In an interview with President Bush, CBS' Katie Couric asked a number of softball questions and allowed the president to make numerous false and misleading claims regarding the Iraq war's effect on terrorism recruitment, the administration's warrantless domestic surveillance program, the ongoing hunt for Osama bin Laden, and the current state of port security in the United States.
In a September 6 interview with President Bush at the White House, newly minted CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric allowed the president to make numerous false and misleading claims regarding the Iraq war's effect on terrorism recruitment, the administration's warrantless domestic surveillance program, the ongoing hunt for Osama bin Laden, and the current state of port security in the United States. Further, Couric's interview featured a number of softball questions. For instance, she asked Bush, “You have said, 'We can't cut and run' on more than one occasion. 'We have to stay until we win, otherwise, we'll be fighting the terrorists here at home on our own streets.' So, what do you mean exactly by that, Mr. President?” Elsewhere in the interview, she told Bush that “people admire so much your ability to adhere to your principles,” and asked, “You have said, Mr. President, that America is safer, but we are not yet safe. ... When you think about the threats out there, what is your biggest fear?”
Iraq war as a terrorist recruitment tool
During their discussion of Iraq, Couric asked Bush the following “philosophical question”: whether “U.S. policy, vis-à-vis Iraq, and the United States' close alliance with Israel ... have galvanized terrorists worldwide. In other words, these policies have created more terrorists than they have eliminated.” As he did when asked a similar question in a recent NBC News interview, Bush responded that “we weren't in Iraq on September the 11th, 2001, when 19 killers killed 3,000 Americans.” He went on to say of the argument in question, “I just don't agree with it, particularly, since the facts are different. In other words, they attacked us before we went to Iraq.”
But the logic behind Bush's response is severely skewed. That terrorists carried out attacks prior to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in no way rebuts the argument that the war has “galvanized” terrorist organizations and helped them grow their ranks. Moreover, Bush's disagreement with the factual basis for this argument is contradicted by several government analyses finding that U.S. actions in Iraq have aided terrorist groups' recruiting and provided them with a training ground for their new followers. These include the State Department's 2005 annual terrorism report and a January 2005 report from the CIA's National Intelligence Council, as Media Matters noted.
But rather than address the clear flaws in Bush's answer, Couric proceeded to a question regarding diplomacy.
This segment of Couric's interview appeared on the September 6 broadcast of the CBS special Five Years Later: How Safe Are We?
Warrantless domestic surveillance
While discussing the tools used by the government to protect against the terrorist threat, Couric allowed Bush to falsely suggest that critics of his administration's warrantless domestic surveillance program are opposed to eavesdropping on the electronic communications of suspected terrorists. Bush said, “One of the controversial programs has been this notion about listening to people who are from outside the country, calling in.” He then added, “I know it's created controversy, but nevertheless, it is a tool to make sure that we get the intelligence necessary.” Bush's claim that the controversy regards “listening to people who are from outside the country, calling in” echoes a line from his 2006 State of the Union address, in which Bush claimed that the warrantless surveillance program is “essential to the security of America. If there are people inside our country who are talking with Al Qaeda, we want to know about it, because we will not sit back and wait to be hit again,” It also echoes attacks on critics of the warrantless surveillance program by Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman and senior White House adviser Karl Rove; Mehlman claimed in August that Democrats want to “surrender” the ability to eavesdrop on terrorists, and Rove stated in January that they “disagree” with the proposition that “if Al Qaeda is calling somebody in America, it is in our national security interest to know who they're calling and why.”
But as Media Matters has noted, Democratic leaders and other critics of the program -- including Republicans in Congress and prominent conservatives -- have explicitly acknowledged the need for U.S. intelligence agencies to spy on suspected terrorists but have said that the government should conduct such surveillance in accordance with the law. Nonetheless, Couric let Bush's "straw man" stand.
This portion of Couric's interview with Bush did not air on CBS, but it was included in the interview footage available on CBSNews.com.
