Alexander's Column

9/11 hindsight: more woulda-shoulda-coulda

Mark Alexander · Apr. 16, 2004

In recent days, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States heard testimony from, most notably, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Attorney General John Ashcroft.

While the commission’s objective is to assess the intelligence and law-enforcement limitations that contributed to our failure to detect the 9/11 attack plans, the hearings have become little more than a political football for Democrats seeking to undermine President Bush’s performance as Commander-in-Chief. The politicization of the hearings notwithstanding, they do serve to illustrate better why we were unprepared to interdict al-Qa'ida before 9/11.

After reviewing hundreds of pages of testimony, here are a few excerpts that our analysts feel best summarize the law-enforcement, intelligence and political culture leading up to that infamous day when al-Qa'ida terrorists murdered some 3,000 of our fellow citizens in an attack that paralyzed the nation and sent the economy into a tailspin.

The testimony of Condoleezza Rice soundly rebutted that of former terrorism-advisor Dick Clarke, who had levied pointed criticism at the Bush administration during his book-promoting lovefest with the likes of 60 Minutes, Simon & Schuster, and opportunistic Democrats. It is worth noting that all the “foot-dragging” by the Bush administration in regards to whether Dr. Rice would testify was, in our estimation, an adroit ploy to develop a significant amount of interest in her testimony. As the administration calculated, correctly, Dr. Rice destroyed much of Clarke’s two-headed allegation that President Bush had put a low priority on fighting terrorism, while his predecessor had made it his highest priority.

Regarding priorities, Dr. Rice noted, “We understood that [al-Qa'ida] posed a serious threat to the United States. … We moved to develop a new and comprehensive strategy to eliminate the al-Qa'ida terrorist network. President Bush understood the threat, and he understood its importance. He made clear to us that he did not want to respond to al-Qa'ida one attack at a time. He told me he was ‘tired of swatting flies.’ … [O]ur counterterrorism strategy was part of a broader package of strategies that addressed the complexities of the region. … America’s al-Qa'ida policy wasn’t working because our Afghanistan policy wasn’t working, and our Afghanistan policy wasn’t working because our Pakistan policy wasn’t working. We recognized that America’s counterterrorism policy had to be connected to our regional strategies and to our overall foreign policy.”

Of course, “swatting flies” was a reference to the Clinton administration’s practice of doing little to confront al-Qa'ida and viewing Islamist terrorism as a “law enforcement problem” rather than an act of war against the United States.

Regarding the heightened state of alert in the summer of 2001, Dr. Rice testified that there was little “actionable intelligence,” including the contents of the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) for 06 August 2001 entitled, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”

“It is just not the case that the August 6 memorandum did anything but put together what the CIA decided that they wanted to put together about historical knowledge about what was going on, and a few things about what the FBI might be doing,” said Dr. Rice.

Attorney General John Ashcroft responded to accusations from Hillary Clinton (“What did Bush know and when did he know it?”), John Kerry and Ted Kennedy that the administration had actionable intelligence but failed to act. “Had I known a terrorist attack on the United States was imminent in 2001, I would have unloaded our full arsenal of weaponry against it – despite the inevitable criticism, the simple fact of September 11th is this: We did not know an attack was coming because for nearly a decade our government had blinded itself to its enemies. Our agents were isolated by government-imposed walls, handcuffed by government-imposed restrictions and starved for basic information technology.”

On the subject of technology, Mr. Ashcroft noted that the Clinton administration had cut the FBI budget for technology so dramatically that it was “$36 million less than the last Bush budget eight years before.” (It is important to note that on 11 September 2001 the Justice Department and CIA were operating under budgets and mandates set by the Clinton administration; the Bush administration had yet to have its first budget passed.)

Mr. Ashcroft added that the Justice Department in 1995 under Janet Reno had “embraced flawed legal reasoning, imposing a series of restrictions on the FBI that went beyond what the law required” by establishing “a wall” between law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Said Mr. Ashcroft, “In the days before September 11th, the wall specifically impeded the investigation of Zacarias Moussaoui, the investigation of Khalid Almihdhar and of Nawaf Alhazmi. After the FBI arrested Moussaoui, agents became suspicious of his interest in commercial aircraft and sought approval for a criminal-search warrant to search his computer. The warrant was rejected because FBI officials feared breaching the wall.”

