When New York Times reporter Philip Shenon dropped a bombshell Monday morning with the revelation that former CIA Director George Tenet and Counterterrorism Chief J. Cofer Black met on July 10, 2001 with then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice to warn of an imminent Al-Qaeda attack on the US and that this information was withheld from the 9/11 Commission, there was only one problem – he got the story entirely wrong. Just hours after dropping that bomb, he offered a new contradictory account saying that the 9/11 Commission had been told of the Rice-Tenet meeting.
The opening sentence of Shenon’s Monday morning article, “9/11 Panel Members Weren’t Told of Meeting,” declares:
Members of the Sept. 11 commission said today that they were alarmed that they were told nothing about a White House meeting in July 2001 at which George J. Tenet, then the director of central intelligence, is reported to have warned Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser, about an imminent Al Qaeda attack and failed to persuade her to take action.
The article also goes on to say:
In interviews Saturday and today, commission members said they were never told about the meeting despite hours of public and private questioning with Ms. Rice, Mr. Tenet and Mr. Black, much of it focused specifically on how the White House had dealt with terrorist threats in the summer of 2001.
Shenon cites two Democratic commissioners, former Rep. Tim Roemer, who was quoted as saying that he was “furious” at being kept in the dark about the meeting, and Watergate prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste, who claimed that the meeting “was never mentioned to us.”
But on the same day that article was running, Shenon made a complete reversal by claiming in another article posted on the Times website that, in fact, members of the 9/11 Commission had been made aware of the meeting. In an article co-written by Mark Mazzetti, “Records Show Tenet Briefed Rice on Al Qaeda Threat,” they report:
[Department of State spokesman Sean] McCormack also said records show that the Sept. 11 commission was informed about the meeting, a fact that former intelligence officials and members of the commission confirmed on Monday.
Never once noting that it contradicted what Shenon was reporting elsewhere in the pages of the Times, the pair says:
Mr. Tenet told members of the Sept. 11 commission about the July 10 meeting when they interviewed him in early 2004, but committee members said the former C.I.A. director never indicated he had left the White House with the impression that he had been ignored.
Yet again, Richard Ben-Veniste was a source for the Times story, who was now quoted as saying,
“Tenet never told us that he was brushed off,” said Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democratic member of the commission. “We certainly would have followed that up.”
Remember that in the first story, Ben-Veniste was claiming that when the commission members and staff were polled, none could remember any mention of the July 2001 Rice-Tenet meeting; now his recollection is such that he can characterize the impression he received from when Tenet told the commission about the meeting. The first article claiming the 9/11 Commission was not informed was dated Sunday, and published on Page A14 in Monday’s edition, while the second article contradicting that claim is dated Monday and as posted on the Times website later that day. What a difference a day and some fact-checking can make, it seems.
It might be that Shenon’s sources didn’t have the slightest idea what they were talking about, or they were using him to grind their political axes. Regardless, Shenon and the New York Times should let their readers know that they got the story wrong – dead wrong. But don’t hold your breathe waiting for the Old Gray Lady to admit its error. Many are used to this kind of on-the-fly reporting by the Manhattan and Inside-the-Beltway old media, but the fact that they do it straight-faced while demanding that the public take what they say at face value is beginning to wear thin.
If any unbiased observer still has doubts about the eagerness of the mainstream media to rush to market to whack away at the Bush Administration regardless of how sketchy the story they have in hand might be, this episode of the New York Times shameless two-faced reporting should put those doubts safely to bed.
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