article is the main article and companion piece
to another one we posted called: ASKING
presidential leaders The right Question
by Burt Hall]
to September 11, 2001, the threat of terrorism
had reached a heightened state, the eventual targets
were suspect, the timing was imminent, and a bold
plan of response had been passed on by the previous
U.S. administration. So what happened to America's
national leadership? Did someone drop the ball?
Congress has established an independent commission
to answer these and other questions.
W. Bush had opposed the commission for almost
a year. However, he reversed his stance prior
to midterm elections, insisting on restructuring
the commission and limiting its subpoena powers.
Mainly, Bush wanted a Republican presidential
appointee as chair and--following midterm elections--he
got what he wanted.
commission got off to a bad start when just after
a few days both Chair Henry Kissinger and Vice-Chair
George Mitchell resigned. Since then, a full complement
of ten members has been appointed--all with excellent
did each of our last two presidents respond as
international terrorism evolved, and what are
some of the problems that will surely confront
the 9/11 Commission?
to terrorist attacks during the Clinton years
first attack on the New York World Trade Center
in late 1993 killed six individuals and injured
hundreds more. Osama bin Laden's name eventually
surfaced in the investigation, which resulted
in some of his sympathizers being sent to prison.
Then in 1996 terrorists bombed a U. S. military
complex in Saudi Arabia, killing nineteen Americans.
In the same year bin Laden declared a holy war
against Americans for "occupying" Saudi Arabia.
late 1998 bin Laden bombed two U. S. embas-sies,
killing 224 people and injuring about 5,000. He
also declared war on the United States, saying
"to kill the Ameri-cans--civilians or military--is
an individual duty for every Muslim."
the 1990s there was no groundswell of support
for military action against terrorism. The Clinton
administration did increase antiterrorism budgets,
launched cruise missiles at bin Laden's training
camps, and tried several times to capture or kill
him and his senior al-Qaeda lieuten-ants. These
attempts, supported by U. S. submarines in the
Arabian Sea, failed due to insufficient intelli-gence
and bin Laden's constant move-ments.
before the 2000 U.S. presidential elections, terrorists
struck yet again with a suicide attack on the
U.S.S. Cole, killing seventeen U.S. military service
people and injuring many more. This prompted the
Clinton administration to prepare a bold plan
of attack against al-Qaeda in various countries.
Clinton decided he couldn't initiate a war without
proof of bin Laden's responsibility for the Cole
attack--especially a war that would have to be
handled by a new administration. So Clinton's
action plan was passed on to the new administration
in special briefings with Vice-President Richard
Cheney and National Security Advisor Condoleezza
fails to address the threat
to an unnamed senior Bush official, the Clinton
action plan contained all the steps that were
eventually taken after September 11. But, at the
time, the plan became a victim of "not invented
here," turf wars, and time spent on pet policies
of new top officials. In early September 2001,
agency heads purportedly approved a stronger plan
but it didn't reach Bush in time according to
the TIME magazine's special report of August 12,
2002, entitled "The Secret History".
campaigning for president, Bush said there must
be consequences for the Cole attack. Although
when the White House learned in February 2001
that bin Laden was responsible for the Cole attack,
Bush didn't pursue military action or resume covert
actions initiated by the previous administration.
Instead, he became obsessed with a missile shield
defense against rogue states. Secretary of Defense
Donald Rumsfeld threat-ened a Bush veto when Congress
tried to divert $600 million of the missile shield's
money to counter terrorism.
bipartisan commission on the U.S. national security,
assembled by Clinton and Congress, reported early
in 2001 that the United States was vulnerable
to catastrophic attack from terrorism. In White
House meetings, the Commission Chair argued for
the report's major recommendation--a National
Homeland Security Agency. Bush rejected it.
to research by the Washington Post, the New York
Times and TIME magazine, the Bush administration
was less preoccupied with terrorism than the previous
administration. The Washington Post said the Bush
administration "gave scant attention to an adversary
whose lethal ambitions and savvy had been well
understood for years." Out of about one hundred
national security meetings, terrorism was a topic
in only one or two. Just before September 11,
the Justice Department turned down the FBI's request
for $50 million to fund its counterterrorism program.
The lack of real concern was evident.
reach high intensity
current administration claims no one had ever
considered that terrorists might use airplanes
as missiles. The evidence of record and Intelligence
Committee findings show otherwise.
the mid-1990s an accomplice in the first attack
on the World Trade Center revealed to U.S. authorities
a plan to crash a plane packed with explosives
into CIA Headquarters. He had trained as a pilot
at three U.S. flight schools. A 1998 CIA intelligence
report cited plans to fly an explosives-laden
plane into the World Trade Center. A 1999 Library
of Congress report to the National Intelligence
Council warned that al-Qaeda suicide bombers "could
crash-land an aircraft packed with high explosives"
into the Pentagon, CIA, or the White House. The
Intelligence Committee investigation found numerous
indications of plans through August 2001 to use
airplanes as weapons, including interest by bin
Laden in using commercial pilots as terrorists.
