Sunday, May 06, 2007

Slam Dunk

Bob Somerby debunks the "slam-dunk" myth with a little time-line analysis.
We pre-discussed this recent history on Wednesday, so we’ll keep it short and sweet today. But we think the following point is worth noting: George Tenet was surely right when he said, on Sixty Minutes, that his “slam dunk” comment in December 02 didn’t drive the nation to war. That said, it’s important to recall the major role this silly narrative played in Bush’s re-election.

How silly was the “slam dunk” anecdote in Bob Woodward’s ballyhooed Plan of Attack? The book appeared in April 2004. The weekend before the book was released, the Washington Post ran a 2800-word front-page report; it summarized what Woodward’s book said. Written by reporter William Hamilton, it was the nation’s first real glimpse of the book’s contents. Hamilton started like this:
HAMILTON (4/17/04): Beginning in late December 2001, President Bush met repeatedly with Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks and his war cabinet to plan the U.S. attack on Iraq even as he and administration spokesmen insisted they were pursuing a diplomatic solution, according to a new book on the origins of the war.

The intensive war planning throughout 2002 created its own momentum, according to "Plan of Attack" by Bob Woodward, fueled in part by the CIA's conclusion that Saddam Hussein could not be removed from power except through a war and CIA Director George J. Tenet's assurance to the president that it was a "slam dunk" case that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
Right away, Hamilton said that Bush’s war planning had been “fueled in part” by Tenet’s “slam dunk” remark. A few grafs later, he went into more detail. But this passage, which referenced the “slam-dunk” meeting, made no earthly sense:
HAMILTON: [Colin] Powell agreed to make the U.S. case against Hussein at the United Nations in February 2003, a presentation described by White House communications director Dan Bartlett as "the Powell buy-in." Bush wanted someone with Powell's credibility to present the evidence that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, a case the president had initially found less than convincing when presented to him by CIA Deputy Director John E. McLaughlin at a White House meeting on Dec. 21, 2002.
That’s the meeting where Woodward says Tenet saved the day by telling Bush it was all “a slam-dunk.”

In his front-page Post report, Hamilton highlighted this 12/02 meeting—but his narrative made no apparent sense. By December 21, 2002, Bush and Cheney had been already touring the country for four months, warning voters about Saddam’s WMD, saying there was “no doubt” he had them and wanted to use them against the U.S. and its friends. But according to Hamilton’s report (see above), Bush had “initially” found the case for WMD unconvincing—at that December meeting, which took place four months after this push began! So no, this didn’t make much sense. The real question was the following: Why did Bush and Cheney start making their claims back in August 2002? What sort of briefing did they receive before that? Why did they start telling the world, without qualification, that Saddam had those weapons—and was planning to use them? It was then, back in August, when they started making these claims. What had led Bush to think, all the way back then, that the case was as strong as he said?

But that obvious question wasn’t asked, because Hamilton’s account of this matter took hold. Pundits cited the ”slam dunk” anecdote more than any other part of Woodward’s book. The anecdote painted Tenet as the loudmouth bad guy—the guy who oversold the weapons. And not only that—in his account of the “slam dunk” meeting, Woodward included this pleasing passage, in which a conscientious Wise Leader urged caution on Tenet—several times:
WOODWARD: The president told Tenet several times, “Make sure no one stretches to make our case.”
Gag me! It was right out of a Boy’s Life bio—so Woodward typed it on up. Several times, Bush warned Tenet against stretching the intel—four months after he himself began stretching it! Other silly, Bush-friendly anecdotes littered Woodward’s book—perhaps the price one pays now for big access.

If you read Woodward’s book very carefully, you could possibly torture the real rationale for that 12/21/02 meeting. Most likely, this was the meeting at which the Admin began planning Bush’s State of the Union and Powell’s UN presentation. But pundits (including Hamilton) read the anecdote differently, and the image they portrayed became a big help to Bush on the trail. Had the Bush Admin stretched the intelligence? The question was already being asked as Campaign 04 unfolded. But Woodward’s book seemed to show something different—a good, wise leader being misled by a wild and crazy CIA head. Chronologically, the passage made no earthly sense. But Bush’s job approval was still at 50 percent, and the press corps agreed not to notice.

In the past few weeks, Tenet has complained about the way the public got played by that silly “slam dunk” anecdote. (Cheney was still pimping this pleasing nonsense on Meet the Press last September.) Whatever else Tenet may have done, he has surely been right in this critique. Woodward put a silly anecdote right at the heart of his blockbuster book. Hamilton built the Post’s news report around it, and the bullsh*t ran downhill from there.

Wise Leader Bush had wisely urged that no one—but no one—should stretch the intelligence! For the full text of Woodward’s “slam dunk” anecdote, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/25/05.


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