His master's voice

This just in: President Bush dishes out overblown al-Qaida threats -- and the press laps them up.

By Eric Boehlert
Published February 11, 2002 10:47PM (EST)

For news consumers prone to anxiety, the end of January was probably the scariest stretch of time since the first weeks after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. After a fairly quiet month on the home front, a parade of senior government officials, including President Bush himself, suddenly appeared on every news channel, detailing a slew of grave and startling terrorist scenarios.

Bush's State of the Union address contained chilling warnings about "thousands of dangerous killers" who have spread throughout the world "like ticking time bombs set to go off without warning."

Later, White House communications director Karen Hughes told reporters 100,000 men had been trained in al-Qaida camps and were now scattered in 60 countries.

Bush also revealed that U.S. intelligence officers had found in Afghanistan caves "diagrams of American nuclear power plants and public water facilities, detailed instructions for making chemical weapons, surveillance maps of American cities, and thorough descriptions of landmarks in America." Even the Seattle Space Needle had been cased by al-Qaida, new documents revealed.

The same week, FBI Director Robert Mueller warned that undetected al-Qaida "sleeper cells" may still be operating on American soil. The FBI also issued an alert to public utilities warning them that Osama bin Laden's operatives were eyeing dams and reservoirs.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld warned Americans to prepare for other attacks that "could grow vastly more deadly than those we suffered" Sept. 11. And CIA Director George Tenet sent a report to Congress saying agents found crude diagrams of nuclear weapons in a suspected al-Qaida safe house in Afghanistan. Maybe the scariest scenario of all was an alleged terrorist plot to fly a commercial airliner into an American nuclear power plant.

The bad news came so fast and furious that it was hard to get a handle on what was strangest about it: that the Bush administration, which has so far maintained strict secrecy about its domestic anti-terror operations, was suddenly so talkative, or that the media reported the thinly documented terror threats so breathlessly and uncritically.

This is the same administration, after all, that refused to identify hundreds of mostly Middle Eastern immigrants jailed in the U.S. since Sept. 11, that ordered many routine immigration hearings closed to the public and then mandated that records of the proceedings not be released to anyone. Since then, it has refused to release the identities of al-Qaida fighters held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and proposed that accused terrorists be tried in secret military tribunals. It has also refused to release information about questionable U.S. military raids in Afghanistan that reportedly resulted in innocent civilian or Northern Alliance casualties.

Yet when it came to suggestive and potentially deadly terrorist scenarios, the White House opened the spigots for the press. The administration's previous suggestion that Americans go about their normal lives seemed to have been replaced with the credo, "Be afraid. Be very afraid."

But the new al-Qaida scare was a win-win for the president and the news media. Suddenly the story of America's war on terrorism, which for weeks had been sagging while the Enron scandal gained steam, had new juice. It came just in time for the Bush's hawkish State of the Union address, just in time for his proposed $48 billion increase in defense spending, and just when an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed nearly half of Americans felt the nation was back to normal, or nearly normal.

The doomsday revelations also let the media, especially television, tease viewers with tantalizing hints of new terror threats that would keep frightened Americans tuned to the TV again. CNN reported "al-Qaida planned to crash a hijacked plane into a nuclear power plant in this country." A concerned Bill O'Reilly informed Fox News' viewers "bin Laden's terrorists were planning a nuclear attack on America," and that the fresh information, "escalates the terrorist situation into another realm."

Newsweek dubbed Bush's State of the Union address "scary as hell."

The address was scary, but not because of the news it contained about terror threats. It was alarming because Bush used the threat of "thousands" of al-Qaida terrorists loose in America, and the subsequent alarming warnings, to write himself a blank check to prosecute the war, even to widen it to fight a new "axis of evil" that includes Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Even scarier was the way the media mostly let him get away with it.

Of course careful news consumers, those who read deep into news and magazine stories and search out lots of different perspectives, soon realized the dire warnings coming from the White House were not all that they appeared to be.

