D.C. reporters again fail to ask penetrating questions

Miss another opportunity at the president's presser this morning

During today’s White House press conference, the Washington press corps failed (yes, again) to force President Bush to explain the upcoming National Intelligence Estimate (and other national security reports) indicating that al-Qaeda’s strength is on the rise.

Thursday’s Washington Post ran a story headlined “U.S. Warns of Stronger Al-Qaeda” citing the CIA’s stark assessment of an organization better positioned to strike against west. Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball also see the grave projections of the NIE. The report, according to Isikoff and Hosenbell, “presents a sobering analysis of terrorism threats to the United States, concluding that al-Qaeda has reconstituted its core structure along the Pakistani border and may now be a stronger and more resilient organization today than it appeared a year ago, according to three U.S. intelligence officials familiar with the draft document.”

While one might think that the press corps must have demanded answers to clarify the National Security Estimate’s alarming assessment of al-Qaeda’s resurgence, only two real questions surfaced on the subject during the presser.

The first question—hardly pointed—allowed President Bush simply to avoid the point: why would his secretary of Homeland Security claim to have a “gut instinct” that the United States will be attacked again and not explain himself? The White House has now disavowed Chertoff’s remarks, saying that there’s “no credible intelligence” of specific attacks.

One scribe managed to work up the gumption to ask: “How comfortable are you—sir, how comfortable are you with your homeland security secretary saying, in the face of no credible intelligence of an imminent threat against the United States, that he has a gut feeling that one is coming this summer? And, sir, what does your gut tell you?”

In response, Mr. Bush stressed the importance of combating the terrorist ideology. He didn’t go into any more detail than that, and press issued no follow-up to qualify the Secretary’s comments. In the remaining minutes of the press conference, the final question was a first start:

“The intelligence analysts are saying al-Qaeda has reconstituted in areas of Pakistan, saying the threat to the West is greater than ever now—well, as great as 2001. What’s happened?”

Mr. Bush said that he appreciated the question, but steered away from the critical issue—how did we get where we are today? Without this all-important follow-up—why specifically the NIE and Secretary Chertoff have drawn the conclusions they did—the president again escaped without the reporters in the room pressing him with tough important questions.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Alexander Heffner is an intern at CJR.