Too many free passes

NOW THAT all but the most partisan and stubborn defenders of President Bush agree that he screwed up his response to Katrina, and nearly as many agree that he screwed up the occupation of Iraq, it probably seems unnecessary to continue beating up the administration over those failures of the past.

Instead, I say we dwell on some other administration foul-ups from even further in the past that most people have forgotten about by now. You know, in the spirit of magnanimity.

I’m thinking specifically of two controversies. First, the administration’s failure to act on intelligence that could have stopped the Sept. 11 attacks. And second, its refusal to commit ground troops to the battle of Tora Bora in 2001, leading to the escape of Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants.

In both cases, the administration received the benefit of the doubt. In light of what we now know about the administration’s incompetence, however, this benefit is wholly unwarranted.


Start with 9/11. Beginning in May 2001, it began to come to light that the administration had considerable intelligence about possible terrorist attacks. The FBI had warned the administration that terrorists were planning to hijack airplanes. Bush received a memo in August 2001 titled, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”

The administration insisted that none of the warnings focused on the possibility that terrorists would hijack planes and crash them into buildings. As Condoleezza Rice insisted at the time: “I don’t think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, take another one and slam it into the Pentagon, that they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile. All of this reporting about hijacking was about traditional hijacking.”

This defense was, first of all, completely insipid. If you suspect terrorists are going to hijack planes, then you step up security to keep them off the planes. What they plan to do with the planes is pretty secondary. Suppose you knew they planned to fly them into buildings. It’s not like your response would be to let the terrorists on board but cover all the major landmarks with enormous foam-rubber cushions.

Anyway, this ludicrous defense wasn’t even true. It came out earlier this month that U.S. aviation officials were warned as early as 1998 that Al Qaeda sought to “hijack a commercial jet and slam it into a U.S. landmark.”


And yet, while the administration took some heat, in the end it got a pass. An L.A. Times editorial in 2002 typified the reaction: “So intelligence sources informed President Bush in August that Osama bin Laden’s terrorists might attempt to hijack airplanes? Excuse us, but administration officials have good reason to look perplexed as they wonder aloud what the increasingly indignant chorus of critics would have had the president do with that amorphous warning.”

The administration got a similar pass on Tora Bora. This happened at the end of the Afghanistan campaign, when we had Bin Laden and about 800 of his top men surrounded. Rather than use the 4,000 U.S. troops that were in the area, Army Gen. Tommy Franks instead relied on poorly trained, ill-equipped Afghan tribesman of dubious loyalty. Predictably, Bin Laden got away.

Here, too, the excuses were always absurd. “We don’t know to this day whether Mr. Bin Laden was at Tora Bora,” wrote Franks (who since retired and endorsed Bush) a year ago. In fact, according to a document on the Pentagon website, we did have intelligence that Bin Laden was there. But even if we weren’t certain, was that a good reason not to do our best to try to capture him? Should you avoid using your best troops to surround the enemy because, hey, the top bad guy might not be inside?

I suspect Tora Bora never seriously hurt Bush for the same basic reason the 9/11 stuff didn’t hurt him: There was a basic presumption of competence surrounding the administration. Everybody assumed there must have been some ambiguities; that they couldn’t have screwed up that badly.

The Bush administration probably wouldn’t have enjoyed this presumption if these stories came out after Iraq and Katrina. Because all of a sudden the thesis that it screwed up just that badly -- that a minimally competent administration would have acted differently -- looks pretty compelling.