by Alan W. Dowd
Vanity Fair’s Kurt Eichenwald used the opinion page of The New York Times to revive the left’s tired attack that the Bush administration failed to do enough to prevent 9/11. “Deafness before the Storm” is how the Times headlined Eichenwald’s pathetic piece, which re-accuses and re-indicts the Bush administration for “significantly more negligence than has been disclosed” with regard to intelligence briefings and activities in the months leading up to 9/11. Eichenwald’s piece (and companion book) does little to move the nation forward or enhance the historical record. Indeed, this sort of 20-20 hindsight critique is not a very productive exercise. But since Eichenwald started down this backwards path, let’s walk a little further. To borrow the Times’ imagery, if the Bush administration was “deaf before the storm,” the Clinton administration was blind, deaf and dumb as bin Laden launched his global guerilla war against the United States.
Eichenwald reports that “The direct warnings to Mr. Bush about the possibility of a Qaeda attack began in the spring of 2001.” Fair enough. The direct warnings to Mr. Clinton came in two forms: First, in February 1993, Ramzi Yousef tried to topple the World Trade Center with a bomb-laden truck. Yousef had worked closely with 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. In fact, the two lived together in the Philippines and hammered out a plan to attack airliners over the Pacific. The second direct warning during the Clinton administration came in 1996, when Osama bin Laden issued what can only be described as a declaration of war against America. He condemned the “occupation of the land of the two Holy Places” as the “latest and the greatest of…aggressions,” promised “to initiate a guerrilla warfare” against the United States and its allies, called on his followers to focus “on destroying, fighting and killing the enemy until, by the grace of Allah, it is completely defeated,” and vowed to carry his “jihad against the kuffar (those who refuse to submit to Allah) in every part of the world.”
So, since Eichenwald is keeping score, the Bush administration had seven months and 20 days to deal with bin Laden. The Clinton administration had seven years and 11 months.
In those seven-plus years, as the 9/11 Commission reported, U.S. intelligence assets had bin Laden in their sights on at least three occasions but were prevented from acting by higher-ups. In 1999, U.S. teams were actually ordered to hold their fire because administration officials worried that an Arab dignitary on a hunting trip in the vicinity of bin Laden might be harmed. According to 9/11 Commission staff, CIA officials still call this the “lost opportunity to kill bin Laden before 9/11.” Justifying the inaction, Mr. Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright explained to the 9/11 Commission that “to bomb at random or use military force would have made our lives more difficult inside the Islamic world.” Of course, the decision not to bomb made quite an impact inside our own world.
Referring to the failure to attack bin Laden at his hunting lodge, 9/11 Commissioner Bob Kerrey famously declared, “We had a round in our chamber and we didn’t use it.”
Of course, that sounds a lot like preemption—a dirty word nowadays. If preemption would have been appropriate to forestall bin Laden’s 9/11 massacres, why was it not appropriate to prevent Saddam Hussein from trying to top bin Laden somewhere down the road? (We’ll return to that in a moment.)
Eichenwald reports that “Operatives connected to bin Laden…expected the planned near-term attacks to have ‘dramatic consequences,’ including major casualties…Yet, the White House failed to take significant action.”
If the Bush White House failed to take any significant action that summer, what action did the Clinton White House take the previous summers, autumns, winters and springs? Very little, as it turns out.
After the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, which killed six Americans and injured 1,000, the Clinton White House responded with indictments.
In 1996, a truck bomb in Saudi Arabia claimed 19 U.S. airmen and injured 200. The Clinton White House responded with indictments.
In 1998, al Qaeda terrorists bombed a pair of American embassies in East Africa, murdering 224 civilians and injuring more than 5,000. The Clinton White House responded with an impotent volley of cruise missiles and an indictment.
Finally, in October 2000, al Qaeda used a rubber boat to blast a hole in the USS Cole, killing 17 sailors. The Clinton White House responded by sending FBI agents (not troops) to Yemen.
