had seen Kerry’s spokesman interrupt, hem and haw, and evade.

But Russert was wrong on his facts, as usual—and as usual, Kerry’s spokesman showed no sign of knowing it. This incident offers Dems one way (out of many ways) to examine the 2004 race.

Is it true, this claim we heard again and again in the campaign’s closing weeks? Did John Kerry go on Larry King “after Tora Bora” and praise the way the campaign there had been conducted? Actually, no—Kerry did no such thing; Russert’s statement on Sunday was plainly inaccurate. John Kerry’s Larry King appearance was on December 14, 2001. But guess what? This was not “after Tora Bora”—the operation there was still underway. Indeed, on the front page of that morning’s New York Times, John Kifner discussed the ongoing manhunt. His story ran beneath a hopeful headline: ALLIED FORCES SAY THEY'VE CORNERED OSAMA BIN LADEN:

KIFNER (12/14/04): American-backed forces believe that they have surrounded Osama bin Laden and the last of his hard-core fighters in a complex of caves between two valleys just south of here, a senior American military official said tonight.

While American officials say they still do not know Mr. bin Laden's exact location and acknowledge that he could still slip out of the country, commanders are increasingly confident that a growing number of American, British and anti-Taliban Afghan ground forces have hemmed in the leader of Al Qaeda...

That was the Times front-page report on December 14. That night, Kerry made his appearance on Larry King, where he offered general statements in response to general questions about events in Afghanistan (text below). The following morning, Kifner continued his page-one reporting about the Tora Bora campaign:
KIFNER (12/15/01): American and British commandos, operating behind a screen of local Afghan fighters, had the last remnants of Osama bin Laden's followers—and perhaps the terrorist mastermind himself—cornered here this morning in a narrow stretch of a ridge line, canyons and caves high in the White Mountains.

"Al Qaeda is finished," Cmdr. Hazarat Ali, the ranking Afghan tribal military leader, proclaimed triumphantly this afternoon, referring to Mr. bin Laden's terrorist network. "They are surrounded."

In Washington, the regional commander of American forces, Gen. Tommy R. Franks, said 300 to 1,000 enemy fighters were caught between the hammer of Commander Ali's forces and the anvil of Pakistani border patrols.

Was bin Laden among the surrounded forces? Tommy Franks wasn’t sure, but was hopeful:
KIFNER (12/15/01): General Franks said the fierceness of the battle near Tora Bora provided one indication that Al Qaeda forces might be shielding Mr. bin Laden.

But General Franks cautioned Friday that the Pentagon has received clashing information from surveillance aircraft, opposition sources and Americans forces that had made it difficult to pinpoint Mr. bin Laden's whereabouts. He also declined to rule out the possibility that Mr. bin Laden had escaped into Pakistan.

“You see all sorts of conflicting information,” General Franks said. "So it's probably not a good idea to say with some certainty where he is. But we know where our current fight is, and that's in the Tora Bora area.”

That was the Times front page the morning after Kerry’s appearance. “American officials have gleaned other snippets of intelligence suggesting that Mr. bin Laden remains holed up in a steadily shrinking region south of Tora Bora,” Eric Schmitt wrote in a separate article that day. After listing three signs that bin Laden was present, Schmitt quoted a “senior military officer” about the likelihood that bin Laden was cornered. “No single one of these things would be enough, but put all three together and you pay close attention,” the unnamed honcho said.

So Russert was wrong on his facts, as usual, when he lectured Bob Kerrey this Sunday. Indeed, on December 16, 2001—two days after John Kerry’s appearance on Larry King—the New York Times continued reporting indications that bin Laden had been surrounded. Here was the start of James Risen’s report:

RISEN (12/16/04): The United States has intercepted radio communications in recent days that officials said appeared to record Osama bin Laden giving orders to Al Qaeda troops in the mountainous region around Tora Bora, where Afghan and American soldiers are engaged in fierce combat with the enemy.

The report provides the strongest evidence yet that Mr. bin Laden has not fled the country, the American officials said.

Again, that was the New York Times two days after Kerry’s appearance. In fact, it wasn’t until Monday, December 17 that the Times reported bin Laden’s possible escape. Three days after Kerry’s appearance, the bad news finally hit page one. Prepare for a Russert-ripe irony:
KIFNER (12/17/04): American officials said today that Al Qaeda had been effectively destroyed in Afghanistan, and Afghan commanders here declared victory in the fierce battle for the mountain stronghold of Osama bin Laden's organization. But neither Americans nor Afghans said they knew where Mr. bin Laden was...

In Washington, top Bush administration officials were quick to declare that while great progress had been made in Tora Bora, hostilities were far from over—particularly as long as the whereabouts of Mr. bin Laden remain unknown.

