Russert failed to challenge Cheney on terrorism, national security issues

NBC's Tim Russert did not challenge Vice President Dick Cheney's broad declarations that allegations regarding Bush administration actions in Iraq and against terrorism were “wrong” or untrue, letting Cheney make his assertions without asking the vice president to specify what widely-reported and in some cases seemingly irrefutable facts he was taking issue with.

On the September 10 broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press, host Tim Russert let Vice President Dick Cheney make broad declarations that allegations were “wrong” or untrue regarding Bush administration actions in Iraq and against terrorism, without challenging Cheney to specify what widely-reported and in some cases seemingly irrefutable facts he was taking issue with. Russert simply failed to challenge Cheney to respond to specific facts that undermine Cheney's claims regarding the administration's efforts to pursue Osama bin Laden, the administration's purported success in preventing terrorist attacks, and the existence of “robust” Congressional oversight.

  • In asking Cheney about a September 10 Washington Post article describing the U.S. intelligence community's hunt for Osama bin Laden as “stone cold,” Russert noted that the Post reported that the United States had withdrawn Special Forces from Afghanistan “at the exact time that President Bush said, quote, 'I don't spend much time on him,' talking about bin Laden.” Cheney responded by claiming that “bin Laden has been a top priority for us from the very beginning; he continues to be a top priority today.” Russert further noted that the Pakistani government entered into a peace accord with terrorist groups in northern Pakistan, where bin Laden is rumored to be hiding, which former White House counterterrorism adviser Richard A. Clarke called a “sanctuary”; and that the RAND Corporation has reported that Pakistan's intelligence services are, as Russert put it, “in cahoots with the Taliban.” Cheney responded: “I don't buy the premise of your question, Tim. I think it's wrong and I think the sources you quoted are wrong.” Russert failed to follow up with any of several obvious questions, including: Do you dispute reports that the administration has withdrawn Special Forces from Afghanistan? Why would President Bush say, as he did in 2002, that he did not “spend much time on” bin Laden if bin Laden were a top priority of his? Do you dispute a report in investigative journalist Ron Suskind's recent book that the president ignored the CIA's request for more troops to capture bin Laden when he was said to be within reach in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan shortly after September 11, 2001? What is the effect of the Pakistani peace accord if not to provide “sanctuary”? Does our continued close alliance with Pakistan not conflict directly with Bush's pledge, reiterated last week, that the United States will not tolerate nations that provide safe harbor to terrorists?
  • Russert also failed completely to challenge Cheney's claim that the fact that Al Qaeda has not attacked in the United States since 9-11 is proof that the Bush administration has done “a pretty good job” with counterterrorism. Cheney said: “I don't know how you can explain five years of no attacks, five years of successful disruption of attacks, five years of defeating the efforts of Al Qaeda to come back and kill more Americans. You've got to give some credence to the notion that maybe somebody did something right.” Russert could have noted the following:
  • According to Suskind's book, there is “growing evidence [in the intelligence community] that al Qaeda might not have been trying to attack the United States in the three years since its singular triumph of 9/11,” and was instead focusing on European targets.
  • Suskind also revealed that in the spring of 2003, Al Qaeda lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri voluntarily called off a planned poison gas attack on the New York City subway system.
  • Additionally, while there have been no Al Qaeda terrorist attacks in the United States since 2001, the number of terrorist attacks worldwide has spiked dramatically since then. According to the State Department, there were more than 11,000 terrorist attacks in 2005 -- a fourfold increase from the previous year.
  • Cheney also misstated the findings of the Iraq Survey Group's final report (also known as the Duelfer Report) on Iraq's purported weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capabilities, and Russert again failed to challenge. According to Cheney:

CHENEY: Because, again, look at the Duelfer Report and what it said. No stockpiles, but they also said he [Saddam Hussein] has the capability. He'd done it before. He had produced chemical weapons before and used them. He had produced biological weapons. He had a robust nuclear program in '91. All of this true. Said by Duelfer. Facts. Also said that as soon as the sanctions are lifted, they expect Saddam to be back in business.

