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Tuesday, 31 October 2006 07:36

Burt Hall: Republicans Are Endangering Our National Security -- A BuzzFlash Guest Contribution

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by Burt Hall

It is time to put aside all the campaign rhetoric on which political party will keep Americans secure and review the facts.

The Republican image of strength on national security is actually an illusion based on tough talk, cover-up of serious mistakes, and wizardry used by campaign strategists. Republicans allege that keeping our country safe is their greatest strength -- actually, it is their greatest weakness. As a result, our nation's security is more vulnerable now than ever before. This will be illustrated as we review performance of the current Administration.

Democrats have a long-term record of keeping America secure. Their proven record far exceeds anything the Republicans have ever done. On terrorism, comparison of the two political parties is even more striking. The Clinton White House gave terrorism top priority; the Bush White House did not. For months the CIA Director and our allies around the world predicted suicide aircraft attacks. The Bush White House did nothing to stop them.

The politically-divided 9/11 Commission did not confront presidential responsibility for the disaster. It decided not to influence the approaching presidential campaign. This article will set the record straight.

Our last two presidents, Clinton and Bush, have taken dramatically different approaches to fighting international terrorism. Literally hundreds of sources can document that fact, but some key ones include:

  • A joint Senate/House inquiry into 9/11.
  • The 9/11 Commission Report.
  • Six books: The Terror Timeline, Against All Enemies, Misuse of Power, Looming Tower -- Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, State of Denial, and Without Precedent -- The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission.
  • Time Magazine's disclosure of the secret history behind 9/11.
  • Two films: The ABC docudrama, "Path to 9/11" and "9/11: Press for Truth."

Clinton elevates terrorism to national priority

Clinton was the first president to coordinate counter-terrorism directly from the White House and the first president to have the chief coordinator report directly to him. The al-Qaeda threat escalated when, in 1998, Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States and bombed two U.S. embassies. In response, President Clinton increased anti-terrorism budgets, launched cruise missiles at al-Qaeda training camps and tried to capture or kill bin Laden and his lieutenants. He also took the rare step of authorizing the CIA to assassinate bin Laden.

Several additional efforts to take out bin Laden were aborted. The CIA Director either pulled the plug, or Clinton's national security team rejected the plans on the grounds they were unworkable or based on dubious intelligence. In one case, bin Laden had already left the scene. Clinton insisted that he personally receive a pipeline of daily reports on al-Qaeda activities. His staff considered him obsessive on the subject.

During 1999, Clinton exercised widespread precautions to prevent terrorist attacks at the turn of the century and made the public fully aware of that danger. The CIA and FBI worked frantically to uncover millennium plots. Several were disrupted, no attacks occurred and one in progress (at Los Angeles airport) was prevented.

Just before the 2000 presidential election, terrorists struck again -- this time the target was the USS Cole. The strike prompted the Clinton administration to prepare a bold plan of attack against al-Qaeda. But, action was deferred because the attack was still under FBI investigation and responsibility had not yet been determined.

During transition, Clinton personally warned the incoming President Bush that bin Laden and al-Qaeda would be his gravest and greatest threat. Clinton's bold plan of attack was passed on to the new administration in special briefings to Vice-President Cheney and National Security Advisor Rice. According to an unnamed senior Bush official, this plan contained all the steps taken in Afghanistan after 9/11.

The ABC right-wing docudrama, "Path to 9/11," rewrote and falsified facts leading up to the disaster. Clinton and others in his administration publicly challenged the docudrama in advance of public screening. The White House chief of counter-terrorism for both Clinton and Bush released a statement to the press saying:

There is throughout the screenplay a consistent bias and distortion seeking to portray senior Clinton officials as holding back the hard charging CIA, FBI and military officers who would otherwise have prevented 9/11. The exact opposite is true. From the President, to all of his White House team ... there was a common fixation with terrorism, al-Qaeda, and bin Laden. The President approved every counter-terrorism operation presented to him ... increased counter-terrorism spending by 400% ... repeatedly authorized the use of lethal force against bin Laden and his deputies and personally requested the U.S. military to develop plans for ‘Commando operations' against them.

Commissioner Bob Kerrey expressed disappointment that his Chairman, Tom Kean, had associated the Commission with the ABC film. Some of the more blatant errors spotted during advance screenings were partially corrected. These errors, while serious, were not the major problem. What made the film unacceptable were the omissions below.

Bush Downgrades Terrorism

When the Bush administration first took office, al Qaeda was already a major threat to our nation. One of their first actions was to downgrade the chief of counter-terrorism -- he no longer reported to the President. The bold plan passed on by the Clinton administration to attack al-Qaeda became the victim (until September) of "not invented here" and time spent on pet policies of top Bush officials (such as missile defense -- see p.14). When Congress tried to shift $600 million from this missile program to counter-terrorism, the administration threatened a presidential veto.

Reinforcing Clinton's earlier warnings to President Bush were two top level bipartisan commissions, one on terrorism and the other on national security. The two commissions reported that a major terrorist attack was inevitable and urged our defense be bolstered.