"We've destroyed al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and we have ended the role of Afghanistan as a haven for terrorist activity," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said on the NBC News program "Meet the Press." Of Mr. bin Laden, he said: "We have no reason to believe that he has either been killed or captured yet, of course, and we don't know where he is.”

Omigod! Powell spilled the bad news on Meet the Press—two days after Kerry’s appearance on Larry King Live. But even then, Kifner’s quote was somewhat selective—and Powell remained hopeful that bin Laden might be surrounded. What did Powell tell Russert that day? “With respect to Osama bin Laden, we have no reason to believe that he has either been killed or captured yet, of course, and we don't know where he is at this moment. He might still be in that area that the Eastern Alliance forces are closing in on, or he might be somewhere else. We don't know.” In short, two days after Kerry’s appearance on Larry King, Powell told Russert, right there on his very own show, that bin Laden might still be surrounded. But so what? Three years later, Russert said that Kerry’s comments came “after Tora Bora,” and he criticized Kerry for having failed to trash the operation— an operation that hadn’t yet come undone.

Yep! This past Sunday, Russert’s memory failed him again. Of course, it’s always odd to see Russert butcher the facts in this way because of his own incessant bragging about his journalistic brilliance and his brilliant good character. Readers may remember Big Russ & Me, Russert’s best-selling testimonial to his own remarkable character. In it, the Nantucket Squire was careful to note that—just like any Boy Scout from Buffalo—he is always prepared:

RUSSERT (page 147): [T]he key to success is preparation. In journalism, it’s absolutely critical. Like everyone else, I have days when things go well, and days when they don’t. But one mistake I have never made is to show up unprepared for an interview.
Huh! So Russert must have known the time-line of Kerry’s remarks. He simply pretended that he didn’t!

Yes, Russert’s campaign-closing performance gives us one way to ponder this race. But when Dems review this pungent episode, they might want to question the Kerry campaign as well as the Nantucket Nabob. John Kerry appeared on Larry King Live on December 14, 2001. Plainly, this was not “after Tora Bora”—and spokesman Bob Kerry plainly didn’t know it. We puzzled for months at the Kerry campaign’s inability to rebut various charges. Bob Kerrey’s evasive remarks offer Dems one way to review this campaign, a campaign which now seems to be lost.

WHAT KERRY SAID: Did Kerry appear with King “after Tora Bora,” as Russert claimed this Sunday? On the 12/13/01 Larry King Live, CNN’s Brent Sadler reported in live, right from the scene in Tora Bora. “Bin Laden himself, is he up here?” the correspondent rhetorically asked. “Well, they are still believing he is, but there is no visual evidence of that, of course, as yet—Larry.” One night later, Kerry appeared on the show—and it would still be 36 hours before Powell announced bin Laden’s possible escape. Indeed, the words “Tora Bora” were never spoken this night. Here is Kerrry’s first statement on the show—the statement for which Russert later smoked him:

KING (12/14/01): We are going to talk about war at the end of this week. We are learning a lot more about it. We seem to, every few years or so, get into one. We are in another one now on two fronts.

So we welcome three heroes. Senator John Kerry is with us here in Los Angeles. He is the Senate Foreign Relations committee member, highly decorated Vietnam war hero, three Purple Hearts, the Silver Star and the Bronze Star. In Washington, Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham, former Navy ace—saw the movie Top Gun, Tom Cruise may have played him—highly decorated Vietnam veteran, Purple Heart, the Navy Cross, two Silver Stars and numerous other decorations. And also in Washington, General George Joulwan, United States Army retired, Vietnam veteran himself, and a former NATO supreme commander. Before we talk about their experiences, and a little bit about what war is like, Senator Kerry—and this is for all of you, how goes it so far in Afghanistan, in your opinion?

KERRY: I think our guys are doing a superb job. I think we've had, things break for us, the way, one would want them to, but in addition, I think the people you just heard, they are trained, they are ready. I think we have been smart, I think the administration leadership has done it well and we are on right track.

Incredibly, that’s the quote which Russert used in his question to Bob Kerrey (see above). King’s question concerned Afghanistan in general, not Tora Bora, and our major papers would keep reporting, for several more days, that bin Laden was probably there. But so what? Russert—the man is always prepared—pimped this pointless quote to Bob Kerrey. And Bob Kerrey, unprepared, evaded it hard (text below).

What else did John Kerry say this night? As Larry King Live continued, a caller posed a question about bin Laden. But he didn’t question bin Laden’s escape. Like everyone else, he seemed to assume that bin Laden would soon be captured:

KING (12/14/01): OK, Pikeville, Kentucky for our heroes—hello.

CALLER: Hello. I’m calling to find out what are they going to do with bin Laden when they bring him back to the United States? Are they going to bring him back to the United States or are they going to try him over there?

KING: What do you make of that? First, Senator Kerry, if they come upon him, what is the move?

