Bush's Counterterrorism Record: 0 for 1

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, December 18, 2008; 1:19 PM

Has President Bush kept America safe? The only conclusion supported by the facts at our disposal is no.

Bush yesterday tried once again to take credit for the absence of a major terrorist attack since Sept. 11, 2001. "While there's room for honest and healthy debate about the decisions I've made -- and there's plenty of debate -- there can be no debate about the results in keeping America safe," he said. Listing four allegedly averted terror plots, he intoned: "We'll never know how many lives have been saved."

But Bush has yet to offer verifiable evidence that he's done anything to save even a single life. And there's no reason to believe the so-called plots he trumpeted yesterday were ever anything more than fantasy.

Indeed, when it comes to terrorist attacks on this country, the only one we know much about is the one that Bush did not prevent.

In the initial aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, as the nation rallied behind its leader, there was little appetite for exploration into whether Bush could have done more to avert the destruction. But over time, it has emerged that he willfully ignored any number of warning signs, and that he certainly could have taken more proactive steps against the known threat that al Qaeda presented. So much so, that any retrospective of Bush's terror policies should start with what now appears to have been a significant failure on his part.

See also my Mar. 7, 2008, column, Why Haven't We Been Attacked? and my Sept. 11, 2008, column, Bush the Great Protector.

Looking Back

Exhibit A in the case against Bush here, of course, is the infamous memo.

The president spent a month in Crawford shortly before the Sept. 11 attacks, when critics say he should have been more attentive to warning signs. And during the first week of that vacation, he waved off a memo drafted specifically for him, vividly titled "Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US."

The memo warned of "patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks." But according to author Ron Suskind, Bush heard his CIA briefer out -- then told him, "All right. You've covered your ass, now."

The very next day, as Dana Milbank and Mike Allen wrote in The Post in April 2004, Bush ran into reporters while playing golf at a nearby country club and "seemed carefree as he spoke about the books he was reading, the work he was doing on his nearby ranch, his love of hot-weather jogging, his golf game and his 55th birthday."

And Dana Priest wrote in The Washington Post in April 2004: "By the time a CIA briefer gave President Bush the Aug. 6, 2001, President's Daily Brief headlined 'Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US,' the president had seen a stream of alarming reports on al Qaeda's intentions. So had Vice President Cheney and Bush's top national security team, according to newly declassified information released . . . by the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"In April and May 2001, for example, the intelligence community headlined some of those reports 'Bin Laden planning multiple operations,' 'Bin Laden network's plans advancing' and 'Bin Laden threats are real.'

"The intelligence included reports of a hostage plot against Americans. It noted that operatives might choose to hijack an aircraft or storm a U.S. embassy. Without knowing when, where or how the terrorists would strike, the CIA 'consistently described the upcoming attacks as occurring on a catastrophic level, indicating that they would cause the world to be in turmoil,' according to one of two staff reports released by the panel yesterday."

Former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke charged in his 2004 book that Bush "failed to act prior to September 11 on the threat from al Qaeda despite repeated warnings and then harvested a political windfall for taking obvious yet insufficient steps after the attacks."

Back in September 2006, former President Bill Clinton revived charges that Bush didn't take the threat of terrorism seriously enough before Sept. 11. Clinton told Chris Wallace of Fox News that he came "closer to killing" Osama bin Laden in a 1998 missile strike on terrorist training camps in Afghanistan than anybody has since.

"I didn't get him," Clinton said. "But at least I tried. That's the difference in me and some, including all the right-wingers who are attacking me now. They ridiculed me for trying. They had eight months to try. They did not try. I tried. So I tried and failed. When I failed, I left a comprehensive anti-terror strategy and the best guy in the country, Dick Clarke, who got demoted."

And keep in mind that much of what we know about what Bush knew before Sept. 11 comes from the 9/11 Commission. But according to a book by New York Times reporter Philip Shenon, the commission's executive director had closer ties with the White House than publicly disclosed at the time -- and tried to influence the final report in some ways that the commission staff perceived as limiting the Bush administration's responsibility.

As Michael Isikoff wrote for Newsweek in February: "In the summer of 2003, Warren Bass, an investigator for the 9/11 Commission, was digging through highly classified National Security Council documents when he came across a trove of material that startled him. Buried in the files of former White House counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, the documents seemed to confirm charges that the Bush White House had ignored repeated warnings about the threat posed by Osama bin Laden. Clarke, it turned out, had bombarded national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice in the summer of 2001 with impassioned e-mails and memos warning of an Al Qaeda attack--and urging a more forceful U.S. government response. One e-mail jumped out: it pleaded with officials to imagine how they would feel after a tragedy where 'hundreds of Americans lay dead in several countries, including the U.S.,' adding that 'that future day could happen at any time.' The memo was written on Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2001--just one week before the attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"But when Bass tried to impress the significance of what he had discovered upon the panel, he ran into what he thought was a roadblock--his boss. Philip Zelikow, a respected University of Virginia historian hired to be the 9/11 Commission's executive director, had long been friendly with Rice."

