Josh Marshall

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More calls for Philip Zelikow to resign as Executive Director of the 9/11 Commission.

Alright, I promise not to do too much of this. <$NoAd$>But here are some portions of comments from Jim Wilkinson, an NSC spokesman, on Paula Zahn Monday night (itals added)...

First, knock Clarke for pursuing the well-known fool's errand of hitting the terrorists overseas before they can hit us here ...

This is a president who had Condoleezza Rice and others ask for a strategy. Dick Clarke, when he first came and briefed, presented several ideas, all of which frankly were overseas. He had the idea to increase help for Uzbekistan, which we did. He had the idea to help increase the counterterrorism budget, which we did. These were all ideas, but they were over there.

Next, the 'strategy' strategy ...

I want to make a very point here, that all of his ideas he presented were not a strategy. This is a president who wanted a comprehensive strategy to go after al Qaeda where it lives, where it hides, where it plots, where it raises money. All the ideas that -- except for one -- that Dick Clarke submitted, this administration did. This is the president who expedited the arming of the Predator, an unmanned aerial vehicle, so that we could go after these terrorists like we've done in other places.

This 'strategy' mumbojumbo has definite echoes of Nigel Tufnel: No, no, no, this one goes to eleven ...

On a more substantive note compare Wilkinson's description of Clarke's pitiful proposal to this one from an August 4th, 2002 article in Time. Note particularly the comment from the "senior Bush administration official" at the end ...

Berger had left the room by the time Clarke, using a Powerpoint presentation, outlined his thinking to Rice. A senior Bush Administration official denies being handed a formal plan to take the offensive against al-Qaeda, and says Clarke's materials merely dealt with whether the new Administration should take "a more active approach" to the terrorist group. (Rice declined to comment, but through a spokeswoman said she recalled no briefing at which Berger was present.) Other senior officials from both the Clinton and Bush administrations, however, say that Clarke had a set of proposals to "roll back" al-Qaeda. In fact, the heading on Slide 14 of the Powerpoint presentation reads, "Response to al Qaeda: Roll back." Clarke's proposals called for the "breakup" of al-Qaeda cells and the arrest of their personnel. The financial support for its terrorist activities would be systematically attacked, its assets frozen, its funding from fake charities stopped. Nations where al-Qaeda was causing trouble-Uzbekistan, the Philippines, Yemen-would be given aid to fight the terrorists. Most important, Clarke wanted to see a dramatic increase in covert action in Afghanistan to "eliminate the sanctuary" where al-Qaeda had its terrorist training camps and bin Laden was being protected by the radical Islamic Taliban regime. The Taliban had come to power in 1996, bringing a sort of order to a nation that had been riven by bloody feuds between ethnic warlords since the Soviets had pulled out. Clarke supported a substantial increase in American support for the Northern Alliance, the last remaining resistance to the Taliban. That way, terrorists graduating from the training camps would have been forced to stay in Afghanistan, fighting (and dying) for the Taliban on the front lines. At the same time, the U.S. military would start planning for air strikes on the camps and for the introduction of special-operations forces into Afghanistan. The plan was estimated to cost "several hundreds of millions of dollars." In the words of a senior Bush Administration official, the proposals amounted to "everything we've done since 9/11."

Next from Wilkinson, misstate Clarke's statements and then accuse him of Iraq double-talk by again mischaracterizing another statement ...

Well, I think your viewers tonight would be a little alarmed if the president didn't ask about Iraq. This is a nation that was shooting at our pilots, shooting at our pilots hundreds of times a day in the southern no-fly zone, a nation that had used WMD against its neighbors. And I think your viewers tonight would be a little alarmed if the president didn't ask about any connection from anybody on any part of the globe, frankly.

The president wanted to know who did it and who was responsible. Dick Clarke, on another interview he gave to PBS "Frontline," said that, right after 9/11, all his options were open. He wasn't sure who did it. So, again, we see Mr. Clarke on three sides of a two-sided issue. What the American people need to know is that their government is working diligently to go after al Qaeda where it lives, where it plots, where it raises money, and where it does threats or tries to do us harm here.

Here's the Frontline passage Wilkinson is referring to ...

Question: Because one of the things that surprises a lot of the public, I think, is that immediately after Sept. 11, the administration knew exactly who had done it. Was that why?

