The 9/11 Catastrophe – A Dereliction of Duty by Our Commander-in-Chief

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Faced with a high-level threat and extraordinary warnings in the months and weeks leading to 9/11, President Bush and his key advisors bear responsibility for not taking reasonable and prudent precautions to protect the nation. These warnings were:

– A history of al-Qaeda attacks, a declaration of war on the United States, and the best possible advice that this terrorist network was (and still is) the gravest and most immediate threat to our nation.

– Urgings of experts to counter that threat and strengthen homeland security from (1) the Clinton Administration (2) Bush’s own administration and (3) a bipartisan commission on national security.

– An unprecedented surge of threats during the spring and summer that a major catastrophe was about to befall our nation. This included warnings that hijacked commercial aircraft might be used as weapons.

From his very first day in office the President did not give the al-Qaeda threat serious attention. Later on, as the threats grew and became more menacing, he did not make a real effort to prevent the attacks. Gross neglect of the threat and failure to prepare for an attack had two adverse consequences; it left our nation vulnerable and made it easy for the 9/11 terrorists to succeed.

Following the disaster, the President evaded any responsibility. Instead, his administration conducted a massive cover-up, allowing others to bear the brunt of the President’s mistakes.

The 9/11 Commission commented on responsibility at lower levels of government but did not do so at top levels. Under pressure of approaching presidential elections, the Commission believed a partisan fight within the Commission and a report lacking unity would threaten acceptance of its recommendations for a more secure America.

Strong advice and serious warnings on terror not confronted

When the Bush Administration first took office, al-Qaeda was already a major threat to our nation. As a result of earlier attacks, Clinton had (1) prosecuted those responsible for the first World Trade Center attack, (2) authorized missile strikes on al-Qaeda and (3) instructed the CIA to capture or kill al-Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden. He also undertook multiple diplomatic efforts to counter the threat, received a pipeline of daily reports on al-Qaeda and exercised extreme precautions at the turn of the century to prevent further attacks.

The President was warned that al-Qaeda would be his “greatest” and “gravest” threat. This advice came directly from President Clinton and CIA Director Tenet. Following transition, a U.S. Commission on National Security (that had been assembled by Clinton and Congress) informed the White House of their finding — the United States was vulnerable to catastrophic attack from terrorism. They urged Bush to establish a Homeland Security Department. He rejected that strong recommendation and turned the matter over to the Vice-President. The White House anti-terror unit was downgraded so that it no longer had access to the President or agency heads. Additionally, in response to a powerful banking lobby, the new administration abandoned a global crackdown on terrorist funding.

In February Paul Bremer, who had chaired a commission on terrorism, said that the Bush administration is “paying no attention” to terrorism. “What they will do is stagger along until there’s a major incident and then suddenly say, ‘Oh my God, shouldn’t we be organized to deal with this?”

During the spring of 2001, terrorism warnings surged dramatically and by that summer they had reached a crescendo. The President actually received 40 CIA briefings mentioning al-Qaeda or bin Laden before 9-11. In the now infamous briefing of Aug. 6, 2001, the CIA informed the President of al-Qaeda’s determination “to attack within the United States." On vacation in Texas, the President did not take control, call agency heads together or go into full crisis mode. He did not warn the public. He spent most of that day fishing.

The 9/11 Commission found that the Aug. 6, 2001 presidential briefing was not "historical" in nature, as purported, but instead revealed al-Qaeda’s intentions to attack the United States. The briefing said that al-Qaeda had operatives residing in the U.S. and that the FBI had found "patterns of suspicious activity consistent with preparations for hijacking." The CIA considered the Aug. 6 briefing an opportunity to tell the President that the bin Laden threat was “both current and serious.”

Vice-President Cheney also received special briefings from (1) White House terrorism experts on the gravity of the al-Qaeda threat and (2) the CIA, confirming al-Qaeda’s responsibility for attacking the USS Cole. During his campaign Bush had said “there must be consequences” for the USS Cole. The President did not respond with military action or resume the covert actions of the Clinton administration.

