/11: He Saw It Coming

Paul Bremer, the American viceroy in Baghdad, was asked the other day by Meet the Press’s Tim Russert to whom he’d be turning over the keys to Iraq on June 30. Bremer couldn’t say. But that’s when Iraq supposedly gets its sovereignty back and Bremer can go home.

Once Bremer’s time is his own again, the 9/11 commission should bring him in to testify. The question that haunts the commission today–what should the U.S. have been doing before September 11, 2001, to prevent a terrorist attack?–preoccupied him for years.

Before 9/11 the nation wasn’t blind to the peril it was in. In 1998 Congress told the Clinton administration to conduct a study of the nation’s ability to defeat terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction. An advisory panel that became known as the Gilmore commission was assembled and issued a series of annual reports. Its second, released in December 2000, asserted that “the United States has no coherent, functional national strategy for combating terrorism….The organization of the Federal government’s programs for combating terrorism is fragmented, uncoordinated, and politically unaccountable.” The commission recommended that “the next President should develop and present to the Congress a national strategy for combating terrorism within one year of assuming office.”

A career diplomat, Bremer was President Reagan’s ambassador-at-large for counterterrorism. A decade later he sat on the Gilmore commission. In 1999 another congressionally mandated panel, the National Commission on Terrorism, began a six-month study of America’s capacity to prevent and punish acts of terrorism. “Seriously deficient,” it would conclude. Bremer chaired this commission.

On February 26, 2001, the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation opened a three-day conference on the theme “Terrorism: Informing the Public” at Cantigny, the colonel’s estate in Wheaton. Bremer, who gave the keynote speech, recalled his work on the National Commission on Terrorism.

“We concluded that the general terrorist threat is increasing,” Bremer said, “particularly because of a change in the motives of terrorist groups….We have seen a move from narrow political motivation to a broader ideological, religious, or apocalyptic motive for many terrorist groups–groups that are not attacking because they are trying to find a broader audience, but are acting out of revenge or hatred, or simply out of an apocalyptic belief that the end of the world is near.” The new terrorists, he said, weren’t interested in killing just enough innocent people to get noticed. For them it was the more dead the better.

The Bush administration had been in power just about a month at this point, but Bremer had already seen enough to draw some conclusions about it. He told the many journalists invited to the Cantigny conference to hold the White House’s feet to the fire: “It is the media’s responsibility, and an important one, though very uncomfortable for people in government, to put a very strong spotlight on the government’s policies and practices on terrorism, especially given the current disorganization of the federal government’s fight against terrorism. In this area, the federal government is in complete disarray. There’s been remarkably little attention to the major recommendation the Gilmore Commission made for a substantial reorganization of the government’s approach to terrorism. Journalists shouldn’t let politicians get away with that.

“The new administration seems to be paying no attention to the problem of terrorism. What they will do is stagger along until there’s a major incident and then suddenly say, ‘Oh, my God, shouldn’t we be organized to deal with this?’ That’s too bad. They’ve been given a window of opportunity with very little terrorism now, and they’re not taking advantage of it. Maybe the folks in the press ought to be pushing a little bit.”

Bremer’s remarks, somewhat abridged, survive in Terrorism: Informing the Public, the McCormick Tribune Foundation’s book-length report on the conference. By the time it was published, in 2002, that window of opportunity had slammed shut.

Liberals Get a Rush of Their Own on Air America

The new liberal radio “network” Air America Radio found itself in a silly predicament last week–in a fit of pique, the owner of a couple of pip-squeak outlets knocked it off the air in Chicago and Los Angeles.

I turned of course to my computer. (Air America started broadcasting March 31, and two million audio streams–some sort of record–were reported the first week.) High tech and talk radio aren’t natural allies–the romantic ideal is the interstate trucker guzzling joe and hee-hawing at the malice oozing from the dash. But they’re a better match than talk radio and Al Franken. He’s too congenial. He sounds like a long-lost Magliozzi brother who moans about WMDs instead of carburetors.

Air America disappeared suddenly last Wednesday from WNTD in Chicago and KBLA in Los Angeles, both owned by MultiCultural Radio Broadcasting of Manhattan. MultiCultural owner Arthur Liu claimed a check had bounced. The Tribune reported being told that the Air America rep overseeing the feed from New York was tossed out of WNTD by a MultiCultural representative who switched to a Spanish-language feed and changed all the locks.