The sweeping concern about dams and reservoirs, for instance, sprang from a single, unidentified individual with alleged ties to al-Qaida whose computer was said to have contained relevant engineering information.

Those 100,000 al-Qaida-trained terrorists roaming the world? One week after the allegation was made by the White House, Newsweek reported that intelligence officials thought the number was inflated by 90,000. The magazine also reported many of the "diagrams of American nuclear-power plants and public water facilities," cited by Bush during the State of the Union, had simply been downloaded off the Internet.

Did terrorists set in motion a plan to send a hijacked airliner hurtling into a nuclear power plant? Asked about it on CNN, Ralph Beedle of the Nuclear Energy Institute seemed to downplay the threat: "We don't believe that this threat is real. This is not a credible threat."

One FBI source told the Wall Street Journal that the warning was based on the same "outdated information we recovered several months ago." The FBI dismissed the plot at the time.

So the question becomes, Why would the White House coordinate releasing a laundry list of upsetting terrorist plots, most of which, upon closer inspection, appear to be half-baked at best? And why did an obedient press corps dutifully play up the angle of fear?

Certainly rules for journalism change during times of war, when the natural reflex toward skepticism is often muted. That's especially true of a war like the current one, which at once avenges a deadly attack on U.S. soil, and also risks very few American casualties overseas. Clearly the mainstream press does not want to be, or even appear to be, on the wrong side of this war story. As the New York Times reported late last year, "Television news networks are increasingly coming under criticism from conservatives who say they exhibit a lack of patriotism or are overly negative toward the government."

Nobody, it seems, is more keenly aware of that dynamic than the White House, which is one reason it continues to pound away at the war theme: Despite relatively quick success banishing the Taliban, Bush tells us, this is not the end of the war, only the beginning. As long as a wartime culture exists -- a culture the press helps maintain -- Bush's job-approval ratings will likely remain sky-high.

Senior White House aide Karl Rove recently articulated what many inside Washington already believed: that the war on terrorism could help Republican candidates in elections come November -- and they should use it. And when the president unveiled his controversial $2 trillion budget by speaking first at a military base, wearing a leather bomber jacket and using fatigue-wearing soldiers as props behind him, could there any doubt the war on terrorism had become political?

Still, much of the press has continued to play along with the White House and frame Bush's domestic and international initiatives as part of his war effort, which helps shield the administration from criticism. But it's not simple patriotism, or a bias toward the GOP, that influences the media's choices on the topic. A wartime culture is not only good for Bush politically; it also helps news outlets attract readers and viewers.

The fight against terrorism has been a blockbuster story for the cable news outlets, whose ratings soared by triple-digit percentages after Sept. 11. Meanwhile, Time and Newsweek saw their lucrative newsstand sales, dormant for years, shoot up 80 percent last fall. Like the White House, it's in the media's best interest to sustain the war as an everyday news story. And yes, to prop it up, if need be.

It's why last month, when airing a segment about the ongoing congressional debate over tax cuts, CNN framed the issue with this on-screen headline: "Wartime Economy."

It's why the channels continue to use the crawling news format at the bottom of the screen to maintain the fagade of breaking wartime news, when in fact it's often used to inform viewers that 4,000 Oscar ballots were sent out earlier that morning, or that Black & Decker toasters were being recalled.

It's why when news broke Thursday that a man tried to kick in the cockpit door on a United Airlines flight to Buenos Aires, Fox News immediately labeled him an "attempted hijacker," despite the fact there was no evidence the reportedly inebriated banker was trying to hijack the plane.

It's why the all-news channels essentially ignored the first day of congressional Enron hearings last month and instead focused that day on the initial court appearance of John Walker Lindh, the accused American Taliban.

It's why Thursday, under the headline "America At War," MSNBC carried live coverage of the White House press briefing where Ari Fleischer discussed campaign finance reform legislation at length.

At the same time, it's just as telling to consider what facts about the war are not discussed on TV. Last week the Associated Press reported from the Afghanistan village of Hazar Qadam, where some locals were given cash payments in compensation for a deadly U.S. commando raid last month, during which 18 pro-American Afghan fighters were mistakenly killed. The AP quoted locals as saying U.S. forces burst into a small religious school at night and killed the Afghan men in their sleep.

