From a moral standpoint, the question of whether the Bush administration should have done more to prevent the September 11 attacks is of the utmost gravity. But if you put aside moral considerations for a moment, the administration's defense against charges of negligence can be appreciated on the level of sheer comic virtuosity. After first launching a flurry of scattershot, mutually exclusive, and largely-unsuccessful charges against their main antagonist, former terrorism czar Richard Clarke, the Bushies have settled onto two main lines of argument -- one that involves playing defense, and another that seems designed to seize the initiative in the debate. Both were on display at the president's press conference last night.
The general thrust of the defensive arguments has been to question the quality of intelligence available to Bush before September 11. When it came out that Bush had received a detailed memorandum on August 6, 2001, the administration dismissed the memo as "historical" -- you know, probably some musty old professor ruminating on the development of Wahhabism. Then, after the 9/11 Commission revealed the memo's decidedly non-backward looking title -- "BIN LADEN DETERMINED TO ATTACK INSIDE THE UNITED STATES" -- Bush had to retrench yet again. The new defense had several elements. At his Sunday press conference in Waco, Bush defined the memo as merely reporting that "Osama bin Laden had designs on America. Well, I knew that." Later in the same conference, Bush stretched the point slightly further: "Of course we knew that America was hated by Osama bin Laden. That was obvious." In fact, the memo didn't merely say bin Laden "had designs on" or "hated" America, but that he was planning an imminent attack, one that might involve hijacking airplanes or targeting federal buildings in New York.
Second, Bush pointed out that the memo did not predict the "hijacking of an airplane to fly into a building." But what difference would that have made? Even if we had known that al Qaeda planned to crash the hijacked planes, we wouldn't have let the hijackers take control of the planes and then tried to fortify the World Trade Center against a crash; we would have put the government on high alert against hijackers.
Third, Bush insisted that the memo did not specify a "time and place" for the attack. Was our domestic law enforcement so incompetent and understaffed that it could only act against a terrorist attack if we knew the precise time and place? (On September 11, send a squad car over to Logan airport and arrest any Arab men found with box cutters!) Presumably the government had more resources at its disposal than a couple guys in a squad car, and could have, I don't know, put the federal government on alert against all hijackings. Since then, the government has received intelligence about terror attacks that doesn't reveal the precise time and place or come attached with a signed confession from bin Laden. Presumably the response is not simply to throw up our hands and decry its uselessness.
Finally, Bush has sought to change the question from his competence to his intent. "Had I had any inkling whatsoever that the people were going to fly airplanes into buildings," he said at his press conference last night, "we would have moved heaven and earth to save the country." But of course no serious person is saying Bush deliberately ignored the threat. It's as if former Boston Red Sox manager Grady Little responded to questions about his baffling failure to relieve Pedro Martinez in Game 7 against the Yankees by insisting that of course he wanted to win the game.
An old political aphorism holds that if you're explaining, you're losing. So, in keeping with that, Bush's allies have shifted from defense to offense. The developing line is that those who criticize Bush for doing too little to thwart the al Qaeda attacks are hypocrites, because the very same people accuse him of doing too much on Iraq.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about this peculiar line of reasoning is to observe the way it has developed and mutated into an official talking point. It first burbled up on The Wall Street Journal editorial page last month:
"There is a profound contradiction at the heart of this 20-20 hindsight. On the one hand, the critics want to blame the Bush Administration for failing to prevent 9/11, but on the other they assail it for acting "pre-emptively" on a needless war in Iraq. Well, which do they really believe?"
The Journal editors apparently thought so highly of this point that they used it as the beginning of a subsequent editorial:
"Give President Bush's critics credit for versatility. Having spent months assailing him for doing too much after 9/11 -- Iraq, the Patriot Act, the 'pre-emption' doctrine -- they have now turned on a dime to allege that he did too little before it."
One obvious problem with this line of attack is that it assumes that all of Bush's critics opposed the Iraq war. Well, I supported the Iraq war, and I still think Bush should have reacted to the warnings he received about al Qaeda in 2001. What do you have to say to me?
