Falsehoods uttered at the White House press lectern always matter, if only because they injure the reputation of the presidency, but some are more important than others. Under the present administration, which vowed to restore "honor and integrity" to Washington, the credibility of the people who speak for George W. Bush has decayed, week by week, beginning with their promotion last winter of bogus accusations against their predecessors.
That ugly episode, however, wasn't nearly as troubling as what now appears to have been the promulgation by the nation's highest officials of a false story about the events of Sept. 11.
For two weeks following the terror attack, White House officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, presidential assistant Karl Rove and press secretary Ari Fleischer, repeatedly insisted that a "credible threat" -- involving code-word confirmation -- had convinced the Secret Service that terrorists were trying to hit Air Force One and the White House. Only when those assertions were shot down by CBS News and the Associated Press did the spinners back down, claiming that it had all been a "misunderstanding" by staffers, with little elaboration.
Whatever anyone thinks of this president or his political legitimacy, there are few issues more fundamental in a constitutional democracy than the physical security of the head of state, especially when the nation is under attack. The tale of the supposed targeting of the president, the White House and Air Force One by terrorists is among the most serious fabrications ever promulgated by federal officials.
How serious? In addition to undermining public confidence in the White House during a national emergency, this spinning of the president's flight from Washington led New York Times columnist William Safire, among others, to demand an internal investigation that would determine whether an administration "mole" had revealed top-secret information to America's enemies.
That paranoid theme was immediately picked up in the foreign media, no doubt worrying allies and potential allies engaged in sensitive discussions with the United States.
Of course, Safire has long served as a reliable conduit for Republican disinformation, which may be why Rove and another unnamed "high official" selected him to publicize this particular fraud. On the day after the attack, the superhawk columnist had criticized Bush for flying away to an airbase in Nebraska rather than returning to Washington on the day of the attack, then hastened to confess his misjudgment on Sept. 13 after angry phone calls from the White House.
Based on those calls, he related the entire fable, complete with code words, transponders and a hijacked plane making a "360" turn away from the White House and toward the Pentagon. He even had a quote from the president, delivered via Rove, about "tinhorn terrorists keeping me out of Washington." The whole thing now has a distinct barnyard aroma, but three weeks later Safire has yet to correct his error-ridden account of what transpired "inside the bunker."
So much for the "insider" version, a genre regularly abused by this administration's propagandists. What remains most disturbing about this incident is how persistently the administration's highest officials pushed a pseudo-story, well after they must have known that it was wrong. Even if this campaign began as an honest mistake, that continuing effort to mislead was inexcusable.
On Sept. 16, the vice president said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that the Secret Service had informed him of a "credible threat" to Air Force One -- and that he remained convinced, five days later, that the threat had been credible. Cheney also suggested that American Airlines Flight 77 had been aimed at the White House and changed course to hit the Pentagon because of visibility problems, a notion directly contradicted by radar records showing the plane's trajectory.
That same Sunday morning after the attack, Rice showed up on Fox News to reinforce the story. She speculated that the code name supposedly cited in the terrorist warning might have "leaked a long time ago." Asked the astonished host Tony Snow, "How on earth would that happen?" Rice replied that she didn't know. "We're obviously looking very hard at the situation," she added.
Equally obvious is that any simple "misunderstanding" about the concerns of the Secret Service or the uttering of secret code words had been cleared up by then. Or was it? The White House has remained strangely silent about this fiasco ever since its original story was debunked by the AP and CBS News. Rove, Cheney and Rice aren't talking about it any more, while Fleischer has retreated behind incomprehensible non-denials. "I'm not going to comment on any particular threats coming toward the White House," he told reporters Sept. 27. Coming from an administration that was perfectly willing to discuss alleged threats to the White House when that served its interests, such bland demurrals just aren't good enough. The country needs to know exactly what happened at the highest level of government on that awful morning.
The question isn't whether Bush ought to have flown back to Washington immediately. He may well have had ample reason not to. The question is whether the officials in charge of national security and their spokespeople have been candid about one of their most crucial responsibilities. If the president cares at all about honor and integrity, he will demand that his aides either reveal the truth or tender their resignations.