Top officials from the Bush administration have hit upon a revealing new theme as they retrospectively justify their national security policies. Call it the White House 9/11 trauma defense.
"Unless you were there, in a position of responsibility after September 11, you cannot possibly imagine the dilemmas that you faced in trying to protect Americans," Condoleezza Rice said last month as she admonished a Stanford University student who questioned the Bush-era interrogation program. And in his May 21 speech on national security, Dick Cheney called the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, a "defining" experience that "caused everyone to take a serious second look" at the threats to America. Critics of the administration have become more intense as memories of the attacks have faded, he argued. "Part of our responsibility, as we saw it," Cheney said, "was not to forget the terrible harm that had been done to America."
I remember that morning, too. Shortly after the second World Trade Center tower was hit, I burst in on Rice (then the president's national security adviser) and Cheney in the vice president's office and remember glimpsing horror on his face. Once in the bomb shelter, Cheney assembled his team while the crisis managers on the National Security Council staff coordinated the government response by video conference from the Situation Room. Many of us thought that we might not leave the White House alive. I remember the next day, too, when smoke still rose from the Pentagon as I sat in my office in the White House compound, a gas mask on my desk. The streets of Washington were empty, except for the armored vehicles, and the skies were clear, except for the F-15s on patrol. Every scene from those days is seared into my memory. I understand how it was a defining moment for Cheney, as it was for so many Americans.
Yet listening to Cheney and Rice, it seems that they want to be excused for the measures they authorized after the attacks on the grounds that 9/11 was traumatic. "If you were there in a position of authority and watched Americans drop out of eighty-story buildings because these murderous tyrants went after innocent people," Rice said in her recent comments, "then you were determined to do anything that you could that was legal to prevent that from happening again."
I have little sympathy for this argument. Yes, we went for days with little sleep, and we all assumed that more attacks were coming. But the decisions that Bush officials made in the following months and years -- on Iraq, on detentions, on interrogations, on wiretapping -- were not appropriate. Careful analysis could have replaced the impulse to break all the rules, even more so because the Sept. 11 attacks, though horrifying, should not have surprised senior officials. Cheney's admission that 9/11 caused him to reassess the threats to the nation only underscores how, for months, top officials had ignored warnings from the CIA and the NSC staff that urgent action was needed to preempt a major al-Qaeda attack.
Thus, when Bush's inner circle first really came to grips with the threat of terrorism, they did so in a state of shock -- a bad state in which to develop a coherent response. Fearful of new attacks, they authorized the most extreme measures available, without assessing whether they were really a good idea.
I believe this zeal stemmed in part from concerns about the 2004 presidential election. Many in the White House feared that their inaction prior to the attacks would be publicly detailed before the next vote -- which is why they resisted the 9/11 commission -- and that a second attack would eliminate any chance of a second Bush term. So they decided to leave no doubt that they had done everything imaginable.
The first response they discussed was invading Iraq. While the Pentagon was still burning, Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld was in the White House suggesting an attack against Baghdad. Somehow the administration's leaders could not believe that al-Qaeda could have mounted such a devastating operation, so Iraqi involvement became the convenient explanation. Despite being told repeatedly that Iraq was not involved in 9/11, some, like Cheney, could not abandon the idea. Charles Duelfer of the CIA's Iraq Survey Group recently revealed in his book, "Hide and Seek: The Search for Truth in Iraq," that high-level U.S. officials urged him to consider waterboarding specific Iraqi prisoners of war so that they could provide evidence of an Iraqi role in the terrorist attacks -- a request Duelfer refused. (A recent report indicates that the suggestion came from the vice president's office.) Nevertheless, the lack of evidence did not deter the administration from eventually invading Iraq -- a move many senior Bush officials had wanted to make before 9/11.
On detention, the Bush team leaped to the assumption that U.S. courts and prisons would not work. Before the terrorist attacks, the U.S. counterterrorism program of the 1990s had arrested al-Qaeda terrorists and others around the world and had a 100 percent conviction rate in the U.S. justice system. Yet the American system was abandoned, again as part of a pattern of immediately adopting the most extreme response available. Camps were established around the world, notably in Guantanamo Bay, where prisoners were held without being charged or tried. They became symbols of American overreach, held up as proof that al-Qaeda's anti-American propaganda was right.
Similarly, with regard to interrogation, administration officials conducted no meaningful professional analysis of which techniques worked and which did not. The FBI, which had successfully questioned al-Qaeda terrorists, was effectively excluded from interrogations. Instead, there was the immediate and unwarranted assumption that extreme measures -- such as waterboarding one detainee 183 times -- would be the most effective.
Finally, on wiretapping, rather than beef up the procedures available under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the administration again moved to the extreme, listening in on communications here at home without legal process. FISA did need some modification, but it also allowed for the quick issuance of court orders, as when President Clinton took stepped-up defensive measures in late 1999 under the heightened threat of the new millennium.
Yes, Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice may have been surprised by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 -- but it was because they had not listened. And their surprise led them to adopt extreme counterterrorism techniques -- but it was because they rejected, without analysis, the tactics the Clinton administration had used. The measures they uncritically adopted, which they simply assumed were the best available, were in fact unnecessary and counterproductive.
"I'll freely admit that watching a coordinated, devastating attack on our country from an underground bunker at the White House can affect how you view your responsibilities," Cheney said in his recent speech. But this defense does not stand up. The Bush administration's response actually undermined the principles and values America has always stood for in the world, values that should have survived this traumatic event. The White House thought that 9/11 changed everything. It may have changed many things, but it did not change the Constitution, which the vice president, the national security adviser and all of us who were in the White House that tragic day had pledged to protect and preserve.