Bush Ducks a Bullet -- For Now

By Dan Froomkin

Special to washingtonpost.com

Friday, July 23, 2004; 12:00 PM

It was a very relieved White House yesterday.

The commission nobody there wanted in the first place issued its massive, searing indictment of a government utterly unprepared for the kind of attack unleashed on Sept. 11, 2001, and still not equipped to deal with the new realities of terrorism.

But the report didn't overtly blame President Bush.

At least no more than it blamed President Clinton and Congress and poor communication and structural issues and a whole host of other problems. It was an indictment without a defendant.

Bush praised the report yesterday morning, and by afternoon was describing its recommendation as consistent with his policies.

But the sense of relief may be short lived.

Underneath its everyone's-to-blame veneer, the report includes some weighty assertions that are potentially very damaging to the White House.

The report, for instance, criticizes the concept of the "war on terror" that has been the signature issue of Bush's presidency. It concludes that what is required to defeat Islamist terrorism is something more nuanced than that. And it does not support the argument that the war on Iraq was either related to or helpful in that quest.

And its activist list of proposals puts Bush in a reactive posture during a campaign season when he wants to convey a sense of steady and strong leadership.

Bush is clearly cool to many of the specific recommendations, such as creating a national intelligence director position. But arguing that the system isn't broken is no longer really a political option.

What It Means for the White House

Dana Milbank and Mike Allen write in a Washington Post analysis: "Though openly dreaded for months by many Republicans and quietly feared by the White House, the report was much gentler on the Bush administration than they feared."

Milbank and Allen write that while "there is plenty of damning material in the report's 567 pages about the Bush administration's actions before and after the 2001 attacks . . . the commission's emphasis on the structural changes to be made -- and its determination not to assign personal blame -- allowed the White House to dodge a bullet. . . . "

But Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "The Sept. 11 commission report offers a broad critique of a central tenet of the Bush administration's foreign policy -- that the attacks have required a 'war on terrorism.'

"The report argues that the notion of fighting an enemy called 'terrorism' is too diffuse and vague to be effective. Strikingly, the report makes no reference to the invasion of Iraq as being part of the war on terrorism, a frequent assertion of President Bush and his top aides."

Doyle McManus and Maura Reynolds write in the Los Angeles Times: "The commission's 10 members said they planned to spend the next 12 months traveling the nation demanding that politicians carry out most of their 41 recommendations. . . .

"So far, at least, the effect appears to have put President Bush on the defensive -- and to have handed his Democratic rival, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), an opportunity to question the president's record.

"The commission's decision to avoid assigning blame for the 2001 terrorist attacks was a boon to Bush, who had been in office for eight months at the time. But its decision to press for sweeping organizational changes in the government's intelligence agencies put the onus for action on the president, who has resisted such proposals."

Dana Bash told Wolf Blitzer on CNN yesterday: "In private, aides say that they are certainly going to take some time and look at them, but they understand that this is something that there will be a lot of pressure on the Bush administration to -- if they don't accept exactly what the 9/11 commission has recommended -- to do something, some kind of compromise very, very soon."

Ted Alden writes in the Financial Times: "The report, released on Thursday, will touch off what could be a divisive election-year debate over whether the administration of President George W. Bush has taken sufficient steps to prevent future terrorist strikes."

David L. Greene and Julie Hirschfeld Davis write in the Baltimore Sun: "The stakes for Bush, who opposed the formation of the commission for more than a year, could not be higher. Locked in a tight campaign battle with Democrat John Kerry, Bush has received higher marks for fighting terrorism than he has on other major issues. If voters lose confidence in Bush in that area -- and polls show faith in him has faded already -- the road to re-election might turn uphill.

"Bush's spokesman, Scott McClellan, sought to deflect any suggestion that failings by the president allowed the Sept. 11 attacks to take place.

" 'Responsibility and blame for the attacks lies squarely with al-Qaida,' he said. The threat from Osama bin Laden's network, he said, predated Bush and was 'emerging and building for more than a decade.' "

David Gregory of NBC News reports: "Despite all the appearance of bipartisan agreement, today's report was immediately thrust into the fight for the White House. Later, on the campaign trail in Illinois, Mr. Bush brushed aside criticism in the report, insisting the commission endorsed the administration's actions since 9/11."

Bush v. Clinton

David Johnston and Douglas Jehl write in the New York Times: "In the end, the commissioners reached no definitive verdict on whether Mr. Clinton or Mr. Bush deserved greater blame for the lapses and inaction. The report seemed to portray Mr. Clinton as better informed and more intensely engaged than Mr. Bush."

