President Bush was asked, during a very brief session with reporters yesterday, about the now-famous Aug. 6, 2001, memo he received on domestic terrorism. He responded with the familiar White House complaint about lack of specificity in the C.I.A.'s warnings — although the memo mentioned a plot, possibly involving hijacked planes and New York City. The most striking thing about the president's comment, however, was his bottom line: that he did everything he could. Over the last few weeks we have heard lawmakers and officials from two administrations talk about their feelings of responsibility, about how they compulsively re-examine the events leading up to 9/ll, asking themselves whether they could have done anything to avert the terrible disaster that day. It is beginning to seem that the only person free of that kind of self-examination is the man who was chief executive when the attacks occurred.
No reasonable American blames Mr. Bush for the terrorist attacks, but that's a long way from thinking there was no other conceivable action he could have taken to prevent them. He could, for instance, have left his vacation in Texas after receiving that briefing memo entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." and rushed back to the White House, assembled all his top advisers and demanded to know what, in particular, was being done to screen airline passengers to make sure people who fit the airlines' threat profiles were being prevented from boarding American planes. Even that sort of prescient response would probably have been too little to head off the disaster. But those what-if questions should haunt the president as they haunt the nation. In all probability, they do and it is only the demands of his re-election campaign that are guiding Mr. Bush's public stance of utter, uncomplicated self-righteousness.
It is time for the president to drop his political posture and reassure the country that his first and foremost concern is not his re-election but the safety of Americans at home and abroad. Instead of passively noting that it is the job of the 9/11 commission to figure out whether anything could or should have been done differently, he must demonstrate that he is asking those questions of himself. Instead of preparing — as the administration seems to be preparing — to blame the C.I.A. and F.B.I. for everything that went wrong, he needs to ask whether the structure of the Bush White House itself is part of the problem.
Perhaps no other administration would have responded differently to the skimpy document Mr. Bush received in August 2001. But most other presidents did not limit critical briefing papers to little more than a page, give political advisers such a prominent place in the White House and so dramatically restrict the number of policy makers who had access to the Oval Office. All of Mr. Bush's recent predecessors had at least one of those flaws, but no one else had them all.
The "fact sheet" the White House released over the weekend along with the August 2001 briefing memo hardly shows any rethinking of the way Mr. Bush operates his government. It is instead an extraordinary exercise in bureaucratic excuse making and misdirection. It says that the notion that Osama bin Laden wanted to mount an attack on the United States was familiar information and "publicly well known." It said the presence of Qaeda agents in the United States was equally old news to the F.B.I. and the intelligence agencies. It makes it sound as if everyone knew about Osama bin Laden's danger to America except the inattentive president.
Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, gave a bureaucrat's hedged responses in her appearance before the 9/11 commission. The public needs to hear a leader's candid answers from President Bush, who so far has agreed to appear before the commission only in private and in the company of the vice president.
This is not a time for more secrecy and presidential isolation. Mr. Bush is asking Americans to simply take his word for the need to stick to an increasingly bloody and chaotic mission in Iraq that he won't even define clearly. (When asked by NBC's Tim Russert yesterday what Iraqi leaders the coalition planned to hand over the government to on the target date of June 30, the American proconsul Paul Bremer III chillingly began his answer with "That's a good question.")
Mr. Bush needs to speak out fully in public, both about 9/11 and about Iraq. He is chief executive of a country that once trusted him to lead in perilous times. The public supported his decision to go to war in the Middle East because most Americans believed his judgment was sound. That kind of faith is not just what he needs to win an election in November. It is what he needs to run the country, and he is in grave danger of losing it. Neither administration officials nor political advisers nor the White House spin team can hold on to the country's ebbing confidence. The president must do this himself, and quickly.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company