Poor Jeb. Or I should say, Poor Jeb! (I’m not given to exclamation points, but Jeb! is so magnetic.) It’s unfathomable how he thought that he could run for the Republican nomination without having to wrestle with his brother’s record as president.
Soon enough, he was so entangled in the question of whether he would have gone into Iraq, knowing what we know now, that it took him four tries to come up with the currently politically acceptable answer: No. But while the war in Iraq is widely accepted to have been a disastrous mistake, another crucial event during the George W. Bush administration has long been considered unfit for political discussion: President Bush’s conduct, in the face of numerous warnings of a major terrorist plot, in the months leading up to September 11, 2001.
The general consensus seems to have been that the 9/11 attacks were so horrible, so tragic, that to even suggest that the president at the time might bear any responsibility for not taking enough action to try to prevent them is to play “politics,” and to upset the public. And so we had a bipartisan commission examine the event and write a report; we built memorials at the spots where the Twin Towers had come down and the Pentagon was attacked; and that was to be that. And then along came Donald Trump, to whom “political correctness” is a relic of an antiquated, stuffy, political system he’s determined to overwhelm. In an interview on October 16, he violated the longstanding taboo by saying, “When you talk about George Bush—I mean, say what you want, the World Trade Center came down during his time.”
Trump’s comments set up a back and forth between him and Jeb Bush—who, as Trump undoubtedly anticipated, can’t let a blow against him by the frontrunner go by without response—but the real point is that with a simple declaration by Trump, there it was: the subject of George W. Bush’s handling of the warnings about the 9/11 attacks was out there.
Jeb Bush had already left himself open to this charge by saying that his brother had “kept us safe.” Now he has insisted on this as his response to Trump. But the two men were talking about different periods of time. As Jeb Bush said later, “We were attacked, my brother kept us safe.” That’s true enough in Jeb’s framing of the issue as what happened after the attacks—and if one’s concept of safe means fighting two terrible wars whose effects continue to play out in the Middle East; continual reports of terrorist plots and panicked responses to them; invasive searches at airports; and greatly expanded surveillance.
But that’s not the heart of the matter. The heretofore hushed-up public policy question that Trump stumbled into is: Did George W. Bush do what he could have to try to disrupt the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001? It’s not simply a question of whether he could have stopped the devastation—that’s unknowable. But did he do all he could given the various warnings that al-Qaeda was planning a major attack somewhere on US territory, most likely New York or Washington? The unpleasant, almost unbearable conclusion—one that was not to be discussed within the political realm—is that in the face of numerous warnings of an impending attack, Bush did nothing.
Osama bin Laden was already a wanted man when the Bush administration took office. The Clinton administration had identified him as the prime suspect in the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in Africa, and it took a few steps to capture or kill him that came to naught. Outgoing Clinton officials warned the incoming administration about al-Qaeda, but the repeated and more specific warnings by Richard Clarke, who stayed on from one administration to the next as the chief terrorism adviser, were ignored. In a White House meeting on July 5, 2001, Clarke said, “Something really spectacular is going to happen here, and it’s going to happen soon.” By this time top Bush officials regarded Clarke as a pain, who kept going on about terrorist plots against the US.
But Clarke wasn’t the only senior official sounding an alarm. On July 10, CIA Director George Tenet, having just received a briefing from a deputy that “literally made my hair stand on end,” phoned National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice to ask for a special meeting at the White House. “I can recall no other time in my seven years as DCI that I sought such an urgent meeting at the White House,” Tenet later wrote in his book, At the Center of the Storm. Tenet and aides laid out for Rice what they described as irrefutable evidence that, as the lead briefer put it at that meeting, “’There will be a significant terrorist attack in the coming weeks or months” and that the attack would be “spectacular.” Tenet believed that the US was going to get hit, and soon. But the intelligence authorities, including covert action, that the CIA officials told Rice they needed, and had been asking for since March, weren’t granted until September 17.
Then came the now-famous August 6 Presidential Daily Brief (PDB) intelligence memorandum to the president, headlined, “Bin Laden Determined To Strike in US.” Bush was at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, on what was to be one of the longest summer vacations any president has taken; none of his senior aides was present for the briefing. Rice later described this PDB as “very vague” and “ very non-specific” and “mostly historical.” It was only after a great struggle that the 9/11 commission got it declassified and the truth was learned. In its final report, the commission noted that this was the thirty-sixth Presidential Daily Brief so far that year related to al-Qaeda and bin Laden though the first one that specifically warned of an attack on the US itself.
While the title of the memo has become somewhat familiar, less known are its contents, including the following: “Clandestine, foreign government, and media reports indicate bin Laden since 1997 has wanted to conduct terrorist attacks in the US. Bin Laden implied in U.S. television interviews in 1997 and 1998 that his followers would follow the example of World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef and ‘bring the fighting to America.’” And: “FBI information since that time indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.” Having received this alarming warning the president did nothing.
As August went on, Tenet was so agitated by the chatter he was picking up and Bush’s lack of attention to the matter that he arranged for another CIA briefing of the president later in August, with Bush still at his ranch, to try to get his attention to what Tenet believed was an impending danger. According to Ron Suskind, in the introduction to his book The One Percent Doctrine, when the CIA agents finished their briefing of the president in Crawford, the president said, “All right. You’ve covered your ass now.” And that was the end of it.
