OK. We all know that my position on the 9/11 hearings is that the attempt to assign political blame for 9/11 is more harmful than most of the good likely to come out of the hearings. I hope that the initial bi-partisan report will be taken seriously by all parties, and the attempt to find some American to blame--Bush, Ms. Rice, Freeh, Clarke, whoever--will end.
That said, I think the evidence we've seen clears the President of any wrongdoing. What he did wasn't enough to prevent 9/11, obviously. It was, however, everything we should ask of a President.
Imagine that you're the President, and that it's now 2001. You've got no background in law enforcement; you're interested in intelligence and understand how it works, thanks to your father, but you haven't been in intelligence yourself. You're informed that the biggest threat facing this country is from a group called al Qaeda, which has been the focus of counterterror efforts for some time.
"Well, what are we doing about them?" you ask.
You're informed that there are 70 full field investigations by the FBI into their activities inside the United States. There are also ongoing intelligence activities directed against them by various three-letter agencies, and coordinated by the NSC. The professionals are at work.
So, you decide to:
1) Retain Clinton's chosen head of the FBI, [Matter of public record]
2) Retain Clinton's chosen head of the CIA, [Likewise]
3) Retain Clinton's entire counterterrorism staff, [Rice's testimony]
4) Reverse Clinton's policy of never meeting with the CIA, instead meeting daily with CIA advisors, both in the White House and when abroad [R. Kessler's CIA-authorized book, The CIA at War]
5) Have your National Security Advisor meet almost daily with the head of the CIA, [Rice's testimony]
6) Direct regular questions at the NSC and CIA about al Qaeda, [Rice's testimony: "[T]he president received at these daily meetings more than 40 briefing items on al Qaeda, and 13 of those were in response to questions he or his top advisers posed."] and,
7) Order the head of counterterrorism, Richard Clarke, to develop a comprehensive plan to destroy al Qaeda rather than 'fly swatting.' [Clarke]
It wasn't enough--we know that because the Towers fell. Still, given Bush's particular qualifications and personality, it was a good approach. Bush didn't try to micromanage the FBI or CIA, recognizing that he wasn't an expert. He didn't put the usual political patronage above national security--I am sure that there are a lot of Republicans who could have filled those jobs, but Bush chose continuity of expertise over patronage.
He said, in effect, "I want you to start figuring out how to take al Qaeda down rather than trying to restrain this or that plot. You're the experts, and since you've been on this for years, you know more about it than I do myself. This is important enough that I'm not going to replace you with friends or political allies. I'll trust you. Keep me informed."
It turns out that most of the failings were structural problems inside the FBI, CIA, and other federal agencies. What really needed to be done, we know with hindsight, was not to trust the professionals, but to clean house. Clarke's book suggests that the professionals weren't that impressive:
In March 1995, a wacko Japanese religious cult, Aum Shinrikyo, released sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway, killing 12, injuring more than 1,000 and prompting Mr. Clarke--a Xanax commercial if ever there was one--to worry about Aum pulling the same stunt on the I.R.T. The F.B.I. told him to relax: They didn't have a file on Aum, ergo, they don't exist. Not convinced, Mr. Clarke had a chat with his new bureau liaison, John O'Neill.In retrospect, we needed a top-down shakeup even before Bush came into office--the above happened in 1995. We didn't get it when Clinton was in office, and we didn't get it with Bush. Yet, as a new president with little experience in such matters, Bush was probably wise not to try it--he wouldn't have known just what to shake, and the destruction of the continuity of expertise could have allowed 9/11 to happen just as much as the bungling of the experts did.
"'How can you be so sure there are no Aum here, John, just because you don't have an FBI file on them? Did you look them up in the Manhattan phone book to see if they're there?'
'You serious?' O'Neill asked, not sure whether I was being funny. When I assured him that I meant it, he directed his deputy to leave the conference room and call FBI New York. A while later the FBI agent returned to the room and handed O'Neill a note.
"O'Neill glanced at it and said, 'Fuck. They're in the phone book, on East 48th Street at Fifth.'"
What ensues is not cause for comfort. First, the chemical-weapons geniuses at the Pentagon said they don't want to muddy their HazMat suits, which are in a locker four hours down I-95 anyway. So off trotted a helpful somebody from the U.S. Attorney's office posing as a city fire marshal to inspect the building. He reported that Aum was furiously loading up a rental van with boxes of God-knows-what--news that produced, at long last, an F.B.I. surveillance car. You can guess what happened: They lost the van in traffic.
I know there are things that the government should have done it didn't do. I agree that it's possible that 9/11 might have been prevented if things had been done right. I thank the commission for helping to highlight the errors and problems, which I hope we will repair for the future.
All that said, 9/11 was not Bush's fault. What he did wasn't enough, but it should have been. If the experts in their agencies and bureaus had been kept shipshape, Bush's approach would have been exactly the right one.