Well, the 9/11 commission certainly took the high road yesterday.
Its members spoke before the TV cameras in calm and measured tones and didn't blame anyone in particular (read: Bush or Clinton) for the worst terrorist attack on American soil. Instead, Tom Kean & Co. stuck to a dispassionate analysis (much of which had already been leaked) of what went wrong.
Then came the first question from a reporter: Why didn't the commission say whether Sept. 11 could have been prevented?
The real answer, of course, is that no one knows. It's a hypothetical question we can never answer.
I was really struck by one comment from Kean. The former New Jersey governor said that of all the millions of words spoken by Bush and Al Gore during the 2000 campaign, the commission could find only one reference to terrorism. That, he noted, meant that reporters had not been asking about the subject. Which, of course, underscores how totally unprepared the country was--not just the last two administrations and Congress, the CIA and FBI, but the media as well--for the horror that was to be inflicted on us.
Despite the first World Trade Center attack, the bombing of the East African embassies and of the USS Cole, no one was prepared.
Washington, of course, is never about neutral fact-finding. Partisans on both sides have been spinning and counterspinning in the days before the report, and there's no letup in sight. Within a couple of hours, I heard Sean Hannity say the panel had "failed miserably" and bought a "big lie" because it didn't nail Clinton for not nabbing Osama when the Sudanese were said to be offering him up.
The candidates, naturally, don't want to seem partisan about all this.
Bush staged a photo op with Kean and Lee Hamilton in front of the White House, thanking them for their service on a commission he opposed. Kerry said this was not a time for bickering or politics, then talked about how he'd knock heads to get the intelligence problems straightened out.
The key recommendations are for a government reorganization. But didn't we just go through that by creating Homeland Security?
If there was a program the commission members didn't hit, I missed it. At 8 p.m. we had Kean and Lee Hamilton on O'Reilly, Jamie Gorelick and Slade Gorton on Zahn and Richard Ben-Veniste on Olbermann.
Editor & Publisher | http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/news/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1000583663 has a quickie piece on findings involving the press:
"'Between May 2001 and September 11, there was very little in newspapers or on television to heighten anyone's concern about terrorism. Front-page stories touching on the subject dealt with the windup of trials dealing with the East Africa embassy bombings and [Ahmed] Ressam. All this reportage looked backward, describing problems satisfactorily resolved. Back-page notices told of tightened security at embassies and military installations abroad and government cautions against travel to the Arabian Peninsula. All the rest was secret.
"The commission also, at one point, appears to castigate the media in general. It says that terrorism, specifically Osama Bin Laden and al Qaeda, was not an important issue in the 2000 presidential campaign, and the media 'called little attention to it' at the time. At another point, on page 359, it describes how Jordan arrested 16 terrorists planning bombings in that country, including two U.S. citizens, but the news 'only made page 13 of The New York Times.' In another brief shot at that paper, the report observes: 'It is hard now to recapture the conventional wisdom before 9/11. For example, a New York Times article in April 1999 sought to debunk claims that Bin Laden was a terrorist leader, with the headline "U.S. Hard Put to Find Proof Bin Laden Directed Attacks."'"
The Times had plenty of company.
So who's to blame?
"For all its forceful words and powerful urgings," says the Chicago Tribune, | http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-0407230199jul23,1,3423932.story?coll=chi-news-hed "the report of the commission investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is politically opaque. Some parts could be helpful to President Bush, others to Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, his Democratic challenger. Very few are helpful to Congress, which might well feel the most pressure to respond to the commission's recommendations, and might well put up the most resistance.
"In the context of the presidential campaign, the report aids Bush because it does not cast specific blame on him or suggest conclusively that the attacks could have been avoided if only the president or his top people had been more vigilant or proactive. Yet it also provides the grist for a broader narrative about Bush's stewardship of foreign policy, specifically that some of his primary reasons for the war in Iraq proved unfounded, a story line that so far his opponent has not constructed."
Or as a New York Daily News | http://www.nydailynews.com/news/wn_report/story/214962p-185086c.html headline put it: "WE BLEW IT, BUT THERE'S NOBODY TO BLAME."
So is the panel finished?
"Blue-ribbon committees usually produce long reports that assign blame, and then go quietly out of business," the Los Angeles Times | http://www.9latimes.9com/9news/9nationworld/9nation/la-na-assess23jul23,1,2851706.story?coll=la-home-headlines writes. "But Thursday, the commission on the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 boldly defied those rules: It refused to assign blame -- and, more importantly, it refused to go out of business.
