Yes, George W. Bush bears some Responsibility for US Vulnerability on 9/11

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The Donald Trump-Jeb Bush tiff over whether George W. Bush “kept us safe” is another example of how Donald Trump is better than Karl Rove at politics. Rove had some success with his doctrine of attacking people on their strengths. Like a spiteful child, Trump attacks people on their weaknesses. The Bush loyalists’ refrain that W. “kept us safe” has all along stuck in the craw of everybody else. No one will ever be able to use that line again. Trump has struck.

It is hard to take Trump seriously, and it is possible that there was nothing Bush could have done to forestall 9/11. But it is clear that George W. did not do everything he could have, in part because he was ignorant about the threat of terrorism and in part because he was obsessed with Iraq instead. It was a failure, and one the administration never acknowledged.

The Bush gang tried to divert the attention of the public by making 9/11 about revenge. And it wasn’t even about revenge on al-Qaeda. It was revenge on Iraq, which was blameless in the affair and itself afraid of al-Qaeda. Bush initiated a chain of events where by an al-Qaeda offshoot would end up with 40% of Iraq. The Bush gang cynically used 9/11 to take America to war on false pretenses. They weren’t tearful. They got what they wanted.

Nor is George H. W. Bush’s role as vice president in instigating the Mujahidin holy jihadis in northern Pakistan to fight the Soviets and Communists in Afghanistan irrelevant to this discussion. The Reagan-Bush fascination with far rightwing private armies as tools of American policy helped create al-Qaeda in the first place. George W. can’t be held responsible for that pro-jihadi policy, but let’s just remember that the Bush family is not unconnected to it.

But back to W’s responsibility. I explained some of the things Bush and his team did wrong on coming to office in a 2004 posting at this blog. I had read Richard Clarke’s book. He was a full cabinet member under Bill Clinton, with responsibility for counter-terrorism.

Bush demoted him from being a cabinet member to being some sort of adviser. That demotion was crucial. As of that point, Clarke could not call a meeting of the major cabinet members, the principals. They included the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, CIA director George Tenet, and Secretary of State Colin Powell. In the Clinton era, before he was demoted, Clarke could and did call meetings of the principals and read them into the intelligence on al-Qaeda. In spring of 2001 and summer of 2001 Clarke was helpless. He tried one last time in mid-summer. But Bush and the others all went on vacation. Bush was on vacation 42% of the time in 2001 before 9/11.

Clarke says that when the Bush team came to the White House, it was as though they had been frozen in amber. They went out just after the Gulf War when Iraq was big. They had missed the rise of al-Qaeda in the 1990s, and were not inclined to recognize the danger of an asymmetric terrorist organization. They thought in terms of states being the real threat. Terrorist organizations in their experience were just ways for states to bother one another.

I wrote elsewhere,

“Richard Clarke detailed in his memoirs, “Against All Enemies,” how he had enormous difficulty in calling a meeting of high Bush administration officials to discuss the threat of al-Qaida in spring of 2001. When Clarke finally had the opportunity to make his case to them, [Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz “fidgeted” and “scowled” and attempted to shoot him down. “I just don’t understand,” complained Wolfowitz, “why we are beginning by talking about this one man bin Laden.” Clarke says he explained that he was talking about al-Qaida “because it and it alone poses an immediate and serious threat to the US.”

Clarke alleges that Wolfowitz responded, “You give bin Laden too much credit,” and insisted that bin Laden’s success with operations such as the 1993 World Trade Center bombing would have been impossible without a “state sponsor.” He added, “Just because FBI and CIA have failed to find the linkages does not mean they don’t exist.”‘

This was the general mindset of Bush and his officials.

Here is my account of the difference between how things worked late in the Bill Clinton period versus the first year of W. It discusses al-Qaeda’s “Millennium Plot” of late 1999, one element of which was supposed to be an attack by Ahmed Ressam on Los Angeles Airport.

“The story of how the LAX bombing was stopped on December 14 has been told in an important series in the Seattle Times. Extra security measures were implemented by US customs agents, leading to the apprehension of an Algerian, Ahmed Ressam, with a trunk full of nitroglycerin, heading for LAX (he wanted to start his journey by ferry from Port Angeles, Washington). . .

Ressam fought in Bosnia in the early 1990s. Then he settled in France and became part of the terrorist Groupe Roubaix, which carried out attacks in that city (pop. 98,000, near Lille in the north). In spring of 1998 he flew to Afghanistan and was trained in two camps under the direction of Palestinian-Saudi Abu Zubaida. Abu Zubaida recruited Ressam into an Algerian al-Qaeda cell headed from London by Abu Doha al-Mukhalif. Ressam was assigned to form a forward cell in Montreal, from which he and several other Algerians plotted the attack on LAX.