Zelikow even acknowledged talking to Bush political guru Karl Rove during the course of the commission's work.

Isikoff noted that Rove, according to Shenon, "always feared that a report which laid the blame for 9/11 at the president's doorstep was the one development that could most jeopardize Bush's 2004 re-election. That's one reason why White House lawyers tried to stonewall the commission from the outset. When Clarke finally did testify about his warnings to Rice, Shenon reports, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and his aides feverishly drafted tough questions and phoned them in to GOP commissioners to undermine Clarke's credibility."

Yesterday's Speech

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "President George W. Bush, ever focused on his legacy, said Wednesday 'there can be no debate' about his record of preventing another terrorist attack. Evoking harrowing memories of Sept. 11, 2001, Bush said virtually no one could have predicted back then that the country would not be hit again for the rest of his presidency.

"'It's not a matter of luck,' Bush said, defending his security policies.

"Addressing a supportive military audience at the U.S. Army War College, Bush sought to shape how he will remembered after Barack Obama succeeds him on Jan. 20. Bush held little back in depicting his two terms as a time of transformational change, saying the world has 'more people live in liberty than at any other time in human history.'

"He credited his administration terrorism fighting strategy: reorganizing the government's intelligence and military communities to confront the threat; pre-emptively targeting potential threats and making no distinction between terrorists and their supporters; and nurturing democracies."

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush took credit yesterday for 'keeping America safe' from terrorists since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, arguing that his administration had prevented more bloodshed at home through aggressive policies and that such a result should outweigh any second-guessing of his methods. . . .

"The president focused on the defeat of the Taliban and the holding of elections in Afghanistan, making no mention of the rapidly deteriorating security situation there."

In his speech and an accompanying "fact sheet," Bush claimed credit for foiling four plots in particular: "Here at home we prevented numerous terrorist attacks -- including an attempt to bomb fuel tanks at JFK Airport, a plot to blow up airliners bound for the East Coast, a scheme to attack a shopping mall in the Chicago area, and a plan to destroy the tallest skyscraper in Los Angeles. We'll never know how many lives have been saved. But this is for certain: Since 9/11, there's not been another terrorist attack on American soil."

Let's take these alleged plots one at a time:

* The JFK plot refers to an alleged plot to blow up fuel tanks at JFK airport in June 2007. Officials initially said they had averted an attack that could have resulted in "unfathomable damage, deaths, and destruction." But as Luis Torres de la Llosa wrote for AFP, the threat was actually minor or nonexistent. Amanda Ripley reported for Time: "Excerpts from taped conversations with the suspects, included in the complaint, make it clear that while they may have dreamed of pulling off a major terrorist strike, they had very little idea what they were actually doing. In the worst-case scenario, there might have been a fire -- which would have been contained to an unpopulated area of the airport, since that's where the tanks and the pipeline are located." The alleged perpetrators were initially identified due to traditional police work. And defense attorneys raised the specter of entrapment by an FBI informant.

* The "East Coast Airliner Plot" is a bit of a cipher. In August 2007, the White House described it this way: "In mid-2003, the US and a partner uncovered and stopped a plot led by a suspected senior al Qaeda operative named Abu Bakr al Azdi to attack targets on the East Coast of the US using hijacked commercial airplanes." This appears to be related to a confession by Abu Bakr -- also known as Ali Abd al-Rahman al-Faqasi al-Ghamdi -- to Saudi authorities. Elaine Shannon wrote for Time in July 2003 that Abu Bakr described any number of potential al-Qaeda plots against the U.S., western and Saudi governments -- and that Saudi authorities then passed his allegations on to the CIA, which then briefed Bush. Were these stories made up? Was anything actually stopped? Who knows?

* The Chicago-area shopping mall in question is the CherryVale Mall in Rockford, Ill. Federal agents arrested a 22-year-old American citizen in December 2006 after he swapped stereo speakers for dud grenades provided by an FBI informant. The Chicago Tribune reported that the man, Derrick Shareef, never had any weapons or the money to obtain them, and was actually talked into targeting a mall by the informant, who urged him to "disrupt Christmas." CBS News reported: "Law enforcement officials added that the alleged plot was not on the level of 9/11, and even 'three rungs below' the recent Miami plot that was disrupted." (That plot was the pipe dream of a few men with almost no ability to pull it off on their own, who blamed an FBI informant for goading them along.)

