Incompetence, not Ideology

The Bush White House and 9-11

Sure Bush probably dropped the ball on 9-11. He dropped it on everything else!

I don't know exactly what to make of Kurt Eichenwald's instantly controversial op-ed in today's Times, in which he states that he has seen a raft of pre-9-11 documents that collectively made the attacks sound even more immiment than we know and that therefor render the Bush administration more culpable.

I would say that it all makes sense to me, but I understand that given my views and prejudices, it would make sense to me. The basic idea is that the administration received repeated warnings throughout the spring and summer, not just in the famous Aug. 6 PDB. Intel professionals kept saying, this is real. White House neocons kept countering, this is bluster. Eichenwald:

In response, the C.I.A. prepared an analysis that all but pleaded with the White House to accept that the danger from Bin Laden was real.

“The U.S. is not the target of a disinformation campaign by Usama Bin Laden,” the daily brief of June 29 read, using the government’s transliteration of Bin Laden’s first name. Going on for more than a page, the document recited much of the evidence, including an interview that month with a Middle Eastern journalist in which Bin Laden aides warned of a coming attack, as well as competitive pressures that the terrorist leader was feeling, given the number of Islamists being recruited for the separatist Russian region of Chechnya.

And the C.I.A. repeated the warnings in the briefs that followed. Operatives connected to Bin Laden, one reported on June 29, expected the planned near-term attacks to have “dramatic consequences,” including major casualties. On July 1, the brief stated that the operation had been delayed, but “will occur soon.” Some of the briefs again reminded Mr. Bush that the attack timing was flexible, and that, despite any perceived delay, the planned assault was on track.

Yet, the White House failed to take significant action. Officials at the Counterterrorism Center of the C.I.A. grew apoplectic. On July 9, at a meeting of the counterterrorism group, one official suggested that the staff put in for a transfer so that somebody else would be responsible when the attack took place, two people who were there told me in interviews. The suggestion was batted down, they said, because there would be no time to train anyone else.

I have to say it makes sense to me, and I will hasten to add that it makes sense more on incompetence grounds than ideological grounds. We're talking about an administration that basically did not do one thing right in eight years. It didn't do Afghanistan right, Iraq right, New Orleans right, tax policy right, Social Security right, Medicare right (a generous impulse, but irresponsibly unfunded), education policy right, science policy right...literally not one thing that I can think of. So I see little reason to think they got terrorism right. Why would that anomaly exist? It makes no sense.

You have to go back and remember how little Bush understood about the world at that point. Recall Kanan Makiya's testimony that Bush still wasn't keeping Sunni and Shia straight even as he was launching the Iraq war (see bottom of page 8 of link). A man who'd been president for just eight months--and who, remember, thought at the time that foreign policy meant Mexico, because he could speak some Spanish and Vicente Fox was conservative--simply hadn't internalized what a threat Al Qaeda was. If there'd been a Cole-style attack, or an embassy attack or something during his first few months, maybe he'd have taken it all more seriously.

Oh, I could go on and on about this. Maybe I will in later posts. But I'll end here on the nonsensical note that Bush "kept us safe." First of all, the worst attack ever on American soil happened on his watch. And second of all, I have a very different answer than most people do to the question "Why weren't we struck again?"

I think there are two answers. First: Al Qaeda may be a bunch of extremists, but they're very strategic. They had certain geopolitical goals--make the US look weak, increase their recruiting base, advance fundamentalism in their part of the world. For a number of years, the first attack accomplished them. No need for an encore.

Second: In more recent years, we have really kicked the shit out of them. This started in the later Bush years but has been especially true since Obama became the president and we've taken out lots of high-profile leaders. So we've probably incapacitated them to a considerable extent.