A more glaring flaw with this critique -- so glaring, in fact, that it's almost demeaning to have to point it out -- is that it completely elides the objection to the Iraq war. Most critics of the Iraq war argued it would deplete our military, intelligence, and diplomatic resources, weakening us in the fight against al Qaeda. Nobody argued that Iraq was a central part of the war on terror but it wasn't worth fighting. What's so funny is that the Journal seems to recognize this -- it accurately accuses critics of calling the war "needless" -- yet fails to grasp the implication: There's nothing hypocritical about opposing actions you think aren't necessary and supporting actions you think are. Suppose that after the World Trade Center fell, Bush decided to ignore Afghanistan and instead invade Canada. By the Journal's logic, anybody who criticized both policies would be a hypocrite. Is Bush invading too many countries, or too few? Make up your minds!
By Tuesday the Journal's line had been taken up by administration spokeswoman Mary Matalin, who told Don Imus, "You cannot on the one hand say [Bush] did too little before 9/11 and say he did too much after." The same day, a slightly more sophisticated version of this spin appeared in David Brooks's New York Times column:
"The critics savage the Clinton and Bush administrations for not moving aggressively enough against terror. Al Qaeda facilities should have been dismantled before 9/11, the critics say.
Then you look at the debate over Iraq and suddenly you see the same second-guessers posing as Weinbergerians [which Brooks defines as cautious about responding to uncertain risks]. The U.S. should have been more cautious. We should have had concrete evidence about W.M.D.'s before invading Iraq.
Step back and you see millions of people who will pick up any stick they can to beat the administration."
Here Brooks ignores all the details that set apart the threat from al Qaeda and the threat from Iraq. For one thing, there's the question of the cost of action. Responding to al Qaeda threats in the summer of 2001 could have entailed as little as convening some high-level meetings, dispatching more FBI agents, alerting airport security, and so on. Responding to the Iraq threat required starting a major theater war. So, even if the two threats were equivalent, there'd be nothing hypocritical about supporting the easy response and opposing the hard response.
But, more importantly, the two threats were not equivalent. The intelligence Bush had on al Qaeda in 2001 warned of an imminent attack within the United States. Intelligence on Iraq suggested no such thing. The only credible intelligence anybody had produced connecting Saddam Hussein to terrorism concerned Ansar al-Islam, which was based in Iraqi Kurdistan, outside of Saddam's control. The best argument that Saddam represented a threat was the prospect that he could obtain a nuclear weapon within the next few years. But even that threat -- as it was understood at the time -- was nowhere near as imminent as the al Qaeda threat.
Perhaps Bush was supposed to repeat this argument in his press conference last night. But he failed to bring it up, and had to be prompted by a friendly reporter, who asked him, "You have been accused of letting the 9/11 threat mature too far, but not letting the Iraq threat mature far enough. First, could you respond to that general criticism?" (Of course, what Bush was being asked to respond to was the opposite of "criticism.") The President replied, "Yes. I guess there have been some that said, Well, we should've taken preemptive action in Afghanistan, and then turned around and said we shouldn't have taken preemptive action in Iraq."
Bush's version was more refined still than previous iterations but remains wholly ignorant. Yes, some critics objected to the "preemptive" quality of the Iraq war, but most Democrats, rightly or wrongly, would have supported a preemptive attack if the U.N. Security Council had given its blessing. Anyway, the key point is that taking action against al Qaeda, even before September 11, would not have been preemptive. Al Qaeda attacked the United States in 2000, 1998, and 1993.
I've always been inclined to believe that the Bush administration could not have done anything different that would have prevented the September 11 terrorist attacks. But it's kind of suspicious that, when they defend themselves on this point, Bush and his allies are spectacularly unpersuasive. Perhaps their habit of dissembling has become so ingrained that they do it even when they're right. On the other hand, maybe they do it because the president has something to hide.
Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at TNR.
By Jonathan Chait