May 17, 2002

Where’s the beef?…

A staggering amount of intelligence makes its way to the White House every day. Analysts pour over the meaning of ambiguous tidbits looking for patterns and credible threats. This is a difficult job.

In hindsight, it all seems so clear: suspicious students attending flight schools, bin Laden wanting to attack America directly, and terrorists planning to hijack planes. Do these bits really add up to 9/11? Are there more bits?

Since the Watergate hearings, the question that administrations fear is: What did the president know and when did he know it? In the case of these “threats,” this question is probably unfair because this is not a situation Bush created. The events of 9/11 happened to all of us and were beyond our comprehension or control.

The administration did, however, choose not to tell the public about what intelligence it did have–as skimpy or ambiguous as it may have been. So far, we know that Vice President Dick Cheney did allude to such intelligence in a television interview shortly after 9/11 when we were all still reeling in horror. No one picked up on it.

Bush has two problems to face. First, journalists get indignant when politicians do not disclose the whole truth (whatever that is). In this case, this indignation assumes an ease of integrating and interpreting random intelligence that may not be possible even under the best circumstances. Second, Americans value pre-emptive admissions or apologies. As presidential hopeful Gary Bauer said yesterday:

“Anybody who has been in Washington for a while knows that it is not the mistakes that hurt you, it is the effort to hide the mistakes. It would have been much better if early on, the White House had said, ‘Here is what we knew, and we’re shocked that they used airplanes as weapons.'” (Boston Globe)

We need to know what the president knew. But I wonder if any of us would have made different decisions about what to do with the intelligence. We also need to watch the political and journalistic spin. Whether or not this situation is a scandal is determined by how the press and the politicians talk about it. For an opposing party in an election year, anything that hints at vulnerability in their opponents becomes a target. For the press, anything that they thought they should have known, becomes a cover-up scandal.

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