10 Days in September: Inside the War Cabinet
January 27, 2002 8:40 AM   Subscribe

10 Days in September: Inside the War Cabinet The Washington Post today publishes the first of an eight-part special series, by investigative reporters Dan Balz and Bob Woodward, on the US government's -- and more specifically, the Bush Administration's -- initial response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The series is based on interviews with President Bush, Vice President Cheney and many other key officials inside the administration and out, and is supplemented by notes of National Security Council meetings made available to The Washington Post, along with notes taken by multiple participants. This is what journalism at its best is all about...
posted by verdezza (19 comments total)
if bernstein had been named balz nixon would have fallen sooner.
posted by quonsar at 8:42 AM on January 27, 2002

Good link, verdezza. I'll be waiting anxiously for the rest of the series.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 8:58 AM on January 27, 2002

[Transportation Secretary Norman Y.] Mineta shouted into the phone to Monte Belger at the FAA: "Monte, bring all the planes down." It was an unprecedented order -- there were 4,546 airplanes in the air at the time. Belger, the FAA's acting deputy administrator, amended Mineta's directive to take into account the authority vested in airline pilots. "We're bringing them down per pilot discretion," Belger told the secretary.

"[Expletive] pilot discretion," Mineta yelled back. "Get those goddamn planes down."

Sitting at the other end of the table, Cheney snapped his head up, looked squarely at Mineta and nodded in agreement.

That's impressive; too bad Mr. Mineta hasn't shown the same command and sense of urgency in marshaling airport security to a higher, more truly effective level of protection.
posted by verdezza at 9:23 AM on January 27, 2002

The Party Line, collected well after the fact, and obligingly reported(as statements on public events by public officials should be).

While the reporters may be labeled investigative in the FPP, this is not investigative reporting anymore than the reporters at a press conference are investigative.

The natural human trait to put oneself in the best light, combined with a perceived need to reassure the American public, leads me to believe that this is the view of events that the White House has chosen to present.

Reporting the information the White House chooses to make public is legitimate reporting. That the White House states something does not make it a complete and accurate record of the actual facts of what happened.

Or, to put it another way, how many sources are there besides officially approved White House communications in this story?
posted by dglynn at 11:15 AM on January 27, 2002

Thanks, dglynn. I was wondering about the same thing. Read a bit like breathless Tom Clancy prose to me.
posted by muckster at 11:32 AM on January 27, 2002

"Tick-tock" journalism's shortcomings skewered by Christopher Hanson:
"On what passes for the plus side, they supposedly bring you inside the room where dramatic decisions are made, and make you see the colors, smell the smells, feel the tension...Bush was lunching with Vice President Dick Cheney--'the Veep eating salad, Bush a taco.' But, sadly enough, such articles are too often the result of an unspoken, almost Faustian arrangement. Official sources provide the essential inside details and reporters then regurgitate the official line, giving up their independence and skepticism for a taco and a salad and a Bible, along with a quotation from the Boss that he might or might not actually have said."
posted by Carol Anne at 11:52 AM on January 27, 2002

...is supplemented by notes of National Security Council meetings made available to The Washington Post, along with notes taken by multiple participants...

It's interesting that this type of information is made available, as it usually is not released in the interest of national security (at least that's the reason Reagan's presidential documents can't be released, according to King George). I'm wondering...does this type of information fall into the same category as the Enron info Cheney refuses to give up because it would weaken presidential powers? It would be interesting to find out if there is a double standard based on whether or not the administration is hurt politically by the release of such information.

This is what journalism at its best is all about...

The last time I checked, printing only what they give you is called public relations, not journalism.
posted by troybob at 12:09 PM on January 27, 2002

Geez, folks, nuthin' like throwing the baby out with the bath water...
posted by verdezza at 5:50 PM on January 27, 2002

I wouldn't class this with most investigative reporting. It's simply top-notch feature writing. There's nothing wrong with that, but again, it shouldn't be oversold.

Not all journalism is about bringing down governments, you know.
posted by dhartung at 7:47 PM on January 27, 2002

FPP excerpt: "This is what journalism at its best is all about..."

verdezza: Geez, folks, nuthin' like throwing the baby out with the bath water...