The hunt for bin Laden
At one point in the interview, Couric asked Bush why the United States has not managed to find bin Laden in the five years since 9-11. Bush responded, "[W]e're on the hunt, obviously." Couric then asked whether his capture mattered, to which Bush answered, “Yeah, it does matter. Of course. It matters. He's ... the head of Al Qaeda.” But Couric failed to ask Bush why, during a March 13, 2002, press conference, he said, “Truly, I am not that concerned about [bin Laden],” or why he subsequently denied having made that statement during the third debate of the 2004 presidential election.
Bush went on to tell Couric, "[W]e'll get him. It's just a matter of time. We've got a unit in the CIA who is spending a lot of time thinking about these high-value targets." But a July 4 New York Times article confirmed that the CIA had in late 2005 disbanded the unit “that for a decade had the mission of hunting Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants.” Couric failed to mention this, despite the fact that CBS News subsequently reported that former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer, the first head of the bin Laden unit, had declared the decision “a mistake” and “a questionable decision.”
This segment of Couric's interview did not air on CBS, but was included in the interview footage available on CBSNews.com.
During the interview, Couric questioned Bush regarding the current state of homeland security. On the issue of port security, Couric noted that approximately 10 percent “of cargo that's coming into our ports is thoroughly checked.” In response, Bush conceded that he is concerned about weaknesses in homeland security, but went on to claim that the United States is screening the bulk of the U.S.-bound cargo at foreign ports. He said, “We understand who's likely to ship materials. We ... understand cargo that needs to be inspected. And oftentimes, most of the time, we're able to secure cargo and be comfortable about what's coming into the country before it comes to the ports.” He further noted that while only ten percent of the cargo is being screened at U.S. ports, “that doesn't mean that we're not aware of what's coming into this country.”
In fact, an August 2006 Rand Corporation study reported that the activities at foreign ports allows inspectors “to screen and validate the contents of containers shipping to the United States,” but highlighted the fact that this program covers only “50 percent of traffic in the largest ports” and noted that its “effectiveness against smuggling has not been tested, and there still are large volumes of containers that enter the country without any screening or inspection. Because of this ongoing vulnerability, Rand concluded that a terrorist attack at a U.S. port ”seems quite plausible." The study received significant attention following the recent bomb scare at the Port of Seattle. Nonetheless, Couric did not challenge Bush's claim that “most of the time” U.S.-bound containers are screened at foreign ports.
This segment of Couric's interview did not air on CBS, but was included in the interview footage available on CBSNews.com.
From Couric's September 6 interview with Bush:
COURIC: You have said, Mr. President, that America is safer, but we are not yet safe.
COURIC: When you think about the threats out there, what is your biggest fear?
BUSH: Well, my biggest fear is somebody will come in and slip in this country and kill Americans. And I can't tell you how. Obviously, there would be the spectacular. That would be the use of some kind of biological weapon or weapon of mass destruction. But as we learned recently from the British plots, people were, you know, gonna get on airplanes and blow up airplanes with innocent people flying to America.
And -- you know, one way to look at it is we have to be right 100 percent of the time in order to protect this country, and they gotta be right once. And it's just a -- just a fact of life. The -- the -- we're facing an enemy, Katie, that just doesn't care about innocent life. I mean, they really are evil people.
They -- they -- they -- they just don't care if somebody suffers in order for them to achieve a -- a mean. And -- and that makes an awfully ruthless enemy to deal with. And -- and I say we're safer because we've done a lot to protect the country. I mean, the mentality has changed a lot.
I mean, you know, the -- the matters we now recognized, we gotta talk better inter -- interagency. That means the CIA and the FBI have got to share data. And Congress passed some laws that enable them to do so without, you know, violating law. We gotta talk to -- we gotta share intelligence with our friends.
Because one of the successes -- because the British operation -- it's because they knew some things and we knew some things, and our people got together and just talked about it. One of the controversial programs has been this notion about listening to people who are from outside the country, calling in or inside the country, calling out, to determine their intentions. And I -- that's a vital tool. I know it's created controversy, but nevertheless, it is a tool to make sure that we get the intelligence necessary.
COURIC: Let's talk about cargos.
