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10 Moments in GOP Terrorism Accountability

January 6, 2010

On Tuesday, President Obama described the failed Christmas airliner attack as a "potentially disastrous" failure of the system, one "that's not acceptable, and I will not tolerate it." Unsurprisingly, the usual mouthpieces of the right like Peter King and Ron Christie have fanned out to demand "someone will have to go" and that Obama "fire those staff members who have failed their president and failed their nation." Even more predictable, of course, is that those same Republican voices were silent as President Bush not only sidestepped accountability but rewarded those responsible for bungling the catastrophes of 9/11, the invasion of Iraq and terror threats real or imagined.
Here, then, are 10 moments in GOP accountability for terrorism.
1. "I'm sure something will pop into my head."
During a prime-time press conference on April 13, 2004, President Bush was asked what mistakes he had made and what lessons he had learned in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Even after 9/11, Osama Bin Laden's escape from Tora Bora, the lack of Saddam's WMD and the growing tragedy in Iraq, Bush answer was, in a nutshell, "none."

"I'm sure something will pop into my head here...I don't want to sound like I've made no mistakes. I'm confident I have. I just haven't -- you just put me under the spot here, and maybe I'm not as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one."

2. Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipients
Eight months later, George W. Bush awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to CIA Director George Tenet, General Tommy Franks and Ambassador Paul Bremer. Each was a key architect of the American catastrophe in Iraq - and so much else.
As the Washington Post reported:

In the East Room of the White House, Bush said he had chosen the trio because they "played pivotal roles in great events" and made efforts that "made our country more secure and advanced the cause of human liberty."

Sadly, as history had already recorded, not so much.
Tenet didn't merely preside over the CIA during the cataclysm of 9/11, but had claimed finding WMD in Iraq was a "slam dunk." As head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Baghdad, Bremer's disbanding of the Iraqi army and ill-advised policy of de-Baathification helped fuel the insurgency which later killed thousands of U.S. soldiers. And as we now know, General Franks refused to give the green light to send American forces to Tora Bora in December 2001, missing perhaps the only opportunity to destroy Osama Bin Laden and the Al Qaeda leadership once and for all.
3. "You've covered your ass, now."
On August 6th, 2001, Bush received and was briefed on the now notorious PDB which ominously warned just five weeks before the September 11 attacks that Osama Bin Laden was determined to strike in the United States. President Bush's response to the briefing, as Ron Suskind revealed in June 2006, was one for posterity:

"All right. You've covered your ass, now."

4. "I believe the title was..."
For all of Presideny Bush's vulgar cynicism, his administration's nonchalance about the growing threat from Bin Laden was perhaps best expressed by then National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Rice, who held the first principals meeting to discuss the Al Qaeda danger only on September 4, 2001, was asked about the PDB memo in April 2004 by 9/11 Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste:

BEN-VENISTE: Isn't it a fact, Dr. Rice, that the August 6 PDB warned against possible attacks in this country? And I ask you whether you recall the title of that PDB?
RICE: I believe the title was, "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States."

5. "I don't think anybody could have predicted..."
Two weeks later on April 24, 2004, Rice took to the op-ed pages of the Washington Post to argue, "No al-Qaeda threat was turned over to the new administration." And in an argument she would later make repeatedly, Rice first introduced the now ubiquitous "nobody could have predicted" defense on May 16, 2002:

"I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, take another one and slam it into the Pentagon; that they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile. All of this reporting about hijacking was about traditional hijacking."

Even as President Bush's tenure was in its last throes, White House spokesman Tony Fratto in January 2009 showed that Rice's talking point had legs. Spoon-fed by Fox News anchor Jon Scott's suggestion that "nobody was thinking that there'd be terrorists flying 767s into buildings at that point," Fratto reliably coughed up the laughably discredited sound bite:

"That's true. I mean, no one could have anticipated that kind of attack - or very few people."

