Monday, June 23, 2008

Those Good Old '9/10 Mindsets': McCain & The White House Call The Kettle Black

Condi studies briefing paper on Al Qaeda; Twin towers burn
Inconveniently for the Bush administration and presidential wannabe John McCain, the historic record showing that the White House slept while Osama bin Laden and his merry band of terrorists planned the 9/11 attacks continues to grow, which effectively undercuts allegations that Barack Obama (and John Kerry before him in 2004) have dangerously naive "9/10" mindsets."

The GOP noise machine is working hard to drown out any mention of this record of incompetence and failure by, among other things, calling Barack Obama's national security bona fides into question.

The presumptive Democratic nominee is catching flak for correctly asserting that federal prisons and courts worked just fine after the first World Trade Center attack in 1993 in comments following last week's Supreme Court ruling. The top court struck down as unconstitutional for the third time the rump legal system cobbled together by the White House that has resulted in indefinite detentions at Guantanamo Bay, including many innocents swept up in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the post-9/11 frenzy, but only a small handful of prosecutions of real terrorists six-plus years later.

And now Rudy Giuliani, nicely tanned but snarky as ever after taking some time off following an ignominious crash-and-burn in a primary race predicated on his supposedly awesome national-security chops, is shilling for McCain despite his own severe case of "9/10 mindset."

Let's be clear from the jump that the Clinton administration does not get a free pass. This is because:

* With a few notable exceptions that I'll note further down, America's key intelligence agencies -- the CIA, FBI and NSA -- slept contentedly during Clinton's eight-year tenure except when they were fighting amongst themselves. This is exactly what they had been doing during the administration of George H.W. Bush, himself a former CIA director and a card-carrying member of an old-boy network that was a remains resistant to wholesale intelligence agency reforms.

* While some of Clinton's advisors were alarmed about the threat from Al Qaeda, especially after the horrific bombings of two U.S. embassies in West Africa in 1998, they were preoccupied with the Monica Lewinsky scandal and impeachment threat. Only after the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, which killed 17 U.S. sailors, were they brought to a semblance of high alert.

The crux of the debate over what was done to warn people in high places comes down to the 10-month period beginning with the transition between administrations in the weeks before George Bush's inauguration through to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

It is here that the Bush White House -- and McCain by extension -- could plausibly claim that warnings were never received about an Al Qaeda threat on the homeland, but the record screams otherwise. This accounts for the cacophonous Republican pushback whenever 9/11 comes up, as well as explains the administration's stubborn refusal to go along with forming a 9/11 Commission because an investigation would reveal its manifold failures and lies. The White House sort of climbed on board only after a group of World Trade Center widows shamed it into doing so.

Add to that the fact that Bush's assertions during the 2000 campaign that the intelligence community would be shaped up and he would push back against the threats that the new millennium would bring was empty rhetoric.

Clinton administration officials, notably Richard Clarke, counterterrorism coordinator in the Clinton White House and for the first two years of Bush's tenure, have testified and written that urgent and bluntly-delivered intelligence briefings were given in December 2000 and January 2001 to Condoleezza Rice, who became Bush's national security advisor, and incoming officials. Additional testimony to that effect will be offered this week to a congressional committee.

As Richard Wright meticulously documents in Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, by August 2001 the CIA knew that three of the men who were later identified as 9/11 hijackers were in the U.S. but refused to share the information with the FBI. Meanwhile, the FBI had separately learned that two other hijackers also were in the U.S. and had in its midst one John O'Neill. Director of the bureau's New York office, the combative O'Neill had intensely studied the roots of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and may have had the best sense of what OBL and AQ were planning of anyone who did not have an Arab name.

In the case of the CIA, the deeply troubling information that its agents had developed was deemed not important enough by higher ups before it reached the highest ups, and in any event not something that it would share with the FBI, while FBI higher ups also refused to share their dope with the CIA and considered O'Neill to be a troublemaker.

While the buck never stopped in a White House allergic to taking responsibility for anything bad, Condi Rice deserves special scorn for her own "9/10 mindset."

In addition to having snoozed through the transition team briefings in December 2000 and January 2001, the president's national security advisor was focused on more traditional threats over the summer of 2001 and was not paying much attention to more contemporaneous threats.

Rice also had a pretty bad case of amnesia. She was unable to recall a July 10, 2001 meeting in her White House office with CIA Director George Tenet and J. Cofer Black, the State Department's counterterrorism director, who say they told Rice in no uncertain terms of the OBL-AQ threat. (The White House covered up the meeting when the 9/11 Commission came calling but finally acknowledged it in October 2006.)

Finally, on August 6, 2001, with at least five of the AQ hijackers in country, Bush was warned at a daily briefing at his Texas ranch that OBL and AQ were determined to strike the U.S. The president's response was to go fishing and he never discussed this alarming information with Rice.

This may help explain Bush's pained look when aide Andrew Card interrupted the president, who was reading a book to a Florida kindergarten class on the morning of 9/11, after the second jetliner crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. In perhaps the most infamous pregnant pause of the young millennium, the president appeared to be confused and indecisive, and continued reading The Pet Goat for another seven minutes before getting up.

By the way, John O'Neill retired from the FBI and went to work as the World Trade Center's chief of security on 9/10. He perished the next day in the collapse of the North Tower.

Photos (top) Stephen Crowley/New York Times;
Thomas Hoepker/Magnum

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