In mid summer, Cheney, the President and his national security aids all received highly classified briefings, showing that already high threats had surged even higher. Their briefings included such headlines as “Bin Laden Threats Are Real” and “Bin Laden Planning High Profile Attacks.”

Cheney had been asked to oversee a “national effort” to respond to domestic attacks. However the focus of his efforts was on state-funded terrorists using weapons of mass destruction. No mention was made of bin Laden or al-Qaeda. A report was due to Congress by October 1. By September 11, Cheney’s task force had not even gotten underway, so there was no chance of meeting the Oct. 1 deadline.

National Security Advisor Rice also received briefings and other information on the severity of the al-Qaeda threat. In late January, the White House terror chief, Richard Clarke, urgently requested a cabinet-level meeting on the al-Qaeda threat. No meeting was held. Clarke’s briefing to Rice included a Clinton administration plan (used after 9/11) to deal with the al-Qaeda terrorist network. But, as Time magazine’s “Secret History” points out, the plan became a victim of “not invented here,” turf wars, and time spent on pet policies of top Bush officials.

In June, CIA Director Tenet sent Rice an intelligence summary and met with her personally. Among other things, he reported: “It is highly likely that a significant al-Qaeda attack is in the near future, within several weeks.” He added: “Most of the Al-Qaeda network is anticipating an attack” … “Based on a review of all source reporting over the last five months, we believe that [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 … Attack preparations have been made. Attack will occur with little or no warning.” According to Tenet, “… this is going to be a big one.”

On September 11, Rice was supposed to give a speech on “the threats and problems of today and the day after, not the world of yesterday.” The speech promoted missile defense and contained no mention of bin Laden or al-Qaeda — it, of course, was never given.

The 9/11 Commission asked Rice about the Aug 6 presidential briefing memo which had not yet been made public. Under oath, and televised, she misled the commission and the American people by saying the memo was mostly historic about bin Laden’s previous activities.

Terrorism was not the subject of any national security meetings until September.

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Deputy Wolfowitz were obsessed with a new missile defense system. In a meeting with the deputies of other agencies, Wolfowitz said: “I just don’t understand why we are beginning by talking about this one man, bin Laden” and “Who cares about a little terrorist in Afghanistan.” Meanwhile, Rumsfeld threatened a presidential veto, if Congress shifted $600 million in missile defense money to counter-terrorism.

During the first national security meeting on terrorism in September, Rumsfeld appeared more interested in Iraq. His key counterterrorism position in the defense department was still unfilled at that time. Rumsfeld acknowledged to the 9-11 commission that his department was focused on other issues. Confirming this, the commission learned that (1) the Department had no mission to counter al-Qaeda and (2) according to the Joint Chiefs Chairman, the administration “did not show much interest in military options.”

Attorney General Ashcroft laid out his priorities for the FBI in February — counterterrorism was missing. In May, Ashcroft set forth seven major goals for his department. Again, counterterrorism was missing.

In July, Ashcroft was briefed by the CIA and FBI on the severity of the al-Qaeda threat. In early September, Ashcroft flatly rejected a $50 million request for the FBI’s counterterrorism program. According to the bureau, he asked not to be briefed on the subject again.

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The attitude and priority on terrorism by Bush’s key advisors and department heads can only reflect that of the President himself. The Washington Post concluded that the Bush administration “gave scant attention to an adversary whose lethal ambitions and savvy had been well understood for years.”

Warnings could not get any worse

The 9-11 Commission report chapter, “The System is Blinking Red,” shows that the number and severity of reported threats were unparalleled and that many officials knew something terrible was planned. Warnings were in terms of “catastrophic proportions” and “on a calamitous level, causing the world to be in turmoil.” Nearly frantic with concern, the CIA Director repeatedly warned the White House of a “significant attack in the near future.” In an August 2001 speech to a terrorism convention, his head of counterterrorism said: “We are going to be struck soon, many Americans are going to die, and it could be in the U.S.”