"The commission's 10 members said they planned to spend the next 12 months traveling the nation demanding that politicians carry out most of their 41 recommendations.
"So for the remainder of this election year, the political landscape will include a new and unpredictable factor: a bipartisan commission pressing presidential candidates for action on the hot-button issue of guarding against the next terrorist attack."
So will anything happen?
"Months of unsparing study by the Sept. 11 commission and the Senate Intelligence Committee have now produced a broad consensus about two colossal intelligence failures: the missed opportunities that left the United States open to attack from Al Qaeda and the misread clues on unconventional weapons that sent American troops to attack Iraq," says the New York Times. | http://nytimes.com/2004/07/23/politics/23assess.html?hp
"Together, those lapses amount to nothing less than the gravest dysfunctions in the national security apparatus of the United States since the modern Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency were created at the dawn of the cold war, and the commission has proposed perhaps the most extensive overhaul of those functions since then.
"But achieving consensus on adopting the commission's recommendations will almost certainly be much harder. The partisan wrangling of a presidential election and the capital's entrenched resistance to change make swift action unlikely - despite the persistent threats that the commission's chairman, Thomas H. Kean, said make another attack not only possible but probable."
One panel member tells National Review Editor Rich Lowry | http://www.9nationalreview.9com/9lowry/9lowry200407221712.asp that CBS didn't play fair:
"'We were mugged by Viacom,' Republican commissioner John Lehman says, referring to the owner of the publisher of Richard Clarke's book, Against All Enemies, and the owner of CBS, which broadcast a long, loving segment devoted to Clarke just prior to the release of his book. 'I think we were mugged by Viacom,' Lehman told NRO in a phone interview on Thursday afternoon.
"'Because they changed the release date of the book and geared up 60 Minutes to launch his book to time them with his testimony and they edited his book to take out all of the criticisms of Clinton from his [original private] testimony. Because they wanted to make it a jihad against Bush.'
"Lehman says that Clarke's original testimony included 'a searing indictment of some Clinton officials and Clinton policies.'"
There was another study yesterday that got overshadowed:
"A report by the Army's inspector general said yesterday that investigators confirmed 49 cases of abuse and identified 45 cases of 'possible abuse' of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, but concluded there was no evidence that the abuse resulted from a systematic policy," says the Boston Globe | http://www.9boston.9com/9news/9nation/9articles/2004/07/23/army_finds_49_abuse_cases/.
"The report, delivered at a hastily called Senate committee meeting, prompted angry protests from Democrats who said it contradicted its conclusions by detailing how some soldiers believed that their commanders condoned the abuses."
This fault-finding business isn't easy.
Wow--no fewer than three pre-Boston polls, the first from USA Today:
"John Kerry moves toward a triumphant Democratic National Convention next week with the rock-solid support of Democrats and a decided advantage over President Bush among voters on the issues of the economy, health care and education.
"But a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll | http://www.usatoday.com/news/politicselections/nation/president/2004-07-22-poll-cover_x.htm finds that voters' faith in President Bush when it comes to combating terrorism is bolstering his standing in a presidential contest that remains essentially tied. Boosting Bush's prospects: The belief by most Americans that a terrorist attack on U.S. soil will occur in the next few weeks or months. Kerry is at 47% among likely voters, Bush at 46% and independent candidate Ralph Nader at 4%. Among the larger group of registered voters, Kerry is at 47%, Bush at 43% and Nader at 5%."
The WSJ calls it Bush 47, Kerry 45:
"John Kerry enters next week's Democratic Convention in a better position than any presidential challenger in a generation -- but still needing to show more strength on the national-security issues that underpin President Bush's support.
"A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows the Massachusetts senator in a virtual dead heat with Mr. Bush as Democrats gather here to nominate him as their presidential candidate in the Nov. 2 election. Not since Ronald Reagan's 1980 bid to oust President Carter, according to Gallup, has a challenger approached his nominating convention even with or ahead of a White House incumbent."
And the LAT | http://www.latimes.com/news/custom/timespoll/la-na-poll23jul23,1,3447280.story?coll=la-home-headlines has it Kerry 48, Bush 46:
"Despite continuing dissatisfaction with the country's direction and the administration's principal policy decisions, the presidential race remains a virtual dead heat as the Democratic convention approaches, a Times Poll has found.
"Sen. John F. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, leads President Bush by two percentage points among registered voters nationwide, with or without liberal independent candidate Ralph Nader included in the matchup. That's an advantage within the poll's margin of error, and a smaller lead than Kerry enjoyed in a Times survey last month." Translation: No Edwards bounce.
