Five Questions Bush Must Answer
RICHARD S. DUNHAM
May 20, 2002
If he hopes to dispel doubts about how forthcoming he was after September 11, only the unvarnished, unspun truth will do
Anyone can understand the Bush Administration's sensitivity to suggestions that the President may have had advance warning of possible airplane hijackings by Osama bin Laden's followers.
It seems patently unfair, with the evidence now available, to suggest that Bush could have known that Mideast terrorists would use commercial airliners as megamissiles to target famous symbols of American economic and military might. "It's sad to play upon the emotions of people as if there were something we could have done to stop it," First Lady Laura Bush said on May 17 in Budapest, "because that's just not the case."
With all due respect to the First Family, that's not really what's making Americans feel queasy these last few days. Here's what bothers so many : Nobody in power told the country -- after the fact -- that the National Security Council, the FBI, and the CIA all had picked up credible hints that something strange was going on involving hijack scenarios.
MOUNTING SUSPICIONS According to a May 16 CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll, 68% of Americans think the Administration, in the months since September 11, should have publicly discussed the fact that it had the information prior to the attacks.
It's not that Americans hold President Bush responsible for what happened -- that's a ridiculous thought limited to conspiracy theorists on the political extremes. The problem for the White House is to many Americans, it appears that Bush officials withheld pertinent information from the public because it might have been embarrassing.
To ease public doubts, the Administration needs to be forthcoming -- even contrite, if necessary. The best way to do that isn't to get involved in a political blame game but to respond to some key concerns that have been raised in recent days. Here are five pivotal questions for the White House to answer now :
Who in the Justice Dept. and its FBI unit knew about the memos from the field raising questions about Arabs training in flight schools?
If there's a spectacular failure here, it's with the FBI officials who didn't let top White House officials know of at least two important clues. The most distressing : the July 10 electronic report to FBI headquarters from a Phoenix field agent suggesting that bin Laden was trying to train operatives in American flight schools. According to the Washington Post, the memo outlines links between Mideast terror suspects and an Arizona flight school, and it suggests that the bureau check out other flight schools for information on similar students.
Next was the FBI's nonresponse to a complaint from a Minnesota flight school that one of its Arab students had been interested in learning how to fly a plane but not to land one. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said on May 16 that she hadn't become aware of these reports until "just recently." That's tragic.
If the FBI had passed along the information to the National Security Council last summer, it might have helped Rice and others "connect the dots" and possibly break up the al Qaeda ring before September 11. "Apparently, this was an issue that didn't get very far beyond the middle ranks of the FBI," says Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham (D-Fla.). It's important for the President to find out just how high the blame should go, at the FBI or its parent organization, the Justice Dept.
Why, if Attorney General John Ashcroft stopped flying on commercial aircraft over the summer, did Justice not issue sterner warnings to airlines and the public about threats to commercial aviation?
Rice says the Administration picked up intelligence in June about an increased danger of hijackings by bin Laden's operatives. What followed was a series of Federal Aviation Administration Information Circulars, known in the jargon as ICs.
Rice says because the Administration believed the hijacking threat was primarily a foreign problem, it didn't caution the public about a possible hijacking of a domestic airliner. Still, Senator Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), at a closed-door Capitol Hill briefing with Rice, raised a Fox News report that Attorney General John D. Ashcroft was warned by the FBI in July not to fly commercial. He used leased government aircraft to travel to a summer fishing vacation in Missouri.
The Phoenix memo, the arrest of Minnesota flight-school student Zacarias Moussaoui, and Ashcroft's reported action "point to concerns about commercial domestic aviation, not terrorism and hijacking overseas," Durbin asserts. The Administration needs to tell the public whether Durbin is misguided -- or why he's onto something.
Why did Vice-President Richard Cheney ask congressional leaders not to investigate the events leading up to September 11?
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle says the Vice-President "requested on several occasions that we not have an investigation into this issue." The reason given by Cheney : U.S. should not be diverted from the war against terrorism to look backward. That sentiment was echoed by White House spokesman Ari Fleischer on May 17, when he said "100% attention needed to be on fighting the war" at the time.
Some Democratic partisans say Cheney was trying to shield the Administration from possible criticism by short-circuiting a Hill probe. White House officials say they just wanted to avoid a partisan circus or a blame game like the investigation that followed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Cheney should clear up any doubt as to his motives by openly discussing his concerns, and his reasoning, in as many public venues as possible.
