On this eighth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, it’s worth reflecting on how even a mildly competent U.S. President might have prevented the terror attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people and drove the United States into a spasm of revenge that has wasted untold blood and treasure.
The evidence of George W. Bush’s incompetence has emerged from official investigations, court cases and memoirs from key insiders but often has attracted less attention than the speculative arguments from conspiracy theorists about the 9/11 attacks being “an inside job.”
Ironically, it was the evidence of Bush’s stunning incompetence that gave momentum to the so-called “9/11 truth movement,” which argued that the U.S. government couldn’t be that inept and that therefore the Bush administration must have been complicit in the attacks.
That assumption then gave rise to a cottage industry of bizarre theories – such as “no plane hit the Pentagon” and "the Twin Towers were destroyed by controlled demolitions" – claims that have invited debunking by scientists and engineers and thus obscured a more important truth: that by 2001 a dangerous confluence of political factors had carried the United States to a place where Bush’s swaggering bluster and neoconservative ideology were positioned to exploit the nation's fear and anger with disastrous results.
The real lesson learned from 9/11 perhaps should be that rational behavior and competence matter – and that their willful rejection by a major political party (in this case, the Republicans), a sizable portion of the U.S. news media, and a large chunk of the American electorate – can have devastating consequences for the nation and the world.
That is a lesson which also remains relevant today as right-wing extremists continue their takeover of the Republican Party with the help of a powerful right-wing media machine.
Despite electoral reversals in 2006 and 2008, the Republicans seem bound to Bush’s true legacy – the notion that words can reshape reality as long as you have a big enough media megaphone to shout out and repeat the distortions.
And, to a surprising degree, “the 9/11 truth movement” shared a common interest with the Bush administration – both groups needed to dismiss the evidence of Bush’s incompetence, albeit for different reasons.
Bush’s backers understood that incompetence was the President’s Achilles’s heel as would be revealed in the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe in summer 2005 and from his inept management of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The “truthers” also had a stake in ignoring the evidence of Bush’s incompetence, since their theories were dependent on the notion that Bush and his team were evil masterminds who had pulled off and then concealed the most audacious conspiracy in world history.
The acceptance of the alternative interpretation – that Bush was an arrogant buffoon who rejected warnings about al-Qaeda terrorism in part because President Bill Clinton thought the issue was important – would have undermined both the Bush administration’s bid for a second term and “the 9/11 truth movement.”
So the Bush team tried to conceal many of the embarrassing facts and went on the attack against insiders – like ex-Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke – who pulled aside the curtain on internal White House workings.
The administration’s foot-dragging and name-calling kept much of the strongest evidence of incompetence under wraps until after Election 2004. In the years that followed, however, more and more evidence spilled out.
For instance, during the penalty phase of al-Qaeda operative Zacarias Moussaoui’s trial, it was revealed that FBI agent Harry Samit, who interrogated Moussaoui weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks, sent 70 warnings to his superiors about suspicions that Moussaoui had been taking flight training in Minnesota because he was planning to hijack a plane for a terrorist operation.
But FBI officials in Washington showed “criminal negligence” in blocking requests for a search warrant on Moussaoui’s computer or taking other preventive action, Samit testified at the court hearing on March 20, 2006.
Samit’s futile warnings matched the frustrations of other federal agents in Minnesota and Arizona who had gotten wind of al-Qaeda’s scheme to train pilots for operations in the United States.
For instance, FBI headquarters blew off a prescient memo from an FBI agent in the Phoenix field office. The July 2001 memo warned of the “possibility of a coordinated effort by Usama Bin Laden” to send student pilots to the United States. The agent noted “an inordinate number of individuals of investigative interest” attending American flight schools.
Separate from the FBI field agents, CIA analysts were piecing the same puzzle together from tips, intercepts and other scraps of information.
By July 10, senior CIA counterterrorism officials, including Cofer Black, had collected a body of intelligence that they presented to CIA Director George Tenet, as Tenet recounted in his 2007 memoir, At the Center of the Storm.
“The briefing [Black] gave me literally made my hair stand on end,” Tenet wrote. “When he was through, I picked up the big white secure phone on the left side of my desk – the one with a direct line to [National Security Adviser] Condi Rice – and told her that I needed to see her immediately to provide an update on the al-Qa’ida threat.”
After reaching the White House, a CIA briefer, identified in the book only as Rich B., started his presentation by saying: “There will be a significant terrorist attack in the coming weeks or months!”
Rich B. then displayed a chart showing “seven specific pieces of intelligence gathered over the past 24 hours, all of them predicting an imminent attack,” Tenet wrote. The briefer presented another chart with “the more chilling statements we had in our possession through intelligence.”
These comments included a mid-June statement by Osama bin Laden to trainees about an attack in the near future; talk about decisive acts and a “big event”; and fresh intelligence about predictions of “a stunning turn of events in the weeks ahead,” Tenet wrote.
Rich B. told Rice that the attack will be “spectacular” and designed to inflict heavy casualties against U.S. targets, Tenet wrote.
“Attack preparations have been made,” Rich B. said about al-Qaeda’s plans. “Multiple and simultaneous attacks are possible, and they will occur with little or no warning.”
