WASHINGTON While President Bush and his security advisers obsessed over Russia, China, Iraq and missile defense before 9/11, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his neoconspirators were just as stuck in the Cold War over at the Pentagon. Al-Qaida hardly registered on their radar screen, either.
We know this because the 9/11 Commission just told us, although few in the media have seized on it.
Turn to page 11 of the panel’s report on "The Military," released March 23. There you’ll find this little gem, which further confirms White House terror czar Richard Clarke’s claim that Bush made fighting al-Qaida a low priority:
"Lower-level officials in the Office of the Secretary of Defense told us that they thought the new team was focused on other issues, and was not especially interested in their counterterrorism agenda."
What other issues? "Working with the Russians on agreements to dissolve the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and preparing a new nuclear arms control pact," the report said.
Counterterrorism policy, meanwhile, was on the slow track, even though al-Qaida had hit the USS Cole just months earlier. In fact, there wasn’t even anyone formulating it before 9/11. The guy in charge left with the Clinton administration, and Rumsfeld didn’t bother to replace him.
The Pentagon official responsible for counterterrorism policy the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict (SOLIC) "left on Jan. 20, 2001, and had not been replaced when the Pentagon was hit on Sept. 11," the report said.
Not only that, Rumsfeld didn’t ask the outgoing official to brief him on terrorism, even though he’d offered.
Clarke says the White House before 9/11 held 100 Cabinet meetings on Iraq, Russia, missile defense and other Bush-41 hobbyhorses, and only one on terrorism. And now we know the same damn thing was going on over at the Pentagon.
Clarke, who was booted from those Cabinet meetings, wasn’t the only career official who complained about the new administration’s indifference to warnings about the al-Qaida threat. CIA officials also got the cold shoulder from the White House whenever they sounded alarms. Some Bush policymakers even doubted the validity of their intelligence about al-Qaida but never about Iraq, though.
Two veteran CIA officers deeply involved in al-Qaida issues "were so worried about an impending disaster that one of them told us that they considered resigning and going public with their concerns," said the 9/11 panel’s report on "Intelligence Policy."
Yet National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice insists al-Qaida was priority No. 1.
She says this even though a speech she’d planned to deliver on Sept. 11, 2001, contained no mention of al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden or Islamic terrorists. The focus of the policy speech, before the neocon School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, was missile defense, and not of the commercial jetliner variety.
"You’re talking about one speech," White House spokesman Scott McClellan tried to spin reporters after the Washington Post broke the embarrassing news last week.
Actually, Rice overlooks al-Qaida in every public speech she made between Jan. 20, 2001, and Sept. 11, 2001, a search of federal transcripts archived by Lexis-Nexis reveals. Even stretching all the way back to early 1993, when the World Trade Center was first hit, Rice mentions al-Qaida not a single time in any speech, article or media interview (although she did manage to name "Osama bin Laden" in a 2000 chat with a Detroit radio jock).
By comparison, she cites Iraq more than 1,000 times from 1993 to 2001.
But wait. There’s more.
Rice’s top aide on Afghan policy, Zal Khalilzad, also has downplayed al-Qaida. A year before joining the White House, the former oil lobbyist pooh-poohed the terror network’s power to hurt America on its own, without state sponsorship, even after it blew up the U.S. embassies in Africa and the USS Cole all on its own.
"Clearly, bin Laden is a dangerous terrorist who must be captured and prosecuted," Khalilzad said. "Yet the focus on him, rather than on the trend he represents, is misguided. Bin Laden is a wealthy, capable and dedicated foe, but hardly an evil genius or charismatic leader who single-handedly is waging war against the United States."
After 9/11, when that same non-genius, non-leader utterly punished America with just 19 soldiers, you’d think Khalilzad would have finally wised up to the al-Qaida threat. Instead, he advised Bush to go after the Taliban. The White House dusted off a plan he’d drafted earlier as an oil lobbyist to oust the UN-sanctioned regime and clear the way for what he called a "valuable energy corridor" across Afghanistan and Pakistan, linking Caspian reserves to profitable Asian markets, as I report in my new book, Crude Politics.
Unfortunately the plan had no provision for taking out bin Laden.
Khalilzad also lobbied with Rumsfeld and other neocons last decade to knock off Saddam Hussein. After 9/11, not coincidentally, Bush made him his point man for regime change in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
Coming into office, the Bushies had their own agenda, and protecting America from al-Qaida was not high on it. The facts support Clarke, Clinton-loving profiteer or not. And facts are stubborn things.