Assume the Position
Friday, December 19, 2003
The 'Unimaginable' Meme
This meme, almost solely based on conflating "unpredictable" with "unimaginable" and "unforeseen" is on the loose once again, pushed by one of it's most prominent vectors—InstaPundit:
What does the story say?
Did Condoleezza Rice ever use the word "unimaginable" in describing the activities of the terrorists? InstaPundit, May 17, 2002 (bold added):
What had Rice said "just yesterday" (May 16, 2002)? Here is the way the John Solomon referred to her remarks for the Associated Press the following day (CBS News or Washington Post):
She says nobody could have "predicted" it, Reynolds hears nobody could have "imagined" it, Solomon reports her words but says it is an assertion that no one had "imagined" it.
In June 2002, William Saletan did exactly the same thing in Slate as Solomon did in his AP report:
He reports Rice's words and then immediately says they are a plea meaning something else.
Here is what Condoleezza Rice actually said, including the question to which she was responding:
Read the transcript of her press conference and see if she was saying the events were "unimaginable" or that the June-August intel about hijackings pointed to essentially run-of-the-mill terrorist chatter and plotting.
Did anybody in the administration ever describe the terrorists' actions as "unimaginable" in any form of the word "imagine" ('could'n't be imagined,' 'beyond all imagining,' etc.)? Sure, there's a guy in the White House who often uses "unimaginable" figuratively as a general superlative.
George Bush (italics added):
February 20, 2001, "It is an unimaginable honor to represent the great people of this country."
June 18, 2001, "Well, thank you very much. It's nice to be home. (Laughter.) And welcome to the people's home. As I'm sure you can imagine, it is an unimaginable honor to live here, and it was an unimaginable honor to represent our nation overseas."
July 2, 2001, "Well, it's an unimaginable honor to be the President during the 4th of July of this country."
November 16, 2001, "On this day of Thanksgiving, let our thanksgiving be revealed in the compassionate support we render to our fellow citizens who are grieving unimaginable loss; and let us reach out with care to those in need of food, shelter, and words of hope."
March 12, 2002, "It's an unimaginable honor to live here and to share this with people from all around the country."
May 09, 2002, "It's an unimaginable honor to walk in that Oval Office every morning, as you can imagine."
January 29, 2003, "I call upon the generosity of the American people, at this time of tragedy, where thousands are dying, where thousands of children are being orphaned, to join in a great cause, a great humanitarian cause, a cause beyond all imaginable -- a cause to solve unimaginable problems, to help the people who are needlessly dying."
May 5, 2003, "It's an unimaginable honor to be the President of such a fabulous country."
August 26, 2003, "We will do everything in our power to deny terrorists weapons of mass destruction before they can commit murder on an unimaginable scale."
September 1, 2003, "I want you to think back to that fateful day, September the 11th, and what happened afterwards. It was then that the whole world saw the skill and commitment and incredible work of the Operating Engineers who manned the heavy equipment to clear Ground Zero. (Applause.) You overcame unimaginable challenges; you removed the rubble in record time. You are now working to make sure America is prepared for any emergency, and this nation is grateful for your skill and your sacrifice. (Applause.)"
It seems plain that most, if not all, of those usages were figurative. I know it's President Bush I'm referring to, but I doubt even he would think after being in office over two years that the honor was still "unimaginable" He may be unimaginative, but even he probably could imagine the honor of being president within a few months of taking office. And I could be wrong, but I think nowadays someone would have to kill over 20 million people to literally "commit murder on an 'unimaginable' scale."
Of course, Bush isn't the only one to use "unimaginable" to figuratively mean immense, unspeakable, unbelievable, etc. Just type "unimaginable" and "9-11" into your favorite search engine and you'll be swamped with stories containing phrases like "unimaginable grief," "unimaginable shock," "unimaginable devastation," "unimaginable horror," "unimaginable loss," and so on. Did, as Bush said in the last quote, the Operating Engineers literally have to overcome "unimaginable challenges" at Ground Zero? Doubtful, one can always imagine a hole twice as deep and debris piled twice as high mixed with three times as many dead, the latter should not be a problem to imagine since the initial reports estimated as many as 10,000 people killed in the towers' collapse.
