Joe Conason's Journal

Woodward's big scoop: What George, Dick and Condi knew before 9/11.

By Salon Staff
Published November 20, 2002 6:43PM (UTC)
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A meeting at Blair House
After gazing at mug shots of the not-so-dead, very talkative Osama bin Laden for the last day or so, I'm wondering when the Post plans to excerpt the most newsworthy sections of the new Woodward book. For those reading along, please turn to Page 34, where the author gets inside the head of a freaked-out Condoleezza Rice on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001:

"If it was bin Laden and al Qaeda -- it almost surely was -- there was another complication. The questions would sooner or later arise about what the Bush administration knew about the bin Laden threat, when they knew it and what they had done about it."

Woodward then flashes back to a January meeting at Blair House, during the week before the inauguration, where Bush, Cheney and Rice took a briefing from CIA director George Tenet and James Pavitt, Tenet's deputy director for operations.

"For two and one half hours, Tenet and Pavitt had run through the good, the bad and the ugly about the CIA to a fascinated president-elect. They told him that bin Laden and his network were a 'tremendous threat' which was 'immediate.' There was no doubt that bin Laden was coming after the United States again, they said, but it was not clear when, where or how ... President Clinton had approved five separate intelligence orders, called Memoranda of Notification (MON), authorizing covert action to attempt to destroy bin Laden and his network, disrupt and preempt their terrorist operations. No authority had been granted outright to kill or assassinate bin Laden.

"Tenet and Pavitt presented bin Laden as one of the three top threats facing the United States."

Months pass with little action. Then on Sept. 10, Rice brings a directive for the president to sign that would have provided up to $200 million annually to arm the Afghani Northern Alliance against the Taliban.

"The question that would always linger was whether they had moved fast enough on a threat that had been identified by the CIA as one of the top three facing the country, whether September 11 was as much a failure of policy as it was of intelligence."

Woodward kindly doesn't dwell on missile defense and other preoccupations of the president and his advisors during the months leading up to Sept. 11. He does quote Bush criticizing Clinton's "flaccid" response to al-Qaida's earlier attacks. But he also tells Woodward that the story floated by members of his own staff, that an action plan had reached his desk by Sept. 10, is probably false:

"I know there was a plan in the works ... I don't know how mature the plan was," he told the author. Bush "said the idea that a plan was going to be on his desk September 10 was perhaps 'a convenient date. It would have been odd to come September the 10th because I was in Florida on September the 10th, so I don't think they could have been briefing me in Florida."

No wonder the White House tried to kill the independent commission. Now they'll be trying to control it.
[2:09 p.m. PST, Nov. 20, 2002]

Privatization deception
In an otherwise almost content-free midterm election, candidates debated sporadically about the future of Social Security. Republicans avoided the word "privatization" like a jilted lover, while Democrats pledged to resist any diversion of funds into private accounts. Now a post-election debate has broken out over what the election results portend. Predictably, the Wall Street Journal editorial board crowed last weekend that the Republican takeover symbolized a voter preference for private accounts, and demanded action when the new Congress is seated. But over on, the Campaign for America's Future more or less dares the Republicans to try it -- because so many of them promised, in the face of Democratic attacks, to neither privatize nor reduce benefits.

What's most intriguing, politically, about this argument is that both camps cite several of the same candidates to prove that their viewpoint prevailed. The Journal says these paragons of integrity signed a "pledge" to support private accounts in Social Security; the Campaign points out that those same paragons advertised their commitment never to "privatize" the system or cut benefits. What those candidates may or may not know is that the President's Commission on the Future of Social Security couldn't create a plausible scenario that drained funds into private accounts without cutting future benefits.

A massive semantic deception was perpetrated on this issue -- and the math doesn't work, either. Why am I not surprised that two of the most obvious perps are Minnesota's Norm "Wellstone and Clinton in '96" Coleman and Georgia's Saxby "More Patriotic Than the One-Armed Veteran" Chambliss?
[10:39 a.m. PST, Nov. 20, 2002]

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