It's well known that on August 6, 2011, President George W. Bush received his daily intelligence briefing, which that day was titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." It's further known that when his CIA briefer was done, Bush (who was then vacationing at his Texas ranch) said, "All right, you've covered your ass, now." Presumably he then went on to a day of brush clearing, and/or golfing. Thirty-six days later, al Qaeda did indeed strike in the U.S., killing nearly 3,000 Americans, destroying the Twin Towers, and setting in motion a chain of events that's led to thousands of additional American deaths, hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis and Afghanis, trillions of dollars spent and a core change, not for the better, in American life.
Today in the New York Times, reporter Kurt Eichenwald writes that the declassified August 6 brief is actually not the truly damning document as far as the Bush administration is concerned:
On April 10, 2004, the Bush White House declassified that daily brief — and only that daily brief — in response to pressure from the 9/11 Commission, which was investigating the events leading to the attack. Administration officials dismissed the document’s significance, saying that, despite the jaw-dropping headline, it was only an assessment of Al Qaeda’s history, not a warning of the impending attack. While some critics considered that claim absurd, a close reading of the brief showed that the argument had some validity.
That is, unless it was read in conjunction with the daily briefs preceding Aug. 6, the ones the Bush administration would not release. While those documents are still not public, I have read excerpts from many of them, along with other recently declassified records, and come to an inescapable conclusion: the administration’s reaction to what Mr. Bush was told in the weeks before that infamous briefing reflected significantly more negligence than has been disclosed. In other words, the Aug. 6 document, for all of the controversy it provoked, is not nearly as shocking as the briefs that came before it.
The direct warnings to Mr. Bush about the possibility of a Qaeda attack began in the spring of 2001. By May 1, the Central Intelligence Agency told the White House of a report that “a group presently in the United States” was planning a terrorist operation. Weeks later, on June 22, the daily brief reported that Qaeda strikes could be “imminent,” although intelligence suggested the time frame was flexible.
But some in the administration considered the warning to be just bluster. An intelligence official and a member of the Bush administration both told me in interviews that the neoconservative leaders who had recently assumed power at the Pentagon were warning the White House that the C.I.A. had been fooled; according to this theory, Bin Laden was merely pretending to be planning an attack to distract the administration from Saddam Hussein, whom the neoconservatives saw as a greater threat. Intelligence officials, these sources said, protested that the idea of Bin Laden, an Islamic fundamentalist, conspiring with Mr. Hussein, an Iraqi secularist, was ridiculous, but the neoconservatives’ suspicions were nevertheless carrying the day.
In response, the C.I.A. prepared an analysis that all but pleaded with the White House to accept that the danger from Bin Laden was real.
The combination of Bush's own incuriosity and the neoconservatives' insistence that everything must fit into their master narrative of Getting Saddam Hussein goes a long way toward explaining why an eminently preventable catastrophe went forward. (The failure of Condi Rice, then the National Security Advisor, to push back against the neocons is an important element as well.) But that's not even the main point here. What's really of interest to me is how Bush, who presumably remembered that he'd been briefed--evidently not just once, but on multiple occasions--subsequently went forward and not only didn't cop to any responsibility, BUT ACTUALLY MADE POLITICAL USE OF A TRAGEDY THAT OCCURRED ON HIS WATCH AND THAT HE FAILED TO PREVENT.
We don't expect failed leaders to commit ritual suicide or even drop out of public life, but there are plenty of examples in modern American history of policymakers who made severe mistakes with fatal ramifications for thousands of human beings, including ones for which they should have known better. Robert McNamara, the brilliant Secretary of Defense under JFK and LBJ, was tragically wrong about the Vietnam War. He probably knew it long before he left office in early 1968, but didn't say so publicly until almost 30 years later. He eventually did come clean, no doubt in part to salve his own tormented conscience but also in hopes that his successors might avoid his mistakes. In between, McNamara led the World Bank--by most accounts, commendably--and found other ways to serve. Colin Powell, Bush's first Secretary of State and hero of the first Gulf War, has admitted to shame at giving testimony to the UN Security Council that later proved inaccurate in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War. He left public office soon after, and mostly has focused on philanthropic activities since then.
Bush and his team simply used the disaster they failed to prevent to justify their long-desired war with Iraq, and jam through as much of their desired domestic and foreign policy agenda as possible. They ran for re-election in 2004 primarily on national security arguments. They mismanaged both the more or less logical retaliatory war in Afghanistan and the totally unnecessary and pointless Iraq war. They won re-election and continued mismanaging the Iraq war. Many of them are now advising Mitt Romney and likely would guide national security if he wins the presidency.
I remember when Curt Schilling endorsed and campaigned for Bush in 2004, I compared it to Schilling making an argument for his own greatness not based on his World Series heroics in 1993, 2001 or 2004, but on the worst start of his career. Schilling, for all his sometime jackassery, didn't hide from accountability; when he sucked, he copped to it. Regarding his most dramatic consequential failure, George W. Bush never showed the least sense of contrition or responsibility; in fact he treated it like some kind of triumph. I don't understand it at all, can't even really grasp how someone could possibly respond in that way.