Desperate to get top level attention, the head of the White House anti-terror unit, Richard Clarke, asked “decision makers to imagine a future day when hundreds of Americans lay dead.” In another instance, two officials in government considered resigning in order to go public with their concerns. Two weeks before 9/11 the head of the FBI’s national security for New York city (Clarke’s partner in the fight against terrorism) resigned in frustration. He took a position in charge of security at the World Trade Center. He did not survive the attack.

During the unprecedented surge of threat information, countries around the world tried to alert us at least 15 times to the danger. They are identified in the chart below, along with highlights of their warnings.

The Bush administration, and in particular National Security Advisor Rice, claimed no one had ever considered that terrorists might use airplanes as missiles. The evidence of record shows otherwise. The Joint Intelligence Committee investigation into 9/11 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 chart summarizes some of this intelligence, but is not complete because the administration refused to declassify all information bearing on the 9/11 threat.

WHEN

SOURCE

WARNING HIGHLIGHT

1998

CIA Intelligence sources

Fly explosive-laden plane into World Trade Center

1999

Report to National Intelligence Council

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

March 2001

Italy

Warns of "very, very, secret" al-Qaeda plan

April 2001

Afghanistan

Warns of al-Qaeda plot to attack US in suicide missions involving aircraft

June 2001

Germany

Warns of plans to hijack commercial aircraft to use as weapons

May-July 2001

National Security Agency

Intercepted at least thirty-three communications about impending attack

July 2001

Great Britain

Warns al-Qaeda is in "the final stages" of preparing a terrorist attack

July 2001

Afghanistan

Taliban Foreign Minister warns of huge attack on America

July 2001

Argentina

Relays warning of an attack of major proportions

July 2001

Egypt

Warns that 20 al-Qaeda members have slipped into US and 4 of them have received flight training

Late summer

Jordan

Warns that aircraft will be used in major attack inside US

1994-August 2001

Congressional Intelligence Committee

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

August 2001

Morocco

Bin Laden plans "large scale operations in summer or fall", disappointed 1993 World Trade attack failed

August 2001

Russia

Putin warns that suicide pilots are training for attacks on US targets

August 2001

Persia

Warns "spectacular terrorist operation" to take place soon

August 2001

Great Briton

Warns of multiple airplane hijackings –” warning said to have reached Bush

August 2001

Egypt

Warns that al-Qaeda in advance stages of planning significant attack on US

August 2001

Israel

Warns "major assault on the US" imminent; gives CIA terrorist list (living in US); 4 actual hijackers on list

August 2001

France

Passes on Israeli warning (above)

Repeatedly – Summer 2001

CIA Director

Warns White House – "significant attack in near future"

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The President did not respond to the 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. There was complete continuity during presidential transition: Clinton’s Chief of Counterterrorism became Bush’s Chief, Clinton’s CIA Director became Bush’s Director, and an al-Qaeda attack plan was available from the previous administration — one that Bush used after 9-11.

Exact knowledge of the targets that would be hit or the timing was not required — as the White House has contended. All the Administration had to do was protect against the hijacking of commercial aircraft — just that one thing. Yet, nothing was done to fix airline vulnerabilities or prepare for suicide hijacking. As the 9/11 commission concluded, domestic agencies never mobilized a response, got direction or had a plan. The public was not warned.

It is hard to imagine why President Bush did not demonstrate greater concern. Was he preoccupied with his own agenda? Was he worried about the impact of public fear of terrorism on a sagging economy? Did he downgrade concerns of the previous administration? Did he get poor advice?

The fact is the people of the United States needed to be highly aware, observant 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.

It’s even possible that the disaster could have been averted if the President had maintained the priority of the previous Admini-stration, responded against al-Qaeda for the USS Cole attack, mobilized homeland security protection and responded to extraordinary warnings during the spring and summer of 2001. These things didn’t happen, and we haven’t been told why. Time Magazine’s “The Secret History,” concluded that the disaster wasn’t averted “because 2001 saw a systematic collapse in the ability of Washington’s national-security apparatus to handle the terrorist threat.”