Of course, many people - among them Bush counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke - had anticipated precisely that. On January 25, 2001, Clarke, who also helped lead the 1996 effort to protect the Atlanta Olympics from, among other things, threats from hijacked aircraft, handed the Bush national security team famous Delenda plan for attacking Al Qaeda.
6. Bush Opposes the Creation of the 9/11 Commission
On Wednesday, Congressman Peter King continued his assault on President Obama for his handling of the underwear bomber. King complained:

"The administration has not been very forthcoming in telling Congress what happened, how it happened, when it happened, so I'm not in a full position right now to say."
"This administration tells very little, unlike previous administrations."

As King conveniently omitted, the previous administration opposed the creation of the 9/11 Commission. As CBS reported in May 2002:

President Bush took a few minutes during his trip to Europe Thursday to voice his opposition to establishing a special commission to probe how the government dealt with terror warnings before Sept. 11.
Mr. Bush said the matter should be dealt with by congressional intelligence committees...
"I have great confidence in our FBI and CIA," the President said in Berlin, adding that he feels the agencies are already improving their information sharing practices.

Facing mounting public pressure for a full accounting the September 11 disaster, President Bush later relented, notifying Congress that "Now that the work of the intelligence committees is nearing its end, we must take the appropriate next steps." Still, Bush himself refused to testify under oath to the 9/11 panel, and appeared only in the presence of Vice President Dick Cheney. And throughout, 9/11 Commission chairman Tom Kean (R-NJ) complained the Bush administration withheld information and documents essential to its investigation.
7. "I truly am not that concerned about him."
In the days after the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush famously said of Osama Bin Laden, "there's an old poster out west, as I recall, that said, 'Wanted: Dead or Alive.'"
But questioned about his silence regarding Bin Laden in the months following the American failure to capture the Al Qaeda chieftain in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, a nonchalant Bush on March 13, 2002 downplayed his significance:

"So I don't know where he is. You know, I just don't spend that much time on him, Kelly, to be honest with you...I'll repeat what I said. I truly am not that concerned about him."

Of course, when his 2004 reelection hinged on once again hyping the threat from Bin Laden, Bush rewrote history by claiming, "Gosh, I just don't think I ever said I'm not worried about Osama bin Laden."
8. "I guess he is not dead."
Bush's flip-flopping over a Bin Laden threat that seemed to manifest itself only when his political prospects required it continued even after Dubya left office. At a conference of business leaders in New Delhi in November 2009, Bush seemingly acknowledged that Osama Bin Laden could no longer help or hurt him:

Asked whether al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden could be alive, Bush said "I guess he is not dead."
He, however, noted that Laden is hiding and "not leading victory parades" or "espousing his cause" on TV.
He expressed confidence that Laden will be brought to justice which "he deserves to be" and it was a matter of time.

9. "Is this about security or politics?"
Few Republicans have been as ubiquitous in parroting GOP talking points about the Obama administration's response to the Flight 253 attack as former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.
But while Ridge said of the Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, "He's a terrorist, and I don't think he deserves the full range of protections of our criminal justice system embodied in the Constitution of the United States," he was part of the Bush team that offered shoe bomber Richard Reid precisely that. Worse still, in his 2009 book, Ridge recounted the politicization of terrorism by his boss.
Just days before the 2004 election, Ridge threatened to resign and claimed to wonder "Is this about security or politics?" when Donald Rumsfeld and John Ashcroft wanted to raise the threat level in response to the newly released Osama Bin laden videotape. But Ridge's own statements that summer hurt his portrayal of himself as an innocent bystander steamrolled by the Bush propaganda machine.
When the New York Times called into question the dated and dubious intelligence behind a new terror warning on August 3, 2004, Secretary Ridge famously responded:

"We don't do politics in the Department of Homeland Security."

Sadly for Ridge, that pathetic defense followed his cheerleading for President Bush just two days earlier:

"We must understand that the kind of information available to us today is the result of the president's leadership in the war against terror."