Clarke: No. On the day of Sept. 11, then the day or two following, we had a very open mind. CIA and FBI were asked, "See if it's Hezbollah. See if it's Hamas. Don't assume it's Al Qaeda. Don't just assume it's Al Qaeda." Frankly, there was absolutely not a shred of evidence that it was anybody else. The evidence that it was Al Qaeda began just to be massive within days after the attack. Question: Somebody's quoted as saying that they walked into your office and almost immediately afterwards, the first words out of your mouth was "Al Qaeda."

Clarke: Well, I assumed it was Al Qaeda. No one else had the intention of doing that. No one else that I knew of had the capability of doing that. So yes, as soon as it happened, I assumed it was Al Qaeda.

Returning to the Wilkinson tirade already in progress, now blame all previous terrorism attacks on Clarke's being a doofus while also managing to step on Cheney's story line by insisting that Clarke was running the show right before 9/11 ...

I would say that, since this president's been here, two-thirds of al Qaeda have been captured or killed. I would say, I would remind you that Dick Clarke was in charge of counterterrorism policy when the African embassies were bombed. Dick Clarke was in charge of counterterrorism policy when the USS Cole was bombed. Dick Clarke was in charge of counterterrorism policy in the time preceding 9/11 when the threat was growing.

Finally, make a nonsensical comparison between Clarke's blowing 9/11 and the president's wiping out all the bad guys afterwards ...

And in June of 2001, when the FBI said 16 of the 19 hijackers were already in the United States, Dick Clarke was in charge of counterterrorism. I think you contrast that directly with this president's record of freezing millions of dollars in terrorist assets, rounding up more than two-thirds of the members of al Qaeda. It's a clear distinction.

Most of these aren't even distortions. They're silly little gotchas, many of which don't even make any sense.

This is the best they can do.

A Request ... I'm working on a couple different non-TPM projects at the moment. So I want to enlist your assistance.

Administration appointees and spokespeople are hitting the airwaves today like a motley medieval army -- little clear organization or discipline, just everyone running on to the field at once and hacking away as best they can.

(Along the lines of little discipline, note the contradictory nature of the attacks. In some, we did everything Clarke wanted; in others, he was out of the loop. Hard to figure both are true. It's scattershot because they're desparate and don't have the facts on their side.)

Many of these folks are saying things that are either demonstrably false or highly debatable. We noted one example in the former category from Vice President Cheney's appearance earlier today on Rush Limbaugh. (You can measure the Veep's confidence in his ability to face any amount of serious questioning by the fact that he decided to go on air with Limbaugh on this.)

In the latter category is this response of Paul Wolfowitz to Clarke's charges. The clip is from Newsweek ...

In the meeting, says Clarke, Wolfowitz cited the writings of Laurie Mylroie, a controversial academic who had written a book advancing an elaborate conspiracy theory that Saddam was behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Clarke says he tried to refute Wolfowitz. "We've investigated that five ways to Friday, and nobody [in the government] believes that," Clarke recalls saying. "It was Al Qaeda. It wasn't Saddam." A spokesman for Wolfowitz describes Clarke's account as a "fabrication." Wolfowitz always regarded Al Qaeda as "a major threat," says this official.

So Wolfowitz says this account is a 'fabrication'. <$Ad$>I wonder what part. There's no way from the outside to know whether this particular exchange took place. But it's no secret that Wolfowitz was a major booster of Mylroie's work. I believe he even blurbed one of her books. So it's certainly not implausible that such an interchange could have occurred.

Then the spokesperson says Wolfowitz always regarded al Qaida as a "major threat." Is that true? He certainly didn't have that reputation. He was seen as an Iraq hawk and advocate of various other generally hawkish positions. But not someone heavily invested in the al Qaida issue. Indeed, Clarke's description of his relative lack of interest in al Qaida seems very plausible.

To test my hypothesis I went to the Nexis database and tried this search: "wolfowitz w/100 bin laden". That is, all instances where Wolfowitz's name comes up within one hundred words of 'bin laden'. I set the date range between January 1st, 1980 and September 10th, 2001.

I got 14 hits. By way of contrast, when I plugged in Richard Clarke's name I got 48, with Sandy Berger, 502.

Of those fourteen, five were actually misdated articles from after 9/11. Others were just cases where his name came up in proximity to bin Laden's but in which there was no connection.

There seemed to be only two instances where his name actually came up in relation to bin Laden's. One was an article in which Richard Holbrooke was questioning the Bush administration's and Wolfowitz's zeal for national missile defense.

Holbrooke questioned that threat to Washington, charging that the plan is ''almost a religious matter'' for the Bush administration.

