9-11 and a Lack of Presidential Leadership

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Previous to September 11, 2001, the threat of terrorism had reached a heightened state, the eventual targets were suspect, the timing was imminent, and a bold plan of response had been passed on by the previous U.S. administration. So what happened to America’s leadership? Did someone drop the ball? Congress has established an independent commission to answer these and other questions.

George W. Bush had opposed the commission for almost a year. However, he reversed his stance prior to midterm elections, insisting on restructuring the commission and limiting its subpoena powers. Mainly, Bush wanted a Republican presidential appointee as chair and–following midterm elections–he got what he wanted.

The commission got off to a bad start when just after a few days both Chair Henry Kissinger and Vice-Chair George Mitchell resigned. Since then, a full complement of ten members has been appointed–all with excellent credentials.

How did each of our last two presidents respond as international terrorism evolved, and what are some of the problems that will confront the 9/11 Commission?

Response to terrorist attacks during the Clinton years

The first attack on the New York World Trade Center, in late 1993, killed six individuals and injured hundreds more. Osama bin Laden’s name eventually surfaced in the investigation which resulted in some of his sympathizers being sent to prison. Then in 1996, terrorists bombed a U. S. military complex in Saudi Arabia, killing nineteen Americans. In the same year bin Laden declared a holy war against Americans for “occupying” Saudi Arabia.

In late 1998 bin Laden bombed two U. S. embas-sies, killing 224 people and injuring about 5,000. He also declared war on the United States, saying “to kill the Ameri-cans–civilians or military–is an individual duty for every Muslim.”

During the 1990s there was no groundswell of support for military action against terrorism. The Clinton administration did increase antiterrorism budgets, launched cruise missiles at bin Laden’s training camps, and tried several times to capture or kill him and his senior al-Qaeda lieuten-ants. These attempts, supported by U. S. submarines in the Arabian Sea, failed due to insufficient intelli-gence and bin Laden’s constant move-ments.

Just before the 2000 U.S. presidential elections, terrorists struck yet again with a suicide attack on the U.S.S. Cole, killing seventeen U.S. military service people and injuring many more. This prompted the Clinton administration to prepare a bold plan of attack against al-Qaeda in various countries. Clinton decided he couldn’t initiate a war without proof of bin Laden’s responsibility for the Cole attack–especially a war that would be handled by a new administration. So Clinton’s action plan was passed on to the new administration in special briefings with Vice-President Richard Cheney and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.

Bush fails to address the threat

According to an unnamed senior Bush official, the Clinton action plan contained all the steps that were eventually taken after September 11. But, at the time, the plan became a victim of “not invented here,” turf wars, and time spent on pet policies of new top officials. In early September 2001, agency heads purportedly approved a stronger plan but it didn’t reach Bush in time according to the TIME’s special report of August 12, 2002, entitled “The Secret History”. .

While campaigning for president, Bush said there must be consequences for the Cole attack. Although when he learned in February 2001 that bin Laden was responsible for the Cole attack, he didn’t pursue military action or resume covert actions initiated by the previous administra-tion. Instead Bush became obsessed with a missile shield defense against rogue states. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld threat-ened a Bush veto when Congress tried to divert $600 million of the missile shield’s money to counter terrorism.

A bipartisan commission on the U.S. national security, assembled by Clinton and Congress, reported early in 2001 that the United States was vulnerable to catastrophic attack from terrorism. In White House meetings, the Commission Chair argued for the report’s major recommendation–a National Homeland Security Agency. Bush rejected it.

According to research by the Washington Post, the New York Times and TIME magazine, the Bush administration was less preoccupied with terrorism than the previous administration. The Washington Post said the Bush administration “gave scant attention to an adversary whose lethal ambitions and savvy had been well understood for years. ” Out of about one hundred national security meetings, terrorism was a topic in only two. Just before September 11, the Justice Department turned down the FBI’s request for $50 million to fund its counterterrorism program. The lack of real concern was evident.

Warnings reach high intensity

The current administration claims no one had ever considered that terrorists might use airplanes as missiles. The evidence of record and Intelligence Committee findings show otherwise.

In the mid-1990s an accomplice in the first attack on the World Trade Center revealed to U.S. authorities a plan to crash a plane packed with explosives into CIA Head-quarters. He had trained as a pilot at three U.S. flight schools. A 1998 CIA intelligence report cited plans to fly an explosives-laden plane into the World Trade Center. A 1999 Library of Congress report to the National Intelligence Council warned that al-Qaeda suicide bombers “could crash-land an aircraft packed with high explosives” into the Pentagon, CIA, or the White House. The Intelligence Committee investigation found numerous indications of plans through August 2001 to use airplanes as weapons, including interest by bin Laden in using commercial pilots as terrorists. The following chart summarizing this intelligence isn’t complete because of the administration’s refusal to declassify all information bearing on the September 11 threat.

WHEN

SOURCE

TARGETS

IMMINENT?

