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Spinsanity debate: Franken vs. Lowry
The editors respond

By Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer and Brendan Nyhan
March 17, 2004

Al Franken and Rich Lowry's reviews of each other's books make some excellent points. However, they also offer some misleading claims and use unfair rhetoric in places. Here, we hope to set the record straight on a few key points (please note that we can't possibly cover everything, nor are there always clear answers to the issues they raise).

First, a broad note: as in their books, Franken and Lowry prove unable to completely avoid mocking their opponents. In particular, Franken says Lowry turned down a fight with him "like a little girl," tweaks him for dedicating his book to a man (who, it turns out, is Lowry's brother), and jokes that conservative pundit Ann Coulter has an Adam's apple. For his part, Lowry offers two long digressions mocking imagined conversations involving Franken.

Clinton, Bush and the alleged plan to fight Al Qaeda

Franken and Lowry's main factual dispute concerns Michael Elliot's controversial August 4, 2002 story in Time Magazine, which reported that Clinton officials gave a plan to fight the Al Qaeda network to the Bush administration during the transition process, but that Bush officials did not move forward with it until just before the Sept. 11 attacks. Unfortunately, the picture is far more clouded than either author admits, and both present many fewer caveats than they should have.

Franken condemns Lowry for claiming in his book that "a military plan was wending its way to President Bush even before the attacks" without noting that the plan was initially conceived by the Clinton administration. Franken claims that the Time article (which Lowry cites as his source) "explains how the plan Lowry refers to was created by Clinton's counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke at Clinton's behest, explicitly presented to Condoleezza Rice during a transition meeting and then buried under a sea of bureaucracy by the Bush administration." He later adds, "Lowry never mentions the genesis of the plan, the strategy paper created by Clarke during the Clinton administration, deliberately giving his readers the false impression that it was hatched during the Bush administration." And finally, he states in his most specific account that "Clinton and his national security team decided to turn the plan over to the Bush administration to carry out..." and claimed that Clarke described "in detail his plan to [Bush national security advisor Condoleezza] Rice and her deputy, Stephen Hadley."

The Time story does appear to support Franken's claim that Clarke presented some sort of plan to Rice, but it notes that the account is disputed:

Berger attended only one of the briefings - the session that dealt with the threat posed to the U.S. by international terrorism, and especially by Al Qaeda. "I'm coming to this briefing," he says he told Rice, "to underscore how important I think this subject is." Later, alone in his office with Rice, Berger says he told her, "I believe that the Bush Administration will spend more time on terrorism generally, and on Al Qaeda specifically, than any other subject." The terrorism briefing was delivered by Richard Clarke, a career bureaucrat who had served in the first Bush Administration and risen during the Clinton years to become the White House's point man on terrorism. As chair of the interagency Counter-Terrorism Security Group (CSG), Clarke was known as a bit of an obsessive -- just the sort of person you want in a job of that kind. Since the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen on Oct. 12, 2000 - an attack that left 17 Americans dead - he had been working on an aggressive plan to take the fight to Al Qaeda. The result was a strategy paper that he had presented to Berger and the other national security "principals" on Dec. 20. But Berger and the principals decided to shelve the plan and let the next Administration take it up. With less than a month left in office, they did not think it appropriate to launch a major initiative against Osama bin Laden. "We would be handing (the Bush Administration) a war when they took office on Jan. 20," says a former senior Clinton aide. "That wasn't going to happen." Now it was up to Rice's team to consider what Clarke had put together.
Berger had left the room by the time Clarke, using a Powerpoint presentation, outlined his thinking to Rice. A senior Bush Administration official denies being handed a formal plan to take the offensive against Al Qaeda, and says Clarke's materials merely dealt with whether the new Administration should take "a more active approach" to the terrorist group. (Rice declined to comment, but through a spokeswoman said she recalled no briefing at which Berger was present.) Other senior officials from both the Clinton and Bush administrations, however, say that Clarke had a set of proposals to "roll back" Al Qaeda. In fact, the heading on Slide 14 of the Powerpoint presentation reads, "Response to al Qaeda: Roll back."

Moreover, as Lowry correctly points out (and Franken fails to acknowledge), former Clinton national security advisor Samuel Berger denied that a specific "war plan" had been given to the Bush administration during testimony before the House and Senate Select Intelligence Committees on Sept. 19, 2002, saying "[T]here was no war plan that we turned over to the Bush administration during the transition, and the reports of that are just incorrect."

