If memory serves — actually, I looked it up — it was The Washington Post’s Dana Priest who disclosed nine months ago that terror suspects were being interrogated at secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe.
This brought her lots of outrage, from the Bush administration and conservative critics. (Oh, and there was a Pulitzer, too.) Bill Frist and Dennis Hastert demanded an investigation, and a House committee launched one. Justice was notified as well, and the inevitable leak investigation was launched. The gist of the indictment: How dare a reporter and a newspaper undermine the war on terror by disclosing what the administration was doing with taxpayers’ dollars?
Well, it took awhile, but yesterday President Bush confirmed the story. Used it in a speech. Some might even say used it as political ammunition. Now, apparently, with the five-year anniversary of 9/11 approaching — not to mention the midterm elections — it’s okay to talk about secret prisons, at least if your initials are POTUS.
Now obviously the secret about secret prisons was already out when Bush made yesterday’s speech, but the turning of the tables is still fascinating.
“President Bush yesterday announced 14 high-profile terrorist suspects — including the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks — have been transferred from CIA custody to the Guantanamo Bay detention center for prosecution, the first time the president has acknowledged the existence of CIA-operated secret prisons for high-priority detainees” says the Boston Globe .
An NYT analysis: “In calling for public war-crime trials at Guantánamo Bay, President Bush is calculating that with a critical election just nine weeks away, neither angry Democrats nor nervous Republicans will dare deny him the power to detain, interrogate and try suspects his way.
“For years now, Guantánamo has been a political liability, regarded primarily as a way station for outcasts. By transforming Guantánamo instead into the new home of 14 Qaeda leaders who rank among the most notorious terror suspects, Mr. Bush is challenging Congress to restore to him the authority to put the United States’ worst enemies on trial on terms he has defined.
“But the gambit carries with it a potential downside by identifying Mr. Bush even more closely with a detention system whose history has been marked by widespread accusations of mistreatment.”
An LAT analysis: “When President Bush on Wednesday urged Congress to provide him new legal authority quickly to bring suspected terrorists to trial, he may have answered a political riddle: what issue would Republicans use to sharpen their contrasts with Democrats over national security in the approaching mid-term election.
“Bush’s push for new legal authority could reshape the legislative landscape on the question of trying terrorists and inject a volatile new dispute into the 2006 election, analysts say.”
John Hinderaker objects to the coverage in this Power Line post:
“The Associated Press headlines: ‘Bush Acknowledges Secret CIA Prisons’. The AP’s account begins:
” President Bush on Wednesday acknowledged previously secret CIA prisons around the world and said 14 high-value terrorism suspects — including the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks — have been transferred from the system to Guantanamo Bay for trials .
“This is an absurd lede. President Bush said that a small number of high-value detainees ‘have been held and questioned outside the United States.’ This is not exactly a news flash. We knew that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed et al. were not at Guantanamo, and no one ever imagined that they were inside the U.S. The fact that this handful of top-level terrorists was being held by the CIA, somewhere outside the U.S., has been known and widely reported for years.”
Then why the huge uproar over Dana Priest’s story last November?
Lots of bloggers weighing in on Bush’s terror talk, including Josh Marshall :
“It occurred to me a couple days ago that maybe the last Hail Mary pass these jokers in the White House would come up with was engineering a bum’s rush October congressional debate on the rules to govern trials of captured enemy combatants and accused terrorists.
“You can pretty much figure how it would work. Come up with a bill that would be pretty much impossible for Democrats to vote for. Maybe the procedure would involve allowing Dick Cheney to evaluate the evidence and determine whether a particular individual was a threat. That or perhaps ritual dunking. In any case, you intentionally write a bill that Democrats can’t stomach. Then you figure some Dems just won’t be willing to vote against it, so you split those folks off and sow dissenssion and acrimony in the opposition. Then you cue up the 30 second commercials, customizable for each candidate, ‘Terrorists are at our gates and ENTER CANDIDATE NAME HERE voted against President Bush’s terrorist punishment bill. We can’t trust ENTER CANDIDATE NAME HERE. On November 7th, vote for ENTER GOP CANDIDATE NAME HERE.’
“I can’t say I don’t think it might not be effective. But apparently it won’t be that easy for them to pull off.
“I don’t know about you. I’ve been in sort of a haze. But am I wrong to think the old song and dance just isn’t quite working for them this time?”
Arianna Huffington has this take:
“As much as Republican candidates would like us to forget it, the White House made Iraq the centerpiece of our war on terror — a strategy with tragic consequences. It has left our military depleted, our first responders underfunded, our ports and railways vulnerable, and has diverted our resources from pursuing the real enemy.
