Fighting stem cells, not terror cells

Weeks before 9/11, the president was "consumed" by a pressing policy matter -- but it wasn't al-Qaida.

Topics: Al-Qaida, Stem cells,

On the night of Aug. 9, 2001, speaking from his vacation ranch in Crawford, Texas, President Bush delivered his first prime-time address to the nation. It was just three days after he had read the startling President’s Daily Brief titled, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.,” which warned of airline hijackings planned by al-Qaida. It was one month after the administration’s counterterrorism chief, Richard Clarke, informed senior law enforcement officials he had gathered inside the White House’s Situation Room: “Something really spectacular is going to happen here, and it’s going to happen soon.” And it was three months after intelligence analysts had begun tracking unprecedented “chatter” about a possible terrorist attack.

So now, Bush looked into the camera and spoke solemnly: “Good evening. I appreciate you giving me a few minutes of your time tonight so I can discuss with you a complex and difficult issue, an issue that is one of the most profound of our time.”

That issue was stem cell research.

Two-and-a-half years later, as Bush’s national security advisor Condoleezza Rice appears before the 9/11 commission, she is being questioned about whether the White House could have acted on the terrorist threat more decisively. But perhaps the most intriguing and least discussed what-if is this: What if, during the first eight months of the Bush administration, the president had showered terrorism with as much personal time and attention as he did stem cell research?

“In hindsight knowing now what we should’ve known then, the importance of terrorism and national security certainly should have bypassed any huge focus on stem cell research,” says Monica Gabrielle, whose husband was killed in the World Trade Center attacks. “The contrast is astounding,” she says.

In the wake of 9/11 and the war in Iraq it’s hard to remember that the summer of 2001 for the White House was the summer of stem cell research. It was a time when this relatively obscure issue dear to the hearts of Bush’s Christian conservative political base rose to dominate the administration’s agenda and, according to his aides, certainly the president’s time and attention. In fact, aides went out of their way to portray the president as “obsessed” and “consumed” about the issue, soaking up any scrap of information he could. According to Bush’s own Aug. 9 address, he had consulted “scientists, scholars, bioethicists, religious leaders, doctors, researchers, members of Congress, my Cabinet, and my friends.”

That White House talking point was distributed everywhere. USA Today reported, “Bush agonized in public, surprised guests at social gatherings by soliciting their views, debated the issue with advisers, listened to passionate advocates on all sides, read everything that landed on his desk on the topic. And he prayed.” Bush’s senior political advisor, Karl Rove, told members of Congress that the president believed his stem cell research decision was “no less important than a decision to commit troops to war.”

During the summer of 2001 the press’s portrayal of Bush “agonizing” over the intricacies of scientific research served the White House’s purpose of establishing the new president as intellectually curious, thoughtful about policy and in control. In retrospect, the idyllic picture of a president “consumed” with stem cell research, of buttonholing all sorts of experts to draw out their opinions, while showing little or no curiosity about al-Qaida, is not a White House talking point.

“Is it too bold to suggest the Bush administration was distracted by domestic politics during the summer of 2001?” asks Matthew Nisbet, an assistant communications professor at Ohio State University who studies the stem cell debate. “What the Bush White House did was to take a minor issue, administratively, and make it into a major political one that captured a lot of time and attention during the summer of 2001. And it didn’t necessarily have to be that way. Nobody could have predicted that Bush’s first nationally televised address to the country would be about stem cell research.”

For months prior to 9/11, Bush’s counterterrorism chief could not get a meeting scheduled to brief the president about the mounting al-Qaida threat, despite the fact that, according to the one 9/11 commissioner who’s had full access to the library of 2001 intelligence briefings, the growing terrorism warnings “would set your hair on fire.” According to a 9/11 commission staff report, during those very same three months in 2001, the National Security Agency, which eavesdrops on communications around the world, reported 33 messages suggesting “a possibly imminent terrorist attack.”