What Clarke’s book reveals is that the way Ressam was shaken out at Port Angeles by customs agent Diana Dean was not an accident. Rather, Clinton had made Clarke a cabinet member. He was given the authority to call other key cabinet members and security officials to “battle stations,” involving heightened alerts in their bureaucracies and daily meetings. Clarke did this with Clinton’s approval in December of 1999 because of increased chatter and because the Jordanians caught a break when they cracked Raed al-Hijazi’s cell in Amman.

Early in 2001, in contrast, Bush demoted Clarke from being a cabinet member, and much reduced his authority. Clarke wanted the high Bush officials or “principals” to meet on terrorism regularly. He couldn’t get them to do it. Rice knew what al-Qaeda was, but she, like other administration officials, was disconcerted by Clarke’s focus on it as an independent actor. The Bush group-think holds that asymmetrical organizations are not a threat in themselves, that the threat comes from the states that allegedly harbor them. That funny look she gave Clarke wasn’t unfamiliarity, it was puzzlement that someone so high in the system should be so wrongly focused.

In summer of 2001 the chatter was much greater and more ominous than in fall of 1999. Clarke wanted to go to battle stations and have daily meetings with the “principals” (i.e. Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, Powell, Tenet). He wanted to repeat the procedures that had foiled the Millennium Plot. He could not convince anyone to let him do that.

Note that an “institution” is defined in sociology as a regular way of getting certain collective work done. Clarke is saying that Clinton had institutionalized a set of governmental routines for dealing with heightened threats from terrorists. He is not saying that Clinton bequeathed a “big think” plan to Bush on terrorism. He is saying that he bequeathed the Bush administration a repertoire of effective actions by high officials.

He thinks going to such a heightened level of alert and concerted effort in 2001 might have shaken loose much earlier the information that the CIA knew that Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi were in the US. As it is, the INS wasn’t informed of this advent and did not start looking for them until Aug. 21, 2001, by which time it was too late. Since they made their plane reservations for September 11 under their own names, names known to the USG, a heightened level of alert might have allowed the FBI to spot them.

So it just is not true that Bush was doing exactly the same thing on terrorism that Clinton was. He didn’t have a cabinet-level counter-terrorism czar; he didn’t have the routine of principals’ meetings on terrorism; he didn’t authorize Clarke to go to ‘battle stations’ and heightened security alert in summer of 2001 the way Clinton had done in December, 1999.

The key to understanding Clarke’s argument is to understand how exactly the Millennium Plot was foiled.”

You could have an honest argument about whether Clarke’s argument was correct, and about whether Bush could have in fact foiled 9/11 if he had been more on the ball. Maybe, maybe not. I have an open mind, though I lean toward maybe. What you can’t argue about is that the buck stops with the president. Bush had to take responsibility. He never did.

One of the things I most mind about George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney is that they never apologized. They never came before the American people and said, we were elected to keep you safe. We didn’t. We are sorry.

Other people did apologize. Richard Clarke, the terrorism czar, apologized tearfully. They all should have apologized in that administration.

Instead Bush gave us weasel words. “Let’s roll,” he said. Roll where?

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

Wochit News: “Trump and Bush Continue Battle Over 9/11”

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20 Responses

  1. I’m so happy to see Trump revitalize the pre 9-11 mindset of GW Bush and his neocon cabinet producing excellent articles like this one.

    Bush was warned about the increased chatter by an intelligence officer during a morning briefing to which the ever laconic W said….”Alright, you’ve covered your a$$. Goodbye.”

    Of course W doubled down by making matters worse and using 3,000 dead Americans as a catalyst to invade Iraq and Afghanistan.

  2. I hope Trump reads this and uses these facts in his debate with Jeb over whether his brother, when president, “kept us safe”.

  3. The last days prior to 9/11 the Bush administration was pushing for a renewal of support for SDI, with Condoleezza Rice scheduled to give a major speech on the subject either that day or the next. An interesting side bar might be a reconstruction of those last days, highlighting the administration’s attention to a line of national defense that tragically for all of us, looked the other way.

    • Lest we forget, Rice was an expert in Russia and received her education when it was the USSR. She was basically a Cold Warrior who had little to no knowledge or interest in terrorism or the Middle East. She was maybe the worst National Security chief of all time, IMO.

  4. Donald Trump is using valid criticism of the evil, moronic Bush/Cheney maladministration, not to put the perpetrators on the docket where they belong, but to amplify his role as boisterous media distraction.

    Criticism of George W. Bush while campaigning against his lesser brother serves four distinct purposes, none of which are in any way noble or constructive.

    • It allows a Bush to defend his indefensible brother.
    • The vacillating statements against Bush actually generates nativist sympathy for the tainted Bush dynasty.
    • The resulting media-borne brouhaha distracts from the absolute worst array of Republican Presidential candidates in U.S. history.
    • Mr. Trump is further empowered to extol more ridicules campaign claims to prolong his role as a walking American vuvuzela.

  5. This is why I so enjoy Trump’s performance. The way he tears into the GOP establishment is delightful. Without him the US media would be happy to never have to revisit this issue.

  6. I also remember that when asked by a reporter what we as individuals could do to help in the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy, George W. rallied the nation together with his response of “go shopping”.