And as Lowry also points out, the denial that a "war plan" was given to Bush was echoed by an anonymous Clinton official in an interview with National Review's Byron York:

[A]fter the Bush White House denied the Time story, some former Clinton officials began to pull back on some of its claims. Now, one of them -- who asks not to be named -- says Time didn't have it quite right. "There were certainly ongoing efforts throughout the eight years of the Clinton administration to fight terrorism," the official says. "It was certainly not a formal war plan. We wouldn't have characterized it as a formal war plan. The Bush administration was briefed on the Clinton administration's ongoing efforts and threat assessments."

Finally, it's not necessarily clear, as Franken suggests, that Bush simply endorsed the plan the Clinton administration came up with. The Time story does suggest that Bush administration eventually backed a version of the plan Clarke allegedly outlined in December 2000, but Bush officials claimed at the time that their plan was substantially different than Clarke's proposals:

The proposals Clarke developed in the winter of 2000-01 were not given another hearing by top decision makers until late April, and then spent another four months making their laborious way through the bureaucracy before they were readied for approval by President Bush...
The winter proposals became a victim of the transition process, turf wars and time spent on the pet policies of new top officials. The Bush Administration chose to institute its own "policy review process" on the terrorist threat. Clarke told Time that the review moved "as fast as could be expected." And Administration officials insist that by the time the review was endorsed by the Bush principals on Sept. 4, it was more aggressive than anything contemplated the previous winter. The final plan, they say, was designed not to "roll back" Al Qaeda but to "eliminate" it.

Lowry, however, engages in some highly selective interpretation of his own, flatly claiming "There was no Clinton plan to take out Al Qaeda before he left office." But in his Congressional testimony, Berger expanded at length on the plan the Clinton administration was executing to fight Al Qaeda. He did not specifically deny that Clarke developed a set of proposals to more aggressively combat Al Qaeda in late 2000, as Lowry suggests, saying instead that "We briefed them fully on what we were doing, on what else was under consideration and what the threat was." (our emphasis) Berger only denied the claim propagated by the Time report that a specific "war plan" was given to the incoming national security team. Here is the full passage in context:

CHAMBLISS [Rep. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA)]: Did you develop any plan to dismantle or disrupt or go after the Al Qaeda organization?
BERGER: Yes. And, in fact, the intelligence community worked with intelligence agencies around the world -- '97 on. Al Qaeda cells were dismantled and disrupted in about 20 countries. There was not as much receptivity, Congressman, then as there was today. There were some countries which did not take the threat as seriously then as today -- were more protective of civil liberties and ethnic communities than today. But there was an active and aggressive effort by the intelligence community, working with liaison agencies to disrupt and dismantle Al Qaeda cells. And that succeeded in more than 20 countries.
CHAMBLISS: In the latter weeks and months of the Clinton administration, was there a plan developed and proposed by you and your colleagues to the Clinton administration with respect to...
BERGER: The Bush administration?
CHAMBLISS: ... (inaudible) of Al Qaeda?
BERGER: You mean to the Bush administration, sir?
CHAMBLISS: Well, initially, I'd like to know if it was proposed to President Clinton.
BERGER: We were continually looking at what we were doing -- looking at new techniques -- looking at new steps we could take.
In February of 2000, for example, I sent a memo to President Clinton outlining what we were doing. And he wrote back, "This is not satisfactory." It was particularly related to how do you find this guy? We've got to do more.
And that prompted us to work with the intelligence community and the military on a new technique for detecting Bin Laden. I'm not able to talk about it in this forum.
We tested that in the fall of 2000. Actually, it was very promising as a way of determining where he would be if we had one strand of human intelligence.
So we were continually looking at how we could up the ante.
CHAMBLISS: But did you have a plan that could be executed to disrupt or take out Bin Laden and disrupt the organization?
BERGER: Yes, sir. And we were executing that plan.
CHAMBLISS: All right.
BERGER: Now, the second question you asked, was there -- which comes off a Time Magazine story, I think, was there a plan that we turned over to the Bush administration during the transition. If I could address that. The transition, as you will recall, was condensed by virtue of the election in November. I was very focused on using the time that we had. I had been on the other side of a transition with General Scowcroft in 1992. But we used that time very efficiently to convey to my successor the most important information what was going on and what situations they faced.
Number one among those was terrorism and Al Qaeda, and I told that to my successor, she's acknowledged that publicly so I'm not violating any private conversation. We briefed them fully on what we were doing, on what else was under consideration and what the threat was. I personally attended part of that briefing to emphasize how important that was. But there was no war plan that we turned over to the Bush administration during the transition, and the reports of that are just incorrect.

