Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Obstructing national security

Who can honestly say, after hearing the testimony of the 9/11 widows led by Kristen Breitweiser and Gabrielle, that George W. Bush is serious about dealing effectively with terrorism?
Gathering at the National Press Club in Washington on Tuesday, the widows announced their endorsement of the Massachusetts Democrat for president, a move made "in good conscience and from our hearts," as former Bush supporter Kristen Breitweiser told the news cameras. "In the three years since 9/11, I could never have imagined I would be here today, disappointed in the person I voted for, for president," she said. Added fellow Jersey Girl Patty Casazza: "It was President Bush who thwarted our attempts at every turn."

Really, if the Kerry campaign is serious about persuading the American public that Bush is a serious liability when it comes to securing the nation from the terrorist threat, this should be Exhibit A: Bush fought the formation of the 9/11 commission for a year, and continued to fight its work throughout.

As now know, the commission was a serious and thorough panel that, when the smoke cleared, presented a wholly nonpartisan and eminently insightful examination of the events and causes surrounding 9/11, as well as its aftermath.

The testimony of other widows, all of whom were deeply involved in the commission's work, drives home the fact that Bush has abused the national trust in the "war on terror" by invading Iraq:
"Unfortunately, before the work in Afghanistan was complete ... this administration moved our most precious resources, America's sons and daughters, into Iraq, without the support of our allies. Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, and that is what we learned from the 9/11 commission's final report," said Lorie Van Auken of East Brunswick, N.J. "Sept. 11 was an enormous intelligence failure, and yet nothing was done to fix our intelligence after 9/11, and that same intelligence apparatus took us into Iraq. So it's doubly frustrating to learn that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11."

It's worth remembering, of course, that not only are these widows nonpartisan (Breitweiser, for instance, is a Republican who voted for Bush in 2000), but they themselves had a historic role in pushing the administration to finally -- once it realized it had a potential public-relations disaster on its hands -- approve the official inquiry into 9/11:
On Sept. 18, 2002, when much of the public was still sympathetic to the Bush administration position that the attacks could not have been foreseen or prevented, Breitweiser gave a statement before the joint House-Senate investigation into intelligence lapses; it may have changed the course of history.

In a concise, straightforward manner, she laid out the facts far more effectively than had any senator or representative on the panel. She asked how, for example, the CIA could fail to locate hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid al-Midhar, who had entered the United States despite being on a terrorist watch list, when one was listed in the San Diego phone book and both roomed with an undercover FBI informant. The day after her presentation, the White House -- once firmly against an independent commission -- reversed itself and endorsed the idea. And it was the 9/11 commission that would later find no operational ties between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida, one of the key reasons Bush gave for invading Iraq.

Moreover, as Elizabeth Drew recently reminded us in her New York Review of Books review of the commission's final report, the White House continued to throw obstacle after obstacle at the panel:
The administration fought the commission at nearly every turn -- at first denying it sufficient funds, then opposing an extension of time, refusing it documents, trying to prevent Condoleezza Rice from testifying in public. The White House, in a preemptive move, told the commission that Bush would not testify under oath, and insisted that he appear along with Vice President Cheney. The main partisan division within the commission, I was told, was over how hard to press the White House for information that it was holding back. In its effort to achieve a unanimous, bipartisan report, the commission decided not to assign "individual blame" and avoided overt criticism of the President himself. Still, the report is a powerful indictment of the Bush administration for its behavior before and after the attacks of September 11.

As Drew goes on to observe, "the commission gives a devastating picture of the chaos within the Bush administration on the morning of the attacks," and moreover makes clear that, as I recently re-emphasized, the Bush administration was asleep at the wheel on Sept. 11:
As presented by the commission, the evidence of signals missed by the Bush administration is more startling than we had known. To take one example,a memorandum written in July 2001 to headquarters by an FBI agent in Phoenix, Arizona, specifically warned of the "'possibility of a coordinated effort by Usama bin Laden' to send students to the United States to attend civil aviation schools."

Though Bush administration officials said after the fact that no one could have imagined that terrorists would use planes to fly into buildings, the report shows that there had been warnings of attacks very much along those lines before September 11—including information from an informant in East Asia of the possibility of al-Qaeda's hijacking planes, filling them with explosives, and using them to crash into US cities. Richard Clarke had worried about this very possibility in connection with the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. In the commission's words, the "possibility" of this sort of terrorist attack "was imaginable, and imagined."

Of course, it was in this area that the White House fought the commission hardest:
The most arresting document is the Presidential Daily Brief of August 6, 2001, which, until it was finally made public, had been described by the White House as "historical in nature." A single question by Ben-Veniste to Condoleezza Rice, asking her to state the title of the PDB, exposed that fiction. The title was "bin Laden Determined to Strike in US." That the commission was able to see the President's daily briefings by the CIA during the Clinton and Bush administrations at all was unprecedented. They could only do so, however, under strict rules set by the administration: only two commissioners were allowed to read the PDBs, and -- for reasons that later became clear -- they were forbidden to copy down their titles.

Someone needs to ask the White House how it can justify what clearly was a campaign of obstruction regarding the work of the Sept. 11 commission, whose purpose clearly was to prevent another such attack from happening.

And the Kerry campaign needs to broadcast these widows' testimony into every living room in America.

I'm all for ads questioning Bush's National Guard record and his evasiveness about them. But this is far, far more significant.

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