'Complicit Enablers'? Not Quite.

By Ari Fleischer
Sunday, June 8, 2008

Among the allegations in former White House press secretary Scott McClellan's book is his assertion that the national press corps was "too deferential to the White House" and that the media were "complicit enablers" of President Bush's agenda. The press, he charges, failed to aggressively question the rationale for war. As someone whose duty it was to assume the position of a human piƱata every day in the briefing room, I only wish Scott were right.

Liberals have made this charge for years, and prominent reporters have split their verdicts. Critics and journalists have also said they were intimidated after Sept. 11, 2001, and pulled back from tough questions.

Katie Couric, who was at NBC in the lead-up to the war, has called it "one of the most embarrassing chapters in American journalism." ABC's Charlie Gibson says that journalists did ask hard questions but that the White House didn't answer them.

At the risk of agreeing with one of my toughest protagonists in the briefing room -- NBC's David Gregory -- the press was tough, plenty tough. I have the scars -- and the transcripts -- to prove it.

Less than five hours after the Sept. 11 attacks, as we flew on Air Force One, the traveling White House press corps asked me if the "president should be satisfied with the performance of the intelligence community." "Has he asked to find out where the gaps were," reporters demanded. "Is he concerned about the fact that this attack of this severity happened with no warnings?"

Even before the fires were out at the World Trade Center, journalists pointed fingers and raised important questions. On a personal level, they were stunned, like everyone else. On a professional level, they dug in.

Over the next few weeks -- during this period when critics charge that the press didn't do its job and was caught up in the post-Sept. 11 patriotic fervor -- I was challenged daily about intelligence mistakes, military plans and whether Bush was "going soft" on Russia's Vladimir Putin to gain his support. During the war in Afghanistan, I was grilled over the conduct of the war itself. I refused to answer questions about operational military details -- questions that no White House press secretary should ever answer. I often returned to my office beaten down from the clashes in the briefing room. But those clashes have always been part of the job.

In addition to being tough, sometimes reporters were just wrong. Fifty days after the 2001 attacks, three weeks into the war in Afghanistan, the New York Times ran a front-page story headlined "A Military Quagmire Remembered: Afghanistan as Vietnam."

In late 2001 came Enron's collapse, which the White House press corps tried to tie to the president. "When was the last time you talked to either Mr. Lay or any other Enron official, about the -- about anything?" President Bush was asked in the Oval Office. For weeks reporters piled on, assuming that because Ken Lay was a big contributor to Bush's gubernatorial campaign, Bush was partly responsible for Enron's collapse. Enron and Bush's presumed culpability dominated my briefings for weeks. So much for Sept. 11 causing the press to go easy.

As for Iraq, as soon as Bush indicated that he was even considering using force against Saddam Hussein, the press challenged the White House.

"Is the president willing to prepare to sacrifice American and Iraqi innocent lives to take out Saddam Hussein," Helen Thomas asked in early September 2002, more than six months before the war began.

That month, one reporter (the transcript doesn't say who) asked at the daily briefing, "Do we have new evidence, even if you're not going to detail it to us now, that suggests the threat is getting worse?"

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