Treating It as a Bush Cover-Up: "What Did He Know and When Did He Know It?"
> The ABC, CBS and CNN morning shows opened Thursday by treating the disclosure, that the CIA had told President Bush some vague information about how al Qaeda might be looking to hijack a plane, as if it were evidence of some sort of scandalous cover-up of how the Bush administration "knew" in advance of the terrorist attacks.
Both ABC's Charlie Gibson and NBC's Katie Couric opened their shows by provocatively asking: "What did he know and when did he know it?" CNN's Paula Zahn similarly wondered "what the President was told about a potential terrorist attack before 9/11, and when he was told it?"
(MSNBC has been offering the "what did they know?" formulation all day.)
Charlie Gibson predicted at the start of Good Morning America: "It may put the President under a lot of heat today as public learns that he knew, through his daily CIA intelligence briefings, that bin Laden had potential terror attack plans under way." Gibson also cast doubt upon whether Bush was really surprised, telling Terry Moran: "It also calls into question what happened when Andy Card, Andrew Card, the White House chief of staff, that morning went and whispered in the President's ear, as the President was talking to a group of school students in Florida. Was the President really surprised?"
On Today, Couric suggested Bush could have stopped the attacks, as she asserted that the revelation is "raising more questions about whether the attacks on America could have been prevented."
On his next to last day, the usually most-liberal Bryant Gumbel delivered the most circumspect summary as he emphasized on The Early Show how no one any
inkling of how the planes would be used: "For the first time, White House officials have acknowledged that President Bush was warned before September 11th that Osama bin Laden's people might hijack some American airplanes. However, U.S. intelligence did not know what the terrorists planned to do with the planes."
After a solid report from David Martin on how the intelligence agencies failed to collate the disparate bits of evidence into a specific warning threat, Bill Plante offered the White House point of view. Gumbel soon asked him, however: "Bill, short and long term how embarrassing to the President, how injurious to the administration?"
Plante didn't think it would be: "Probably not terribly embarrassing since the White House claims, unless it is contradicted later, that it had no specific information of what was about to happen. It takes a big leap to put together the information that there are people out there trying to hurt us by hijacking airliners and to assume that what actually did happen was going to happen, that they would fly into the World Trade Center, that they would be flown by people who were willing to give up their lives."
Zahn opened CNN's American Morning: "The White House admits the terrorist attack on 9/11 was not a complete surprise. Weeks before the attack, the President was warned that bin Laden's terrorist network might attempt to hijack a U.S. airliner."
(As with the other networks, the subsequent story put the revelation in proper context, showing that the hosts over-hyped the news. CNN's John King, for instance, pointed out: "Now, White House officials are telling us there was no speculation at all about using an airplane as a bomb or as a weapon, as happened, of course, on September 11, and no specific credible information about a hijacking of any sort. Other sources also saying a hijacking was just one of a range of options listed as the possible method the al Qaeda network might choose for an attack on the United States. The White House saying the relevant agencies were notified. That would include the Justice Department, the Transportation Department and aviation industries.")
More on the ABC and NBC morning shows:
-- ABC's Good Morning America. Charles Gibson teased at the top of the May 16 broadcast: "This morning confirmation that President Bush was warned weeks before September 11th that Osama bin Laden may have been plotting to hijack U.S. passenger planes."
He soon added: "This is interesting news that we get now. And it may put the President under a lot of heat today as public learns that he knew, through his daily CIA intelligence briefings, that bin Laden had potential terror attack plans under way. And this marks a shift in the official version of events leading up to the September 11th attacks. So the question is exactly what did the President know and when did he know it? That's the traditional Washington question. And why has this not surfaced in these difficult eight months."
Turning to Terry Moran at the White House, Gibson again used the "what did he know and when did he know it" phrase that harkens scandal: "We do begin this morning with that breaking news overnight that President Bush was told of Osama in Laden's plans to hijack U.S. jetliners before September 11th. ABC's Terry Moran is at the White House, and Terry, as I mentioned, the traditional Washington question is what did the President know and when did he know it?"
