Yet the truth is they are intertwined issues. And the Republicans are failing on both counts, their handling of the war in Iraq and fighting terrorism.
When Bush took us into Iraq the reason given was that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction – nuclear and biological. And as an added fillip, Administration officials kept implying a link between Saddam and al Qaeda.
We now know that there were no WMDs in Iraq. And the link between Hussein and terrorists has been disproved too.
The recent selective leaking of the National Intelligence Estimate confirms what many have suspected for a long time. According to this classified report, the American occupation of Iraq has become a major recruiting tool for al Qaeda. Since we’ve been there terrorists have flocked to that country to wage jihad.
The NIE also confirms that Iraq is spiraling into chaos and civil war. And on top of that assessment, Bob Woodward’s new book, State of Denial, asserts that the situation has been even worse than we’ve been led to believe. The Bush Administration has been withholding how dire conditions really are.
I think, though, that anybody who reads a newspaper every day can guess that it’s not exactly going well over there. Nobody should be in shock over Woodward’s revelations that Bush and his administration have been feeding the public overly optimistic reports.
But it’s worse than we thought. It turns out that the same people who are losing the peace in Iraq were asleep at the wheel when it came to preventing 9-11 after all.
Remember the recent uproar over the highly partisan and biased ABC-TV miniseries on 9-11? A rightwing television writer penned an essentially fictional account of the events leading up to 9-11 that placed most of the missteps at the feet of President Clinton. Neocons have spilled a lot of ink recently trying to lay blame for the intelligence failures that led up to the worst attack on American soil at the feet of the Clinton Administration and the Democrats.
To hear them tell it, Clinton was too distracted with his intern scandal to pay attention to stopping bin Laden. The miniseries even showed fictional scenes of Madeleine Albright and other officials ignoring warnings or passing the buck to other bureaucrats.
Clinton, never one to suffer unfair accusations in silence (he’s the one successful candidate who didn’t let Bob Shrum run any of his campaigns), hit back when he told Chris Wallace angrily that it wasn’t true. Hillary weighed in that her husband tracked down bin Laden aggressively and both said that it was the Republicans and neocons that let him slip through their fingers not the Clinton officials.
Indeed, Richard A. Clark, the former director of counter-terrorism at the National Security Council, gave testimony to the 9-11 commission that directly disputed the neocons’ claims and supported the Clintons’ assertions. Here’s an excerpt from his testimony:
" At the senior policy levels in the Clinton Administration, there was an acute understanding of the terrorist threat, particularly al Qida. That understanding resulted in a vigorous program to counter al Qida including lethal covert action, but it did not include a willingness to resume bombing of Afghanistan. Events in the Balkans, Iraq, the Peace Process, and domestic politics occurring at the same time as the anti-terrorism effort played a role.And now, according to an excerpt from Woodward’s book, as carried in today’s Washington Post, it turns out that the Clintons’ counterpunch and Clark’s statements are accurate.
The Bush Administration saw terrorism policy as important but not urgent, prior to 9-11. The difficulty in obtaining the first Cabinet level (Principals) policy meeting on terrorism and the limited Principals' involvement sent unfortunate signals to the bureaucracy about the Administration's attitude toward the al Qida threat."
On July 10, 2001 CIA Director George Tenet met with his CIA counter-terrorism director J. Cofer Black to discuss intelligence chatter that convinced both of them there was an increasing likelihood that bin Laden was going to launch a major attack, possibly in the U.S.
Tenet and Black called Condoleeza Rice, the National Security adviser, from Tenet’s car and asked to see her right away.
The CIA and others in the intelligence community were all noticing an uptick in the chatter signaling something major was up. Their combined gut instinct was to take it seriously.
Indeed the National Security Agency and even Richard Clark were urging action. Care to guess who the major obstruction was?
The Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld!
Rumsfeld was skeptical of the CIA’s information and of the National Security Agency intercepts. He thought it was all “grand deception,” masterminded by bin Laden, a plot to measure U.S. defense reactions and not a serious threat.