But, the President did use "unimaginable" at least once in referring to the terrorists' actions (as opposed to describing the result of the Sep 11 attacks). As far as I can tell, he only did so once, and nobody else in the upper levels of the administration seems to have used the term to refer to the terrorists' actions. [I haven't reviewed all the available Congressional testimony and transcripts of broadcasts over the past two years because I have neither the access nor the inclination—but if somebody has another example of Bush or other administration officials using the term in that way, I'd like to see it.]
Two weeks after the attack, on September 26, 2001, the President met with Muslim leaders at the White House. A few journalists were there for a no-questions photo-op, which White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe let get out of hand with a bit of help from the President. Here's the transcript starting at the end of the President's brief remarks (italics added):
That's it. Even if Bush used the word literally that time, it seems to be the sum total of "insultingly false remarks about how utterly unimaginable the attacks were" that actually used the word "unimaginable"—aside from the interminable press paraphrasing or parsing every following utterance of 'unpredictable' or 'no actionable intelligence' into the "unimaginable" meme as exemplified above by Saletan, Solomon, and yesterday's CBS story on the 9-11 Commission. Just half of sixteen words; spoken, not in a prepared statement, but in response to a question at a no-questions photo-op, and the press gave them a life of their own.
On May 16, 2002, when what news outlets variously reported as an August 2001 "memo" or "briefing" or "report" mentioning al-Qaeda and/or hijacking became known, Tom Frank in the NY Daily News (Abstract or extract from ABC's The Note) and Dan Eggen and Bill Miller of the Washington Post dug up Bush's comments from a January 2002 NBC interview with Tom Brokaw (the quotes and intervening description are identical in both articles):
The following day, May 17, 2002, Dana Milbank and Mike Allen seem to have played mix and match with Bush's statements in their Washington Post article:
It certainly seems they took one line from the January 2002 Brokaw interview and then the one line from the September 2001 photo-op. I can't find a transcript of the January 2002 interview, probably because it was part of the NBC Special, "The Bush White House: Inside the Real West Wing with Tom Brokaw," which was filmed January 17th and aired January 23rd. However, it is highly doubtful that Bush repeated the "unimaginable" line in the interview because all the references to that interview on the web match the DeFrank/Eggen/Miller quotes, differing only in rendering the "Bush said" description. The "unimaginable" meme has been so attractive that if Bush had used the word in the January interview, it would show up, but it doesn't. Milbank and Allen don't reference any source for their apparently mixed quotes, just the "Bush said at one point," which is probably wrong since it's likely the quotes come from two points some four months apart.
Instapundit may disagree with my assessment that his continuous flogging eight words Bush said on September 26, 2001 (words that seem to have never been repeated by Bush or anybody else in the administration) as the official "White House…line" on the pre-attack situation is little different than flogging sixteen repudiated words from the SOTU as the major (or even sole) justification for going to war in Iraq. Here is some of what he wrote on May 27, 2003 (original italics):
So, "[t]he President was warned on August 6 that Al Qaeda might try to hijack airplanes," huh? From the same briefing where the Professor "heard" Dr. Rice say "that no one could have imagined the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon" even though she didn't say it.
The "run-up" she mentions is because her opening remarks consist of a listing of more than a dozen FAA information circulars and FBI memos and Counterterrorism Security Group meetings from June through the end of August. As I said at the beginning, much of the meme stems from conflating terms, and loose usage of terms on the part of the administration doesn't help—consider this line from the run-up:
If you take "while we cannot foresee attacks domestically" to mean that 'nobody in the federal government could imagine the possibility of domestic attacks' (as Prof Reynolds apparently does when similar terms are used to refer to the type of attack) then the rest of the line, "we cannot rule them out," makes absolutely no sense. If they can't be ruled out, then the possibility must have been considered, even if it was then deemed to low to warrant action, therefore it must have actually been foreseen. IOW, what Rice meant by "cannot foresee" was actually something like 'the current intel doesn't support a near-term prediction of domestic attacks.'