1995

Accomplice in first World Trade Center bombing

Trained in U.S. flight school; plan to crash aircraft into CIA

No

1998

CIA Intelligence sources

Fly explosive-laden plane into World Trade Center

No

1999

Report to National Intelligence Council

Bin Laden might crash plane into Pentagon, White House, or CIA Headquarters

No

April 2001

American intelligence

Al-Qaeda to mount spectacular attacks–may use commercial pilots as terrorists

Yes

May-July 2001

National Security Agency

Intercepted at least thirty-three communications about impending attack

Yes

July 2001

Taliban Foreign Minister

Huge attacks imminent and deadly on targets inside the United States

Yes

August 2001

Israel Military
Intelligence Service

Large-scale terrorist attacks imminent on highly visible targets on U.S. soil

Yes

August 2001

British intelligence

Bush briefed–“Bin Laden to strike US”–retaliation for missile strikes on their camps

Unknown

1994-August 2001

Congressional Intelligence Committee

Twelve examples intelligence data–possible use of planes as weapons (may include some above)

Unknown

September 4, 2001

Egyptian intelligence contact with bin Laden

In advance stages of executing a significant operation against a U.S. target

Yes

Repeatedly in Summer 2001

CIA Director

Warned White House of “a significant attack in the near future”

Yes

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By the summer of 2001, the Bush administration had more frequent and serious warnings that “something spectacular was going to happen,” “most of al-Qaeda is anticipating an attack,” and bin Laden “will launch significant attack against U.S. . . . be spectacular . . . inflict mass causalities . . . preparations made . . . little or no warning. ” Nearly frantic with concern, the CIA Director warned the White House repeatedly of a “significant attack in the near future.” As TIME’s Secret History states:

By last summer, many of those in the know–the spooks, the buttoned-down bureaucrats, the law-enforcement professionals in a dozen coun-tries–were almost frantic with worry that a major terrorist attack against American interests was imminent. It wasn’t averted because 2001 saw a systemic collapse in the ability of Washington’s national security appa-ratus to handle the terrorist threat.

The threat was real and possible targets were known; only the timing was uncertain. Taken individually the threat information was disturbing, but taken collectively the information was overpowering.

The failure of the Bush administration to respond to the Cole attack was a serious mistake. When terrorists perceive that the United States is weak, they are emboldened to strike again.

An important factor is that complete continuity existed during the presidential transi-tion: Clinton’s chief of counterterrorism became Bush’s chief, Clinton’s CIA director became Bush’s director, and an aggressive al-Qaeda attack plan already existed. In view of four previous attacks and current warnings reaching a crescendo, it is hard to imagine why Bush didn’t demonstrate greater concern and share his information with the American people. Was he preoccupied with his own agenda? Was he concerned about the impact of public fears on a sagging economy? Did he downgrade concerns of the previous administration? Did he get poor advice?

Terrorists at this time were well entrenched in many countries, including the United States. Fail-ure of Clinton and Bush to lead a response to the threat had damaged each of their administrations. Neither acted with the required sense of urgency, established a national priority, nor discussed the subject openly with the American people. Clinton, for example, could have highlighted his al-Qaeda response and explained why he was leaving it to the next administration for action.

The normal response to four separate attacks and near-frenzy warnings of immi-nent ones should have been for Bush to present a plan of action to the American people, and for Congress to hold public hearings and debate author-izing military action. These things didn’t happen before September 11, and we don’t know why.

Al-Qaeda was much more of a threat then than Iraq is now–much more clearly defined, imminent, and dangerous. A lot of what Bush is doing now he should have done then.

The people of the United States needed to be at a high state of awareness and proactive. Presidential leadership would have stimu-lated a new level of energy, creativity, and cooperation within federal and local agencies that would have elicited maximum public participation. With reenergized government surveillance and public participation, the country would have been much better prepared to avert the horrible tragedy. For example, if Bush had used national television to share important information on the threat, opportu-nities for neutralizing it would have been enormous. Bureaucratic barriers would have faded away and people in the FBI, intelligence, flying schools, airlines, as well as the general public, would have come forward with all sorts of leads. We’ll never know what might have been learned before that fateful day of September 11.

Looking to the future

While Bush aggressively took action following September 11 and rallied the nation, there seems to have been a serious lack of leadership beforehand. If the country is to prevent major terrorist attacks in the future, it is important that we understand why and, if appropriate, Bush should accept some responsibility for the consequences.

A full explanation of the nation’s apathy can only come from the Independent Commission. It must exercise the broadest possible man-date, as envisioned by its creators Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman. If politics drives this commission inquiry, each party may try to exempt its own president from review (a quid pro quo), and national leadership won’t become an issue. Unfortunately the brunt of the responsibility will then fall on intelligence agencies, the FBI, and immigration. If this happens, we will lose an important lesson in national leadership and accountability at the very highest level of government.

The question remains: will the commission be truly “independent” and have national leadership as a major focus? Or will it be overwhelmed with partisan wrangling and White House control over information and scope? If the White House has nothing to hide, why did it resist the Commission and then make such an issue over its composition and subpoena power? Perhaps the Commission should pay close attention to Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland’s prediction:

Dr. Kissinger is too fiercely protective of his reputation at this point in his life to have taken on a whitewash or a fool’s errand involving this great national tragedy.

There’s a need for continued interest by the public, media, and families of September 11 victims. If the Commission is denied access to information on what the White House knew and when, it should simply tell Congress that it can’t do the job under those circumstances.

It may be useful for Congress to add the Comptroller General of the United States as a commission member. The Comptroller General is an independent, nonpartisan member of the legislative branch, has a broad background in government, and much investigative talent to bring to the commission. After the Commission is completed, the Comptroller General could present Congress with a periodic appraisal of whether its recommendations are being consid-ered and acted upon. There is precedent for this in the successful Commission on Government Procurement. Unlike the commission we’ve been discussing, procurement recommendations didn’t require a national catastrophe to be acted upon.

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