In April, U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., got in a whole heap of trouble after she called for a thorough investigation of what George W. Bush knew before September 11 about the potential for the sort of terrorist attacks that would shake the nation and the world on that fateful day.
McKinney is one of the most outspoken members of the current Congress and her statements were typically blunt. "We know there were numerous warnings of the events to come on September 11th," she told a radio interviewer. "What did this administration know and when did it know it, about the events of September 11th? Who else knew, and why did they not warn the innocent people of New York who were needlessly murdered? . . . What do they have to hide?"
McKinney's call for a real investigation of what Bush knew -- along with her parallel suggestion that it was necessary to conduct a review of possible war profiteering by members of the Bush administration and corporations with close ties to the president -- drew a firestorm from pundits and partisans.
"The American people know the facts, and they dismiss such ludicrous, baseless views," grumbled White House spokesman Scott McLellan. "The fact that she questions the president's legitimacy shows a partisan mind-set beyond all reason." The Washington Post declared in a news story that McKinney "seems to have tapped into a web of conspiracy theories." National Review Online editor Jonah Goldberg, in a piece headlined "Representative Awful: Cynthia McKinney?s insanity and hypocrisy" went on at length about how the five-term representative was spouting "paranoid, America-hating, crypto-Marxist conspiratorial delusions" -- and Goldberg's jabs were restrained compared to the hits the congresswoman took hour after hour after hour from the Fox News Channel punditocracy.
McKinney was even accused by her hometown newspaper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, of buying into a "wacko left-wing version of paranoid hatred of the president." For good measure, Journal-Constitution editorial page editor Cynthia Tucker added, "McKinney has made herself too easy a target for mockery. She no longer deserves serious analysis."
Barely one month after McKinney was so condemned, the headline of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution read: "Bush warned by U.S. intelligence before 9/11 of possible bin Laden plot to hijack planes." The Washington Post front page announced: "Bush Was Told of Hijacking Dangers." The Fox News Channel was repeating the big story of the day: "Bush Was Warned of Hijack Plot."
McKinney clearly feels a measure of vindication. "Today's revelations that the administration, and President Bush, were given months of notice that a terrorist attack was a distinct possibility points out the critical need for a full and complete congressional investigation," she said in a statement issued Thursday morning. "It now becomes clear why the Bush Administration has been vigorously opposing congressional hearings. The Bush Administration has been engaged in a conspiracy of silence. If committed and patriotic people had not been pushing for disclosure today's revelations would have been hidden by the White House."
The news that President Bush was told a month before September 11 that Osama bin Laden's terrorist network might hijack American airplanes does not confirm each and every concern expressed by McKinney in April. For instance, White House aides were quick to assert on Wednesday that the president and U.S. intelligence agencies were not aware of the precise plans of the suicide hijackers to use commercial jetliners as missiles in attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
That assertion is significant, as it argues Bush did not know that a specific terrorist attack was coming on September 11 or the form that such an attack might take. Thus, there will continue to be serious -- and legitimate -- debate about whether the "numerous warnings of the events to come on September 11" could actually have been read so specifically. Additionally, the recent revelations to not point to a conclusion that the Bush administration intentionally failed to warn "the innocent people of New York." America is, at most, only at the beginning of what could well be a very long examination of the question of whether the president, his aides and the intelligence community could have put the pieces of information together in a way that might have prevented the September 11 attacks.
So Bush has not exactly been caught holding a smoking gun. And it is still quite reasonable for McKinney's political critics -- as well as her allies -- to suggest that much of the speculation in which McKinney engaged in April will not pan out. In fairness to the representative, however, she can claim to have acknowledged as much at the time. It is notable that McKinney expressed many of her concerns in the form of questions, rather than the sort of over-the-top statements that Republican representatives made when they used to call for investigations of Bill Clinton.
What is equally notable is that, two months after McKinney was subjected to one of the most withering attacks ever directed at a sitting member of Congress, a lot of people who official Washington treats with respect are echoing her call "for transparency and a thorough investigation."
House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Missouri, said Wednesday that Congress needs to hold public hearings that examine "what the president and what the White House knew about the events leading up to 9-11, when they knew it and, most importantly, what was done about it at that time."
Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat who has worked closely with the Bush administration on intelligence and domestic security issues, was asked whether a more engaged response to the threat of hijackings might have averted the September 11 attack. "Well, it might have been if this had been seen in the context of other information, which indicated that there was a potential conspiracy to use commercial airliners as weapons of mass destruction. That could have started a chain of events, which would have disrupted September 11..." the senator said.
Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican who serves as vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee, echoed Graham. "There was a lot of information," Shelby said Thursday. "I believe, and others believe, if it had been acted on properly, we may have had a different situation on September 11."
Is official Washington beginning to suffer from "paranoid, America-hating, crypto-Marxist conspiratorial delusions"? Have top members of Congress "tapped into a web of conspiracy theories"? Are the White House aides who confirmed that Bush knew of the hijacking threat before September 11 expressing a "wacko left-wing version of paranoid hatred of the president"?
Or are they, perhaps, beginning to recognize that, at the very least, McKinney was making a reasonable point when she argued in April that: "We deserve to know what went wrong on September 11 and why. After all, we hold thorough public inquiries into rail disasters, plane crashes, and even natural disasters in order to understand what happened and to prevent them from happening again or minimizing the tragic effects when they do. Why then does the Administration remain steadfast in its opposition to an investigation into the biggest terrorism attack upon our nation?"