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Shields and Brooks

May 17, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks; syndicated columnist mark shields and The Weekly Standard’s David Brooks.

Mark, how do you read the uproar over this hijack warning story?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Jim, it’s the first time that the White House really and the president have been on the defensive politically since September 11. Briefly you recall when the president didn’t immediately return to Washington there were questions about it. Vice President Cheney answered them by saying I told him not to come back.

But, since then, the president and the administration have been cast in almost a heroic mold. This time what happened was there’s a great rule in policy. You got bad news, get it out and get it out yourself. It’s the only chance you have really to influence, to shape the coverage.

The fact that they didn’t get it out, Jim, and that it was picked up by CBS News immediately and entitled… not only entitled but forced every other news organization to follow the story — and to ask the questions. I think Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) spoke for everybody. He said nobody, nobody believes that President Bush intentionally ignored information about an attack on the United States.

That isn’t it. But there are questions and real questions and not only from Democrats, from the press but from Republicans like Richard Shelby, the Senator from Alabama, just about the lack of — just like the discussion with Margaret of a central intelligence database, the fact that agencies don’t talk to each other, that there wasn’t anybody there responsible for connecting all these dots that were out there.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read… I mean, Mark says it’s bad news. What is the bad news here?

Why would you analyze what it is that we know now that is driving this concern?

DAVID BROOKS: I guess the central flaw or the central problem the administration made was in pretending that nobody could have foreseen September 11, that the system works, that we don’t need a crackdown, we don’t need to fire people. We don’t need a big investigation and a big radical transformation and when they stuck…

JIM LEHRER: You mean of the intelligence community.

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, the intelligence community..That nobody could… that the system didn’t work, or when they stuck to the story the system did work and people basically did their job and they weren’t going to fire people in large numbers.

And, then they were in an untenable position because when documents came out, when this Library of Congress report comes out suggesting that people could have predicted it, that people did predict it, not that this information ever made it to the White House, but that it was predictable, then they were stuck.

That is the essential problem they’re facing.

JIM LEHRER: What about this issue that Mark raised that they knew about all of this, should enough released it before now? Should they have waited for eight months later for it to have leaked? What should they have done?

DAVID BROOKS: The fact that the president was briefed on August 6 was a prime example they could have said, listen, this system is broken. We got these vague reports that we didn’t know what to do with, but we should have gotten better reports. We should have connected the dots a lot better and we are going to clean house here.

They could have said that in the months following September 11. And they could have said we’re going to get George Shultz up here, we’re going to get Sam Nunn up here, some elder statesmen, and we’re going to have an independent commission to really investigate this.

But they decided not to do it. The reason I think they decided not to do it is sort of team loyalty. They’ve got Mueller; they have got Tenet. They’re our guys. We’ve got good people. We can do it within the executive branch. We don’t need outsiders coming in to look at us.

So they were loyal to the people around them. But they really hurt themselves by not admitting they might need fundamental reform.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree there, Mark, that their big failure here was not to get it out and it was through possible loyalty to Tenet and whatever just to show a solid front here?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think the pattern is there, Jim.

It’s the Bush modus operandi. I mean, in a very minor way it was the drunk driving charge of years back that was pulled out the weekend before the election in 2000 that almost, probably cost him the state of Maine and may very well have made the election that much closer — that idea of you’ve got unpleasant information, get it out.

I think there was a circling of the wagons. I think David is absolutely right. It’s our side. It’s us against the world. It’s us against them. And I think that there was initially — the Democrats initially responded by not wanting any daylight between themselves and the White House. They recognized the president held all the political cards on this.

And there was a natural bonding in the country, a natural healing process. There wasn’t a sense of let’s not investigate at that point. But then the curiosity that David mentions, I mean, the questions unanswered they come up and I think that it’s only natural that there’s going to be an inquiry. And they had a chance to shape this investigation and I don’t think they’re going to be able to do it now.

JIM LEHRER: What about this point that the president made today? He’s clearly upset about what’s going on. He’s upset about people he said second-guessing. That’s the act here in Washington. Has he got a legitimate complaint?

DAVID BROOKS: There are two things going on here. One there’s a serious debate, which is the investigation, which is our intelligence community. Why didn’t they connect the Phoenix, the FBI to this to the Moussaoui case. Why didn’t they connect all that? That’s the serious side of the story.

Then there’s kindergarten lions in Washington, which is you’ve got this adrenal frenzy, you’ve got Democrats, or some Democrats, that it’s Watergate all over again. What did the president know? Who did they know? That was the language Dick Gephardt used.

You have a lot of Republicans going into a scandal crouch saying anybody who questions us is sort of trampling on the flag. Then you have got the media in its usual, you know, biting dog adrenal frenzy chasing after parked cars.

That is all distracting attention from the real story, which is in the FBI and in the CIA, and the intelligence community, and it’s distracting it to the most inconsequential part of the story, which is the Oval Office.

I mean, if you take a look at the documents that actually made it to the Oval Office, you could take Sherlock Holmes and, you know, you wouldn’t be able to figure out what was going to happen on September 11 because what got up to the Oval Office was so scanty.

JIM LEHRER: So the failure was that more didn’t get to the Oval Office, not what happened in the Oval Office. That’s what you’re saying.

DAVID BROOKS: There were two failures. One why don’t we have people penetrating al-Qaida to get the actual sources and once we did have some bits of information, why doesn’t the Arizona information go to the Minnesota information where Moussaoui is, why doesn’t the FBI Information go to anybody else? So there are real failures there.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, what about the second part of the story — are the Democrats overdoing this?

