Thanks for the Heads-Up : LUSENET : Exposing Rightwing Corruption : One Thread

May 25, 2002

Thanks for the Heads-Up


Cheney, Rumsfeld, Ridge, Mueller. Is there anyone who has not warned us of Armageddon over the past week? As far as I can tell, the only slacker in this White House game of Wag the Dog is Spot.

You don't have to be a cynic to believe that the point of the warnings is not to save lives so much as political hides. After all, we can't go about our daily business much differently just because of these dire pronouncements. Nor have they budged the Homeland Security Office's color-coded "threat level" from its weaselly yellow. What this orchestrated chorus of Cassandras can do is guarantee that we duly credit the Bush administration for giving us a heads-up should disaster strike between now and Election Day 2004. Not so incidentally, the new warnings also help facilitate our amnesia about the fracas over how low a priority Al Qaeda was for the White House before Sept. 11.

To see how low, there's no need to learn what was in that top-secret briefing that the president received as he settled down for his monthlong vacation at his Texas ranch on Aug. 6. Reports at the time show that Mr. Bush broke off from work early and spent most of that day fishing. If he had received foreknowledge of an attack that morning, he would have acted upon it, and no Democratic leader has said otherwise (despite Dick Cheney's smears to the contrary).

But that's not the end of the story. A far more revealing indication of the administration's mañana mindset about terrorism comes a month later, on Sept. 9, when Donald Rumsfeld threatened a presidential veto if Congress moved $600 million out of the White House's prized ballistic missile defense system and into counterterrorism. On Sept. 10, John Ashcroft submitted a final Justice Department budget request calling for increases in 68 programs, none of them directly related to combating terrorism.

In this somnolent walkup to Sept. 11, the Bush administration was hardly alone. The terrorism alarm went off loudly in the United States nine years ago — on Feb. 26, 1993, the first attack on the World Trade Center. The Clinton administration, Congress, the press and every government agency entrusted with our security can share responsibility for the subsequent on-again-off-again focus on a network of imaginative killers whose leader, motives, ambitions, potential targets and, as Condoleezza Rice might say, non-traditional hijacking schemes have long been a matter of fact and theory on the public record.

That's history, and no amount of spin from either Bush or Clinton apologists is going to rewrite it. That's also why the question of what the president knew about terrorism on Sept. 11, though important, is hardly the most pressing now, Washington hysteria notwithstanding. Nearly nine months have passed since the day that was supposed to change everything, and Osama bin Laden and most of his top associates, Mullah Omar included, have not been found, dead or alive. The most important question is not how ready we were to fight terrorism on Sept. 11, 2001, but how ready we are to do so as of Memorial Day weekend 2002.

Even the administration's own answers are not reassuring. Asked by Tim Russert last Sunday if the kind of noise that our intelligence is picking up from Al Qaeda this spring is "similar" to the noise prior to Sept. 11, Vice President Cheney answered, "Sure." If that's the case, it's clear that Ari Fleischer's reassurance to the press in February that Al Qaeda has been "severely disrupted and severely hampered" is now inoperative. Further evidence comes from French and German investigators pursuing the car bombings that killed 31 in Tunisia and Pakistan this month and last. One French official told The Times last week that Al Qaeda, now regrouping in the western provinces of our new ally, Pakistan, has sent "a warning for the West — you have not won the war, we are in a position to fight, when we want, where we want."

We are the richest, most can-do country in the world, but at home we're pursuing the war on terrorism with a management style that's pure Kmart. Back in October Mr. Bush declared that his new director of homeland security, Tom Ridge, in charge of coordinating some 70 federal agencies and countless local ones, would "have the full attention and complete support of the very highest levels of our government." Nine months later, Mr. Ridge has neither. What he does have is a new, less-than-high-tech headquarters, with an aboveground Washington address that can be taken out simultaneously with the White House.

The nation's nuclear plants are vulnerable from the air. Its borders are porous to malevolent visitors and matériel (only 2 percent of incoming ship cargo is inspected). The anthrax manhunt is stalled and there has been scant progress in the supposed push to bring local hospitals up to speed in identifying and countering bioterrorism. The I.N.S.'s failure to coordinate with the Social Security Administration, The Times' Robert Pear reports, is still allowing tens of thousands of foreigners to secure illegal Social Security numbers and concoct the fake identities that proved so useful to some of the Sept. 11 hijackers.

Remember Argenbright, the rent-a-guard company that was found to have employed convicts and illegal aliens to enforce airport security? It's still manning the fort in five major airports, from Orlando to O'Hare, where it no doubt continues to do a crack job of strip-searching little old ladies. This week USA Today reported that the new Transportation Security Administration has failed to fix the known security flaws that could allow the easy planting of bombs in the virtually unscreened cargo on passenger jets; the paper also found evidence that the same agency is cutting back on marksmanship training for the federal air marshals it is hiring to do the shooting it prohibits for pilots. As for the airport bomb-detecting machines mandated by Congress, The Wall Street Journal finds 190 in place, with a mere 1,100 still to go.

No classified documents are required to connect these dots. The administration is so fearful that someone will do so that it impugns the patriotism of those who try. No wonder Mr. Bush is fighting Democrats and Republicans alike — an ideological spectrum running from Tom Daschle to William Kristol — who call for an independent commission to investigate what went wrong in both his White House and Bill Clinton's before Sept. 11. The administration knows that inevitably such a commission, proposed in December by John McCain and Joe Lieberman, will provide a road map to what has not been fixed in the nine months since. As a decoy, Mr. Cheney is instead boasting of administration support for a Congressional investigation that has already been hobbled and delayed by political squabbling, false starts and Justice Department and C.I.A. lollygagging. That Congressional investigation, run by intelligence oversight committees that are themselves part of the pre-Sept. 11 failure, promises to be as effective as Congress's pursuit of Whitewater.

But as we need some version of a Warren Commission to get to the bottom of what went wrong, so we need an inverted Manhattan Project (one that will stop a bomb rather than build one) to recruit America's best minds to set things right. Mr. Ridge, a decent politician with no expertise in intelligence or counterterrorism, is a frivolous choice for security czar. Mr. Ashcroft, an aspiring J. Edgar Hoover isolated from reality by a circle of cronies, lacks the intellect and leadership ability to take on an adversary as cunning as Osama bin Laden. What he cares about most is maximizing his own power, and not just over civil liberties. His Justice Department has joined in the effort to block Mr. Ridge from consolidating the four overlapping agencies in charge of watching American borders. Now we learn, with the news of his suppression of the F.B.I. Phoenix memo, that Mr. Ashcroft will even cut the president out of the loop of law-enforcement embarrassments occurring on his watch.

With all the talent in this country and all that's at stake, is this the best we can muster? Addressing a meeting of emergency workers from around the country in New York this week, Thomas Von Essen, the fire commissioner of Sept. 11, said that politicians were "not making the tough decisions" and feared that "we will be standing here crying over police officers and firefighters and civilians next year, this year maybe." His views were echoed by Richard Sheirer, the Giuliani director of emergency management: "We can't let complacency set in, and I think it has already." Given that the history of Al Qaeda tells us that its major attacks are separated by intervals of 12 to 24 months, we'll find out soon enough.

-- Cherri (whatever@who.cares), May 25, 2002

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