To date, TV talkers have shown little or no interest in that unsettling story. That's not surprising. According to a recent study conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which reviewed the war on terrorism's coverage, "the press heavily favored pro-Administration and official U.S. viewpoints-as high as 71% early on." However, "what might be considered criticism remained minimal-below 10%."

The simple fact is that this blockbuster news story is unlike almost any other in recent memory. The White House alone controls virtually all the information about the war on terrorism and it alone decides how that information is disseminated. The press, anxious for access, eagerly plays along.

That snug relationship between a too-credulous press and an administration willing to trade juicy information morsels in exchange for complete control of the war message was on stark display Jan. 17. That's when Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Mueller held a hurried press conference, carried live on CNN, to unveil five videotapes found in the rubble of a home near Kabul owned by Muhammad Atef, a top aide of bin Laden's. Five men seen on the tapes were identified as deadly terrorists, who, in the words of Ashcroft, "may be trained and prepared to commit future suicide terrorist attacks."

What made the discovery so unsettling, Ashcroft said, was the fact that "the videotapes depict young men delivering what appear to be martyrdom messages from suicide terrorists." The attorney general added that the seriousness of the threat demanded the information be released immediately. The names and pictures of the five al-Qaida members were released as a sort of worldwide version of the TV show "America's Most Wanted," as Ashcroft asked for tips from concerned citizens in helping track the men down.

The press eagerly complied. The New York Times played the story on Page 1, where it also ran color head shots of the men. The Washington Post also printed the story on its front page, reporting excitedly that "five al-Qaida members ... may be on the loose and planning suicide attacks against Western targets."

Meanwhile, CNN reported extensively about the "extraordinary videotapes," while Fox News commented on their "chilling" content.

In fact, there wasn't a television news operation in the country that didn't display the government's most-wanted poster of the five al-Qaida members. It was the best prop producers had had in weeks.

Yet like the reports about hijackers hurtling towards nuclear power plants, there was something odd about this news bulletin. For instance, pressed further at the press conference, Ashcroft seemed to back away from his original, already tentative description of the taped utterances, suggesting, "We believe that these could be, and likely appear to be, sort of, martyrdom messages from suicide terrorists." Sort of? Either the statements were martyrdom messages or they were not. Even the thinly stretched Arabic translators inside the government must be able to make that simple distinction.

Meanwhile, what else did the men say on the tapes? The media was never told, because before being shown snippets of the tapes, the government stripped all the sound off. Reporters instead were reduced to describing the men's silent gesticulations in an effort to wring out any meaning. Analysts were still going over the tapes, Ashcroft said. (Three weeks later, no transcript of the tape has been released.)

There was even less to the story that that. Ashcroft and Mueller did not know, or would not say, if the men planned any imminent attacks, when the tapes were made, when the tapes were found, who found the tapes, what the nationalities of the five men were, if they were in America, or even if they were dead or alive.

No matter. The tapes were universally treated as very big news. Two weeks later though, in a brief, 200-word aside, the Washington Post reported intelligence officials had determined the martyrdom tapes were actually made more than two years ago. Would the Post or the New York Times have played the story on Page 1 if editors had known the tapes were made in 1999? Probably not.

Sharing dramatic, albeit often dubious, terrorist revelations is one way the White House has co-opted the press. Granting prized access is the other. The recent eight-part, 40,000-word series in the Washington Post was a prime example. Written by Bob Woodward and Dan Balz, "10 Days in September: Inside the War Cabinet" offered readers an inside glimpse into how the administration dealt with the Sept. 11 attacks and mapped out its strategy for the war on terrorism. The Post reporters were granted extraordinary access for the series, in order to reconstruct those 10 days four months after the fact, getting to read notes from National Security Council meetings as well as enjoy lengthy interviews with senior administration officials, including Bush himself.

