Sorting Through The Accusations

Discussion in 'Politics' started by slammajamma, Mar 27, 2004.

  1. Sorting Through the Accusations
    March 26, 2004 1921 GMT


    The United States is in the process of picking apart the intelligence and political failures that led up to the attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. on Sept. 11, 2001. This is an unprecedented process. Normally such reviews occur after the war has ended. In this case, the review was made necessary by the president's failure to clean house after Sept. 11. That said, the truth of the matter would appear to be more complex than the simplistic charges being traded. The fact is, in our view, the Bush and Clinton policies were far more similar than they were different. We are not quite certain who we have insulted with that claim.


    Conducting a highly public inquiry and debate over the origins of a war while that war is being conducted would appear to be one of the most self-destructive exercises imaginable. No reasonable person could argue that mistakes were not made prior to Sept. 11, 2001, any more than it could be argued that mistakes were not made before Dec. 7, 1941. There is no question but that the intelligence system failed to predict the event and that it was supposed to.

    But just as the Pearl Harbor inquiry was carried out after the war, so as not to interfere with the war effort, it would seem reasonable that the Sept. 11 inquiries should take place after the war is over. Officials and former officials hurling charges against each other in a public display of disunity does not seem to serve the national interest. There were secret investigations and discussions before World War II ended, but the public report by Congress was not released until July 1946 and not really undertaken in earnest until after the war ended.

    It has been argued that the unlimited nature of this war makes waiting for the end impossible. But this war is not unique in appearing to be potentially endless. Only with the benefit of hindsight can one make the argument that previous wars would be temporally contained. As British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey so poignantly stated in 1914 -- at the start of World War I, the shortest of the 20th century's major conflicts -- "The lights are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime." The review could have waited.

    However, in all fairness, it should be pointed out that George W. Bush set himself up for this, although not in the way his critics charge. One of the things that President Franklin D. Roosevelt did was to clean house after the Pearl Harbor attack. This housecleaning was not necessarily fair. Adm. Husband Kimmel, Commander in Chief, Pacific (CINCPAC), for example, was fired even though a strong case could be made that he was less responsible than others for Pearl Harbor. Nevertheless, Pearl Harbor happened on his watch and he was gone.

    It went deeper than that. Roosevelt wanted to signal that something had gone terribly wrong not only with one person but also with a generation of leaders. Relatively junior commanders Chester Nimitz and Dwight Eisenhower were catapulted into senior command positions. Not all of the old leaders were replaced -- consider Douglas MacArthur or George Marshall -- but there was a broad enough housecleaning that no one could escape the fact that the war had changed everything. You could argue that Roosevelt did this to protect himself, but if so, he was doing his job.

    President Bush did not clean house after Sept. 11. He kept the same team in place with some very minor second-tier shifts. There was no whirlwind of activity designed to bring in a fresh, wartime team using streamlined procedures. He went with the team he had. There was a defensible case to be made for this. The country was in a state of shock, and an upheaval in the intelligence and defense communities was perceived to be an unnecessary follow-on shock to public morale. Moreover, the battle was joined, and changing commanders in the middle of the battle was dangerous.

    Finally, there was a political aspect. The man who was institutionally responsible for detecting Sept. 11 was CIA Director George Tenet. He was 2001's Kimmel. Whether it was his fault or not, Sept. 11 was an intelligence failure. Tenet was in charge of intelligence, and it happened on his watch. Kimmel was sacked -- but Tenet was not a Bush appointee. He had been appointed by Bill Clinton. Bush began with a crippled presidency due to the Florida fiasco. He did not have the national authority of Roosevelt, and he badly needed bipartisan support. Bush obviously respected Tenet since he kept him on after his election. He might have decided to keep him on after Sept. 11 in order to help bulletproof his administration. Tenet was, after all, a Clinton appointee.

    The problem with this strategy was that, rather than deflect inquiries, it made them unavoidable. After Dec. 7, those directly and visibly responsible for Pearl Harbor -- excepting the president and his key political appointees -- were removed from the chain of command. After Sept. 11, those most directly and visibly responsible remained in the chain of command. If there were mistakes made, then the people who made those mistakes were still in control of huge parts of the war effort. The question of whether these people were competent could not be avoided.

    To put it a little differently: Unlike Roosevelt, Bush failed to armor himself against his political enemies. While Roosevelt, who had a lot more political weight in 1941-1942, successfully deflected political attacks by combining a sense of national emergency with a sense that he was taking steps to deal with the problem, Bush kept his team intact. That meant it was essential to examine their performance -- and their culpability, if any -- prior to Sept. 11.

    Bush argued that the United States was in a war, but he never shifted his administration into a wartime mode. Failure -- real or perceived -- was never punished. Bush's one administrative innovation, Homeland Security, moves at a snail's pace. The armed forces did not undergo massive expansion, and the intelligence community was not torn apart and rebuilt in an emergency measure.

