FrontPage | 9.13.12
By Alan W. Dowd
Vanity Fair’s Kurt
Eichenwald used the opinion page of The New York Times to revive the left’s tired
attack that the Bush administration failed to do enough to prevent 9/11.“Deafness before the Storm” is how the Times
headlined Eichenwald’s pathetic piece, which re-accuses and re-indicts the Bush
administration for “significantly more negligence than has been disclosed” with
regard to intelligence briefings and activities in the months leading up to
9/11. Eichenwald’s piece (and
companion book) does little to move the nation forward or enhance
the historical record. Indeed, this sort of 20-20 hindsight critique is not a
very productive exercise. But since Eichenwald started down this backwards path, let’s walk a little
further. To borrow the Times’ imagery, if the Bush
administration was “deaf before the storm,” the Clinton administration was
blind, deaf and dumb as bin Laden launched his global guerilla war against the
reports that “The direct
warnings to Mr. Bush about the possibility of a Qaeda attack began in the
spring of 2001.” Fair enough. The direct warnings to Mr. Clinton came in two
forms: First, in February 1993, Ramzi Yousef
tried to topple the World Trade Center with a bomb-laden
truck. Yousef had worked closely with 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. In fact, the two lived together in
the Philippines and hammered out a plan to attack airliners over the Pacific. The second direct warning during the Clinton
administration came in 1996, when Osama bin Laden issued what can only be described
as a declaration of war against America. He condemned the “occupation of the land of the two
Holy Places” as the “latest and the greatest of…aggressions,” promised “to
initiate a guerrilla warfare” against the United States and its allies, called
on his followers to focus “on destroying, fighting and killing the enemy until,
by the grace of Allah, it is completely defeated,” and vowed to carry his
“jihad against the kuffar (those who refuse to submit to Allah) in every part
of the world.”
So, since Eichenwald is keeping score, the Bush administration had seven
months and 20 days to deal with bin Laden. The Clinton administration had seven
years and 11 months.
In those seven-plus years, as the
9/11 Commission reported, U.S. intelligence assets had bin Laden in
their sights on at
least three occasions but were prevented from acting by higher-ups. In
1999, U.S. teams were actually ordered to hold their fire because
administration officials worried that an Arab dignitary on a hunting trip in
the vicinity of bin Laden might be harmed. According to 9/11 Commission staff,
CIA officials still call this the “lost opportunity to kill bin Laden before
9/11.” Justifying the inaction, Mr. Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine
Albright explained to the 9/11 Commission that “to bomb at random or use military force would have made our
lives more difficult inside the Islamic world.” Of course, the decision
not to bomb made quite an impact inside our own world.
Referring to the failure to attack bin Laden at his hunting lodge, 9/11 Commissioner
Bob Kerrey famously declared, “We had a round in our chamber and we didn’t use
Of course, that sounds a lot like preemption—a dirty word nowadays.
If preemption would have been appropriate to forestall bin Laden’s 9/11
massacres, why was it not appropriate to prevent Saddam Hussein from trying to
top bin Laden somewhere down the road? (We’ll return to that in a moment.)
Eichenwald reports that “Operatives connected
to bin Laden…expected the planned near-term attacks to have ‘dramatic consequences,’
including major casualties…Yet, the White House failed to take significant
If the Bush White House failed to take any significant action that summer, what
action did the Clinton White House take the previous summers, autumns, winters
and springs? Very little, as it turns out.
After the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, which killed six Americans and
injured 1,000, the Clinton White House responded
In 1996, a truck bomb in Saudi Arabia claimed 19 U.S.
airmen and injured 200. The Clinton White House responded
In 1998, al Qaeda terrorists bombed a pair of American
embassies in East Africa, murdering 224 civilians and injuring more than 5,000.
The Clinton White House responded with an
impotent volley of cruise missiles and an indictment.
Finally, in October 2000, al Qaeda used a rubber boat to
blast a hole in the USS Cole, killing 17 sailors. The Clinton White House responded by sending FBI agents (not
troops) to Yemen.