* The skyscraper plot allegedly targeted Los Angeles's Library Tower (now US Bank Tower). After Bush mentioned it in a Feb. 9, 2006, speech, Peter Baker and Dan Eggen wrote in The Washington Post that "several U.S. intelligence officials played down the relative importance of the alleged plot and attributed the timing of Bush's speech to politics. James Gordon Meek and Kenneth Bazinet wrote in the New York Daily News: "'There was no definitive plot. It never materialized or got past the thought stage,' said a senior counterterrorism official, who has worked at the CIA and the FBI."

MSNBC's Rachel Maddow last night took Bush's speech apart bit by bit. After noting Bush's assertion that "America will make no distinction between the terrorists and those who harbor them," she added: "You got that, America? We will make no distinction between the terrorists and those who harbor them. And to be fair, between the terrorists and those who harbor them and those who we want to overthrow for totally unrelated reasons. So, we were lumped in to the anti-terrorism campaign purely on the basis of false information and threats that we concoct by bollixing or nation's intelligence apparatus, and butchering their work. Then, we'll blame the intel."

Maddow concluded: "This is how the Bush administration ends, we now know: The president and the vice president are spending their final month in office trying to convince us, frequently and loudly, that theirs was a secretly awesome administration."

Bubble Watch

Daniel Victor writes for the Harrisburg Patriot-News: "President Bush found a friendly audience in Carlisle, where more than 300 people studying to enter the highest ranks of the military reveled in their opportunity to see the commander in chief who deployed many of them.

"The crowd at the U.S. Army War College ate up his applause lines, talked glowingly of his leadership style and thought little of his low approval ratings. The appearance was not open to the public.

"As he spoke for half an hour to the students, faculty and media, then another hour without the media watching, the students said they got to see a new version of Bush. Several students said they saw a funnier, more genuine and more principled man than they had anticipated."

Bush on Fox News

Here's the transcript of Bush's interview yesterday with Fox News's Bret Baier.

On his lack of popularity: "Look, everybody likes to be popular. Everybody wants to be liked. But I just-- what-- what do you expect? We've got a major economic problem and I'm the President during the major economic problem. I mean, do people approve of the economy? No. I don't approve of the economy. So I-- you know, Bret, if you make decisions based upon polls, you'll-- you'll be a failure as President.

"And-- I've been a war-time President. I've dealt with two economic recessions now. I've had, hell, a lot of serious challenges. What matters to me is I didn't compromise my soul to be a popular guy."

Asked about torture and wiretapping, Bush said: "You know, I know there's a lot of urban myths about certain decisions I had made. But when the truth comes out and people will say, 'Oh, I see what he did.'"

Cheney Talks Ethics

Jon Ward writes in the Washington Times: "Vice President Dick Cheney offered a sweeping defense Wednesday of the Bush administration's war on terrorism and its use of aggressive interrogation techniques, declaring 'it would have been unethical or immoral for us not to do everything we could in order to protect the nation.'

"In an interview with The Washington Times inside his West Wing office, Mr. Cheney also acknowledged the unusually powerful role he has played as vice president on everything from the war in Iraq to helping approve interrogation methods -- that some regarded as torture and that ultimately would be used for 33 high-value detainees.

"'I do believe that the vice presidency has been a consequential office, if I can put it in those terms, in this administration. But that's first and foremost because that's what the president wanted,' he said.

"During a wide-ranging, 38-minute conversation -- his first with print reporters since September -- the vice president suggested that President Bush's popularity and place in history likely would grow during the next 20 to 30 years, much like that of one of Mr. Cheney's earlier bosses, Gerald R. Ford. . . .

"He said only 33 high-value detainees in the war on terror were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques to extract information that the government lacked about al Qaeda's operational capability and future attack plans, and only three were 'waterboarded,' a technique that simulates drowning. . . .

"Mr. Cheney said that critics of detainee policy often conflate all controversial issues, instead of taking them one at a time within their contexts, and 'characterize it as torture policy.'

"'You've got to, I think, back off and recognize that something like Abu Ghraib was not policy,' he said, referring to the mistreatment of prisoners at a U.S.-run prison in Iraq that caused an uproar around the world. In fact, Mr. Cheney said, the prisoners at Abu Ghraib did not possess any critical information that warranted aggressive tactics, and that the abuse was the result of wayward individuals who may not have been supervised properly.

"'I don't think it had anything to do with policy, as I understand it,' Mr. Cheney said."

But . . . But . . .

Not so fast, Mr. Cheney.