It's a MeFi thing: Put it on a pedestal, we feel compelled to knock it down.
posted by Carol Anne at 5:35 AM on January 28, 2002

Here's where the story jumped the shark for me.

"The plane accelerated down the runway and then almost stood on its tail as it climbed rapidly out of the airport. It was 9:55 a.m."

No ordinary takeoff! The plane almost stood on its tail! And then the Hollywood drumbeat: It was 9:55 a.m. How dramatic! Too bad newspaper technology doesn't allow you to have that appear, typewriter-style, letter by letter, on the bottom of the screen: thunk-thunk thunk-thunk-thunk thunk-thunk-thunk-thunk thunk-thunk-thunk-thunk.

Is this journalism or screenwriting?
posted by rodii at 5:45 AM on January 28, 2002

verdeeza, I agree with you. Two points: First, why is everyone assuming their definition of "investigative" journalism is either the correct or only one? No one said this was the absolutely true version -- just that it required investigation to come up with it. Second (and somewhat related), these meetings took place in secret. So there's only two choices: (a) get their version of the story, or (b) get no story at all.
posted by pardonyou? at 6:48 AM on January 28, 2002

Read a bit like breathless Tom Clancy prose to me.

posted by y2karl at 8:59 AM on January 28, 2002

Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) protested. We're a separate branch of government-why do we need the approval of the White House, he complained.

"Don," the vice president replied, "we control the helicopters."

Now that's funny!

Actually this makes perfect sense that the executive branch controls transportation for congress. Congress is the legislative branch. Generally speaking, their job is to devise policy, not execute it. That's the executive branch's job - to execute policy. So in times of crisis, congressmen should just sit down and shut up, go where they're told and stay out of the way. It's not their territory.

However, the actions of the executive branch have to answer to the legislature. So after the crisis is over, congress' job is to bitch out the executive branch for anything they might have done wrong. Like not let them have helicopters. =)

Read a bit like breathless Tom Clancy prose to me.

Art imitates life, and vice versa. Actually I find this a good read.

"What are you doing in Milwaukee?" the president inquired.

"You grounded my plane," the former president said.

It would make a good movie. *smirk*
posted by ZachsMind at 10:01 AM on January 28, 2002

It's a MeFi thing: Put it on a pedestal, we feel compelled to knock it down.

I know, Carol Anne, I know. And you did an awesome job of doing just that with the incredibly germane and persuasive links you posted in your initial comment yesterday... so much so that I was concerned that people were going to pass up reading the original article for themselves, when it's a story that I think deserves attention. Hence, my "baby with the bath water" remark.

(But then, your responses are always very informed and thoughtful. Where do you find all those great links, anyway? ;)

And I guess I did oversell it a tad (e.g., "investigative reporters," "journalism at its best," etc.). What can I say? I got excited about the article as I watched Tim Russert interview the authors on "Meet the Press" yesterday...

... but I still think it's a strong piece. It's funny, I expected this thread to debate the performance of the Bush "war cabinet," and instead, we're examining what makes for probing journalism as opposed to fauning PR. As usual, you never know where a MeFi post will take you -- and it's all good.

Anyhow, for anyone who's interested, here's a link to today's article, the second in their eight-part series.
posted by verdezza at 11:18 AM on January 28, 2002

This is important material. You didn't oversell it. Certainly I'm not the only person who heard some of the early unconfirmed reports without picking up the later retractions. Setting the official record straight is absolutely critical. We can't afford the fuzzy thinking of a general public which has access to nothing but speculation regarding Area 51/Mossad/UFO/Urban Legends/conspiracy theories/and OBL's current whereabouts.

As a new user, I'm finding it very challenging to discuss substantive issues via MeFi, because the format lends itself to quick, off-the-cuff remarks, or a Carol Anne-style link to someone else on the web who's already said it better. IMHO we web-literate information fiends owe the world an analysis of the war cabinet's performance that goes above and beyond simply assembling another annotated webliography. Perhaps someone would try kicking things off here: Are these articles adding anything new to your understanding of the situation, or simply confirming your initial impressions of the war cabinet's first days?
posted by sheauga at 1:42 PM on January 28, 2002

Regardless of the merits of the writing itself, this piece and that odious "Real West Wing" puffball NBC tried to pass off as news last week just reek of Karl Rove.

