New York Times Commits Journalism on 9/11, Newsbusters Vehemently Objects

It started this morning, the 11th anniversary of the terror attack on the U.S., when, rather than following the general media trend of constant content-free wallowing in oh-so-solemn misery over the memory of those attacks, the New York Times actually decided to use the occasion for some serious journalism on the subject and ran an op-ed by former Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald.

It’s been a matter of public record for more than 8 years that then-“President” Bush was given a warning about a coming terrorist attack in a briefing by the CIA on 6 Aug., 2001. The content of that briefing was reflected in its title, “Bin Laden Determined To Strike in U.S.” It included information that a group of bin Laden operatives were in the U.S., that there may be preparation for a plane hijacking, that there had been surveillance of buildings in New York. Bush’s response was to take a long vacation and 36 days later, the terrorists struck. Eichenwald’s piece in today’s Times, “The Deafness Before the Storm,” outlines how that 6 Aug. briefing was only one of many early warnings the Bush administration ignored. The intelligence community had, in fact, spent 3 months before that briefing repeatedly and vehemently warning the “President” about an impending strike, all to no avail.

The Newsbusters immediately recognized the explosive potential of the piece. Their response began early today, with an uber-short piece by Mark Finkelstein. His spin:

For the New York Times, what better way to observe the 11th anniversary of 9-11 than by exploiting it for political purposes and seeking to blame George W. Bush?

The reader will render whatever judgment he will about a writer from the resolutely Bush-supporting Newsbusters accusing anyone else of “exploiting” 9/11 “for political purposes.” Of Eichenwald’s information, Finkelstein says

Its gruel is thin when it comes to actually assembling a case of any real Bush-administration negligence.  And that is the best evidence that Eichenwald and the Times were not motivated by any sincere desire to review the historical record with the goal of preventing future lapses.  Rather, this is cheap political exploitation and finger-pointing at its basest.

And that’s pretty much it. Finkelstein suggests its a slim case, then makes no case for it being so or for it being inaccurate in any particular. He simply attributes to it “low partisan purposes” without offering the first shred of evidence for this and leaves it at that.

That wasn’t enough, so Newsbusters returned to it a little later in an article by Matthew Balan, who wrote about Eichenwald’s appearance on CBS This Morning. Balan’s opening, echoing Finkelstein, says the morning show was hosting Eichenwald “eight weeks before the presidential election,” an utterly gratuitous notation intended to suggest a political motive where none is in evidence. Balan called Eichenwald’s article a “finger-pointing op-ed” and said Eichenwald was promoting a “new Bush-bashing book, where he hinted at the supposed religious extremism of the former President during the lead-up to the Iraq war.” So the author is probably just some anti-Christian bigot trying to sell his book. Balan asserts that John Miller, a former assistant director of national intelligence, “tossed cold water on Eichenwald’s accusations,” which is a most curious characterization for what Miller actually said. In reality, Miller supported Eichenwald’s “accusations”:

“Well, I think what Kurt [Eichenwald] has stumbled into here is a bit of a well-worn path. We knew some of that. What he has added is the granularity of the actual memos and some of the actual words that were–that were there in front of the White House and the national security team. But, you know–and Richard Clark, who is the national security adviser for terrorism, in his book, ‘Against All Enemies’, he said all the lights were blinking red, and we were pushing this in front of Condi Rice every day and it was hard to get any priority on this. In George Tenet’s book, he details the briefings they were given. So, some of this we knew and… there’s some of it in terms of the level of detail we didn’t know.”

Newsbusters’ third bite of the apple came a little over an hour later in the form of a Clay Waters article about the original Times op-ed. Waters cites Eichenwald’s conclusion that Bush’s reaction to what he was being told for months by the intelligence community “reflected significantly more negligence than has been disclosed” and counters:

Eichenwald’s evidence of Bush’s “negligence”? Well, just trust him. The information is not public, and what he offers from his perusal of classified briefings is pretty thin

The information “is not public,” of course, because the Bush administration intentionally concealed it. Eichenwald did what journalists are supposed to do, what they should have been doing 11 years ago: he dug  it up and put it before the public. Real journalism of this sort is a rare thing in “journalism” today and, being absolutely essential to the sound functioning of a democratic society, merits praise. But because, in this case, it makes a significant right-wing public figure look significantly bad on a significant issue, Waters greets it with that snide remark, “Well, just trust him.” Later, he notes that “Eichenwald is making the liberal media rounds” (by which he means CBS This Morning, not any part of the actual liberal media) – this, in Newsbusters-speak, is meant to impugn Eichenwald’s integrity.

Waters’ most remarkable moment comes when he quotes heavily from Eichenwald’s piece, showing that the intel community had, indeed, been warning Bush about an attack for months, then, astonishingly, writes:

As demonstrated, Eichenwald is suspiciously low on specifics to back his hyped-up accusation of Bush ‘negligence.’

I suppose one could call that the “don’t believe your lying eyes” defense. With “suspiciously,” he manages to smear Eichenwald and, one supposes, he hopes no one notices the absurdity of berating the reporter for failing to provide extensive details in a brief op-ed. The article was based on research conducted for a book – those details will be forthcoming.

Waters writes that, eight years earlier, when the memo of that damning 6 Aug. briefing was released, “several Times stories hit President Bush for allegedly missing clues to 9-11, despite the memo’s distinct lack of detail.” The notion that the memo lacked detail is tendentious, at best. As subsequent information–including today’s Times op-ed–has made abundantly clear, that briefing, to the extent that it was generalized, was so only because of Bush’s complete failure to demand investigation of the warnings he was being repeatedly given for a period of months. Bush, when faced with these warnings, didn’t try to get to the bottom of them. He didn’t put the government on high alert. He chose, time and time again, to do nothing.

No one could deny this is a remarkable story. It’s an important historical story. It’s a story that raises all sorts of questions. For political reasons, though, the Newsbusters gang is not only completely uninterested but thinks it proper to repeatedly attack, without any real basis, the integrity of both the reporter who has gone through the trouble to dig it up and inform we, the people, of it and the news outlets who have given him the space to do so.[*] All three Newsbusters articles suggested it was particularly inappropriate to carry the story on the anniversary of 9/11; all three made it plain their authors thought it was inappropriate to cover it at all. Newsbusters, the spirit of Anti-Journalism.

–j.

A personal note: I’m probably among the most vehement of the sane critics of the Bush administration (excluding, by “sane,” nutty conspiracists or those who treat facts as optional) but I’ve always been quite critical of those who wanted to assign what I considered to be an inordinate amount of blame to the Bush administration for failing to prevent the terror attacks on the U.S. A terror plot happens between a few people sitting in a room somewhere in the world and there’s simply no reasonable expectation that any government will be able to prevent all the mayhem that can ensue from that. Insisting on the expectation that it do so merely creates a rationale for an increasingly repressive government. In the end, that can’t make anyone any safer but it can make everyone a lot less free. Bush’s actions prior to 9/11 were idiotic, totally irresponsible and negligent on a scale the subsequent carnage suggests was absolutely criminal and it is an important matter that should be documented. But ultimately, Bush is only human and the government he ran only a government.

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