Questions about what the Bush administration knew about al Qaeda plans to attack the United States before Sept. 11 have properly boiled to the surface. They demand answers. For eight months the Bushites have dissembled and resisted calls for an investigation into lapses in US intelligence services. At the same time they heaped scorn on critics who pointed to reports in the foreign press that foreign intelligence services had warned US agencies that al Qaeda threatened to use airliners as weapons in their terrorist war.
Then CBS News on Wednesday, May 15 scraped the war-imposed Teflon off George W. Bush when it finally broke the news into the mainstream that the president had been notified of an al Qaeda threat on US targets in August and US intelligence agencies were aware that the Muslim terrorists were training pilots in the USA for suicide flights into domestic targets.
Secrecy is an obsession with the Bush White House, which has defied laws calling for the release of government papers dating back to the Reagan administration (dealing with such sensitive topics as then-Vice President George Bush Sr.'s knowledge of illegal Iran-contra activities). So there was dismay in the White House that it had to acknowledge that Dubya had, in fact, received a "top secret" briefing memo Aug. 6 on the possibility of an al Qaeda attack.
As Michelle Goldberg of Salon.com noted May 16, "spokesman Ari Fleischer was not telling the whole truth when he said the White House had 'no warning' of the Sept. 11 plot." Fleischer and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice defended their failure to come clean about the August warning by insisting the president had only been told about a "traditional" hijacking plot -- implying that the memo only included generalized warnings about hijackings and no one could have imagined hijacked planes being used as weapons.
However, US authorities knew as early as 1996 that there was a plot to blow up hijacked airliners. A Pakistini pilot, Abdul Hakim Murad, who had trained at flight schools in North Carolina, Texas and New York, confessed to Philippine authorities that he was supposed to plow a light plane stuffed with explosives into the CIA headquarters on a suicide mission before the plot was discovered in 1995. It was planned by Ramzi Yousef, who was convicted later of plotting the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
In 1998 and 1999, analysts warned federal authorities that terrorists might crash hijacked aircraft into landmarks such as the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. And last July the Italian government closed airspace over Genoa during an economic summit and mounted antiaircraft batteries based on information that Islamic extremists were planning to use aircraft to kill Bush.
And an FBI agent in Phoenix in July 2001 wrote a classified memo that noted a "strong connection" between a group of Middle Eastern aviation students he was investigating and Osama Bin Laden's al Qaeda, while another FBI agent was trying to figure out the intentions of Zacarias Moussaoui, who was arrested at a flight school in August 2001. The Phoenix agent speculated Moussaoui might be planning to fly an airliner into the World Trade Center.
The White House counterterrorism coordinator, Richard C. Clarke, on July 5 gathered high-level leaders of the Federal Aviation Administration, Coast Guard, FBI, Secret Service and Immigration and Naturalization Service and told them flatly: "Something really spectacular is going to happen here, and it's going to happen soon," the Washington Post reported May 16.
Yet Bush denied advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 attack. In January he told NBC's Tom Brokaw, "It's hard to envision a plot so devious as the one that they pulled off on 9/11. Never did we realize that the enemy was so well-organized."
Bush in January also asked Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle to limit Congress' probe, insisting it would divert needed resources from the war on terror.
White House authorities have not acknowledged news reports that the Aug. 6 memo, delivered at the president's country home in Crawford, Texas, discussed possible domestic targets. The memo reportedly cited the case of Ahmed Ressam, who was caught trying to smuggle explosives across the Canadian border for an al Qaeda attack on Los Angeles International Airport during the 2000 millennium celebrations. It also noted that al Qaeda members were known to live in or travel to the US, and that more would attempt to enter the country.
Bush did not interrupt his monthlong "working vacation," much less have the authorities advise airlines to be on the lookout for potential Muslim hijackers.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chair of the Intelligence Committee's Technology and Terrorism Subcommittee, contacted Vice President Dick Cheney's office in July 2001 "to urge that he restructure our counter-terrorism and homeland defense programs to ensure better accountability and prevent important intelligence information from slipping through the cracks." The White House never answered her request. "I followed this up last September 2001 before the attacks and was told ... that it might be another six months before he would be able to review the material."
Former Sen. Gary Hart, co-chairman of a bipartisan terrorism commission that in January 2001 had warned that urgent steps were needed to prevent a terrorist attack on US cities, met with Rice on Sept. 6 to urge the administration to move on the terrorist threat, to no avail.
But when even the Bush-friendly New York Post ran a front page blockbuster headline on May 16: "9/11 bombshell: BUSH KNEW," the White House scrambled into action.
With the disclosures bringing bipartisan calls for an investigation, Cheney, who's opposed congressional investigations into Sept. 11 all along, was brought out of his bunker to warn a Conservative Party fundraiser in New York May 16 that asking how much Bush knew before the terror attacks was "incendiary ... Such commentary is thoroughly irresponsible and totally unworthy of national leaders in time of war."
Bush finally addressed the subject May 17, calling the scandal a product of Washington, "a kind of place where second-guessing has become second nature." He assured Air Force cadets in the Rose Garden, "Had I known the enemy was going to use airplanes to kill on that fateful morning, I would have done everything in my power to protect the American people." He added, "I take my job as commander in chief very seriously."
Fleischer also cited the 1999 Library of Congress report that stated al Qaeda suicide bombers could crash an aircraft packed with explosives into the Pentagon, the CIA headquarters, or the White House to assert that Congress and the Clinton administration share in any blame for ignoring warning signs leading up to Sept. 11. "I think what it shows is this information that was out there did not raise enough alarms with anybody. ... the question arises, 'What did the Democrats know and why weren't they talking to each other?'"
Democrats were not amused. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Fleischer continues to be less than truthful by contending that Congress was given the same intelligence information the president received on Aug. 6. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., the ranking Republican on Intelligence, agreed that the Senate had not received the information Fleischer said it had.
In the intermediate aftermath of the disclosures, a Newsweek poll found only 48% of respondents said Bush had done all he "should have" with the pre-9/11 warnings, while 39% said he had not.
Seeking to divert attention back to the war on terrorism, Cheney's talking point on May 19 was that US intelligence was picking up signals that Al Qaeda was planning another attack. Gee? Think so? Perhaps shortly before the mid-term election?
Until the White House comes clean on what it knew and when it knew it, the coverup will only feed the conspiracy theorists, who suspect among other things that the CIA may have put up bin Laden, a former "asset", to mount the attack on the US as a pretext to run the Taliban out of Afghanistan, help open Central Asia to oil production and give the Agency a new lease on life after years of budget cuts.
The White House needs to level with the American people. Congress must keep up its demands for an independent probe not only of the intelligence agencies' handling of the al Qaeda threat but also of the CIA's relationship with terrorist operatives such as bin Laden. Congress should examine how much the CIA has backslid from the reforms that were ordered after the Church Commission in the 1970s documented abuses. And Congress should finally take an honest look at the causes of the widespread antipathy of the Muslim world toward the USA that has given rise to al Qaeda and other terror movements.
Finally, Fleischer owes an apology to US Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., who suggested the Bush administration had known of impending terrorist plans before Sept. 11. "All I can tell you is the congresswoman must be running for the hall of fame of the Grassy Knoll Society," Fleischer said April 13.