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September 15, 2005

Something I Bet You Didn't Know

Everyone remembers this famous quote from Condoleezza Rice:

"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."

You probably know this wasn't, uh, 100% true. In addition to lots of other evidence, we just learned this:

American aviation officials were warned as early as 1998 that Al Qaeda could "seek to hijack a commercial jet and slam it into a U.S. landmark," according to previously secret portions of a report prepared last year by the Sept. 11 commission.

But here's something I bet you didn't know:

William Harlow was the Director of Public Affairs—ie, chief spokesman—for the CIA from 1997 to 2004. He was quoted all the time in the news after the September 11th attacks. But Harlow did more than just PR; he also had written a novel published in 1999 called Circle William.

The plot of Circle William revolves around an attempt by terrorists to crash a commercial airliner into the Knesset in Israel.

It would be incredible enough that Condoleezza Rice would say what she did, while all the while the public face of the CIA had written a book with almost that precise topic. But here's something more incredible: the media never, ever noticed this.

In fairness to them, of course, it was extremely difficult to find this out. I was only able to do so by using a special technique I developed, which I call "Having a Library Card."

Also, remember that 90% of the reporters at the New York Times don't speak English. And even if one of the 10% did get ahold of the book, there are no lights in the Times' offices, so it would be too dark for them to read it.

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ALSO: Circle William is pretty entertaining, and often genuinely funny.

Posted at September 15, 2005 10:21 AM | TrackBack

But Jonathan! Things occur without meaning or context, except insofar as the events demonstrate the utter futility of ever understanding things or connecting the dots. For example: today I spend all my money. Tomorrow I am broke, right? A little cause and effect action. Wrong! Those events are discrete.

Today, my high rollin' ways are reported. Tomorrow, the sorrow I feel is reported. The connection between the two is "controversial". At the end of the day, all we can say is life goes on. That's objectivity, and a million angry wingnuts are ready to send email to prove it.

Posted by: Harry at September 15, 2005 11:29 AM

I'll bet a lot more people have read Tom Clancy's "Debt of Honor" (1994) than have read "Circle William." That book concludes with a Japanese 747 pilot, furious that the US had just beaten Japan in a brief war, crashing his plane into the US Capitol while the president is speaking to a joint session of Congress.

To be fair, the NY Times did run a story on 9/12/01 which summarized the plots of many books and movies featuring 9/11-like attacks, including "Debt of Honor," "Executive Decision," and "Die Hard 2."

It would seem as though Harlow was probably a better PR guy for the CIA than he was for his own book. The reviews on Amazon are good, but they don't sell it directly. (One reviewer said the book was part Tom Clancy and part Dave Barry.) Okay, I've got to read it now. Still, the Times has missed a lot more important stuff than this!

Posted by: Bob at September 15, 2005 02:48 PM

NYT reporters do not read books. It would jeopardize their famous objectivity, by biasing them in favor of the "literate elite." They have made this mistake in the past, but no more. Praise the Lord!

Posted by: Maud at September 16, 2005 12:18 AM


You're right; thank you for pulling me back from the deviationist course. It is clearly time for me to engage in an abject, public session of self-criticism.

Just to start with: on my left shoulder I have several counter-revolutionary moles.


Interesting, I didn't know that about the NY Times. Here's the relevant paragraph for those interested:

For the most part, however, large-scale terrorist plots and huge public disasters -- so sensationalist in tone, seemingly so far removed from our daily reality -- have remained the province of commercial screenwriters and novelists like Tom Clancy, whose 1994 novel, "Debt of Honor," featured a plot in which a Boeing 747 is crashed by a Japanese airman into the Capitol building during a joint session of Congress, killing virtually everyone. The Sylvester Stallone movie "Daylight" postulated a disastrous explosion in the Holland Tunnel; "Die Hard 2" showed terrorists taking over the air control system at Dulles Airport and crashing an airplane; and "Black Sunday" depicted a extremist group planning to blow up the Superbowl with explosives loaded on a blimp. "Executive Decision" depicted Arab terrorists armed with a nerve-gas bomb who take control of a 747 and head for Washington.


You're right that it was a big step forward for NY Times reporters to stop reading books. But they're still literate, which means they could read books. And even if they weren't literate, they could LEARN to read.

That's why I'm calling for all NY Times reporters to be ritualistically blinded. Only then can we have the news coverage this great nation deserves.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at September 16, 2005 04:42 AM

There was a Quiller thriller as well, can't recall which one, that had a suicide plane as a plot device.

But coming to Condoleezza Rice's defense, she was probably referring to information furnished by the US Intelligence Community. The IC (of which I was a member until recently, although I had nothing to do with counter-terrorism) did indeed let down the side. Apparently there were a number of (non-literary) clues to al-Q's intentions from the late 1990s on, but if you look at the oft-cited declassified PDB from August 6th, 2001, you really don't see anything that would galvanize a president into a new, more aggressive course of action on the counter-terrorism front. The now-famous "Phoenix Memo" of July 2001 did represent "actionable intelligence" but I can absolutely guarantee you that it was seen by no one outside the FBI before 9/11 -- too little, too late.

Much as I hate to do it, we have to let the frat boy and Condi off the hook on this particular point. It was the IC that was asleep at the switch.

Posted by: Ralph Hitchens at September 16, 2005 02:49 PM

'Three Days Of The Condor' anyone? Filmed in the 70's and the job of the Robert Redford character was to read novels (for a sinister Max Von Sydow run organisation not unlike the CIA) looking for terrorist type plots in them.
memorable for one of my favourite movie lines: RR is hiding from badguys in apartment of Faye Dunaway character and ties her up (for his own security), he reassures her 'Don't worry I'm not going to rape you or anything' and she replies 'Its early yet.'

Posted by: Brownie at September 17, 2005 09:01 AM

Wasn't it Mark Twain who said, "Outside of the New York Times offices, a book is man's best friend?"

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at September 19, 2005 10:24 AM

teenage killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris "wanted to kill 500 people, hijack a plane and crash it into New York City, Jefferson County Sherrif department's spokesman, Steve Davis, told reporters"

Posted by: Greg at September 22, 2005 10:33 AM