While George W. Bush has been President, we’ve had two of the biggest intelligence screw-ups in US history. The intelligence community overstated the weapons of mass destruction threat posed by Iraq (and Bush overstated the exaggerations), and the national security and law enforcement systems failed to detect and thwart the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001. In response to each of those tragic mistakes, Bush did nothing to discover what had gone wrong. He called for no accountability, no reviews, no investigations, no changes. For more than a year after the attacks, his Administration opposed the creation of an independent bipartisan commission to examine what happened on and before 9/11. Even after chief WMD hunter David Kay declared earlier this year that he had found no unconventional weapons in Iraq, Bush resisted establishing a body to review the prewar intelligence. He eventually yielded, but created a commission to study WMD-related intelligence issues that is made up only of people handpicked by the White House. And it is unclear whether they are examining the prewar use–or abuse–of the intelligence by the White House.
Bush has shown a profound lack of curiosity about these intelligence failures. And the final report of the 9/11 commission illustrates why he was uninterested–or escapist. Although the report declares, “Our aim has not been to assign individual blame,” it does cite errors and negligent policy-making of both the Bush II and Clinton administrations. And it contains bad news specifically for the man who’s up for re-election in November.
The report shows that the Al Qaeda threat was not on the White House A-list. For instance, according to the commission, just days into the Bush Administration, Richard Clarke, the chief counterterrorism coordinator, sent National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice a memo asking for a senior-level review “to decide whether al Qaeda was ‘a first order threat’ or a more modest worry being overblown by ‘chicken little’ alarmists.” (Clarke took the dire view.) The commission notes that Rice “did not respond directly to Clarke’s memorandum. No Principals Committee meeting on al Qaeda was held until September 4, 2001 (although the Principals Committee met frequently on other subjects, such as the Middle East peace process, Russia and the Persian Gulf).” The report details the many steps the Bush Administration took in its first eight months to establish an Al Qaeda counterterrorism policy. But counterterrorism was not on the fast track. Even when the Administration eventually finalized a “three-phase, multiyear plan to pressure and perhaps ultimately topple the Taliban leadership”–on September 10, 2001–the plan was not ready to be implemented and there was no funding for it.
Is it fair to blame the Bush crowd for not having done more before 9/11? In a way, yes. The Administration can be faulted for setting the wrong priorities. Bush and his lot said missile defense was a top need because a missile attack from a rogue state was a top threat (despite the fact that intelligence analysts concluded otherwise). Well, they got that wrong.
The report also notes that Bush and his aides largely neglected to take seriously the possibility that Al Qaeda aimed to strike in the United States–although there were signs that a domestic attack could occur. When the acting FBI director told Attorney General Ashcroft that Al Qaeda might strike the nation directly, Ashcroft assumed the FBI was on the case and made no further inquiries. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz dismissed the Al Qaeda threat. And Bush ordered nothing to be done after receiving that now-famous intelligence briefing on August 6, 2001, titled, “Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US.” He told the commission this report was merely “historical.” But that was disingenuous; the briefing highlighted “patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks.” The commission notes that the CIA and FBI missed several chances to disrupt the plot.
The final report also reaffirms previous commission conclusions that undermine Bush’s rationale for the Iraq war–most notably that there’s no evidence that Saddam and Al Qaeda developed “a collaborative operational relationship.” It also includes the most detailed refutation of a favorite allegation of Dick Cheney and the neocons: that the ringleader of the 9/11 hijackers met an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague five months before 9/11.
No wonder Bush was not eager to see this commission established. Now he is rushing to implement some of its recommendations, but only because pressure has mounted. The question remains, Why didn’t he give a damn for nearly three years? A leader worth re-electing would not have waited to ask questions, demand answers and take action.