by Walter Brasch
AR Senior Correspondent
April 16, 2011
PROMISES, PROMISES: WHY POLITICIANS CAN LIE by Walter Brasch
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- The former members of the Bush Administration and their conservative apologists want to give George W. Bush all the credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden and the capture of a substantial amount of his operational data on May 1.
It's sad to watch. Republicans really don't want to admit how badly the Bush Administration screwed up before and after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, or see President Obama and his Administration get credit for doing something that could've been done a decade earlier.
Before it slips down the memory hole, here's a brief history of what really happened, and how the Bush team escaped responsibility for one of the greatest intelligence failures in U.S. history.
Let's start back in January 2001, as the Bush Administration assumed power. The U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century, a Defense Department-chartered commission headed by former U.S. Sens. Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, had just produced a report that concluded that "a direct attack against American citizens on American soil is likely over the next quarter century."
While Congress apparently was taking the Hart-Rudman report seriously, the Bush Administration decided to shove it aside and prepare its own response to the issue.
In May 2001, the Bush Administration announced that then-Vice President Dick Cheney would study the problem of domestic terrorism and assign primary responsibility for dealing with it to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Before the Bush Administration decided to go its own way, Hart and Rudman had briefed then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and urged them to spend more time dealing with terrorism.
Nothing happened, and the Hart-Rudman commission's report was ignored. Not even The New York Times chose to report on the commission's findings until Sept. 12, 2001, the day after the 9/11 attacks.
As for the Cheney report, it was never completed.
The story the Bush people have stuck to all along is that the threats they received were too vague to be acted upon. But how do you account for these two stories from July 2001?
The G8 annual economic summit - which President Bush attended - was held that month in Genoa, Italy. The summit featured extraordinary security, including ground-to-air missile batteries. According to a report at the time in the The Times of London, "the Italian Defense Ministry ha(d) taken the precaution after a tip by 'a friendly foreign intelligence service' that Islamic suicide bombers might try to attack the summit in a small aircraft or helicopter."
During that same month, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft stopped taking commercial flights. CBS News reported at the time the reason Ashcroft started flying exclusively in private aircraft was because of a "threat assessment" by the FBI.
Here were two instances where threats were received and acted upon. But no one thought to notify other Americans that something might be up?
Another one of those advance warnings was a report in July 2001 from the FBI's Phoenix office that suspects in a terrorist investigation linked to al-Qaida and bin Laden were attending flight school. The New York Times reported that one of the people who saw the report filed by Special Agent Kenneth Williams was John O'Neill, the FBI's leading expert on bin Laden and one of its top counter-terrorism people.
O'Neill apparently took the memo seriously and tried to warn the higher-ups about it. Nothing was done. It was never shared with the CIA or other intelligence agencies; not even the top echelon of the FBI ever saw it. In the midst of this inaction, the Bush Administration was supposedly backing off tracking bin Laden because it was more interested in cutting a deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan - which was harboring bin Laden - so a oil pipeline could be built.
O'Neill quit the FBI in disgust in August 2001 to take a job as chief of security at the World Trade Center. The pipeline negotiations broke down later that month. Bin Laden's forces struck on Sept. 11, and O'Neill died at the hands of the people he had fought so hard to thwart.
Since then, it has been reported that Russian, German and Israeli intelligence agencies all picked up signals during the summer of 2001 that bin Laden was up to something big. The German intelligence agency BND warned the U.S. and Israel that terrorists were planning to hijack planes to fly them into buildings. That was echoed by Russia's intelligence services; they told the CIA in August 2001 that 25 terrorist pilots had been trained for suicide missions.
Also that month, the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad warned the FBI and CIA that up to 200 al-Qaida members were planning a major attack on American targets.
And on Aug. 6, 2001, President Bush received a memo entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." It suggested al-Qaida - the same group that blew up the U.S. embassy in Kenya in August 1998 and the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000 - might be planning an attack in this country and were planning to hijack airliners sometime soon.
Bush was on vacation at his ranch in Texas that month. And nothing happened.
In 2002, Time magazine reported how the Bush Administration ignored a plan developed by the Clinton Administration to attack al-Qaida in Afghanistan. In the fall of 2000, the Clinton Administration prepared a counter-terrorism plan that included freezing financial assets, aiding countries such as Yemen, Uzbekistan and the Philippines in breaking up terrorist cells, and a combined U.S. air and special operations military campaign in Afghanistan with help from the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.