''We have to ask ourselves, in what way are we really threatened?'' he said. ''It's people like (Saudi militant) Osama bin Laden who are dangerous, and they have no long-range missiles.''

The other is a case in which Wolfowitz was being interviewed about missile defense ...

JACO: Dr. Wolfowitz, who is missile defense aimed to protect against? Is it the Chinese? Is it the so-called rogue states like Iraq, Iran, North Korea? Is it a freelance terrorist like Osama bin Laden who might have an ICBM? Who is this particularly a defense against?

WOLFOWITZ: Well, we're talking about defenses against missiles of a variety of ranges and I'll give you a real example that's out of history, in fact I think you were in the Persian Gulf during Desert Storm yourself and you saw what even those limited Iraqi Scud missiles were able to do. They almost succeeded in dragging Israel into the war actively, which would have changed the whole character of the war. The single worst hit we took during the war was when a single Scud missile hit a barracks in Dhahran.

That's a real-world threat from 10 years ago that today is much worse in the Korean Peninsula than anything we encountered in the Gulf. Hopefully we have Saddam Hussein lower down now, but it's a threat we could face in the future in the Gulf either from Iraq or Iran.

Then there's a, sort of, intermediate-range threat which begins to target the capitals of our key allies and some of our bases in places like Japan or Turkey or Europe.

Finally, there's the longer-range threat which could attack the United States.

And hostile countries like North Korea are working at all ranges. The North Koreans have already deployed a lot of missiles of the short-range, Scud type, and a pretty large number we think of the intermediate range. And we think they're working, and within five to 10 years will have a capability to target the United States.

We're trying to get our ability to defend against those threats out in front of the threats, and we aren't yet there. We're still just a year away from deploying an answer to that Scud missile that we dealt with 10 years ago.

But with this acceleration of the program that President Bush has directed, I think we can catch up.

Nothin' about OBL from Wolfowitz.

These are the only two cases where Wolfowitz's name comes up in relation to bin Laden. And I think it's fair to say that both show a lack of interest in this threat rather than the presence of it.

In other words, my quick-and-dirty search didn't generate one case where Wolfowitz discussed bin Laden as a threat at all -- though I'm sure he must have mentioned him at some point.

You might say that the comparisons with Clarke and Berger are unfair since they were in government and Wolfowitz wasn't. But when I swapped bin Laden's name for 'Saddam' in my search, I got 546 hits, and well over 400 of them were from after he left government in 1993.

Now, I grant that this is a pretty crude way to measure how Wolfowitz judged the al Qaida threat prior to 9/11. But I think it's pretty suggestive too. And it does match up with what I think can only be called the consensus opinion about what Wolfowitz focused on.

Now, back to my request.

Since Nexis searching is a crude measure, I'd like to know if any readers can point me to pre-9/11, published references to Wolfowitz stating his belief that al Qaida was a "major threat." Doesn't have to be that phrase of course. Just any reference that would back up the present claim.

More generally, and this is the real request, there are a lot of White House appointees and surrogates hitting the airwaves bashing Clarke, many of which are making willfully deceptive claims or simply lying.

Sixty or seventy thousand people come to this site every week day. That should be more than enough eyes to monitor all the relevant chat shows. If you find instances where you think someone is pulling a Cheney and especially if you can point me to a transcript or an online replay, I'd be greatly obliged if you can send it my way.

Before this morning, the following occurred to <$Ad$>me.

Vice President Cheney has been out of sight for a long time. But of late he's been out a lot, doing media interviews, giving campaign speeches and so forth.

Isn't it time someone asked him about the fact that senior members of his staff are at the center of a criminal investigation into the intentional leak of the identity of a clandestine operative at the CIA?

He's doing a lot of press. Why is no one asking him about this?

Now to the point at hand.

Cheney was on Rush Limbaugh today fighting back against Richard Clarke.

Now, I don't expect Limbaugh to ask the question above. But look what Cheney said about Clarke.

RUSH: All right, let's get straight to what the news is all about now before we branch out to things. Why did the administration keep Richard Clarke on the counterterrorism team when you all assumed office in January of 2001?

CHENEY: Well, I wasn't directly involved in that decision. He was moved out of the counterterrorism business over to the cybersecurity side of things. That is, he was given the new assignment at some point there. I don't recall the exact time frame.

