Published on Wednesday, May 22, 2002 in the Guardian of London
The Return of Politics
At Last, Americans Are Asking Whether Their Government Did Enough to Protect Them on September 11
by Jonathan Freedland
Normal service has resumed. After eight months off the air, American politics is back. Republicans are once more hurling abuse at Democrats, Democrats are slamming Republicans, while Capitol Hill and the White House have returned to their traditional posture: at loggerheads. At long last, the September 11 bubble of bipartisan consensus - in which even to question the Bush administration's war against terrorism was seen as unpatriotic - has burst.
There were times when it seemed it might last forever. The attacks on New York and Washington stirred a mood of national unity Americans had not known since Pearl Harbor. Every porch flew a flag, every politician bent his knee to a president with poll ratings off-the-charts. And few dared step out of line. "You are either with us or against us," said George W, ensuring that every critic was branded as a confrère of terrorism. It got so bad that even as heartland a figure as Dan Rather, veteran anchor of CBS News, complained to BBC Newsnight that the US had developed a near-totalitarian intolerance of dissent.
No longer. Now the politicians are back slinging mud, and the previously tranquilized media-hounds have got the scent of the hunt back into their nostrils. What electric charge has made the dormant body of US politics twitch back to life? Most assumed it would take a new, separate crisis - an economic collapse, mass unemployment or a personal scandal - to break the spell.
But that's not how it turned out. Instead it is September 11 itself which has put conflict back into US politics. Specifically, the charge that President Bush and his staff were warned that a terrorist atrocity was being hatched - and did nothing.
The evidence is a battery of FBI memos and intelligence briefings - more coming out all the time - which seemed to anticipate with uncanny prescience the attacks of 9/11. In July 2001, a sharp-eyed FBI agent in Arizona noticed that a large number of suspects he'd been watching had taken up a new hobby: flying lessons. More worrying, they were asking their teachers lots of questions about airline security. His memo never got beyond middle-management. At the same time, America's "terrorism czar" was warning FBI and aviation officials that "something really spectacular" was in the works. On August 6, President Bush himself, receiving his daily briefing at his Texan ranch, was told there was a threat of al-Qaida hijacking planes within the US. Nothing happened.
With all this released into the atmosphere, the traditional features of political combat have materialized. The press are baying: even the right-leaning New York Post splashed last week with the banner headline: Bush Knew. The Democrats are in full blood, demanding an independent commission of inquiry into that time-honored question of Washington scandal, "What did the president know and when did he know it?"
How serious a scandal is brewing here? The current evidence is not enough to bring down a president. The White House can dismiss the intelligence warnings, insisting they were not specific enough; that they may look eerily accurate now, with hindsight, but that at the time they were too vague to stand out from the mass of TMI - Too Much Information - US intelligence agencies receive every day of the week.
The chain of command protects the president in cases like this: the Arizona memo never reached his desk. (Even the head of the FBI did not see it until after September 11.) Besides, there is a more basic factor at work: voters' gut instinct says that, if the president could have done anything to prevent the September tragedy, he would have. More deeply, people have a fatalistic feeling about that day. Bobbi Rosner, who lost her daughter Sheryl on 9/11, wrote to the New York Times yesterday, with astonishing stoicism: "Could it have been prevented? Probably not... Mistakes happen, after all."
So Dubya need not fear for his job just yet. Indeed, the smart Washington money says that Democrats have overplayed their hand in this, their first attack on Bush's conduct of the war against terror. They left themselves vulnerable to a Republican counter-attack, in which the White House raked through individual Democrats' voting records to expose them as soft on terrorism in the past. Some of those Democrats have now backed off, fearful of that perennial weak spot: the charge that they are insufficiently patriotic.
Still, the sheer ferocity of the Republican counter-blast has been revealing. It proves that the administration knows the value of the protective shield the war on terror has thrown over them. They know it also covers Republicans in Congress - up for re-election in November - and they do not want to see anything dent it. Osama bin Laden has re-established the old cold war standard of president as protector, and that standard served the Republican party well for decades. That's why any suggestion that Bush failed to protect the American people had to be crushed instantly: witness the full-dress defense from the White House, including last week's highly-unusual intervention from the first lady, Laura Bush: "I know my husband..."
The administration is right to want to kill this issue; it can only spell trouble for them. Even if it does not touch Bush personally, it damages his senior lieutenants. The vice president, Dick Cheney, sat on a counter-terrorism bill passed to him in July. The attorney general, John Ashcroft, refused a demand for more FBI anti-terrorism agents. The defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, did not deploy a Predator drone aircraft which the Clinton administration had used to track Bin Laden. The national security adviser, Condi Rice, was warned in January 2001 by her Clintonite predecessor that she would spend more time on al-Qaida than any other issue. She launched a review, but let it languish in bureaucratic limbo.
It also hurts the Bush team's ideology. To govern is to choose, says the old saw, and the Bushies chose to make a priority of everything but domestic terrorism. Ashcroft was more concerned with drugs and violent crime; Rumsfeld was obsessed with national missile defense; Rice and Cheney were more worried by Saddam than al-Qaida.
So this current spat may not be Watergate but it could have some powerful effects. First, it should trigger that inquiry which, in turn, might bring a much-needed shake-up of US intelligence - including cooperation between, maybe even an eventual merger of, the FBI and CIA, and a radical improvement of both.
Second, it has given Democrats a glimpse of how they can take on this phenomenally popular president and his party. Their previous attacks on domestic policy made no impact; they now know the only way to get through is by denting that 9/11 protective shield. They will be helped by a press pack now on the paper trail, hunting for a smoking gun. The return of politics and dissent is about to make life uncomfortable for the Bushies - but much healthier for America.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002