Why did Administration officials keep repeating the mantra "We had no information about specific threats" when some of them were aware of at least nonspecific threats of hijackings?
I know this will rankle some in the White House, but rereading the words of key Administration officials from last September makes the official line back then sound strangely Clintonesque. A day after the terror attacks, Secretary of State Colin Powell told ABC's Good Morning America, "I have not seen any evidence that there was a specific signal we missed." Four days later, Cheney told NBC's Meet the Press that there was "no specific threat involving, really, a domestic operation."
Both statements are accurate because of the use of the word "specific." Now that we know what we know, did the Administration have reason to believe there was a nonspecific threat involving hijackings? If so, why not tell us?
Why did the Administration decide not to tell the public of the information it knew until the story leaked to the press?
Obviously, some Bush official thought the information about the Aug. 6 briefing at the Crawford ranch, where hijacking and bin Laden came up, was either too unimportant or too embarrassing to disclose after the fact. Either way, it's a mistake. The most talented people in public life know this rule of American politics : If you goof, it's best to fess up and just admit it. Fellow Texan Lloyd Bentsen, the longtime senator and former Treasury Secretary, once admitted an error this way : "I'm not known to make many mistakes, but when I do, it's a doozy." Bentsen was quickly forgiven by the voters.
The best thing the President can do is explain to the American people what happened. He can acknowledge, in hindsight, that it might have been better to have been more forthcoming after September 11, but that the crush of events -- the war on terrorism, the hunt for bin Laden, the overthrow of the Taliban -- was more important to deal with immediately. I could be wrong, but I'd bet that the vast majority of Americans would be forgiving, and this whole flap would blow over quickly.
The biggest mistake for the White House would be to create a partisan war over September 11. If Republicans start pointing fingers at Democrats, blaming them for starting this ruckus, questioning their patriotism in wartime, then everybody will lose. Voters don't want Republicans raising money by selling September 11 photos of the President aboard Air Force One. And they don't want Democrats playing "gotcha" politics over possible hijack warnings.
GET TO THE BOTTOM. It's not the style of this White House to admit it's wrong. But it's obvious to a majority of Americans that, in the words of Ronald Reagan, "mistakes were made." By 52% to 41%, according to Gallup, voters say the Administration did not act on the information in the proper way. And by 2-to-1, citizens think the Bush team didn't give airlines as much warning about potential hijackings as it could have.
Like Reagan at the time of the Iran-Contra scandal, President Bush should push to get to the bottom of the situation, then move beyond it. It's in the country's interest to have September 11 remain a unifying date -- not a source of division and discord.
Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online.
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht.
May 20, 2002
The Bush administration reacted angrily yesterday to renewed accusations that it may have ignored advance warning of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. The White House reluctantly confirmed that the president received a letter from Osama Bin Laden just days before the attack. The letter, written on stationery labeled "The Caves at Tora Bora : A Luxury Terrorist Headquarters and Spa," is believed by the FBI to be genuine. It said :
Dear President Bush :
On September 11, or maybe September 12, I plan to hijack several airplanes and fly them into a building or two in lower Manhattan, and maybe a military facility of some sort in Northern Virginia. Consider yourself warned.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer rejected any suggestion that this letter should have alerted the administration about Bin Laden's plans for Sept. 11. "Look," he said, "This was a highly ambiguous signal, which was subject to a variety of interpretations. The letter says Sept. 11 or 12. How were we supposed to know that the attack would come on Sept. 11? It might have come on Sept. 12. It would have been the height of irresponsibility to alarm the American people about the possibility of an attack on Sept. 11 when it could just as easily have occurred Sept. 12."
He also noted that there are many buildings in lower Manhattan—"most of which to this very day have never been subject to a terrorist attack of any sort"—and that Northern Virginia contains a variety of military facilities. "It is easy in hindsight to observe that the Pentagon is in Northern Virginia, but there was no way to be certain that Bin Laden knew this. Many foreigners are under the impression the Pentagon is in the District of Columbia.
"Governing is about judgment," Fleischer continued. "It is about filtering the tremendous amount of information that pours in and deciding what is relevant and what is not. Do you know how many letters we get from terrorists every week? No, I'm not saying how many. The point is, you don't know. And you're not going to find out from me. This administration is not afraid to make the tough calls. It doesn't matter whether a call is right or wrong. What matters is that it's tough. Ignoring a clear warning from a known terrorist was one tough call, and this administration is proud to have made it."