Bush in Illinois

Michael Janofsky and David M. Halbfinger write in the New York Times: "While generally embracing the recommendations of the panel, Mr. Bush used his appearance . . . at a training facility north of Chicago to underscore one of his major campaign themes, that the nation was better protected as a result of his administration's policies."

Here is the text of Bush's speech.

"We will work tirelessly to disrupt and prevent terrorist attacks -- and if an attack should come, America will be prepared," he said.

"Today, because we are on the offensive against terrorist networks, the American people are safer. But this does not mean that our nation is fully secure. In a vast, free society such as ours, there is no such thing as perfect security. And no matter how good our defenses are, a determined enemy can still strike us. Terrorists only need to be right once; we need to be right every single time. (Applause.) Yet our fellow citizens can be certain of this: Our government is doing everything we can to stop another attack -- we're using every resource and technological advantage we have as a nation to pursue our enemies, at home and overseas. We're doing everything we can to protect our country. In the past three years, we have taken unprecedented steps to defend the homeland, to increase security, and to give our brave first responders the tools they need to deal with a terrorist attack."

The Big Picture

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post that the report concludes that "The U.S. government was utterly unprepared on Sept. 11, 2001, to protect the American people from al Qaeda terrorists."

Philip Shenon writes in the New York Times that the commission "warned that without a historic restructuring of the nation's intelligence agencies and a new emphasis on diplomacy, the United States would leave itself open to an even more catastrophic attack. . . .

" 'A critical theme that emerged throughout our inquiry was the difficulty of answering the question: Who is in charge?' said Lee H. Hamilton, the panel's vice chairman and a former Democratic House member from Indiana."

David Von Drehle writes in a Washington Post analysis: "Though quick, the historical judgment seems conclusive: That American leadership failed across the board."

Todd S. Purdum writes in the New York Times: "Months of unsparing study by the Sept. 11 commission and the Senate Intelligence Committee have now produced a broad consensus about two colossal intelligence failures: the missed opportunities that left the United States open to attack from Al Qaeda and the misread clues on unconventional weapons that sent American troops to attack Iraq.

"Together, those lapses amount to nothing less than the gravest dysfunctions in the national security apparatus of the United States since the modern Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency were created at the dawn of the cold war, and the commission has proposed perhaps the most extensive overhaul of those functions since then."

Jim Stewart reports on CBS: "Not since Pearl Harbor has a President been presented a report as damning or as detailed or as sweeping in its reforms as this one."

Julian Borger, in an analysis for the Guardian, writes: "Coming at a time when evidence is emerging daily that a combination of a blinkered, ideological administration and incompetent intelligence analysis took the US and its allies into a war in Iraq on baseless justifications, yesterday's report could trigger a crisis of faith in America's most powerful institutions."

White House Org Chart

Dana Priest and Walter Pincus write in The Washington Post: "The commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks called yesterday for the creation of a super CIA-like center within the president's office where U.S. military, intelligence and law enforcement officials together would analyze intelligence and plan domestic and overseas counterterrorism operations, something that is currently prohibited by U.S. law.

"The national counterterrorism center, the most radical of the reform proposals set forth by the commission, would report to a new national intelligence director who would have budgetary and operational control over all 15 intelligence agencies and departments, according to the report."

Iraq and Al Qaeda

R. Jeffrey Smith writes in The Washington Post: "Although recent polls have shown that more than 40 percent of the American public is still convinced that Iraq collaborated with al Qaeda and had a role in the terrorist attacks, the commission reported finding no evidence of a 'collaborative operational relationship' between the two or an Iraqi role in attacking the United States. . . .

"Providing a rich account of high-level deliberations after the attacks, the report states that advocates of this view wasted no time in pressing their case."

About Those Shoot-Down Orders

Spencer S. Hsu and Bradley Graham write in The Washington Post: "An order issued by Vice President Cheney to shoot down threatening aircraft over Washington was not passed on to the pilots of two jet fighters scrambled from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, because military commanders 'were unsure how the pilots would, or should, proceed with this guidance,' the report says. But unbeknownst to the president, the North American Aerospace Defense Command or the Pentagon, other jets were launched from Andrews Air Force Base and given shoot-down authority by the commander of the 113th Wing of the D.C. Air National Guard, in consultation with the Secret Service."

