“What did the President know, and when did he know it?”
For an older generation, this Watergate-era question encapsulated how America stopped trusting its leadership. But as President Bush now claims he had no warnings of a terrorist attack before 9/11, our generation is facing a similar crisis of confidence, and has a similar question: “What didn’t the President know, and why didn’t he know it?”
The facts are clear: the Bush Administration was warned in July of 2001 that Islamic terrorists were plotting to use airliners as missiles to carry out an attack against the US. The Wall Street Journal noted that the warning was consistent with earlier intelligence showing al Qaeda planned to “use passenger jets as kamikaze weapons”. The President himself was personally warned in August of 2001 that Al Qaeda was planning an imminent attack on America using hijacked planes. These warnings corresponded to a major surge in terrorist “chatter” that was picked up by US intelligence in the spring and summer of 2001. At least some of that chatter warned that “bin Laden supporters were planning to infiltrate the United States.”
Despite this evidence, the Administration has offered the public little except denials. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice claimed that no one in the government knew terrorists “would try to use an airplane as a missile.” Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said “all the chatter” (before 9/11 was of an attack, a potential al Qaeda attack, overseas” and President Bush himself said he had no prior warnings at all.
In truth, one of two things is happening: Either the President is lying to the American public about what he knew before 9/11 in order to hide his gross negligence, or the President is telling the truth and he ignored and/or did not understand the dire warnings he was given. Instead of doing something about the problem, he opted to take the longest vacation in Presidential history.
The lying scenario would be fairly typical of a President who has become the Michelangelo of dishonesty. And, in one sense, it would be more comforting than the “asleep at the wheel” scenario: it is better to have a President who at least understood terror warnings even if he covers up his past negligence in addressing them, rather than a President who was intellectually incapable of grasping overt national security threats.
And that is where the Watergate-style questions arise: after receiving all the intelligence warnings, how could the President still not known about a serious threat? What did he fail to comprehend? Why was he unable or unwilling to act? And most importantly, if he failed to understand such repeated and dire warnings then, can he be trusted to grasp them now?
For its part, the Bush campaign wants none of these questions asked. Its ads invoking images of Ground Zero are designed to make it seem as if President Bush took office on 9/12, instead of eight months beforehand, when 9/11 might have been prevented. But there is something a little odd about a President running on his supposed ability to protect America while simultaneously admitting he was asleep at the wheel during the worst national security breakdown in American history. It is as if the President thinks voters are as ignorant of reality as he was ignorant of pre-9/11 intelligence.
But people are not stupid. And until President Bush provides real answers about why our country was so vulnerable on 9/11, it will be impossible to believe he has the capacity to secure America in the future.