Gorillas in Our Midst

Last week the Plain English Campaign denounced at the end of the day, ballpark figure, bottom line, and many other handy cliches of deadline writing. Fortunately, the London-based crusaders failed to banish the extraordinarily helpful “900-pound gorilla”–the dreadful presence that changes everything, even if no one admits it’s there.

This cliche might not be hardened enough yet to mobilize the PEC–my research finds that some flexibility still exists as to the size of the ape–wasn’t it 800 pounds just the other day?–and what it signifies.

For example, on March 23 CNN’s Wolf Blitzer was talking to Democratic congressman Anna Eshoo of California about the day’s 9/11 commission hearings. She allowed that the recent book by former White House antiterrorism chief Richard Clarke was “really the elephant or the 10,000-pound gorilla in the middle of that hearing room. Because it really rejiggers in many ways what may have been going on.” Eshoo’s five-ton simian was big enough to put King Kong to shame, and the commission sure knew it was there.

The great ape was invoked more conventionally back in August 2002 by cartoonist “Tom Tomorrow” on his blog at thismodernworld.com: “As we gear up for a war with a country with, to date, no provable link to Al Qaeda, the Washington Post reports that the administration–or at least its brain trust–is beginning to acknowledge the 900 pound gorilla in the middle of the room–Saudi Arabia’s ties to terrorism.”

And at a 9/11 commission hearing last December 8, a former Defense Department general counsel took a crack at the idiom. Judith Miller was being questioned on private versus government access to personal information. Why was it that a credit card company, say, could have found out so much more about Mohammed Atta in an hour or two than Washington? “I do think that there’s an obvious difference,” Miller replied, “because government does bring with it–and, I mean, it’s the 900-pound gorilla, to put it mildly–and it does bring with it a lot of power over its citizens that private entities cannot typically exercise.”

September 11 teems with gorillas. Watching the 9/11 hearings last week, I spotted one of my own. It wasn’t Clarke’s book. It was the electoral process. No commissioner, no witness, no commission report was willing to entertain the idea that politics as usual had helped put the nation at risk.

The witnesses were heavyweights–Clarke, the national coordinator for counterterrorism under presidents Clinton and Bush; George Tenet, both presidents’ CIA chief; Samuel Berger, Clinton’s national security adviser; William Cohen, Clinton’s secretary of defense; Donald Rumsfeld, Bush’s secretary of defense; and secretaries of state Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell. “Soon after the Clinton administration began, terrorism became an early priority,” Berger testified. “Our administration, with growing intensity, gave the fight against terrorism the highest national-security priority.”

The 90s were the decade when Osama bin Laden sent America a message. In 1993 the World Trade Center was bombed. In February 1998 bin Laden declared that Muslims had a religious duty to kill Americans wherever they found them, and in August the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania–two symbols of American global power–were blown up and thousands killed or injured. Clinton responded by firing cruise missiles at targets in Afghanistan and Sudan and was “widely criticized” for doing even that, as Clarke reminded the commission.

On October 12, 2000, the USS Cole was attacked in Yemen, and 17 American sailors were killed. America didn’t respond. “CIA and FBI were…unwilling to state that those who had conducted the attack were Al Qaida,” Clarke testified.

The witnesses dwelled on what America hadn’t done before 9/11 and on why.

Powell: “I don’t know that in this period from ’93 through the summer of 2001 you had a sufficient political base and sufficient political understanding, both here and in the international community, that would have given you a basis for saying that we know enough about Al Qaida, we know enough about the Taliban, that we are going in to invade this country and remove this threat.”

Commissioner Bob Kerrey: “Can I respond to that?…Secretary Albright said the same thing. And I was there [in the Senate] in ’91 when you and former president Bush and secretary [Dick] Cheney went to the world and persuaded the world that we needed to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. Public opinion wasn’t on your side either when you began. Public opinion wasn’t on the side of President Clinton when he suggested that we needed to intervene in Bosnia. It wasn’t on the side of the administration when they decided to intervene in Kosovo. It’s rare that public opinion is on the side of a president or political leader when it comes to using military force….But history’s replete of examples where political leaders made a decision in spite of public opinion being on the other side, and saying, I’ve got to persuade people because I see it being an urgent necessity.”

