Thursday, May 23, 2002
Senility check: I hope that when I begin to suffer from Alzheimer's disease (preferably at a very advanced age) that whatever newspaper I am writing for has the good sense to put me out to pasture.
In today's Washington Post, columnist Mary McGrory reveals that her time is has come. McGrory tries her hand at 20/20 hindsight punditry -- and knocks the baseball over the fence for a touchdown.
He must be a pretty reprehensible fellow. You saw him leaving a long, black car with tinted windows, heavily chaperoned by FBI Director Robert Mueller and enveloped by escorts who spirited him up the Capitol steps. You'd have thought that Kenneth Williams was some kind of a mobster.
But he is an FBI agent from Arizona, and the only thing he did wrong was to be right last July about the possibility that Osama bin Laden was using U.S. flight schools to train terrorists. It is not a crime to put two and two together, although you can never be sure with Attorney General John Ashcroft.
How can you tell if someone's a knee-jerk liberal? If they think that the most vicious slur in the world is: John Ashcroft. My regular whipping boy Paul Krugman has used it, and now McGrory joins the club.
Williams is undoubtedly a smart guy, McGrory's right about that. He guessed something that no one else did -- and he was right, sort of. What McGrory fails to note anywhere in her piece is that the suspicious people that prompted Williams to write the menu have not been linked to any of the Sept. 11 terrorists.
From the Post's own reporting:
Associates said Williams is surprised by the furor his memo created. FBI officials, including Mueller, have noted that none of the subjects named in the memo has been connected by investigators to the Sept. 11 plot, sources said.
Prior to Sept. 11, the FBI did refer the list of names in the memo to the CIA, which concluded that none appeared to have ties to al Qaeda, officials have said. But Williams noted that one of the aviation students was a radical Muslim who had a picture of bin Laden on his wall, while another had made a phone call to a man linked to an al Qaeda associate.
Earlier this month, after finally receiving a copy of the memo, the CIA determined that at least two of the non-flight school students named in the document have ties to al Qaeda based on intelligence gathered since the attacks.
There's no evidence to support a claim being suggested by McGrory and others that if the government had acted on this memo that it would have prevented Sept. 11.
Williams had a secret two-hour session with the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday evening and was on Capitol Hill yesterday for more closed-door sessions. We never saw his face. The Phoenix warning is a profound embarrassment to the intelligence bureaucracy, and Williams is probably lucky to have his job. Let us hope we get the chance to see and hear him. Dot-connectors are hard to find.
So we never saw his face. Big deal. Becoming famous by having your picture put on national television isn't always good for an FBI field agent. You can tell McGrory's been in Washington far too long if she is so cynical to think that this is the kind of memo that would get him fired -- in a Republican administration. In a Democratic administration he might have been fired immediately after submitting it. After all, the kind of racial/ethnic/religious profiling that Williams was suggesting the FBI practice is not politically correct.
Nobody is saying that if his memo had been circulated, the tragedy of Sept. 11 would have been averted. The most dastardly Democrat has not even thought of accusing Bush of dereliction of duty. From the moment the memo surfaced, Republicans have been shrieking that it is unpatriotic to dwell on the past.
What? That's exactly what McGrory seems to be saying. That's exactly what was suggested in The New York Post's inflammatory "BUSH KNEW" headline. To paraphrase Shakespeare: "Givest thou me a break!"
President Bush got off a good line about second-guessing being second nature in Washington. But he was pretty steamed that anyone would think he had not done everything in his power to protect the American people.
Vice President Cheney wheeled the heavy artillery through the Sunday television shows and fired warnings that filled the air for the holiday weekend: No one, it seems, is safe -- apartment house dwellers, the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, subways, barbecue pits, trains.
Cheney was both stern and matter of fact. His message to a bewildered nation read, "You want warnings? We'll give you warnings." Brutally, he changed the subject from the scary past to the scary future.
Why did Bush feel compelled to address the suggestion that he knew that the terrorist attack was coming and that he failed to act? Because some people, including the likes of wacko Cynthia McKinney and Sen. Hillary Clinton have snidely suggested that he is guilty of treason.
