Can CNN come out and play?

As reported by CNN, this morning, on NBC’s “Meet the Press” (I’ll link the transcript here when it becomes available), Secretary of State Colin Powell said:

We know that there had been connections and there had been exchanges between al Qaeda and the Saddam Hussein regime. And those have been pursued and looked at. But I have seen nothing that makes a direct connection between Saddam Hussein and that awful regime, and what happened on 9/11.

Later, Kerry used Powell’s statement to launch an attack on the Bush administration.

Kerry said Powell “came clean with the American people about the lack of a connection between Iraq, Saddam Hussein and the September 11 attacks.”

Not only that, Kerry said, Powell also contradicted comments Vice President Dick Cheney has made as recently as Friday.

John Kerry is playing games, accusing the administration of backtracking on claims that Iraq was behind the 9/11 attacks. But the administration has made no such claim. They have said consistently that connections between Iraq and al Qaeda existed, but that there is no proof that Iraq participated in the attacks—all of which has been confirmed by the 9/11 Commission Report.

So, will the media play Kerry’s game? Here’s how CNN handles it:

At campaign stops Thursday and Friday, Cheney mentioned al Qaeda in discussing the Iraq war, but he did not link Iraq under Saddam to September 11.

On Thursday in Cincinnati, Ohio, Cheney described Saddam as a “man who provided safe harbor and sanctuary to terrorists for years” and who “provided safe harbor and sanctuary as well for al Qaeda.”

In Wisconsin on Friday, he said the “al Qaeda organization had a relationship with the Iraqis.”

So Kerry lied. CNN called him on it, and Kerry’s got no one to play with. But then this:

In September 2003, Cheney said Iraq under Saddam had been “the geographic base of the terrorists who have had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on 9/11.”

Oops! Cheney is busted big time, as he actually claims that the 9/11 terrorists were based out of Iraq. This is bad news for Bush, and as Kerry says:

“The president needs to answer the question: Who do you think is right? Vice President Cheney or Secretary Powell? And if it’s Secretary Powell, will you direct your vice president to stop misleading the American people?”

But wait just a minute. Let’s go back and put Cheney’s quote in context. The quote comes from a “Meet the Press” interview on September 14, 2003.

VICE PRES. CHENEY: Tim, we can do what we have to do to prevail in this conflict. Failure’s not an option. And go back again and think about what’s involved here. This is not just about Iraq or just about the difficulties we might encounter in any one part of the country in terms of restoring security and stability. This is about a continuing operation on the war on terror. And it’s very, very important we get it right. If we’re successful in Iraq, if we can stand up a good representative government in Iraq, that secures the region so that it never again becomes a threat to its neighbors or to the United States, so it’s not pursuing weapons of mass destruction, so that it’s not a safe haven for terrorists, now we will have struck a major blow right at the heart of the base, if you will, the geographic base of the terrorists who have had us under assault now for many years, but most especially on 9/11. They understand what’s at stake here. That’s one of the reasons they’re putting up as much of a struggle as they have, is because they know if we succeed here, that that’s going to strike a major blow at their capabilities.

So when Cheney spoke of the geographic base, could he have been talking about the region in general as opposed to Iraq specifically? Not so clear, and CNN can certainly make a case for their interpretation. But wait another minute. Let’s look at a little more context. The very next thing that happens is this:

MR. RUSSERT: So the resistance in Iraq is coming from those who were responsible for 9/11?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: No, I was careful not to say that. With respect to 9/11, 9/11, as I said at the beginning of the show, changed everything. And one of the things it changed is we recognized that time was not on our side, that in this part of the world, in particular, given the problems we’ve encountered in Afghanistan, which forced us to go in and take action there, as well as in Iraq, that we, in fact, had to move on it. The relevance for 9/11 is that what 9/11 marked was the beginning of a struggle in which the terrorists come at us and strike us here on our home territory. And it’s a global operation. It doesn’t know national boundaries or national borders. And the commitment of the United States going into Afghanistan and take down the Taliban and stand up a new government, to go into Iraq and take down the Saddam Hussein regime and stand up a new government is a vital part of our long-term strategy to win the war on terror.

Aha. So Cheney was careful not to link the events in Iraq to the 9/11 attacks. That’s sort of the opposite of what CNN implied, isn’t it? Now I suppose one could argue that even this second statement by Cheney is ambiguous and that CNN can’t be faulted for it’s conclusion. But wait yet another minute. Let’s look at some more context. Here’s an exchange from a bit earlier in that same interview:

MR. RUSSERT: The Washington Post asked the American people about Saddam Hussein, and this is what they said: 69 percent said he was involved in the September 11 attacks. Are you surprised by that?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: No. I think it’s not surprising that people make that connection.


MR. RUSSERT: But is there a connection?


VICE PRES. CHENEY: We don’t know. You and I talked about this two years ago. I can remember you asking me this question just a few days after the original attack. At the time I said no, we didn’t have any evidence of that. Subsequent to that, we’ve learned a couple of things. We learned more and more that there was a relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda that stretched back through most of the decade of the ’90s, that it involved training, for example, on BW and CW, that al-Qaeda sent personnel to Baghdad to get trained on the systems that are involved. The Iraqis providing bomb-making expertise and advice to the al-Qaeda organization. We know, for example, in connection with the original World Trade Center bombing in ’93 that one of the bombers was Iraqi, returned to Iraq after the attack of ’93. And we’ve learned subsequent to that, since we went into Baghdad and got into the intelligence files, that this individual probably also received financing from the Iraqi government as well as safe haven. Now, is there a connection between the Iraqi government and the original World Trade Center bombing in ’93? We know, as I say, that one of the perpetrators of that act did, in fact, receive support from the Iraqi government after the fact. With respect to 9/11, of course, we’ve had the story that’s been public out there. The Czechs alleged that Mohamed Atta, the lead attacker, met in Prague with a senior Iraqi intelligence official five months before the attack, but we’ve never been able to develop anymore of that yet either in terms of confirming it or discrediting it. We just don’t know.

“We just don’t know.” It’s tough to read that and then argue that Cheney was claiming a link between Iraq and 9/11 in his comments just a few moments later.

So, CNN not only played Kerry’s game, but it played it well. It gave us the old head fake, setting us up with the fair-and-balanced routine and then reverting to form. Will any other media outlets join the game?

Stay tuned…

Update: The AP doesn’t refute Kerry’s claim about what Cheney said “as recently as Friday,” but mildly suggests that Kerry lied:

Bush said last Sept. 17 that “there’s no question that Saddam Hussein had al-Qaida ties.” But at the same time he said, “We’ve had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with September the 11th.”

ABC New Online takes the lazy approach, merely reporting Kerry’s claim without taking the trouble to fact check it.

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