There is a certain irony in the Bush administration’s decision
to use the tragedy of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in advertisements
to kick off the election race. In the first place, the ethics of
using such a great loss and tragedy as an opportunity to boast
about the president’s (supposed) leadership is questionable. Some
relatives of the attacks’ deceased victims have openly criticized
this move by the administration, as have (predictably) John Kerry
and other Democratic opponents.
But another question to be asked about the ads is simply whether
it is true that Bush dealt with the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy in a
responsible and intelligent way, as he claims; it is this question,
and not 30-second television ads, that will likely make the
difference for Bush in November.
And as the last few weeks in Washington have indicated, Bush and
his subordinates have a lot of questions to answer about the days
leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks before they can start using
their actions in the aftermath to political advantage.
Questions about intelligence failures regarding al Qaeda and
terrorist threats in general have been asked since the minute the
attacks were carried out. The creation of an official committee to
investigate these questions and determine responsibility (if there
is any) for not addressing terrorism before the attacks was
suggested by some but initially opposed by the administration.
Eventually, capitulating to pressure from both sides of the
political spectrum, the Bush adminisration agreed to the creation
of this committee and to assist the members in their
investigations. The committee is made up of five Democrats and five
Republicans, appointed by their respective parties. It has and will
continue to interview members of both the Bush and Clinton
administrations, and it will issue a report of its conclusions in
the summer, only months before the election.
The main theme of the committee’s interviews thus far is that
both administrations, in the months and years before the Sept. 11
attacks, had information on al Qaeda that was largely ignored and
opportunities to act on terrorist threats that were not taken.
This is what we have learned from the committee so far: In 1996,
the CIA created a small “issue station” devoted exclusively to the
activities of one Osama bin Laden, who was known to be a financier
and organizer of terrorist activity. Plans to capture or kill bin
Laden were offered and rejected; there were at least six such plans
before the terrorist attacks that were thought to have a reasonable
chance for success.
In 1998, bin Laden was linked to the bombings of American
embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, but Clinton’s response –
destroying a supposed chemical weapons plant in Sudan that turned
out to be a pharmaceutical factory – failed to hinder bin Laden. By
the time Clinton left office, bin Laden had been linked in another
attack on a U.S. warship and had not been significantly affected by
any U.S. action.
The actions of the Bush administration, in office for nine
months before the World Trade Center attacks, were as effective as
those of the Clinton administration; in other words, nothing was
done. This was despite the fact that all through 2001, CIA
officials and presidential advisers issued repeated warnings and
reports on terrorist threats and activity. James L. Pavitt, a
senior CIA official, warned that al Qaeda was “one of the greatest
threats to the country.” Two counter-terrorism officials told the
Sept. 11, 2001, commission that they were so worried about the
danger of a major terrorist attack that they considered resigning
The Bush administration finally authorized a plan to disrupt bin
Laden’s influence in al Qaeda the day before the attacks; the plan
was to take three years.
Some of the most stunning revelations have come from Bush’s
former counter-terrorism chief, Richard A. Clarke. Last week,
Clarke disclosed to the commission a telling letter he wrote to
National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice days before the attacks.
In the letter, he had expressed his frustration at the
administration’s lack of action and asked her to tell policy makers
to “imagine a day after a terrorist attack, with hundreds of
Americans dead at home or abroad, and ask themselves what they
could have done.”
Perhaps a more striking revelation was what Bush told Clarke the
day after the attacks. On Sept. 12, 2001, Bush pulled Clarke aside
and told him to look for a link between the attacks and Saddam
Hussein; although Clarke saw no connection, the Bush administration
would have used this supposed link as a justification for the
invasion of Iraq (the connection was never substantiated).
Bush has responded to these various criticisms by stating that
neither he nor anyone under his authority knew of the attacks
before they happened, and if he had, they would have been
prevented. This is almost certainly true, but it doesn’t
The point is that we have a president who plans to run for
reelection as the “tough on terrorism” candidate, who boasts about
his handling of national security matters, and yet who did nothing
about terrorist threats – even after several smaller attacks and
grave warnings from intelligence officers – until it was too late
to prevent the greatest terrorist attack in history.
So when you go to the polls in November, remember to look beyond
the ad campaigns and rhetoric to the actual history and actions of
the candidates; in the case of Bush, where you might have expected
to find leadership, you may only find opportunism.
Brent is a freshman studying philosophy at CSU. His column
appears every Tuesday.