For months, George W. Bush has been using the
9/11 tragedy to set up a joke.
"You know, when I was running for president, in Chicago," he told a Republican fundraiser on May 10,
"somebody said, would you ever have deficit spending? I said, only if we were at war, or only if we had
a recession, or only if we had a national emergency. Never did I dream we'd get the trifecta."
Partisan audiences chuckle, although Bush's
witticism is evidently based upon a made-up story.
Challenged by The New Republic, the White House cannot document that he ever made such a
demurral.Candidate Bush repeatedly promised to cut taxes and pay off the national debt come hell
or high water. Anyway, the laughter stopped last week. Now the question is whether the fabulation did too.
Kept hidden for eight months, the revelation
that the CIA briefed Bush about al-Qaeda threats to
domestic American targets more than a month before 9/11 confronted the president with a crisis of
confidence entirely of his own making. Even odder was the White House response, which couldn't
have been better calculated to arouse dormant suspicions and awaken a slumbering press corps.
Administration officials did all they could
to make a bad situation worse.
Condoleeza Rice, the president's national security advisor, offered a lame alibi.
"I don't think anybody could have predicted," she said "that...[al-Qaeda] would try to
use a hijacked airplane as a missile." Bush's briefing, she said, "was about traditional hijacking."
Either Rice's inexperience was showing, or
she was fudging. Any skeptic with a laptop computer
could have told her that many people had predicted exactly that. "Italy Tells of Threat at Genoa Summit,"
headlined the Los Angeles Times on Sept. 27, 2001. "Officials there took seriously a report that terrorists
would try to crash a plane to kill Bush and other leaders." So concerned were Italian officials during the
July 2001 meeting that they positioned anti-aircraft missiles around the city.
Bloomberg News found a 1999 Library of Congress
report that warned: "Suicide bomber(s)
belonging to al-Qaeda's Martyrdom Battalion could crash land an aircraft packed with high explosives
(C-4 and semtex) into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), or the
White House." it was partly based upon the confessions of al-Qaeda militants involved in the 1993
World Trade Center bombing. In 1994, French commandos stormed a hijacked airliner, foiling a
kamikaze attack on the Eiffel Tower. Authorities in the Phillipines exposed similar plots in 1995.
The Minneapolis FBI agent who detained accused
al-Qaeda operative Zacarias Moussaoui
last August, unsuccessfully petitioning the Justice Department for a warrant to search his computer,
warned that the suspect "could fly something into the World Trade Center." Agents investigating
Arab nationals taking flying lessons in Arizona made similar deductions. Were the agents paying
closer attention than the White House?
The president made things worse by overreacting
to a "Bush Knew" headline in the New York Post.
"Had I known that the enemy was going to use airplanes to kill on that fateful morning," he vowed,
"I would have done everything in my power to protect the American people." Nobody with any sense
thinks otherwise. But if he hadn't dissembled from the start, Bush wouldn't have to posture like an
Arnold Schwarzeneggar hero. Who is he trying to convince? I wonder. Clearly rattled, he gave
"a jut-jawed, disjointed discourse with a tinge of diatribe and a crescendo of podium pounding,"
Newsweek reports, to a group of Republican Senators
On cue, Vice-president Cheney entered stage
right with his now familiar bluster, insisting upon secrecy
and insinuating that to doubt George W. Bush is to doubt America. Well, it's not going to play this time.
Ignore the admittedly fascinating details about
which mid-level FBI and CIA bureaucrats screwed
up-hardly shocking anymore-and you're left with a story line in which CIA director George J. Tenet
and NSC counterterrorism head Richard Clarke, according the the Washington Post, were "nearly frantic"
last summer with warnings of impending al-Qaeda attacks. On July 5, Clarke addressed a meeting in the
White House Situation Room. "Something really spectacular is going to happen here, and it's going
to happen soon," he reportedly said. Bush went on vacation.
Anybody who's confident al-Qaeda's murderous
scheme could have been thwarted has clearly seen
too many Schwarzeneggar flicks. Equally clear, however, is that Bush's August 6 briefing wasn't kept
secret for no reason. But it wasn't al-Qaeda they were hiding it from, it was you and me. On evidence,
somebody close to the president dropped the ball. Were Tenet and Clarke ignored because they're
Clinton appointees? It would certainly fit the pattern.
of politics," Bush complains? Lord, let's hope so.
All this genuflecting before the monarch's throne is making Americans stupid.