What might a president do upon receiving notice that the world’s number one terrorist was “determined to strike in US”? The most obvious thing was to direct Rice or Vice President Cheney to convene a special meeting of the heads of any agencies that might have information about possible terror threats, and order them shake their agencies down to the roots to find out what they had that might involve such a plot, then put the information together. As it happened they had quite a bit: the administration had already been notified about some Arabs seeking flying lessons at a flight school in Arizona; what was so noticeable about them was that they unpeeled large amounts of cash for the lessons, which they limited to just wanting to know how to fly the plane in cruise mode, not learn how to take off and land. In July, an FBI agent stationed in Phoenix wrote to headquarters warning of the “possibility of a coordinated effort by Usama bin Laden” to send students to the United States to attend civil aviation schools.
Then there was Zacarias Moussaoui, sometimes referred to later as the twentieth hijacker, who had aroused suspicion by paying cash for lessons at a flight school in Minnesota, also just wanting to know how to fly a 747 at cruising altitude, not how to take off or land. Moussaoui wasn’t as careful as the others and his questions to his instructors seemed strange: he wanted to know, for example, about flight routes around New York. In August 2001, a manager from the flight school called the FBI. Moussaoui was arrested on August 16 on immigration charges and questioned by FBI agents, but, despite repeated efforts, an FBI agent in Minneapolis couldn’t persuade headquarters in Washington to take the matter seriously and allow a search of Moussaoui’s laptop. An August 23 FBI report to Tenet and other CIA officials was headed, “Islamic Extremist Learns to Fly.” Tenet said later that he didn’t talk about this report with the FBI or the White House because he thought it an FBI matter. French intelligence had been following Moussaoui, a French citizen, for some time and had a thick file on him—but somehow, according to the FBI, useful information didn’t get to that agency’s officials in time.
Had the president ordered a root and branch search of information government agencies had on potential strikes by al-Qaeda in the US, what was known about Moussaoui and the Arizona flight school would have been of great interest. Perhaps they’d have also unearthed an intelligence memo written in 1998 that said, “we also learned that the agencies had uncovered a message between al Qaeda operatives in the United States, dated December 1998, that read, ‘Plans to hijack U.S. aircraft proceeding well. Two individuals have successfully evaded checkpoints in dry run at NY airport.’” Or maybe another memo would have been found that said, “CIA and the FBI are investigating a call to our embassy in the UAE in May saying that a group of bin Laden supporters was in the U.S. planning attacks with explosives.”
The bipartisan 9/11 Commission, established in November 2002, after Bush gave way to congressional demands that there be a high-level investigation into what had happened, with the commission members appointed by Bush and by Congress—this was after the administration made it clear that it wouldn’t cooperate with a congressional investigation into 9/11—went no further than bipartisan commissions can be expected to go, but further than most of the journalism at the time suggested. Bipartisan commissions are a longstanding device for making sure that the findings aren’t too disturbing to the principal figures or the public. The responsibility of the 9/11 Commission—made up of prominent Democrats and Republicans and co-chaired by two highly admired figures, former Indiana congressman and chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Lee Hamilton, and former governor of New Jersey Thomas Kean—was to investigate the background of the matter and make recommendations.
When the commission finally succeeded in its demand that Bush testify before it, the arrangement was that only two commission members could be present at a White House meeting where the president was to be questioned for only one hour, without being put under oath and with no notes taken, and with Vice President Cheney present. In fact, the administration fought the commission at nearly every turn. Hamilton and Kean later wrote that they felt that the commission had been “set up to fail”—it had been rushed, its funding was insufficient and it didn’t have adequate administration cooperation. They said that in fact the commission had considered seeking criminal charges against officials who had obstructed or lied to it.
On the surface, the commission report’s dramatic narrative appeared to hold no high-level officials accountable for not doing more to ward off the attacks. Read closely, it was a damning indictment of Bush and Cheney (for his behavior on September 11, when he took charge while the president flew about the country and, without consulting him beforehand, ordered the shooting down of hijacked planes). The commission was particularly harsh on the administration for being so confused and disorganized on the day of the attacks, with the president’s entourage more concerned with the statement he would make than with his taking charge. The commission’s report blamed various agencies that failed to share the information they had, or were at a loss for how to react on the day of the attacks.
The commission avoided assigning individual blame in order to get a unanimous report, and it deliberately avoided saying whether the attacks could have been prevented, though it was apparent that some commissioners believed this to be the case, and the evidence gathered in the report strongly suggested as much. In television interviews earlier that year , both Hamilton and Kean indicated they thought the attacks could have been stopped; but the reaction from the administration was so ferocious that they subsequently backed off from these comments. The commissioners knew that if they stated in the report that the administration could have prevented the attacks—an assertion that could never be proved—the Bush White House and its allies, including in the media, would unleash such a blowback against them that it could discredit all of their work. But the report, amassing all the evidence and warnings the administration had received, made it clear that there was a strong possibility that the attacks might have been prevented. The commissioners who believed this thought the facts would speak for themselves. It presented a picture of an administration not much engaged with the subject of terrorism and unresponsive to clear warnings.
Reading the report closely and talking to commission members made it clear to me that the report was intended to stop just short of blaming Bush for his inaction—though some commissioners would have gone further. The commissioners didn’t want to provide the nation a divided opinion. They also didn’t want to upset the public too much. Thus for what might have been considered admirable motives, the devastating conclusions that should have been drawn from the available facts have remained buried and the country had essentially moved on—until Trump reopened the question.
What is arguable about the events of 9/11 is whether they could have been stopped; what isn’t arguable is that George W. Bush didn’t try. Though Jeb Bush set out to run for president with the line, “I am my own man,” he has discovered that being George W’s brother is quite a burden.