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:

The story linked above is right to heap scorn on Condi Rice's statement that the attacks were unimaginable before they happened.

What does the story say?

To find out who failed and why, the commission has navigated a political landmine, threatening a subpoena to gain access to the president's top-secret daily briefs. Those documents may shed light on one of the most controversial assertions of the Bush administration – that there was never any thought given to the idea that terrorists might fly an airplane into a building.

"I don't think anybody could have predicted that they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile," said national security adviser Condoleezza Rice on May 16, 2002.

Did Condoleezza Rice ever use the word "unimaginable" in describing the activities of the terrorists? InstaPundit, May 17, 2002 (bold added):

Well, maybe. But what offends me -- as I keep repeating -- isn't so much the failure to prevent the attacks. That may well have been impossible, even if they'd had extraordinarily good intelligence. What offends me is the constant repetition (I heard Condi Rice say this just yesterday) that no one could have imagined the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. That's not only absurd, it's an insult to our intelligence.

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):

The report contrasts with Bush administration officials' assertions that none in government had imagined an attack like Sept. 11 before that time.

"I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, take another one and slam it into the Pentagon; that they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile," national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said Thursday.

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:

Nor can you excuse the intelligence community's conceptual failure. "I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, take another one and slam it into the Pentagon; that they would try to use an airplane as a missile," Rice pleaded last month. She depicted this use of an airplane as unimaginable before Sept. 11.

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:

Q Why shouldn't this be seen as an intelligence failure, that you were unable to predict something happening here?

DR. RICE: Steve, I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, take another one and slam it into the Pentagon; that they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile. All of this reporting about hijacking was about traditional hijacking. You take a plane -- people were worried they might blow one up, but they were mostly worried that they might try to take a plane and use it for release of the blind Sheikh or some of their own people.

But I think that there's always a fine balance, but even in retrospect, even in hindsight, there was nothing in what was briefed to the President that would suggest that you would go out and say to the American people, look, I just read that terrorists might hijack and [sic] aircraft. They talk about hijacking an aircraft once in a while, but have no specifics about when, where, under what circumstances.

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):

Q Mr. President --

MR. JOHNDROE: Thank you all very much. Thank you all.

Q Mr. President --

THE PRESIDENT: Yes? Wait a minute. I feel guilty that John couldn't -- yes?

Q Sir, Senator Shelby this morning had some pretty direct comments about his thinking that somebody needs to be held accountable for what has been characterized by some people as a massive intelligence failure. I wonder what you think of his comments. Is he trying to inject politics in this? Does someone need to fall on their sword, if you will?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, John, the intelligence gathering capacity of the United States is doing a fine job. These terrorists had burrowed in our country for over two years. They were well-organized. They were well-planned. They struck in a way that was unimaginable. And we are a united nation. We're going to go forward with our war against these terrorists. And our nation should have all the confidence that the intelligence gathering capacity of the United States is doing everything possible to not only keep us informed about what's happening overseas, but to keep us informed about what might happen here at home.

Q So how would you characterize his comments over the last few days?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, he's a concerned American. I'm sure other Americans are asking how could this have happened, including the President. But what Americans need to know is that I'm receiving excellent intelligence. The CIA is doing a fine job. The FBI is responding on every single lead we're getting, and that we're doing everything we can to make the homeland safe, as well as everything we can to bring people to justice.

[Three more questions, then…]

MR. JOHNDROE: Thanks. Thank you all. Can we go now? Thank you. I don't want to shout you down, so let's just leave. Thank you.

Q On the Middle East -- think that's going to lead to a durable peace in the Middle East?

THE PRESIDENT: Steve's question was on the Middle East. Sorry, Gordon. That's what happens when you invite guys -- (laughter). You invite John Roberts in here -- aggressive reporters, you get -- Steve asked about the Middle East.

[Four or five more questions, then…]

THE PRESS: Thank you.

THE PRESIDENT: Gordon, good job -- no questions. (Laughter.)

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):

"It's hard to envision a plot so devious as the one that they pulled off on 9/11," Bush said in a January interview with NBC's Tom Brokaw. "Never did we realize that the enemy was so well organized."

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:

Still, the White House yesterday faced the task of explaining the new information given past statements suggesting officials had been unaware of the possibility of this kind of attack.

"Never did we realize that the enemy was so well organized," Bush said at one point. "They struck in a way that was unimaginable." Cheney made fine distinctions. "No specific threat involving, really, a domestic operation or involving what happened, obviously, the cities, airliner and so forth," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

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):

Part of it is also that some of this is an insult to our intelligence, much like the Administration's absurd claims (which I was flaming about repeatedly here last year) that the September 11 attacks were somehow unimaginable. That was absurd. The Columbine killers planned to hijack a plane and smash it into Manhattan, and anyone who has flown over Manhattan has surely thought about the damage an errant airliner could do. Anyone who honestly believes that such an attack was unimaginable, -- as opposed to, perhaps, being something that a reasonable person would consider imaginable but unlikely -- is sufficiently unimaginative that he/she shouldn't be working in a position of responsibility.

Weirdly, the White House still seems to be trying to push this line, though, judging by its recent efforts to keep quiet a report suggesting that the President was warned on August 6 that Al Qaeda might try to hijack airplanes. Why? The question isn't whether it was a possibility. The question was whether it should have been recognized as an imminent threat. The answer to the former is pretty clearly "of course." The answer to the latter isn't nearly as clear. But why pretend it's not a question at all? Who do they think they're fooling?

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.

Now, on August 6th, the President received a presidential daily briefing which was not a warning briefing, but an analytic report. This analytic report, which did not have warning information in it of the kind that said, they are talking about an attack against so forth or so on, it was an analytic report that talked about UBL's methods of operation, talked about what he had done historically, in 1997, in 1998. It mentioned hijacking, but hijacking in the traditional sense, and in a sense, said that the most important and most likely thing was that they would take over an airliner, holding passengers and demand the release of one of their operatives. And the blind sheikh was mentioned by name as -- even though he's not an operative of al Qaeda, but as somebody who might be bargained in this way.

I want to reiterate, it was not a warning. There was no specific time, place or method mentioned. What you have seen in the run-up that I've talked about is that the FAA was reacting to the same kind of generalized information about a potential hijacking as a method that al Qaeda might employ, but no specific information saying that they were planning such an attack at a particular time.

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:

On July 2nd, as a result of some of that work, the FBI released a message saying that there are threats to be worried about overseas, but we cannot -- while we cannot foresee attacks domestically, we cannot rule them out. This is an inlet, and again, an inlet goes out to law enforcement from the FBI.

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.

Original content copyright © 2002-2005 Lynxx Pherrett. All rights reserved.