Thursday's must-reads


Geraldine Sealey
April 15, 2004 5:44PM (UTC)

Gone fishin'
There are more disturbing details about just how much threat information wasn't processed by the White House in the weeks before 9/11. From yesterday's 9/11 commission hearing, the New York Times notes that Director George Tenet and others at the CIA were briefed in August 2001 about the arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui in a paper titled "Islamic Extremist Learns to Fly." But Tenet barely had any contact with President Bush during the month of August because the commander-in-chief was ... on vacation.

"Mr. Tenet, the director of central intelligence since 1997, testified that he had no contact at all with Mr. Bush in August, the month in which the president received a C.I.A. report suggesting that terrorists of Al Qaeda were already in the United States and might be planning a domestic airplane hijacking."

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"The agency later telephoned reporters on Wednesday to correct Mr. Tenet's testimony, saying he met once with the president during Mr. Bush's nearly monthlong vacation that August at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., and once again when Mr. Bush returned to Washington later that month. In defending Mr. Bush from recent contentions that he was not sufficiently attentive to domestic terrorist threats before Sept. 11, the White House has cited his face-to-face meetings with Mr. Tenet as proof of his interest."

"Mr. Tenet offered an aggressive defense, insisting that the agency had provided 'clear and direct' intelligence about the larger danger posed by Al Qaeda before Sept. 11. 'Warning was well understood, even if the timing and method of attacks was not,' he said."

Here's the exchange between Tenet and Commissioner Tim Roemer about the president's lazy month of August 2001.

Stubborn as strategy
The Wall Street Journal and New York Times both look at the president's inability to apologize or admit mistakes during his press conference on Tuesday night. (We wrote about this here and here.) Turns out, although the president appeared to be wracking his brain to come up with a mistake he'd made, he had been told beforehand by advisers not to admit any wrongdoing.

The Journal said "White House aides are convinced that admitting error would only embolden Mr. Bush's critics in the Democratic Party and the news media." And the Times had this colorful quote from a senior Bush aide who laughed out loud at the persistence of reporters who wanted Bush to admit something had gone wrong in the last three years.

"We must return to the days of Jimmy Carter!" the aide said in a sarcastic invocation of a Democratic president that Republicans have long sought to equate with presidential weakness. "We must have malaise! We must have a weak president! We must have a morose Kerrylike apology!"

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And although the president rebuffed NPR's Don Gonyea at the end of the primetime news conference, saying he doesn't take action in response to polls -- "And, Don, you know, if I tried to fine-tune my messages based upon polls, I think I'd be pretty ineffective. I know I would be disappointed in myself" -- the Times said today that public opinion played a role in the White House refusal to apologize.

"Several aides to Mr. Bush said that his unrelenting posture was as much aimed at a domestic audience as it was at showing strength to America's enemies. White House aides and Democrats said they saw little chance that any significant number of voters would seriously blame Mr. Bush for the Sept. 11 attacks." Perhaps if the polls suggest otherwise, Bush will reconsider.

Students skewer Feith
Perhaps the Washington press corps can learn a thing or two from the student audience that grilled Pentagon official and Iraq war architect Doug Feith at the University of Chicago. The Chicago Tribune reports: "Facing a skeptical and sometimes sharp-tongued audience at the University of Chicago, [Feith] on Wednesday defended the war in Iraq as an essential part of the global struggle against terrorism. Feith ... said the invasion was a necessary response to the Sept. 11 attacks -- even if there is no direct evidence of Iraqi involvement in those attacks or that Saddam Hussein's regime possessed chemical or nuclear weapons."

"Feith's statements drew dissent -- and sometimes lengthy tongue-lashings -- from many students who lined up at a microphone for the chance to question him. ... One student who said he supported the war posed a question that came with a barb. Why not attack other nations that support terrorism, he asked, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran? Feith said different nations called for a different approach."

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"Reaction was sharpest when a student asked how many people have died in the war on terrorism. When Feith did not directly answer, someone called out, 'He asked you how many people have died?'"

Turkey farm story a turkey
If you were confused during Tuesday's press conference about the president's repeated reference to a "turkey farm" -- you were not alone. Reporters who inquired with the White House were told there were three things wrong with the president's comment, as Reuters reports.

The quote was "They could still be there. They could be hidden, like the 50 tons of mustard gas in a turkey farm," said Bush, referring to Libya's voluntary disclosure of weapons in March."

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"The next day, the White House said the accurate figure for the Libyan mustard gas was 23.6 metric tons, or 26 short tons, not 50 tons. Moreover, the substance was found at different locations across Libya, not at a turkey farm. And observers did not find mustard gas on the farm at all, but rather unfilled chemical munitions, the White House acknowledged."

"The president misspoke and we just want to correct the record," explained White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

Kerry: Bush bends truth
The Los Angeles Times reports that John Kerry is stepping up his criticism of President Bush, attacking his character as well as his policies.

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"Stopping just short of calling the president a liar, Kerry routinely accuses Bush of 'running up a truth deficit' and compiling 'a long list of broken promises.' "The American people have a right to the truth,' Kerry said Wednesday, in a characteristic jab at a town hall meeting in New York City. Afterward, he questioned Bush's candor during Tuesday's prime-time news conference, which was dominated by discussion of Iraq."

"His strategy is risky. By challenging Bush's truthfulness, the presumptive Democratic nominee invites scrutiny of his reputation for vacillation and seemingly contradictory stands, such as backing the president's decision on whether to go to war with Iraq but against continued funding for military operations and the country's reconstruction. ... But the reward for Kerry also is potentially significant, as the Massachusetts senator aims at one of Bush's biggest political strengths: his image as a leader who talks straight and is resolute in his positions."

Off the Air America
The Los Angeles Times reports that Air America listeners in Chicago and Los Angeles who woke up yesterday wanting to hear news and satire of the president's press conference instead got entertainment gossip in Spanish.

"In a dispute over payment for airtime, the liberal talk-radio network was abruptly yanked off the air in the morning by MultiCultural Radio Broadcasting Inc., the New York company that owns Santa Monica-based KBLA-AM (1580)and WNTD-AM (950) in Chicago."

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"David Goodfriend, Air America's general counsel and executive vice president, said MultiCultural's move was "not only a violation of our contract, it's a despicable act." MultiCultural's chief executive, Arthur Liu, said the talk-radio programming was pulled and replaced with shows in Spanish because Air America "bounced a check" and owes the radio company $1 million. A judge has been asked to decide which side was in the wrong: Air America filed a lawsuit in State Supreme Court in New York accusing Multicultural with breach of contract and asking for an injunction forcing the company to put the network's shows including "Morning Sedition," "The O'Franken Factor" and "Unfiltered" back on the dial."


Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at Salon.com.

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