The 9-11 cover-up

The President’s attitude on cooperation with the 9-11 Commission was just the opposite of what it should have been. As Commander-in-Chief, he should have worked with the Commission to get at the heart of the problem, with the idea of preventing future attacks. Instead, for a year, the White House resisted the investigative Commission and then stonewalled it for another year.

As commissioners have acknowledged, they suffered from lengthy delays, maddening restrictions and disputes over access to sensitive documents and witnesses. As just one example, the Commission (after months of denial) finally got limited access to Bush’s intelligence briefings, but only after threatening him with a subpoena. A group of the 9/11 families working with the Commission said “… it was President Bush who thwarted our attempts at every turn.”

Presidential election influenced9/11 Commission findings

The Commission’s report has excellent findings on and recommendations for the intelligence community, FBI, immigration, Congress, etc. — but, no findings on the White House, its priorities, or presidential leadership. Why didn’t the Commission connect the dots?

The five Republican and five Democratic members of the 9/11 Commission were faced with a difficult situation during an election year — either (1) don’t address top-level responsibility and come out with a unified, bipartisan report that would surely be acted upon or (2) assign some responsibility to the President and his advisors and have a divided and contentious report that would gather dust. The Commission firmly believed that “in order to have a strong public impact the report had to be unanimous.”

Was 9/11 preventable?

The Commission says opportunities were missed, but all those mentioned were at the operational level — none at top levels of government.

This article contends that the President did not attempt to reduce a known high-level threat or the nation’s vulnerability to it, nor did he respond to expert advice and near-frenzy warnings of imminent danger. Any one or a combination of those actions might have prevented 9-11.

Did the President understand the threat?

The Commission says the President did not have a complete picture of the threat or an understanding of its gravity.

This article contends there was a full understanding of the threat and its gravity, as further documented in Time Magazine’s "Secret History," in Richard Clarke’s book, "Against All Enemies," and in the Commission’s report itself. For example, the Commission’s chapter, "The System is Blinking Red," discloses compelling evidence of an impending catastrophic attack which demanded immediate presidential action.

Who was responsible for 9/11?

The Commission says senior (unnamed) officials across government share in the responsibility and that our national leaders could have done more. It lays much of the blame on intelligence, FBI, immigration, Congress, etc.

This article contends that our national leaders should have done more to reduce the threat and the nation’s vulnerability to it. Senior officials of the operating agencies surely would have been more responsive to the threat had the President led the way, called in the heads of their agencies and shared information both with them and with the general public.
The Commission’s omission of any top level responsibility has already been challenged by two book reviews of its report and by Richard Clarke in a New York Times op-ed piece. David Ignatius of the Washington Post concluded:

"The Bush team … didn’t get serious about bin Laden … In truth, nothing would have prevented the national security advisor … from mobilizing anti-terrorism policy against al-Qaeda in the months before 9/11. That’s what makes this story a tragedy — that existing institutions of government might have averted the disaster, if they had taken action."

In a lengthy analysis that included interviews with commissioners and key staff members, Elizabeth Drew concluded in The New York Review of Books:

"In an effort to achieve a unanimous, bipartisan report, the Commission decided not to assign ‘individual blame’ and avoided overt criticism of the President himself. Still, the report is a powerful indictment of the Bush Administration for its behavior before and after the attack of September 11."

The paralysis in the Commission’s analysis

The Commission focused on a question that was too narrow and nearly impossible to answer: Could 9/11 have been prevented? To answer that question either way could have been construed as self-serving and would have encouraged the use of 20/20 hindsight.

The broader, more appropriate question was to put yourself in the shoes of the President during the months leading up to 9/11. What would a reasonable and prudent person do in the same situation — irrespective of the result? In other words: What would any president do when confronted with an al-Qaeda declaration of war, a history of earlier attacks, strong advice on the gravity of the threat and serious warnings of impending attacks?

It would be nice to know exactly where the new attacks might take place and their timing. However, the only reasonable alternative for a president would have been to put the country in a crisis mode and take immediate action to protect the nation — especially commercial aircraft. In the end, the measures taken should have shown a government in action, anxious to protect its people and determined to make it difficult for terrorist attacks to succeed. That’s all we can expect — but no less.