We already know from other sources, including former Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill’s testimony in Ron Suskind’s book, The Price of Loyalty, that Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Bush were more focused on Iraq than al Qaeda or Afghanistan even then. Indeed, according to O’Neill’s accounts, as soon as the Bush officials took office they showed more interest in finding a way to invade Iraq than even in fixing an economy that was heading into a recession.
Here’s what O’Neill told Suskind:
“And what happened at President Bush's very first National Security Council meeting is one of O'Neill's most startling revelations. 'From the very beginning, there was a conviction, that Saddam Hussein was a bad person and that he needed to go,' says O’Neill, who adds that going after Saddam was topic "A" 10 days after the inauguration - eight months before Sept. 11.”And Richard Clark reported in his book, Against All Enemies, that immediately after 9-11 Cheney and Rumsfeld were frantically trying to pin the attack on Saddam rather than bin Laden. Clark was astounded since it ran counter to everything the intelligence agencies already knew.
In fact, as early as June 30, 2001, the National Security Agency had released a top-secret intelligence briefing “Bin Laden Threats Are Real.” And remember from the 9-11 Commission the August 2001 briefing that Rice ignored, “Bin Laden Determined to Attack in the U.S.?”
Immediately after the 9-11 attack, a distraught FBI Special Agent, Colleen Rowley, wrote her open letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller that several agents in the Minneapolis regional FBI office had grown suspicious of Zacarias Moussaoui, a Muslim with ties to questionable organizations who was taking flight lessons but skipping training on how to land planes. Her supervisor and others in middle and upper management ignored these warnings. They were not passing on crucial evidence that might have supplied the missing pieces to a security puzzle that top officials were becoming concerned about.
But middle management rarely acts in a vacuum. Careless functionaries weren’t simply losing this stuff in the bureaucratic maze. Rather, middle management gets a feel early on for what the top political people want. And that’s what they feed them.
Cheney and Rumsfeld weren’t interested in al Qaeda or bin Laden. They set their sights on Saddam Hussein from the beginning.
It’s not like plans to take out bin Laden weren’t formulated. In fact, in closed-door sessions, covert plans were being developed to use a new secret weapon, unmanned Predators or drones with Hellfire missiles to kill bin Laden. But the CIA and the Pentagon were locked in debate over who would pay for it and who would have the authority to fire the missiles.
Because of a turf war and a scuffle over finances, bin Laden walked away to launch his devastating attack on U.S. soil.
As for Black and Tenet, they left their meeting with Condi Rice on July 10 feeling more frustrated than ever. As Black said, “Adults should not have a system like this.” Indeed he felt that the decision to just keep planning rather than heed the warnings and act immediately was “a sustained policy failure.” And Tenet looked back at that meeting as a tremendous lost opportunity to prevent or disrupt 9-11.
The man most responsible for allowing this opportunity to slip through the Administration’s fingers, Donald Rumsfeld, is the same one equally responsible for the massive failures in Iraq. And for the same reason. He has allowed ideology to trump evidence. And he simply disrespects career civil servants whether they are intelligence experts or military leaders. He, Cheney, Karl Rove, and Bush place politics above sound policy.
Do you all feel safer knowing this? I know I don’t. And I think it’s time to challenge the Republicans’ assertion that they are better at protecting Americans and take the issue to the American people. We can’t shy away from it. Not because we want victory in November, although yes we do want that. But there’s a more important reason to fight tooth and nail to expose this Administration’s willful incompetence.
The real security of our nation is at stake. If protecting America meant Democrats losing the next 10 elections, I wouldn’t care. And if losing one election cycle to get rid of Rumsfeld and challenge this Administration to find a real solution that provides lasting security for Americans, then Republicans shouldn’t care if that means defeat. Ultimately the safety of America and its citizens should be more important than politics as usual. It was in the days immediately after 9-11 when we all came together. And it should be again with these revelations.
It’s time to come together again. Whatever the temporary partisan political cost.