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice noted in an interview that there are several Osamas listed in the Kabul telephone directory. "If Mr. Bin Laden wished us to take his message seriously, he should have had the common courtesy to sign with his last name. Although the president is a friendly and outgoing person, it would not serve America's interests for him to appear to be on a first-name basis with a terrorist by responding or reacting to Mr. Bin Laden's letter."
The White House later clarified that President Bush had, in fact, responded to Bin Laden's letter, but an official insisted that it was the stock response sent to all letters threatening to hijack airplanes and that there was no special policy applying to letters that also threatened to fly the planes into large buildings. "In fact," the official said, "It's the stock response we use for all letters from wealthy individuals." The response said :
Dear Osama :
Thank you for your generous contribution to the Republican National Committee. With the help of Republicans in Congress, I look forward to signing the legislation you request exactly as you have written it.
George W. Bush
Vice President Dick Cheney, appearing on 18 TV talk shows yesterday, called Bin Laden's letter "a cowardly attempt to sow confusion among the forces of civilization and freedom. If the guy had any guts, he would have told us exactly where and when he planned to attack, rather than hiding behind two alternative dates and a variety of possible locations."
Cheney said that by ending his letter with the words, "Consider yourself warned," Bin Laden made it impossible for the administration to take his warning seriously. "For the U.S. government to have indicated in any way that we considered ourselves warned would have been a victory for terrorism. Only by considering ourselves unwarned, and acting as such, could we protect the vital interests of the United States."
Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, hearings continued for the 25th day on charges that the administration failed to act on warnings from a psychic in Omaha, Neb., last August that "something terrible" was going to happen "sooner or later" on "either the East or the West Coast." Democrats in Congress are charging that this was a clear prediction of the events of Sept. 11.
"I hesitate to criticize or second-guess the president when we are at war with such a sinister foe," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, "But I am deeply concerned that without a thorough inquiry into this matter, the American people may lose an opportunity for me to be deeply concerned.
May 24, 2002
People who said they were glad George Bush was leading the American response to terrorist attack are choking on their words. Recent events confirm that the founders knew what they were doing when they provided for the president to be chosen by the voters, as Al Gore was, and not the Supreme Court, as Bush was.
(Those founders were smart cookies. They didn't use jargon like "market-driven" in the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence either. Bush says we won't stop squeezing the Cubans until they adopt "market-driven" reforms. Apparently they'll have to turn their power plants over to Enron. If Bush demands "faith-based" reforms, they'll have to take Jerry Falwell.)
We know now that the Bush administration received numerous warnings of impending terrorist attacks, some arriving almost on the eve of the Sept. 11 disaster, and did next to nothing. Well, it did slip word to John Ashcroft, our faith-based attorney general and Ashcroft stopped flying on commercial aircraft. Faith has its limitations. When Bill Clinton got a warning in 1999, he ordered an attack on Osama Bin Laden's training camp. Congressional Republicans accused him of picking on Osama for political reasons. Trent Lott hadn't developed an interest in national unity at the time.
After the airplanes struck the towers, Bush spent the rest of the day darting around the country, maintaining distance from the crash sites, ostensibly on the recommendation of security advisers. Bush's press secretary defended this behavior by saying terrorists had targeted the presidential plane. This was a lie, it turns out. There was no such targeting, at least none that our government knew of. Anyway, an army of security advisers couldn't have kept President Clinton from Ground Zero, and indeed former President Clinton showed up there before Bush did.
And now Bush seeks to profit from that awful day. With his approval, the House and Senate Republican campaign committees are selling, for $150 apiece, photographs of Bush on Air Force One Sept. 11, talking on the telephone. They don't tell us what Bush was saying, but we can make a pretty good guess: "Is it all right to come home now, Mr. Cheney?" It says a lot about Bush that he looks up to Vice President Cheney, a notorious chicken hawk who hid from military service when he was of draft age, but doesn't flinch from sending other people into combat, or declaring unpatriotic anyone who criticizes the administration. (The founders had the right idea about free speech, too.)
To use the deaths of 9-11 for political gain is contemptible. And this is a man who promised less partisanship in Washington.
Bush and Cheney will resist, but the most patriotic and nonpartisan thing Congress, the media and the people can do is to demand a full and public investigation of 9-11. Who knew what when? Did the FBI, the CIA and military intelligence fail utterly? Does the blame belong higher?