President George W. Bush and most of his White House staff are winning extraordinary praise for their job performance since September 11. The same cannot be said for press spokesman Ari Fleischer. His public reputation took a hit when he censoriously warned that people like TV talk show host Bill Maher “need to watch what they say.” Privately, many reporters are even more irritated by his querulousness and the stinginess with which he doles out information. At an Oct. 16 White House briefing, for instance, Fleischer refused again and again to characterize the sending of letters filled with anthrax as “bio-terrorism.” Yet days earlier, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson had said, “there’s no question it’s bio-terrorism,” and Vice President Dick Cheney had said, “the only responsible thing to do is to proceed on the basis that it could be linked to terrorists.” With so little information coming from Fleischer, reporters have had to go over his head, phoning senior White House officials for the most basic informationsomething unlikely to endear Fleischer to his colleagues.
In late September, conservative commentators, led by Andrew Sullivan, launched a mini-campaign to pin blame for the September 11 attacks primarily on Bill Clinton. The criticism was based on comments by ex-Clintonites Nancy Soderberg and Jamie Gorelick who told The Boston Globe that the administration could and should have done more to stop terrorism. But for the moment, the campaign has fizzled for three reasons. First, The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, Tom Ricks, and Barton Gellman broke news of energetic if unsuccessful covert efforts by the Clinton administration to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. Second, it’s become increasingly clear that the FBI, until recently headed by Clinton foe Louis Freeh, bears as much blame as any agency for failing to prevent the attacks. Third, conservatives realize it’s hard to make a case that, prior to September 11, the Bush administration was any more vigilant than Clinton had been. One of many examples: The Bush White House hadn’t gotten around to nominating anyone to fill the Pentagon’s top anti-terrorism job until Sept. 15, when it hurriedly named Michelle Van Cleave assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low intensity conflict.
The residents of lower Manhattan have reason to feel especially grateful that the man who represents them in Congress, Rep. Jerry Nadler, had the foresight when elected in 1992 to procure a seat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The committee not only oversees FEMA, but will have much to say about how the area in and around the World Trade Center will be rebuilt in the years to come; Nadler is already advocating new subway stops, more ferry service, and a Long Island railroad station for lower Manhattan.
It would be hard to exaggerate how much Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his top aide Steven Cambone were hated within the Pentagon prior to September 11. Among other mistakes, Rumsfeld and Cambone foolishly excluded top civilian and military leaders when planning an overhaul of the military to meet new threats, thereby ensuring even greater bureaucratic resistance. According to The Washington Post, an Army general joked to a Hill staffer that “if he had one round left in his revolver, he would take out Steve Cambone.” Cambone’s reputation in the building hasn’t improved much since September 11, but Rumsfeld’s has been transformed. Moments after the attack on the Pentagon, the secretary rushed to the scene, putting himself in harm’s way to help with the rescue effort. That brave act won Rumsfeld deep loyalty within the military. He has also gotten high marks for the confident precision of his press conference performances, and for his willingness to delegate war-fighting tactics to the brass. Alas, the secretary still has not figured out how to manage the building. One insider reports that he and his management team have “completely lost control” of their efforts to organize homeland defense, with multiple overlapping task forces and bureaucratic turf battles grinding progress to a halt.
Like many magazines, The Washington Monthly often gets letters from eccentrics insisting that a cabal of powerful men secretly controls world events. A recent story makes you understand why they might think that way. According to The Wall Street Journal, Saudi Arabia’s Binladen Group, the construction company owned by the family of Osama bin Laden (from whom Osama is estranged), has more than $2 million invested in a military contractor buy-out fund managed by the Carlyle Group. Carlyle’s chairman is ex-Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci. Its senior counselor is former Secretary of State James Baker. The senior adviser to the firm’s Asian Partners fund is former President George H.W. Bush.