As former U.S. attorney Mary Jo White put it, “Criminal prosecutions are simply not a sufficient response to international terrorism.” In the words of Commissioner Kerrey, al Qaeda “knew—beginning in 1993, it seems to me—that there was going to be limited, if any, use of the military and that they were relatively free to do whatever they wanted.”
That didn’t change until, well, the Bush administration. In fact, 9/11 was the high-water mark for al Qaeda not because bin Laden was content with his handiwork, but because the U.S. finally dealt with al Qaeda as a military threat—not a law-enforcement matter.
Eichenwald asks, “Could the 9/11 attack have been stopped had the Bush team reacted with urgency to the warnings contained in all of those daily briefs?” Given the above litany, it seems fair to respond with a parallel question: Could the 9/11 attack have been stopped had the Clinton team killed bin Laden when they had him in their sights, or had the Clinton team traced Yousef’s links back to their source, or had the Clinton team waged a bona fide war on terror? Commissioner Kerrey seemed to think so. “Better to have tried and failed than to have not tried at all,” he huffed during the hearings.As for the Bush White House, one wonders how much it could have done before the attacks —hamstrung as it was by the deeply divisive 2000 election and by the complete lack of political support for military or intelligence operations. The 9/11 Commission made clear that intelligence and law enforcement agencies were stove-piping information, that agencies were not allowed to look for certain things or in certain places, that the federal government lacked many of the tools needed to connect the dots. We need not imagine the howls the left would have unleashed if Mr. Bush had taken precautionary steps in July or August of 2001, if he had ordered tightened security and additional screening at airports or mass-transit facilities, if he had sought to detain suspected terrorists, if he had tried to seek authority to wiretap bin Laden’s agents. We don’t need to imagine the reaction because the left attacked all of these policies after 9/11.
The left also attacked the doctrine of preemption, which Eichenwald’s critique of the Bush administration implicitly—and ironically—endorses.
It’s ironic because, by definition, preventing 9/11 would have required some sort of preemptive action. Yet Eichenwald criticizes “the neoconservative leaders who had recently assumed power at the Pentagon” for ignoring the al Qaeda threat and instead focusing on the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. The left’s revisionism notwithstanding, “the neoconservatives” were not the only ones concerned about Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
The Iraq Liberation Act of 1998—which passed the House with 360 yea votes and was signed by Mr. Clinton— earmarked $100 million for Iraqi opposition groups and declared that it would be “the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove from power the current Iraqi regime and promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime.” Moreover, it was Mr. Clinton who warned during his presidency, “If Saddam defies the world and we fail to respond, we will face a far greater threat in the future…Mark my words, he will develop weapons of mass destruction. He will deploy them, and he will use them.” And in the run-up to the Iraq War, when confronted by critics who argued that a war against Saddam Hussein and a war against bin Laden was an either-or proposition, it was Mr. Clinton who argued, “I think we can walk and chew gum at the same time. That is, I think we can turn up the heat on Iraq and retain our focus on terror.”
As to Eichenwald’s implication that the Bush administration devoted too much focus to Iraq after 9/11, he forgets that the attacks altered the very DNA of U.S. national-security policy. “Any administration in such a crisis,” as historian John Lewis Gaddis has written, “would have had to rethink what it thought it knew about security.” Was deterrence possible? Was containment viable? Was giving repeat offenders like Saddam Hussein the benefit of the doubt responsible? The Bush administration’s answer to each question was “no.” And Congress concurred. The Iraq War resolution passed the Senate 77-23 and the House 296-133. Saddam Hussein’s associations, behavior and record with weapons of mass destruction fueled a presumption of guilt that, when mixed with America’s profound sense of vulnerability after 9/11, created a deadly combination. This is perhaps the most fundamental way 9/11 is linked to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq: The latter did not perpetrate the former, but the former taught Washington a lesson about the danger of failing to confront threats before they are fully formed. In the same way, the appeasement of Hitler at once had nothing and yet everything to do with how America waged the Cold War against Stalin and his successors.
Of course, none of that matters to Eichenwald and the left. They have books to sell and history to rewrite.
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