While the Bush Administration eventually did all of these things after 9/11, this plan was already put together - almost a year earlier by the Clinton Administration, after the attack on the USS Cole. President Clinton held off on executing the plan in the last days of his presidency because of the impending transition.
Unlike President George H.W. Bush, who stuck the incoming Clinton team with the Somalia mess in the closing days of his term, President Clinton apparently didn't want to do something similar as he left office.
The plan languished in the national security bureaucracy. The proposals weren't re-examined by senior Administration officials until April 2001, and weren't reconsidered by the top national security department heads until a week before 9/11. There's no guarantee that executing the Clinton plan would have foiled 9/11. But it's now clear that doing something probably would've been better than doing nothing.
Then there is the second part of the 9/11 story - how the Bush Administration used the attack as justification for a war to remake the Middle East.
In 2001, few people had heard of a Washington-based neo-conservative think tank called The Project for a New American Century (PNAC). Few knew then about its plans for a global American empire or knew that its alumni - Cheney, Rumsfeld, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Cheney's then-chief of staff Lewis Libby and former Defense Policy Board chairman Richard Perle, among them - had considerable power in the White House.
In the fall of 2000, PNAC issued a report entitled "Rebuilding America's Defense: Strategies, Forces and Resources For A New Century." The PNAC report was mostly a rehash of an earlier strategic proposal drawn up for the Pentagon by Libby and Wolfowitz in the early 1990s. Libby and Wolfowitz envisioned a world where the guiding principle of U.S. foreign policy would be establishing permanent U.S. military and economic dominance over the Persian Gulf region and any other part of the world where U.S. interests were.
The PNAC vision of a Pax Americana in the Middle East - starting with the ouster of Saddam Hussein and the establishment of an American protectorate in Iraq - might have remained merely a vision. But in the worst case scenario of what happens when ideologues get an opportunity to put their plans into action, 9/11 gave the neo-conservatives the chance they had been waiting for.
Within hours of the collapse of the World Trade Center, the talk within the inner circle of the Pentagon and the White House was of invading Iraq. Even after the responsibility for 9/11 was squarely placed on bin Laden and al-Qaida, the focus in the White House remained on Iraq.
At the end of 2001, bin Laden and several other al-Qaida leaders were cornered in Tora Bora. They were there for the taking, but they escaped. Who knows what might have been, but now we can see why the Bush Administration was totally indifferent to capturing bin Laden. They were too busy planning a war in Iraq to be bothered with committing sufficient forces in Afghanistan to finish the job.
When President Bush gave his 2002 State of the Union speech, Iraq was front and center in the "Axis of Evil," and the propaganda campaign to convince people of the need to invade Iraq began in earnest. Obama bin Laden's fate was no longer important. President Bush admitted as much at a March 2002 news conference when he said "I don't know where he is. I - I'll repeat what I said. I truly am not that concerned about him."
There was no way the PNAC crew could have sold us a war based on its vision of "regime change" in Iraq as the first step toward a peaceful, totally transformed Middle East. And so the phrase "weapons of mass destruction" would became ubiquitous in the news media as President Bush and his underlings lied repeatedly and outrageously about Iraq's military capabilities and the threat they posed to the U.S.
While many feared chaos in Iraq, the PNAC crew - which had founded The Committee for the Liberation of Iraq and pushed Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi as the eventual replacement for Saddam - maintained that the Iraqis would greet U.S. and British forces with flowers and ecstatic celebration. Iraq would become a beacon of stability and democracy in the Middle East and Iraqis would be forever grateful to the U.S. for the removal of Saddam Hussein.
We now know how well that plan worked out.
It has been clear for years that the Bush Administration did little or nothing about the issue of terrorism. It failed to prevent a catastrophic attack on U.S. soil, and then turned around and used that attack to justify an extreme foreign policy agenda that left our nation in a quagmire in Iraq and Afghanistan and weakened our position in the world.
The sad truth is that it took a Democratic Administration to clean up the mess that was handed to them. When it came to bin Laden, the Obama team did the job that the Bush team failed to do, and no amount of spin can change that.
AR Chief of Correspondents Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.