COURIC: Let's talk about ports in this country. I know that only 10 percent -- actually nine percent of the cargo that's coming into our ports is thoroughly checked. And when it comes to -- to railway security, there are about 100 federal inspectors dedicated to passenger and freight security on our railroads throughout the entire country. Does that concern you?
BUSH: If -- if there's any -- you know, weakness, it concerns me. And it should concern anybody. But let me talk about ports. You know, one of the things we've done is we got a new way of inspecting cargo, and that is inspecting cargo before it leaves the port. Say like it's coming in from Singapore. We -- we understand who's likely to ship materials. We understand cargo that needs to be inspected.
And oftentimes, most of the time, we're able to secure cargo and be comfortable about what's coming into the country before it comes to the ports. And that makes sense. That make -- you know, basically -- is able to -- let us focus on, as you said, the 10 percent. But that doesn't mean that we're not aware of what's coming into this country.
COURIC: Let me ask you about some of the 9-11 Commission recommendations.
COURIC: Conversely, I guess, Mr. President, while people admire so much your ability to adhere to your principles, there is also criticism, as you say, there will always be critics --
COURIC: -- that -- that -- you're inflexible and that your position doesn't change with changing circumstances.
BUSH: I am inflexible when it comes to making sure that we don't get hit again. And you bet I'm gonna remain strong about making sure that the world we leave behind is a more peaceful world.
COURIC: You have said, “We can't cut and run,” on more than one occasion. “We have to stay until we win, otherwise, we'll be fighting the terrorists here at home on our own streets.” So, what do you mean exactly by that, Mr. President?
BUSH: Well, I mean that a defeat in Iraq will embolden the enemy and will provide the enemy more opportunity to train, plan, to attack us. That's what I mean. There -- it's -- you know, one of the hardest parts of my job is to connect Iraq to the war on terror. I believe it. But the American people have gotta understand that a defeat in Iraq -- in other words, if this government there fails, the terrorists will be emboldened, the radicals will topple moderate governments.
COURIC: Why hasn't he [bin Laden] been caught five years later?
BUSH: Yeah -- no, that's a good question. I mean, he's hiding. And -- we're on the hunt, obviously. We --
COURIC: Does it matter?
BUSH: Yeah, it does matter. Of course. It matters. He's -- he's the head of Al Qaeda. And -- but one thing is for certain, though, he's -- he's not moving like he used to. Another thing is he's -- he's, you know, not communicating like he used to. And -- and we'll get him. It's just a matter of time. We've got a unit in the CIA who is spending a lot of time thinking about these high-value targets.
It's not just Osama bin Laden. It's his number-two man, [Ayman al-] Zawahiri, and there are others. The good news for the American people is that we're -- we made a lot of progress in dismantling Al Qaeda, the Al Qaeda command structure that ordered the attacks not only on the USS Cole and our embassies but on -- on 9-11.
COURIC: I know we're almost out of time, Mr. President, and you have a very busy day ahead. But one philosophical question that many people have that I'd like you to respond to, if you could, is that U.S. policy, vis-à-vis Iraq, and the United States' close alliance with Israel, certainly highlighted in recent events between Israel and Lebanon, have galvanized terrorists worldwide. In other words, these policies have created more terrorists than they have eliminated.
COURIC: How do you respond to that?
BUSH: Well, the first thing I would tell people that we weren't in Iraq on September the 11th, 2001, when 19 killers killed 3,000 Americans in the most brutal attack on our -- on our soil -- ever.
COURIC: But they were from Saudi Arabia.
BUSH: No, but they're -- but -- but they share the same jihadist mentality, this radicalism. See, that's the interesting thing about this war, Katie. It's -- we're not facing a nation-state. We're facing people from other nation -- around the -- around the globe, frankly, that share an ideology and the desire to achieve objectives through killing innocent people.
And so, it's a -- and so my first answer is on Iraq, the notion that somehow defending ourselves create -- is -- it's created -- made us more vulnerable, just -- I just don't agree with it, particularly, since the facts are different. In other words, they attacked us before we went to Iraq.