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Political Play of the Week

Connecting the dots?

Connecting the dots?

By Bill Schneider
CNN Senior Political Analyst

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Thursday was a day of great danger for President Bush. Washington dusted off the scandal script: What did the president know, and when did he know it?

By the end of the day, it didn't look quite so bad for the president. "The tempest seems overblown,'' The Washington Post wrote in Friday morning's lead editorial.

What happened? The political Play of the Week, that's what.

There are reports of a CIA warning about a hijacking threat, a memorandum from an FBI agent in Phoenix about terrorist groups sending students to American flight schools and the arrest of one such student, Zacarias Moussaoui, in Minnesota. Why didn't the White House connect the dots?

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer evaded the question. "The simple answer to that is, as a result of September 11, our government learned a lot of things."

Let's try that again with national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. "Neither the president nor I have a recollection of ever hearing about the Phoenix memo in the time prior to September 11."

But there were two dots.

Rice says, "I don't recall seeing anything of that kind." And when a reporter asked about the Phoenix memo or Moussaoui's arrest? "On either, prior to September 11.''

There you go. The president couldn't connect the dots because he never saw all the dots. He just saw one dot: the CIA briefing about the hijacking threat -- one and a half pages long, based on a three-year British source. Can't see much of a pattern from one blurry dot.

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice  

Condoleezza Rice protected the president just as Admiral John Poindexter did in 1987 when he told the Iran-contra hearings, "The buck stops here with me."

So President Bush could go out 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.''

Dr. Rice was cool, composed and analytical. Her message: This is not about politics. Oh, but it was. It was the political Play of the Week.

Where does the buck stop in this case? Friday's New York Times editorial said, "The government as a whole dropped the ball.''

President Bush is in charge of the government, so he's still not out of trouble. But the problem now looks like organizational incompetence, not personal malfeasance.




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