Missed opportunity

Mar 292004
Authors: Brent Ables

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

in protest.

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.

 Posted by at 6:00 pm

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.