Cohen: “When the attack was launched in Afghanistan and Sudan, there was a movie out called Wag the Dog. There were critics of the Clinton administration that attacked the president saying this was an effort on his part to divert attention from his personal difficulties [Monica Lewinsky]….I leave it to you, Senator Kerrey, and to others who have served in Congress. Do you think it’s reasonable that under the circumstances that any president, including President Clinton, could have gone to Congress in October of 2000 and said, ‘These people are trying to kill us, and now therefore we’re going to invade Afghanistan and take them out?’ I don’t think so.”

Rumsfeld: “We would have heard objections to preemption similar to those voiced before the coalition launched Operation Iraqi Freedom. We would have been asked, ‘How could you attack Afghanistan when it was Al Qaida that attacked us, not the Taliban? How can you go to war when countries in the region don’t support you? Won’t launching such an invasion actually provoke ‘terrorist attacks against the United States’?…History shows that it can take a tragedy like September 11th to waken the world to new threats and to the need for action.”

Could anyone have wakened the world earlier? Could anyone have wakened America?

When the Cole was attacked the election of George W. Bush or Vice President Al Gore was less than a month away. Either candidate could have turned the attack into a campaign issue, buckling on his sword and calling for swift, massive countermeasures. The press could have demanded they take a stand.

But the attack on the Cole was far enough away and modest enough to ignore, and everyone did. Gore asserted that “whoever is responsible for something like this will be met with a full and forceful and effective retaliatory response….We will defend our country.” George Bush said, “There must be a consequence.” He also said, “It’s time for our nation to speak with one voice.” A Democratic political consultant was quoted saying, “Neither of them better get caught playing politics with these issues.” They weren’t–the Cole disappeared from political sight.

The third and last debate between Gore and Bush was held October 17 in Saint Louis. The moderator was Jim Lehrer, who’d focused on foreign affairs in an earlier debate. This debate was a public forum, Lehrer screening questions from the audience. The first two were about health care, the third about education. The evening was half over before Lehrer allowed a question on foreign affairs: “What would make you the best candidate in office during the Middle East crisis?”

“I’ve been a leader,” Bush replied. “I got a strategy for the Middle East. And first let me say that our nation now needs to speak with one voice during this time.” He went on to say that America “must be strong to keep the peace” and that Saddam Hussein “still is a threat in the Middle East.” He summed up: “So to answer your question, it requires a clear vision, a willingness to stand by our friends, and the credibility for people, both friend and foe, to understand when America says something, we mean it.” He had nothing to say about al Qaeda or the Cole.

Then Gore got his turn. “I see a future when the world is at peace,” he began. He recalled volunteering to fight in Vietnam, sitting on the House Intelligence Committee and on the Senate Armed Services Committee. “The United States has to be strong,” he said, answering a follow-up, then declared himself in support of a pay raise for servicemen. The Cole didn’t cross his lips.

The next questioner asked about the Brady Bill, then there was a question about family farms. The Middle East, let alone terrorism or the Cole, never came up again.

A Tribune editorial the day after the Cole attack is informative. It lumped the Cole together with the day’s “outrageous slaughter of Israeli soldiers by a Palestinian mob” and Israel’s retaliatory attack on Yasir Arafat’s Gaza compound. “Peace seems far distant,” it intoned. It went on to say that the U.S. must “act decisively to track down the masterminds” of the Cole attack, but didn’t see it as anything but a collateral incident in the “steady rise in violence” between Israelis and Palestinians.

On November 1 the Tribune came back to the bombing. “Now that the nation has started coming to terms with its grief over the loss of 17 U.S. sailors,” this editorial began, “it is appropriate to question whether the Pentagon and the Clinton administration did everything possible to protect them.” The answer: very likely not. But the Tribune didn’t call for reprisals, and again it didn’t mention al Qaeda.

Last Sunday on Meet the Press, Richard Clarke told Tim Russert that neither Bush nor Gore nor the media made an issue of the Cole after it was attacked. Richard Ben-Veniste of the 9/11 commission said in passing at the recent hearings that he didn’t remember “terrorism being much if even an issue at all in the 2000 campaign.”

