"Little debate" indeed: Media uncritically quote Bush's claim his policies kept us safe

››› ››› ROB SAVILLO & JOCELYN FONG

Numerous media outlets have uncritically quoted President Bush asserting, regarding the controversial measures adopted by his administration in the name of national security: "There is legitimate debate about many of these decisions. But there can be little debate about the results." But these outlets have failed to note that questions have, in fact, been raised about the importance of Bush administration policies and actions to the obstruction of terror threats.

As Media Matters for America noted, The Washington Post uncritically reported President Bush's January 15 assertion regarding the controversial measures adopted by his administration in the name of national security: "There is legitimate debate about many of these decisions. But there can be little debate about the results." Numerous other media outlets including the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Hill, and McClatchy, as well as MSNBC's Morning Joe similarly uncritically quoted Bush making this assertion. However, as Media Matters noted, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released on April 17, 2008 -- titled "Combating Terrorism: The United States Lacks Comprehensive Plan to Destroy the Terrorist Threat and Close the Safe Haven in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas" -- found that "[t]he United States has not met its national security goals to destroy terrorist threats and close the safe haven in Pakistan's FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas]."

Investigative journalist Ron Suskind has also reported that many CIA analysts believe Al Qaeda leaders have declined to attack the United States for strategic reasons, not because of the Bush administration's counterterrorism policies. And the credibility of the threats of several terrorist attacks the Bush administration supposedly thwarted has been disputed, as has the importance of Bush administration policy to the obstruction of terror threats. Moreover, a 2006 National Intelligence Estimate (AIE) reportedly "found that the American invasion and occupation of Iraq has helped spawn a new generation of Islamic radicalism and that the overall terrorist threat has grown since the Sept. 11 attacks."

During his "farewell" speech, Bush stated:

As the years passed, most Americans were able to return to life much as it had been before 9/11. But I never did. Every morning, I received a briefing on the threats to our nation. And I vowed to do everything in my power to keep us safe.

Over the past seven years, a new Department of Homeland Security has been created. The military, the intelligence community and the FBI have been transformed. Our nation is equipped with new tools to monitor the terrorists' movements, freeze their finances and break up their plots.

And with strong allies at our side, we have taken the fight to the terrorists and those who support them. Afghanistan has gone from a nation where the Taliban harbored al Qaeda and stoned women in the streets to a young democracy that is fighting terror and encouraging girls to go to school.

Iraq has gone from a brutal dictatorship and a sworn enemy of America to an Arab democracy at the heart of the Middle East and a friend of the United States.

There is legitimate debate about many of these decisions, but there can be little debate about the results.

America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil.

On the January 16 edition of Morning Joe, after MSNBC aired clips of Bush's speech, including his assertion that "[t]here is legitimate debate about many of these decisions, but there can be little debate about the results," Meet the Press host David Gregory remarked, in part, that Bush's "focus is on being a 9-11 president and the fact that he believes quite fervently that the decisions that he made though controversial ... were responsible for keeping America safe and for avoiding another terrorist attack." Later in the broadcast The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan noted the Bush administration's interest in "put[ting] their own label on, and it is 'we kept you safe.' " Noonan added: "I think that they feel in the administration that it is the biggest thing that they can say that everybody can know is true."

From the January 16 Los Angeles Times article:

The outgoing president acknowledged no mistakes. He conceded suffering "setbacks," though he did not detail them, and he said that there had been a "legitimate debate" over his decisions in pursuing the struggle against terrorism.

But he said his success on that front was indisputable.

"There can be little debate about the results," he said. "America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil."

Bush hailed Afghanistan, where America first targeted Al Qaeda and the Taliban after the 2001 attacks, as a "young democracy that is fighting terror and encouraging girls to go to school."

He described Iraq as transformed from a "brutal dictatorship and a sworn enemy of America to an Arab democracy at the heart of the Middle East and a friend of the United States."

And Bush declared victories on the domestic front, arguing that Americans pay lower taxes and that children are learning more in school.

From the January 16 New York Times article:

"As the years passed," Mr. Bush said, "most Americans were able to return to life much as it had been before 9/11. But I never did. Every morning, I received a briefing on the threats to our nation. And I vowed to do everything in my power to keep us safe."

He went on to recount some of the decisions that flowed out of that vow: the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the creation of "new tools to monitor terrorists" movements -- tools that civil liberties advocates argue are unconstitutional. He did not mention his authorization of harsh interrogation techniques, another decision that has been among the most controversial and divisive of his presidency.

"There is legitimate debate about many of these decisions," Mr. Bush said. "But there can be little debate about the results. America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil."

