Tim Russert had landed a coup, getting a chance to interview the Homeland Security secretary, Michael Chertoff, just a few days after the London bombings.
Russert, host of NBC's Meet the Press, asked reasonable questions. But Chertoff provided a series of mushy, non-specific answers — the sort of boilerplate information that was, for the most part, unrelated to Thursday's attack.
But Russert failed to challenge Chertoff, avoiding necessary follow-up questions to wade through the secretary's mush. Why? It can only be because Russert failed to sufficiently prepare for the interview, or because he was being soft in the wake of this latest chapter on the "war on terror."
Let's rule out lack of preparation, because Russert is a champion for doing one's homework. As he points out in his book, Big Russ & Me:
RUSSERT (page 147): The second lesson from that day is that the key to success is preparation. In journalism, it’s absolutely crucial. Like everyone else, I have days when things go well, and days when they don’t. But one mistake I have never made is to show up unprepared for an interview.
So that's settled. Therefore I ask, why is Russert incapable of wading through the mush?
Let's take a look at a few key points of the interview:
RUSSERT: Since September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda has been responsible for at least 17 bombings around the world, causing the death of some 700 people. Is al-Qaeda alive and well?
CHERTOFF: Well, it is, but I think we have to be careful to distinguish between two types of al-Qaeda activities. There's the actual core group itself, which has discipline and owes loyalty to bin Laden and its top leadership, but then there is a network of terror organizations going back even before 2001 that is sympathetic, that gets aid and assistance from al-Qaeda in some circumstances, but that is also semi-autonomous. So we have a kind of a range of groups that are out there committing acts of terror, and some of them are, frankly, focused on local issues in other parts of the world.
Chertoff's answer is unrelated to London, which should have led Russert to one of these follow-up questions:
RUSSERT: Is the London bombing proof that our strategy in the "war on terror" is unsuccessful? Have we focused too much of our attention to fighting the Iraqi insurgents, and not enough to dismantling Al Qaeda and its affiliates?