Yet during the summer of 2001, Bush’s aides painted an image of an Oval Office bursting with outside experts queued up to discuss stem cells face-to-face with Bush in a process that seemed to stretch for weeks at a time.

“He, during the months of May, June and July, frequently asked people, even in the context of completely different meetings, about stem cell research and about their opinions,” Karen Hughes, Bush’s then-top communications aide, told the New York Times in an Aug. 11, 2001 article. Not even Hughes, who has just published a new book, “Ten Minutes from Normal,” and has been making the media rounds adamantly defending Bush’s handling of terrorism, has suggested that during the months of May, June, July and August 2001, Bush was distracted from his stem cell “obsession” by al-Qaida.

In the August 2001 Times article, Hughes read back her notes to Times reporters from one of three separate July 9 Oval Office meetings Bush had that day regarding stem cell research: “I must confess I am wrestling with a difficult decision,” Bush told an invited doctor. To date, neither Hughes nor anyone else in the White House has produced any notes from a 2001 meeting in which Bush expressed to outside experts how he was agonizing over terrorism threats.

Even Rice, Bush’s national security advisor, was drawn into the administration-wide debate over stem cells that summer. Scientists at Stanford University, where Rice once served as provost, contacted her and asked her to intervene on behalf of unrestricted scientific research. But she refused.

The issue surrounding embryo stem cell research came to the forefront because President Clinton permitted federally funded medical researchers to perform research using stem cells as long as they did not destroy the embryos themselves. Clinton argued the cell lines did not fall under a law passed by Congress prohibiting government funding of research that would harm or destroy embryos. The Department of Health and Human Services ruled that cells were not themselves embryos and therefore the National Institutes of Health could fund grants involving their use.

During the campaign, Bush said he would overturn Clinton’s decision, saying he opposed federal funding for research. In office just one week, after an early antiabortion initiative which included a ban on foreign aid to overseas family planning groups that used their own funds to support abortion, and his promise to review federal approval of the RU-486 abortion pill, Bush indicated he would not support any funding of research involving human embryos. Many observers thought the final decision would simply be handled through a statement from the Department of Health and Human Services. But when Bush’s own HHS secretary, Tommy Thompson, as well as prominent, conservative members of Congress came out in support of continuing the federally funded research, arguing it could hold key medical breakthroughs for juvenile diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, Bush’s decision became more politically difficult.

“The one thing we saw in Bush’s first months in office was he was consumed with the agenda of his base: tax cuts, missiles defense and critical social issues that energized the religious constituencies,” says Thomas Mann, political analyst at the Brookings Institution.

After months of deliberation, Bush decided that he would not permit federal money to be used for research on new lines of stem cells, but would allow it for existing lines. He insisted 60 such existing lines were available to researchers.

The final decision, spun as a compromise, upset some stalwart antiabortion activists. But for the most part Bush’s move pleased his political base. Focus on the Family president Dr. James Dobson praised the president, insisting he had “courageously upheld his promise to protect unborn children.” The Revs. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson also heaped praise on Bush.

Over time, Bush’s assertion regarding the 60 stem cell lines has proven to be untrue. The Council on Bioethics, created by Bush himself, reported that by September of 2003, just 12 eligible stem lines — not 60 — were available to federally funded researchers.

“They were trying hard to thread a very small needle and they did it the way they often do such things,” says David Seldin, communications director for National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. “They made something up.”

With his first televised speech to the nation on an urgent issue, Bush successfully established an image, constructed by the White House and broadcast by the media, of a president who had thought long and hard about a significant matter, been deeply involved in the making of policy, consulted far and wide, and achieved a savvy political position that was popular with public opinion. After his Aug. 9 speech, Bush spent the rest of the month at his Crawford ranch, not returning to the White House until Aug. 31.

No one, except for the president and his national security team, knew of the al-Qaida threat warnings they were receiving.

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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