KERRY: Well, I think it is probably the wish of most people in this country that justice is going to be delivered and we don't have the choice of the bin Laden that we have to try. And I think that is an honest appraisal by most people in this country.

If, on the other hand, we are in a situation where he is, in fact, taken prisoner, we will live by the rules, then has to be tried...

We don’t understand that first paragraph either. But when Kerry appeared on Larry King Live, people assumed that bin Laden was about to be captured. The next call produced another statement for which Kerry has been specifically criticized:
KING (12/14/01): Mount Holly Springs, Pennsylvania—hello.

CALLER: Hello. Yes, I would like to ask the panel why they don't use napalm or flame-throwers on those tunnels and caves up there in Afghanistan?

KING: Senator Kerry?

CALLER: My golly, I think they could smoke him out.

KING: Senator Kerry?

KERRY: Well, I think it depends on where you are tactically. They may well be doing that at some point in time. But for the moment, what we are doing, I think, is having its impact and it is the best way to protect our troops and sort of minimalize the proximity, if you will. I think we have been doing this pretty effectively and we should continue to do it that way.

KING: Congressman Cunningham, what do you think of that question?

CUNNINGHAM: I think Senator Kerry is right on the mark. To use a flame-thrower, you've got to get right into the area close in. And plus, it doesn't penetrate that deep in those tunnels. You've got to go in there after him. So I think you have to neutralize that threat. And then you can get him out in a lot of different, various ways including what the gentleman spoke about.

KING: General Joulwan, what are your thoughts?

JOULWAN: Well, I think what you are seeing here are laser- designated bombs going in that are highly effective. In fact, I think much more effective than napalm will be given the extent of these tunnels. You may see some of this when the troops get in there, you have troops on the ground. But right now, I think the laser-designated bombs are doing a great job.

When Kerry said “what we are doing is the best way to protect our troops,” the question was flame-throwers v. non-flame-throwers, not U.S. troops v. Afghan warlords. “I think Senator Kerry is right on the mark,” Cunningham said (Tom Cruise may have played him in Top Gun). “To use a flame-thrower, you've got to get right into the area close in.” Meanwhile, Joulwan seemed to assume we were talking about U.S. troops going into those tunnels. The issue of the use of surrogates wouldn’t arise for some time.

So no, it wasn’t “after Tora Bora” when Kerry appeared on Larry King Live. But so what? Tim Russert—he’s always supremely prepared—went ahead and yelled Bora Bora Bora, even though, according to his own prior boasting, he must have known that his statement was bogus. Russert, of course, has done this for years. But why wasn’t Bob Kerrey prepared to tell voters what the Island Squire wouldn’t?

BOB KERREY, UNPREPARED: Here is the full exchange between Russert and Bob Kerrey. Dems should wonder how their spokesman could have been so woefully unprepared:

RUSSERT (10/31/04): In December of '01, Senator, John Kerry was on CNN after Tora Bora. He was being asked about this. He said, "I think our guys are doing a superb job. I think they've been smart. I think the administration leadership has done it well. We're on the right track." Why the change? Politics?

KERREY: Well, it's not a change. Look, we didn't—at that point, we had not gone to war in Iraq. At that point, we had not taken our substantial military capability and put our primary emphasis not just on winning the war but we're now a surrogate police force, we're providing border security. We're a surrogate Army in Iraq. That was before the president made the decision to disband a 300,000-person Iraqi army that was providing border security and domestic security and now we hope to get 125 or 50,000. And for God's sakes, I don't know why we let these guys last week go back into their homes without being armed. We put them at considerable risk. We're having a very difficult time making that go. And we've tied down almost three-fourths of our military force.

RUSSERT: But it was after Tora Bora and he seemed to be praising them back then and now he's—

KERREY: Well, there was a lot to praise in the Afghan War. A lot to praise in the Afghan War. And it's been—you know, John Kerry and I and all of us, George Bush included, were changed by 9/11. Those sanctuaries in Afghanistan were allowed to remain. We demeaned them. We diminished their capacity to do damage to us, but not after 9/11. Our forces performed brilliantly in that war in Afghanistan. But his observation I think is not incorrect, that bin Laden is not in Iraq. He supported the war in Iraq as well by the way at considerable cost to him politically and has not repudiated that vote which is very impressive to me.

Kerrey showed no sign of knowing that Russert’s basic premise was false. But then, if you’re a Democrat and you’ve followed this race, you probably know there’s nothing new about that.

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: For a guy who admits that he’s always prepared, Russert makes an amazing amount of “mistakes.” And it’s amazing how often he forgets the things that happened right on his own program! Four years ago, for example, Russert kept saying that Candidate Gore was suspected of committing a crime—although he’d been told precisely the opposite, right there on his very own program! Weird, isn’t it? See THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/30/04, to see the way the flawless Squire made a joke of your prior election.