WASHINGTON While President Bush and his security advisers obsessed
over Russia, China, Iraq and missile defense before 9/11, Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld and his neoconspirators were just as stuck in the Cold War over
at the Pentagon. Al-Qaida hardly registered on their radar screen, either.
We know this because the 9/11 Commission just told us, although few in the
media have seized on it.
Turn to page 11 of the panel's report on "The Military," released
March 23. There you'll find this little gem, which further confirms White House
terror czar Richard Clarke's claim that Bush made fighting al-Qaida a low priority:
"Lower-level officials in the Office of the Secretary of Defense told
us that they thought the new team was focused on other issues, and was not especially
interested in their counterterrorism agenda."
What other issues? "Working with the Russians on agreements to dissolve
the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and preparing a new nuclear arms control
pact," the report said.
Counterterrorism policy, meanwhile, was on the slow track, even though al-Qaida
had hit the USS Cole just months earlier. In fact, there wasn't even anyone
formulating it before 9/11. The guy in charge left with the Clinton administration,
and Rumsfeld didn't bother to replace him.
The Pentagon official responsible for counterterrorism policy the assistant
secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict (SOLIC)
"left on Jan. 20, 2001, and had not been replaced when the Pentagon
was hit on Sept. 11," the report said.
Not only that, Rumsfeld didn't ask the outgoing official to brief him on terrorism,
even though he'd offered.
Clarke says the White House before 9/11 held 100 Cabinet meetings on Iraq,
Russia, missile defense and other Bush-41 hobbyhorses, and only one on terrorism.
And now we know the same damn thing was going on over at the Pentagon.
Clarke, who was booted from those Cabinet meetings, wasn't the only career
official who complained about the new administration's indifference to warnings
about the al-Qaida threat. CIA officials also got the cold shoulder from the
White House whenever they sounded alarms. Some Bush policymakers even doubted
the validity of their intelligence about al-Qaida but never about Iraq,
Two veteran CIA officers deeply involved in al-Qaida issues "were so
worried about an impending disaster that one of them told us that they considered
resigning and going public with their concerns," said the 9/11 panel's
report on "Intelligence Policy."
Yet National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice insists al-Qaida was priority
She says this even though a speech she'd planned to deliver on Sept. 11, 2001,
contained no mention of al-Qaida, 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 commercial
"You're talking about one speech," White House spokesman Scott McClellan
tried to spin reporters after the Washington Post broke the embarrassing news
Actually, Rice overlooks al-Qaida in every public speech she made between
Jan. 20, 2001, and Sept. 11, 2001, a search of federal transcripts archived
by Lexis-Nexis reveals. Even stretching all the way back to early 1993, when
the World Trade Center was first hit, Rice mentions al-Qaida not a single time
in any speech, article or media interview (although she did manage to name "Osama
bin Laden" in a 2000 chat with a Detroit radio jock).
By comparison, she cites Iraq more than 1,000 times from 1993 to 2001.
But wait. There's more.
Rice's top aide on Afghan policy, Zal Khalilzad, also has downplayed al-Qaida.
A year before joining the White House, the former oil lobbyist pooh-poohed the
terror network's power to hurt America on its own, without state sponsorship,
even after it blew up the U.S. embassies in Africa and the USS Cole all on its
"Clearly, bin Laden is a dangerous terrorist who must be captured and
prosecuted," Khalilzad said. "Yet the focus on him, rather than on
the trend he represents, is misguided. Bin Laden is a wealthy, capable and dedicated
foe, but hardly an evil genius or charismatic leader who single-handedly is
waging war against the United States."
After 9/11, when that same non-genius, non-leader utterly punished America
with just 19 soldiers, you'd think Khalilzad would have finally wised up to
the al-Qaida threat. Instead, he advised Bush to go after the Taliban.
The White House dusted off a plan he'd drafted earlier as an oil lobbyist to
oust the UN-sanctioned regime and clear the way for what he called a "valuable
energy corridor" across Afghanistan and Pakistan, linking Caspian reserves
to profitable Asian markets, as I report in my new book, Crude Politics.
Unfortunately the plan had no provision for taking out bin Laden.
Khalilzad also lobbied with Rumsfeld and other neocons last decade to knock
off Saddam Hussein. After 9/11, not coincidentally, Bush made him his point
man for regime change in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
Coming into office, the Bushies had their own agenda, and protecting America
from al-Qaida was not high on it. The facts support Clarke, Clinton-loving profiteer
or not. And facts are stubborn things.