The Bush Administration’s reaction to the 9/11 attacks has been almost incomprehensibly weird. The nation was profoundly traumatized by the Al Qaeda assault. Our leaders promise us over and over that the next catastrophic attack is imminent. Yet not only do they do nothing to prepare for such an eventuality, they actively seek to sabotage those who do. Again and again the Bush Administration has slashed Congressionally mandated funding for precautionary measures in the areas of port security and nuclear and chemical security. They withdrew troops and intelligence agents from Afghanistan, where they were tracking Osama bin Laden and a reconstituted Al Qaeda, in order to throw them into Iraq, where no terrorist threat existed. Together with the Republican majority in Congress, they have treated “homeland security” as a pork distribution program. What money is appropriated receives little or no oversight. Columbus, Ohio, is free to spend homeland security funds on bulletproof vests for fire department dogs; Newark, New Jersey, on air-conditioned garbage trucks; and the District of Columbia, on leather jackets and self-improvement seminars for sanitation workers.
What has been the reaction of the political and journalistic establishment to the Administration’s criminal dereliction of duty? This too is a puzzle. Some institutions have, indeed, attempted to hold our leaders responsible. The Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations, for example, have published studies delineating the inadequacies of the Bush Administration’s approach–if it can be called that–to protecting America. And yet, almost congenitally, these institutions find themselves unable to make these issues matter politically. They are, after all, run by and for insiders who risk their precious “credibility” and personal connections to power should they bend the rules of political politeness.
By far the most vocal and valuable of these establishment voices has been the 9/11 commission. Typically, after failing to prevent its creation, the Administration initially sought to undermine its effectiveness. The dogged members of the commission produced an extremely useful 567-page report, nevertheless skirting questions that might have revealed too much. The report, to take just one example, fails to address why it fell to Dick Cheney to OK the shoot-down of civilian jets, if necessary, when he enjoyed absolutely no constitutional authority to do so. (Was Bush suffering a breakdown and deemed by the veep to be mentally incapacitated? Did Cheney even ask?)
Where the 9/11 commission has been perhaps most impressive, however, is in its members’ insistence on sticking around long enough to insure that its recommendations are not forgotten or ignored. When its mandate expired with the issuance of the report, the commission obtained private funding to monitor and report on the Administration’s implementation schedule.
Well, the follow-up report is in, and the news could hardly be worse. The Administration’s record remains one of consistent, and apparently willful, failure. The commission gave Bush & Co. a grade of F for:
§ failing to provide “adequate radio spectrum for first responders” from a variety of agencies to coordinate their actions in emergencies;
§ allocating homeland security funding based on pork-barrel politics, not on risk;
§ failing to make critical improvements in airline passenger pre-screening;
§ refusing to declassify the intelligence budget, thereby precluding effective Congressional oversight of budget priorities;
§ failing to set international standards for the treatment of detainees suspected of terrorism.
The panel also gave the government two incompletes, twelve D’s, twelve B’s and nine C’s, but the grading process seems awfully generous. For instance, the panel did not issue a failing grade for the Administration’s efforts to “secure WMD,” even though it invaded Iraq and found nothing. Nor did it give an F regarding the creation of a “Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board,” despite the fact that “funding is insufficient, no meetings have been held, no staff named, no work plan outlined, no work begun, no office established.”
Almost as amazing–and disturbing–has been the collective yawn with which the mainstream media greeted this shocking assessment. As Editor & Publisher discovered in a survey of forty major newspapers, only six thought the report worthy of front-page coverage. The New York Times buried the story in its back pages and then ignored it entirely in Sunday’s news coverage. As veteran Washington Post reporter Tom Edsall admitted in an online chat, he was “surprised to see” that unlike the Post, the Times “played the story inside. Insofar as the press drives a story, that will diminish public reaction.” Moreover, the report came on the heels of another report, in October, by the Government Accountability Office warning that “the US government lacks an integrated strategy to coordinate the delivery of counter-terrorism financing training and technical assistance to countries vulnerable to terrorist financing.” Republican Senator Charles Grassley termed this “just inexplicable in light of the war on terrorism.”
Try this, Senator. The Administration just does not care. As former White House aide John DiIulio once explained, “What you’ve got is everything, and I mean everything, being run by the political arm. It’s the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis.” And politically, as GOP über-strategist Grover Norquist explains, this issue simply cannot hurt the Republicans no matter what. The public perception is that “Republicans are tough on crime to the point where they’ll take away your civil liberties. Republicans are so tough on foreign policy that they’ll flatten cities.” Once the attack happens, Democrats do not get to say I told you so: They must rally ’round their President.
And so they leave us vulnerable, amazed and, if sensate, terrified.