By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonopost.com
Friday, June 18, 2004; 12:52 PM
The report from the Sept. 11 commission out yesterday respectfully conveys President Bush's explanation for his conduct that morning, when he was visiting a Florida elementary school classroom.
"The President told us his instinct was to project calm, not to have the country see an excited reaction at a moment of crisis. The national press corps was standing behind the children in the classroom; he saw their phones and pagers start to ring. The President felt he should project strength and calm until he could better understand what was happening." (Here's the full text of the report.)
But it may not have been Bush's finest hour.
By recalling Bush's morning, the report inevitably calls attention to a less charitable interpretation, articulated by critics including filmmaker Michael Moore: While America was still under attack, Bush sat stunned into inaction, blank-faced, listening to children read about a pet goat for more than five minutes. And when he finally huddled with his advisers, it was to discuss what to say, not what to do to defend the country.
(The grainy video from that classroom, a centerpiece of Moore's upcoming film, can be found here, at The Memory Hole Web site.)
Scot J. Paltrow writes in the Wall Street Journal that yesterday's report "raised questions about whether Mr. Bush participated in the government's response before all four hijacked planes had crashed.
"When the first plane hit the World Trade Center, Mr. Bush had just arrived at a Florida elementary school to listen to a group of second-graders read. Mr. Bush learned while in the classroom that a second plane had hit and that a terrorist attack was under way.
"The report said that until he left the school about 30 minutes later, there was no evidence he or any of the senior staff with him contacted the Pentagon. It stated that 'no decisions were made' by the president or the staff with him while at the school, except for an initial decision to return to Washington. After leaving the classroom, their efforts were focused on preparing a short, televised statement from Mr. Bush."
Bloomberg reports: "President George W. Bush didn't react for five to seven minutes after learning a second aircraft had hit New York's World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, because he was trying to 'project strength and calm,' a national commission investigating the attacks said."
The Bloomberg article includes some observations by reporters that morning, who in at least one case were able to peer around a partition and see White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett looking pale while Bush was talking on the telephone to national security adviser Condoleezza Rice about the first attack on the World Trade Center, then thought to be an accident.
Bush went out into the classroom after that call, and of course stayed even after hearing about the second attack.
In a news analysis for the New York Times, Douglas Jehl sees all sort of potential damage for Bush as the Sept. 11 commission continues to report its findings.
So far, he writes, the panel "has called into question nearly every aspect of the administration's response to terror, including the idea that Iraq and Al Qaeda were somehow the same foe.
"Far from a bolt from the blue, the commission has demonstrated over the last 19 months that the Sept. 11 attacks were foreseen, at least in general terms, and might well have been prevented, had it not been for misjudgments, mistakes and glitches, some within the White House. . . .
"Mr. Bush in particular has come off as less certain and decisive than he has portrayed himself. The final report, issued on Wednesday, reminded Americans that Mr. Bush remained in a classroom in Florida for at least five minutes after the second jet struck the World Trade Center, in what he told the panel was an effort 'to project calm' for a worried nation."
So Who Was Calling the Shots?
Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "The report portrays the vice president taking command from his bunker while Bush, who was in Florida, communicated with the White House in a series of phone calls, and occasionally had trouble getting through.
"Cheney, who told the commission he was operating on instructions from Bush given in a phone call, issued authority for aircraft threatening Washington to be shot down. But the commission noted that 'among the sources that reflect other important events that morning there is no documentary evidence for this call, although the relevant sources are incomplete.' "
Adam Nagourney and Richard W. Stevenson write in the New York Times: "When Mr. Cheney took office, he was widely viewed as having the steady hand of experience that could help the new president in dealing with the foreign policy and national security challenges that Mr. Bush had not faced during his one term as the governor of Texas.
"Aides to both men said that Mr. Cheney has served that role loyally and effectively -- perhaps no time more than that morning in the bunker. It was a moment that illustrated the symbiotic relationship of these two men: vice president and president, tutor and tutored."
Is That Why They Testified Together?
The assertion that Bush gave Cheney the okay to shoot down planes is one of the few in the report that is supported solely by statements from Bush and Cheney themselves -- statements which they made when they met together with the Sept. 11 commission. (See my columns from April 28, April 29 and April 30 for all the background on Bush's insistence on not meeting with the commission by himself.)
Esther Schrader lays it out in the Los Angeles Times: "Cheney has told the commission that during one call to Bush, moments after he arrived at the command center, he asked the president to decide on the rules of engagement for combat planes being deployed over Washington. Bush said he authorized that hijacked planes be shot down.
"But the commission staff seemed to question whether the call took place. Its report noted that there were no logs of that phone call between Cheney and Bush. 'Others nearby who were taking notes, such as the vice president's chief of staff, [I. Lewis] Scooter Libby, who sat next to him, and Mrs. Cheney, did not note a call between the president and vice president immediately after the vice president entered the conference room,' the report said.