The upshot is that the facts are in dispute and should be presented as such. While Franken correctly notes that Richard Clarke was reportedly pressing for more aggressive actions against Al Qaeda in late 2000, Lowry is right to point out that Berger denies that a specific, detailed "war plan" was given to the Bush administration.

Bush and tax cuts

During his discussion of President Bush's economic record, Lowry attempts to defend Bush's statement that "By far, the vast majority of my tax cuts go to those at the bottom," which Franken critiques in his book. Lowry dismisses this as "very sloppy language" that does not fit in with most of the President's rhetoric on the issue. But in fact Bush has frequently used "sloppy language" like that to imply (incorrectly) that his tax cut proposals would give most of their benefits to lower income Americans. In 2001, for instance, he said of his first tax cut proposal, "This tax relief helps all taxpayers.It especially helps those at the low end of the economic ladder." He has also frequently used misleading averages to make his tax cut proposals appear much more progressive than they actually were. In 2003, promoting his second tax cut plan, he claimed that "13 million elderly taxpayers would receive an average tax cut of $1,384" and "Twenty-three million small business owners will receive an average tax cut of $2,042 under this plan." Both statements use arithmetic means to make it appear that benefits which primarily accrued to the wealthiest people in each group were broadly shared, a misleading tactic the Bush administration has used time and time again.

In that same paragraph, Lowry attempts to refute Franken's point about Bush's "tax families." While Franken's description of them as a "political freak show" goes too far, it is undeniable that the Bush team has carefully selected families who would receive the maximum possible benefit from his tax plans and portrayed them as typical throughout his 2000 campaign and presidency. Lowry is correct that Kerry has pointed out that middle class families benefited from the Bush tax cuts, but this does not directly refute Franken's argument about the "tax families."

The Chambliss ad and the Barnes flag

In addition, Lowry minimizes an inflammatory ad run by Chambliss against former Democratic senator Max Cleland during the 2002 US Senate campaign in Georgia. As we have written, the ad stated that "America faces terrorists and extremist dictators" such as Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and that Cleland did not have the "courage to lead" because he supported collective bargaining protections for employees of the proposed Department of Homeland Security, which President Bush argued would undermine flexibility in response to threats from the war on terror. It was a disreputable attempt to suggest to voters that Cleland, a disabled war veteran, would not stand up against hated enemies of the US.

On a related note, Lowry himself has admitted a factual mistake that also pertains to Georgia politics. In a correction that has been appended to his review of Franken's book, he writes, "I was wrong about the Barnes flag. It actually lost a couple of weeks ago to yet another version of the Georgia flag, which seems broadly acceptable to all sides. As the Palm Beach Post put it in this story, 'Black and white voters across Georgia finally have a flag on which they can agree.' I regret the error."

The Wellstone memorial

Finally, Lowry grants that "Franken does catch conservatives exaggerating how extensive the booing was at the Wellstone memorial," but claims that the humorist "suggests that because some of the conservative commentary on the service was sloppy, there couldn't possibly have been anything unseemly about the service itself."

In fact, Franken concedes on page 183 of his book that Rick Kahn, a friend of Wellstone, "ended with a political call to arms that went over the top." A few paragraphs later, he says of Kahn's speech, "I could see how someone watching on TV might find this blatantly political battle cry just a bit too partisan for a memorial service." Franken concludes, "Reasonable people of goodwill were genuinely offended. And to people who only saw the ten-second clips that were later repeated and repeated on TV, it looked like Kahn and the crowd were just being foot-stompingly partisan that Wellstone's death was being used for political gain." (184-185) While Franken does go on to argue that conservatives misrepresented the memorial service, he hardly suggests, as Lowry would have it, that "there couldn't possibly have been anything unseemly about the service itself."

A useful exchange

Despite these mistakes, we believe that this has been a valuable exercise -- Franken and Lowry's responses generally clarified the factual record rather than further obscuring it and helped readers to see where they differ. We hope more pundits follow their lead -- either here or elsewhere -- of submitting their work to sustained factual scrutiny, and offering it to others.

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Related links:
-Al Franken on Rich Lowry's Legacy - Paying the Price for the Clinton Years (3/15/04)
-Rich Lowry on Al Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them - A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right (3/15/04)
-WSJ whitewashes attacks on Cleland (Brendan Nyhan, 11/18/02)
-Spinsanity on President Bush

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