It is true that when you're limited to second-hand accounts of participants who clearly have an agenda to push, you're at a great disadvantage as a journalist. Stories like these are actually much better left until well after the fact, when the participants are likely to be less committed to staying "on message" and might give you some real insights.

I am reminded of the compelling audio tape from the day Reagan was shot that surfaced recently when his National Security Advisor published his memoirs. There's no way there could have been an objective portrayal of what went on in the Situation Room at the time, and luckily the guy had actual recordings for his memoirs 20 years later that put a very different cast on how those particular events took place.
posted by briank at 2:01 PM on January 28, 2002

sheauga: ...a Carol Anne-style link... Yikes, I'm a brand!

verdezza: I read a lot (too much, to tell the truth) and I rely on Google. I probably picked up the term "tick-tock" at Romenesko's MediaNews.
posted by Carol Anne at 6:51 PM on January 28, 2002

"webliography" - I love that, sheauga! Welcome, BTW.

In response to your question -- Are these articles adding anything new to your understanding of the situation, or simply confirming your initial impressions of the war cabinet's first days? -- I'd definitely say both. I had the impression (shared by most Americans) that Bush & Co. had done a good job of conceptualizing the struggle ahead, strategizing how to fight it, and rallying the government, military and public to follow their lead. But I hadn't had the impression that Bush himself played as much a part in all of that conceptualization and strategy as this article suggests. (I know that's gonna give his sharpest MeFi critics off-the-charts palpitations, but that's my take on it.)

I'm impressed that from the start -- on the first day, 9/11 -- Bush decided:

- to see the attacks not merely as terrorist incidents, but as acts of war;

- to communicate "reassurance and resolve," first and foremost, in his formal address to the nation that night, instead of taking too warlike a tone;

- that the U.S. would "make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them" -- the so-called 'Bush Doctrine' that has defined and shaped the campaign ever since;

- to include specific mention of the above in his address that night; and, as a corollary to that doctrine...

- that the U.S. would "force countries to choose" between either a) supporting terrorists or b) supporting those who joined together to quell terrorism -- in essence, giving countries who'd been on the wrong side of that equation the opportunity to start relatively afresh (as Pakistan did shortly thereafter).

That's a hell of a lot of laudably (or perhaps I should say, in fairness, arguably) spot-on, hugely consequential decision making to happen within the first 10-12 hours of such a horrific, scary, unprecedented event. (Especially considering that those decisions were made, literally, during the course of those terrible events -- remember how anxious we all were that day, preoccupied with the fear of another imminent attack? ) I say "spot-on" because I believe the decisions I outlined above to be not only very good calls (probably the best ones they could make, in these circumstances), but because they've endured; they haven't essentially changed since that day, and they remain fundamental to our ongoing campaign.

I know, that's their job; that's exactly why we put them in those positions, to make incredibly difficult decisions like these. But, damn -- they did it well. And if articles like this are to be believed, Bush played a primary role (i.e., not just a figurehead) in that decision making.

So, yeah -- again, if it is to be believed -- reading this makes me trust him more. (The average MeFi'ers blood pressure just raised ten points as their eyes passed over my words. ;)

(As far as the extent to which the article is to be believed, BTW, I'll say this: sure, it's got "spin" written all over it. At the same time, though, Woodward certainly has one of the best noses in the business for sniffing out folderol, and he's obviously content with the piece they've put together.)

It was also interesting to finally unravel the confusion over whether Air Force One had really been identified as a specific terrorist target on 9/11. During that day, the Secret Service was informed that someone who had called in with a threat to the president's plane had done so using their confidential code name for Air Force One, "angel"; the caller's knowledge of that fact, in turn, made them justifiably paranoid of the possibility of an "inside job," which is why they flew Bush all over the country and returned him to Washington only after he insisted they do so. Months later now, having had time to figure out what happened, it's explained that the threatening caller never actually said "angel" -- that's just how the story was miscommunicated as it made its way up the line of command.

Oh, and since I did it yesterday, I'll repeat it again: here's a link to today's article, the third in their eight-part series.
posted by verdezza at 7:18 AM on January 29, 2002

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