See no evil

The revelation that the White House was warned in August about a bin Laden hijacking plot -- and that Bush failed to disclose the warning -- shows an administration both incompetent and dishonest.

By David Talbot
May 17, 2002 12:01AM (UTC)
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Well, there goes Karl Rove's strategy of using 9/11 to sell the Republicans as the party of national vigilance in the midterm elections.

Just one day after the GOP tried to shake the money tree with a photo of President Bush evincing "gritty determination" as he was shuttled around the country on Air Force One after the terror attacks, the administration was forced to admit that while Bush was relaxing at his Crawford ranch in early August, he was briefed about a potential Osama bin Laden hijacking plot. And yet the Bush team, which believed that President Clinton had fruitlessly overpersonalized the struggle with bin Laden, did not go into high alert.


There are many vexing questions about this stunning news, but one of the biggest is why it took eight months for the White House to admit it had received early warnings about the day of infamy. Immediately after 9/11, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told the press that Bush officials had "no warnings" of the al-Qaida offensive. Now it turns out they were awash in clues, from the CIA briefing given to Bush, to the flare sent up by an FBI agent in Phoenix about the suspicious number of Middle Eastern men in flight training schools, to the silent scream from a Minneapolis FBI agent, who flat-out warned that suspected terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui was the type who "could fly something into the World Trade Center." With Moussaoui now facing trial as the so-called 20th hijacker, it's clear the Minneapolis agent pretty much nailed the plot on the head. And yet no one "connected the dots," in the words of Sen. Bob Graham, the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman.

Graham is not the only one on Capitol Hill today wondering why "lights, firecrackers, rockets" did not "go off in their head that this is something that is really important." The shock and anger over the news that "Bush Knew!" -- in the New York Post's blaring words -- is crossing party lines, as is the demand for aggressive investigations. For months, the Bush administration has resisted calls for a congressional probe of 9/11 security failures. Now we know why.

The Bush administration has been adept at spinning itself out of trouble in the past. Enron? That's not a political scandal, it's a business story -- and in any case, didn't Kenny Boy give some Democrats money too? Those secret meetings with energy moguls -- it's essential that they stay private if the vice president is ever to get "unvarnished" opinions from his corporate friends. California electricity price-gouging -- we knew nothing, nothing. Osama bin Laden -- yes, he got away but he's no longer Fugitive No. 1, our anti-terror war is much broader than any one villain. Whenever faced with bubbling political problems, the Bush strategy has been to tough and bluff it out -- which has worked well in the face of a supine opposition party, a compliant press and poll numbers borne aloft by patriotic fervor. But that was yesterday. Today talk radio is crackling with the angry voices of 9/11 victims' families. This time, not even blaming it all on Clinton is going to work for them.


It's true that the Bush administration did take some security steps before 9/11. For instance, as CBS News first reported in July, Attorney General John Ashcroft was suddenly advised to fly exclusively on private jets instead of commercial airliners, after receiving a "threat assessment" from his FBI security detail. (Today the attorney general's office, in full spin mode, insisted Ashcroft's FBI warning had nothing to do with the subsequent terror attacks, but those who now view Justice Department pronouncements with sharply raised eyebrows must be forgiven their skepticism.) Unfortunately for the passengers of United Airlines Flights 93 and 175 and American Airlines Flights 11 and 77, they were not given the same option afforded the attorney general before they boarded their planes.

David Talbot

David Talbot, the founder of Salon, is the author of New York Times bestsellers like "Brothers," "The Devil's Chessboard," and "Season of the Witch." His most recent book is "Between Heaven and Hell: The Story of My Stroke."

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