In fact, the Duelfer report concluded that while Saddam did want to restore Iraq's WMD capability, there was “no formal written strategy or plan for the revival of WMD after sanctions. Neither was there an identifiable group of WMD policy makers or planners separate from Saddam.”

  • Russert also asked Cheney about the prospect of a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives following the 2006 elections, and what that might mean in terms of congressional oversight of the White House. Cheney claimed that there is already “robust” oversight under the GOP-controlled Congress regarding the Iraq war and the administration's use of pre-war intelligence. Russert failed to note that Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) consistently delayed “Phase II” of the committee's investigation into pre-war Iraq intelligence, which would examine the Bush administration's alleged misuse and manipulation of intelligence. “Phase I,” which was completed in 2004, investigated the intelligence community's failure to provide accurate intelligence on Iraq's alleged WMDs and connections to Al Qaeda. Roberts's stonewalling continued until Democrats forced a rare closed-door Senate session on November 2, 2005, to demand a pledge from Roberts that the investigation would be completed. Two of the five sections of the Phase II report were publicly released on September 9.
  • Regarding the Iraq war, Russert devoted a significant amount of time to explaining how the Bush administration's primary rationales for invading Iraq in March 2003 -- Saddam's purported WMD and Iraq's alleged links to Al Qaeda -- have since been proven false. Cheney himself admitted to a number of failures: that the Iraq war was launched based on faulty intelligence, that the administration did not anticipate the Iraq insurgency, and that it underestimated the size and strength of the insurgency. Russert, however, failed to bring up a key question: After so many past failures on key foreign policy issues -- failures that the Bush administration has admitted to -- what reason does the American public have to place any trust in the Bush administration as we move forward?

From the September 10 broadcast of Meet the Press:

RUSSERT: Well, let me stay on Afghanistan, because the front page of The Washington Post today: Bin Laden, the trail is “stone cold,” according to intelligence officials. Do you agree with that?

CHENEY: I don't. I haven't read the article. I saw the headline. There's the on-again, off-again approach -- is the U.S. really serious about bin Laden? We are serious. We have stayed actively and aggressively involved in the hunt for bin Laden from the very beginning.

RUSSERT: Well just stop there, because it's really important. This article says that in 2002, the U.S. pulled its special operation forces out of Afghanistan, and really did lower down the volume in going after Osama, which is at the exact time that President Bush said, quote, “I don't spend much time on him,” talking about bin Laden.

CHENEY: He's not the only source of the problem, obviously, Tim. If you killed him tomorrow you'd still have a problem with Al Qaeda and with Zawahiri and the others. But bin Laden has been a top priority for us from the very beginning, he continues to be a top priority today. That hasn't changed. The president and I get periodic reports on our efforts in that regard. There's been no lessening of our interest or our activity [unintelligible].

RUSSERT: Pakistan has now a peace pact with the terrorists in the area where we think bin Laden is, creating what Richard Clarke, the former White House adviser on terrorism, calls a sanctuary. And reports from the Rand Corporation that the Pakistan CIA, the ISI-


RUSSERT: -- yeah -- are in cahoots with the Taliban. So if the Pakistanis aren't willing to seek bin Laden, and have a peace pact with the terrorists, where are we?

CHENEY: I don't buy the premise of your question, Tim. I think it's wrong and I think the sources you quoted are wrong. The fact is we've captured or killed more Al Qaeda in Pakistan than any place else in the world over the last five years.


RUSSERT: What happens if the Democrats win the House of Representatives? What do you expect?

CHENEY: I don't think it will happen. I don't expect that [Rep.] Nancy Pelosi [D-CA] will be speaker. I think we're doing very well out there. I feel better about the election now than I did three months ago.

RUSSERT: But do you fear serious oversight of the Bush administration?

CHENEY: We've had oversight all along, Tim.

RUSSERT: With robust congressional hearings?

CHENEY: We've had oversight all along.

RUSSERT: With robust congressional hearings?

CHENEY: With robust congressional hearings.

RUSSERT: Like the Democrats would have?

CHENEY: On what?

RUSSERT: On the war in Iraq, on weapons of mass destruction.

CHENEY: We have those all the time now anyway.