Letter to the Editor: Can Bush actually protect the U.S.?

To the Editor:

Security-conscious N.J. voters should remember the following. Twice in the past five years the continental United States was targeted by would-be terrorists. The first threat occurred in December 1999 as the millennium approached. When U.S. intelligence received credible evidence that al Qaeda or al Qaeda-related terrorists plotted something, President Bill Clinton urged counterterrorism officials and the CIA to disrupt their plans. CIA Director George Tenet notified all CIA personnel overseas that “the threat could not be more real.”

On Dec. 14, Ahmed Ressam was arrested in Washington state after trying to enter the United States with a bomb concealed in the trunk of his automobile. Subsequent investigation revealed that he had trained at terrorist camps in Afghanistan and that he intended to attack Los Angeles International Airport. During December the Counterterrorism Security Group (CSG), headed by Richard Clarke, met daily. Clarke’s staff warned that “foreign terrorist sleeper cells are present in the United States and attacks on the United States are likely.” Amid this high state of alert, the millennium arrived quietly. All of this is summarized in “The 9/11 Commission Report,” pages 174-180.

The 9/11 Commission concluded that the only time before 9/11 in which “the government as a whole seemed to be acting in concert to deal with terrorism” was in “the last weeks of December 1999 preceding the millennium,” (p. 358).

The second threat became increasingly apparent to CSG and CIA officials a year and a half later, in the summer of 2001. Clarke warned National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice in late June that much information was coming in to suggest that a major al Qaeda attack would soon occur (p. 257). Tenet realized that “the system was blinking red” (p. 259). A CIA report for President George W. Bush on Aug. 6 warned, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” (p. 261-62).

“The 9/11 Commission Report” notes that “most of the intelligence community recognized in the summer of 2001 that the number and severity of threat reports were unprecedented. Many officials told us that they knew something terrible was planned, and they were desperate to stop it,” (p. 262).

Bush spent the month of August at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. There is “no indication” that he or his advisers discussed the possibility of an al Qaeda attack on the United States at any time between Aug. 6 and Sept. 11 (p. 262).

Outgoing President Clinton had told incoming President Bush in December 2000, “I think you will find that by far your biggest threat is bin Laden and the al Qaeda.” One of his greatest regrets, Clinton told Bush, was “that I didn’t get him (bin Laden) for you, because I tried to” (p. 199).

Bush, however, gave priority to other matters, such as building a space-based missile shield. His executive style also was more compartmentalized and structured than Clinton’s. Clarke reported to Rice, and Rice reported to Bush. Counterterrorism remained part of Rice’s unfinished business in the summer of 2001.

On Sept. 4, Clarke sent Rice “an impassioned personal note,” (p. 212). He asked: “are we serious about dealing with the Al Qida threat?” He pleaded with Rice to imagine some dreadful “future day” when “hundreds of Americans lay dead” and decision makers would second-guess themselves, wondering whether they could have done more (p. 212).

The 9/11 Commission did not assign blame either to Clinton or to Bush, and I do not do so here. Like Pearl Harbor, an attack by hijacked airplanes on the World Trade Center was perhaps unimaginable – until it actually happened. Even though the 9/11 Commission devoted five chilling pages to the ways in which this dreadful possibility “was imaginable, and imagined” (p. 345), it was of course easier to see in hindsight.

I will say this, however. Bush insists that only he can protect the United States from terrorists. His claims must be weighed against the record of what happened between January 2001 and Sept. 11, 2001.

Daniel W. Crofts

Chair, History Department