Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Total Failure, Total Disgrace

Maybe we have been a little too harsh on former President George W. Bush.    Perhaps it wasn't only Mr. Bush who was grossly ineffective in his/her job prior to the Obama Administration, and played a key role in the greatest foreign policy blunder in American history.

Today, not coincidentally on September 11, a commentary appears in The New York Times by Kurt Eichenwald, a Vanity Fair editor and former reporter for The NYT.    Eichenwald says he read excerpts from the (not released) presidential daily briefs preceding the famous one of 8/6/11, as well as other recently declassified reports, and found

The direct warnings to Mr. Bush about the possibility of a Qaeda attack began in the spring of 2001. By May 1, the Central Intelligence Agency told the White House of a report that “a group presently in the United States” was planning a terrorist operation. Weeks later, on June 22, the daily brief reported that Qaeda strikes could be “imminent,” although intelligence suggested the time frame was flexible.

But some in the administration considered the warning to be just bluster. An intelligence official and a member of the Bush administration both told me in interviews that the neoconservative leaders who had recently assumed power at the Pentagon were warning the White House that the C.I.A. had been fooled; according to this theory, Bin Laden was merely pretending to be planning an attack to distract the administration from Saddam Hussein, whom the neoconservatives saw as a greater threat. Intelligence officials, these sources said, protested that the idea of Bin Laden, an Islamic fundamentalist, conspiring with Mr. Hussein, an Iraqi secularist, was ridiculous, but the neoconservatives’ suspicions were nevertheless carrying the day.

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.

That same day in Chechnya, according to intelligence I reviewed, Ibn Al-Khattab, an extremist who was known for his brutality and his links to Al Qaeda, told his followers that there would soon be very big news. Within 48 hours, an intelligence official told me, that information was conveyed to the White House, providing more data supporting the C.I.A.’s warnings. Still, the alarm bells didn’t sound.

On July 24, Mr. Bush was notified that the attack was still being readied, but that it had been postponed, perhaps by a few months. But the president did not feel the briefings on potential attacks were sufficient, one intelligence official told me, and instead asked for a broader analysis on Al Qaeda, its aspirations and its history. In response, the C.I.A. set to work on the Aug. 6 brief.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Bush officials attempted to deflect criticism that they had ignored C.I.A. warnings by saying they had not been told when and where the attack would occur. That is true, as far as it goes, but it misses the point. Throughout that summer, there were events that might have exposed the plans, had the government been on high alert. Indeed, even as the Aug. 6 brief was being prepared, Mohamed al-Kahtani, a Saudi believed to have been assigned a role in the 9/11 attacks, was stopped at an airport in Orlando, Fla., by a suspicious customs agent and sent back overseas on Aug. 4. Two weeks later, another co-conspirator, Zacarias Moussaoui, was arrested on immigration charges in Minnesota after arousing suspicions at a flight school. But the dots were not connected, and Washington did not react.

Neoconservatives believed Saddam Hussein was more dangerous than Bin Laden, whom they argued merely was pretending to be planning an attack to distract the administration. On September 8, 2002- a year after the terrorist strike and prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq- CNN's Wolf Blitzer interviewed National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who maintained

We know that he has the infrastructure, nuclear scientists to make a nuclear weapon.  And we know that when the inspectors assessed this after the Gulf War, he was far, far closer to a crude nuclear device than anybody thought -- maybe six months from a crude nuclear device.The problem here is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.

To be fair to Rice, it was neoconservatives at the Defense Department who downplayed the threat of  bin Laden and played up the that from Saddam Hussen.   However, even after the terrorists struck on 9/11/01, the National Security Adviser, who had been lauded as the individual who taught Bush everything he knew about foreign policy, radically exaggerated the threat presented by the Iraqi dictator.   And it was partly on that premise that the Bush Administration began Gulf War II and minimized the menace posed by the leader of Al Qaeda- after largely ignoring those presidential daily briefs which warned of a possible attack by the evil Saudi national.

At the first GOP convention following his departure from office, George W. Bush is ignored at the party's national convention by all but his brother, who lamely protests "My brother, well, I love my brother" and claims- more bizarrely than ostentatiously- "during incredibly challenging times, he kept us safe."

Condoleezza Rice, however, was honored by being given a time-prime speaking slot during which she rhetorically asks "where does America stand?’ ... Indeed that is the question of the hour."   She answers "You see when the friends or foes alike don't know the answer to that question, unambiguously and clearly, the world is likely to be a more dangerous and chaotic place.

Noting that allies and enemies both have more respect for the U.S.A. under the current President than the one who was si disastrously served by Rice, Slate's Fred Kaplan responds "a top adviser in the most disastrous, reputation-crippling foreign-policy administration in decades—has no business lecturing anybody on this score."

Obviously, George W. Bush was a dreadful president in more ways, especially in the economic sphere, than in turning a figurative blind eye to Osama bin Laden.  But he has been, justifiably, pilloried; the individual who advised him first as a Director of the National Security Council and then as Secretary of State has been given a pass by her party, Augusta National Golf Club, and in the media reports following her speech at the Republican National Convention.   It is more than "chutzpah,"a term ably applied to Rice by Kaplan; it is virtual collective amnesia.

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