On Sept. 11, we were all to blame

Posted: Aug 07, 2002 12:00 AM
As President Bush heads off to his beloved, snake-infested Crawford, Texas, ranch for a "vacation" amid criticism that he ought to stay in the even hotter hell-hole that is our nation's capital in August; And while Time magazine's epic on who-knew-what-when has the left and right bickering over which administration -George W. Bush's or Bill Clinton's -deserves the greater blame for the September 11th terrorist attacks; I have a question for you: Where were you on Aug. 20, 1998, and what were you thinking about? Here's a clue: Monica. I pose the question as a reminder that we are our own worst enemy, that nitpicking a president over where he takes a break -or seeking to cast blame for an event that was years in the making -is counterproductive and symbolic of exactly what went wrong. For on Aug. 20, 1998, the United States launched 70 cruise missiles against Osama bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical manufacturing facility in Khartoum, Sudan (thought to be producing nerve gas with bin Laden's financial backing), in retaliation for the Aug. 7 terrorist bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Yet, it is more likely that you (and I) were focused on Clinton's address to the nation three days earlier concerning his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. That, and speculation that Clinton was "wagging the dog" by bombing bin Laden outposts to deflect attention from his personal foibles. Which is to say, there's more than enough blame to go around, as the Time article clearly conveys. It does not "charge" Bush with delaying a Clinton plan to attack al-Qaida, as some headlines have suggested. Rather it outlines how politics, bureaucratic snags and consistently unruly transitions between administrations all contributed to a colossal failure in Washington -of government rather than individuals -to protect our nation from what clearly were imminent terrorist attacks. It is true that the Clinton administration came up with a plan to "roll back" al-Qaida, but not until December 2000, a couple of weeks before the Clintons were to depart -a time, you'll recall, when the president was busy signing pardons and executive orders. Clinton spokesmen claim they forestalled action because they didn't want to hand the new administration a war. When Bush's people were given the plan, officials did what any new administration would do: They studied it. For too long? In retrospect, sure. The plan wasn't approved until a few days before Sept. 11. But whose fault was it that this clear and present danger wasn't dealt with sooner? Terrorists made threats and attacked American interests several times during Clinton's administration, including on Oct. 12, 2000, when terrorists bombed the U.S.S. Cole. What did we do? "We didn't do diddly," according to a counterterrorism official interviewed by Time. In a statement that strains credulity, a former senior White House aide told Time: "If we had done anything, say, two weeks before the election, we'd be accused of helping Al Gore." Long before the election, Osama bin Laden's intentions toward America were clear: -In 1996, bin Laden issued his declaration of jihad against the Americans for "occupying" Saudi Arabia. -In February 1998, all the groups associated with al-Qaida held a meeting and issued a fatwa: "The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies -civilians and military -is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to." -Bin Laden called on all Muslims to "confront, fight and kill Americans and Britons." Should Clinton have done more sooner? Should Bush have trusted the Clinton administration's plan without his own administration's review? If the threats were so imminent, should Clinton have been on the phone to Bush demanding his attention to these matters? On all counts, yes, we can say with the superhuman clarity of hindsight. And yet, is Clinton entirely to blame? Is it possible that we were too busy -Republicans, Democrats, the media and the public -giggling over grand jury transcripts and images of a semen-stained dress to permit Clinton the resources and credibility he needed to combat a growing terrorist threat? The truth is, we all deserve a share of the blame, for we all are guilty of allowing less important matters to consume our attention and energy: politics and turf wars in the case of bureaucrats and politicians; a supersized appetite for titillation and voyeurism on the part of media and the public they purport to satisfy. We all know where we were on Sept. 11, 2001. If we have learned anything from that horrific day, it should be that political bickering and finger-pointing help no one but our enemies. Mistakes were made, brethren. Let's not make any more.