A full-scale investigation is in order as to why this nation was so poorly prepared to fend off an air piracy attack by a terrorist group that had already killed many Americans and attempted air hijackings and yet had total access to our flight schools.
Unfortunately, all clues so far point to a depressingly likely conclusion: Until Sept. 11, the Bush administration was simply too distracted and/or incompetent to maintain the American pressure on Osama bin Laden begun in 1998 under President Clinton with the missile attacks on reported Al Qaeda sites in Afghanistan.
As Newsweek reports this week, Clinton National Security Advisor Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger was "totally preoccupied" with the prospect of a domestic terror attack. He warned his replacement, Condoleezza Rice: "You will be spending more time on this issue than on any other." Problem was, she didn't. Despite many warnings like Berger's, including the recently revealed Central Intelligence Agency briefings last summer, the new administration treated the so-called war on drugs as more important than terrorism, and on that basis even made overtures to the Taliban leadership.
Four days before the ominous CIA briefing on Aug. 6 that warned President Bush of the possibility of Al Qaeda hijackings, Christina B. Rocca, assistant secretary of State for South Asia, was sipping tea in Islamabad with the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef. She offered a mixed message that aptly characterized the administration's confused priorities.
Treating the Taliban and Al Qaeda as if they were distinct entities, Rocca--in what now seems unbelievable naivete--asked the Taliban to extradite Bin Laden. Afterward, Zaeef said, "We gave Rocca our complete assurance that our soil will not be used against America and that Afghan soil will not be used for any terrorist activity." He called the meeting "very successful," adding, "The atmosphere was very cordial."
He had reason to be pleased. As Associated Press reported at the time: "In recognition of the Taliban's elimination of opium [in Afghanistan], the raw material used to make heroin, the Bush administration is giving $1.5million to the United Nations Drug Control Program to finance crop substitution, Rocca said."
Poppies, not terrorists, had been eliminated in Afghanistan. Five weeks later, terrorists smashed three planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
While the State Department was playing footsie with the Taliban, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft's Justice Department also was downshifting anti-terrorism efforts to transfer focus to violent crime and drugs, reports Newsweek.
At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld blocked an attempt to move $800million from his pet missile defense program into counter-terrorism.
The administration simply was not focused on terrorism until it was too late. There was a blizzard of warnings leading up to Sept. 11 that was ignored. It's a poor excuse for Rice to complain that the CIA warning was "thin." Real-time coordination of intelligence information on such a high-level problem is the responsibility of the national security advisor.
If Rice felt the dire CIA warning in August was incomplete, she should have demanded that the FBI and other intelligence agencies immediately brief her and the president on their full knowledge of the situation. Nor did the administration inform the country of this lapse in security until it leaked to the media eight months later.
Indeed, administration spokesmen have continuously misled the public from the first days after the Sept. 11 tragedy with the claim that the president had no advance warning.
We do not yet know the full extent of those warnings, and Vice President Dick Cheney is once again circling the wagons of executive privilege around the essential data.
The vice president insists that it would jeopardize national security for Congress to have access to the August CIA briefing.
This follows the dangerous pattern this administration has consistently pursued of denying the public and its elected representatives potentially embarrassing information, such as notes from meetings with Enron officials before that company's spectacular implosion.
We already know enough about the intelligence failures before that grim September morning to raise strong suspicions that executive privilege is now being invoked to conceal enormous incompetence on the part of the executive branch.
It is painful, in light of the thousands of people slain in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania as well as later in Afghanistan in retaliation, to look back at how our security was so threatened. But as horrifying as the facts may turn out to be, we as a nation have long believed that it is the truth--full, complex and unsanitized--that shall make us free. We should continue to act accordingly.
Robert Scheer writes a syndicated column.
Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times