Conservative pundits cheered the series, suggesting it was a Pulitzer Prize must-win. Raves from the right were understandable: "10 Days in September: Inside the War Cabinet" erased any suggestion of Bush as a detached as well as inexperienced leader who relies on more seasoned aides to get things done.

To say the series presented the administration, and Bush in particular, in a favorable light would be an understatement. We see Bush utterly sure of himself, operating on gut instincts, leading round-table discussions, formulating complex strategies, asking pointed questions, building international coalitions, demanding results, poring over speeches and seeking last-minute phrase changes.

The portrait was so contrary to public perception that it was reminiscent of the timeless "Saturday Night Live" sketch that ran at the height of Iran-Contra scandal. It featured an outwardly jolly and oblivious Ronald Reagan, who in private Oval Office meetings revealed himself as a mastermind of the operation's arcane covert details, barking out orders to befuddled senior aides. In the same way, but without satire, the Post series suggested that a president often depicted as a genial delegator, who ducked the Vietnam War with a stateside post in the Texas Air National Guard, is in fact a hands-on commander in chief of the war on terror.

Certainly there's nothing wrong with highlighting work well done, and public officials deserve to bask in genuine accomplishments. But the notion that this White House, perhaps the most secretive in a generation, simply opened its doors to the Washington Post and hoped senior officials would come out looking okay is naive. (It also seems a sign of the times that Woodward, the reporter who, with Carl Bernstein, broke the Watergate scandal and led to the resignation of President Nixon, is now lionizing the wartime President Bush. But Woodward has increasingly settled into a role as the official stenographer to Washington power -- as evidenced by a paean to former Vice President Dan Quayle that suggested he'd been underestimated as a leader.)

During an online chat last week hosted by the Post, Woodward conceded that reporters "are always prisoners of their sources" and that "the Bush administration is proud of what occurred in these 10 days, and they believe it's a story that should be told early, rather than late."

But Woodward insisted he and Balz often used contemporaneous notes and documents to support what they wrote. On several occasions though, quotes were simply passed along verbatim. For instance, the Post reported that an angry Bush, flying around on Air Force One just hours after the attack, told Vice President Cheney in private phone conversation, "We're going to find out who did this, and we're going to kick their asses." Does that quote ring a bit too good to be true? Only Cheney and Bush know for sure. Much of the series read as though the Post reporters served as unpaid White House stenographers, typing up its version of history and then publishing the complimentary account to coincide with Bush's war-themed State of the Union address.

Then there's the now infamous "War and Destiny" February issue of Vanity Fair. In exchange for granting unique access, the Bush White House was toasted with the kind of 20-page VF spread, complete with Annie Leibovitz portraits, that the magazine usually reserves for Hollywood's next generation of photogenic TV and movie actors. The magazine's copy, too, was as soft as a press junket interview with an up-and-coming starlet.

Christopher Buckley chronicled Bush's rise and wondered if we weren't all better off with a president lacking "complexity of mind." And Reagan biographer Edmund Morris speculated if Bush's "alive or dead" comment about Osama bin Laden was actually inspired by Theodore Roosevelt's Secretary of State John Hay, who made a similar proclamation in 1904 in response to a Tangier kidnapping. (Odds are it was not.)

One wonders whether Vanity Fair agreed upfront to yank dissenting voices about the war from its "War and Destiny" issue -- but more likely, it was simply the natural, respectful reaction to getting such great access to the wartime commander in chief. Whatever the truth, the issue contained three other war-related stories, including the hawkish "Inside Saddam's Terror Regime," which could have been penned by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz.

Appearing on MSNBC just as the issue hit newsstands, VF editor David Friend, who oversaw the special spread, explained that the magazine had contacted White House spokesman Fleischer and communications chief Hughes, and pitched them on the idea of profiling White House "icons" during wartime. They liked the idea. Fleischer and Hughes were then featured among the icons.

The whole purpose, said Friend, was "to see how the White House was projecting itself in a time of war."

The answer, of course, is pretty damn well, thanks to Vanity Fair and the rest of the media.

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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