    • That occured to me right after Jeb commented on how wonderfully G.W. responded to 9/11. “Wha? What’s so &%$#@!!! wonderful about ‘go shopping’?!?!?!”

  7. But in the great sordid scheme of things, 9/11 is overshadowed by the events it was used to bring into play. Three thousand dead on 9/11 plus victims among the first responders who were betrayed by the EPA. But, how many killed and maimed in Iraq and Afghanistan? How many millions displaced in Iraq and Afghanistan? How many dead, maimed and displaced since then in the ongoing chaos that the anti-war minority warned could happen in other parts of the Middle East?

    And the perpetrators not only go free, they are given platforms to promote more wars.

    Given the moral bankruptcy of this nation’s “leaders,” the corruption in government and the corporate world and the apathy of the majority of the American people it is difficult to see how the decline of the American empire can be halted before its probable collapse.

  8. Some, let’s at least say 50%, and the other 50%, cheney! So you want a laugh, when is the trial!

  9. Thanks, Dr. Cole, for your sketch of the invasion of Iraq, one of the most stunningly stupid events of modern political history—right up there with Hitler’s decision to open a second front to the east or Merkel’s decision to open Europe to unlimited migration. Wow. And I had heard that we had reached the end of history. Nope. I’m sure there are even more stupidities to come. Stay tuned . . .

  10. “No one will ever be able to use that line again. Trump has struck.”
    Yeah, I hate the fact that we can’t use “Mission Accomplished” anymore. G.W. Bush ruined that phrase forever.

  11. Great article. I remember Richard Clarke and several of his articles, but I didn’t fully understand at the time his history and cabinet level position. Classic George W. bumbling.

    I need to reread how we got into Afghanistan but I seem to remember an article that said Brzezinski lured the Soviet Union into Afghanistan. After all, Russia invaded in 1979. Then again, I’ve been rereading the oil history of the Middle East during the 1970s. When U.S. oil production started dropping in 1971, Nixon was president and Kissinger was Secretary of State. Both missed the implications of dropping oil production and the fact that it gave the Middle East enormous leverage on oil prices. Republicans conveniently forget a lot of their history — and bungling.

    • What happened is that before 9/11, Brzezinski told a French radio interviewer that in ’79 he discussed with Carter the latter’s interest in helping the CIA make trouble for the then independent but pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. He told Carter that IF he intervened, the Soviets would find out and retaliate there. But he told the interviewer that he personally desired that outcome. So he was honest with Carter, but diabolical with the rights of Afghans to be spared his desire for revenge against the USSR. Moreover, the interviewer asked him if he regretted what resulted in Afghanistan and he derided the Taliban regime’s ability to make us pay for it. So in my opinion Zbiggy was also a fool who didn’t get the threat of asymmetrical warfare and proxy movements to the USA.

  12. The bush ‘gang’ kept ‘my pet goat’ safe
    & Monika front page center when Bill was trying to get the country to take fundie terror seriously

  13. Let’s just cut to the chase, Bush/Cheney commited the worst crime known to mankind, a war of aggression, that’s torture, rape and murder times 100’000!
    But who cares, torture is not torture when done by America?!
    Greetings from Europa

  14. “The Bush group-think holds that asymmetrical organizations are not a threat in themselves, that the threat comes from the states that allegedly harbor them.”

    Which was our entire premise in suddenly holding the Taliban responsible for al-Qaeda as though they were one and the same, and overthrowing it. We might as well have held Pakistan’s military regime fully responsible for creating and molding the Taliban to rule Afghanistan, but that would have meant war with a nuclear power.

    This also explains why Washington pays unsuccessful lip service to nation-building, but ultimately it doesn’t mind destroying governments and creating power vacuums. It believes that only governments create terrorism, not power vacuums. I think that both of them can create terrorism, but popular will also plays a role and the US has really created a vast amount of ill will over the years.

  15. Regarding the culpability issue, if Bush, after the famous August 6 memo, had just directed the government to put people on alert and notify affected agencies (such as FAA), I think at the least one of the hijacking groups might have been stopped. As I recall from the 9/11 Commission Report, at one of the ticket counters (I think in Boston) the agents were suspicious of the hijackers as they were noticeably nervous and stood out for their odd behavior. Had the agents been warned to be on alert, they most likely would have called in security to check them out. At the very least, one plane would probably have been stopped from being used as a weapon.

  16. This article details all the warnings Bush and his advisors ignored. I knew about this but it still shocks me to see how stubborn and arrogant they were.

    link to theatlantic.com

  17. Bull’s eye! And the media scream that this man is unelectable. And the Republican establishment grumbles that this man is unelectable. And most of the other candidates don’t dare to say the truth about anything. No wonder he and Carson are at the top of the heap. Of course Bush was responsible for the US military not being prepared to defend Americans from the 9/11 attacks. Who else but the President of the US is responsible for the operation of our military forces? He is called the Commander in Chief for a good reason.

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