Softball in the Rose Garden: White House press corps failed to challenge Bush's non-answers at press conference

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN

President Bush offered many evasive answers during a September 15 press conference, but members of the White House press corps continued a pattern of failing to follow up each other's questions regardless of how unresponsive Bush had been to the previous question.

During a September 15 press conference, President Bush provided numerous evasive and misleading responses to questions regarding his counterterrorism policies and handling of the war in Iraq. But members of the White House press corps largely failed to follow up on each other's questions, continuing a regular pattern of asking their own questions regardless of how unresponsive Bush had been in his previous answer and regardless of the significance of the previous question. Media Matters for America previously documented the press corps' reticence to challenge Bush during press conferences on December 19, 2005, and March 21.

Criticism from Powell

The first question of the September 15 press conference came from Associated Press White House correspondent Terence Hunt, who noted former Secretary of State Colin Powell's recent statement in a letter to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ): "The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism." Hunt asked, "If a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former secretary of State feels this way, don't you think that Americans and the rest of the world are beginning to wonder whether you're following a flawed strategy?" Following is Bush's response:

BUSH: If there's any comparison between the compassion and decency of the American people and the terrorist tactics of extremists, it's flawed logic. I simply can't accept that. It's unacceptable to think that there's any kind of comparison between the behavior of the United States of America and the action of Islamic extremists who kill innocent women and children to achieve an objective, Terry.

My job, and the job of people here in Washington, D.C., is to protect this country. We didn't ask for this war. You might remember the 2000 campaign. I don't remember spending much time talking about what it might be like to be a commander in chief in a different kind of war. But this enemy has struck us and they want to strike us again. And we will give our folks the tools necessary to protect the country; that's our job.

But who compared "the compassion and decency of the American people and the terrorist tactics of extremists"? Powell simply stated that the administration's handling of the threat of terrorism -- and more recently its position on the treatment of detained terrorism suspects -- has tarnished the nation's image worldwide and led many across the globe to question the "moral basis" for these policies. Nowhere in Powell's letter or in the question was there a suggestion that the "behavior of the United States" is on par with the "action of Islamic extremists who kill innocent women and children."

Following this answer, Hunt asked, "Can I follow up?" To which Bush answered, "No, you can't," before moving on to Reuters reporter Steve Holland. None of the subsequent questioners pointed out that Bush had answered a different question than the one Hunt asked.

Iran

Fox News White House correspondent Wendell Goler noted Bush's efforts "to get more international support for taking a tough stance against Iran" and asked, "I wonder how much that is frustrated by two things: one, the war in Iraq and world criticism of that; and the other, the Iraqi prime minister going to Iran and basically challenging your administration's claim that Iran is meddling in Iraqi affairs." In response, Bush declared a "strong consensus" in the United Nations on the issue and further stated, "[T]here's common consensus that we need to work together to prevent the Iranian regime from developing that nuclear weapons program."

But the press corps' following questions failed to address the fact that, contrary to Bush's claim of a "strong consensus" in the United Nations, both Russian and China currently represent "obstacles to a U.S.-led push for consideration of sanctions against Iran in the U.N. Security Council," as a September 5 Reuters article reported. The article noted that "China, whose trade with Iran reached nearly $8 billion in the first seven months of the year, has together with Russia long urged a negotiated solution and has traditionally opposed the use of sanctions in international diplomacy."

Further, no reporter noted that Bush had entirely ignored the second part of Goler's question regarding Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki's recent meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran. According to a September 12 New York Times article, al-Maliki requested Iran's "support in quelling the violence that threatens to fracture" Iraq. In turn, Ahmadinejad committed to providing "assistance to establish complete security in Iraq because Iraq's security is Iran's security."

Later in the press conference, Bush similarly ignored the second part of a question posed by New York Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg regarding whether he would veto the detainee-treatment bill the Senate Armed Services Committee passed a day earlier. But in this case, Washington Post staff writer Peter Baker -- when called on by Bush -- pointed out that "Sheryl's second question was whether you would veto the bill as it passed yesterday." Bush then addressed her question, saying, "Hopefully we can reconcile differences."

