Jewish World Review April 14, 2004 / 24 Nissan, 5764
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.
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
Nor was it news that hijackings and explosives were weapons of choice for
terrorists. Nor that New York and Washington were likely targets of
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.
04/11/04: Once 9/11 Commission's political theater ends, we must debate real security issues
02/27/04: How not to achieve a mandate