Dick Cheney, domestic spying and "false comforts" before 9/11

The vice president defends the Bush administration's secret spying program with a tacit admission of failure.

Published January 5, 2006 7:02PM (EST)

We've always thought it odd when the White House accuses its critics of having a "pre-9/11 mentality" or a "pre-9/11 mindset." While members of the Bush administration insist that the president is doing everything in his power -- and then some -- to protect Americans from a terrorist attack now, they seem to gloss over the fact that George W. Bush was in power "pre-9/11" himself.

Dick Cheney was at it again Wednesday. Speaking at the Heritage Foundation -- Cheney said he saw a lot of "old friends" in the room, and we're sure he did -- the vice president warned of the dangers of returning to the "false comforts of the world before September 11th, 2001."

To be fair, the Bush team had been in office only eight months and change before al-Qaida struck in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. But that was long enough for Cheney and others to hear dire warnings from Richard Clarke; long enough for John Ashcroft to develop budget priorities for the Department of Justice that didn't include counterterrorism efforts; and long enough for U.S. intelligence agencies to work up a Presidential Daily Briefing headlined "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." Bush got that alert on Aug. 6, 2001, then took the afternoon off to go fishing.

Cheney didn't say anything about any of that Wednesday. Instead, he defended all the things that the president and his administration began doing right after the terrorists struck. In the process, at least by implication, Cheney admitted that the administration's pre-9/11 efforts weren't good enough. Defending the post-9/11 executive order in which Bush authorized warrantless spying on American citizens, Cheney said, "If we'd been able to do this before 9/11, we might have been able to pick up on two hijackers who subsequently flew a jet into the Pentagon." The suggestion: The Bush administration was somehow powerless to listen in on the phone calls of would-be terrorists in the pre-9/11 days.

But as we've noted before, the Bush administration was indeed "able to do this before 9/11." If the administration wanted to listen in on the phone conversations of suspected al-Qaida members lurking in the United States before 9/11, all it had to do was ask the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for a warrant to do so. It didn't even need to ask first: The law allowed the administration to start listening first and seek a warrant after the fact.

Moreover, if the Bush administration's theory of presidential power is right, Bush had inherent authority as commander in chief to waive the warrant requirement whenever he thought national security interests might justify doing so. That means he could have issued his executive order on Jan. 21, 2001, on Aug. 6, 2001, or on any of the 200 or so other days that passed between the afternoon he took office and the morning that the planes struck. He didn't.

"False comforts"? Yes, Mr. Vice President, we've heard about those.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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