George W. Bush's most memorable day as President was Sept. 14, 2001, when he stood in the rubble of the World Trade Center, holding a bullhorn in one hand, his other arm slung over the shoulder of a veteran fire fighter from central casting. Bush was pitch perfect that day--the common-man President, engaged and resolute. This is the image the Bush campaign is probably saving for the last, emotional moments of the election next fall. It is the memory the Republicans want you to carry into the voting booth. It is why the Republican Convention will be held in New York City this year. And it may also be why the White House has been so reluctant to cooperate with the independent commission investigating the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
The commission, which will finish its work in midsummer, on the eve of the conventions, will soon question the President about his response to the terrorist threat in the months before 9/11. I asked a dozen people last week--some intimate with the commission's thinking, some members of the intelligence community, some members of Congress who have investigated 9/11--what they would ask the President if they could. Their questions fell into three broad categories.
Why didn't you respond to the al-Qaeda attack on the U.S.S. Cole? The attack occurred on Oct. 12, 2000; 17 American sailors were killed. The Clinton Administration wanted to declare war on al-Qaeda. An aggressive military response was prepared, including special-forces attacks on al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. But Clinton decided that it was inappropriate to take such dramatic action during the transition to the Bush presidency. As first reported in this magazine in 2002, Clinton National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and counterterrorism deputy Richard Clarke presented their plan to Condoleezza Rice and her staff in the first week of January 2001. Berger believed al-Qaeda was the greatest threat facing the U.S. as Clinton left office. Rice thought China was. What were President Bush's priorities? Was he aware of the Berger briefing? Did he consider an aggressive response to the bombing of the Cole or to the al-Qaeda millennium plot directed at Los Angeles International Airport--which was foiled on Dec. 14, 1999? Did he have any al-Qaeda strategy at all? Rice, who has not yet testified under oath, decided to review counterterrorism policy; the review wasn't completed until Sept. 4. A related question along the same lines: Why didn't you deploy the armed Predator drones in Afghanistan? The technology, which might have provided the clearest shot at Osama bin Laden before 9/11, was available early in 2001. But the CIA and the Pentagon squabbled about which agency would be in charge of pulling the trigger. The dispute wasn't resolved until after 9/11. Were you aware of this dispute, Mr. President? Why weren't you able to resolve it?