As former U.S. attorney Mary Jo
White put it, “Criminal prosecutions are simply not a sufficient response to
international terrorism.” In the words of Commissioner Kerrey, al Qaeda
“knew—beginning in 1993, it seems to me—that there was going to be limited, if
any, use of the military and that they were relatively free to do whatever they
That didn’t change until, well, the Bush administration. In fact, 9/11 was the
high-water mark for al Qaeda not because bin Laden was content with his
handiwork, but because the U.S. finally dealt with al Qaeda as a military threat—not
a law-enforcement matter.
asks, “Could the 9/11 attack
have been stopped had the Bush team reacted with urgency to the warnings
contained in all of those daily briefs?” Given the above litany, it seems fair
to respond with a parallel question: Could the 9/11 attack have been stopped
had the Clinton team killed bin Laden when they had him in their sights, or had
the Clinton team traced Yousef’s links back to their source, or had the Clinton
team waged a bona fide war on terror? Commissioner Kerrey seemed to think so. “Better to have tried and failed than to have not
tried at all,” he huffed during the hearings.
As for the Bush White House, one
wonders how much it could have done before the attacks —hamstrung as it was by
the deeply divisive 2000 election and by the complete lack of political support
for military or intelligence operations. The 9/11 Commission made clear that
intelligence and law enforcement agencies were stove-piping information, that
agencies were not allowed to look for certain things or in certain places, that
the federal government lacked many of the tools needed to connect the dots. We
need not imagine the howls the left would have unleashed if Mr. Bush had taken
precautionary steps in July or August of 2001, if he had ordered tightened
security and additional screening at airports or mass-transit facilities, if he
had sought to detain suspected terrorists, if he had tried to seek authority to
wiretap bin Laden’s agents. We don’t need to imagine the reaction because the
left attacked all of these policies after9/11.
The left also attacked the
doctrine of preemption, which Eichenwald’s
critique of the Bush administration implicitly—and ironically—endorses.
It’s ironic because, by definition, preventing 9/11 would
have required some sort of preemptive action. Yet Eichenwald criticizes “the neoconservative leaders who had recently
assumed power at the Pentagon” for ignoring
the al Qaeda threat and instead focusing on the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.
The left’s revisionism notwithstanding, “the neoconservatives” were not the
only ones concerned about Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
The Iraq Liberation Act of 1998—which passed the House
with 360 yea votes and was signed by Mr. Clinton— earmarked $100 million for
Iraqi opposition groups and declared that it would be “the policy of the United
States to support efforts to remove from power the current Iraqi regime and
promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime.”
Moreover, it was Mr. Clinton who warned during his presidency, “If Saddam defies the world and we fail to respond, we will
face a far greater threat in the future…Mark my words, he will develop weapons
of mass destruction. He will deploy them, and he will use them.” And in the run-up to the Iraq War, when confronted
by critics who argued that a war against Saddam Hussein and a war against bin
Laden was an either-or proposition, it was Mr. Clinton who argued,
“I think we can walk and chew gum at the same time. That is, I think we can
turn up the heat on Iraq and retain our focus on terror.”
As to Eichenwald’s
implication that the Bush administration devoted too much focus to Iraq
after 9/11, he forgets that the attacks altered the very DNA of U.S. national-security policy.“Any administration in
such a crisis,” as historian John Lewis Gaddis has written, “would have had to
rethink what it thought it knew about security.” Was deterrence possible? Was
containment viable? Was giving repeat offenders like Saddam Hussein the benefit
of the doubt responsible? The Bush administration’s answer to each question was
“no.” And Congress concurred. The Iraq War resolution passed the Senate
77-23 and the House 296-133.
Saddam Hussein’s associations, behavior and record with weapons of mass
destruction fueled a presumption of guilt that, when mixed with America’s
profound sense of vulnerability after 9/11, created a deadly combination. This
is perhaps the most fundamental way 9/11 is linked to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq:
The latter did not perpetrate the former, but the former taught Washington a lesson
about the danger of failing to confront threats before they are fully formed.
In the same way, the appeasement of Hitler at once had nothing and yet
everything to do with how America waged the Cold War against Stalin and his
Of course, none of that matters to Eichenwald
and the left. They have books to sell and history to rewrite.