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!

Kausfiles' Series-Skipper™ lets concerned citizens avoid actually reading award-winning newspaper series—without fear of missing anything good. (For more on the rationale for Series-Skipper™, click here.) Responding to massive public demand, this edition summarizes the Washington Post's 8-part instant history of the Bush administration's reaction to 9/11.

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Series: "Ten Days in September," by  Dan Balz, Bob Woodward, and (on Part 3) Jeff Himmelman, Washington Post, eight parts, Jan. 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, and Feb. 1, 2, and 3.

Semi-banal "billboard" paragraph: "The president and his advisers started America on the road to war that night without a map. They had only a vague sense of how to respond, based largely on the visceral reactions of the president. But nine nights later, when Bush addressed a joint session of Congress, many of the important questions had been answered."

Bush, sounding like he's writing a sexier billboard paragraph:

"Nor does the nation, by the way, understand what it's like to have a commander in chief tested under fire like this. No one knew."

Basic picture of Bush: Reacts emotionally, but keeps his head. Knows immediately the direction he wants to go in (war), though he tries to avoid being too war-like in public for the first few days. Lets his Cabinet figure out the details.  

John-Wayneish moments:

"Let's pick them off one at a time."—Bush, upon being informed on the evening of 9/11 that al-Qaida was a "60-country problem"

"We will find these people. They will pay. And I don't want you to have any doubt about it."—Bush, at the end of the 9/11 NSC meeting

" 'Whatever it takes,' the president said."

"I'm not leaving. … And by the way, I'm hungry."—Bush, when the Secret Service wants to evacuate him to the bunker after receiving a warning on 9/13

"We're going to rain holy hell on them. … I want to have them quaking in their boots."—Bush, at a 9/17 meeting

" '[Expletive] pilot discretion,' Mineta yelled back. 'Get those goddamn planes down.' "

"They'll have flies on their eyeballs."—CIA counterterrorism operative Cofer Black, in a colorful Cabinet briefing that "had a huge effect on the president, according to his advisers"

"We may have been the targets … but we are not victims."—Karen Hughes, striking the word "victims" from a draft presidential statement

"The Pearl Harbor of the 21st century took place today"—Bush dictating to his daily diary the night of 9/11

Non-Wayneish moments:

"I wish I was visiting under better circumstances. But it will be a chance for all three of us to thank and hug and cry with the citizens of your good area."—Bush in a televised 9/13 conference call with New York officials, after which his eyes teared up

"It's a wild card that could change the dynamics in ways that could alter our calculus."—Rumsfeld response (at Camp David) to the possibility that Osama Bin Laden has weapons of mass destruction

Major themes: 1) Bush in charge. 2) The ascendance of the CIA, which gets credit for devising unconventional approaches in Afghanistan. Bush adopts CIA Director Tenet's plan, freeing the agency "to operate without restraint" in what looks like a blanket license to kill. 3) Bush's Manichaeanism, in which he "describes the conflict in the starkest possible terms, as one of good versus evil, light versus darkness." His speechwriter believes this language is "rooted in his … belief that all things happened for a reason."

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.

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?")

6) Bush abandons his light, healthy diet in a bit of who-knows-when-they'll-blow-us-up fatalism. "Well, you might as well have cheese," Hughes tells him.

7) At a 9/13 cabinet meeting: "Bush was tired of rhetoric, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell thought; the president wanted to kill somebody."

8) At a later Cabinet meeting, Powell, worried that Bush will get weepy, passes Bush a note suggesting some tricks to avoid becoming emotional. Bush reads the note, immediately holds it up for the room to see, and says: "Let me tell you what the secretary of state told me. 'Dear Mr. President, don't break down!' "

9) Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld's deputy, annoys Camp David participants by showing up at meetings of "principals" to push his attack-Iraq cause. At one point, he interrupts Rumsfeld. Bush looks to Card, who takes Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz aside and says, "The president will expect one person to speak for the Department of Defense."

10) After the crucial Camp David meeting, Ashcroft sits at the piano and plays "Old Man River" and "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen." Rice is the "principal vocalist," while "Bush was at a table nearby, joining in trying to assemble an elaborate wooden jigsaw puzzle."

11) Powell worries to Hughes that a line in the 9/20 speech comparing the Taliban to the Mafia will offend "the anti-'Soprano' " crowd.

12) Bush has a scorecard in his desk—three pieces of paper with photos and bios of al-Qaida leaders. When one of them is killed, he marks them with an X.

Details with policy implications:

1) Rumsfeld recalls telling Bush that "whenever the United States was attacked or threatened, the Clinton Administration had followed a pattern of 'reflexive pullback.' … I left no doubt in his mind but that, at that moment where something happens, that I would be coming to him to lean forward, not back."

2) Cheney consistently pushes to broaden the targets of the anti-terror campaign to include states—"It's easer to find them than it is to find bin Laden."

3) Daschle cautions Bush to "use care" in his rhetoric. "War is a powerful word."