Ridge's resignation was announced on November 30, 2004, only after George W. Bush had been safely reelected. Upon leaving, Ridge announced, "The president has given me an extraordinary opportunity to serve my country in this incredible period since September 11th, 2001." And as the New York Times Eric Lichtblau later wrote in his book Bush's Law, Tom Ridge offered to take a lie detector test to prove no manipulation of terror alters had occurred on his watch:

"Wire me up. Not a chance. Politics played no part."

But facing a firestorm from loyal Bushies as he commenced his book tour last fall, Ridge recanted his charges about "the intersection of politics, fear, credibility and security."
10. "We have disrupted an unfolding plot to attack the United States..."
Another of Bush's bungling fear merchants nonetheless left in office was Attorney General John Ashcroft. As The Atlantic reported, Ashcroft's hyperbolic grandstanding over the arrest of supposed dirty bomber Jose Padilla spread panic among the American people - and fury within the Bush White House:

In June of 2002, for example, when he was in Moscow to meet with Russian officials, he made the mistake of rushing in front of television cameras on a live satellite feed and intoning in his scariest voice, "We have disrupted an unfolding plot to attack the United States by exploding a radioactive dirty bomb." He identified the culprit as Jose Padilla, who was declared an enemy combatant and was sent to a military prison. In fact there was no evidence that Padilla had gone beyond thinking about a bomb; no bomb was ever found, and no clear evidence emerged to connect him with an active al-Qaeda plot. Ashcroft also exaggerated the threat that a "dirty bomb" would pose, and failed to explain that it wasn't a nuclear weapon. The President's aides were furious--Padilla's arrest was supposed to have been made public in Washington, by senior Justice and Defense Department officials--and also distressed that Ashcroft's hyperbolic language had prevented an expected rally in the tumbling stock market.

In Ashcroft's defense, he didn't move to raise the Terror Threat Level in 2003 based on "secret messages being placed inside transmissions from Al-Jazeera, the Arabic satellite news channel." That buffoonery belonged to Tom Ridge.
And so it goes.
As they made clear again today, Republicans believe the "buck stops here" at the President's desk, but only if a Democrat is sitting behind it. Appearing on ABC's Good Morning America, New York Rep. Peter King got into the blame game:

"If the situation is as bad as the president says it was, as far as so many dots not being connected, so many obvious mistakes being made, that I would think once the president has set that stage, to show that he's serious, someone will have to go."

Meanwhile, former Cheney staffer turned megaphone Ron Christie wrote "amateur hour is over":

"Now that behavior is nothing short of dangerous and President Barack Obama is being ill served by those by those closest around him: Mr. Cool must lose his cool and fire those staff members who have failed their president and failed their nation."

Leave aside for the moment that President Bush vacationed in the run-up to the September 11 attacks, silently continued his holiday uninterrupted after the 2001 shoe bomb attack and ultimately prosecuted Richard Reid using the same U.S. civilian courts now decried by his right-wing allies. Forget for now claims by Bush bath water drinkers Mary Matalin and Dana Perino that Dubya "inherited" the 9/11 attacks or that "we did not have a terrorist attack on our country during President Bush's term".
As the record of the Bush administration shows, when it comes to accountability for terrorism and national security, for Republicans nothing succeeds like failure.

5 comments on “10 Moments in GOP Terrorism Accountability”

  1. These are classics for the ages.
    Is someone out there writing the next Princess Bride? " YOU FOOL! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders. The most famous is never get involved in a land war in Asia, but only slightly less well known is this, never go up against a Sicilian when death is on the line.
    You have documented here a short list of Bush administration classic blunders. I wish I had the money to post these on billnoards across America.

  2. Well done, thanks. #3, #4 and #6 have always been particularly damning in my eyes. And who can forget all the Republicans demanding that someone be fired, as they are now over an unsucessful plot?


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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