In giving the speech, Mr. Bush carried on a tradition of farewell addresses that dates to George Washington and continued, most recently, with Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. (Mr. Bush's father, the first President Bush, did not give a farewell address.) Mr. Reagan's address, especially, was deeply personal, laden with wistful references and reflections of America as a "shining city on a hill," the phrase coined by John Winthrop, a colonial-era governor of Massachusetts.

From the January 15 Hill article:

The president looked back to the moment that defined his presidency and discussed the impact that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks had on him and his time in office.

"That morning, terrorists took nearly 3,000 lives in the worst attack on America since Pearl Harbor," Bush said. "As the years passed, most Americans were able to return to life much as it had been before 9/11. But I never did. Every morning, I received a briefing on the threats to our nation. And I vowed to do everything in my power to keep us safe."

The president noted that some of the policies he put in place have been controversial and he also conceded that there is "legitimate debate" about many of his decisions.

"But there can be little debate about the results. America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil," the president said. "This is a tribute to those who toil day and night to keep us safe -- law enforcement officers, intelligence analysts, homeland security and diplomatic personnel and the men and women of the United States Armed Forces."

Instead of delivering the address to a camera from the Oval Office as is the custom, the president spoke from the much larger East Room in front of an audience.

From the January 15 McClatchy article:

He acknowledged that "you may not agree with some tough decisions I have made. But I hope you can agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions."

Much of the public has turned against the war in Iraq, where more than 4,200 Americans have been killed in the conflict.

Many tactics that the Bush administration employed in waging its war on terror drew widespread criticism, such as establishing the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; setting up secret CIA prisons abroad; holding suspected terrorists for years without charges; wiretapping Americans without court warrants; and practicing "rendition" of terrorist suspects to authoritarian governments that would interrogate them more harshly than U.S. law allows.

Bush noted that Iraq "has gone from a brutal dictatorship and a sworn enemy of America to an Arab democracy at the heart of the Middle East and a friend of the United States."

His initiatives, he said, have kept American safe: "There can be little debate about the results. America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil."

The president also hailed his domestic record.

From the January 16 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe:

BUSH [video clip]: As the years passed, most Americans were able to return to life much as it had been before 9-11. But I never did. Every morning, I received a briefing on the threats to our nation. I vowed to do everything in my power to keep us safe.

There is legitimate debate about many of these decisions. But there can be little debate about the results. America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil.

MIKA BRZEZINSKI (co-host): Well, with us now the moderator of Meet the Press, David Gregory. David, what did you make of the president's farewell address last night?

GREGORY: Well, good morning. I -- you know, look, I thought it was interesting. I think we've seen over the last few days both in -- with the press conference, now this speech to the nation, some of these exit interviews that the president has done, he's got a pretty narrow focus on -- in terms of what he wants Americans to be thinking about with regard to his presidency. I mean, think about this moment: He's in the East Room, he's facing an American public that is still pretty divided politically but not divided on him. He's overwhelmingly disapproved of in all of the public surveys, and he leaves office that way with the cloud of Iraq and with the cloud of the economy in such a deep recession.

Again, his focus is on being a 9-11 president, and the fact that he believes quite fervently that the decisions that he made, though controversial -- the big debate this week about closing Guantanamo Bay, the detention center there, the treatment of prisoners -- that those decisions were responsible for keeping America safe and for avoiding another terrorist attack like 9-11. As he said, the gravest threat that President Obama will face will be the impact and the threat of another terrorist attack. So this was not a grand sweep through his presidency, though he mentioned some things like education; this is focus on one event that defined and will always define his presidency.

[...]

WILLIE GEIST (co-host): Peggy, why do you think that argument, which has been made by the president and the vice president over the last couple of weeks, hasn't been more compelling to more people, that we kept you safe for the last seven years?

NOONAN: Well, one thing that keep -- first of all, I think it is compelling in a way. I think it is a headline on this Bush administration. It's bookended; it started with a terrible terror event. We all assumed another terror event was coming quickly. He is correct when he says, try to remember what it was like on 9-14-01 and 9-20-01. Everybody thought that Osama, having hit us once, planned to hit us again fairly soon. We thought it would be a one-two punch.

He is correct when he says that. Sometimes, however, it's best to leave it to history to decide for you -- do you know what I mean? -- to put a label on your administration. They have decided perhaps they can't trust history, so they're going to put their own label on, and it is "we kept you safe." I think they feel in the administration that it is the biggest thing that they can say that everybody can know is true. But one of the reasons some people, it doesn't quite grab them, is that we don't know what was done to keep America from getting hit again, and we cannot know because that involves intelligence, the airing of which might undercut our attempts to keep us safe.

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy, Terrorism
Network/Outlet
MSNBC, Los Angeles Times, The Hill, McClatchy Newspapers
Show/Publication
Morning Joe
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