President Obama is under fire for any number of things, but the one that appears to excite reporters the most is his decision to take a few days’ vacation. According to Politico,
“Images of Obama fundraising, golfing and on vacation — especially in such a well-heeled location — undercut his message that the economy is his ‘singular focus,’” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist.
Last week, a few hours after the White House announced the president would head to Martha’s Vineyard Thursday for a 10-day vacation, the Republican National Committee sent out a press release querying, “And this is the same White House that says they are focused on the economy?”
Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich told Fox News host Sean Hannity that Obama “ought to cancel his vacation — period.” And before Tim Pawlenty dropped out of the presidential race, he also urged Obama to skip his trip, “call the Congress back into session and get to work.”
Even The Washington Post’s liberal opinion writer Colbert I. King opined last weekend that “this is no time for a president to dwell in splendid seclusion among the rich and famous.”
“No, Mr. President, Martha’s Vineyard is the last place in the world you should visit next week,” King wrote.
All this criticism reminds me of funny moment I experienced 10 years ago this August in East Hampton, New York. I was driving home from the beach and listening to the amazingly great radio station they have out there (92.9 and 96.9)—a throwback to my blissful youth listening to WNEW-FM—and the DJ was going on and on about how he could not believe that George W. Bush, then president, was going to get an entire month off at his mini-ranch, no doubt “clearing brush,” whatever that means, when there was so much work to be done.
I don’t remember the guy’s name, but I remember he went on for 10 or 15 minutes about how difficult it was for most Americans to make do with just two weeks vacation while the average in Western Europe is six weeks. By the end of that August, though Bush had only been in office since January 20, he had already managed 96 days of vacation time, or nearly 14 times as much as most Americans enjoyed during that period. As it happens, Bush ended up setting a presidential record for vacation days taken—977 days over the course of his two administrations or an unbelievable 33 percent of his presidency.*
We all know what happened at the end of Bush’s 2001 vacation, and that, dear reader, is the real reason for this column. With the coming 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, we are about to be treated to a great many attempts by conservatives, aided by a remarkably ahistorical mainstream media, to rewrite the history of those events. As with almost every significant aspect of the Bush presidency, its handling of 9/11 was a catastrophe from start to finish. To illustrate this one could pick almost any aspect of the Bush administration’s handling of those attacks—both in preparation in protecting the nation or its disastrous response that brought the world’s hatred upon our heads and involved us in an unnecessary and counterproductive war in Iraq and failed to do the necessary job in Afghanistan—as well as compromised civil liberties in the United States, among many other unhappy consequences.
Borrowing from a section of my 2004 tome, The Book on Bush, I’ve chosen below to focus on just a tiny portion of the Bush administration’s shocking combination of arrogance, ignorance, and incompetence in refusing to take seriously the very idea of an attack before it took place. My hope is to not only to help remind readers of the actual facts of this unhappy episode but also to stimulate discussion about the costs of allowing America’s security to be entrusted to people who cannot be bothered to take responsibilities of governance seriously.
As a candidate, George W. Bush complained that the Clinton administration had invited a challenge by failing to respond to previous terrorist attacks. For instance, one day after the October 12, 2000, attack on the USS Cole, candidate Bush proclaimed, “There must be a consequence.” Yet an FBI document dated January 26, 2001—six days after Bush took office—demonstrates that even though U.S. authorities discovered what they deemed to be clear evidence tying the Cole bombers to al Qaeda, Bush did nothing.
Five days later a commission headed by Gary Hart and Warren Rudman released a detailed report on the urgent steps necessary to begin the process of protecting the United States against a terrorist attack. “States, terrorists, and other disaffected groups will acquire weapons of mass destruction, and some will use them,” the report warned. “Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers.” Hart even presciently predicted that the country was vulnerable to “a weapon of mass destruction in a high-rise building.”
The authors called for the creation of a Department of Homeland Security combining and superseding the functions of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Border Patrol, and the Customs Service, a recommendation converted into legislation by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT). Instead of embracing the plan, or seizing the initiative himself, Bush deliberately buried it. He announced a governmentwide review to be overseen by Vice President Dick Cheney and promised, “I will periodically chair a meeting of the National Security Council to review these efforts.”
In fact, apparently neither Cheney’s review nor Bush’s chairing of NSC meetings on the topic ever took place. When White House press secretary Ari Fleischer was asked to list the vice president’s policy portfolio at a press briefing on June 29, 2001, no mention was made of the review. When a reporter asked a specific question about whether Cheney might be heading task forces “after energy,” Fleischer responded in the negative. The Washington Post later reported that no review ever took place; the problem was simply laid aside.
In contrast to the increasingly panicked Clinton terrorism team, top Bush advisers held only two meetings devoted to terrorism during the entire nine-month period before September 11. Conservative Republican Newt Gingrich, who had helped create the Hart-Rudman panel with Bill Clinton when he was Speaker of the House, was heard to complain, “The administration actually slowed down response to Hart-Rudman when momentum was building in the spring.” Meanwhile, U.S. military commanders asked for additional funds to meet the domestic terrorist threat, and the Senate Armed Services Committee attempted to reprogram $600 million from Bush’s beloved missile defense. The response: a promised presidential veto. The date: September 9, 2001.