Cheney frequently gets a pass for what his aides later portray as unintentional misstatements of fact. But there are two or three levels of dishonesty involved in this response. The key one is timing. It's convenient that Cheney doesn't "recall the exact time frame" since the time frame puts the lie to his entire point.

Clarke was put in charge of cyberterrorism (a pet interest of his); but that was after 9/11.

He's saying that Clarke wasn't really so central to the terrorism big picture prior to 9/11 because he was tasked with dealing with cyberterrorism (which Cheney describes as something like a glorified version of Norton AntiVirus). But, as noted, this happened after 9/11. That's after the period in which Clarke claims the White House wasn't paying attention to the terrorism issue.

If there's any question that's the period Cheney is talking about it becomes more clear as the conversation continues ...

RUSH: Cybersecurity? Meaning Internet security?

CHENEY: Yeah, worried about attacks on computer systems and, you know, sophisticated information technology systems we have these days and that an adversary would use or try --

RUSH: Well, now, that explains a lot, that answer right there.

CHENEY: Well, he wasn't in the loop, frankly, on a lot of this stuff, and I saw part of his interview last night, and --

RUSH: He was demoted.

CHENEY: It was still -- he clearly missed a lot of what was going on. For example, just three weeks after the -- after we got here, there was communication, for example with the president of Pakistan laying out our concerns about Afghanistan and al-Qaeda and the importance of the -- going after the Taliban and getting them to end their support for the al-Qaeda. This is say within three weeks of our arrival here. So the only thing I can say about Dick Clarke is he was here throughout those eight years going back to 1993, and the first attack on the World Trade Center in '98 when the embassies were hit in east Africa, in 2000 when the USS Cole was hit, and the question that out to be asked is, what were they doing in those days when they -- when he was in charge of counterterrorism efforts?

So Cheney's claim is that Clarke "wasn't in the loop ... on a lot of this stuff."

Consider what that means.

Clarke, as we've said, was the counter-terrorism coordinator at NSC. That means he ran the inter-agency process on terrorism issues. Cheney says Clarke wasn't in the loop; but that means that he actually ran the loop.

If he was out of the loop on the central points of what the White House was doing on terrorism that means there was a complete breakdown of the interagency process.

Saying Clarke was out of the loop is less a defense of the administration than an indictment of it.

We'll be saying more on this. But I think we can already see from this and other defenses coming from administration officials that the White House's line on this is filled with clear distortions and misstatements of fact -- most of which are easily identifiable by people who have even a rough understanding of the timing and issues involved.

If they're resorting to blatant distortions and untruths this quickly they must not have a good defense.

Paging Dr. Okrent, paging Dr. Okrent ...

We noted last night the odd and (I think now) clearly regrettable decision to have Judith Miller write the Times piece on Richard Clarke. (For general background on her inappropriateness to report this piece see this piece by Jack Shafer.)

The first point to notice is that in an article purportedly about Clarke's accusations, she provides one sentence describing his claims, with no direct quotes, before moving onto two paragraphs with direct quotes from White House Communications Director attacking Clarke.

Also note that she describes Clarke's claims thusly, that he "asserts that while neither president did enough to prevent the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration has undermined American national security by using the 9/11 attacks for political advantage and ignoring the threat of Al Qaeda in order to invade Iraq."

With all respect, that's simply not what he says. He does criticize Clinton and Bush. But his statements last night did not come close to putting the two presidents on a par when it came to the lead-up to 9/11.

Maybe he's wrong. Maybe he's giving Clinton a free-ride. But Miller shouldn't change what he said.

Another point.

In the version of Miller's article that ran last night there was this passage ...

Clarke also said that Tom Ridge, the president's first domestic security adviser and head of the Department of Homeland Security, opposed the creation of his own department on the grounds -- accurate ones in Clarke's view -- that it would be too costly and difficult to integrate with other agencies. Clarke said Ridge had to clear major statements and actions with Andrew H. Card Jr., the president's chief of staff.

In an interview Sunday night, Brian Roehrkasse, a spokesman for the department, denied that Ridge was against the creation of the department and said the department did not have to go through any more clearance with the White House than other Cabinet departments.

Miller hasn't been publishing as much of late. And someone needs to clue her into the revised rules. It's been at least a few months since reporters have willingly published demonstrably false statements from administration officials and spokespersons.

As we noted early this month Ridge went on record in May 2002 saying he was recommending that the president veto legislation that would have created his department.

(As we later learned, behind the scenes the White House was already planning to introduce the same legislation themselves. But this opposition had been the White House's public position for months, and one Ridge publicly supported.)

