"THAT HAS NOTHING to do with intelligence," said former President Bill Clinton. "It basically says he's a dangerous guy that might do a lot of things." Clinton refers to a 1999 CIA report about the possibility of terrorist attacks against America by Osama bin Laden.
Critics of President George W. Bush now say the president should have connected this 1999 report – which the CIA never included in Bush's briefings – with other pre-Sept. 11 "dots," the aggregate of which supposedly provided a clear warning of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. A so-called FBI "Phoenix memo" reportedly recommends "the FBI should accumulate a listing of civil aviation universities/colleges around the country."
"What did the president know, and when did he know it?" some now cry, a la Watergate. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., took to the Senate floor and pointed to a New York Post headline that screamed, "Bush Knew." "The president knew what? My constituents would like to know the answers to that and many other questions," said Clinton.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., practically threw the president into the stockade, trial to follow. Nadler said, "If the White House had knowledge that there was a danger or an intent to hijack an American airplane and did not warn the airlines, that would be nonfeasance in office of the highest order. That would make the president bear a large amount of responsibility for the tragedy that occurred."
Even before the recent revelations of the pre-Sept. 11 "clues," Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., accused the president of prior, specific knowledge of the terrorist attacks. She hysterically claimed that Bush wanted an attack, thus sparking a military defense build-up, which in turn stands to enrich the president's friends in the defense industry. Predictably, McKinney now says she feels vindicated.
But the "blame Bush" scheme apparently flopped. The New York Times, not exactly a Bush supporter, saw through the nonsense. "Until someone produces evidence that the Bush administration received and ignored information pointing directly to the suicide hijackings," said the Times, "the country will have to live with the much messier and no less disturbing fact that the government as a whole dropped the ball and even now is not doing nearly enough to ensure that it doesn't happen again."
The New York Times also chastised Congress: "As congressional Democrats and other Bush opponents rev up the recriminations following this week's disclosures, they should remember that the House and Senate Intelligence Committees received some of the same intelligence reports as the White House. These included public and private warnings from George Tenet, the director of central intelligence, that al-Qaeda could strike at any time. We don't recall a rising clamor from Congress last summer for improved intelligence-gathering, better pooling of information between the FBI and the CIA, and heightened airport security."
Former President Clinton dismissed the Monday morning quarterbacking – with good reason. A true inquiry into what happened figures to place a lot of the blame squarely on his lap. Mansoor Ijaz, who worked with the Clinton administration, said that Clinton blew several opportunities to apprehend Osama bin Laden. "President Clinton and his national security team ignored several opportunities to capture Osama bin Laden and his terrorist associates," said Ijaz. "In July 2000 – three months before the deadly attack on the destroyer Cole in Yemen – I brought the White House another plausible offer to deal with bin Laden, by then known to be involved in the embassy bombings. ... The offer ... required only that Clinton make a state visit there to personally request bin Laden's extradition. But senior Clinton officials sabotaged the offer, letting it get caught up in internal politics within the ruling family – Clintonian diplomacy at its best."
Clinton's former aide Dick Morris said, "[Clinton] had almost an allergy to using people in uniform. He was terrified of incurring casualties; the lessons of Vietnam were ingrained far too deeply in him. He lacked a faith that it would work, and I think he was constantly fearful of reprisals. ... On another level, I just don't think it was his thing. You could talk to him about income redistribution, and he would talk to you for hours and hours. Talk to him about terrorism, and all you'd get was a series of grunts."
Perhaps some of Bush's critics forget that the War on Terrorism continues, and that American lives remain at risk. Indeed, just last week, an American special ops member was killed in Afghanistan. Nor is it unpatriotic to find out how and why our intelligence broke down.
But neither Republicans nor Democrats seem to understand that this "Bush Knew" flap exposes a much, much bigger issue. By inserting itself in issues like retirement, health care, social programs, farm programs, welfare, public housing, education – small wonder that the federal government shirks its primary responsibility – self-defense.