New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton did exactly what Republicans would have done in her husband's time in office. She took to the floor and cited a headline in the New York Post, "BUSH KNEW." All she said was that her constituents wanted to know what he knew and when.
The administration landed on her. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer castigated her, and from Budapest came a blast from her successor, Laura Bush, who was on tour.
So because Republicans would have done it makes it OK? The administration was right to "land" on Hillary. The "what did the president know and when did he know it" formulation is synonymous with scandal and illegality. Clinton doesn't want to know why the intelligence agencies failed to stop the attack, she wants to tar Bush with the brush of incompetence at least and treason at most.
Nobody was surprised that Williams's warning was not heeded or even shared with other agencies. The FBI is notorious for hiding information: At Boston's Logan Airport, where the World Trade Center assassins took off, the bureau refused to share its watch list with state troopers responsible for airport safety. The bureau pores over its data like a miser in his cave with his treasure. It is a prima donna of government bureaus, accustomed for almost 50 years to a doting press and public.
The CIA, which should have been told and wasn't, is also dysfunctional. Overfunded and undersupervised, it has severe identity problems, which have been aggravated in two Bush administrations. It was Bush the Elder's favorite bureaucracy, and the incumbent is equally fond, striving always to find ways to make the spooks look good and elaborately forgiving them for their colossal failure of Sept. 11.
McGrory isn't completely wrong about the FBI and the CIA. But many Americans would say that every government bureaucracy is a prima donna. But to place the problems at the CIA solely on the Bushes, while completely ignoring/excusing 8 years of the Clinton administration is disgustingly partisan.
Republicans point out that it is not George Bush's job to sift through batches of warnings and reports. It isn't; it's the CIA's. But the president made the people who should have been analysts into warriors, and they have turned up all over Afghanistan in combat roles. The first U.S. casualty was a CIA man, who first came to our attention as the interrogator of John Walker Lindh.
Now this is just stupid, and it is an insult to the memory of CIA agent Johnny "Mike" Spann. Spann was a former Marine Corps officer. To suggest that he could have served his country better by being behind a desk at the Pentagon in the wake of Sept. 11 instead of in Afghanistan questioning terrorists is moronic. McGrory is suggesting that we need more analysts poring over radio intercepts and satellite maps, and fewer out trying to get information directly from people. This directly contradicts what every intelligence expert has recommended for improving the ability of the CIA to prevent these types of terrorist attacks.
McGrory would prefer that men like Spann be kept near Washington, far from harms way. Well, Spann is closer to home now. He's buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Maybe McGrory feels better now.
I happened to be in New York this week as it was trying to digest the news that it may face another ground zero. The city was immaculate, not a candy wrapper in the streets, and somewhat quieter than before it was called upon to be the wonder of the world for its endurance and resilience. "We were just beginning to relax," sighed a Gothamite.
Sorry, but this I don't believe. "Not a candy wrapper in the streets?" It sounds nice and all, but who is McGrory kidding? Maybe her eyesight is going.
The new mayor, Mike Bloomberg, fits the new mood. He tends to understatement, which the city finds restful; he's not compulsive like his driven predecessor, who whirled through the city in pursuit of trouble. Bloomberg rides the subway without fanfare and with two security men. Rudy Giuliani's heroic performance is not forgotten, but it is less talked of.
Now, apparently, all's to do again. Says Michael Shapiro, Columbia assistant journalism professor, the timing of the proliferating warnings "discomfits" him. The Bush administration is getting criticism for its handling of past events. That just struck him as "too coincidental," Shapiro said.
Ohhh...a journalism professor thinks that the timing is just "too coincidental." Give me a break. There's been warning of one sort or another every week since Sept. 11. Has Shapiro been reading the paper? I was surprised when I was in college J-school at just how few of my fellow journalism students were ignorant of what was happening outside of San Luis Obispo. You'd think that journalism professors at least would be reading the paper on a daily basis.
People don't know whom to believe. They might listen to agent Williams.
Better than listening to columnist McGrory.