“What did the president know, and when did he know it?”
For an older generation, this Watergate-era question encapsulated how America stopped trusting its leadership. But as President George W. Bush now claims he had no warnings of a terrorist attack before 9⁄11, our generation is facing a similar crisis of confidence and has a similar question: “What didn’t the president know, and why didn’t he know it?”
The facts are clear: The intelligence community issued 12 separate warnings that terrorists were planning to use airplanes as missiles. The Wall Street Journal noted that the warnings were consistent with earlier intelligence showing that al Qaeda planned to “use passenger jets as kamikaze weapons” and consistent with a federal report in 1999 that said, “Suicide bomber(s) belonging to al Qaeda’s Martyrdom Battalion could crash-land an aircraft packed with high explosives … into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the CIA, or the White House.”
Despite this evidence, the Administration continues to offer the public little except denials that are then proved false. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice claimed in 2002 that no one in the government knew terrorists “would try to use an airplane as a missile.” When confronted with evidence that her statement was untrue, Rice admitted to the 9⁄11 Commission in January 2004 that she misspoke, but then three months later she made the same claim in a March 22 Washington Post op-ed. She also claimed to never have been briefed on such a threat before 9⁄11 (as if not reading memos should absolve one of responsibility) — but Rice accompanied the president to the 2001 G‑8 summit in Genoa, Italy. There, she and the president were warned that Islamic terrorists were plotting to use airliners as missiles in a potential assassination attempt on world leaders attending the summit.
Similarly, Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley claimed “all the chatter [before 9/11] was of an attack, a potential al Qaeda attack, overseas.” Again, this is untrue. According to the bipartisan 9⁄11 congressional inquiry, in May 2001 the intelligence community reported “that bin Laden supporters were planning to infiltrate the United States” to “carry out a terrorist operation using high explosives.” The panel also reported that during the same month, the Pentagon “acquired and shared with other elements of the Intelligence Community information suggesting that seven individuals associated with bin Laden departed various locations for Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States.”
The president himself has gone even further in his denials: He has unequivocally stated that he had absolutely no idea of a terrorist threat on airlines before 9⁄11, claiming “if we’d had known that the enemy was going to fly airplanes into a building, we would have done everything in our power to stop it.” The public plea of ignorance, however, is belied by the August 6, 2001, briefing the president personally received at his Crawford, Texas, mansion in which he was explicitly told Bin Laden’s associates could be planning to hijack airplanes in an attack on America.
In truth, one of two things is happening: Either the president and top officials are lying to the American public about what they knew before 9⁄11 in order to hide their gross negligence, or they are telling the truth and failed to grasp the importance of the dire warnings they were repeatedly given.
The lying scenario would be fairly typical of an administration that has become the Michelangelo of dishonesty. And, in one sense, it would be slightly more comforting than the “asleep at the wheel” scenario: It is better to have a White House that at least understood terror warnings even if it covers up past negligence in addressing them, rather than one that was intellectually incapable of grasping overt national security threats.
And that is where the Watergate-style questions arise: After receiving all the intelligence warnings, how could the president still not have known about a serious threat? What did he fail to comprehend? Why in 2001 did he insist on taking one of the longest summer vacations in White House history instead of acting on the intelligence he was given? And most importantly, if the administration as a whole failed to understand such explicit warnings in 2001, can it be trusted to grasp them now?
For its part, the Bush campaign wants none of these questions asked. Its ads invoking images of Ground Zero are designed to make it seem as if President Bush took office on 9⁄12, instead of eight months beforehand, when 9⁄11 might have been prevented. But there is something a little odd about a president running on his supposed ability to protect America while simultaneously admitting he was asleep at the wheel during the worst national security breakdown in American history. It is as if the president thinks voters are as ignorant of reality as he was ignorant of pre‑9/11 intelligence.
But people are not stupid. And until President Bush provides real answers about why our country was so vulnerable on 9⁄11, it will be impossible to believe he has the capacity to secure America in the future.