One of the commissions called for a new Department of Homeland Security, an idea which Bush rejected. Congress showed interest in the panel's recommendations, but the White House discouraged action, saying the matter would be turned over to the Vice President. The Vice President created a project to look at state-sponsored terrorism; however, al-Qaeda is a network, not state-sponsored. By 9/11, the project had gotten nowhere. Paul Bremer, in a speech in February 2001, concluded that the Bush Administration was "Paying no attention to the problem of terrorism. ... what they will do is stagger along until there's a major incident and then suddenly say, ‘Oh my God, shouldn't we be organized to deal with this?' ... They've been given a window of opportunity ... and they're not taking advantage of it."

Meanwhile, President Bush did not respond to the USS Cole attack, although he had campaigned that he would.

During the spring and summer 2001, a steady drumbeat of frantic warnings of an impending al-Qaeda attack surfaced from many different sources from around the world. The CIA Director repeatedly warned the White House and said, "Most of the al-Qaeda network is anticipating an attack." Some of these warnings actually specified the exact means of attack.

In June and again in July the CIA Director told the White House to expect a major attack that "will be spectacular and designed to inflict mass casualties ... attack preparations have been made, will occur with little or no warning ... this is going to be a big one." The CIA Director said the "warnings could not get any worse." On June 30 he sent to the White House a top secret intelligence brief, headlined, "Bin Laden Threats Are Real."

By July 10, the CIA Director and his counter-terrorism chief had developed a compelling case that al-Qaeda would soon attack the United States. They took the unusual step of entering the White House without an appointment in order to brief National Security Advisor Rice. They believed that the time to act was now - covert or military - to thwart bin Laden. No immediate action meant great risk. The CIA Director told Bob Woodard that "he had sounded the loudest warning he could. But, it hadn't been heeded."

During the pre-9/11 time period the President received 40 separate CIA briefings commenting on the al-Qaeda threat. One of the last ones took place in August 2001 at Crawford, Texas with a headline "Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S." The briefing referred to al-Qaeda preparations for aircraft hijackings. Afterwards, the President dismissed the briefer and reportedly went fishing. Bin Laden had already declared war on the United States and demonstrated his intentions with previous attacks. There was no reason not to take him seriously.

In frustration over inaction, two senior government officials seriously considered resigning in order to go public. The FBI head of New York City's national security did resign and took the job of security chief at the World Trade Center. He did not survive the attack.

At no time during this period did the President take control, call agency heads together, go into crisis mode or warn the public. He did not do the obvious thing -- call a cabinet meeting to hunt down terrorist cells, fix airline vulnerabilities and prepare for suicide hijackings. Time Magazine concluded that "2001 saw a systematic collapse in the ability of Washington's national security apparatus to handle the terrorist threat."

The attitudes and priorities of key people reporting to the President support Time Magazine's conclusion. By 9/11, Rumsfeld still had not filled his key position on counter-terrorism, did not have a mission to counter al-Qaeda and acknowledged to the 9/11 Commission that he was focused on other issues. In a meeting with other agencies his Deputy said: "I just don't understand why we are beginning by talking about this one man, bin Laden" -- "who cares about a little terrorist in Afghanistan"? The Joint Chiefs informed the 9/11 Commission that the Administration "did not show much interest in military options."

The attitudes and priorities of Bush's chief advisors can only reflect those of the President himself. As demonstrated at the turn of the century, presidential leadership stimulated public interest as well as a new level of energy, creativity and cooperation among federal agencies to head off an attack. Alerting the nation to the likelihood of a terror attack would have surfaced information in the bowels of operating agencies and permitted the public to assist in averting or disrupting the attack.

Normally, any Commander-in-Chief, with America's security as his top priority, would have worked closely with the 9/11 Commission to prevent similar attacks in the future. Bush did not. After 9/11, he evaded all responsibility and, for a year, strongly opposed an investigative commission. The 9/11 families and members of Congress persisted until the Commission finally came to pass. Afterwards, the White House stonewalled the Commission for another year. As the Commissioners themselves have acknowledged, they suffered from lengthy delays, maddening restrictions and disputes over access to sensitive documents and witnesses.

Why Didn't the 9/11 Commission Hold Bush to Account?

In October 2006, a CBS/New York Times survey found that more than half of the respondents think the Bush administration is hiding something and almost one-third believe it is lying. Remarkably, much (but not all) of the information needed to document this can be found in the Commission report.

It is contained in three sections: "The New Administration's Approach" (p. 203), "The System Was Blinking Red" (p. 254) and in separate parts on the administration's policy and management (pp. 348, 353). However, these sections are separated by many pages of voluminous detail, which divert the reader's attention. To begin to connect the dots, a reader must focus on these three sections sequentially.

The Commission did point out that federal agencies never mobilized a response, got direction or had a plan, and the public was not warned.

The Commission just didn't explain why.

The Commission searched for ways that 9/11 could have been prevented by dwelling on individual failures in the bureaucracy, but reached no finite conclusions. It omitted the many dire warnings from foreign countries about aircraft suicide missions. The Commission report also omitted a crucial July 10 meeting between the CIA and National Security Advisor Rice requesting the White House to take immediate action to thwart bin Laden.

