Return of the Scandal Script

President Bush has just gone through a dangerous period. All Washington was asking, "What did the president know, and when did he know it?" Words such as "investigation," "cover-up," "smoking gun," and "damage control" kept coming up.

It's the familiar Washington scandal script. Republicans followed that script—against the public's wishes—in the Monica Lewinsky affair, and they got burned. Democrats should be wary of making the same mistake.

On May 15, CBS News broke the story that the CIA had warned Bush of possible airplane hijackings a month before September 11. The network's revelation gave Democrats their first opening to criticize Bush's handling of the war on terrorism.

That's important, because the war has been the principal reason for Bush's exalted approval ratings. Bush gets higher ratings on terrorism than on any other issue—far higher than on domestic issues. If Bush appears vulnerable on terrorism, Democrats know that he can be brought down to earth, where political battles are fought.

But following the scandal script entailed a risk for Democrats. They appeared to be politicizing the war. Wasn't it the Democrats who had accused Republicans of trying to turn the war into a partisan issue, first in January, when White House adviser Karl Rove urged Republicans to run on the war issue, then earlier this month, when Republicans raised campaign money by selling a 9/11 photograph of the president?

According to an overnight USA Today-CNN-Gallup poll, the revelations about the CIA warning did not damage the president's credibility or turn public opinion against him, even though the public did have some criticisms of the way the information had been handled: 52 percent said that the Bush administration did not act on the intelligence in a proper way, 58 percent said that the administration did not give airlines sufficient warnings about hijacking threats, and 68 percent said that the administration should have disclosed the information sooner.

But two-thirds of Americans said they had not changed their opinion of Bush. The one-third who said the revelations made their opinion of Bush less favorable were mostly Democrats—a result that suggests the effect of the controversy will be to arm Democrats and to make the war on terrorism more partisan.

Just two days after the story broke, however, things didn't look so bad for the president. "The tempest seems overblown," The Washington Post declared in its lead editorial on May 17.

That's because the White House had its own script. "The information was very generalized," press secretary Ari Fleischer said on the morning of May 16. "There was nothing specific." Later that day, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said, "The government did everything it could in a period in which the information was very generalized, in which there was nothing specific to which to react."

Another line in the White House script essentially said, "We're in a different world now. You can't judge behavior fairly in hindsight." Fleischer did say, "Information about hijackings in the pre-9/11 world is totally different from information about hijackings in the post-9/11 world." And Rice said, "Hijacking before 9/11 and hijacking after 9/11 mean two very different things."

The big question was why hadn't the White House connected the dots before 9/11? There were three big dots: the CIA's warning about the hijacking threat; the memorandum from an FBI agent in Phoenix about terrorist groups sending students to American flight schools; and the arrest of one would-be pilot, Zacarias Moussaoui, in Minnesota.

Asked about connecting the dots, Fleischer followed the White House script: "As a result of September 11, our government learned a lot of things. A lot of changes were made." His questioner persisted, "Are you suggesting that before these changes, there was no way to connect those dots?"

The script clearly needed a rewrite. That was left to Rice, who said, "Neither the president nor I have a recollection of ever hearing about the Phoenix memo prior to September 11."

"How about Moussaoui?" a reporter asked. "I don't recall seeing either prior to September 11," Rice answered. In other words, the president couldn't connect the dots because he never saw all the dots. He saw just one dot: the CIA's August 6 briefing paper about the hijacking threat. It was a one and a half-page document based on three-year-old British information. You can't see much of a pattern from one blurry dot. Rice's statement protected the president, just as Adm. John Poindexter's did in 1987 when he said at the Iran-Contra hearings, "The buck stops here with me."

So President Bush could go out on May 17 and say, "Had I known that the enemy was going to use airplanes to kill on that fateful morning, I would have done everything in my power to protect the American people." Remember, Bush's highest ratings are for qualities of character—for being viewed as "honest and trustworthy," "a strong moral leader," and "sincere in his beliefs." The president was playing to his strengths.

Where does the buck stop in this case? A New York Times editorial said, "The government as a whole dropped the ball." Bush is in charge of the government, so he's not out of political danger. But the problem now looks like organizational incompetence, not personal malfeasance.