Air America went to court the next day, and a New York state judge ordered Air America back on the air in Chicago. (LA remained off.) So I sat at my desk counting on streaming audio to keep me abreast of the excitement, while behind me WNTD (950 on our AM dials) chattered away in foreign languages. I expected the station to resume its regular programming at any moment, but Air America didn’t return until Friday afternoon.

PM drive-time hostess, Randi Rhodes, as I am not the first to notice, is the real thing. “She’s obnoxious. She gets it. Barely tolerates the callers who agree with her,” I scribbled. The key to being a great talk-show host, I surmised, is the ability to loathe your enemies and abase your friends, the ability to reduce listeners to fawning acolytes who call in to thank you for blessing their squalid lives with God’s own truth. The ability to, without disagreeing with a word of praise they lavish, somehow convey your contempt for their servile need to lavish it.

Rhodes has that down cold. I’m never wrong, she said more than once, a true ideological dominatrix. “Unflinching candor,” says her Air America bio, which traces her progress from Brooklyn to a “most outstanding woman” air force award to a Mexican restaurant in Seminole, Texas, where she waitressed while breaking into radio to her “legendary” talk shows in south Florida. I’m fat and I’m ugly, she said breezily on the air. And she’s a hater.

Time magazine’s clueless Richard Corliss called Rhodes “hectoring” and “cocksure”–actually the highest possible praise in her line of work–and went on to say that she was the one Air America host he’d like to trade in. He took consolation knowing that, despite her, “there’s still a wealth of useful, funny infotainment on offer 15 hours a day.”

He’s probably too nice to understand that talk radio doesn’t have to be useful and funny. The liberals who cling to Rhodes’s every word were starved for a slimer.

“You have two hotheaded businessmen who are absolutely not in love with each other, and they’re butting heads,” said Rhodes on her show, explaining why Air America had disappeared from the airwaves in the country’s second and third largest cities.

After Liu (who didn’t return my calls) lost in court, the second of these businessmen issued a statement. “Temper tantrums are not the way to conduct business,” said Air America chairman Evan Cohen. “Instead of continuing to discuss the business dispute he had with Air America Radio, he took his rage out on Air America’s listeners in Chicago and Los Angeles. This was disgraceful and unprofessional.”

Cohen said he would look for a broadcast “partner who is more responsible and mature” than Liu. This week Air America announced that it will stay with WNTD through the end of April. After that, all bets are off.

News Bites

Paul Bremer in 2001 on the 2004 Olympics: “There are a number of countries in Europe that could contend for the prize of having the best counter-terrorist policy. There’s only one in the running for the worst, and that’s Greece. For 25 years, they have not captured a single member of the November 17 terrorist group. There have been 146 attacks against Americans in Greece, of which only one has been resolved. And that was resolved not by the Greeks, but by an alert contract security guard at our consulate. I don’t think they’re ready for the Olympics.”

But that was three years ago. Last December an Athens court convicted 15 defendants–including alleged mastermind Alexandros Giotopoulos–of thousands of crimes over the course of November 17’s brutal 27-year history. A government spokesman said, “Terrorism received a decisive blow and of course Greece is now viewed throughout the world as one of the safest countries.”

I’d like to hear that from Bremer.

From a Tribune feature story April 17 on the new USA Network series Spartacus: “Viewers who have seen the movie will notice that the ending is different in the mini-series, Shapiro said. ‘The movie has more of a Hollywood ending. For the mini-series, we went back to the book.'”

What book? There was no other mention in the article of a book.

From a Tribune news story April 18 on a shoot-out between international police officers posted in Kosovo in which two Americans were killed: “The top UN official in Kosovo, Harri Holkeri, seemed stunned at the shooting, which came as the mission is still grappling with last month’s violence.”

What violence last month? There was no other mention of it in the article.

The Spartacus story came to the Tribune from the Washington Post, the Kosovo story from the AP. In their original forms both stories explained what they were talking about.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Helene C. Stikkel, courtesy U.S. Department of Defense.