The year's must-Skip series!

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March 3 2002 2:55 PM

Ten Years in September

This season's must-Skip series!

(Continued from Page 2)

Epistemological status: Uncertain. Woodward and Balz were granted interviews with "the principals involved in the decision-making, including the president." In addition, notes of National Security Council meetings were "made available" to the Post. This situation magnified two potential sources of inaccuracy: 1) Woodward and Balz could be fed a sanitized or distorted version of events, designed to make the Bush administration look good; 2) W & B could be tempted to put the most pro-Bush face on events for fear of losing future access, or simply out of gratitude for having been granted access.

In previous series, Woodward had leverage to extract damaging truths by playing off participants against the other, and by arguing that since he was going to write the story anyway, the "principals" might as well cooperate. But here Woodward and Balz are coming in almost immediately after the fact, while the military campaign is still unfolding and the impulse to tattle and backbite is most likely to be suppressed in the interest of wartime solidarity. Nor is it clear that W & B could have written this series at all without White House cooperation. Their truth-extracting leverage was at a minimum.

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Pervasive failure of the series: To give readers evidence that W & B weren't spun. True, on occasion they refer to NSC notes and other contemporaneous documents that confirm their account (which is otherwise written from Standard Woodward Omniscient p.o.v.). But basically they ask us to trust. There are precious few admissions against the speaker's self-interest—admissions that might raise a reader's confidence level (e.g., a Bushie saying "I screwed up" or a congressional Democrat saying "I was shocked that Bush was actually running the show").

Why the author of Series-Skipper nevertheless tends to believe its basic picture of Bush: Because on 9/13, when I was disoriented by the attacks—and by Bush's shaky early appearances—I got an e-mail from a trusted Republican friend with similar worries but much better contacts reporting that despite Bush's public unease he was a "steely-eyed rocket man" behind the scenes. That's not wildly powerful confirming evidence, but it's something. And it's more than W & B offer.

Main reasons the series lacks dramatic tension: 1) W & B focus on the "principals," who debate and fret and meet. But the main action Bush actually takes is to adopt, pretty much whole, a plan presented by CIA chief Tenet. Maybe there was drama in how this plan was put together, but we don't see it because it didn't involve the "principals." (An excellent Time account from late last year provided a few more details than W & B). 2) Although W & B present a highly useful paragraph listing the things Bush could have done that would have delayed his response (e.g., "The administration might have waited ... for the evidence to become ironclad, ... might have waited until the Northern Alliance was better trained"), basically, as his advisers tell the Post, "there was really no other choice than the path he adopted." 3) Given what actually, eventually, happened, what W & B report took place behind the scenes is pretty much what you'd expect had taken place behind the scenes. 4) By restricting themselves to 10 days in September, W & B miss some of the drama that came later, as in October when the Northern Alliance seemed to bog down, and Bush had to stop internal second-guessing, according to Time. ("We should all have confidence in this plan. Be patient, people. It's going to work.")

Best tick-tock details: Reading the series is like drinking a 50-gallon vat of watery soup. Every now and then a piece of carrot or some other minor morsel drifts by. Here they all are.

1) At 9:45 on 9/11 Secret Service agents evacuate the White House, "first telling staffers there to file out in an orderly way, then screaming at them to run as fast as they could across Pennsylvania Avenue to Lafayette Park on the other side. At one point, some women were told to remove their shoes so they could run faster. Some staffers were advised to remove the White House identification from around their necks so they couldn't be singled out by possible snipers outside the White House gates."

2) Sen. Don Nickles says that, as members of a separate branch of government, Congressmen don't need White House's approval to leave their secure bunker outside Washington and return to the Capitol. "Don," Vice-President Cheney replies, "we control the helicopters."

3) A CIA report says "a bin Laden associate—erroneously—'gave thanks for the explosion in the Congress building.' " Another Bin Ladenite reportedly claimed "the White House has been destroyed.' "

4) The preening, prickly Robert Byrd pulls a Constitution from his pocket to emphasize that Congress won't give Bush a Gulf of Tonkin-style blank check to wage war. Then Byrd gets either religious or condescending, depending on how you read it, telling Bush. "You stand there. Mighty forces will come to your aid."

5) Bush gets annoyed when Andrew Card climbs into Bush's limo in the White House drive to pass him a (false) CIA warning of an attack. Bush worries the assembled press might see Card's unusual move. ("Why are you telling me in here?")

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