Everyone knows the second half of that two-part question. And when did he know it? There is accumulating evidence that the FBI and the CIA had advance warning before 9/11 that some kind of terrorist attack involving Arabs associated with Osama bin Ladin was being planned.
The failure of the intelligence services to anticipate and stop what actually happened warrants a full investigation, as called for by Senators McCain, Daschle and Lieberman and others. Not for the first time have American intelligence agencies proven to be unimaginative data collectors, burdened by bureaucracy, and unable to protect the public.
But what did Bush know and when did he know it? The questions themselves are disingenuous. To be sure, it gives one pleasure to see the Bush Administration on the defensive. If 9/11 had happened under a Democratic President, right-wing lynch-mobs would be screaming ďImpeach the President!Ē
While a President is responsible for what happens during his watch, there is no way that Bush can be implicated as missing the boat on the 9/11 attacks. Even the now-famous memo by the Arizona-based FBI counterterrorism expert Kenneth Williams was based more on an informed hunch than on any hard evidence. Williams was struck by the anti-American opinions of Arab aviation students whom he had interviewed. He connected some of them with extremist anti-American Muslim groups and this raised his suspicion. But he had no hint of any concrete plot. His memo to FBI headquarters was filed as ďroutineĒ and thatís how it was treated.
But suppose the Administration had taken Williamsí memo seriously and decided to take preventative measures. What would have been their options?
The FBI could have mounted a nationwide dragnet and rounded up Arab men, almost all of whom would have been innocent. Because no overt crime had as yet happened, all they could have been charged with was ďconspiracy.Ē Historically, conspiracy has been used for political purposes. With Attorney-General John Ashcroft as the Administrationís point man, it would have been an outrage.
The authorities could also have shut down the airports or massed police, soldiers and FBI agents to check every airline passenger. Because the Administration was claiming to be guarding against the unimaginable, something which had never before happened, it would have provoked an outcry of opposition, from business travelers as well as civil libertarians. Indeed, many of the same people now insisting that Bush didnít do enough to stop 9/11 would have accused him of creating a political incident and harassing peaceful Muslims if he had, indeed, acted. I certainly would have been up in arms protested, and thatís humbling.
I donít believe anyone, despite the hints that seem evident in retrospect, could have anticipated three hijacked planes simultaneously transformed into suicide missiles against public buildings. Agent Williams made an informed hunch and had amazing prescience. But he, and other government agents who had reasons to be suspicious, lacked the hard evidence to compel the government into action.
But Iím not letting the Bush Administration off the hook so easily, and neither should anyone. Itís not what they knew, but what they know. Itís not what they didnít do but what they are doing that begs an investigation.
We are at war, Vice President Cheney insists, and thereís no end in sight. Every days comes new warnings of terrorist attacks. I believe that terrorists will attempt to hit us again, but itís hard to take the government warnings seriously when Administration policy remains wedded to presumptions that pre-date 9/11 and ignore, when they donít actually contradict, the so-called war on terrorism. Three examples:
The Administration cries war and promotes fear but does nothing to rally the population. They increase spending for military defense and anti-terrorism activities, but still insist on cutting taxes for the richest Americans, thus continuing to promulgate the most massive government-sponsored effort to redistribute wealth in the history of the country.
Although we need international cooperation to protect ourselves from terror, we unilaterally pick fights with countries that do not threaten us. With no evidence, Bush denounces Cuba as a terrorist state at the same time heís hosting Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamad, internationally notorious for imprisoning his political opponents. A partisan right-wing State Department political appointee with an anti-Castro agenda but no evidence - again nada, nothing! -- accuses Cuba of producing biological weapons. (What the Bush Administration really fears is the success of Cubaís universal health care experiment). Is terrorism the motivation or is Bush simply pandering to the Miami Cubans in order to re-elect brother Jeb Governor of Florida?
Early in the Administration, Bushís energy policymakers met secretly with private-sector energy officials to create a new energy plan based on the construction of new nuclear, coal and other fossil fuel facilities. The Administration pointed to an energy shortage in California as proof that we needed new power plant construction. We know now that the California shortage was deliberately created by Enron and other energy companies manipulating the deregulated energy market. In other words, there is no energy shortage. In light of the fact that centralized power plants are obvious terrorist targets, one would expect the Administration to redraft its energy plan to support conservation and decentralized facilities that are not vulnerable to terrorist bombs (for example, windmills on the high plains and crash research into fuel cell technology and battery storage). But, no, itís business as usual. As with tax policy, the Bush Administration continues to pay off its benefactors without any regard for protecting our country against terrorism.
So what does Bush know? That inciting fear of terror and hyping a war on terror are effective means of stifling debate, intimidating opponents, and pushing reactionary, corporate-sponsored, ideologically-correct and politically-partisan social, economic, and anti-environmental programs. The terrorist attack of September 11 changed a lot in this country. What it has not changed are the pre-9/11 public policy goals of the Bush Administration.
Marty Jezer's books include The Dark Ages: Life in the United States, 1945-1960. He writes from Brattleboro, Vermont and welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2002 by Marty Jezer