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Hijacking the issue

A scandal hits and the spinning ensues, from Trent Lott, Robert Novak, Laura Bush -- and even Salon
By Ben Fritz (ben@spinsanity.org)
May 18, 2002
[First published on Salon.com (Salon Premium subscription required)]

After Thursday's revelations about the White House's knowledge of a possible hijacking threat from Osama Bin Laden's terrorist network before Sept. 11, it may seem that the relevant questions would focus on what the administration knew and whether Congress and the public should have been informed. But in less than a day, expert spinners on both sides are already twisting the issue far beyond the facts.

First, consider what leading Democrats had to say about this revelation. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle stated, "Clearly, there is a lot more to be learned before we can come to any final conclusion about all of the facts, but it clearly raises some very important questions that have to be asked and have to be answered. Why did it take eight months for us to receive this information? And secondly, what specific actions were taken by the White House in response?"

House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt offered a very similar evaluation, saying, "I think what we have to do now is to find out what the president, what the White House, knew about the events leading up to 9/11, when they knew it and, most importantly, what was done about it at that time."

These are tough questions, but well within the bounds of reasonable debate. But you wouldn't know that from the words of many Republicans and conservative commentators, who attacked the legitimacy of any such criticism of the Bush administration.

"The real story here is a bunch of Democrats scrambling for anything to put a dent in the president's popularity," commented Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo., according to the Washington Post. Bond is also quoted in the New York Times as saying "[Democrats'] unspoken implication is that the president knew these attacks were coming and did nothing." Vice President Dick Cheney similarly suggested last night that Democrats "need to be very cautious not to seek political advantage by making incendiary suggestions, as were made by some today, that the White House had advance information that would have prevented the tragic attacks of 9/11."

Bond's ability to divine Democrats' "unspoken implication" is apparently shared by some conservative commentators. On last night's "Crossfire," co-host Robert Novak commented, "There's a kind of implication, a nasty implication in a lot of the things that somehow the president, I don't know, wanted this to happen."

Even first lady Laura Bush offered a similar insinuation, telling the Associated Press that she thinks "it's sad to prey upon the emotions of people as if there were something we could have done to stop" the attacks.

Nowhere, however, do any of these politicians or pundits present a shred of evidence actually demonstrating that Democrats are making such an implication, implicitly or explicitly. By suggesting a hidden meaning in Democrats' words, however, they're attempting to delegitimize any questions their opponents may raise about the administration.

The scariest attempt to suppress any dissent, though, came from Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, who outrageously asserted that those who question the president are comparing him to Osama bin Laden.

"[T]here is nothing more despicable -- and 'despicable' is a tame word -- in American politics than to insinuate the president of the United States knew that an attack on the United States was imminent and did nothing to stop it," he stated, echoing Novak and Bond's false accusation. "For us to be talking like our enemy is George W. Bush and not Osama bin Laden, that's not right."

John Podhoretz of the New York Post offered a similar, albeit less egregious, attempt to delegitimize Democratic criticism by capitalizing on Bin Laden's notoriety, writing that Democrats are so desperate to attack Bush that they are "shifting the blame away from Osama bin Laden and militant Islam for the attacks of Sept. 11."

These attempts to spin all criticism of the president as illegitimate are surely the most troubling rhetoric to emerge thus far. When it comes to stretching facts, however, a number of left-learning commentators have taken the lead with crude attempts to bash the Bush administration.

Michelle Goldberg, for instance, writing in Salon, slams the administration for claiming it had no warning of the attacks, saying it should have made the leap in logic from a traditional hijacking threat to the potential use of hijacked planes as guided missiles. This is fair enough, but while it's easy to see in hindsight what's wrong with President Bush's statement that it was "hard to envision a plot so devious as the one they pulled off on 9/11" or Vice President Cheney saying that there was "no specific threat involving really a domestic operation," it's unfair to frame such statements as lies, given the general warning the administration received. A succession of cheap shots concludes with the admonition that presidential spokesperson Ari Fleischer should "use a little more restraint when denying that the president had any foreknowledge of 9/11."

Also in Salon, David Talbot casts doubt on the Justice Department claim that Attorney General John Ashcroft stopped flying on commercial flights last year because of personal threats on his life rather than a risk of terrorist attack, although there is no evidence that this is untrue. Talbot then inflates his insinuation into a wildly inflammatory conclusion that rams together the two threats: "Unfortunately for the passengers of United Airlines Flights 93 and 175 and American Airlines Flights 11 and 77, they were not given the same option afforded the attorney general before they boarded their planes."

The worst liberal dissembling by far, however, came from James Ridgeway in the Village Voice. Ridgeway falsely states that President Bush knew terrorists financed by Osama bin Laden were studying at American flight schools and planning to hijack planes, when we do not yet know whether the FBI memo suggesting this ever even reached Bush's desk. He further falsely states that the administration didn't alert the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) or airlines to terrorist threats, when the FAA issued a warning of the hijacking threat to the airlines in August. Ridgeway even absurdly claims that after the attacks, President Bush "set in motion the installation of a secret Congress." This paranoiac claim is, of course, completely untrue.

The fact is we don't know much about what these new revelations prove. The suggestion of impropriety on such a politically potent issue, however, is clearly enough to set partisans on both sides into yet another froth of mechanical reversals, innuendo and outright lies. As is so common in emerging political controversies, the only thing we know for certain is that spin never lags far behind. With Bush weighing in defensively today, the fun is evidently just beginning.

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