When Rice asked what needed to be done, the CIA’s Black responded, “This country needs to go on a war footing now.”
The CIA officials sought approval for broad covert-action authority that had been languishing since March, Tenet wrote.
Despite the July 10 briefing, other senior Bush administration officials pooh-poohed the seriousness of the al-Qaeda threat. Two leading neoconservatives at the Pentagon – Stephen Cambone and Paul Wolfowitz – suggested that the CIA might be falling for a disinformation campaign, Tenet wrote.
But the evidence of an impending attack continued to pour in. At one CIA meeting in late July, Tenet wrote that Rich B. told senior officials bluntly, “they’re coming here,” a declaration that was followed by stunned silence.
On Aug. 6, 2001, more than a month before the attacks, the CIA had enough evidence to send Bush a top-secret Presidential Daily Briefing paper, “Bin Laden Determined To Strike in US.” It was handed to Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he was on a month-long vacation after a half year on the job.
The CIA told Bush about “threat reporting” that indicated bin Laden wanted “to hijack a US aircraft.” The CIA also cited a call that had been made to the U.S. Embassy in the United Arab Emirates in May 2001 “saying that a group of Bin Laden supporters was in the US planning attacks with explosives.”
The PDB noted that “FBI information ... indicates patterns 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. The FBI is conducting approximately 70 full field investigations throughout the US that it considers Bin Laden-related.”
Bush apparently was not pleased by the CIA’s intrusion on his vacation nor with the report’s lack of specific targets and dates. He glared at the CIA briefer and snapped, “All right, you’ve covered your ass,” according to an account in author Ron Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine., which relied heavily on senior CIA officials.
“The system was blinking red,” Tenet later told the 9/11 Commission.
In his memoir, Tenet described a special trip he took to Crawford later in August 2001 to get Bush to focus on an imminent threat of a spectacular al-Qaeda attack.
“A few weeks after the Aug. 6 PDB was delivered, I followed it to Crawford to make sure the President stayed current on events,” Tenet wrote. “This was my first visit to the ranch. I remember the President graciously driving me around the spread in his pickup and my trying to make small talk about the flora and the fauna, none of which were native to Queens,” where Tenet had grown up.
Tenet’s trip to Crawford – like the July 10 meeting with Rice and the Aug. 6 briefing paper for Bush – failed to shock the administration out of its lethargy. While Tenet and Bush made small talk about “the flora and the fauna,” al-Qaeda operatives put the finishing touches on their plans.
Bush’s Justice Department and FBI headquarters were in the loop on the CIA reporting, but still didn’t reach out to their agents around the country, some of whom, it turned out, were frantically trying to get the attention of their superiors in Washington.
Then-acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard told the 9/11 Commission that he discussed the intelligence threat reports with FBI special agents in a conference call on July 19, 2001. But Pickard said the focus was on having “evidence response teams” ready to respond quickly in the event of an attack.
Pickard “did not task field offices to try to determine whether any plots were being considered within the United States or to take any action to disrupt any such plots,” according to the 9/11 Commission’s report.
It wasn’t until Sept. 4 – a week before 9/11 – when senior Bush administration officials, including Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, “finally reconvened in the White House Situation Room” to discuss counterterrorism plans “that had been lingering unresolved all summer long,” Tenet wrote in his memoir.
While it will never be known conclusively whether a different reaction by Bush and his national security team could have disrupted the 9/11 attacks, a variety of options were available.
Counterterrorism coordinator Richard Clarke said the 9/11 attacks might have been averted if Bush had shown some initiative in “shaking the trees” by having high-level officials from the FBI, CIA, Customs and other federal agencies go back to their bureaucracies and demand any information about the terrorist threat.
If they had, they might well have found the memos from the FBI agents in Arizona and Minnesota. They also might have exploited the information that two known al-Qaeda operatives, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawar al-Hazmi, had entered the United States. On Sept. 11, they boarded American Airlines Flight 77 and helped fly it into the Pentagon.
In his book, Against All Enemies, Clarke contrasted President Bill Clinton’s urgency over the intelligence warnings that preceded the Millennium events with the lackadaisical approach of Bush and his national security team.
“In December 1999, we received intelligence reports that there were going to be major al-Qaeda attacks,” Clarke said in an interview about his book. “President Clinton asked his national security adviser Sandy Berger to hold daily meetings with the attorney general, the FBI director, the CIA director and stop the attacks.
“Every day they went back from the White House to the FBI, to the Justice Department, to the CIA and they shook the trees to find out if there was any information. You know, when you know the United States is going to be attacked, the top people in the United States government ought to be working hands-on to prevent it and working together.
”Now, contrast that with what happened in the summer of 2001, when we even had more clear indications that there was going to be an attack. Did the President ask for daily meetings of his team to try to stop the attack? Did Condi Rice hold meetings of her counterparts to try to stop the attack? No.” [CNN’s “Larry King Live,” March 24, 2004]
In a March 19, 2006, speech in Florida, former Vice President Al Gore also noted this contrast between how the Clinton administration reacted to terrorist threats and how the Bush administration did in the weeks before Sept. 11.
