Although the final report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States won’t be completed until this summer, its interim reports and public hearings have already revealed why the White House feared an independent investigation. The portrait of the Bush administration that is emerging in testimony and documents is unflattering, to say the least; it is the picture of an incompetent but arrogant group that ignored repeated, emphatic warnings.
Unfortunately, almost everyone had “other priorities”-to borrow a phrase immortalized by Dick Cheney-during the first 233 days of the Bush administration.
During much of his first year as President, George W. Bush was, literally and figuratively, on vacation. (The years that followed have not been much different.) Prior to September 2001, he spent 54 days at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., 38 days at Camp David, and a four-day weekend at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Me., which works out to slightly more than 40 percent of his time. He was on a month-long retreat in Crawford on Aug. 6, 2001, when he received his daily briefing from C.I.A. director George Tenet. In obvious deference to Mr. Bush’s attention deficit, the C.I.A. chief delivered a very brief document-less than 20 sentences in total-whose message was its now-famous headline: “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in U.S.”
Clearly, the C.I.A. was trying to convey to the President the fearful urgency felt by Mr. Tenet, his agents and analysts, and their National Security Council colleague Richard Clarke during the spring and summer of 2001.
Before Condoleezza Rice realized that the contents of the daily briefing would be declassified and published, she testified last week that it was a document containing only “historical” information. By that she apparently meant a review of threats during the previous two or three years. She could not have meant the memo’s warning that the F.B.I. had more recently “detected 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.” (Incidentally, the White House is still resisting the commission’s request to interview the C.I.A. analyst who prepared the Aug. 6 briefing.)
Meanwhile, in May 2001, the Vice President had been “tasked” to study homeland security. The President announced that Mr. Cheney would chair an interagency committee on this important issue. But the Vice President was preoccupied with other matters, including Iraq and the energy bill, and his committee on homeland security simply never met before September.
Toward the end of June 2001, F.B.I. director Louis Freeh, after failing for eight years to install modern communications and management facilities in that vital agency, had quit his post in the midst of an extraordinarily high terror alert. His interim successor, Thomas Pickard, took command of an agency whose infrastructure had been severely neglected, collapsing in one scandal after another.
In late June and July 2001, says Mr. Pickard, he personally briefed Attorney General John Ashcroft about the terrorist threats. After two briefings, the Attorney General told the acting F.B.I. director that he “did not want to hear this information anymore,” according to Mr. Pickard’s recollection (a stunning allegation that Mr. Ashcroft denies). Mr. Pickard also recalls that on Sept. 10, 2001, he asked the Attorney General to add more counterterrorism money to the Justice Department budget, and that Mr. Ashcroft rejected his appeal.
Whether Mr. Pickard’s memory is accurate or not, there is considerable evidence that the nation’s chief law-enforcement officer was less concerned in those days with terrorists than with pornographers and pot-smokers. Dale Watson, who then headed the F.B.I.’s counterterrorism division, told the commission’s investigators that he “almost fell out of his chair” when he read a Justice Department document that omitted any mention of counterterrorism among the department’s priorities in 2001. Other Ashcroft memos and documents similarly discounted terrorism as an urgent matter.
In accordance with the blustering attitude always favored by the Bush White House, Mr. Ashcroft kept calling himself “tough” during his appearance before the 9/11 commission. Then he tried to shift blame to his predecessors and to former President Bill Clinton.
Like Mr. Ashcroft, the administration has taken an unapologetic stance: to change the subject, to filibuster the hard questions, to feign toughness and to portray all critics as unreasonable partisans. The administration’s principal argument seems to be that the attacks of Sept. 11 could not have been prevented because there was no specific warning about when, where and by what means Al Qaeda’s assassins planned to strike.
Yet the President will still have to explain why he and his cabinet performed so feebly back then. That old “blame Clinton” theme accompanied Mr. Bush’s entry into the Oval Office-and if he doesn’t come up with anything more convincing, it may serve as his exit music, too.
Follow Joe Conason via RSS.