Apparently, the Times already realized it had a problem because the passage has now been revised to ...

Mr. Clarke also said that Tom Ridge, the president's first domestic security adviser and head of the Department of Homeland Security, opposed the creation of his own department on grounds, accurate ones in Mr. Clarke's view, that it would be too costly and difficult to integrate with other agencies. Mr. Clarke said that Mr. Ridge had to clear major statements and actions with Andrew H. Card Jr., the president's chief of staff.

In an interview Sunday night, Brian Roehrkasse, a spokesman for the department, denied that.

So now Roehrkasse's denial stands but it's no longer clear what he's denying. You might say Miller has given him deniability about his denial.

The Times current article is here; but you can see the earlier version, preserved in amber shall we say, over here at the website of the Indianapolis Star.

We seem to have a bit of a contradiction, don't we?

Richard Clarke rolled out his book this evening on 60 Minutes, arguing, in brief, that the Bush administration put counter-terrorism and the hunt for al Qaida on the back burner prior to 9/11 and then after 9/11 immediately started focusing on Iraq even though there was no evidence of Iraqi involvement in 9/11 or even al Qaida terrorism generally.

Meanwhile, on the Washington Post op-ed page, Condi Rice has a lengthy column presenting what can only be called a very, very different picture.

The new administration heeded the warnings of the outgoing Clinton administration and not only focused closely on al Qaida and the rise in chatter in the summer of 2001 but was actually preparing a much more aggressive approach than anything that had been considered previously. What's more, the president himself sensed that not enough was being done and called for further scrutiny into the possibility of a domestic attack and a more aggressive plan to "eliminate" al Qaida.

The president, in the telling of Rice and her deputy Steve Hadley, seems to have been more engaged, forward-thinking and insightful on this issue than literally any other major player on the administration's national security team.

Even with all the vastness of the federal bureaucracy and the possible uncertainties of interpretation, there's no question that one of these two people -- Rice or Clarke -- is misleading us.

Rice was (and is) the president's National Security Advisor. Clarke was in charge of counter-terrorism policy at the National Security Council. Nothing discussed by either on this issue should be a mystery to the other. It's possible that neither is lying in a narrow factual sense. But, at a minimum, one must be giving us a deeply partial and misleading account.

(Clarke is yet to get the 'treatment' from the press. So we'll see how his statements hold up. But on this issue -- what happened pre-9/11 -- and the related yellowcake matter, Rice has already developed a track record of inaccurate, misleading, contradictory and contradicted statements -- which we'll be reviewing in future posts.)

This is why we have a press whose job it is not simply to frame this as a potent he-said/she-said but to dig into the details and find out who isn't leveling with us.

One place to start might be this claim which Steve Hadley made on 60 Minutes (and which is also echoed in Rice's editorial) ...

Hadley staunchly defended the president to Stahl: "The president heard those warnings. The president met daily with ... George Tenet and his staff. They kept him fully informed and at one point the president became somewhat impatient with us and said, 'I'm tired of swatting flies. Where's my new strategy to eliminate al Qaeda?'"

Hadley says that, contrary to Clarke's assertion, Mr. Bush didn't ignore the ominous intelligence chatter in the summer of 2001.

"All the chatter was of an attack, a potential al Qaeda attack overseas. But interestingly enough, the president got concerned about whether there was the possibility of an attack on the homeland. He asked the intelligence community: 'Look hard. See if we're missing something about a threat to the homeland.'

"And at that point various alerts went out from the Federal Aviation Administration to the FBI saying the intelligence suggests a threat overseas. We don't want to be caught unprepared. We don't want to rule out the possibility of a threat to the homeland. And therefore preparatory steps need to be made. So the president put us on battle stations."

We've heard the swatting at flies line before. So presumably there must have been some such conversation. The White House has referenced it again and again. But what was the context? And what did it lead to? Documents must have been generated. Directives must have been written up and executed. What are the details?

Someone is not levelling with us. If the press is worth anything it should find out who, right?

Nota Bene: Monday's New York Times story on Richard Clarke's revelations is written by Judith Miller. Quite a choice -- and problematic for a number of reasons. See Jack Shafer's latest on this from just last month.

It's hard to say which of the Clarke revelations is most damaging. <$NoAd$>But there are many contenders. Here's another -- the video of which just aired a few minutes ago on 60 Minutes ...