Speaking of the campaign: How can Kerry keep running positive ads instead of responding to Bush's negative spots against him? I've got the answer here. | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A7573-2004Jul22.html
What does Kerry need to do in Boston? Former presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan | http://www.opinionjournal.com/columnists/pnoonan/?id=110005383 has some advice:
"A week from tonight John Kerry gives his acceptance speech. If it is good or great it will be turned into a million commercials and will be cut up and quoted so often on TV that people who don't see it will think, a year from now, that they did. If it is good or great it will inspire a lot of memorable bad writing from the newspaper poets--The Knight of the Woeful Countenance who dazzled the crowd from the moment he rode forward and unfurled his banner. If it's a poor or merely average speech it will be a reason Mr. Kerry lost if he loses.
"Normally an acceptance speech is an opportunity for a candidate not to unveil his beliefs but to restate them in a way that breaks through to the public mind. In Mr. Kerry's case, since the average American probably doesn't know what he stands for beyond the idea that he can't stand George Bush, the speech is an opportunity to paint himself anew. He is not 'Not Bush,' he is 'Kerry Who Believes in. . . . '
"Mr. Kerry has a problem with rhetoric. He doesn't have his own sound. You may hate Mr. Bush's sound but it's his, and a lot of people like it. He sounds normal, which for all its pluses and minuses as a style does tend to underscore the idea that he is normal. Mr. Kerry and his speechwriter, Bob Shrum, have long relied on a sort of proto-New Frontier sound that is the rhetorical default position for lost Democrats.
"Now is their chance to reinvent the Democratic sound. JFK himself came forward as JFK. He didn't present himself to the world with a cigarette-holder, a jut-jawed chin and rimless eyeglasses. That is to say, he did not make believe he was FDR, the party's giant who'd died just 15 years before. JFK knew to be JFK. Kerry should be Kerry. This is assuming there is a Kerry."
Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum | http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/ finds selective outrage by one GOPer:
"Tom Davis is the Republican chairman of the House Government Reform Committee. Among other things, this means he's the point man for congressional investigations of governmental misdeeds.
"Here is Tom Davis on his plans to open an investigation into the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame, which was first exposed by David Corn on July 16, 2003:
"July 17, 2003: Nothing.
"October 3, 2003: "I know [John] Ashcroft very well, and I'm sure he'll go by the book." Um, OK. Nonetheless, he also said he was 'gearing up' to lead an investigation of the matter. 'It's our obligation to do so. This is something we can't tolerate.'
"January 23, 2004: 'If they don't find it, we will. It will be looked at and second-guessed. It's a troubling and serious violation.' But we'll still wait on gearing up that investigation.
"July 21, 2004: Still gearing up. No investigation yet.
"Two days ago, on July 19, 2004, AP reported that former NSA Sandy Berger had removed some classified documents from the National Archives and is the subject of an active FBI investigation. How does Davis feel about this?
"July 21, 2004: Congress has 'a constitutional responsibility to find out what happened and why. At best, we're looking at tremendously irresponsible handling of highly classified information.' An investigation is underway.
"Hey! Tom Davis can move mighty quickly when he puts his mind to it! I wonder what the difference between these two cases is?"
Speaking of Berger and his pants, New Republic owner Marty Peretz | http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=express&s=peretz072104 starts with a disclaimer:
"I confess: I do not like Sandy Berger; and I have not liked him since the first time we met, long ago during the McGovern campaign, not because of his politics since I more or less shared them then, but for his hauteur. He clearly still has McGovernite politics, which means, in my mind, at least, that he believes there is no international dispute that can't be solved by the U.S. walking away from it. No matter.
"Still, here's his story about the filched classified materials dealing with the foiled Al Qaeda millennium terrorist bombing plot from the National Archives: He inadvertently took home documents and notes about documents that he was not permitted to take from the archives; secondly, he inadvertently didn't notice the papers in his possession when he got home and actually looked at them; and, thirdly, he inadvertently discarded some of these same files so that they are now missing. Gone, in fact.
"One of his lawyers attributes this behavior to 'sloppiness,' which may better explain his career as Bill Clinton's National Security Adviser and certainly describes his presentation of self in everyday life. But it is not an explanation of his conduct in the archives or, for that matter, at home. Personnel at the archives actually noticed him stuffing his pockets with papers as he left, which is how the FBI found out about this bizarre tale in the first place. Inadvertence, then, doesn't do it either."
Maybe all journalists should start off with a confession: I can't stand so-and-so, but. . . .
Off to Boston. Check in early and often next week, there will be lots of blogging.