As the Boston Globe editorial board writes: "When the world first learned of the US military's abusive treatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Bush administration officials dismissed the incidents as the work of a few bad apples among the guards at the detention center. Only low-ranking enlisted personnel faced charges for the abuse. Last week, though, a bipartisan Senate report made clear that prisoner mistreatment in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay had its origins in the White House itself.

"The report, by the Senate Armed Services Committee, concluded that 'senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees.' Committee investigators, who worked for nearly two years on the report, traced the abusive treatment to a memo signed by President Bush on Feb. 7, 2002. In it, Bush declared that the Geneva Conventions standards for humane treatment of prisoners did not apply to Taliban and Al Qaeda captives. . . .

"While the Bush administration has said that it authorized aggressive interrogation methods only after field officers complained that conventional approaches were not working, the committee found that the impetus for harsher practices came from officials in Washington. As early as December 2001, in the early weeks of the war in Afghanistan, Defense Department officials looked to a decades-old military training program for information on these techniques. The program had been designed to prepare US personnel for the use of the interrogation methods in case they were captured by Cold War enemies."

And the New York Times editorial board writes: "Most Americans have long known that the horrors of Abu Ghraib were not the work of a few low-ranking sociopaths. All but President Bush's most unquestioning supporters recognized the chain of unprincipled decisions that led to the abuse, torture and death in prisons run by the American military and intelligence services.

"Now, a bipartisan report by the Senate Armed Services Committee has made what amounts to a strong case for bringing criminal charges against former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; his legal counsel, William J. Haynes; and potentially other top officials, including the former White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and David Addington, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff. . . .

"We can understand that Americans may be eager to put these dark chapters behind them, but it would be irresponsible for the nation and a new administration to ignore what has happened -- and may still be happening in secret C.I.A. prisons that are not covered by the military's current ban on activities like waterboarding."

Shoe Watch

Bobby Ghosh writes for Time: "When the next history of Iraq is written, the chapter on the stormy years following the U.S. invasion will be bookended by two iconic images: one of elated Iraqis in Firdos Square in 2003 raining their loafers and boots on a fallen statue of Saddam Hussein, and the other of President George W. Bush ducking flying footwear at a 2008 Baghdad press conference during the last official visit of his term. . . .

"Still, [Iraqi TV reporter Muntazer] al-Zaidi may have done Bush a favor. In an ABC News interview the next day, the President conceded for the first time that al-Qaeda had no presence in Iraq before the U.S. invasion, adding, 'So what?' In another news cycle, this admission would have dominated the headlines: that after the debunking of Bush's original excuse for war--Saddam's weapons of mass destruction--his argument that Iraq was a crucial nexus in the global war on terrorism also held no water. Thanks to al-Zaidi, nobody heard the other shoe drop."

Transition Watch

Jonathan Martin writes for Politico: "Most of the still-living former White House chiefs of staff had already offered their two cents to Rahm Emanuel at a breakfast earlier this month when it came time for perhaps the most serious man in a room of serious men to speak.

"'The most important thing,' Dick Cheney told Emanuel with a sober stare, 'is that you have to control your vice-president.'

"With that, said a source in the room, the 11 other chiefs of staff and the one next in line for the job let out loud laughs. . . .

"At the invitation of the job's current occupant, Josh Bolten, top aides to every president back to Gerald R. Ford gathered at Bolten's conference table to spend an hour with Emanuel on the morning of December 5."

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "Aiming for the smoothest transition of power he can manage, President George W. Bush is hosting a lunch next month with President-elect Barack Obama and all former presidents, the White House announced Wednesday.

"The luncheon is set for Jan. 7."

Open to Suggestions

Politico's Anne Schroeder Mullins has excerpts from a People Magazine interview with Bush and his family.

Q. "What are you most looking forward to about life after the White House?"

Bush: "It's hard to tell, hard to imagine what it's like to go from 100 miles an hour to 5. I'm going to want to build a policy institute at Southern Methodist, probably write a book. And beyond that, I'm open for suggestions."

Holiday Party Watch

Ken Herman has video from the White House holiday party for journalists -- and the decidedly less fancy party the press corps threw for itself the following night in the White House press room basement.

Late Night Humor

Conan O'Brien, via U.S. News: "Speaking of the President, in a recent interview, President Bush said that he has a collection of over 250 autographed baseballs. Yeah. Unfortunately, the question the interviewer asked was: Do you have an exit strategy for Iraq?"

Cartoon Watch

Kevin Siers, Mike Luckovich, David Cohen, Nate Beeler, Bruce Plante, Clay Bennett and Steve Sack on the shoes.

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