The following chart ,summarizing this intelligence,
isn't complete because of the administration's
refusal to declassify all information bearing
on the September 11 threat.
in first World Trade Center bombing
in U.S. flight school; plan to crash aircraft
explosive-laden plane into World Trade Center
to National Intelligence Council
Laden might crash plane into Pentagon, White
House, or CIA Headquarters
to mount spectacular attacks-may use commercial
pilots as terrorists
at least thirty-three communications about
attacks imminent and deadly on targets inside
the United States
terrorist attacks imminent on highly visible
targets on U.S. soil
briefed - "Bin Laden to strike US"
- retaliation for missile strikes on their
examples intelligence data--possible use
of planes as weapons (may include some above)
intelligence contact with bin Laden
advance stages of executing a significant
operation against a U.S. target
in Sept. 2001
in Summer 2001
White House of "a significant attack
in the near future"
the summer of 2001, the Bush administration had
more frequent and serious warnings that "something
spectacular was going to happen," "most of al-Qaeda
is anticipating an attack," and bin Laden "will
launch significant attack against U.S. . . . be
spectacular . . . inflict mass causalities . .
. preparations made . . . little or no warning."
Nearly frantic with concern, the CIA Director
warned the White House repeatedly of a "significant
attack in the near future." As TIME's special
last summer, many of those in the know--the spooks,
the buttoned-down bureaucrats, the law-enforcement
professionals in a dozen coun-tries--were almost
frantic with worry that a major terrorist attack
against American interests was imminent. It wasn't
averted because 2001 saw a systemic collapse in
the ability of Washington's national security
apparatus to handle the terrorist threat.
threat was real and possible targets were known;
only the timing was uncertain. Taken individually
the threat information was disturbing, but taken
collectively the information was overpowering.
failure of the Bush administration to respond
to the Cole attack was a serious mistake. When
terrorists perceive that the United States is
weak, they are emboldened to strike again.
important factor to consider is that complete
continuity existed during the presidential transi-tion:
Clinton's chief of counterterrorism became Bush's
chief, Clinton's CIA director became Bush's director,
and an aggressive al-Qaeda attack plan already
existed. In view of four previous attacks and
current warnings reaching a crescendo, it is hard
to imagine why Bush didn't demonstrate greater
concern and share his information with the American
people. Was he preoccupied with his own agenda?
Was he concerned about the impact of public fears
on a sagging economy? Did he downgrade concerns
of the previous administration? Did he get poor
advice -- or all of the above?
at this time were well entrenched in many countries,
including the United States. Fail-ure of Clinton
and Bush to lead a response to the threat had
damaged each of their administrations. Neither
acted with the required sense of urgency, established
a national priority, nor discussed the subject
openly with the American people. Clinton, for
example, could have highlighted his al-Qaeda response
and explained why he was leaving it to the next
administration for action.
normal response to four separate attacks and near-frenzy
warnings of immi-nent ones should have been for
Bush to present a plan of action to the American
people, and for Congress to hold public hearings
and debate author-izing military action. These
things didn't happen before September 11, and
we haven't been told why.
was much more of a threat than Iraq -- much more
clearly defined, imminent, and dangerous.
people of the United States needed to be at a
high state of awareness and proactive. Presidential
leadership would have stimu-lated a new level
of energy, creativity, and cooperation within
federal and local agencies that would have elicited
maximum public participation. With reenergized
government surveillance and public participation,
the country would have been much better prepared
to avert the horrible tragedy.
example, if Bush had used national television
to share important information on the threat,
opportu-nities for neutralizing it would have
been enormous. Bureaucratic barriers would have
faded away and people in the FBI, intelligence,
flying schools, airlines, as well as the general
public, would have come forward with all sorts
of leads. We'll never know what might have been
learned before that fateful day of September 11.
to the future
While Bush aggressively took action following
September 11 and rallied the nation, there seems
to have been a serious lack of leadership beforehand.
If the country is to prevent major terrorist attacks
in the future, it is important that we understand
why and, if appropriate, Bush should accept some
responsibility for the consequences.
full explanation of the nation's apathy can only
come from the Independent Commission. It must
exercise the broadest possible man-date, as envisioned
by its creators Senators John McCain (Republican,
Arizona) and Joe Lieberman (Democrat, Connecticut).
If politics drives this commission inquiry, each
party may try to exempt its own president from
review (a quid pro quo), and national leadership
won't become an issue. Unfortunately the brunt
of the responsibility will then fall on intelligence
agencies, the FBI, and immigration. If this happens,
we will lose an important lesson in national leadership
and accountability at the very highest level of
question remains: will the commission be truly
"independent" and have national leadership as
a major focus? Or will it be overwhelmed with
partisan wrangling and White House control over
information and scope? If the White House has
nothing to hide, why did it resist the Commission
and then make such an issue over its composition
and subpoena power? Perhaps the Commission should
pay close attention to Washington Post columnist
Jim Hoagland's prediction:
Kissinger is too fiercely protective of his reputation
at this point in his life to have taken on a whitewash
or a fool's errand involving this great national
a need for continued interest by the public, media,
and families of September 11 victims. If the Commission
is denied access to information on what the White
House knew and when, it should simply tell Congress
that it can't do the job under those circumstances.
would have been useful for Congress to add the
Comptroller General of the United States as a
commission member. The Comptroller General is
an independent, nonpartisan member of the legislative
branch, has a broad background in government,
and much investigative talent to bring to the
the Commission is completed, the Congress can
ask the Comptroller General to present a periodic
appraisal of whether its recommendations are being
consid-ered and acted upon. There is precedent
for this in the successful Commission on Government
Procurement. Unlike the terrorism commission we've
been discussing, procurement recommendations didn't
require a national catastrophe to be acted upon.
Hall dedicated this article to the victims of
September 11. He was the Group Director of
the U.S. General Accounting Office on national
security matters, a Harvard University graduate
in Advanced Management Program, a WWII vet, and
is currently the author of numerous articles and
the best-selling book How the Experts Win at Bridge.
Posted: April 15, 2004