The four Republican debates so far have been mostly forgettable. There haven’t been a lot of “moments” or game-changing exchanges. Apart from a few stale one-liners about liberal bias in the media, nothing in particular stands out.
There is one exception, however. Jeb Bush, whose appeal is limited to friends and family at this point, uttered what is arguably the biggest applause line of the debates. On September 16, the night of the second debate, Jeb was involved in a heated exchange with Donald Trump. “Your brother gave us Barack Obama,” Trump told Bush, “because it was such a disaster those last three months that Abraham Lincoln couldn’t have been elected.”
Flustered, Jeb replied: “You know what? As it relates to my brother, there is one thing I know for sure: He kept us safe. I don’t know if you remember, Donald. Do you remember the rubble? Do you remember the firefighter with his arms around him? He sent a clear signal that the United States would be strong and fight Islamic terrorism and he did keep us safe.”
The audience clapped rapturously. No one in the building recalled that 9/11, the greatest terrorist attack in the history of this country, happened on George W. Bush’s watch. No one recalled that more Americans were killed on U.S. soil during George W. Bush’s administration than under any other. No one recalled that Jeb’s brother received a Presidential Daily Briefing just one month before the towers crashed to the earth, warning him that Bin Laden was “determined to strike in the U.S.”
It’s because of this collective amnesia that Republicans are able to sell themselves as the party of national defense, the ones who can “keep us safe.” But the more we learn about the last Republican administration, the more obvious the truth becomes. We now have enough evidence to say not only did George W. Bush fail to keep us safe; he was criminally negligent in his refusal to heed the warnings his administration was given in the months before 9/11.
The August 6, 2001 daily briefing was damning enough, but a new report in Politico shows that the administration was sufficiently warned of the growing threat as far back as May 2001. From Politico:
The CIA’s famous Presidential Daily Brief, presented to George W. Bush on August 6, 2001, has always been Exhibit A in the case that his administration shrugged off warnings of an Al Qaeda attack. But months earlier, starting in the spring of 2001, the CIA repeatedly and urgently began to warn the White House than an attack was coming. By May of 2001, says Cofer Black, then chief of the CIA’s counterterrorism center, ‘it was very evident that we were going to be struck, we were gonna be struck hard and lots of Americans were going to die.’ ‘There were real plots being manifested,’ Cofer’s former boss, George Tenet, told me in his first interview in eight years. ‘The world felt like it was on the edge of eruption. In this time period of June and July, the threat continued to rise. Terrorists were disappearing [as if in hiding, in preparation for an attack]. Camps were closing. Threat reportings on the rise.’
And how did the hawkish Republican administration respond to these warnings?
The drama of failed warnings began when Tenet and Black pitched a plan in the spring of 2001…It called for a covert CIA and military campaign to end the Al Qaeda threat – ‘getting into the Afghan sanctuary, launching a paramilitary operation, creating a bridge with Uzbekistan.’ ‘And the word back then,’ says Tenet, ‘was we’re not quite ready to consider this. We don’t want the clock to start ticking.’ (Translation: they did not want a paper trail to show that they’d been warned).
This is not what keeping us safe looks like. This is an administration asleep at the wheel, unprepared, and dangerously incompetent. “To me it remains incomprehensible still,” says Cofer Black. “I mean, how is it that you could warn senior people so many times and nothing actually happened?”
This is the historical record. This is what actually happened. And yet the Republican Party refuses to reckon with these realities. The entire party, as evidenced on that debate stage, still believes George W. Bush “kept us safe.” They still believe what happened on 9/11 was unpreventable, and that we’re lucky a Republican like George W. Bush was in office to deal with the aftermath.
To listen to the Republican candidates (all of them, not just Jeb Bush) talk about 9/11 and foreign policy in general is to witness a mass delusion. They’ve learned nothing from the mistakes that were made. And this is why they talk about Iraq as though it were Obama’s sin, not George W. Bush’s. And to the extent that they do acknowledge mistakes, it’s always that Obama failed to extend Bush’s policies, not that those policies were wrong to begin with.
Conservatives are wedded to a false narrative about the strength of Republicans and the weakness of Democrats. The lie that George W. Bush “kept us safe” is no more or less egregious than the belief, still popular among Republicans, that Iraq was a war of necessity; that we “fought them over there so we wouldn’t have to fight them over here.”
Even if you accept that the Iraq War was justifiable at the time, given what we thought we knew, the fact remains: It made us less safe. The war destabilized the region, empowered Iran, handed our enemy its greatest propaganda victory (Gitmo), and it prepared the way for ISIS.
These are the facts. But Republicans are blind to them just as they’re blind to George W. Bush’s responsibility for what happened on and before 9/11. Which is why the latest revelations will fall upon deaf ears. If the August briefing didn’t change Republican minds, if the biggest blunder in the history of American foreign policy, the consequences of which are everywhere apparent, didn’t change Republican minds, then why would this?