(A non-Conventional post from Portland, Oregon)
The media consensus seems to be that the 9/11 Commission report either exonerates Bush, or else says that Bush and Clinton were equally bad. But the consensus is wrong.
Here’s Richard Clarke‘s verdict: “Yet, because the commission had a goal of creating a unanimous report from a bipartisan group, it softened the edges and left it to the public to draw many conclusions. Among the obvious truths that were documented but unarticulated were the facts that the Bush administration did little on terrorism before 9/11, and that by invading Iraq the administration has left us less safe as a nation”. (archive link)
Most of the media have taken the report’s discreet refusal to draw any conclusions to mean that they should not draw any conclusions either. But as Clarke says, the report merely leaves it up to us to articulate the “obvious truths” ourselves. (As I have phrased it, “Some assembly is required”). One of these truths is that the Bush administration’s pre-9/11 counter-terrorism performance was poor, and definitely worse than Clinton’s. Another is that the link he claimed between Iraq and al Qaeda – one of the main justifications of the war – was non-existent.
The only positive note in the 9/11 report was “The Millenium Exception”:
“Before concluding our narrative, we offer a reminder, and an explanation, of the one period in which the government as a whole seemed to be acting in concert to deal with terrorism—the last weeks of December 1999 preceding the millennium. In the period between December 1999 and early January 2000, information about terrorism flowed widely and abundantly…. After the millennium alert, the government relaxed …..In the summer of 2001, DCI Tenet, the Counterterrorist Center, and the Counterterrorism Security Group did their utmost to sound a loud alarm, its basis being intelligence indicating that al Qaeda planned something big. But the millennium phenomenon was not repeated.” (XI, pp. 358-9)
The report charitably explains the difference by the fact that in 2001 there was no millennium scare to get people excited. But there was another, more important difference between 1999 and 2001: a change of administration. And whereas Clinton, during the millennium scare, was banging heads and shaking the trees in order to get some action, during his first eight months in office Bush exhibited a complete lack of leadership on counterterrorism. The supposed “organizational deficiencies” of structure and process in the counterterrorism effort were in large part due to the fact that in 2001 the man on top wasn’t interested.
Clarke’s tenure with Bush consisted of a long series of unsuccessful attempts to get the attention of his superiors, especially Rice. Under the Clinton administration, Clarke (as counterterrorism coordinator) had been a de facto member of the NSC “principals” committee, but under Bush, counterterrorism was relegated to the lower-level “deputies” level. Partisan Bush supporters use this to argue that Clarke is simply a disgruntled former employee with a personal grudge against Bush, but Clarke was not himself demoted. He retained his title and his responsibilities, but Bush, despite repeated warnings from Clarke and from outgoing Clinton staffers, simply did not think that counterterrorism was as important as Clinton did. (VI, pp. 199-204)
Bush is quoted as saying that he was tired of “swatting at flies”. Besides the characteristic Bush Administration contempt for anything the Clinton Administration did, this statement probably indicates Bush’s (mistaken) belief that the problem of terrorism should be dealt with at the state level — there are a number of complaints in the report about the folly of wasting good three million dollar missiles on mud huts. But what Bush “really meant” isn’t too important, because before 9/11 he did nothing much about state-level terrorism either — deciding, for example, not to retaliate against the late-2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole. (VI, pp. 211-213; X, p. 335; VI, pp. 201-2)
And it also must be said that many of those who now criticize Clinton for not being aggressive enough against al-Qaeda are the same ones who made jokes about “wagging the dog” whenever Clinton did try to do anything, and who did their level best to cripple him during his term in office (in the process tying up 78 FBI agents who could have been out chasing terrorists.)
The report is also devastating for Bush on the Saddam-al Qaeda links. Clarke told Rice as early as September 18 that there was little evidence for links between Saddam and Osama, and Atta’s supposed trip to Prague is also debunked in the report. While the report does show that the Clinton administration had also suspected a Saddam-al Qaeda connection, and that there were indeed some feelers back and forth between al Qaeda and Saddam, these feelers came to nothing in the end and it has to be concluded that Saddam had nothing at all to do with the 9-11 attack. (X, p. 334; VII, pp. 228-9)
In the report Wolfowitz is seen as the strongest advocate by far of an attack on Iraq. There are four instances in which Bush is shown resisting the idea of attacking Iraq, but (in an account disputed by Bush) Clarke has also testified that as early as September 12 Bush asked him to explore possible Iraqi links to 9/11, and on September 17 Bush admittedly ordered that a contingency plan be drawn up for an Iraq attack. The strongest evidence that Bush decided to attack Iraq very early on, however, was his repeated statements that not only terrorists, but harborers would be attacked. While these statements obviously included the Afghans, they were not really necessary if only the Afghans were intended, since al Qaeda were located in Afghanistan and would have to be attacked there. I think that in speaking so often of the harborers, Bush was setting the stage for the attack on Iraq he had been planning all along. (X, pp 335-6; pp. 326, 330, 333)
Throughout the report I found myself wondering whether Bush’s loyal aides were coordinating their testimony in order to protect Bush (as well as themselves), and to me it seems possible that Wolfowitz has already been selected to be the fall guy if one is needed — though as far as I know, the official story is still that the Iraq War was an enormous success.
It’s not really surprising that the media are mostly ignoring this report, but it’s disappointing that the Democrats apparently aren’t capitalizing on it much either. From one point of view, the report doesn’t tell us much that we don’t know already, and from another point of view it leaves out a lot of important questions that deserve more attention, but there’s still a lot of now-incontestable ammunition for use against candidate Bush this fall. And as far as I know, this is still a free country where we elect our presidents.
(Three dropped sentences restored, 3:25 p.m. PDT).