In its miniseries about the missteps that led
to 9/11, ABC spared not only Bill Clinton but also George W. Bush. Our hawkish
War President had almost nine months to respond to the USS Cole attack and did
nothing, even as his security staff fired off memo after memo fingering Osama
bin Laden and urging retaliation.
Clinton claims, feebly, that he didn't have enough evidence to pin the
October 2000 attack on bin Laden. But Bush certainly did.
On March 2, 2001, then-senior White House counterterrorism official Roger Cressey
sent a memo to then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice relaying intelligence
that bin Laden had gloated about the attack on the Cole in a poem he read at
his son's wedding. "BIN LADEN on the USS COLE" was the title of the
But Rice couldn't be bothered with stuff that happened on Clinton's watch.
Undeterred, Cressey a few weeks later followed up with Rice's deputy Steve
Hadley. He wrote, "We know all we need to about who did the attack to make
policy decision." His March 22 email – written under the heading, "Need
Terrorism DC Next Week" – fell on deaf ears.
Two days later, White House terror czar Richard Clarke weighed in on the
subject. He wrote both Rice and Hadley that the Yemeni prime minister had
told the State Department that while Yemen was not saying so publicly, Yemen
was 99 percent certain that bin Laden was responsible for the Cole attack.
His March 24 memo, "Yemen's View on the USS Cole," only elicited more
from Bush's top security aides.
By the summer, Clarke finally had the iron-clad proof he needed to convince
Rice and the president to take action against bin Laden. On June 21 – less
than three months before the 9-11 attacks – Clarke fired off another memo
to Rice and Hadley alerting them that a new al-Qaeda video claimed responsibility
for the Cole. His memo couldn't have been more plain: "Al Qida[sic] Video
Claims Responsibility for Cole Attack."
Later that month, two Saudi jihadists arrested by Bahraini authorities
during the summer threat spike told their captors that their al-Qaeda
training camps in Afghanistan had held celebratory parties over the Cole
By now, Clarke's hair was on fire. He dashed off another memo to Rice on
Rice again did nothing – except demote Clarke, that is.
Why were Bush's neocon security advisers so insouciant about terrorism? They
were still fighting the last war. Obsessed over Russia, China, Iraq and
missile defense, the cold warriors refused to give an audience to the career
White House security experts who presciently warned about the new greater
threat from al-Qaeda terrorists.
The White House before 9/11 held some 100 Cabinet meetings on Iraq, Russia,
missile defense and other Bush-41 hobbyhorses, and only one on terrorism.
Rice insists al-Qaeda was priority No. 1, but a speech she'd planned to
deliver on Sept. 11, 2001, contained no mention of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden
or Islamic terrorists. The focus of the policy speech, before the neocon
School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, was
missile defense, and not of the passenger airliner variety.
In fact, Rice overlooked al-Qaeda in every public speech she made between
Jan. 20, 2001, and Sept. 11, 2001, a Nexis search reveals. Even stretching
all the way back to early 1993, when the World Trade Center was first hit,
Rice mentions al-Qaeda not a single time in any speech, article or media
By comparison, she cites Iraq more than 1,000 times from 1993 to 2001.
And the same misguided set of priorities were in place over at the Pentagon
in the run-up to 9/11. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his
neoconspirators were just as stuck in the Cold War. Al-Qaeda hardly
registered on their radar screen, either – even though the attack on the
Cole was arguably an act of war. Al-Qaeda killed 17 U.S. sailors and injured
more than 30 while nearly sinking a Navy destroyer anchored in the port of
Aden, Yemen. Yet there was no response from the Pentagon at all.
"Secretary Rumsfeld did not order the preparation of any new military
against either al-Qaeda or the Taliban before 9/11," states a staff report
released by the 9/11 Commission in 2004.
Zero. Zip. Nada. Rummy apparently was too busy drawing up plans to invade
When Bush stepped into office, he clearly had learned nothing from the
previous administration's grave mistake of underestimating bin Laden, attack
after bigger terror attack. Nor did he learn anything from his own mistake
of blowing him off after the Cole.
Bush now crows about taking out "the mastermind of the USS Cole bombing
was the chief of al-Qaeda's operations in the Persian Gulf." That would
Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, captured in 2002 – only after the 9-11 attacks.
Again, Bush is fighting the last war, always one step behind. If he had
focused on bin Laden and al-Qaeda as the career White House security experts
were pleading for him to do before 9-11, if he had retaliated for the brazen
attack on a U.S. warship by an enemy that had already declared war on us,
perhaps 9-11 could have been diverted.
Even after 9/11, Bush didn't go after bin Laden hard enough. He let him live
another day – 1,830 days to be exact. He's failed to decapitated the
al-Qaeda leadership, because he got distracted once again fighting a
previous war – in this case his daddy's. And in doing so he's only played
right into his hands of bin Laden, who is making great hay of the
"crusaders" attacking and occupying (admittedly, for no good reason)
seat of the old Islamic caliphate.
If a President Gore had attacked the wrong country and blown off bin Laden
for another five years, we'd never hear the end of it from Rush Limbaugh and
Sean Hannity and the rest of the Koolaid crowd. Or from me. Yet President
Bush gets a pass? "Patriots," my ass.