    The war began with a massive surprise attack. Bush said there was a war going on, but somehow Bush never appeared to be reconfiguring his team for war. It undermined his ability to demand a pass until after the war was over because he sometimes did not act as if a war were going on. This has been noticed. Many Americans do not consider the Bush administration's "war on terror" to be a war at all.

    What is most ironic is that an administration regarded as being so highly politicized has been, in fact, so politically incompetent. It is as if the administration never understood that this moment was coming and never prepared for it. It is particularly amazing because the charges against Bush administration -- at least in the way they have been framed -- are so weak. The administration is essentially being charged with two things: first, that it came into office obsessed with Iraq, to the extent that it was considering invading Iraq from the very first meetings it had on national security. Second, it is charged with failing to heed intelligence warnings about al Qaeda, downplaying the threat and therefore not taking actions that might have prevented the attack. Implicit in both these charges is the notion that Bush policies were fundamentally different from Clinton policies -- and that the Clinton policies were superior.

    There is no question but that the Bush administration had a focus on Iraq and considered invading Iraq. The explanation that has been given is that this was the desire to complete Bush Senior's job. The actual answer does not require strained readings of Sigmund Freud. The fact is that the Bush administration was simply continuing the Clinton administration's policies on Iraq, virtually without change.

    Continued on next post
  2. The very first briefings Bush was given when he took office had to have been about Iraq. That is because U.S. and British aircraft were carrying out constant combat operations over Iraq, patrolling the no-fly zones. These missions had been carried out from the end of Desert Storm -- during the administration of President George H. W. Bush -- throughout the Clinton years, under U.N. mandate. The Clinton administration at times intensified these attacks. In December 1998, for example, it carried out Operation Desert Fox in response to Saddam Hussein's refusal to allow U.N. weapons inspectors into the country. The Clinton administration also attempted on various occasions to overthrow Hussein through covert operations; Clinton also continued sanctions on Iraq.

    None of these efforts were effective in bringing about change, but Clinton did not discontinue the combat operations, sanctions or desultory covert operations. Although it was generally felt that these were unsuccessful, Clinton was trapped by a lack of alternatives. He did not want to mount a full invasion. At the same time, he did not want to halt the ineffective actions against Hussein and signal American weakness, undermine the regional alliance and embolden Hussein. The patrols continued, as did occasional bombings of Iraq.

    Given that the United States had been involved in combat operations in Iraq for more than a decade, one would hope that the first topic on President Bush's foreign policy agenda would have been Iraq. What else would it have been? Bush shared the view of the previous two presidents that halting operations was not possible and bringing Hussein's government down was a major U.S. foreign policy goal. The new administration obviously conducted an early review of how to bring closure to the U.S. Iraq policy.

    In this review, it would have been noted that the Clinton policy had failed to achieve the stated goals. Continuing the policy of ineffective combat and covert operations coupled with sanctions was soaking up U.S. military and intelligence resources without achieving any goal. Bush accepted Clinton's premise that simply walking away was not an option. That left only intensified military options, the most certain of which would be an invasion.

    Anyone thinking about Iraq in the spring of 2001 knew that the Clinton policy could not continue indefinitely. Obviously one faction was going to argue that since the United States could not walk away, the only solution was an invasion. That appears to be what several people thought, including Donald Rumsfeld. What is most noteworthy is that they were -- for the time being at least -- overruled. There was no invasion, nor any buildup in the region for an invasion. Bush decided, essentially by default, to continue Clinton's Iraq policy.

    Now that may have been a defensible position, all things considered, or one could charge that Bush was continuing a failed foreign policy begun by his father. But charging that the Bush administration was unreasonably obsessed with overthrowing Hussein -- given the context which the Clinton and Bush Sr. administrations had created for them -- is truly stretching things.

    If the Bush administration was obsessed with anything, it was China. When Donald Rumsfeld became Secretary of Defense, he said that the new focus of U.S. defense policy would be Asia, and plans were rapidly drawn for redeploying forces there. The dominant event between Bush's inauguration and Sept. 11 was the crisis with China over the downing of the EP-3 aircraft over Hainan Island. Asia was reinforced. Iraq was not.

    So too with the charge that Bush had failed to take al Qaeda seriously. To be more precise, there had been a persistent failure -- in both the Clinton and Bush administrations -- to take al Qaeda and radical Islamists seriously. Part of the fault lay directly with the CIA and the manner in which it collected intelligence and analyzed it -- but Bush's CIA director was the same as Clinton's. Blaming Bush for unique neglect of al Qaeda for eight months, after Clinton's eight years, is hard to fathom. Indeed, part of the fault lies with some of the terrorism experts now critical of Bush. When their record is examined, many did warn about al Qaeda, but over the course of their careers they had issued similar warnings about so many groups that it was hard to distinguish the real from the fantastic. It was a profession that had cried wolf too many times.

