What if al-Qaida attacked now?

Is the president confident that he could "secure the American people"? The White House won't say.

By T.g.

Published September 7, 2005 12:42PM (EDT)

Call us crazy, but when the president of the United States goes before the TV cameras and suggests -- as he did yesterday -- that the country might not be prepared for the sort of WMD attack he has been warning about for four years, we think it's reasonable to ask a follow-up question or two.

Maybe that's why we're not the White House press secretary.

We noted last night that Scott McClellan is deflecting just about every question about the federal government's response to Katrina by claiming that it's part of a "blame game" that the White House won't play right now. Of course, the White House is playing -- White House officials, speaking anonymously, are trashing state and local officials, sometimes falsely, and the administration's supporters in Congress are doing the same.

But even if one were to accept the White House's premise -- that this is "not a time" for politics, Monday-morning quarterbacking or the "blame game" -- wouldn't it still be fair to ask if the United States is prepared for the next disaster that might strike? Hurricane season is just beginning, after all, and Osama bin Laden and his ilk could well be thinking that the days after Katrina might be an opportune moment to strike a foe that suddenly seems pretty vulnerable. Is America ready?

The president opened the door to that question yesterday when he said that it's important to study what went right and what went wrong with the Katrina response because "we still live in an unsettled world" and need to "make sure that we can respond properly if there's a WMD attack or another major storm." But the president said he'll look for those answers "over time," and McClellan brushed away some eminently reasonable follow-up questions at yesterday's White House press briefing.

A reporter asked McClellan: Will the United States be ready if there's a WMD attack tomorrow? McClellan's response: "We can engage in this blame-gaming going on and I think that's what you're getting." The reporter cut him off: "No, no, that's a talking point, Scott." McClellan: "No, that's a fact, I mean, some are wanting to engage in that, and we're going to remain focused ... on the people."

The reporter asked McClellan if the president is "confident" that he can "secure the American people in the event of a major terrorist attack." By our way of thinking, that might be the central question of the modern presidency. But McClellan didn't have a direct answer, or at least he wasn't willing to give one. "We are securing the American people by staying on the offensive abroad and working to spread freedom and democracy in the Middle East," he said.

We'll take that as a "no."

By T.g.


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