Earlier this week I cited an article by Michael Hirsh and Michael Isikoff, “What Went Wrong,” from Newsweek, May 27, 2002. The Hirsh-Isikoff and other news stories that appeared in late spring of 2002 revealed that the Bush Administration had received copious warnings about the September 11 attacks and had failed to act on them.
Much of what would later be found by the September 11 commission was in these articles. We saw Sandy Berger and Richard Clarke explicitly warn the incoming Bush Administration that they must give the threat of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden the highest priority. We learned that the Bush State Department and National Security Council decided to put al Qaeda low on their priority list, in spite of the warnings. We learned that the Bushies didn’t bother to use unarmed drones, as had the Clinton security team, to gather intelligence in the critical summer of 2001. We learned that President Bush had been given an explicit warning of a terrorist attack involving hijacked airplanes on August 6, 2001 (although it would take the 9/11 commission to pry the title of the warning, “Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States,” out of Condi Rice). We learned that the Bush team had not followed up on this warning.
Righties quickly stepped in and declared that there wasn’t anything the Bush Administration could have done, because the Bush team had not been given the day, the hour, the airports, the targets, the exact plan. We’ve since been treated to a blow-by-blow description of what went on at NORAD and the FAA on September 11. It was not pretty. Every ball that could have been dropped, was dropped. Although there is no excuse for the inability of NORAD and the FAA to work together in this time of crisis — that’s part of their jobs — it is obvious neither agency had been given so much as a hint to be alert to anything extraordinary. By the time the managers at the FAA and NORAD realized the nature of the crisis, it was pretty much over.
Had they been better prepared, had they been on a higher alert, had even one hijacker crew been stopped, had even one tower been spared, hundreds of lives might have been saved. And that failure is the fault of the federal executive branch that existed in 2001 — the Bush Administration. Yes, many of the slip-ups originated in the intelligence agencies. But had Bush rattled cages to make al Qaeda a priority, it might have made a difference. We’ll never know.
Michael Hirsch wrote in the May 17, 2002, Newsweek, in an article titled “What Did He Know?”:
George W. Bush has been all but untouchable in the war on terror, and he has the poll ratings to prove it. Now, for the first time, doubts are surfacing publicly in Washington-and knives are being sharpened-over what Bush knew about the threat from Osama bin Laden and when he knew it.
Most of the questions center on a recently disclosed intelligence briefing on Aug. 6, 2001, at which the president was warned that, among other threats, Al Qaeda-linked terrorists might try to hijack an airliner. Considering that, at about the same time, FBI agents in Phoenix and Minneapolis were raising suspicions about Middle Easterners taking flight lessons in the United States and the intentions of Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged “20th hijacker” who had been arrested, the revelations have opened up a credibility gap for a White House that prides itself on giving things straight to the American people. The reason is simple: Bush and his top officials insisted in no uncertain terms after September 11 that they had no inkling of the attacks beforehand.
The Bush administration, which faces a series of hearings on Capitol Hill, is mounting a stout defense. National-security advisor Condoleezza Rice, at a White House briefing on Thursday, said the hijacking threat that Bush heard about a little over a month before the attacks was not linked to any specific threat. It came during an “analytic” briefing and only “mentioned hijacking in the traditional sense,” she said-in other words, the use of passenger planes as hostages, not missiles. “This government,” she said, “did everything it could in a period when the information was very generalized.”
In truth, the question of whether the Bush administration was paying enough attention in general to the terror threat is what is really at issue-far more than what the president specifically learned on Aug. 6 or at other briefings. The new disclosures could open a Pandora’s box of questions about just how focused the Bush administration was on deterring and disrupting bin Laden before September 11.
Newly emboldened Democrats on the Hill, for instance, and even some Republicans, might think to ask why an administration that blamed its predecessor for failing to deter bin Laden ignored, for nearly eight months, hard evidence linking the Oct. 12, 2000, attack on the USS Cole in Yemen to Al Qaeda. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld both suggested publicly that the Clinton administration had left America with a weak image abroad. As Bush told The Washington Post in January, “It was clear that bin Laden felt emboldened and didn’t feel threatened by the United States.” But the new administration mounted no retaliation of its own, despite what seemed to be a clear casus belli.
I want to emphasize that these words were published in a major national news magazine in May 2002. Yet more than four years later, we are still struggling to bring these facts to the nation’s attention.
Instead of being held accountable, President Bush was wrapped in a cult of personality that protected him from criticism. The nation was persuaded that President Bush was uniquely, almost supernaturally, qualified to protect the nation from terrorist attacks. What should have been the Bush Administration’s shame was spun and exploited into an unbeatable political asset.
What happened to “the series of hearings” Hirsch spoke of? In fact, the Senate and House Intelligence Committees had announced a joint inquiry in February 2002. This was after President Bush and Vice President Cheney had personally asked Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle to limit the investigation. The hearings began in June, 2002.
From The Memory Hole:
From June to October 2002, the Intelligence Committees from the US Senate and House teamed up to probe, more or less, 9/11. Of course, the Joint Investigation ran into all kinds of roadblocks. It took Congress five months to even announce the inquiry and another four months before it got started. Bush and Cheney each personally asked then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle to keep the scope of the probe narrow. Republican Senator Richard Shelby openly complained of the lack of cooperation from the FBI, intelligence agencies, and others. [Read more]
Throughout June, July, and the first half of September, 2002, the Joint Inquiry held closed sessions. The second half of September saw all open hearings, while those in October alternated between open and closed. In December, the Joint Inquiry issued its report, but only 24 pages were publicly released out of a total of over 800.
