Monday, April 19, 2004

WHEN DID BUSH TELL RICE HE WAS GOING TO WAR? How soon we forget! The national-security adviser went on CBS's Face the Nation yesterday and responded to the charge in Bob Woodward's new book, Plan of Attack, that George W. Bush decided to go to war in January 2003, while UN weapons inspections were still under way. The Los Angeles Times reports:

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said yesterday that President Bush's decision to invade Iraq was not made in January 2003, as a new book asserts, but came in March, after all efforts to avoid a war had been exhausted.

The statement in "Plan of Attack," by Washington Post assistant managing editor Bob Woodward, is "simply not, not right," Rice said on CBS's "Face the Nation."

In an interview broadcast yesterday evening on CBS's "60 Minutes," Woodward said that "the decision [to invade] was conveyed to Condi Rice in early January.... [Bush] was frustrated with the weapons inspections. He had promised the United Nations and the world and the country that either the U.N. would disarm Saddam [Hussein] or he, George Bush, would do it, and do it alone if necessary."

But Rice said the final determination that war would occur came more than two months after their private conversation at Bush's Texas ranch.

In that conversation, Rice told CBS, she and Bush were discussing Bush's frustrations with Saddam, who Bush said "was starting to fool the world again, as he had over the past 12 years."

"He said, 'Now, I think we probably are going to have to go to war, we're going to have to go to war,'" Rice said.

But that "was not a decision to go to war," she continued. "The decision to go to war is in March. The president is saying in that [January] conversation, 'I think the chances are that this is not going to work out any other way. We're going to have to go to war.'"

You can read the full Face the Nation transcript here (PDF format). But let's get real, shall we? If anything, Woodward is being incredibly generous to the White House in asserting that the decision was not made until January 2003. Here's the lead of a piece that appeared in Time magazine on March 31, 2003:

"F--- Saddam. we're taking him out." Those were the words of President George W. Bush, who had poked his head into the office of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. It was March 2002, and Rice was meeting with three U.S. Senators, discussing how to deal with Iraq through the United Nations, or perhaps in a coalition with America's Middle East allies. Bush wasn't interested. He waved his hand dismissively, recalls a participant, and neatly summed up his Iraq policy in that short phrase. The Senators laughed uncomfortably; Rice flashed a knowing smile. The President left the room.

As far as I know, Time's account has never been challenged. As we know from a spate of new books - by former counter-terrorism adviser Richard Clarke, journalist Ron Suskind (who collaborated with former Treasury secretary Paul O'Neill), and others - the White House, and especially Vice-President Dick Cheney, started talking about going to war with Iraq in 2001, especially after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Bush's chief of staff, Andrew Card, spoke infamously about not wanting to roll out a "new product" (war, that is) until September 2002.

And good grief: Time's Karen Tumulty was on the set with Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer yesterday, but she never said a thing about her own magazine's year-old exclusive. What is wrong with these people?

DIGITALLY CLUELESS AT THE TIMES. In today's New York Times, Ken Belson writes about Sony's attempts to catch up with Apple in the online music business. The ninth paragraph is a howler:

Like Apple's iTunes online music store, [Sony's] Connect will have 500,000 songs that can be downloaded for 99 cents each. But while iTunes songs can be played only on iPods, Sony already sells a variety of devices, including minidisc and compact disc players, which can play songs bought on Connect's Web site. Sony's new Hi-MD disc player, for instance, will hold up to 45 hours of music on one disc, which will retail for about $7.

Well, uh, no. Not even close. At the most basic level, you can burn a CD with songs that you download from the iTunes Music Store, allowing you to listen to your music on any CD player on the planet. In fact, that's the way most people use the store - popular though the iPod may be, there are far more iTunes Music Store customers out there than there are iPod owners. Belson should have looked at this.

But though that's Belson's most obvious mistake, it goes deeper. Apple sells songs in a format known as AAC, which appears to be the crux of Belson's confusion. AAC is a competitor to MP3 that provides slightly smaller file sizes, slightly better sound quality, and "digital rights management" protection - that is, you can burn "playlists" onto a few CDs, but you can't burn, say, 100, at least not without changing the order of the tracks. There are a few other limitations, too. The idea is to let you share your music with family members and friends, but not to enable full-scale piracy.

However, the tracks on the CD you've just burned are no longer AACs - they've been expanded into standard AIFF files, as are all sound tracks on CDs. (This obviously doesn't mean that the richness that was stripped out when the music was compressed has somehow been magically restored; that's gone for good.) You can now take your CD and rip it into plain, unprotected MP3s. (Apple's claims that these MP3s will somehow be unlistenable are - how to put this? - not true. This is the equivalent of your first-grade teacher telling you that you will die if you put your pencil in your mouth.)

Now you can do anything you like with your MP3-ized iTunes songs - copy them onto a non-Apple MP3 player, burn them onto a CD-MP3 disc (like the 45-hour disc to which Belson refers), whatever. Some of those devices might even carry the Sony brand.

This is not a minor error that Belson made. The entire point of his story is that consumers of digital music are awash in a sea of proprietary standards - Apple's got one, Microsoft's got another, and now Sony is about to introduce yet another. Gosh darn, what is the poor consumer to do?

Well, one place to start is to go somewhere other than the New York Times for authoritative information.

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