Just as George W. Bush’s election campaign was wrapping its candidate in the bloody flag of 9/11–using footage of the dead victims in an ad blitz that praised Bush’s leadership and assailed presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry as a weak-on-terrorism waffler–reality intruded. Its bearer was Richard Clarke, a longtime national security official who was White House counterterrorism coordinator for Clinton and, early on, for Bush. In his new book, he accuses the Bush crowd of neglecting the effort against Al Qaeda before September 11 and of misguiding the war on terrorism afterward.
According to Clarke, shortly after the 9/11 strikes, Bush encouraged him to examine whether Iraq was behind the event. When Clarke informed Bush that the national security community had already established that there was no connection, Bush insisted Clarke look again–“in a very intimidating way,” Clarke told 60 Minutes. When Clarke, FBI experts and CIA analysts re-examined the issue and produced a report that reached the same no-connection conclusion, the White House, he says, replied, “Wrong answer.” Clarke claims that Bush and his aides immediately wanted to use 9/11 as a pretext to bomb Iraq. But, he notes, there never was evidence that Iraq was in cahoots with Al Qaeda. For Clarke, the Iraq war was a distraction that “strengthened the fundamentalist, radical Islamic terrorist movement worldwide.” And he maintains that the Administration misled the public regarding a link between 9/11 and the war on Iraq. (“The White House carefully manipulated opinion. Never quite lied but gave the very strong impression that Iraq did it.”)
The Bush crew did not only exploit 9/11, Clarke alleges; it failed to respond vigorously to warnings about the threat from Al Qaeda. He tells of an April 2001 meeting in which Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz dismissed Al Qaeda as a concern and said Iraqi terrorism was the number-one issue. Wolfowitz denies that, but the charge that the Bushies fixated on Iraq is not new. Former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill maintained that Bush was obsessed with attacking Iraq practically from Day One. And there were previous indications that the Administration was less than vigilant before 9/11. In July 2001 an intelligence warning noted that “we believe that [Osama bin Laden] will launch a significant attack against U.S. and/or Israeli interests in the coming weeks. The attack will be spectacular and designed to inflict mass casualties.” How did Bush respond to this dramatic warning? There are no signs that he did much. The White House even refused to allow the House and Senate intelligence committees to say whether this warning reached Bush; committee sources report that it did.
“There’s a lot of blame to go around, and I probably deserve some blame, too,” Clarke says. But Bush has managed to escape blame for the government’s performance on and before 9/11. After the attacks, he said that before September 11 no one could have imagined such a plot. But since the mid-1990s the US intelligence community had collected information that Al Qaeda was interested in a 9/11-like attack. And the CIA had tracked two of the hijackers before the strikes but failed to tell the FBI they were in or coming to the United States. Bush has refused to hold anyone accountable for the screw-ups that led to 9/11.