In the voices
of the Vice President, the National Security Advisor,
the White House press secretary and various members of the Republican
chorus on Capitol Hill, the Bush administration keeps answering questions
that haven’t been asked—and avoiding questions that must be answered if
the nation is to avoid an even worse catastrophe than that of Sept. 11, 2001.
No serious person
has asked whether George W. Bush or his
aides knew in advance that terrorists were planning to seize
civilian airliners and crash them into the World Trade Center
and the Pentagon. And no serious person has suggested that
Mr. Bush himself ought to have predicted those specific plans
those nonexistent accusations, the administration
evidently hopes to deflect the appointment of an independent
commission with full investigative authority. Why do Mr. Bush and Dick Cheney
fear such a probe?
Mr. Cheney, he is worried about a "circus atmosphere" on Capitol
Hill, with politicians hunting for headlines. He is concerned about the disclosure of
"sources and methods." He suggests that if an independent commission is appointed
to investigate Sept. 11, the national-security apparatus will be badly compromised in
its ability to prevent the next attack.
As this is written,
the level of alert on the Homeland Security color chart is yellow,
which is midway up the scale. Yet the Vice President sounded as if he hoped to
scare the country into avoiding any investigation that might ultimately embarrass the
Among the specific
items that the White House would prefer to be kept from public
view is that Presidential Daily Briefing memorandum from Aug. 6, 2001, which
reportedly mentioned the prospect or possibility of a hijacking by Al Qaeda
operatives. Indeed, Mr. Cheney doesn’t even want that document to be turned over
to Congress. This dogged secrecy, however, contradicts the description of the Aug.
6 memo provided by Mr. Cheney and other administration officials, who have said
that all it contained was vague, nonspecific "chatter."
The Vice President
said on May 19 that he had gone back to read the August memo
himself, finding only old news from years earlier and no "actionable intelligence" at
all. Ari Fleischer, by contrast, has claimed that the memo prompted an alert to the
Federal Aviation Administration and the airlines. That, he said, was why the
hijackers had used box-cutters in their assault. (Did he mean to imply that the alert
was forwarded to Al Qaeda, too?)
It isn’t easy
to make sense of the administration’s argument. If that memo was so
inconsequential, then what harm would be done by its release—with redactions, if
necessary? It would only prove that Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney have been truthful.
If it wasn’t inconsequential and vague, then the public needs to know why it was
not acted upon.
The Vice President’s
objections to an independent commission are unconvincing.
And unfortunately, they follow his attempts last winter to stifle the investigation by
Congress. Even some Republicans in Washington are beginning to wonder what he
and his boss are afraid will be revealed. One likely answer can be found in the
current edition of Newsweek: Despite repeated warnings from Clinton appointees
that dated back to the very first day of the Bush administration, the new President
and his super-competent team were simply not terribly interested in that topic until
much too late.
Newsweek, no official of cabinet rank made counterterrorism a top
priority. Attorney General John Ashcroft was preoccupied with "traditional" law
enforcement against drug abusers and pornographers. He allegedly turned down a
request from the F.B.I. to hire "hundreds" of additional counterintelligence agents.
Over at the Pentagon,
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was obsessed with
the construction of a "national missile defense" whose irrelevance was proved on
that tragic day last September. (The nukes we now rightly fear are not expected to
arrive on an antique rocket from North Korea.) Mr. Rumsfeld also reportedly killed
a request to shift $800 million from the missile-defense budget to
counterterrorism—and ordered the grounding of the innovative Predator drone sent
up by "the Clintonites" to track and possibly kill Osama bin Laden. In fact, it was
two officials held over from the previous administration—counterterror chief
Richard Clarke and C.I.A. director George Tenet—who tried to direct the
government’s attention to the looming threat from Al Qaeda in the weeks and
months before Sept. 11.
This is not a
blame game, but an essential effort to understand what was wrong with
the procedures and priorities of government. An independent commission was
Ronald Reagan’s immediate response to the Iran-contra scandal. Now this
President, who claims Mr. Reagan as his model, should accept the same kind of
thorough, nonpartisan probe.
You may reach Joe Conason via email at: email@example.com.