With the 9/11 commission holding its hearings, the blame game is in full swing. It's Bush's fault. No, Clinton's. No, it's everyone's fault. No, it's no one's fault. And so it goes. Attorney General John Ashcroft goes before the panel and gets grilled on his lack of attention to terrorism pre-9/11. Ashcroft turns the tables and points the finger at panel member Jamie Gorelick, a former deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, for tying law enforcement's hands with guidelines that made cooperation with intelligence agencies virtually impossible. Whether you think Ashcroft or Gorelick ended up in the hot seat generally depends on which one of them you'd like to see squirm. Everyone, it seems, is being confirmed in what they already know.
Some of the partisan blaming has been fairly egregious. Washington Post cartoonist Tom Toles shows Bush being warned that the Al Qaeda is planning to hijack a plane and target a building in "lower Manhattan," and responding that the warning isn't specific enough because it doesn't mention Saddam. Given that a good portion of the public is not terribly well-informed, it wouldn't be surprising if some Americans actually believed by now that Bush was given specific warnings about the terrorist strike and ignored them.
On the other side, National Review contributor David Frum, writing in his online diary about Richard Clarke's book Against All Enemies, practically gloats over Clarke's assertion that Clinton did not take decisive action against terrorism because of "the intensity of the political opposition." Clinton critics had said along, Frum notes, that Clinton's "personal failings" would impede his ability to govern—and they were right. But in fact, these "personal failings" were so crippling to the Clinton presidency because his opponents saw fit to turn a sordid little sexual affair into a major political scandal. (How pathetic and absurd the impeachment drama seems in retrospect.)
This doesn't mean that, without the scandals and the impeachment, Clinton would have done something effective about terrorism, or prevented Sept. 11. Most people who care more about facts than about scoring partisan points agree that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats took the threat of terrorism seriously enough—though, after the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and after the 1998 bombing of the USS Cole, it's not clear why they didn't.
Even if more had been done to combat and eradicate terrorism in the 1990s, it doesn't necessarily mean that the Sept. 11 plot would have been stopped. Some earlier conspiracies by radical Islamists in the United States, such as a plot to bomb New York City's main tunnels and bridges, were intercepted—partly through sheer luck. But no security system can ever be foolproof.
New Republic commentator Gregg Easterbrook makes another interesting point in his weblog: Had Bush launched a preemptive strike against Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, or authorized mass roundups of suspected terrorists, on the basis of the fairly vague pre-Sept. 11 warnings of an attack, he would have come under fire from many of the same people who are now accusing him of having done too little.
"Had decisive military action been taken in August 2001, and had that action been successful—Sept. 11 avoided and thus its possibility never even known—there would now be a carnival of recriminations about why we invaded Afghanistan 'unnecessarily,"' writes Easterbrook, who is no Bush sympathizer.
This scenario makes a lot of sense—particularly since, given Al Qaeda's elaborate secrecy, we might have never gotten sufficient information from the captured terrorists to know exactly what they were planning.
Kristin Breitweiser, one of the activist widows of Sept. 11, has also asserted that the warnings about possible terrorist attacks on airplanes by groups with a Middle Eastern connection should have been released to the public so that passengers would be more alert to danger signs. Yet far less radical precautions have been rejected because they smacked of racial profiling.
One startling fact to emerge from the 9/11 hearings is that, apparently, the Federal Aviation Administration hits airlines with fines if more than two people of the same ethnic background are subjected to extra scrutiny when boarding a flight. This was mentioned in passing by former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, a commission member. This remarkable information received virtually no press coverage—except for an article by Michael Smerconish in the Philadelphia Daily News, which quotes Lehman as saying that the practice continues today.
Instead of blasting one another for lack of past clairvoyance, we would be well-advised to look at present-day national security failures. There's still plenty of blame to go around.