Jewish World Review April 14, 2004 / 24 Nissan, 5764

Robert Robb

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Aug. 6 memo is not even a water pistol, much less a smoking gun | I thought myself, after more than a quarter century of playing and observing politics, hardened to the machinations of crass partisanship. But I must confess to being surprised, even shocked, at Democratic efforts to blame President Bush for the 9/11 terrorist attacks on our country.

There is, first of all, the breathtaking audacity. After all, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida became a gathering threat, to use the description now in currency, during the eight years of the Clinton administration, not the eight months of the Bush administration.

This has lead to a cottage industry of sorts on the right blaming a lack of effort by the Clinton administration for the 9/11 attacks.

That's unfair and unwarranted. Given the context of the times, the Clinton administration and the president personally were reasonably aggressive in attempting to capture or kill bin Laden, or at least deprive him of his sanctuary in Afghanistan.

But the sheer timeline - eight year of Clinton, eight months of Bush - should have engendered some circumspection among Democratic activists about playing the blame game.

But that clearly isn't the case, as evidenced by the attempt to make the August 6 presidential daily briefing about the domestic terrorist threat something it isn't.

Now, Condoleezza Rice made a mistake in characterizing the document as "historical" and President Bush made a mistake by saying that it didn't warn of a threat.

A more accurate and precise description of the document would be as follows: A very brief, general summary of suspected al-Qaida activity, but nothing that would suggest an increase in the immediate likelihood of a domestic attack or specifically point to 9/11.

It's worth remembering how this document came to be written. In the midst of the threat spike about overseas targets in the spring and summer of 2001, the president asked for the current status of intelligence about possible domestic attacks. The August 6 memo was prepared in response to the president's request, although apparently the CIA analyst who prepared it had sensed the need and was already working on such a document.

This suggests a president looking around the corners of what he is being told, not one asleep at the switch. And the document was a general summary of what was known, not the CIA and FBI going to the president and saying, Chief, we've got a big, new problem here.

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The lead Democratic partisan on the 9/11 commission, Richard Ben-Veniste, has treated the title of the memo, "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US," as a bold, new revelation. He is being entirely disingenuous.

After all, the commission had already heard from Clinton National Security Advisor Sandy Berger that there had been several al-Qaida plots against domestic targets leading up to the Millennium celebration. It was public knowledge that one terrorist with explosives had been caught.

On August 6, 2001, it was not news that bin Laden wanted to strike the United States.

Nor was it news that hijackings and explosives were weapons of choice for terrorists. Nor that New York and Washington were likely targets of preference.

The only news in the memo - that terrorists were thought to be surveilling federal buildings in New York - turned out to be false. The FBI determined that the suspected "terrorists" were just Yemen tourists taking pictures. According to CIA director George Tenet, to the extent there was specificity in the 2001 threat spikes, they all involved overseas targets. So, most of the heightened counterterrorism activity was directed overseas.

But there was a tightening up on the domestic front as well. The FBI was asked to intensify its counterterrorism activity, and aviation alerts were issued warning of an increased threat of hijackings.

There's a productive discussion to be had about whether the FBI is the best agency to have the lead responsibility for domestic counterterrorism. But the accusation that the Bush administration, prior to 9/11, ignored warnings about domestic terrorist attacks isn't supported by the record.

Given the nature of the national tragedy, you'd think Democratic partisans would be reluctant to manufacture a case that isn't there. But apparently they are quite intent on doing so.

The media, of course, are happy to fan the flames of controversy. One of the first people quoted in a Los Angeles Times "analysis" of the Aug. 6 memo is that well-known counterterrorism expert, James Carville.

Fairly considered, however, the Aug. 6 memo is not even a water pistol, much less a smoking gun.

JWR contributor Robert Robb is a columnist for The Arizona Republic. Comment by clicking here.


04/11/04: Once 9/11 Commission's political theater ends, we must debate real security issues
04/09/04: Fact checking Kerry's federal budget plans
04/08/04: Should the transfer of sovereignty in Iraq be delayed beyond the current deadline?
04/02/04: Kerry's tax epiphany makes some cents
03/31/04: What could have prevented 9/11
03/26/04: Knock off the high-stakes blame game
03/23/04: McCain a ‘straight talker’? Who is he kidding?
03/17/04: Bin Laden makes distinctions?
03/12/04: In the dangerous neighborhoods, cause for hope, if not yet optimism
03/01/04: Greenspan view scary, but Dems in denial

02/27/04: How not to achieve a mandate

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