Bottom line

As the book "The Terror Timeline" so succinctly points out, "The public record reflects that the extreme focus on terrorism in place at the end of the Clinton administration dropped dramatically under the Bush administration. With few exceptions, little attention was paid to terrorism, even as the number of warnings reached unprecedented levels."

President Bush presided over the greatest national security failure in our history. We may never know for an absolute certainty whether 9/11 could have been prevented. The critical issue is Bush’s inattention to the subject, his lack of response to repeated warnings, his absence of leadership when it really counted and the White House cover-up since then.
The failure of the Bush administration to respond to the USS Cole attack was a serious mistake. When terrorists perceive that the United States is weak, they are emboldened to strike again.

Although the politically-divided Commission on 9/11 could not bring itself to assess responsibility at top levels of government, the information is there in its report for anyone who wants to get the facts and draw their own conclusions. When the report was released, the scapegoats came from lower ranks and middle management — the upper echelons must have breathed a huge sigh of relief.

The most incredible thing is that President Bush has exploited a national tragedy for personal gain. He used it to support a war in Iraq, gain control of Congress and further his own reelection campaign. Traditionally, the Republicans should have lost rather than gained seats in the mid-term elections. The constant drumbeat of an impending war may have turned the tide.

Had Bush prevented the 9/11 attacks, terrorism would not be the number one issue it is today. He didn’t prevent the attacks and his neglect of the issue helped to create a national concern for terrorism. Ironically, leadership on terror was one of the key reasons for his reelection. He chose New York City … a Democratic citadel … to host the Republican Convention (near Ground Zero). The slogan was "Stay Safe: Reelect Bush."

A bolder U.S. terror strategy of global proportions is long overdue. President Bush’s idea that we can cope with each and every country that supports or harbors terrorists is foolish bravado and impossible to achieve. Ridding the world of terrorism is a shared responsibility, demanding worldwide resources and leadership from all heads of state. Each country should have a mandate to rid itself of terrorism and to ask other countries for military or other assistance, as needed. Such a worldwide endeavor must be reinforced with head of state progress meetings.

We certainly cannot stamp out terrorism and hatred solely with military force. America needs to sponsor a high-level UN commission to identify fundamental changes that would reverse the root causes of organized violent behavior in this world. People everywhere need hope that one day we will return to more peaceful ways, without a fortress mentality.

Sources:

– “The Secret History,” Time Magazine, Aug. 12, 2002.

– “Terror Commission Seeks Classified Papers”, The Associated Press, Feb. 28, 2003.

– “9-11 and a Lack of Presidential Leadership,” The Humanist, Mar/Apr, 2003.

– “Sept. 11 panel criticizes White House”, L.A. Times, July 9, 2003.

– “Why does 9/11 inquiry scare Bush”, The Berkshire Eagle, July 12, 2004.”

– 9/11 (congressional committee) Report Cites Intelligence Failures”, Associated Press, July 24, 2003.

– “The 9-11 (Congressional) Report Raises More Questions About The White House Statements On Intelligence”, John Dean, Find Law’s Legal Commentary, July, 29, 2003.

– ” Sept. 11 panel leader warns White House of subpoenas”, The NY Times, Oct. 26, 2003.

– “Where the Blame Lies,” Intervention Magazine, Dec. 11, 2003.

– Stonewalling the 9-11 Commission, Wall Street Journal, July 8, 2003; Wash. Post, Sept. 24, 2003; NY Times, Oct. 26 and Nov. 8 2003.

– “9-11 Panel Seeks More Documents From White House”, Wash. Post, Sept. 24, 2003.

– “September 11: Will Terror Panel’s Report Be an Election Issue?” News-week, Jan. 14, 2004.

– “What’s Bush Hiding from 9/11 Commission,” Working for Change, Jan. 22, 2004.

– “Sept. 11 Commission Faces Fight Over Deadline Extension,” Gov Exec, Jan. 24, 2004.