“The administration’s attempts to fight off the public’s anger over Iraq have become increasingly anxious and defensive — not surprising giving the Pentagon’s latest assessment of Iraq, and the fact that 52% of Americans have now seen through the administration’s smoke and mirrors, and recognize that the war in Iraq has been a distraction in the fight against terrorists.
“Just listen to the tone of the administration’s terrorism strategy update, released before Bush’s speech. It has all the earmarks of a guilty 5-year-old trying to prove that the broken lamp was not really his fault. Terrorism, insists the report, ‘is not simply a result of hostility to U.S. policy in Iraq. The United States was attacked on September 11 and many years earlier, well before we toppled the Saddam Hussein regime. Moreover, countries that did not participate in coalition efforts in Iraq have not been spared from terror attacks.’ So there! I have no doubt that if the 23-page document could have stuck out its tongue, it would have.
“We know that Iraq didn’t create terrorism (although it has created a lot of new terrorists), just as we know that terrorists are evil men who want to do us harm. But we also know that George Bush doesn’t have a clue about how to deal either with Iraq or the war on terror.
“So he’s going to keep trying to frighten us, and convince us that staying the course — and crossing our fingers — will allow us to ‘win the war on terror.’
“Sadly, as ludicrous as the president’s ‘newsflash: terrorists want to kill us’ speech was, if the Democrats don’t step up and vociferously and consistently counter it with a compelling ‘we will keep you safer’ argument, the Bush scare strategy will once again prove effective.”
A CNN poll: “Fifty-five percent of 1,004 Americans said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who has supported Bush administration policies, according to the poll conducted by Opinion Research Corporation on behalf of CNN. Forty percent said they would be more likely.”
And get a load of this: “Asked whether former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, 52 percent said he was not, but 43 percent said they believe he was.”
Forty-three percent? Even the president says Saddam had “nothing” to do with 9/11.
Dick Polman examines the Dem strategy in his Philly Inquirer blog:
“Democrats are now signaling, however, that they will borrow a fabled Rove tactic: targeting the opposition’s strength and trying to convert it into a weakness. In this case, it means trying to persuade voters that the GOP, traditionally seen as the strong security party, has actually been weakening America in the war on terrorism. (The Democrats might actually have the wind at their back this time. The Bush White House probably won’t be pleased by this new finding, in a Fox News poll released today: When people were asked whether America would have been better or worse off if Al Gore had been president on 9/11, 34 percent said better and 33 percent said worse; among swing-voting independents, 37 percent said better and 27 percent said worse.)
“One key facet of the Democratic plan is to target Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, whose failures of execution in Iraq have been copiously documented in two widely respected books — Fiasco and Cobra II — and who has famously brushed off criticisms by saying things like ‘stuff happens.’ . . . Rumsfeld is potentially a good ‘wedge’ issue during this congressional campaign season; in other words, condemning him is a tactic that unites the Democrats and divides the Republicans.”
By the way, I picked up a blog item yesterday about Dan Rather’s longtime producer that, it turns out, she is flatly denying, as the New York Observer reports:
“On Sept. 5, Radar Online reported that among his new hires was Mary Mapes, the CBS producer who prepared the report about President Bush’s National Guard service that doomed Mr. Rather’s CBS career. Reached at her home in Dallas, Ms. Mapes said she had not been approached to join HDNet and that the whole story, including several quotes attributed to her, was ‘made up.’ (Radar editor Maer Roshan stood by the story.)”
The other big uproar around town concerns a major network movie, conveniently timed for 9/10 and 9/11. I spent the day digging into it, and here’s my report:
Top officials of the Clinton administration have launched a preemptive strike against an ABC-TV “docudrama,” slated to air Sunday and Monday, that they say includes made-up scenes depicting them as undermining attempts to kill Osama bin Laden.
Former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright called one scene involving her “false and defamatory.” Former national security adviser Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger said the film “flagrantly misrepresents my personal actions.” And former White House aide Bruce R. Lindsey, who now heads the William J. Clinton Foundation, said: “It is unconscionable to mislead the American public about one of the most horrendous tragedies our country has ever known.”
ABC’s entertainment division said the six-hour movie, “The Path to 9/11,” will say in a disclaimer that it is a “dramatization . . . not a documentary” and contains “fictionalized scenes.” But the disclaimer also says the movie is based on the Sept. 11 commission’s report, although that report contradicts several key scenes.
Berger said in an interview that ABC is “certainly trying to create the impression that this is realistic, but it’s a fabrication.”
