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Jewish World Review April 15, 2004 / 25 Nissan, 5764

Roger Simon

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The buck stops where? | Listening to George W. Bush and members of his senior staff talk about the days leading up to Sept. 11, 2001 reminds me of an old, sad joke: The doctor comes into the waiting room and tells the family, "The operation was a success, but the patient died."

The official line of the Bush administration is that no mistakes were made.

They are so adamant about this it makes you want to rush to New York to see if the World Trade Center is still there.

True, when pressed, the administration admits that a bad thing did happen. And some members of the administration actually have the decency to feel some guilt.

CIA Director George Tenet said before the Sept. 11 Commission on Wednesday that, "The victims and the families of 9/11 deserved better." FBI Director Robert Mueller told the commission a few hours later, "I feel a tremendous burden, guilt for not having done a better job."

But the top members of the administration sing a different tune. They are without guilt.

According to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice all the problems leading up to Sept. 11 were "systemic." Individuals were not at fault. She has nothing to apologize for.

According to Attorney General John Ashcroft, there was a "wall" that prevented him from preventing the attack. (He mentioned this wall so often in his testimony before the Sept. 11 Commission that one got the impression somebody had actually encased him in masonry.)

And the president says he couldn't have prevented the attack because nobody told him the "time and place" of the attack.

Nobody told him the time and place? Did he think terrorist attacks were like weddings? Did he think that terrorists announced the time and place in advance?

Aren't things like the time and place of future attacks what our intelligence and law enforcement agencies are supposed to find out by "shaking the trees"?

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Asked at his press conference Tuesday night if he had made any mistakes, the president seemed genuinely baffled. He froze like a Miss America contestant who had just been asked her formula for world peace.

"I am sure something will pop into my head here," he said.

Nothing did.

So can I suggest perhaps just one, little mistake? On Aug. 6, 2001 while on vacation in Crawford, Texas, the president got a briefing titled "Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US."

I have that now-declassified briefing paper in front of me. It is not long. And one paragraph leaps out: "…FBI information since that time indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparation for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York."

True, Osama Bin Ladin was crafty enough not to take out an ad in the New York Times telling Bush the time and place of the attack, but the president could have sat sharply upright and said the following to his staff:

"This vacation is over. I am heading back to the White House immediately. We will meet again in 48 hours and I expect you to have some answers as to the time and place of a possible attack. Meanwhile I am placing the nation on a heightened state of alert. Tell all the airlines that there is an increased threat of a hijacking. Shake the trees! Get me some answers! And get to work!"

President Bush did none of these things. In fact, nobody seemed especially excited at all by the Aug. 6 briefing. "Frankly, I didn't think there was anything new," Bush said Tuesday.

Bush also said he had "no inkling whatsoever that the people were going to fly airplanes into buildings."

"We were not on a war footing," the president concluded sadly.

And that is a sad answer. Because it take a president to place the nation on a war footing.

And George Bush has to ask himself: Where was ours?

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