After the cataclysmic events of September 11, Bush administration officials adopted the public stance that an attack like those on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had been all but unimaginable up until the moments they took place. Taking refuge in hyperspecificity, President Bush explained, “Never [in] anybody’s thought processes . . . about how to protect America did we ever think that the evildoers would fly not one but four commercial aircraft into precious U.S. targets . . . never.” Condoleezza Rice followed a similar line: “I don’t think anybody could have predicted that . . . [Al Qaeda] would try to use a hijacked airplane as a missile.”
As Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) pointed out, however, “The September 11 attacks were incredibly depraved but not, as it turns out, unimaginable.” The Sunday Times (London) quoted a British senior Foreign Office source saying, “The Americans knew of plans to use commercial aircraft in unconventional ways, possibly as flying bombs.” And in June 2001 the German intelligence agency, BND, informed the Americans that Middle Eastern terrorists were planning to hijack commercial aircraft and use them as weapons to attack “American and Israeli symbols which stand out.”
A member of the National Intelligence Council, the U.S. Intelligence Community’s, or IC’s, center for mid-term and long-term strategic thinking, later told the Associated Press that the plane-as-weapon scenario had long been considered in U.S. intelligence circles: “If you ask anybody—could terrorists convert a plane into a missile?—nobody would have ruled that out.” Tom Clancy even wrote a novel in which just such an attack takes place, Debt of Honor. It was published in 1994 and sold millions of copies.
In retrospect, many of the dots were simply waiting to be connected. Back in 1995 an accomplice of Ramzi Yousef’s who had trained as a pilot at three separate U.S. flight schools revealed that the mastermind behind the 1993 World Trade Center attack planned to hide bombs on twelve U.S.-bound airliners and crash an explosive-laden airline into the CIA. Six years later the National Intelligence Council received a Library of Congress-prepared report warning that al Qaeda suicide bombers “could crash-land an aircraft packed with high explosives” into the Pentagon, the CIA building, or the White House. This followed on an August 1998 intelligence report suggesting that a group of unidentified Arabs planned to fly an explosive-laden plane from a foreign country into the World Trade Center. These documents were passed along to the FBI and FAA.
At the same time, in May and June of that year, the intelligence community began to acquire intelligence information indicating that Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network intended to strike inside the United States, with the likely targets deemed to be New York and Washington; that summer, the target was narrowed down to the World Trade Center. This plot, however, was deemed too outrageous to be taken seriously, despite the fact that in 1994, French commandos had stormed a hijacked airliner, foiling a kamikaze attack on the Eiffel Tower. Intelligence forces in the Philippines had discovered similar plans in 1995.
Earlier in 2001, moreover, Italian military and police forces took seriously a report that Al Qaeda terrorists might try to crash a plane into the G-7 meeting place and kill all of the assembled Western leaders, and therefore positioned anti-aircraft missiles all around the city. President Bush decided to spend his nights on a U.S. aircraft carrier offshore, while the other Western leaders present opted to stay on ships as well. When the joint panel of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees released the nonredacted portions of its inquiry into the September 11 attacks in late July 2003, we also learned that the agencies had uncovered a message between al Qaeda operatives in the United States, dated December 1998, that read, “Plans to hijack U.S. aircraft proceeding well. Two individuals have successfully evaded checkpoints in dry run at NY airport.”
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Bush himself personally received two major briefings during the summer of 2001, one in the White House Situation Room and another on his ranch in Crawford. Each warned that a major terrorist attack against the United States, possibly carried out by al Qaeda, and possibly including hijacked planes, was likely in the offing. The latter memo read to Bush was entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”—not “Bin Laden Determined to Strike U.S.,” as Ari Fleischer would later argue. Condoleezza Rice would likewise claim, by way of partial exoneration, “The overwhelming bulk of the evidence was that this was an attack that was likely to take place overseas.” It was not.
The warnings to Bush appear to have been based on information passed along by British, German, Israeli, Moroccan, Russian, Jordanian, and Egyptian intelligence, as well as by the U.S. intelligence community’s own considerable resources. According to the Senate Intelligence Committee, the memo’s authors worried “that members of Al Qaeda, including some U.S. citizens, had resided in or traveled to the United States for years and that the group apparently maintained a support structure here.” It raised the possibility that bin Laden would hijack planes and noted patterns of activity consistent with such a plan, as well as information acquired in May 2001 indicating a group of bin Laden supporters was planning attacks in the United States with explosives. “Something really spectacular is going to happen here, and it’s going to happen soon,” the government’s top counterterrorism official, Richard Clarke, stated.
What did George Bush do after receiving his second serious warning of imminent danger to the nation whose protection and defense he had sworn to uphold? According to reporter Ron Suskind, Bush replied to the CIA briefer, "All right. You’ve covered your ass, now," and spent the rest of the day fishing.
Apparently nothing at all could cut short this president’s month-long August vacation.
*Correction, August 19, 2011: This column originally stated that President Bush was on vacation for 40 percent of his presidency.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also a columnist for The Nation, The Forward, and The Daily Beast. His newest book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama. This column won the 2011 Mirror Award for Best Digital Commentary.