Man Without Qualities

Monday, March 22, 2004

What Different Public Explanation?

A front page Wall Street Journal article on 9-11 leads with the following:

Shortly after a passenger jet crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers raced back to the military headquarters from a meeting on Capitol Hill. The four-star general, acting head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that day, went directly to the Pentagon's command center. With smoke spreading into the cavernous room, he ordered the officer in charge, Maj. Gen. W. Montague Winfield, to raise the military's alert status to Defcon III, the highest state of readiness since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

That account is based on interviews with Gen. Winfield and a former White House official. In the months after Sept. 11, President Bush had a different public explanation about who put the military on high alert. The president said publicly at least twice that he gave the order. During a town-hall meeting in Orlando on Dec. 4, 2001, Mr. Bush said that after the attacks, "one of the first acts I did was to put our military on alert." ....

Regarding Mr. Bush's statements that he had ordered troops to a higher alert status himself, Mr. Bartlett said the president provided a "description that the public could understand" and spoke in "broad strokes." Gen. Myers and the Pentagon declined to comment.

Contrary to the Journal's spin, there seems to be absolutely no inconsistency whatsoever between these two accounts. Wouldn't one expect the President and the acting head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to independently give orders putting the military on high alert on the facts of September 11? Wouldn't it be strange if they had not?

Why is it in the least surprising to the Journal that both the President and the acting head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff would - perhaps quite independently of each other - have given orders putting the military on high alert? Why would it be surprising that the President's order might have been delayed in reaching General Myers - or that the President's order might have been met with a response that the military had already been put on high alert?

The President was in Florida on 9-11, General Myers was in Washington, D.C. at a Capitol Hill meeting. If the President gave such orders, as he surely did, he may well have told someone in Florida to place the military on high alert, and the orders would have been normally sent to someone at the Pentagon, where things were at the time more than a bit confused following the attack on that very building. In any event, General Myers wasn't then located at the Pentagon. When General Myers got back from his Capitol Hill meeting there was no need for him to wait to give orders putting the military on high alert, which he surely did, even if the President's orders hadn't yet reached him. Maybe he did that and was told a few moments later that the President had ordered the same thing. So what? What the heck is the problem supposed to be here? And many of the other "inconsistencies" that the article identifies as the focus of September 11 Commission efforts have the same loopy qualities as the Journal's lead non-issue.

If this is the kind of silly thing the September 11 Commission is wasting its time investigating, it should be shut down immediately.

What's especially bizarre about this Journal account is that nobody is quoted as denying that either or both of the President and the General gave such orders. Indeed, the Journal's account seems quite consistent with the President personally calling the General in his Capitol Hill meeting and ordering the General to order the high alert, whereupon the General returned to the Pentagon and issued such orders. I'm not suggesting that there is evidence that was the course of detailed events, but the Journal's account is fully consistent with such a course.

Maybe there is more to the story. Maybe the inconsistency was in some other paragraph that the Journal somehow dropped. But what appears in this article makes no sense at all.

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