Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Why George W. Didn’t Chase bin Laden Before 9/11

Much has been made of Bill Clinton missing opportunities to capture of kill Osama bin Laden during his presidency. This is normal historical reflection as we consider all of the “what-ifs” that can only be seen clearly after a significant historical event has taken place.

In pointing out Clinton’s “misfires” and inaction in this regard even conservative Republican pundits have been careful to point out that President George W. Bush didn’t do much about bin Laden or terrorism in general until that fateful morning of September 11, 2001.

Personally, I think that a quick review of the Bush W. administration between his inauguration on January 20 and the terrorist attacks less than 8 months later will show that “W” was severely handicapped in ways not shared by his predecessor in office.

FIRST: Consider the political turmoil surrounding his election. His loss of the popular vote to Gore; His narrow margin of victory in the Electoral Vote, hinging on a bitter legal challenge to the vote tabulations in Florida; the ruling of the Florida Secretary of State (a Republican) in favor of Bush’s victory being over-ruled by the Florida Supreme Court (a majority of whom were Democrat); The issue finally being resolved by a split decision of the US Supreme Court on December 11, 2000.

The uncertainty of the outcome of this legal mess delayed and confused the normal course of the transfer of power. It would have been unbecoming of Bush to have announced his Cabinet appointees and to have begun the process of their confirmation prior to the resolution of the controversy. Accordingly, advance consultation and planning between Bush and his future cabinet was uncertain and distracted making advance strategic planning concerning domestic and foreign policy tentative and disjointed.

SECOND: The massive Democratic Senate resistance to the confirmation of John Ashcroft as the nominee for Attorney General consumed most of the pre-inaugural political attention of Bush and his supporters. It was a major distraction and, with manifold doubts as to whether his confirmation would even take place many strategic plans concerning national law enforcement matters (which is where the Clinton administration had focused their anti-terrorism and terrorist prosecution policies) were also put on hold until after the inauguration. In fact, Ashcroft’s nomination was not confirmed by the Senate until January 31, eleven days after Bush’s inauguration!

THIRD: Consider that the three people with the most power, influence and responsibility for the fight on terrorism during Bush’s first months of office were all holdovers from the Clinton administration.

--Richard Clarke—Chair, Anti-Terrorism Division, U.S. Security Council—Appointed by the first President Bush in 1992 and served in this position until 2003.

--George Tenet, Director of the CIA—Appointed by Clinton July 11, 1997 and served until July 11, 2004.

--Louis Freeh, Director of the FBI—Appointed by Clinton on July 20, 1993 and served until June 25, 2001 when he was replaced by--Thomas J. Pickard who served as Acting Director of the FBI until September 4, 2001 when, just seven days before the 9/11 attacks, he was replaced by--Robert Mueller III who continues as the Director of the FBI today.

FOURTH: Note further that the agencies headed by Tenet and Freeh were forbidden, by a policy enacted by the Clinton administration, to communicate or share intelligence information with each other.

FIFTH: The Clinton administration had not adopted any comprehensive policy or plan concerning anti-terrorism measures in general or concerning Osama bin Laden in particular. Accordingly, there was nothing “passed on” to the incoming Bush administration for them to evaluate or to build on. They were left with starting, essentially, from scratch.

Given the historical and political distractions of entering the Presidency under massive confusion and controversy, and; given the partisan divide between Congressional Democrats and Republicans, and; given the fact that virtually all political appointees and a majority of those working in the State and Justice Departments had been hired or promoted under the Democratic Clinton administration; it is not surprising that “W” and his administration, faced with such a myriad of issues demanding their full political attention and energy, did not have the capture or killing of Osama bin Laden as a high priority during those first eight months in office.

To his credit, however, when faced with a terrorist attack on American soil, Bush responded forcefully and decisively. Had he inherited such an approach to terrorism from the Clinton administration perhaps something could have been done to prevent or disrupt the 9/11 attacks.

But, of course, we’ll never know . . . because all the “what ifs” in the world can never change the past.