Indeed, one of the commissioners, Jamie Gorelick, a former deputy attorney general, was responsible for the 1995 rules. Republican leaders are now asking Gorelick to step down from the commission because of “conflict of interest” – i.e., concerns that Gorelick will promote findings at odds the administration’s efforts to break down “the wall” that hindered its investigations of terrorist organizations and their operatives.

In the final analysis, 9/11 is, ultimately, the Clinton legacy. On 11 September of 2001, the Justice Department and CIA were operating under a Clinton budget and a series of restrictive mandates. In addition, Bill Clinton’s final national security policy directive (from December 2000) did not mention “al-Qa'ida” once in its 45,000 word text and mentions “Osama bin Laden” only four times. The directive is thus a self-incriminating document that lays bare the Clinton administration’s “strategy” of swatting flies – of lobbing the occasional cruise missile at a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory and of treating terrorists as mere “fugitives” who should be extradited to “answer for their crimes.”

Ultimately, Clinton appeared far more interested in cracking down on “right-wing extremist” activities here at home. How else to explain the commitment of huge resources for politically-motivated investigations into such efforts as finding the suspected bomber of an Alabama abortion clinic? Thus, while the largest manhunt in history was attempting to track down a guy named Eric Robert Rudolph, al-Qa'ida operatives were busy developing their plans for 9/11.

Not only were critical FBI resources diverted for political theater, but Hillary Clinton was busy promoting the celebration of Ramadan and FBI agents were being chastised for investigating Islamic groups. Indeed, they were told that such investigations reflected a “stereotypical culture bias.”

As for additional reasons why plans for the 9/11 attacks went undetected on George Bush’s watch, perhaps Commission Vice Chair Lee Hamilton, a Democrat, said it best: “Policymakers face terrible dilemmas: information is incomplete, the inbox is huge; resources are limited, and there are only so many hours in the day. The choices are tough, and none is tougher than deciding what is a priority and what is not.”

Regarding criticism of the administration’s “negligence” prior to 9/11 by one John F. Kerry, we’d remind Kerry of what he himself said on the evening of those attacks: “We have always known this could happen. … I regret to say – I served on the Intelligence Committee up until last year. I can remember after the bombings of the embassies, after TWA 800, we went through this flurry of activity, talking about it – but not really doing the hard work of responding.”

In other news…

At an evening press conference this week, President Bush delivered a reassuring message of perseverance in our global war with Jihadi terrorists. Now that the Iraqi battleground in that war is seeing limited but pitched fighting, many U.S. citizens are doubting the ultimate success of the mission to reclaim Iraq from Saddam Hussein’s despotism and support of terrorist networks.

“Above all, the defeat of violence and terror in Iraq is vital to the defeat of violence and terror elsewhere; and vital, therefore, to the safety of the American people,” President Bush noted. “Now is the time, and Iraq is the place, in which the enemies of the civilized world are testing the will of the civilized world. We must not waver.”

As we have reiterated many times, Mr. Bush made the case for taking the fight to the Jihadis overseas, rather than attempting a perfect defense against assaults here on U.S. soil. He noted that any “concession or retreat on our part will only embolden this enemy and invite more bloodshed.” He further pledged that we will succeed in our mission in Iraq and that our forces will depart when that success is achieved: Altogether reassuring, and necessary – and, as we said, smart politics.

Following the press conference, Leftmedia questioning was predictably hostile and accusatory, returning to 9/11 commission charges, repeated requests that the President “apologize” for “allowing” 9/11 to happen on his watch, and renewed queries about the WMD rationale for making war with Saddam Hussein.

The appropriate reaction to the missing WMD ought not to be an accusatory finger but rather renewed vigor in pursuit of those deadly weapons. We know Saddam had ‘em, for he used them on his own people. He refused to account adequately for their disposition – which formed one of the violations of UN resolutions he so brazenly flouted. So, where are they? And, more important, who has them?

Let us recall, too, that the onset of hostilities on the Iraqi front with Jihadi terrorists was delayed in order to convince UN member states to approve and support the mission; that delay, of course, provided ample time for the WMD stockpiles to be secreted away. The Bush team settled on emphasizing Hussein’s WMD capabilities in order to mollify Leftist apologists and to accommodate Secretary of State Colin Powell’s efforts to gain UN support – the WMD rationale being the one that nearly all UN parties agreed on. So, by pandering to Leftist demands, Team Bush handed his detractors the stick with which they’re currently beating him.