Saddam-Zarqawi connections

ABC chief White House correspondent Martha Raddatz brought up a recently released Senate Intelligence Committee report that concluded Saddam Hussein "did not have a relationship with, harbor, or turn a blind eye toward" Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and that the CIA issued a 2005 report denying any relationship between the two. Raddatz noted that, despite the CIA's assessment, as recently as a month ago Bush was "still saying there was a relationship." Indeed, during an August 21 press conference, in response to a question from Cox Newspapers White House correspondent Ken Herman, Bush stated that Saddam "had relations with Zarqawi." Raddatz went on to ask, "Why did you keep saying that? Why do you continue to say that? And do you still believe that?" Following is Bush's response:

BUSH: The point I was making to Ken Herman's question was that Saddam Hussein was a state sponsor of terror, and that Mr. Zarqawi was in Iraq. He had been wounded in Afghanistan, had come to Iraq for treatment. He had ordered the killing of a U.S. citizen in Jordan. I never said there was an operational relationship. I was making the point that Saddam Hussein had been declared a state sponsor of terror for a reason, and, therefore, he was dangerous.

The broader point I was saying -- I was reminding people was why we removed Saddam Hussein from power. He was dangerous. I would hope people aren't trying to rewrite the history of Saddam Hussein -- all of a sudden, he becomes kind of a benevolent fellow. He's a dangerous man. And one of the reasons he was declared a state sponsor of terror was because that's what he was. He harbored terrorists; he paid for families of suicide bombers. Never have I said that Saddam Hussein gave orders to attack 9/11. What I did say was, after 9/11, when you see a threat, you've got to take it seriously. And I saw a threat in Saddam Hussein -- as did Congress, as did the United Nations. I firmly believe the world is better off without Saddam in power, Martha.

Contrary to Bush's claim that he "never said there was an operational relationship" between Saddam and Zarqawi, he did repeatedly assert that Saddam had "provided safe haven" to the Al Qaeda operative, as the weblog Think Progress noted. Moreover, the recently released Senate Intelligence report found that, rather than harboring or sponsoring Zarqawi, Saddam had "attempted, unsuccessfully, to locate and capture" him. Further, the report cited an Al Qaeda detainee's disclosure that Saddam's regime "considered al-Zarqawi an outlaw" and blamed him for two bombings in Baghdad.

But in their subsequent questions, none of Raddatz's colleagues took the opportunity to press Bush on the flaws and inconsistencies in this answer.

The hunt for bin Laden

Near the end of the press conference, Newsweek senior White House correspondent Richard Wolffe noted that Bush had previously said that "the idea of sending Special Forces to Pakistan to hunt down bin Laden was as a strategy that would not work." Wolffe went on to ask Bush why he thinks "it's a bad idea to send more resources to hunt down bin Laden wherever he is." Following is Bush's response:

BUSH: We are, Richard. ... Pakistan is a sovereign nation. In order for us to send thousands of troops into a sovereign nation, we've got to be invited by the government of Pakistan.

Secondly, the best way to find somebody who is hiding is to enhance your intelligence and to spend the resources necessary to do that; then when you find him, you bring him to justice. And there is a kind of an urban myth here in Washington about how this administration hasn't stayed focused on Osama bin Laden. Forget it. It's convenient throw-away lines when people say that. We have been on the hunt, and we'll stay on the hunt until we bring him to justice, and we're doing it in a smart fashion, Richard. We are. And I look forward to talking to [Pakistani] President [Pervez] Musharraf.

Look, he doesn't like Al Qaeda. They tried to kill him. And we've had a good record of bringing people to justice inside of Pakistan, because the Paks are in the lead. They know the stakes about dealing with a violent form of ideological extremists. And so we will continue on the hunt. And we've been effective about bringing to justice most of those who planned and plotted the 9/11 attacks, and we've still got a lot of pressure on them. The best way to protect the homeland is to stay on the offense and keep pressure on them.

This answer could have provoked several follow-up questions:

  • If allegations that your administration has not stayed focused on bin Laden are nothing more than an "urban myth," how do you explain the CIA's decision in late 2005 to disband the unit that for a decade had focused solely on locating and capturing the Al Qaeda leader? Further, if we "have been on the hunt," why did you state in a March 13, 2002, press conference, "I truly am not that concerned about [bin Laden]"?
  • You asserted that Pakistan is committed to bringing bin Laden to justice. But how do you explain reports that the Pakistani army recently negotiated a "peace agreement" with Al Qaeda militants along the Afghan border -- where many believe bin Laden is hiding?
  • If bin Laden is in fact in Pakistan, how do you square the United States' continued alliance with Pakistan with your own previous statement that any country harboring terrorists is no better than terrorists?

Bush proceeded to call on the final reporter, Time magazine White House correspondent Mike Allen. But rather than address any of these issues, Allen shifted to an entirely different topic: reports that Bush brought up the concept of a "Third Awakening" during a recent meeting with conservative journalists.

Posted In
Government, The Presidency & White House
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