Newly Declassified Documents

06.20.12

How 9-11 Happened, or, We Must Never Forget the Bush Team's Incompetence

A nice trove of documents was declassified and made public yesterday by the invaluable National Security Archive of George Washington University. Salon's Jordan Michael Smith has a thorough write-up, in which we are reminded again of the Bush team's ignorant attitude toward the man then known as Usama bin Ladin.

The documents show that drone strikes trying to take out UBL started under the Clinton administration. The Clinton team had, some of you will recall, stopped a terrorist attack aimed at the Los Angeles airport. So the Clinton people took UBL seriously, but these documents suggest, Smith writes, that the CIA felt that its counter-terrorism program wasn't fully funded. The agency submitted a request to National Security Council staff for more funding, but it didn't present the request until December 2000, at which point it was clearly too late for the Clinton administration to act on it.

So the request sat waiting for the incoming administration, and guess what? Smith:

It wasn’t too late for the Bush administration [to approve the request], though. It just never did.

Former National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice has taken credit for the drone program that the Bush administration ignored. “Things like working to get an armed Predator that actually turned out to be extraordinarily important, working to get a strategy that would allow us to get better cooperation from Pakistan and from the Central Asians,” she said in 2006. “We were not left a comprehensive strategy to fight al-Qaida.” Rice claimed that the Bush administration continued the Clinton administration’s counterterrorism policies, a claim the documents disprove. “If the administration wanted to get it done, I’m sure they could have gotten it done,” says Elias-Sanborn.

That is Barbara Elias-Sanborn, the NSA official who edited the documents. The saga continues into 2001, when the Bush administration received multiple warnings about an imminent strike. Read this one, for example (it's very short). "Bin Ladin Attacks May Be Imminent." Can't get much clearer than that.

And yet, the Bush posture? Back to Smith:

During the entire month of August, President Bush was on vacation at his ranch in Texas — which tied with one of Richard Nixon’s as the longest vacation ever taken by a president. CIA Director George Tenet has said he didn’t speak to Bush once that month, describing the president as being “on leave.” Bush did not hold a Principals’ meeting on terrorism until September 4, 2001, having downgraded the meetings to a deputies’ meeting, which then-counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke has repeatedly said slowed down anti-Bin Laden efforts “enormously, by months.”

I've long believed this is one of the great undiscovered scandals of our time--how 9-11 really and truly could have been prevented. I remember that Newsweek (old ownership) had a terrific issue on all this back in 2003 or so--Rummy was fixated on missile defense, the hard-shell neocons on Iraq, John Ashcroft on waging war on internet porn, all of them ignoring quickly amassing evidence. In transfer-of-power debreifings, the magazine reported, Clinton aides kept mentioning this "bin Ladin" fellow and warning the Bushies that terrorism was going to take up much of their time, and the Bushies said "yeah, sure." But no one wanted to listen then. Bush had to be converted into Churchill for the sake of the national psyche, or newsstand sales, or something or other.

Obviously, the story here is not that Bush and his people didn't care whether the United States became the victim of a terrorist attack. But they did not take it all as seriously as they should have, and although this can never be proven, I'd bet the real and essential reason is that deep in the Bush peoples' minds, the syllogism went something like this: A, these Clinton people are Democrats, and thus don't really understand national security the way we do; B, they keep yelping about terrorism; C, ergo, terrorism is not real and is for sissies.

Then they were wrong. Oops.

Then they took us into two wars we're still fighting--and future generations will still be paying for. Then they okayed torture. Then they accused people who disagreed with them of lack of patriotism. Other than that, great work team!