Clinton to blame for intelligence failures

Posted: Apr 14, 2004 12:00 AM

Yes, "everyone" is to blame for 9/11. "Everyone" is also to blame for the outrageous, silly and counterproductive nonsense coming out of the 9/11 commission's quest to assign blame.

Let's take the second point first. Bush made a strategic blunder by essentially insisting he would not do anything differently if he could relive the pre-9/11 months over again. This is not only obvious nonsense, it's politically dumb.

The Bush campaign wants to run on its post-9/11 leadership not its pre-9/11 leadership. But by refusing to acknowledge, even rhetorically, the obvious fact that the government failed when the terrorists succeeded, they created the perfect incentives for political posturing, moral preening and partisan grandstanding from the 9/11 commission, the media, a tiny number of "9/11 families," the Democrats and, yes, the public.

An example: The New York Times editorialized this week, "No reasonable American blames Mr. Bush for the terrorist attacks, but that's a long way from thinking there was no other conceivable action he could have taken to prevent them."

"Conceivable"? Yes, there were all sorts of conceivable actions the president could have taken. He could have interned Muslim-Americans like FDR did with the Japanese. He could have grounded the airlines. He could have declared war on Afghanistan. All of these thing were "conceivable." But since when is "conceivable" the standard for governmental conduct, even in hindsight? The fair - or at least fairer - question is, did Bush take every reasonable action to prevent the 9/11 attacks?

The Times went on to offer some "conceivable" actions the president might have taken after receiving that notorious Aug. 6, 2001, presidential daily briefing, namely he should have flown back to D.C. and demanded that airlines start "screening passengers" to fit their "threat profiles."

Considering that it'd been reported in Time magazine in 1998 that government officials believed Osama bin Laden was determined to attack inside the United States, I'm not sure the president should have raced back to Washington from his ranch in August 2001.

But I am 100 percent sure that the folks at The New York Times editorial board would have snapped their pencils in rage if the president had suggested increased "profiling" of passengers in August 2001, let alone proposed the Patriot Act - which the Times detests - and never mind doing everything "conceivable."

This blame game stuff is counterproductive and dangerous when Americans are fighting and dying in Iraq. But if that's the game we're stuck with, it's an indisputable scandal that the Clinton Administration is getting off scot-free.

From the day George W. Bush was elected president, he reinstituted the policy of having daily meetings with the head of the CIA, a tradition Bill Clinton canceled. Indeed, Clinton never met privately at all with his first CIA Director James Woolsey after the initial job interview. When a plane crashed on the White House lawn in 1994, the joke in Washington was that it was Woolsey trying to get an appointment.

According to a New Yorker article, FBI Director Louis Freeh considered Clinton's national security adviser, Sandy Berger, to be a "public relations hack, interested in how something would play in the press."

Meanwhile, Bill Clinton despised Freeh and could barely stomach talking to him. Whoever was to blame for the sour relationship is irrelevant. Clinton was to blame for letting a spat get in the way of national security.

As we've heard from so many witnesses, throughout the 1990s the CIA, FBI and Justice Department were actively - not passively - impaired in their work to a scandalous extent. The CIA was told that it couldn't work with individuals with dubious "human rights" records. Unfortunately, people with ties to terrorists are not captains of their Mormon bowling leagues.

And, of course, there was Clinton's string of underwhelming, ineffectual and largely counterproductive responses to a string of attacks on America, starting with the first World Trade Center bombing.

The one recurring theme in the 9/11 hearings is the unanimous agreement that the "wall" between intelligence gathering and criminal prosecutions was too high and too thick, and that this was the single most obvious explanation for our failure to stop the 9/11 attacks.

Well, as we learned from John Ashcroft's testimony, the Clinton Administration took its trowel and cemented a new layer of bricks to that wall of separation. In 1995, the FBI was instructed that intelligence and criminal investigations had to be separated even further than "what is legally required" to avoid "the unwarranted appearance" that our intelligence operatives were - shriek! - sharing their information with prosecutors, and vice versa.

The author of this directive? Clinton's Deputy Attorney General (and Al Gore confidant) Jamie Gorelick, who now sits in self-righteous judgment on the 9/11 commission - when she should be called before it to explain herself.

The Bush team may not have done everything it could have prior to 9/11. But, for the previous team, not doing everything they could was policy.