Berger Watch

Mike Allen and John F. Harris write in The Washington Post: "For the second day in a row, administration officials said yesterday that more of President Bush's aides knew about an investigation of former Clinton national security adviser Samuel R. 'Sandy' Berger than the White House originally acknowledged.

"The question is sensitive because Democrats have charged that Republicans leaked word of the investigation to try to taint next week's Democratic National Convention and to distract attention from criticisms of Bush in the report of the commission investigating the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001."

Today at the Urban League

Scott Lindlaw writes for the Associated Press: "Bush's speech to the Urban League in Detroit comes as a new poll shows African-Americans overwhelmingly support John Kerry. But the poll also showed black voters have yet to entirely warm up to Kerry."

The new BET/CBS News poll finds Bush's approval rating among black voters is a dismal 11 percent, compared to 85 percent disapproval.

Darryl Fears writes in The Washington Post that National Urban League President Marc H. Morial's decision to be diplomatic instead of political is one reason Bush is coming to speak to that organization today, a week after skipping the NAACP's gathering for the fourth straight year.

But many Urban League convention-goers said they opposed Bush policies, and would be polite but cold during the president's speech.

Bush's campaign issued a document yesterday outlining what it said were Bush's accomplishments on civil rights.

After his speech in Detroit, Bush heads back to his ranch Crawford, first for a Republican fundraiser tonight at the ranch next door, and then for some time out of the public eye.

Vice President Cheney today headlines a $1,000-per-plate dinner for U.S. Senate candidate Jim DeMint in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Poll Watch

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Despite dissatisfaction with the country's direction and the administration's principal policies, the presidential race remains a virtual dead heat as the Democratic convention approaches, a Times poll has found. . . .

"Overall, Americans split almost exactly in half on Bush's job performance, with 51% approving and 48% disapproving -- virtually the same result as in June. As in last month's poll, majorities disapproved of his handling of Iraq and the economy."

(The poll also finds that "Fahrenheit 9/11" is largely preaching to the choir and not changing voter's minds much, writes John Horn.)

Here are poll result excerpts.

Susan Page and William Risser write in USA Today: "John Kerry moves toward a triumphant Democratic National Convention next week with the rock-solid support of Democrats and a decided advantage over President Bush among voters on the issues of the economy, health care and education.

"But a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll finds that voters' faith in President Bush when it comes to combating terrorism is bolstering his standing in a presidential contest that remains essentially tied. Boosting Bush's prospects: The belief by most Americans that a terrorist attack on U.S. soil will occur in the next few weeks or months. . . .

"There's more confidence that the Bush administration can protect U.S. citizens from terrorism, 67%, than a potential Kerry administration, at 60%.

"But Bush has significant vulnerabilities. His approval rating, at 49%, has been below the 50% benchmark since April. No president since Harry Truman has been re-elected with approval ratings below 50% at this point in the election year."

Here are those poll results.

John Harwood and David Rogers write in the Wall Street Journal: "A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows the Massachusetts senator in a virtual dead heat with Mr. Bush as Democrats gather here to nominate him as their presidential candidate in the Nov. 2 election. . . .

"After seeing his job-approval ratings erode gradually since January amid violence and scandal over prisoner abuse in Iraq, Mr. Bush has rebounded, albeit moderately.

"A 48% plurality now approve of his performance, while 46% disapprove; in June, a 49% plurality gave him thumbs down. Similarly, the proportion who say Mr. Bush doesn't deserve re-election edged down to 47% from 50% last month; 46% say his performance merits a second term."

Here are those complete poll results.

Halliburton Watch

Robert O'Harrow Jr. and David S. Hilzenrath write in The Washington Post: "Halliburton Co. executives told a House committee yesterday that allegations that the company overcharged the government for work in Iraq distorted the truth, and they urged Congress to consider the wartime conditions when assessing any financial or logistical missteps. . . .

"Democrats led by Henry A. Waxman (Calif.) repeatedly referred to the fact that Dick Cheney was Halliburton's chief executive before he was vice president. They suggested that Halliburton and its subsidiaries defrauded the government."

Judicial Nominee Watch

Helen Dewar writes in The Washington Post: "Senate Democrats blocked three more Bush nominees for federal appeals courts yesterday as Republicans and Democrats accused each other of trampling Senate rules, tradition and comity to advance their political agendas."

Bike Watch

Robin Abcarian writes in the Los Angeles Times: "A spokeswoman for the Secret Service -- now part of the Department of Homeland Security -- in Washington confirmed that agents had been working on their biking skills."