Jacob Heilbrunn

Did the Neocons Blind Bush to 9/11?

It's the issue that won't go away. Today, on the anniversary of 9/11, it has returned. Was the George W. Bush administration willfully blind to the looming 9/11 attack? Kurt Eichenwald, former New York Times reporter and Vanity Fair contributing editor, offers new revelations about the Bush White House and the neocons in an op-ed called "The Deafness Before the Storm."

Eichenwald's contribution is to suggest that the August 6, 2001, CIA briefing in Texas—the one in which Bush dismissed a CIA analyst with a terse "OK, you've covered your ass"—with the famous headline "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.," which he did in the following month. Eichenwald, however, provides a broader context for the briefing. He says that the daily briefings preceding that memo explain much more than the August 6 one. Here is his bottom line:

While those documents are still not public, I have read excerpts from many of them, along with other recently declassified records, and come to an inescapable conclusion: the administration’s reaction to what Mr. Bush was told in the weeks before that infamous briefing reflected significantly more negligence than has been disclosed. In other words, the Aug. 6 document, for all of the controversy it provoked, is not nearly as shocking as the briefs that came before.

It seems, in other words, that neocons in the administration were arguing that what the CIA was warning about was a bunch of hooey. They had their own pet cause—nailing Saddam Hussein, creating a democracy in Iraq (which appears to be coming apart at the seams). It was Iraq, the neocons believed, or purported to believe, that was the fount of all terror. Why focus on one measly terrorist leader in Afghanistan? He was a distraction. The real prey, the true threat, was none other than Saddam. Here is Eichenwald again:

An intelligence official and a member of the Bush administration both told me in interviews that the neoconservative leaders who had recently assumed power at the Pentagon were warning the White House that the C.I.A. had been fooled; according to this theory, Bin Laden was merely pretending to be planning an attack to distract the administration from Saddam Hussein, whom the neoconservatives saw as a greater threat. Intelligence officials, these sources said, protested that the idea of Bin Laden, an Islamic fundamentalist, conspiring with Mr. Hussein, an Iraqi secularist, was ridiculous, but the neoconservatives’ suspicions were nevertheless carrying the day.

Here's my prediction: the more that the record of the Bush administration is surveyed and uncovered, the worse the role of the neoconservatives will appear. And this is saying quite something. I don't doubt that the neocons will respond by saying that Eichenwald is engaging in his own version of conspiracy thinking or that he's trying to trip up the Romney campaign, which is filled with neocons. But the issue is an important one: Why has Romney filled his camp with advisers whose advice led to one of the most calamitous and costly debacles in American history?

In any case, quarrels about the election campaign do not alter the gravamen of Eichenwald's charge. He ends by saying that "we can't ever know" if the attacks would have been stopped. But it's worse than than that. The Bush administration, it seems, never even tried. Its negligence, which is a charitable way of putting it, testifies to the danger of elevating ideology above analytical rigor. Now the CIA, long demonized by the neocons, is striking back to try and set the record straight.