"Lee H. Hamilton, co-chairman of the Sept. 11 commission, told reporters 'there's no documentary evidence' that Cheney conferred with Bush before issuing the shoot-down order.
" 'And the only evidence you have is the statement of the president and the vice president, which was that the president gave the order to shoot down,' Hamilton said."
Bush, Cheney, Defend al Qaeda-Iraq Assertions
Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush yesterday defended his assertions that there was a relationship between Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda, putting him at odds with this week's finding of the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission.
" 'The reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and al Qaeda: because there was a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda,' Bush said after a Cabinet meeting. As evidence, he cited Iraqi intelligence officers' meeting with bin Laden in Sudan. 'There's numerous contacts between the two,' Bush said."
David E. Sanger and Robin Toner write in the New York Times: "Last night Mr. Cheney, who was the administration's most forceful advocate of the Qaeda-Hussein links, was more pointed, repeating in detail his case for those ties and saying that The New York Times's coverage yesterday of the commission's findings 'was outrageous.' . . .
"He said that newspapers, including the Times, had confused the question of whether there was evidence of Iraqi participation in Sept. 11 with the issue of whether a relationship existed between Al Qaeda and Mr. Hussein's regime."
Bob Drogin writes in the Los Angeles Times: "In his comments Thursday, Bush said his administration 'never said' that the Sept. 11 attacks 'were orchestrated between Saddam and Al Qaeda.' Bush had first denied that linkage last September, six months after the invasion. His comments then were in response to Cheney's assertion that U.S. success in Iraq would strike at 'the geographic base of the terrorists who had us under assault for many years, but most especially on 9/11.'
"Cheney appeared reluctant to abandon that position Thursday. Asked if Iraq was involved in the Sept. 11 attack during an interview on CNBC's 'Capital Report,' he replied, 'We don't know. You know, what the commission said is they can't find any evidence of that.' "
Greg Hitt and Jacob Schlesinger write in the Wall Street Journal: "The 9/11 Commission's declaration that there was no solid link between Iraq and al Qaeda spells new trouble for President Bush in a political campaign in which credibility is growing as an issue."
Bloomberg reports: "A U.S. report dismissing a link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's Iraq may damage President George W. Bush's re-election bid, according to political analysts."
Here is the text of Bush's remarks after his Cabinet meeting.
Jonathan S. Landay writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "Statements by Bush and his top aides and U.S. documents . . . show that the administration systematically sought to justify an invasion of Iraq by connecting Saddam with the perpetrators of the bloodiest terrorist strikes in U.S. history."
He offers some examples.
Bloggers Read Bush's Talking Points
Blogger Atrios and his readers are having a field day zooming in on a high-resolution version of this AP photograph and reading Bush's notes.
Indeed, you can read the following:
"Saddam Was A Threat --
"Sworn Enemy of US
"Volatile part of world
"Had Weapons of Mass D . . .
"Tied to terrorist orgs . . . "
And over on the right, it looks like someone else printed a list of all the reporters in the pool yesterday:
"Deb Riechmann (AP)
"David Morgan (Reuters)
"Roger Runnigen (Bloomberg)
"John Roberts (CBS)
"Bob Hillman (DMN) [That's Dallas Morning News]
"Ann Compton (ABC Radio)"
Runnigen and the others never got their chance. Bush only called on Riechmann and Morgan. But he did indeed stick largely to those talking points.
Press Briefing Analogy
A central issue, as indicated earlier, is whether there were "contacts" between al Qaeda and Hussein, or something more -- like "links" or a "collaborative relationship." The first is indisputable. The latter, quite disputable.
John Roberts of CBS News tried fruitlessly to get press secretary Scott McClellan to address this specific issue, even going so far as to use a close-to-home analogy. Here's an excerpt from the text of yesterday's briefing.
"Q But here's where the two positions diverge, and that is that the 9/11 Commission says, yes, there were these contacts, but they did not result in any kind of collaborative relationship. It means the same thing as you and I contact each [other] all the time, but I don't think anybody here at the White House would [accuse] you of having --
"MR. McCLELLAN: John, we made it clear a long time ago --
"Q -- a collaborative relationship with me."
Blake Morrison, John Diamond, Toni Locy, Donna Leinwand and Toni Squitieri unleash a USA Today cover story today that reports: "The officer who oversaw interrogations at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad testified that he was under intense 'pressure' from the White House, Pentagon and CIA last fall to get better information from detainees, pressure that he said included a visit to the prison by an aide to national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. . . .
"Rice staffer Fran Townsend said Thursday that she spent about two hours at Abu Ghraib last November and recalls that Jordan was her guide. Townsend, then deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism, said she did not discuss interrogation techniques or the need to obtain more information from detainees, and neither witnessed nor heard about abuse of detainees. . . .
"While the documents obtained by USA TODAY do not answer questions about how high approval of the abuses went, they show there was intense interest in the Abu Ghraib operations at the highest levels of the Pentagon and the White House staff."
