The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Thursday, May 23, 2002  

Answering Questions That Nobody Has Asked

One of the most remarkable ways in which the Bush administration and congressional Republicans have deflected questions about the treatment of possible terrorist threats and other disturbing reports by the White House, as well as U.S. defense, intelligence, and security agencies, has been to set up a hedge row of straw men and then topple them with a degree of animosity and hostility not seen in Washington since, oh, around 1973.

Joe Conason, writing in the New York Observer (White House Tries to Evade Questions,” May 23), hits the target: “[T]he Bush administration keeps answering questions that haven’t been asked -- and avoiding questions that must be answered if the nation is to avoid an even worse catastrophe than that of Sept. 11, 2001.”

For all the talk about Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) having said this or that, Conason -- correctly -- argues:

“No serious person has asked whether George W. Bush or his aides knew in advance that terrorists were planning to seize civilian airliners and crash them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And no serious person has suggested that Mr. Bush himself ought to have predicted those specific plans and events.

By rebutting those nonexistent accusations, the administration evidently hopes to deflect the appointment of an independent commission with full investigative authority.” [Ed.: Emphasis added.]

The reasons for the administration’s adamant opposition to establishing such a commission are numerous and unclear. According to Conason, they include the alleged politicization of national security matters by the Democrats, the potential for intelligence leaks, and the possibility that an inquiry would compromise the government’s ability to prevent another attack.

Of primary interest to many who favor an investigation is the August 6, 2001 Presidential Daily Briefing memo that President Bush read while vacationing in Texas. Vice-President Dick Cheney opposes showing the memo to Congress, which is odd since Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, and White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, among others, have described the memo in terms that cast doubt about its probative value.

As Conason puts it, the administration’s position has been that the memo contains nothing other than “vague, nonspecific ‘chatter’” and, according to Vice President Cheney, “old news.”

Conason continues: “It isn’t easy to make sense of the administration’s argument. If that memo was [sic] so inconsequential, then what harm would be done by its release -- with redactions, if necessary? It would only prove that Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney have been truthful. If it wasn’t inconsequential and vague, then the public needs to know why it was not acted upon.”

As to what the Bush administration fears, if anything, remains conjecture. Conason, citing a recent report in Newsweek (“What Went Wrong” by Michael Hirsh and Michael Isikoff) asserts that “[d]espite repeated warnings from Clinton appointees that dated back to the very first day of the Bush administration, the new President and his super-competent team were simply not terribly interested in that topic until much too late.”

Attorney General John Ashcroft, Newsweek reports, reported denied a request from the F.B.I. to hire hundreds of additional counterintelligence agents, focusing instead of drug-related crimes and pornography. Secretary Rumsfeld was working hardest on a national missile defense system and reportedly denied a request to move $800 million out of that program and into counter-terrorism activities.

“In fact, it was two officials held over from the previous administration – counter-terror chief Richard Clarke and C.I.A. director George Tenet -- who tried to direct the government’s attention to the looming threat from Al Qaeda in the weeks and months before Sept. 11,” writes Conason.

The administration’s rush to question the motives of anyone who asks for an explanation of what may -- or may not be -- the most stunning intelligence failure in American history is unconscionable. And that failure, we believe, will prove to be collective in nature, likely to include members of the Bush and Clinton administrations, high-level appointees, and mid-level careerists from numerous federal agencies.

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