    The Bush failure was the same as the Clinton failure. Both administrations looked at al Qaeda as the heir of the Palestinian terrorist movement of the 1970s and 1980s. They would set off a few bombs, kill no more than a few dozen people, hijack planes and represent an irritant and a nuisance far more than a strategic threat. Their rhetoric was extreme, but no more extreme than that of other groups that never were able to match rhetoric with action.

    The misevaluation of al Qaeda was a systemic failure that ran from the CIA to the American public. We recall no public outcry for increased expenditures on intelligence and counterterrorism in the 1990s. Nor was there massive public unrest when -- after attacks against Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, the East African embassies or the USS Cole in Yemen, all of which claimed American lives -- a major effort to destroy al Qaeda was not undertaken. As a nation, the United States calmly accepted the danger. For the Clinton administration to claim that it had devoted major resources and made a great effort to hunt down and destroy al Qaeda is simply not true. To their credit, both former Defense Secretary William Cohen and Secretary of State Madeline Albright testified this week that their efforts against al Qaeda were both thin and constrained by public disinterest. In its policy of inaction, the Clinton team was simply tracking the American public's mood.

    There are two charges that can be legitimately leveled against George W. Bush. The first is that, in spite of knowing that the Clinton policy on Iraq was ineffective, he neither ended the containment of Hussein nor moved to destroy him. Bush carried on Clinton's policies unchanged. The second charge is that Bush did not increase the level of effort taken to destroy al Qaeda, but essentially followed the Clinton administration's policy of watching and hoping for a low-risk, low-cost moment to act -- a moment that Osama bin Laden was too smart to give them.

    In our view, the most serious charge that can be made against Bush is not that he continued -- unchanged -- key Clinton policies before Sept. 11, but that he did not drastically reshape his administration for war after Sept. 11. He left in place the man who was responsible for the failure to understand, locate and destroy al Qaeda under President Bill Clinton and inexplicably left him and others in place, even after his failures became manifest on -- and after -- Sept. 11.

    This was, in our view, a serious error in judgment. It may be an unforgivable one. But to hold Bush's eight months in office as having been more responsible for al Qaeda's emergence than Clinton's eight years in office -- not to mention the Carter and Reagan administrations' responsibility for encouraging militant Islam -- strikes us as strange reasoning. Sept. 11 was planned, and it was being implemented while Clinton was president. Bush simply adopted wholesale -- and extended -- Clinton's errors.

    This is not an argument for Clinton or Bush. Given the mood of the country, it is unlikely that any president would have done much differently. Had either man proposed invading Afghanistan prior to Sept. 11, both would have been labeled as certifiably insane. The problem was rooted in the mind-set that had enamored the American people after the end of the Cold War: a belief that the world had become a safe place to live and that those who said otherwise were alarmist cranks.

    Sept. 11 was a systemic failure of the nation, for which both Democrats and Republicans are equally guilty. Bush's errors in judgment did not occur before the war, but after the war began. The current attempt to prove some spectacular failure by Bush before the war makes political sense, but it is intellectually incoherent and misses the places where Bush made genuine errors. Bush did fail. He failed to hold the intelligence community responsible for its failures, tear it apart and rebuild it. He failed to find a Nimitz to run the CIA. We regard this as an enormously serious charge against him. For the rest, he shares responsibility with his predecessor -- and with the rest of us.

  3. This is only "speculation" on my part, but I would suggest that the reason that CIA Director George Tenet is still around after having had so many terrorist attacks occur on his watch is because he knows that Bush had no sense of urgency regarding terrorism and al-Quada.

    Now, you can probably fault George Tenet for not being careful about "crying wolf". In other words, you cry wolf often enough and in an undifferentiated way, then that is not a real service to the President. You really have to say, "Mr. President, you know I warned you about this 2 months ago, but now this is really serious." You have to grab him by the collar and say, "Wev'e got to do something about this." I'm afraid that Tenet didn't do that. So I attribute it not to conspiracy theories, but to lack of experience, a kind of arrogance that says, "Who care what Sandy Berger thinks," and just gross incompetence.

    Now "gross incompetence" is not a nice thing to say about a President, but he had no experience in this at all, and the people he surrounded himself with ( such as NSA Condi Rice ) had no experience with it as well. Remember, Condi Rice's expertise was the Soviet Union. She was from the "Cold War" mentality like Rumsfeld and so many others.

    That being said, it is rather upsetting that a briefing on August 6th, 2001 in which the title of the briefing was, "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the US," and that briefing had the word "Hijacking" in it . . . went unheeded.

    Gross incompetence.
    I think so.