Busted! Like a teenager whose beer bash is interrupted by his parents’ early return home, President Bush’s nearly three years of bragging about his “war on terror” credentials has been exposed by the bipartisan 9/11 commission as nothing more than empty posturing.
Without dissent, five prominent Republicans joined an equal number of their Democratic Party peers in stating unequivocally that the Bush Administration got it wrong, both in its lethargic response to an unprecedented level of warnings during what the commission calls the “Summer of Threat,” as well as in its inclusion of Iraq in the war on terror.
Although the language of the commission’s report was carefully couched to obtain a bipartisan consensus, the indictment of this Administration surfaces on almost every page.
Bush was not the first US President to play footsie with Muslim extremists in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, nor was the Clinton Administration without fault in its fitful and ineffective response to the Al Qaeda threat. But there was simply no excuse for the near-total indifference of the new President and his top Cabinet officials to strenuous warnings from the outgoing Clinton Administration and the government’s counterterrorism experts that something terrible was coming, fast and hard, from Al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden’s gang, they said repeatedly, was planning “near-term attacks,” which Al Qaeda operatives expected “to have dramatic consequences of catastrophic proportions.”
As early as May 2001, the FBI was receiving tips that bin Laden supporters were planning attacks in the United States, possibly including the hijacking of planes. On May 29, White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke wrote national security adviser Condoleezza Rice that “when these attacks [on Israeli or US facilities] occur, as they likely will, we will wonder what more we could have done to stop them.” At the end of June, the commission wrote, “the intelligence reporting consistently described the upcoming attacks as occurring on a calamitous level.” In early July, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft was told “that preparations for multiple attacks [by Al Qaeda] were in late stages or already complete and that little additional warning could be expected.” By month’s end, “the system was blinking red” and could not “get any worse,” then-CIA Director George Tenet told the 9/11 commission.
It was at this point, of course, that George W. Bush began the longest presidential vacation in thirty-two years. On the very first day of his visit to his Texas ranch, August 6, Bush received the now-infamous two-page intelligence alert titled, “Bin Laden Determined to Attack in the United States.” Yet instead of returning to the capital to mobilize an energetic defensive posture, he spent an additional twenty-seven days away as the government languished in summer mode, in deep denial.
“In sum,” said the 9/11 commission report, “the domestic agencies never mobilized in response to the threat. They did not have the direction, and did not have a plan to institute. The borders were not hardened. Transportation systems were not fortified. Electronic surveillance was not targeted against a domestic threat. State and local law enforcement were not marshaled to augment the FBI’s efforts. The public was not warned.”
In her public testimony to the commission, Rice argued that the August 6 briefing concerned vague “historical information based on old reporting,” adding that “there was no new threat information.” When the commission forced the White House to release the document, however, this was exposed as a lie: The document included explicit FBI warnings of “suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.” Furthermore, this briefing was only one of forty on the threat of bin Laden that the President received between Jan. 20 and Sept. 11, 2001.
Bush, the commission report also makes clear, compounded US vulnerability by totally misleading Americans about the need to invade Iraq as a part of the “war on terror.”
For those, like Vice President Dick Cheney, who continue to insist that the jury is still out on whether Al Qaeda and Iraq were collaborators, the commission’s report should be the final word, finding after an exhaustive review that there is no evidence that any of the alleged contacts between bin Laden and Saddam Hussein “ever developed into a collaborative operational relationship. Nor have we seen evidence indicating that Iraq cooperated with Al Qaeda in developing or carrying out any attacks against the United States.”
So, before 9/11, incompetence and sloth. And after? Much worse: a war without end on the wrong battlefield.