“In eight years in the White House, President Clinton and I, a few times, got a direct and really immediate statement like that [Aug. 6, 2001 warning], in one of those daily briefings,” Gore said.
“Every time, as you would want and expect, we had a fire drill, brought everybody in, [asked] what else do we know about this, what have we done to prepare for this, what else could we do, are we certain of the sources, get us more information on that, we want to know everything about this, and we want to make sure our country is prepared.
“In August of 2001,” Gore added, “such a clear warning was given and nothing – nothing – happened. When there is no vision, the people perish.”
In his book, Clarke offered other examples of pre-9/11 mistakes by the Bush administration, including a downgrading in importance of the counterterrorism office, a shifting of budget priorities, an obsession with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and an emphasis on conservative ideological issues, such as Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars missile defense program.
A more hierarchical White House structure also insulated Bush from direct contact with mid-level national security officials who had specialized on the al-Qaeda issue.
The chairman and vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission – New Jersey’s former Republican Gov. Thomas Kean and former Democratic Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton – agreed that the 9/11 attacks could have been prevented.
“The whole story might have been different,” Kean said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on April 4, 2004. Kean cited a string of law-enforcement blunders including the “lack of coordination within the FBI” and the FBI’s failure to understand the significance of Moussaoui’s arrest in August 2001 while training to fly passenger jets.
Though the 9/11 Commission steered away from overt criticism of policymakers, it did note that “no CSG [Counterterrorism Security Group] or other NSC [National Security Council] meeting was held to discuss the possible threat of a strike in the United States as a result of this [Aug. 6] report.”
As the clock ticked down to 9/11, the Bush administration continued to have other priorities.
On Aug. 9, 2001, Bush gave a nationally televised speech on stem cells, delivering his judgment permitting federal funding for research on 60 preexisting stem-cell lines, but barring government support for work on any other lines of stem cells derived from human embryos.
On side trips from his August vacation, Bush also made forays to Middle American cities that Bush said represented “heartland values” and the basic decency of Americans. Some residents living near the Atlantic and Pacific oceans viewed the hype about “heartland values” as a not-so-subtle snub at the so-called “blue” coastal states that favored Al Gore.
Despite the Sept. 4, 2001, meeting of senior Bush aides to review the counterterrorism initiatives that had been languishing since March, the administration still didn’t seem moved by the urgency of the moment.
On Sept. 6, 2001, Rumsfeld threatened a presidential veto of a proposal by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, seeking to transfer money from strategic missile defense to counterterrorism.
Also on Sept. 6, former Sen. Gary Hart, who had co-chaired a commission on terrorism, was again trying to galvanize the Bush administration into showing some urgency about the threat. Hart met with Rice and urged the White House to move faster. Rice agreed to pass on Hart’s concerns to higher-ups.
Yet, if President Bush had demanded action from on high, the ripple effect through the FBI might well have jarred loose enough of the pieces to make the overall picture suddenly clear, especially in view of the information already compiled by the CIA.
Ironically, that is almost the same argument that federal prosecutors made in unsuccessfully seeking Moussaoui’s execution, rather than life imprisonment. It’s not that he was directly involved in the Sept. 11 plot, the prosecutors said; it’s that the government might have been able to stop the attacks if he had immediately confessed what he was up to.
In effect, the Bush administration was demanding Moussaoui’s death on the notion that the failure to do something that might have prevented the tragedy of Sept. 11 should be punished to the fullest extent of the law.
However, the Bush administration took almost the opposite position on its own negligence. Bush and other senior officials insisted they had nothing to apologize for.
Indeed, Bush made the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath the centerpiece of his presidency. Arguably, he rode the whirlwind from the attacks right through the war in Afghanistan to the invasion of Iraq to his second term.
Only in summer 2005 – after another case of botched leadership during the Hurricane Katrina disaster – did the air whoosh out of Bush’s cult-of-personality balloon. Add in the disastrous decisions around the Iraq War and many Americans began to see a pattern of arrogant, incompetent leadership that failed to heed evidence or pay attention to details.
For some Americans, however, the Bush incompetence explanation didn’t go nearly far enough to explain the breathtaking lapses that preceded 9/11.
Some 9/11 “truthers” argued that the destruction of the Twin Towers and the damage to the Pentagon must have been an “inside job” with some elements of the Bush administration conspiring with the attackers to create a modern-day Reichstag Fire that would justify invading Iraq and consolidating political power at home.
But the evidence from the Moussaoui case and other investigations – as well as later admissions by al-Qaeda leaders and the absence of any first-hand witnesses describing the supposed “inside job” collaboration – all tend to support the theory of Bush's incompetence.
Without doubt, however, even as the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were still smoldering, Bush and his neoconservative advisers decided to exploit the nation’s anger and fear to implement a long-held desire for preemptive wars abroad and a crackdown on dissent at home.
And that might well be the ultimate lesson of 9/11: how unscrupulous political leaders, supported by a fawning or complicit media, can exploit a tragedy and stampede a population into disastrous miscalculations.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on September 11, 2009.