OK, so maybe John Ashcroft and Robert Mueller are not the sharpest tools in the shed. How else to explain that, after September. 11, it took the attorney general and the FBI director more than eight months to get around to telling the President and his top national security advisors about that prescient memo from the Phoenix FBI office warning of potential terrorists flooding American flight schools?

Of course, the best thing would have been to clue in the President when there was still time to tighten airport and immigration security and possibly avert tragedy. But, at the very least, you would think that Ashcroft–who learned of the Phoenix memo a few days after the attack–would have piped up when the President asked his top people whether US intelligence had advance warning of the terror attacks.

Remember, though, that Ashcroft, who managed to lose a Senate race to a dead man, was not picked for his smarts but rather as a naked political concession to his fellow right-wing fundamentalists. The new President wanted to assure conservative zealots that he would hew to their religious commandments when it came to appointments of prosecutors and judges–and to zing ACLU liberals by putting an extremist in charge of our nation’s civil liberties. Unfortunately for the victims of September 11, the consequences of putting a Keystone Kop in charge of federal law enforcement mock such callow Beltway calculations. Ashcroft’s FBI chieftains ignored field reports of outspoken Muslim fanatics training at US flight schools–and later cited manpower shortfalls for not investigating further–while the bureau had plenty of resources for drug interdiction forays and surveillance and questioning Wen Ho Lee, now exonerated of spying.

Federal agents in Minnesota, who questioned alleged wannabe terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui last summer, were so frustrated with HQ that they took the radical step of going to the CIA for help in their investigation, according to FBI whistle-blower Coleen Rowley. Some of the September 11 terrorists were so clumsy before their suicide missions as to suggest a subconscious desire to be caught: asking to be taught to fly but not to land airliners, for example, and showing up at flight school with huge quantities of cash and little aviation experience. Moussaoui was exposed to agents as an extremist because he had talked openly about his respect for “martyrs” who kill non-Muslims.

The good news is the FBI has some very good agents who picked up these troubling signs. The bad news is that these warnings stalled in a chain of command that included Ashcroft and never made it to the President.

Meanwhile, the clues picked up inside the country were meshing in frightening ways with those gathered beyond our borders. In late June, Osama bin Laden promised a major attack on the United States in an interview with the Arabic television channel MBC. Ashcroft later said he was unaware of any such specific threats at that time. Two weeks later, however, a top FBI official issued a grim warning.

“I’m not a gloom-and-doom type person,” FBI Assistant Director Dale Watson told a gathering of state governors July 10, “but I will tell you this…. [We are[] headed for a [terrorist[] incident inside the United States.”

Ashcroft was present when Watson spoke, but if he understood the speech’s import he apparently did not convey the G-man’s sense of urgency to the President.

Perhaps not coincidentally, in the eight months of his presidency leading up to September 11, Bush rarely mentioned Afghanistan, the Taliban and Bin Laden in the same context.

When he spoke of terrorism, he usually focused relentlessly on his father’s nemesis, Iraq.

China too was a devil in Bush’s first-year foreign policy; before September 11 his Administration seemed intent on fighting a new cold war with China. Playing geopolitical chess with “enemy” states appealed to the old cold war enthusiasts who dominate the Bush team, but combating stateless terrorists was slippery new terrain.

Instead of godless communists controlling tank battalions, the new enemy was a shadowy collection of individuals motivated by religious fanaticism who saw their actions as the ticket to heaven.

Perhaps it is just too difficult for a stern, God-fearing fundamentalist like the attorney general to fully anticipate the dark side of religion’s wrath.

In any event, whether because of bias or incompetence, Ashcroft is clearly not the right man to wage this new “war” against religious fanatics. It’s time for him to go.