When the discussion gets down to the type of attack (simultaneous hijacking of domestic commercial airliners and crashing them into buildings), the same sloppy usage occurs. Whether somebody says nobody considered it, or nobody foresaw it, or nobody could predict it, it doesn't mean it was literally unimaginable, it means that it was a far-fetched, low probability scenario that was unexpected given that the last successful domestic hijacking of a US commercial passenger airliner was in 1984, and the last successful international hijacking of a US commercial passenger airliner was a TWA 727 hijacked in Athens in 1985 (in 1986 there was a failed hijacking attempt against a Pan Am 747 in Karachi, the flight crew escaped the aircraft after the hijackers boarded, 22 passengers were killed). Certainly there was a heightened threat of hijackings in 1995 after terrorist mastermind Ramzi Ahmed Yousef was arrested, after he was convicted in NY in 1996 for the Bojinka plot to simultaneously blow up a dozen US airliners over the Pacific and testing out the bomb on one Philippine airliner in 1994 causing one death, and after he was convicted in 1997 for the 1993 WTC bombing and sentenced to Supermax for several lifetimes. At each point, the FAA sent out ICs and FBI sent out inlets, the generally existing procedures were observed, and no US passenger airliner was hijacked in 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, or 1999, whether with an intent to bargin for Yousef or crash it into a building. By 2000, Abu Sayyaf (the Philippine branch of al-Qaeda) wanted to trade 29 hostages for Ramzi Yousef, Abu Haidal and the blind imam Sheikh Adel Omar Rahman, all held in US prisons. In short, no matter how bad US airline security has been portrayed, the procedures worked for well over a dozen years (1986-2001) without a single US passenger airliner being hijacked—and as long as the planes weren't hijacked, it didn't really matter much one way or the other what the potential hijackers planned to do after gaining control of the aircraft.
Finally, in many ways "predictable" is just as much a problem in the hands of the press as "unimaginable." It is a rather broad term, covering everything from vague predictions—someday California will fall into the Pacific Ocean—to the highly specific and, consequently, mitigable (if not preventable) predictions—the hurricane will make landfall in five or six hours somewhere around Savannah. However, when reporters use it in association with the terrorist attacks, it almost always means specific, actionable intelligence sufficient to disrupt the terrorists' plans—as the questions to Condoleeze Rice make clear. IOW, as far as the press is concerned, anything involving human actions that can be "predicted" can be "prevented." What's forgotten is that all of the imaginable, foreseen, and predicted heightened hijacking events either were prevented for over a dozen years by the procedures in effect on September 11, 2001; or all the FAA ICs and FBI inlets were wrong and nobody ever planned to hijack any US airliners over that span, which would mean the ones from June-August 2001 were probably wrong, too.
UPDATE - December 24, 2003: Worse than burying the lead is leaving it out altogether. Noel, of Sharp Knife, left a comment which made me think that he had missed the point, but after reading over my post I realized I'd never actually stated it. I had pulled out a dozen paragraphs for another couple of posts and trimmed back on the quotes from the press conferences; and, like the defining scene in a movie winding up on the cutting room floor, the point of the post went with them. I'll try to fix that.
When the administration has been trying to make a case for something or pushing the White House line, there is plenty of evidence for it. For instance, you could probably fill a book with nothing but quotes from January 2002 to March 2003 by administration officials about Hussein and WMD programs. If the administration were really pushing the case that using a hijacked aircraft as a bomb was "unimaginable" then people should probably be able fill several pages with multiple quotes by Tenet, Mueller, Cheney, Ashcroft, Rice, Bush, and whomever else, all repeating that line. Instead, just four or five old quotes have been endlessly recycled—two from Bush, one or two from Ari Fleischer, and one from Rice—often as misquotes or exaggerated paraphrases. Of those quotes, only one has the word "unimaginable," and it was said by a guy who frequently uses the word. So, I simply think the administration didn't put as near as much effort into making that case as it seems Prof. Reynolds and much of the press have been trying to portray.
Were the few statements by Bush, Rice and Fleischer overly broad as to the potential imaginings of people throughout the entire government and beyond? Definitely. But I think the theme underlying their remarks was accurate: a theoretical scenario of hijacked aircraft being used as missiles is not one that had been, or even would have been, elevated to the uppermost levels of the three-letter agencies without some hard intel pointing to a currently active plot.