July 23, 2004,
The debate over 9/11 long ago became hyper-politicized. In light of that, as interesting as any of the substantive recommendations of the 9/11 Commission's just-released report is the more lowbrow question how do the anti-Bush partisans fare? The answer is: Not well.
Richard Clarke has harshly criticized President Bush for failing to get Osama bin Laden. The former top Clinton and Bush counterterrorism official knows something about that. The report details an incident in February 1999 when the CIA had bin Laden pinpointed at a desert hunting camp in Afghanistan. Preparations were made for a military strike, but it appeared that a prince from the United Arab Emirates, a U.S. ally, might have been present, too.
No strike was launched, but the CIA hoped bin Laden would eventually return to the camp. No such luck. Clarke called a U.A.E. official to warn of a possible association of officials from that country with bin Laden. Within a week of Clarke's call, the hunting camp was dismantled. Clarke maintains the CIA approved the call. But CIA officers disputed that and "were irate," according to the commission. They "thought the dismantling of the camp erased a possible site for targeting bin Laden."
Well, mistakes are made, things go wrong, etc., etc. but Clarke and Co. have never been willing to extend that realistic sense of the difficulties inherent in targeting one man to the Bush administration. Clarke's claims about the so-called Millennium Plot that the Clinton administration's handling of it in late 1999 and early 2000 was a model of counterterrorism come off a little better.
But the counterterrorist successes around that time were mostly lucky. Part of the Millennium Plot was a planned terrorist operation in Jordan. It was foiled before the United States went to "battle stations," Clarke's phrase for a high alert among top officials. Clinton officials suggest that because they were at "battle stations," an extremist named Ahmed Ressam was caught while trying to drive into the United States in December 1999. No. "It appears that the heightened sense of alert at the national level played no role in Ressam's detention," according to the report.
The report's evenhanded assignment of blame for pre-9/11 failures makes a hash of Clarke's stilted depiction of Clinton as antiterror hero and Bush as anti-terror disaster. Republican commission member John Lehman blames Clarke's partisan testimony before the commission for the poisonous atmosphere of much of its public work. "We were mugged by Viacom," Lehman says of the company that owns the publisher of Clarke's book and CBS News, which gave Clarke's tome a huge send-off. "They edited his book to make it into an anti-Bush jihad."
What Clarke started, Michael Moore has continued, adding an extra measure of dishonesty and paranoia. In Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore suggests that the Afghan War in 2001 was about a pipeline that the oil-obsessed, extremist-coddling Bush administration wanted to build. Actually, the notion of an Afghan pipeline had its roots in a 1998 Clinton-era diplomatic initiative. The report says, "While there was probably never much chance of the pipeline actually being built, the Afghan desk [of the State Department] hoped that the prospect of shared pipeline profits might lure faction leaders to a conference table."
Moore implies that a flight of Saudi officials who left the United States after 9/11 flew while national airspace was still closed down and only because high-level political officials wanted to do a favor to the Saudis, even though the Saudis weren't properly questioned by the FBI. The commission finds each item of this indictment to be false. In fact, it "found no evidence that anyone at the White House above the level of Richard Clarke participated in a decision on the departure of Saudi nationals."
The 9/11 Commission's work has its flaws, to be sure, but in its reasonable tone it represents at least an attempt to bleach the poison injected into the national debate by the likes of Clarke and Moore. But don't bet on it.
Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.