Helen Dewar writes for The Washington Post: "Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee blocked a move by Democrats yesterday to subpoena Justice Department memos on the use of torture, intimidation and other abusive tactics in interrogation of suspected terrorists."
But committee chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) "said he asked Attorney General John D. Ashcroft and White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales to turn over the 23 memos -- some of which suggested legal justification for abuse of prisoners -- and believed they would do so."
Valerie Plame Watch
Another excerpt from yesterday's press briefing:
"Q Just a quick question, has the President --
"MR. McCLELLAN: The President is getting ready to speak any minute now.
"Q Has the President yet answered any of investigators' questions on the CIA leak investigation?
"MR. McCLELLAN: Look -- and I know we can go through this every day -- and as I said the other day, I'm going to work to keep you informed about it at the appropriate time. And I remain committed to that. But I'm not going to go through every day, has he done this, or done that.
"Q Just checking.
"MR. McCLELLAN: I will keep you informed at the appropriate time."
As for Cheney
Walter Shapiro in USA Today raises the question: "Exactly what does Cheney bring to the ticket?"
Lois Romano writes in The Washington Post: "Sen. John F. Kerry and President Bush continued to trade barbs Thursday over who is more optimistic about the economy, with Bush touting new economic indicators and Kerry promoting his proposals to help the working class. . . .
"Taking a dig at his Democratic challenger, Bush said there are 'modern-day economic pessimists around who are quick to offer dire predictions and complaints. But you know what they do not offer is pro-growth economic policies. They can find the dark cloud, but they can't see the sunshine. They don't know where to take the country.' "
With Bush, it's easy to tell when he's trying to telegraph his optimism, for two reasons.
One, these days, he's always trying to telegraph his optimism.
Two, rather than just describing an optimistic vision or expressing optimism, the primary way Bush does it is by repeating the word optimism (or optimistic) over and over again.
Here's the text of his speech to the National Federation of Independent Businesses yesterday ("That's why I'm so optimistic about the future. . . . " "It was based upon my optimism. . . . " "See, I'm optimistic about our future. . . . ")
And here's the text of his remarks at a fund-raiser in Spokane last night. ("[W]e've got optimistic plans to make this country safer, stronger, and better.")
Even in those brief remarks after his Cabinet meeting, he got one in: "There's a sense of optimism around this table. . . . "
The Campaign Must Go On
Elisabeth Bumiller of the New York Times writes from the other Washington: "The president's four-and-a-half-hour flight here, for events that did not end until after midnight East Coast time, showed how much effort the White House is devoting to his re-election campaign in the middle of the persistent debate about national security."
David D. Kirkpatrick writes in the New York Times: "President Bush's re-election campaign took its effort to enlist churches in turning out conservative voters to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention this week, urging pastors to do everything short of risking their churches' tax-exempt status to support the president's re-election."
Jesse J. Holland reports for the Associated Press that Bush today visits "Fort Lewis, one of the nine major bases in Washington state, home to more than 94,000 uniformed personnel and civilian employees.
"After delivering a speech, Bush is scheduled to be interviewed by Washington state reporters, meet privately with wounded soldiers and sit down with relatives of GIs killed in Iraq. . . .
"After leaving Fort Lewis, Bush is heading to his next campaign stop in Reno, Nev., before flying back to the Camp David presidential retreat for the weekend."
And the elusive Sen. John McCain of Arizona is with Bush on this Western swing.
Edwin Chen writes in the Los Angeles Times: "McCain is scheduled to appear with Bush at Ft. Lewis, Wash., and then fly with the president aboard Air Force One to Reno, where he is to introduce Bush at a campaign rally."
Kevin Drum, Washington Monthly's blogger, scolds the press corps for not following up after Bush fingered Abu Musab Zarqawi as the best evidence of a link between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.
He calls attention to Jim Miklaszewski's story for NBC in March, which asserted that "long before the war the Bush administration had several chances to wipe out his terrorist operation and perhaps kill Zarqawi himself -- but never pulled the trigger."
Asks Drum: "Would it have killed the press corps to follow up on Bush's answer? I'm thinking of something like this:
" 'Mr. President, if Zarqawi really was the linchpin of Saddam's connection to al-Qaeda, why did you refuse three separate times to approve military plans to take out his camp?' "
A new poll conducted from June 3-13 by the Pew Research Center finds "that President Bush has improved his political standing over the past month. His overall approval rating increased slightly, from 44% in May to 48%. Notably, all of Bush's gains occurred after Reagan's death on June 5. Prior to that, Bush's approval rating was the same as in May (48% disapprove/44% approve). But during the remainder of the polling period (June 6-13), Bush's approval rating increased to 50%."
Odd Bush Photos
Here's an AP photo of Bush blowing a kiss to the crowd -- and the media! -- Thursday night at the Seattle airport.
And I'm not really sure what Bush was trying to convey in this AFP photo or this AP photo of his gestures amid military personnel at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa on Wednesday.
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