Information Flow Easier to Control than Events

Over the weekend, the White House released a key briefing memo on U.S. intelligence prior to the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The release came on the Saturday evening before Easter.

The White House said the timing was not intended to affect news coverage one way or the other. But on a weekend, especially a holiday weekend, most Americans are paying attention to something else. By the time of the release, many editions of Sunday newspapers had already gone to press. And the extensive discussion of the briefing memo on the Sunday morning talk shows was seen by just a tiny fraction of the usual TV news audience.

By Monday morning, the president had responded to the memo's release, downplaying its significance. So that was the headline and the lead story by the time most people were tuning in to the news again. The briefing memo was widely reported, of course, but its impact was softened.

Of course, it's hardly a newsflash that the Bush administration goes to great lengths to control the flow of information from the White House to the news media. You hear it in the briefing room with press secretary Scott McClellan, who seems to have a small collection of stock phrases he repeats without embarrassment in each day's session with reporters.

You hear it in the president's remarks, which scarcely vary from event to event, sometimes for weeks at a time.

A speech on the economy, for example, will usually include a lengthy preamble about Sept. 11 and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The president then executes a deft segue into the benefits of tax cuts and the need to lift the expiration dates on temporary tax cuts passed since 2001.

A speech on foreign policy will reverse the order, offering up an optimistic assessment of the economy before moving on to the war on terrorism.

Still, the past couple of weeks have been difficult ones for White House message management. The violence in Iraq, including the horrific scenes of the bodies of American civilians being desecrated in Fallujah, have given an already uneasy American public more to be uneasy about.

The testimony of former White House counterterrorism advisor Richard Clarke also forced the administration to confront difficult questions about its handling of threat warnings before Sept. 11 — as well as its motives in invading Iraq.

Then came the battle over the president's refusal to allow National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice to testify publicly under oath before the commission investigating the attacks. In the end, the political pressure on that issue proved too great, especially given the president's vow to cooperate fully with the probe.

When Rice appeared before the commissioners she was asked about the briefing memo. She revealed it was entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike Inside the United States," but said it could not be called a warning.

The White House wanted to keep it classified, but the controversy was growing exponentially. So the White House released the document when it did. The briefing memo turned out to include references to possible plots inside the U.S., plots the CIA regarded as ongoing. It said these might involve hijacking aircraft in the U.S. (although not for use as missiles, as happened on Sept. 11).

One has to wonder how the release would have been timed if the briefing memo had contained only historical material about al Qaeda (from years prior to 2001) or included no reference to attacks inside the U.S. That is, if it had conformed more closely to the description Rice had given the commission.

Even with great efforts at news management, the Bush administration and the Bush re-election campaign have seen their standing in the polls soften in recent weeks as doubts grow about the situation in Iraq. Most polls now show the president running about even with Democratic challenger John Kerry.

It was against this backdrop that the president decided to hold a formal news conference on the night of April 13. It will be just his third news conference in prime time since he became president.

NPR's Don Gonyea has been White House correspondent since January 2001. Reporting for NPR since 1986, he previously covered the automobile industry and labor issues.

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