In May 2003, Newsweek, Knight Ridder, and other media outlets reported that the Bush Administration was working to block the release of the Joint Inquiry’s full report. In fact, officials were quoted as saying that they’d like to retroactively classify parts of the material that came out during the open hearings. They’re upset about some of the information divulged by senior intelligence officials and by the Inquiry staff’s leader, Eleanor Hill. (They now regret giving Hill and her team access to so many classified intelligence briefings.) [Read more]
The Memory Hole has archived all publicly released statements from the hearings. The two links provided in the quote above both document the many ways the Bush Administration tried to stonewall the hearings — first by opposing any investigation at all, then by withholding critical documents and witnesses, finally by suppressing much of the final report.
The Administration also fought tooth and nail to prevent an independent, public investigation of the attacks. It was only because of pressure from September 11 families — notably the Family Steering Committee — that the 9/11 Commission was created at all.
During the 16 months of investigation by the 9/11 Commission, the Bush Administration continued to play games over access to documents and witnesses. The commission was forced to issue subpoenas to the Federal Aviation Administration and NORAD to get information about the FAA-NORAD problems I mentioned above, and it was only weeks ago that we learned the testimony from the FAA and NORAD was, um, wrong.
Even after the 9/11 Commission finished its work, many questions remain unanswered. And as September 11 faded from public consciousness, it seemed likely they would remain unanswered.
Yet now, finally, the questions Michael Hirsch and others asked in the spring of 2002 — What did President Bush know? And what did he do about it? — are being asked again. Hallelujah.
David Horowitz’s propaganda miniseries, “The Path to 9/11,” and President Clinton’s robust response, have hauled all the old questions into the light of day once again. Glenn Greenwald writes at Salon:
Republicans appear to have gravely miscalculated in provoking Bill Clinton into the debate over the Bush administration’s terrorism policies. Ever since the 9/11 attacks, most Democrats have refrained from aggressively blaming the administration for the attacks, blame that could easily be assigned by exploiting two simple facts — 1) the 9/11 attacks happened while Bush, not Clinton, was president and 2) Bush received the Aug. 6 presidential daily briefing embarrassingly titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US” and apparently did nothing in response. With some scattered exceptions, both parties seemed content more or less to maintain a truce with regard to casting blame for the 9/11 attacks by agreeing that few people in either party recognized the magnitude of this threat until those attacks happened.
But ABC’s broadcast of the right-wing propaganda film “Path to 9/11” forced into the public discourse a comparison of Bush vs. Clinton on the question of terrorism. And the subsequent attempts by right-wing pundits and “journalists” to heap the blame for terrorism on the Clinton administration left Clinton with no choice but defending himself aggressively. Following the Wallace interview, Condoleezza Rice accused Clinton of making statements about the Bush administration’s pre-9/11 anti-terrorism efforts (or lack thereof), which Rice said were “flatly false,” comments that in turn prompted an aggressive response from Hillary Clinton.
My explanation of the many ways Condi Rice lied her ass off is here.
Last night, Keith Olbermann’s Countdown presented a segment on Bush’s failure to address terrorism before September 11. You can see the video here, and Crooks & Liars has the video and a rough transcript. It was well done. Attacking George Bush’s image as Our Glorious Protector From Scary Swarthy People With Bombs still takes guts, although not as much as before Katrina. (Indeed, I’m surprised there’s not more reaction from rightie bloggers today; the Word must have been handed down to shut up about the pre-9/11 thing so that maybe it’ll go away.)
Olbermann put together one part of the pre-9/11 puzzle I had not considered before, even though I’d had the pieces. This is from the Crooks & Liars transcript:
Mr. Bush was personally briefed about al Qaeda even before the election in November, 2000.
During the transition, President Clinton and his National Security Advisor, Sandy Berger, say they told Bush and his team of the urgency in getting al Qaeda.
Three days before Mr. Bush took office, Berger spoke at a “passing the baton” event that Rice attended.
Berger (1/17/01): “Sitting at the Norfolk Base with survivors from the USS Cole only reinforced the reality that America is in a deadly struggle with a new breed of anti-western jihadists. Nothing less than a war, I think, is a fair way to describe this.”
Eight days later, Clarke sent Rice the strategy Clinton developed for retaliating, in the event al Qaeda was found to be behind October’s attack on the USS Cole.
The next day, the FBI conclusively pinned the Cole attack on al Qaeda.
Mr. Bush ordered no military strike, no escalation of existing Clinton measures. Instead, he repeated Clinton’s previous diplomatic efforts, writing a letter to Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf in February, and another on August 4th.
Until September 11th, even when Mr. Bush was asked about the Cole, an attack carried out on water, by men in a boat, he offered a consistent prescription for keeping America safe, one he reiterated upon taking office.
Bush (2/27/01): “To protect our own people, our allies and friends, we must develop and we must deploy effective missile defenses.”
… According to the 9/11 report, even bin Laden expected Bush to respond militarily to the Cole bombing. Quote, “In February, 2001…according to [a] source, Bin Laden wanted the United States to attack, and if it did not he would launch something bigger.”
Obviously, W is a Weenie who encouraged that “something bigger” by his failure to act. Not Clinton’s failure, Bush’s failure.
I have never said that President Clinton was blameless, or that there wasn’t more he could have done. But the elevation of the hapless and clueless George W. Bush into some kind of Demigod of National Strength has got to be one of the most pathological events in American history. For generations historians will be looking back on our little era and asking, “How could so many people have been so blind?”
I think the time is ripe for Democrats to pull a Karl Rove and mount an attack directly on Bush’s alleged “strength.” It’s past time to dismantle the Big Lie that George W. Bush is an effective leader against terrorism.
Whatever else happens, please help keep this issue out in the light. Don’t let the VRWC cover it up again. Don’t let the lies continue.
Update: See also Brilliant at Breakfast.