"The president dragged me into a room with a couple of other people, shut the door, and said, 'I want you to find whether Iraq did this.' Now he never said, 'Make it up.' But the entire conversation left me in absolutely no doubt that George Bush wanted me to come back with a report that said Iraq did this.

"I said, 'Mr. President. We've done this before. We have been looking at this. We looked at it with an open mind. There's no connection.'

"He came back at me and said, "Iraq! Saddam! Find out if there's a connection.' And in a very intimidating way. I mean that we should come back with that answer. We wrote a report."

Clarke continued, "It was a serious look. We got together all the FBI experts, all the CIA experts. We wrote the report. We sent the report out to CIA and found FBI and said, 'Will you sign this report?' They all cleared the report. And we sent it up to the president and it got bounced by the National Security Advisor or Deputy. It got bounced and sent back saying, 'Wrong answer. ... Do it again.'

"I have no idea, to this day, if the President saw it, because after we did it again, it came to the same conclusion. And frankly, I don't think the people around the president show him memos like that. I don't think he sees memos that he doesn't-- wouldn't like the answer."

More soon.

Atrios quotes this passage from Richard Clarke's interview tonight on CBS at length. But it's worth excerpting again for reasons I note below ...

"We had a terrorist organization that was going after us! Al Qaeda. That should have been the first item on the agenda. And it was pushed back and back and back for months.

"There's a lot of blame to go around, and I probably deserve some blame, too. But on January 24th, 2001, I wrote a memo to Condoleezza Rice asking for, urgently -- underlined urgently -- a Cabinet-level meeting to deal with the impending al Qaeda attack. And that urgent memo-- wasn't acted on.

"I blame the entire Bush leadership for continuing to work on Cold War issues when they back in power in 2001. It was as though they were preserved in amber from when they left office eight years earlier. They came back. They wanted to work on the same issues right away: Iraq, Star Wars. Not new issues, the new threats that had developed over the preceding eight years."

Clarke finally got his meeting about al Qaeda in April, three months after his urgent request. But it wasn't with the president or cabinet. It was with the second-in-command in each relevant department.

For the Pentagon, it was Paul Wolfowitz.

Clarke relates, "I began saying, 'We have to deal with bin Laden; we have to deal with al Qaeda.' Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, said, 'No, no, no. We don't have to deal with al Qaeda. Why are we talking about that little guy? We have to talk about Iraqi terrorism against the United States.'

"And I said, 'Paul, there hasn't been any Iraqi terrorism against the United States in eight years!' And I turned to the deputy director of the CIA and said, 'Isn't that right?' And he said, 'Yeah, that's right. There is no Iraqi terrorism against the United States."

Clarke went on to add, "There's absolutely no evidence that Iraq was supporting al Qaeda, ever."

This is the essence of the whole story. Everything.

As Talleyrand said of the restored <$Ad$>Bourbons, they had learned nothing and forgotten nothing during their time in exile. So too with the foreign policy coterie President Bush brought back from the cold in January 2001.

One chilling note in this passage is that Paul Wolfowitz, the prime architect and idea man of the second Iraq war, spent the early months of the Bush administration focused on "Iraqi terrorism against the United States", something that demonstrably did not even exist. A rather bad sign.

The bigger point, however, is this.

The first months of the Bush administration were based on a fundamental strategic miscalcuation about the source of the greatest threats to the United States. They were, as Clark suggests, stuck in a Cold War mindset, focused on Cold War problems, though the terms of debate were superficially reordered to make them appear to address a post-Cold War world.

That screw up is a reality -- their inability to come clean about it is, I suspect, is at the root of all the covering up and stonewalling of the 9/11 commission. And Democrats are both right and within their rights to call the White House on it. But screw-ups happen; mistakes happen. What is inexcusable is the inability, indeed the refusal, to learn from them.

Rather than adjust to this different reality, on September 12th, the Bush war cabinet set about using 9/11 -- exploiting it, really -- to advance an agenda which had, in fact, been largely discredited by 9/11. They shoe-horned everything they'd been trying to do before the attacks into the new boots of 9/11. And the fit was so bad they had to deceive the public and themselves to do it.

As the international relations expert John Ikenberry noted aptly in a recent essay, the Bush hardliners "fancy themselves tough-minded thinkers. But they didn't have the courage of their convictions to level with the American people on what this geopolitical adventure in Iraq was really about and what it would cost."

To revert again to paraphrases of Talleyrandian wisdom, this was worse than a crime. It was a mistake -- though I suspect that when the full story is told, we'll see that it was both.