By Richard S. Dunham Anyone can understand the Bush Administration's sensitivity to suggestions that the President may have had advance warning of possible airplane hijackings by Osama bin Laden's followers.
It seems patently unfair, with the evidence now available, to suggest that Bush could have known that Mideast terrorists would use commercial airliners as megamissiles to target famous symbols of American economic and military might. "It's sad to play upon the emotions of people as if there were something we could have done to stop it," First Lady Laura Bush said on May 17 in Budapest, "because that's just not the case."
With all due respect to the First Family, that's not really what's making Americans feel queasy these last few days. Here's what bothers so many: Nobody in power told the country -- after the fact -- that the National Security Council, the FBI, and the CIA all had picked up credible hints that something strange was going on involving hijack scenarios.
MOUNTING SUSPICIONS According to a May 16 CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll, 68% of Americans think the Administration, in the months since September 11, should have publicly discussed the fact that it had the information prior to the attacks.
It's not that Americans hold President Bush responsible for what happened -- that's a ridiculous thought limited to conspiracy theorists on the political extremes. The problem for the White House is to many Americans, it appears that Bush officials withheld pertinent information from the public because it might have been embarrassing.
To ease public doubts, the Administration needs to be forthcoming -- even contrite, if necessary. The best way to do that isn't to get involved in a political blame game but to respond to some key concerns that have been raised in recent days. Here are five pivotal questions for the White House to answer now:
Who in the Justice Dept. and its FBI unit knew about the memos from the field raising questions about Arabs training in flight schools?
If there's a spectacular failure here, it's with the FBI officials who didn't let top White House officials know of at least two important clues. The most distressing: the July 10 electronic report to FBI headquarters from a Phoenix field agent suggesting that bin Laden was trying to train operatives in American flight schools. According to the Washington Post, the memo outlines links between Mideast terror suspects and an Arizona flight school, and it suggests that the bureau check out other flight schools for information on similar students.
Next was the FBI's nonresponse to a complaint from a Minnesota flight school that one of its Arab students had been interested in learning how to fly a plane but not to land one. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said on May 16 that she hadn't become aware of these reports until "just recently." That's tragic.
If the FBI had passed along the information to the National Security Council last summer, it might have helped Rice and others "connect the dots" and possibly break up the al Qaeda ring before September 11. "Apparently, this was an issue that didn't get very far beyond the middle ranks of the FBI," says Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham (D-Fla.). It's important for the President to find out just how high the blame should go, at the FBI or its parent organization, the Justice Dept.
Why, if Attorney General John Ashcroft stopped flying on commercial aircraft over the summer, did Justice not issue sterner warnings to airlines and the public about threats to commercial aviation?
Rice says the Administration picked up intelligence in June about an increased danger of hijackings by bin Laden's operatives. What followed was a series of Federal Aviation Administration Information Circulars, known in the jargon as ICs.
Rice says because the Administration believed the hijacking threat was primarily a foreign problem, it didn't caution the public about a possible hijacking of a domestic airliner. Still, Senator Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), at a closed-door Capitol Hill briefing with Rice, raised a Fox News report that Attorney General John D. Ashcroft was warned by the FBI in July not to fly commercial. He used leased government aircraft to travel to a summer fishing vacation in Missouri.
The Phoenix memo, the arrest of Minnesota flight-school student Zacarias Moussaoui, and Ashcroft's reported action "point to concerns about commercial domestic aviation, not terrorism and hijacking overseas," Durbin asserts. The Administration needs to tell the public whether Durbin is misguided -- or why he's onto something.
Why did Vice-President Richard Cheney ask congressional leaders not to investigate the events leading up to September 11?
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle says the Vice-President "requested on several occasions that we not have an investigation into this issue." The reason given by Cheney: U.S. should not be diverted from the war against terrorism to look backward. That sentiment was echoed by White House spokesman Ari Fleischer on May 17, when he said "100% attention needed to be on fighting the war" at the time.
Some Democratic partisans say Cheney was trying to shield the Administration from possible criticism by short-circuiting a Hill probe. White House officials say they just wanted to avoid a partisan circus or a blame game like the investigation that followed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Cheney should clear up any doubt as to his motives by openly discussing his concerns, and his reasoning, in as many public venues as possible.
Why did Administration officials keep repeating the mantra "We had no information about specific threats" when some of them were aware of at least nonspecific threats of hijackings?
I know this will rankle some in the White House, but rereading the words of key Administration officials from last September makes the official line back then sound strangely Clintonesque. A day after the terror attacks, Secretary of State Colin Powell told ABC's Good Morning America, "I have not seen any evidence that there was a specific signal we missed." Four days later, Cheney told NBC's Meet the Press that there was "no specific threat involving, really, a domestic operation."
Both statements are accurate because of the use of the word "specific." Now that we know what we know, did the Administration have reason to believe there was a nonspecific threat involving hijackings? If so, why not tell us?
Why did the Administration decide not to tell the public of the information it knew until the story leaked to the press?
Obviously, some Bush official thought the information about the Aug. 6 briefing at the Crawford ranch, where hijacking and bin Laden came up, was either too unimportant or too embarrassing to disclose after the fact. Either way, it's a mistake. The most talented people in public life know this rule of American politics: If you goof, it's best to fess up and just admit it. Fellow Texan Lloyd Bentsen, the longtime senator and former Treasury Secretary, once admitted an error this way: "I'm not known to make many mistakes, but when I do, it's a doozy." Bentsen was quickly forgiven by the voters.
The best thing the President can do is explain to the American people what happened. He can acknowledge, in hindsight, that it might have been better to have been more forthcoming after September 11, but that the crush of events -- the war on terrorism, the hunt for bin Laden, the overthrow of the Taliban -- was more important to deal with immediately. I could be wrong, but I'd bet that the vast majority of Americans would be forgiving, and this whole flap would blow over quickly.
The biggest mistake for the White House would be to create a partisan war over September 11. If Republicans start pointing fingers at Democrats, blaming them for starting this ruckus, questioning their patriotism in wartime, then everybody will lose. Voters don't want Republicans raising money by selling September 11 photos of the President aboard Air Force One. And they don't want Democrats playing "gotcha" politics over possible hijack warnings.
GET TO THE BOTTOM. It's not the style of this White House to admit it's wrong. But it's obvious to a majority of Americans that, in the words of Ronald Reagan, "mistakes were made." By 52% to 41%, according to Gallup, voters say the Administration did not act on the information in the proper way. And by 2-to-1, citizens think the Bush team didn't give airlines as much warning about potential hijackings as it could have.
Like Reagan at the time of the Iran-Contra scandal, President Bush should push to get to the bottom of the situation, then move beyond it. It's in the country's interest to have September 11 remain a unifying date -- not a source of division and discord. Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online