MARK SHIELDS: I think the Republicans have constructed a straw man here.

I don’t think anybody is accusing the president of anything, any dereliction of duty or indifference. I think the questions go to preventing something like this ever happening again.

I just point out, Jim, that after September 11, there was a rush, an absolute chorus of conservative politicians and pundits who pointed their finger immediately at Bill Clinton – that it was Bill Clinton’s fault. Everything that happened at the World Trade Center was Bill Clinton’s fault. There were no hearings; there was no evidence; there was no testimony. There was a rush to judgment. I didn’t hear President Bush say that’s unfair. I didn’t hear Dick Cheney say that’s unfair. I heard very few voices raised in Bill Clinton’s defense.

So the idea that this is political now and it wasn’t political then, maybe I missed it. Maybe I just didn’t hear their call for fairness and even handedness.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. Did you read that sound bite of President Clinton the same way — I mean President Bush the same way I did? He’s annoyed about the people questioning him and this thing and you heard what… and also what Vice President Cheney said last night. This thing is… has taken on a political life has it not?

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, it’s political when the democrats raise questions. It’s patriotic when Dick Cheney stands up and says, this is… I sign a letter, a fund raising letter, here’s a picture of the president on Air Force One on September 11, you want to be a patriot and send it in $150 to the Republican House campaign? That’s patriotism.

It’s patriotism, I guess, when Don Rumsfeld goes on Rush Limbaugh, who’s accused the Democrats of everything from ring worm to declining Sunday school attendance — when Karl Rove goes before the Republican National Committee and says, boy, this is going to be a great issue for us this fall in the House and Senate elections because Republicans are seen as better on protecting America’s military might; when Democrats raise a question it’s a cheap political shot and when Republicans do it, it’s nothing but unsullied patriotism.

JIM LEHRER: David Brooks, how would you like to respond?

DAVID BROOKS: I see the other half of it. Listen, I’m all for all of this. You know, to me we elect leaders to respond to September 11. If they do a good job, they should be able to use that politically. If they do a bad job, they should be able to use that politically. You know, there was this picture –

JIM LEHRER: That’s what’s it’s all about, you mean.

DAVID BROOKS: That’s why we elect people to react to either good or bad to September 11.

If George Bush, he had this little picture of himself on the phone, which was given out at an RNC fundraiser — I mean I wish he had been on the phone telling George Tenet he’s fired, but that’s another story — you know, I think it’s utterly fair to use September 11 pictures for political reasons because it shows Republicans that Bush did a good job.

JIM LEHRER: That’s why you elect people to do this kind of thing.

DAVID BROOKS: That’s exactly right. I don’t blame the Democrats for raising this politically. What I blame them for, and not all Democrats — mostly Dick Gephardt and some others who are blaming, who are just focusing attention on the exact wrong thing, the most trivial political thing, which was getting Bush, and not the substantive thing, which is the intelligence community.

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think Dick Gephardt is trained on getting Bush. I mean, George W. Bush is 75 percent favorable in the polls, Jim.

I mean, Dick Gephardt is a savvy enough politician after he’s been in the House for 26 years from St. Louis to being a leader of his party to know you’re not going to take on the president on this.

I think the questions he raises are legitimate ones about the very points that David raised, and that is, Jim, we don’t have the CIA and the FBI talking together. They don’t talk together. The FBI does not have a database that the field offices can report to the central office and they can go back and forth when there’s information. I mean, where was somebody when we do have this allegation or the report about Osama bin Laden’s associates and hijacking planes and all of a sudden you get an FBI report in Phoenix about these Middle Eastern folks being in flight school, you’ve got Moussaoui up in Minneapolis as Margaret pointed out, being arrested.

I mean, you know, is somebody sitting there saying wait a minute. What is Tom Ridge doing? What is homeland security all about? Those are real questions.

DAVID BROOKS: Some democrats are raising those issues. John Edwards was on this show talking to Margaret last night. And I thought he showed a lot of class because he could have gone after the administration. He kept emphasizing it’s the substance that matters, not the Watergate, what did he know and when did he know it? I was really impressed by Edwards stepping out of the frenzy, which is really surrounding us in this town and really getting a substantive voice.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read the frenzy? I mean, is this frenzy has got about three days and it’s going to go away, or is it the first part, the serious part that’s going to drive this and keep it alive and it should keep it alive?

DAVID BROOKS: I think there’s more to it. The president was briefed on August 6 about a hijacking. That document briefing him didn’t just appear in the Oval Office. Somebody had to write a bunch of memos saying we should brief the president about that — somebody in the White House — somebody somewhere up the-line.

Those documents exist. They have a rationale that we have some evidence to believe we should brief the president about this. So those documents are going to come out. Richard Shelby, the ranking Republican on the Intelligence Joint Committee, says there’s more out there so I have to believe there’s more.

JIM LEHRER: Is it a serious matter, Mark? Should it go on?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it’s a serious matter, Jim. We do this. It’s something that America does. We did it after the Challenger. If you look at the Challenger tragedy, the space shot. We did it have the Warren Commission. I mean this was a national tragedy and a national calamity. We want to be absolutely sure like the collapse of a bridge that it doesn’t happen again. And to make those structural connections that… corrections that are necessary.

JIM LEHRER: So you’re both saying, let’s everybody calm down and let’s do a serious look back, and that’s a legitimate part of government?

DAVID BROOKS: I notice our voices have been up. That’s our message.

JIM LEHRER: I need to interpret for our audience what you guys mean.

MARK SHIELDS: It looks better in print than it sounds.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you both very much.