4) Bush: "My attitude all along was, if we have to go it alone, well go it alone, but I'd rather not." Later he says, "At some point we may be the only ones left. That's okay with me. We are America." Powell thinks Bush "made such statements knowing they might not withstand a second analysis." Cheney takes Bush at his word.

5) Rumsfeld, as reported elsewhere, repeatedly brings up the possibility of attacking Iraq, while his deputy Wolfowitz pushes it insistently. Powell ("What the hell, what are these guys thinking about?") and outgoing Joint Chiefs chairman Henry Shelton oppose him. At the crucial Camp David meeting, Rumsfeld abstains, with Cheney, Powell, Tenet, and Card opposing an attack.

6) Bush has "strong reservations" about attacking Iraq. He says he worried that doing too many things at once would mean a loss of focus. At a 9/17 meeting, he says, "I believe Iraq was involved, but I'm not going to strike them now. I don't have the evidence at this point."

7) Secret CIA paramilitary teams had been "going in and out of Afghanistan without detection for years."

8) A slide, slated for inclusion in a Pentagon briefing for Bush, has as its subject: "Thinking Outside the Box—Poisoning Food Supply." The slide is pulled at the last minute by a shocked NSC aide, who notes such a "chemical or biological attack" is banned under various treaties. Pentagon officials tell W & B they were going to pull the slide anyway. But that doesn't answer the question of what it was doing there in the first place.

9) Rice says the problems of Afghanistan are so complex, "We're going to wish this was the Balkans."

10) Bush says of the Taliban government, "We're going to hurt them bad so everyone in the world sees, don't deal with bin Laden." Is this a principle he will be able to extend to, say, al-Qaida sanctuaries in Lebanon? (Bush explicitly says one purpose of the Afghanistan attack is "to cause other countries like Syria and Iran to change their views.")

What Norman Podhoretz was worried about:

"In his memo to Bush, Blair had emphasized the importance of making a concerted effort to restart the peace process in the Middle East as a way to solidify support in the Arab world for the war on terrorism."

Suspiciously self-serving (but not necessarily untrue!) accounts:

"Through much of the summer, [C.I.A. Director George] Tenet had grown increasingly troubled by the prospect of a major terrorist attack against the United States …"

"Tenet said ... information collected before Sept. 11 but only now being processed indicated that operatives had expected something big. But none of it specified the day, time or place of the attacks in a way that would have allowed the CIA or FBI to preempt them."

Suspiciously Bush-serving (but not necessarily untrue!) account:

Joint Chiefs chairman Shelton initially worries that Bush might "be heading down the same path that the Clinton administration had followed: Strike quickly, but with no follow through." He's "relieved as he rather quickly realized Bush was not looking for an easy or obvious response."

Examples of Bush being in charge: 1) He rejects as "way too vague" a draft text that says he would punish those who "permitted or tolerated or encouraged" terrorists. 2) He hands Hughes notes with the themes he wants her to sound on 9/12 ("No kind of enemy that we are used to—but America will adapt"). 3) He comes up with the phrase to broadens the NSC mission statement beyond U.S borders ("eliminate terrorism as a threat to … all nations that love freedom").

Bush sounding a bit like Bill Maher:

"The antiseptic notion of launching a cruise missile into some guy's, you know, tent, really is a joke. … I mean, people viewed that as the impotent America ... of a flaccid, you know, kind of technologically competent but not very tough country that was willing to launch a cruise missile out of a submarine and that'd be it. …

"You've got to put lives at risk. We've got to have people on the ground."

Non-micromanagement: 1) "It's a day of national tragedy, and we'll clean up the mess, and then the ball will be in your court and [incoming Joint Chiefs chairman] Dick Myers's court to respond."—Bush to Rumsfeld, afternoon of 9/11. 2) "Do what you have to do."—Bush to Powell, who realizes he has a "blank check" to make up a list of demands to give Pakistan without interagency haggling. Later, at an NSC meeting, other officials have to ask for a copy of the list.

Possibly-alarming instances where Bush appears to have been 'winging it': 1) Why did Bush say that terrorism "will not stand"? He tells W & B that "maybe it was an echo from the past. I don't know why … I'll tell you this, we didn't sit around massaging the words. I got up there and just spoke." 2) The decision to announce the "Bush Doctrine' ("We will make no distinction between the terrorists … and those who harbor them") was made on the night of 9/11 by Bush with Rice's advice but "without consulting most of his national security team, including Cheney and Powell."

 And you thought it would be the other way around? President Bush makes a "comforting call" to his father on the afternoon of 9/11.

Actual internecine conflict: Not much. 1) Ashcroft interrupts FBI Director Mueller's presentation to say he shouldn't focus on convicting terrorists any more, but rather on disrupting them and stopping them. 2) Rumsfeld has a Queeg moment when he gets "furious" that someone on his staff has called the White House, without his knowledge, to see if the president wants a fighter escort. "I will not have that!," he says, seeing a violation of the chain of command. 3) Powell rolling his eyes at Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz's Iraq talk and lobbying Shelton to "get these guys back in the box."