– “White House Holding Notes Taken by 9/11 Commission,” Wash. Post, Jan. 31, 2004.

– Voices of September 11 Newsletter, Feb. 9, 2004.

– “9/11 Panel Threatens to Issue Subpoena for Bush’s Briefings,” NY Times, Feb. 10, 2004.

– “The White House: A New Fight Over Sept. 11,” Newsweek, Feb. 10, 2004.

– “9-11 Panel to Accept Summary of Briefings,” Wash. Post, Feb. 11, 2004.

– “Failure of 9/11 Commission to Subpoena the White House,” Voices of September 11 Newsletter, Feb. 11, 2004.

– “White House Noncommittal on Testimony,” Palm Beach Post, Feb. 13, 2004.

– “President Agrees to Meet (Part of) Panel Privately About Sept. 11 Attacks,” Palm Beach Post, Feb. 14, 2004.

– “Investigating the Investigation,” AlterNet.org, Feb. 17, 2004.

– “Bush Plays Bait-and-Switch with 9/11 Panel,” Newsday.com, Feb. 19, 2004.

– Statement of 9-11 Families on commission access to presidential daily briefings, extension of its deadline and request for Senate hearings on progress, Feb. 20, 2004.

– Bush Administration had several chances to wipe out Zarqawi terrorist operation, NBC Nightly News, Mar. 3, 2004.

– “Weak on Terror,” NY Times, Mar. 16, 2004.

– “Bush and 9/11: What We Need to Know,” Time, Mar. 17, 2004.

– Statement of 9-11 families on Condoleezza Rice Testimony, Mar, 30, 2004.

– 9/11 Widows, NY Times, Apr. 1, 2004.

– “Uneven Response Seen on Terror in summer of 2001”, NY Times, Apr 4, 2004.

– “Declassified Memo Said Al Qaeda Was in U.S., Wash Post, Apr. 10, 2004.

– “The Texas Try on Terrorism”, Center For American Progress, Apr. 12, 2004.

– “Will Bush Own Up?” Wash Post, Apr. 13, 2004.

– ” Panel Says Bush Saw Repeated Warnings”, Wash. Post, Apr 14, 2004.

– “9/11 Files Show Warnings Were Urgent and Persistent”, NY Times, Apr. 18, 2004.

– “The Wrong Debate on Terrorism”, Richard Clarke, NY Times, Apr. 25, 2004.

– “Will The Commissioners Cave?”, Tom Paine Common Sense, June 21, 2004.

– “Against All Enemies,” Inside America’s War on Terror, Richard Clarke, Free Press, Simon and Schuster, 2004.

– “Needed: A New and Bolder Strategy for the War on Terror,” Humanist, July/Aug, 2004.

– “Report on 9-11 to be released this month”, Knight Ridder, July 10, 2004.

– 9-11 Commission staff and final reports, 2004.

– "The Book on Terror", Reviewed by David Ignatius, Wash. Post, July 30, 2004.”

– “Correcting the record on 9/11”, NY Times.

– “9/11 Panel Roiling Campaign Platforms”, Wash Post, Aug. 9, 2004.

– “9/11 Assessment Again Shows Lost personal Responsibility”, The Boston Channel, Aug. 10, 2004.

– “We could have stopped him”, Guardian Unlimited, Aug. 10, 2004.

– “Edwards Accuses Bush of Exploiting 9/11”, Associated Press, Oct. 18, 2004.

– “Former CIA Agent Says Bush to Blame for 9/11”, Common Dreams, Sept. 22, 2004.

– “Pinning the Blame”, The New York Review of Books, Elizabeth Drew, Sept. 23, 2004.

– “The Terror Timeline”, Paul Thompson, Regan Books, 2004.

– “Edwards Accuses Bush of Exploiting 9/11”, Associated Press, Oct. 18, 2004.

– “The 9/11 Secret in the CIA’s Back Pocket”, L.A. Times, Oct. 19, 2004.

– “Evolving Nature of Al Qaeda Is Misunderstood Critic Says”, NY Times, Nov. 8, 2004.

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