Now we know. The most important foreign policy oracle of the Democrats is Rep. Cynthia McKinney of Georgia. Last month, you will recall, the congresswoman demanded an investigation into whether the Bush administration had advance notice of the 9/11 terrorists attacks. The Washington Post quoted McKinney as saying, "We know there were numerous warnings of the events to come....What did this administration know and when did they know it, about the events of September 11th? Who else knew, and why did they not warn the innocent people of New York who were needlessly murdered?...What do they have to hide?"
Well, one of the things they have to hide, according to McKinney, is war profiteering: "[P]ersons close to this administration are poised to make huge profits off America's new war....What is undeniable is that corporations close to this administration have directly benefited from the increased defense spending arising from the aftermath of September 11th."
McKinney's statements warmed the lunacies of left-wing conspiracy theorists, but establishment Democrats were quick to distance themselves from her paranoid effusions. Until this week, that is, when they dusted off her theory, removed a few of its wackier fantasies, adjusted a couple of adjectives and adverbs, and launched a full-scale assault against President Bush. The opening salvo was fired on May 15 by CBS News, which reported that the president had been warned prior to September 11 that Osama bin Laden's operatives might hijack U.S. passenger planes.
Within a matter of hours, the alarums had rung and the Democrats' salivations came forth on schedule. White House press spokesman Ari Fleischer was bombarded with questions during his Thursday news briefing. Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, saying he was "gravely concerned" about the allegations, called for a congressional investigation. House minority leader Dick Gephardt, expressing equally grave if not graver concern, joined the chorus. More gravely concerned yet, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton urged the president to "come before the American people...to answer the questions so many New Yorkers and Americans are asking."
And what were so many New Yorkers and Americans asking? The answer came all day long in scripted mantras from every Democratic microphone and fax machine in Washington: What did the president know, and when did he know it? As the story escalated, the White House tried to quench the fire by pressing National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice into battle. With her characteristically cool professional aplomb, she did what she could to calm things down. The administration's other .400 hitter, defense secretary Don Rumsfeld, surfaced on the Rush Limbaugh show and did the same.
Their argument in a nutshell: Such intelligence as the administration had prior to 9/11 was insufficient to warrant any plausible conclusions about particular hijackings, much less anything having to do with a plot to crash planes into the Pentagon or New York skyscrapers. As Rice told White House reporters, the information about potential hijackings was so vague that the only option would have been to close down civil aviation completely, for a long time.
The Rice-Rumsfeld efforts fell on deaf ears. The story, by now far removed from any plausible basis in fact, continued to build into the late afternoon and consumed the evening news shows. On Friday morning, the Washington Post had a five-column lead on the front page, featuring three separate stories. The New York Times also led with three front-page stories. Many other papers followed in Pavlovian fashion. Before lunch, the president felt it necessary to issue a formal statement, denying the media madness and essentially reiterating what Fleischer, Rice, and Rumsfeld had said the day before.
Alas, everything the president or his advisors say at this point only serves to feed a media-manufactured story. Like the fella who denies the wife-beating allegation, they're damned if they do, and damned if they don't. Media feeding frenzies are immune to fact and observe no natural limit. The flap will run its course until reporters tire of chasing one another's stories — and the Democrats' press releases that inspired and now feed off them.
But whatever its original merit — which wasn't much to begin with — the story is now about the story, not about the alleged facts that gave rise to it. Thanks to a compliant news media, last month's paranoid conspiracy theory has thus become this month's respectable opinion. Bush's political opponents will have an enjoyable weekend. If the overnight polls show even a tiny declination in Bush's popularity rating, that fact will be trumpeted as further "proof" that the administration has "something to hide." And that, in turn, will spur a new round of stories for days to come, including, no doubt, "insider" reports on how well or badly the White House is dealing with the president's declining popularity. The nonsense, in short, is likely to continue for some time.
When you poke behind the story about the story, however, you learn some interesting things that essentially confirm the administration's position. David Sanger and Elizabeth Bumiller report in today's New York Times, for example, that the president's August 6 intelligence briefing (the ostensible subject of media controversy) gave no hint of anything specific about airline hijacking in the U.S. Al Qaeda's interest in that particular terrorist plot, Sanger and Bumiller say, was based "on one unconfirmed intelligence report" three-to-four years old. Not the sort of "fact," one would suppose, to warrant closing down American airports, much less warning the American public about an imminent dire threat. Even less does it provide a ground for implying that the president "knew" something of importance about terrorist activities aimed at U.S. citizens.
David Johnston and James Risen, also writing in the Times, report that Bush and his aides "did not have all the threat information that was circulating through lower levels of the government" in July and August. That statement might be said every hour of every day, every day of the week, about every intelligence matter you could name. Johnston and Risen draw the lesson: "Even when information did reach the president, its possible relevance to the [Sept. 11] plot seems evident only in hindsight."
So there you have it, from the nation's leading paper of record: The president didn't know anything specific about hijacking plots prior to September 11, and what he did know was based on vague rumors of fuzzy provenance. But does that fact stop the Times, or the Post, or any other paper from running lurid leads and devoting endless column inches to the "controversy"? Does it stop the networks from stirring and extending the controversy on their news shows? Not a chance. The story, to repeat, is about the story, or as Marshall McLuhan famously put it, the medium is the message. That the Democrats should delight in this prospect is hardly surprising, but why do so many reporters take pride in playing Little Miss Echo?