Last Sunday’s New York Times carried an essay by Craig Whitney on the rules of engagement in a war on terror. “After Sept. 11, 2001,” he wrote, “the war was on, and the door blew wide open”–meaning the door to sanctioned assassinations. Of course, the war with al Qaeda had been on since 1993. In September 2001 America finally decided it was at war too. Eleven months earlier no one but a few zealots like Clarke had wanted to think about fighting back.

How did the looming presidential election affect the Clinton-Gore administration’s reaction to the Cole bombing? Albright, Cohen, and Berger should have been asked that last week. If they’d said it had no effect, they should have been told that no one believed them.

When he testifies, Gore should be probed at length about his visceral assessment of how the Cole attack affected his candidacy. Did he think the wrong response would cost him the election? The wrong response being what? Was he more worried about what Bush might say about an act of American belligerence than about al Qaeda? Bush should be asked why, if he felt so strongly “there must be a consequence,” he didn’t demand one on the campaign trail. Are presidential campaigns so fastidiously constructed out of manipulated images and issues that a dose of ugly reality like the Cole attack is something neither side wants to deal with?

Lame-duck administrations don’t start wars. And new administrations don’t make a priority of cleaning up their predecessors’ messes. As Rumsfeld put it: “I do not believe that launching another cruise-missile strike four months after the fact would have sent a message of strength to terrorists. Indeed, it might have sent a signal of weakness.” Did the politics of the presidential campaign paralyze America for months and put us all in greater danger?

More Monkey Business

Want to earn some fast money? Drop a dime and tell Phil Kadner at the Daily Southtown who was responsible for the bogus Kadner column that showed up on windshields in Lansing, Burnham, and other parts of Illinois’ 29th House District the night before the March 16 primary. State representative David Miller is offering $1,000 for this information, and state senator James Meeks (Miller’s political ally and the pastor of his church), Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., and his father, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, are each offering $1,000 more. The Southtown hasn’t put up any money, but Kadner tells me publisher Mark Hornung has vowed to sue the scoundrels.

Miller’s a dentist. The flyer–which sported a Daily Southtown logo and a photo of Kadner, along with the headline “This Is No Laughing Matter”–tried hard to imitate Kadner’s punchy style. According to the “column,” the Southtown had uncovered a sexual-assault complaint filed against Miller with the state’s attorney’s office. The money sentence: “The gas prematurely wore off and to ‘Becky’s’ surprise, she discovered her skirt had been pulled up over her head and the good doctor was examining the wrong cavity.” The “column” explained that this shocking tale hadn’t hit “mainstream media due to the political clout of Miller’s supporters–the Jacksons.”

The flyer might have had more effect if it had looked like a xeroxed newspaper clipping. Miller easily won the primary, defeating Sheryl Tillman with 59.7 percent of the vote to her 33.9 percent, Harold “Noonie” Ward trailing with 6.4 percent. Miller has his own ideas about who produced the flyer, ideas that turn on the fact that Tillman was backed by the notorious Shaw brothers–William, the mayor of Dolton, and Robert, a former Chicago alderman.

But Tillman’s spokesman, Sean Howard, says absolutely not. “At no time did Mrs. Tillman engage in any negative campaigning,” he told me. “She ran a Christian-based campaign. She’s a deeply religious woman.” He faxed me an open letter to voters Tillman had issued a few days before the election, which lamented the “enormous amount of negative campaign material circulated throughout” the district and pledged that her own camp would “continue the positive pattern that has allowed us to be considered a front runner.”

Howard told me, as he’d already told Kadner, that a hard look at “Noonie” Ward might be in order. Kadner characterized Ward in a postelection column about the mysterious flyer as a “shadowy character” who’d been described by an Indiana newspaper as “a former Gangster Disciple with a drug record.” But Kadner wasn’t buying him as the bad guy. His column went on to say, “I don’t think a lot of Gangster Disciples read the Southtown on a regular basis, so my guess is ‘Noonie’ wouldn’t have thought of using my column to boost his political fortunes.”

Kadner isn’t saying for the record who he does think came up with the flyer. Because Howard had seemed so earnest in his denials, I happened to ask Miller if he knew him.

He laughed and said, “A very unique young man.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/AP–Wide World Photos–Dimitri Messini.