In The New York Times today, journalist Kurt Eichenwald writes a 9/11 anniversary op-ed asserting that there are many more pre-Sept. 11 documents aside from the infamous Aug. 6, 2001 presidential daily brief warning the Bush administration that Osama bin Laden was planning to attack the United States. The nut of Eichenwald's argument:
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.
I can't vouch for Eichenwald's reporting, and I'm generally wary of working backwards from a once-in-a-lifetime event, since it's always possible to pluck (and then overrate) a few relevant floaters from the ocean of data. Regardless, these two reaction-tweets to the op-ed by former Bush administration spokesman Ari Fleischer are just crazy-wrong:
Disgusting op-ed in NYT by a truther implying Bush knew of 9-11/let it happen. NYT decries lack of civility, then adds to it.
— Ari Fleischer (@AriFleischer) September 11, 2012
How can the NYT ridicule birthers then make their op-ed page home to a truther??
— Ari Fleischer (@AriFleischer) September 11, 2012
To state what should be the obvious, asserting that there was more relevant pre-attack intelligence than previously known, and criticizing the administration for undervaluing it, is an entirely different category of commentary than claiming that "Bush knew." If Eichenwald is a "truther," there is no evidence of it in this op-ed. Fleischer's blurt is the kind of mistake that immediately calls to mind the phrase "reading incomprehension," but I think it's something a bit more insidious than that.
Of the countless things I lament about our Sept. 12 world, the fever of irrational, emotion-fueled, shaddappayerface discourse, especially over those first three years after, ranks high on the list. Ari Fleischer was, and continues to be, part of that foul process. It's one thing to be a drunk in a bar, shouting epithets at anyone who dare criticize the political team you support. But this same impulse that Fleischer is reviving today was used in real time, by Fleischer and a variety of administration officials, to prevent anyone outside the White House from investigating the run-up to Sept. 11 or reading any of the relevant documents.
If anything, the disproportionate response to Eichenwald's classified-documents-based argument could be read as a pre-emptive attack against the possibility of ever releasing such briefings to the public. Which would be bad for the very national security such moves claim to protect. Recall that Thomas Kean, chairman of the Sept. 11 Commission, said in 2005 that the failure to prevent the attacks were more attributable to overclassification and lack of information-sharing than anything else.
As I wrote in 2004,
In the history of high-profile American catastrophes, has there been a disaster inquiry so painfully slow in getting off the ground? FDR's Roberts Commission presented its Pearl Harbor finger-pointing by Jan. 23, 1942. The Warren Commission held its first hearing just two weeks after John Kennedy was murdered, and issued its report (however, um, flawed) within 10 months. Richard Feynman delivered his famous critique in the same calendar year as the Challenger crash; the Columbia commission wrappedin eight months. […]
The Bush Administration tried to keep the investigation behind closed doors (in congressional intelligence committees), lashed out at Democrats who suggested otherwise ("Such commentary is thoroughly irresponsible and totally unworthy of national leaders in a time of war," Vice President Dick Cheney said when the subject gained initial public traction in May 2002, just after word of the famous "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." memo was firstleaked), fought Congress for four months after the House passed a Commission-creating bill, and then hand-picked as chairman none other than Henry Kissinger, an act roughly as serious as hiring Bill Clinton to prosecute a sexual harassment case.
Above all, Bush's attitude toward sensitive information has remained consistent from his pre-9/11 behavior: Transparency is overrated, secrecy is a virtue, and post-Watergate reforms curtailing the government's ability to snoop, prosecute and act freely are a serious obstacle to protecting the country.
Pay particular attention to that bolded Dick Cheney quote above. In the fog of war and raw emotion of murdered innocents it can be hard to see that on the other side of a jingoistic appeal lies an old-fashioned bureaucratic ass-covering. But that's what this stuff so often is. Fleischer's crude slur should be laughed out of the room, all relevant files should be declassified without fear, and Americans should always be wary of government-proposed restrictions made in the name of "war."