Moran explained: "Well Charlie, here's the story as was told to me last night and this morning by White House officials. Last August, while the President was vacationing at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, he was told one day, as part of his daily morning CIA briefings, that, as one official put it, Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda network was interested in hijacking an airplane in the United States. Now, Ari Fleischer makes clear that this was not a warning which included suicide bombing -- here's what he said. He said that this 'information the President got dealt with hijacking in the traditional sense, but not involving suicide bombing, suicide bombers using airplanes as missiles.' Fleischer says the information was then relayed, as is standard practice, to the relevant domestic agencies -- that would be the Department of Transportation and domestic law enforcement agencies, which were put on a heightened level of security awareness. And it is the White House's argument that that may explain why the hijackers on September 11th used unorthodox means -- box cutters and small knives -- to take control of the airplanes. This all comes on the heels of revelations out of a congressional investigation that the FBI was onto the bin Laden plot in a couple of ways. An FBI agent in Phoenix, Arizona warned the bureau that bin Laden's network may be trying to hijack airplanes and one of the alleged hijackers apparently, Zacarias Moussaoui, was already in custody in Minneapolis and there was concern about him as well. So all this comes on the heels of this congressional investigation."
Gibson: "But Terry, why does the White House wait eight months to acknowledge this? I mean, it would give the appearance that they're somewhat defensive about all this."
Moran: "Well Charlie, this is a White House which very rigorously and jealously guards the flow of information and there's no question that's part of it. But to be fair, this is also a White House which from the beginning has said there would be a time and a place and an appropriate forum to get into an investigation of what went wrong, of what happened in the U.S. intelligence community."
Gibson suggested Bush's September 11th surprise was phony: "But Terry, it also calls into question what happened when Andy Card, Andrew Card, the White House chief of staff, that morning went and whispered in the President's ear, as the President was talking to a group of school students in Florida. Was the President really surprised?"
Moran: "No question about that, Charlie, according to White House officials, and I think a fair reading of that videotape. You see startled reaction on the part of the President of the United States, and that's what the White House is telling us this morning and last night. Cast your mind back, if possible, to September 10th, and somebody tells you Muslim terrorists want to hijack an airplane. That's been a longstanding concern of the United States. Now of course, there's a lot more to this story, but they are saying that they were surprised by the September 11th attack."
-- NBC's Today. Couric opened the show: "Good morning. What did he know and when did he know it? The Bush administration admits the President was warned in an intelligence briefing last summer of the possibility that Osama bin Laden's terrorist network might hijack American planes, raising more questions about whether the attacks on America could have been prevented today, Thursday, May 16, 2002."
After the opening music, Couric elaborated: "And welcome to Today on this Thursday morning. I'm Katie Couric. The White House says it been alerted about possible hijackings, but there was no warning that terrorists would use planes as missiles to bring down buildings. We'll have more on the story from the news desk and we'll talk with the Vice Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee as well."
That would be Republican Senator Richard Shelby. GMA's Gibson interviewed Democratic Senator John Edwards while CBS's Early Show did not interview anyone.
Couric did elicit how Senators had access to the same information as the President as Shelby responded affirmatively
to this question from Couric: "President Bush, as we've been mentioning, received this intelligence briefing last summer stating the possibility that Osama bin Laden may have been plotting to hijack U.S. planes, did the Senate Intelligence Committee receive similar warnings?"
Couric also tried to suggest why the warnings may not have been heeded: "The White House has said, Senator, that the information the President quote, the President got, 'dealt with hijackings in the traditional sense, not suicide bombers, not using planes as missiles. The administration based on this information notified the appropriate agencies.' Is it fair to say this would seem so beyond the realm of possibility, that this kind of ghastly act had never been seen or heard of before that everyone was just blindsided by it?"
-- Brent Baker, with input from MRC analysts
Rich Noyes, Jessica Anderson, Brian Boyd and Ken Shepherd
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