Which "principal" comes across as having blabbed in the least team-playerish fashion: Powell.

In the most team-playerish fashion: Rice.

Least dramatic sentence: "For more than an hour, Daschle's staff did not know where he was."

Bush barking orders that don't get carried out: "We won't be held hostage. We'll fly at noon tomorrow."—Bush on 9/11. It actually took "three more days for commercial flights to resume."

Do W & B make sense of Bush's peregrinations before returning to the White House Sept. 12? Yes. The perceived threat to Air Force One, which caused the plane to sharply change course and fly to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, was prompted by a common game-of-telephone foul-up. "Someone inside the White House had heard a threat to Air Force One, perhaps in a phoned-in call, and passed it up the line using the code word 'Angel.' Others thought the threatening caller had used the code word ... "

But her husband didn't send around a boastful e-mail: Cheney's wife Lynne worked on the statement Bush was to read on 9/11 when he landed at Barksdale.

Signs of Bush subtlety: 1) As early as the evening of 9/11, he notes that "this is a great opportunity" to improve relations with other nations, including Russia and China. 2) He worries as early as 9/12 that the public's short attention span might be a problem—that soon Americans would be "watching football and the World Series," in W & B's paraphrase. 3) He tells W & B he was concerned that Powell, Cheney, and Wolfowitz—who had all been involved in the 1991 Gulf War that failed to oust Saddam Hussein—might let "their previous experience in this theater" distort their advice (presumably, by spurring them to go back and finish the job they left undone).

Possibly troubling Bush virtue: "You've got to be careful what you tell him, because the next day he'll ask you about it," says one aide. Do aides eventually learn not to tell him? Bush says, "I ask Bob [Mueller] every day, 'What have you done about, you know, Mohammed Jones, or you know, some guy you're following?' " Is this relentless follow-up the reaction of a man who knows too much, or too little (so he latches onto the bits he's given)? "The president finds out what he wants to know. But he does not necessarily find out what he might need to know," says a "senior administration official" who requested anonymity from W & B.

Untapped source of dramatic tension #1: The White House's failure, for several days, to erase the contrast between Bush's behind-the-scenes firmness and his public shakiness. Bush aide Karen Hughes' televised 9/11 statement, which conspicuously failed to close the confidence gap, gets only a short, bland mention. (You don't want to piss her off!) Readers can figure out how the private/public split happened—how Bush's personal desire to avoid early talk of war, plus a not unClintonian initial desire to comfort ("our mission is reassurance") made him seem vague and unfocused. But we don't see administration aides (except, in one instance, Powell) worrying that the president is flopping in public, and trying to correct it—though it's hard to believe that wasn't going on. Nor do W & B make Bush's 9/14 speech at Ground Zero into any kind of pivotal finds-his-voice moment in their narrative, though it was a turning point in the public campaign.

Untapped source of dramatic tension #2: Did we really want the Taliban to comply with our demands, thereby forestalling an attack? What if they seemed to comply and dragged out the process? Again, it's hard to believe nobody in the administration worried about this, although nobody in this series does. (Bush says only, "If they don't comply, we'll attack them.")

Untapped source of dramatic tension #3: Who got to get into what bunker? W & B report that some "who were told to go to the bunker Sept. 11 had no idea where to find it and still others who should have been on the list were left off until they received authorization. …" Was there no unseemly status-jockeying and rank-pulling? Similarly, "At the secure location outside Washington, there were too few phone lines for the congressional leaders. … Coordinating with lawmakers left behind in Washington was difficult, sometimes contentious." Embarrassing details, please!

Media-centric distortion factor: We learn a lot more detail about "communications"—how Bush's big congressional address was written, for example—than about military strategy or foreign policy. That may be because it's easier to get speechwriters to talk. Or it may be because Bush sees his main job as communicating.

Major mystery the Post doesn't even try to clear up: W & B report that Cheney's "true role—power behind the throne or simply the sage, confidential adviser—remained a mystery to outsiders." Also to W & B's readers! What do the insiders know that the "outsiders" don't about Cheney? We're never told. But it's interesting to note that when Bush finally takes action—dictating an 11-point one-page war plan to Rice—it's on Sunday, Sept. 16, shortly after an "extended" meeting with Cheney that both men won't talk to W & B about. (This sequence of events is obscured, in the W & B account, by an unusual, non-chronological presentation. Coincidence? You make the call!)

Does anyone in the administration, during this unexpected, unprecedented, dramatic and confusing 10-day ordeal, make a mistake? Well, there's that Pentagon slide about "Poisoning the Food Supply." Also, Karen Hughes misreads a handwritten Bush note, substituting "harbors" for "havens." That's about it.

Estimated time saved by reading Series-Skipperinstead of the actual series: 6.092 hours. You may think this summary is long, at 3,692 words. But the series is 40, 244 words! Which means a net savings, to you, of 36,552 words.

           Sixth in a series.

Previous applications of Series-Skipper™:

"Hello, Saylor!" Feb. 7, 2002.

"Shaw Must Go On!"  Feb. 20, 2001.

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