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?
RUSSERT: Have the Bush and Blair administrations placed too much emphasis on winning the war in Iraq, leaving themselves vulnerable to attacks such as the one Thursday?
Instead, Russert asked about sleeper cells in London and the U.S., to which Chertoff offered an answer unrelated to London, which sounds more like a veiled request for support of the USA Patriot Act:
CHERTOFF: Well, we’ve seen sleeper cells, and we’ve seen cases being made publicly involving sleeper cells. And one of the important things to recognize is a sleeper cell can become operational in the blink of an eye. A lot of times we see criticism of the government because a case is brought and critics say, “Well, you know, these people were not really doing anything yet. They were just training and they were sitting there, you know, having been trained somewhere like in Afghanistan.” But the point is, we can’t wait until the fuse is lit. We have to move actively against sleeper cells when they’re in the planning and training phase, and not wait until they become operational.
That was followed by a lengthy back-and-forth — the one time when Russert acted like the “bulldog” he claims to be — about the color-coded alert system. A question and four follow-ups, just days after an Al Qaeda attack? What a waste of valuable airtime.
That discussion leads to this question:
RUSSERT: Stephen Flynn, who had written a book, America the Vulnerable, who will be on after you, Mr. Secretary. This is from his book. “…the second Bush Administration should be mobilizing to bolster our national resiliency in the face of future attacks. … The president’s 2006 budget request asked for just $600 million for safeguarding all of the nation’s seaports, mass transit systems, railways, bridges, tunnels and energy facilities. This is roughly what U.S. taxpayers are spending every three days on the war in Iraq.”
Is there enough money being spent to protect us, our mass transportation system?
CHERTOFF: Well, actually, you know, the president’s budget in 2006 puts more money in the category of infrastructure protection than had been the case previously. So we’ve been raising the level in terms of our request, and we’re putting more resources in. And, of course, there are billions of dollars in security grants that go to cities and states that are also available. …
Before letting Chertoff continue with this vague answer, Russert could have interjected — as he often does — to try to pin the Homeland Secretary down.
Assuming Russert was as well prepared as he says he is, he might have asked:
RUSSERT: Last September, Senate Republicans prevented a Democratic plan to spend roughly $3 billion on various Homeland Security needs, including $350 million for rail security, $300 million for port security, and $70 million for security at chemical plants. Given the various criticisms that the administration has failed to spend sufficiently in those areas, is it worth revisiting these proposals in the wake of the London bombings?
RUSSERT: Your department’s acting inspector general, Richard Skinner, testified last month that spending for Coast Guard needs was insufficient to overcome various barriers, “most importantly the deteriorating readiness of its fleet assets.” How do you respond?
Here’s one final example of Russert asking questions related to the London bombings, receiving answers unrelated to the bombings, and failing to follow up appropriately:
RUSSERT: Senator Biden, from Delaware, who takes Amtrak every day from his home in Delaware, said that we need $1.2 billion over the next five years, that all the security analysts have told him that. Will you support increasing money for railway security by a billion dollars over the next five years?
CHERTOFF: Well, of course, we’re interested in getting adequate resources for rail security. We’re going to support anything that gives us the kind of resources that we need to make a risk-based approach to parceling out our resources and our support for these security measures. But, again, I want to emphasize an important thing is not to lock us into categories because next week there could be an incident somewhere else in the world in a different sector of transportation, and we’re going to hear a call to fortify that. So we need to have the ability to be flexible and apply these resources in a disciplined and intelligent manner across the board.
RUSSERT: But knowing the American political process, in light of what happened in London, do you have any doubt that there will be in Congress a vote for increasing security money for railway, subways and buses?
CHERTOFF: And as I say, we’re going to welcome additional resources, but I want to just remind people, you know, everything’s a tradeoff. We don’t want to move money, for example, from ports into rail because then we’re going to have an issue with ports. We have to be balanced across the board and that means we’ve got to focus on specific intelligence, specific vulnerabilities and, of course, consequences.
Why is “everything a tradeoff?” Russert doesn’t ask, so viewers didn’t find out. Our entire budget for transportation security is the equivalent of three days in Iraq, and while I wouldn’t suggest cutting funds to Iraq — we broke it, we have to fix it — how about trading off with something else, like the Bush Administration’s $1.3 trillion of permanent tax cuts for the wealthy? Or, given that this administration has no problem with huge deficits, what’s wrong with adding, say, an extra .007 percent — the equivalent of $3 billion added onto $427 billion?
Of course, Russert could have pointed out that last month, the Republican-led Senate Appropriations Committee voted last month to slash money for rail and transit security grants to state and local government by a third from the $150 million devoted to them this year. It was only after the London bombing that various Republicans suggested a reversal of that policy.
But Russert moved on, to a question and follow-up on metal detectors in the subway systems.
Why does any of this matter?
RUSSERT: You have no doubt that there will be another terrorist attack on America?
CHERTOFF: I have to say, I mean, I know the desire is there and the capability is there, but, you know, my job and the job of 183,000 people who work with me is to do everything we can to prevent that from happening, and then if God forbid it does, to protect ourselves and to be able to respond appropriately.
Russert could have followed-up, citing various reports criticial of the administration, but why bother? It’s easier to listen politely, and move on.
This article first appeared on Journalists Against Bush’s B.S. (JABBS)