The presidential election was fast approaching and Commission members were evenly split, half Republicans and half Democrats, with a Republican chairman. They all knew, of course, that any assessment of White House responsibility would affect a close election. Some Commissioners did explore White House neglect in public hearings, but Republican members immediately rushed to the President's defense - aided by the White House. As the presidential election drew closer, emotions ran high among Republican leaders in government. Some, like Tom DeLay, began to criticize the Commission.

To succeed, the Commission felt they had to have: (1) a cooperative White House that would permit access to highly sensitive information, (2) a good working relationship among their own members and (3) a consensus on the report across party lines. The Commission knew that a divided report would gather dust and cost them their recommendations for a more secure America. They elected to report no conclusions on presidential responsibility and issue a unified report that would gain acceptance.

More than one analyst has questioned omission of a White House role in the catastrophe. On September 25, 2006, Commissioner Ben-Veniste acknowledged on CNN that, in order to reach agreement on the report, they had to limit their reporting to the facts and leave conclusions to the reader. Bob Kerrey also acknowledged limitations on the Commission's work and went much further:

Now it's beyond the (presidential) campaign, so the promise I had to keep this out of the campaign is over. Mr. President, you knew they were in the United States. You were warned by the CIA. You knew in July they were inside the United States. You were told again by briefing officers in August that it was a dire threat. Didn't do anything to harden our border security. Didn't do anything to harden airport security. Didn't do anything to engage local law enforcement. Didn't do anything to round up INS and the consular office, and say we have to shut this down, and didn't warn the American people. What did you do? Nothing so far as we can see.

"9/11: Press for Truth"

The fundamental problem with the Commission report is the omission of any comparison of President Bush's response with what any reasonable and prudent president would do under similar circumstances. The Commission did not define the measures that would depict a government in action, anxious to protect its people and determined to make it difficult for the terrorist attacks to succeed.

The Commission had a sworn duty under its charter to disclose the underlying causes of our nation's vulnerability. A principle cause was neglect at the presidential level. By not trying to stop the attacks, the President failed in his duty as Commander-in-Chief. ("Misuse of Power," pp. 78-86.) The Commission's Chair and Vice-Chair received copies of this article and declined to comment.

Ironically, the President's neglect helped to create a national crisis which, in the aftermath, he has exploited politically to get a second term, to gain unchecked executive power, to take control of Congress and to sell a war in Iraq.

According to Thomas Ricks, the Washington Post's Pentagon expert and author of Fiasco, President Bush was anxious to go to war in Iraq because he had been "caught with his pants down on 9/11." Ricks went on to tell NBC's Tim Russert that, although the CIA was blamed for 9/11, the White House had been warned numerous times and simply didn't respond.

No Real Policy To Deter and Win the War on Terrorism

The President has no comprehensive policy to curb global terrorism and eradicate its root causes. His policies have instead helped bin Laden and others recruit terrorists all over the world. After stalling for several months, the administration finally released a report showing a massive increase in world-wide terrorism for 2004 -- it had tripled over the previous year. Even greater increases were reported for 2005. According to 100 leading American foreign policy analysts, we are failing to make progress in the global war on terror and the world has grown more, not less dangerous (Foreign Affairs, 2006).

The President's idea that the U.S. can deal with each and every country that supports or harbors terrorism is just tough talk and impossible to achieve. Deterring terrorism is a shared responsibility that requires leadership and cooperation from all heads of state. All nations must remove terrorist activities from their country and help others do the same. Any nation failing to cooperate should be subject to tough sanctions and military action. It's time to get serious. (Misuse of Power, pp.123-26.)

Concluding Remarks

As the book, The Terror Timeline, points out, "The public record reflects that the extreme focus on terrorism in place at the end of the Clinton administration dropped dramatically under the Bush administration. With few exceptions, little attention was paid to terrorism, even as the number of warnings reached unprecedented levels." The 9/11 tragedy might have been averted if the President had maintained the priority of the previous administration, retaliated against the U.S.S. Cole attack, and responded seriously to the many extraordinary warnings.

President Bush has not followed the practice of building on the work of prior administrations and taking responsibility for his own actions. Instead, he has allowed the brunt of 9/11 responsibility to fall on operating agencies, the CIA and the previous administration. Unless the official record is corrected, we will lose an important lesson in national leadership. Had the 9/11 Commission held Bush and his national security team to account, we would have a different president in office today, a different course in Iraq and a different Katrina response.

The current Republican administration has given new life to terrorism, adopted a failing strategy to combat it, caused an unprecedented decline in America's position in the world, weakened our military posture, and put our future security at risk. All military services now face readiness problems and shortages of elite special operations forces necessary to fight terrorism. The administration continues to give a mistaken war priority over defending Americans against terrorism.

* * *

Burt Hall previously was Group Director Analyst on matters of national security with the U.S. Government Accountability Office. He is a Harvard University graduate in Advanced Management Program and a WW II vet. He is currently author of several articles and co-author with Ed Asner of the book, Misuse of Power.

See also, Burt Hall's more detailed BuzzFlash Guest Contribution, A Matter of Security