Marc Platt, the film’s executive producer, said that although it “does contain composite and conflated scenes and representative characters and dialogue, we’ve worked very hard to be fair. If individuals feel they’re wrongly portrayed, that’s obviously of concern. We’ve portrayed the essence of the truth of these events. Our intention was not in any way to be political or present a point of view.”
The former Clinton aides voiced their objections in letters to Robert A. Iger, chief executive of ABC’s corporate parent, the Walt Disney Co., but the network refused to make changes or to give them advance copies of the movie. They were not interviewed by ABC; it hired as a co-executive producer Thomas H. Kean, the Republican who chaired the Sept. 11 commission, but no Democratic members of the panel.
“In an undertaking this gargantuan,” Platt said, “it’s impossible to interview every single person available, and we didn’t believe we needed to.” He said that “maybe I’m naive” in thinking that hiring only Kean would not prompt criticism of a political slant.
The fierceness of the debate reflects a recognition that a $40 million miniseries — whose cast includes Harvey Keitel, Patricia Heaton and Penny Johnson Jerald — can damage Clinton’s legacy in the anti-terrorism fight on the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Among the scenes that the Clinton team said are fictional:
· Berger is seen as refusing authorization for a proposed raid to capture bin Laden in spring 1998 to CIA operatives in Afghanistan who have the terrorist leader in their sights. A CIA operative sends a message: “We’re ready to load the package. Repeat, do we have clearance to load the package?” Berger responds: “I don’t have that authority.”
Berger said that neither he nor Clinton ever rejected a CIA or military request to conduct an operation against bin Laden. The Sept. 11 commission said no CIA operatives were poised to attack; that Afghanistan’s rebel Northern Alliance was not involved, as the film says; and that then-CIA Director George J. Tenet decided the plan would not work.
· Tenet is depicted as challenging Albright for having alerted Pakistan in advance of the August 1998 missile strike that unsuccessfully targeted bin Laden.
“Madame Secretary,” Tenet is seen saying, “the Pakistani security service, the ISI, has close ties with the Taliban.” Albright is seen shouting: “We had to inform the Pakistanis. There are regional factors involved.” Tenet then complains that “we’ve enhanced bin Laden’s stature.”
Albright said she never warned Pakistan. The Sept. 11 commission found that a senior U.S. military official warned Pakistan that missiles crossing its airspace would not be from its archenemy, India.
· “The Path to 9/11” uses news footage to suggest that Clinton was distracted by the Republican drive to impeach him. Veteran White House counterterrorism official Richard A. Clarke, who also disputes the film’s accuracy, is portrayed as telling FBI agent John P. O’Neill: “Republicans went all out for impeachment. I just don’t see the president in this climate willing to take chances.”
O’Neill responds: “So it’s okay if somebody kills bin Laden, so long as he didn’t give the order. . . . It’s pathetic.” The Sept. 11 commission found no evidence that the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal played a role in the August 1998 missile strike, but added that the “intense partisanship of the period” was one factor that “likely had a cumulative effect on future decisions about the use of force against bin Laden.”
Clinton allies have complained that advance copies were sent to a number of conservative commentators, including Rush Limbaugh, but not to liberals. Limbaugh, saying that the screenwriter, Cyrus Nowrasteh, is a friend of his, told his radio audience that the film “indicts the Clinton administration, Madeleine Albright, Sandy Berger. It is just devastating to the Clinton administration. It talks about how we had chances to capture bin Laden in specific detail.”
ABC said copies of the film were sent to media organizations and commentators without regard to ideology, and that Democrats and Republicans were invited to a screening in Washington. At the screening, Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democratic member of the Sept. 11 commission, assailed the film as inaccurate.
Nowrasteh, who has described himself as a conservative, told Frontpage magazine that the movie illustrates “the frequent opportunities the administration had in the ’90s to stop bin Laden in his tracks — but lacked the will to do so.”
Nowrasteh drew criticism from Reagan administration officials for his Showtime movie “The Day Reagan Was Shot.” He told the Los Angeles Daily News then that he “made a conscious effort not to contact any members of the [Reagan] administration because I didn’t want them to stymie my efforts.”
The assault on “The Path to 9/11” assumed the trappings of a campaign yesterday. Four senior House Democrats — John Conyers Jr., Jane Harman, John D. Dingell and Louise M. Slaughter — have written Iger to demand that the inaccuracies be corrected. Spurred by the Center for American Progress, which is headed by Clinton chief of staff John D. Podesta, 25,000 people have sent letters of protest to ABC.
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