White House whitewashers

Bush staffers chastise NBC for a Clinton interview, Fleischer whacks Maher and the Bush-was-in-danger story falls apart. Tension mounts between the White House and the media.

By Jake Tapper

Published September 27, 2001 8:00AM (EDT)

On the same day last week that "NBC Nightly News" anchor Tom Brokaw sat down to interview former President Clinton, executives for the program received unexpected phone calls from senior communications staffers at the White House, expressing disappointment about the decision to spotlight Bush's predecessor.

While not asking the network to refrain from running the interview, they expressed the feeling that the Sept. 18 interview with Clinton would not be helpful to the current war on terrorism. Neither NBC nor the White House would comment on the phone calls, but sources familiar with the calls confirmed that they happened.

This news comes on the heels of revelations that President Bush and Air Force One were not, contrary to earlier White House claims, targets of the terrorists who attacked the Pentagon and the World Trade Center Sept. 11. The White House is now saying that those claims, which it used to explain why the president didn't return to Washington immediately that day, were a result of staffers "misunderstanding" security information.

On Wednesday, tensions between the White House and its media critics, real or imagined, threatened to rise even higher. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer took a slap at "Politically Incorrect" host Bill Maher, who called U.S. military strikes on faraway targets "cowardly." Fleischer blasted Maher, claiming it was "a terrible thing to say," and didn't stop there, noting "There are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do, and this is not a time for remarks like that; there never is."

On the face of it, these moves by the Bush administration to discourage media criticism don't seem to make much sense. By the time of the Clinton interview, for instance, polls were showing unprecedented public support for Bush, which has since only increased. And at the time, all Clinton had to say about Bush was that he supported him, and urged the rest of the country to do the same.

But this White House has developed a particularly tense, mutually distrustful relationship with members of the news media, one that has only seemed to deepen since the Sept. 11 attacks. This relationship seems to be focused specifically on the White House's political and communication staffs (it's virtually impossible to imagine Bush knowing anything about the calls to NBC). And it embodies what many members of the media -- conservative, liberal and nonpartisan -- decry as an arrogant, unnecessarily adversarial attitude, one where questions about White House decisions are regarded as inappropriate and, now, quite possibly unpatriotic.

And the relationship has been particularly hampered by these White House staffers' well-publicized difficulty telling the truth.

It began on a much smaller scale earlier in the year, when various White House officials put out erroneous stories that President Clinton and his administration left behind a vandalized White House and Air Force One. (It was left to the General Accounting Office and President Bush to dismiss those rumors.)

But more recently -- and more alarmingly -- White House staffers like senior advisor Karl Rove and spokesman Ari Fleischer insisted to reporters that Air Force One was a target of terrorists on Sept. 11, and that was why Bush spent much of the day flying to different locations -- first Louisiana, and then to Nebraska -- before finally returning to Washington, D.C., from Florida. By Sept. 13, a reporter asked Fleischer whether, since law enforcement, military and Secret Service personnel didn't back Rove and Fleischer's claims about the threat to Air Force One, "people are going to want to know more information about whether or not that's a credible assertion." Especially since no one other than White House political and communications staffers asserted that the plane was a target.

"I think that people understand it's credible," Fleischer replied.

But on Tuesday, CBS News reported that the story was inaccurate, the result of a "misunderstanding" by staffers. The Associated Press reported that "administration officials said they now doubt whether there was actually a call made threatening the president's plane, Air Force One." Officials went on to say that they had not been able to find a record of such a call, though they maintained that they had been told of a telephone threat.

Presumably, political staffers were sensitive to any charges that Bush was somehow mishandling the crisis on that day by not appearing in Washington to reassure the American people. But the Secret Service was adamant that Bush stay away from the White House and, according to a Los Angeles Times poll, a vast majority of the American people backed the move. According to the poll, 85 percent thought Bush was right to "follow the advice of the Secret Service to stay away from Washington, D.C., and possible danger."

As conservative writer Andrew Sullivan wrote Wednesday, "There was plenty of reason for the president to get to a secure communications base as soon as possible on September 11, and plenty of reason to avoid Washington during an extremely uncertain time. So why the lies? Were these people spinning at a time of grave national crisis? And I thought the Clinton era was over."

Moreover, CBS News reported that radar evidence indicated that the American Airlines Flight 77 plane that hit the Pentagon was not a threat to the White House, despite the claims of administration officials to the contrary. "That is not the radar data that we have seen," Fleischer said when asked about the radar data that conflicted with his account. "The plane was headed toward the White House."

The nation is heading into a war that Bush described in his Thursday address as possibly including "covert operations, secret even in success." One military official told the Washington Post Monday that because "this is the most information-intensive war you can imagine ... We're going to lie about things."

Asked whether the Pentagon would ever knowingly disseminate false information, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld paraphrased Winston Churchill, who once said that "In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies." Then Rumsfeld tried to be reassuring. "I don't recall that I've ever lied to the press. I don't intend to. And it seems to me that there will not be reason for it."

But when pressed for a specific policy, he said: "The policy is that we will not say a word about anything that will compromise sources or methods. We will not say a word that will in any way endanger anyone's life by discussing operations."

Now, reporters are left to wonder what's still to come. And they've been regularly reminded that criticism is not appreciated, and will not be easily tolerated.

Fleischer added to the tension on Wednesday when asked about Maher's statement that the U.S. has "been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly."

Fleischer didn't refrain from comment, as he frequently does when asked about such pop culture issues. Nor did he note that even President Bush had been critical of President Clinton's 1998 retaliatory strike against Osama bin Laden through missile strikes -- "When I take action, I'm not going to fire a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt. It's going to be decisive," Bush told four senators on Sept. 14, according to Newsweek.

No, Fleischer called Maher's comments "a terrible thing to say, and it's unfortunate." His ominous follow-up remarks, that "Americans ... need to watch what they say, watch what they do, and this is not a time for remarks like that; there never is," would seem to portend further strains in the relationship between the White House and even its loyal opposition as the nation moves toward war.

Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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Bill Clinton George W. Bush Karl Rove