Flying under the political radar of a media obsessed with New Hampshire voters and missing weapons of mass destruction is the story of the White House’s nearly successful campaign to quiet all criticism of its handling of the terrorist threat, pre-9/11. Every time a political figure raises the question of whether Bush and company might have been able to prevent the attacks if only they had been a little bit more on the ball, the Republican attack machine goes into hyperdrive to shut them down. Now the president and his allies in Congress are seeking to ensure that the 9/11 investigatory commission — whose work they have sought to undermine at every turn — will not have sufficient time to complete a thorough investigation. One wonders just what frightens them so much.
The commission has been given only three months to complete its review of 200 interviews and 2 million documents, many of which had to be pried loose from an uncooperative executive branch that has done nearly everything it could to frustrate the commission’s purpose. As former Commissioner Max Cleland, a former Democratic senator from Georgia, told Eric Boehlert of Salon last November: "I think the White House has made it darn near impossible to get full access to the documents by May, much less get a full report out analyzing those documents by May." The commission has requested a 60-day extension, which would place the report date uncomfortably close to the 9/11-anniversary-timed Republican convention in September 2004. Obviously, the administration will do everything it can to avoid that, and House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has already announced that he "can't imagine a situation where they get an extension."
In the meantime, the right-wing spin machine is doing its darndest to ensure that any criticism of the president and his administration’s lack of action to defend the country before 9/11 are ruled out of political bounds. And much of the media seems willing to cooperate. When retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark opined that “I think the record's going to show he [President Bush] could have done a lot more to have prevented 9/11 than he did,” and that as president, Clark would do more, Fox’s Sean Hannity termed the general’s statement "reckless and irresponsible." Tim Russert of "Meet the Press" tried to shift the blame to the Clinton administration. And Ann Coulter — who oughta know — called Clark "crazier than a March hare."
But anyone who studies the record with any care will know that there were any number of moments when it would have been possible for a more alert administration to intervene in such a fashion as to interfere and quite possibly thwart the hijackers’ purposes. Here are just a few:
- What if Bush's National Security Agency had translated on Sept. 10, 2001 – instead of Sept. 12 – disturbing Arabic intercepts that referred to phrases "tomorrow is the zero hour" and "the match is about to begin"?
- What if the FBI had acted on the Phoenix memo and aggressively investigated — and arrested potential terrorists and illegal aliens who were taking flight lessons for the purpose of hijacking?
- What if the CIA had received and acted upon the Minneapolis memo, and combined with the FBI to apply its vast knowledge of al Qaeda operations to break up the U.S.-based network of fliers?
- What if the FBI and CIA had not mysteriously decided to drop their investigations of the whereabouts of hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar who, following their return from an al Qaeda planning meeting, continued live and work under their own names in San Diego?
- What if Bush and Cheney had seized upon the recommendations of the Hart/Rudman Commission rather ignoring – and pretending to review – them?
- What if Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had agreed to the Senate and House Armed Services committee’s request to reprogram $800 million from missile defense to terrorism protection?
- What if Bush’s National Security Council had carefully studied the evolution of terrorist threats: to hide bombs on 12 U.S.-bound airliners and crash an explosive-laden airline into the CIA; to crash-land an aircraft packed with high explosives into the Pentagon, CIA or the White House; and crash a plane into the Eiffel Tower or to the Genoan castle where Western leaders met in spring 2001?
- What if the same NSC had taken seriously the recommendations of Clinton counterterrorism chief Richard c= Clarke to institute an aggressive program in order to: attack the financial network that supported the terrorists, freezing its assets and exposing its phony charities, and arrest their personnel; offer help to such disparate nations as Uzbekistan, the Philippines and Yemen to combat al Qaeda forces; increase U.S. support for the Northern Alliance in their fight to overthrow the Taliban’s repressive regime; and institute special operations inside Afghanistan and bombing strikes against terrorist training camps?
- What if the Bush Treasury Department had taken a less indulgent view of the kind of money-laundering operations that support terrorist networks and worked with the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development to try to curb it?
- What if Secretary Rumsfeld had green-lighted the use of the CIA’s Predator surveillance plane over Osama bin Laden’s camps in Afghanistan, armed with Hellfire missiles?
- What if Attorney General John Ashcroft had taken the initiative in speeding up the FBI request to add 149 field agents, 200 analysts and 54 translators to its counterterrorism effort, instead of vetoing it entirely to focus on his higher priorities?
- What if Attorney General Ashcroft, instead of simply deciding not to fly commercial like the rest of us, persuaded the administration to institute an emergency program to improve airport security to prevent hijackers from reaching their targeted weapons?’
The administration and its allies rule all such questions out of order, going to extraordinary lengths to ensure they don’t enjoy any political traction. When the issue was first raised, back in 2002, Vice President Cheney termed all suggestions "incendiary," and "thoroughly irresponsible and totally unworthy of national leaders in a time of war," Even the usually apolitical Laura Bush got into the act by calling the questions about what the administration might have done as an attempt to “prey upon the emotions of people." But Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), former chairman of the Senate intelligence panel and co-chairman of the inquiry, had a different answer. "The attacks of Sept. 11 could have been prevented if the right combination of skill, cooperation, creativity and some good luck had been brought to task."
And because of the success of the administration’s efforts to keep the commission from getting at truth—as well as a decided incuriosity on the part of the mass media, it’s likely we will never know. Apparently, that would suit the Bush administration just fine.
Eric Alterman is a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress and the co-author of The Book on Bush: How George W (Mis)Leads America.