Who Blew Off Bin Laden?

In its miniseries about the missteps that led to 9/11, ABC spared not only Bill Clinton but also George W. Bush. Our hawkish War President had almost nine months to respond to the USS Cole attack and did nothing, even as his security staff fired off memo after memo fingering Osama bin Laden and urging retaliation.

Clinton claims, feebly, that he didn’t have enough evidence to pin the October 2000 attack on bin Laden. But Bush certainly did.

On March 2, 2001, then-senior White House counterterrorism official Roger Cressey sent a memo to then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice relaying intelligence that bin Laden had gloated about the attack on the Cole in a poem he read at his son’s wedding. “BIN LADEN on the USS COLE” was the title of the urgent memo.

But Rice couldn’t be bothered with stuff that happened on Clinton’s watch.

Undeterred, Cressey a few weeks later followed up with Rice’s deputy Steve Hadley. He wrote, “We know all we need to about who did the attack to make a policy decision.” His March 22 email – written under the heading, “Need for Terrorism DC Next Week” – fell on deaf ears.

Two days later, White House terror czar Richard Clarke weighed in on the subject. He wrote both Rice and Hadley that the Yemeni prime minister had told the State Department that while Yemen was not saying so publicly, Yemen was 99 percent certain that bin Laden was responsible for the Cole attack. His March 24 memo, “Yemen’s View on the USS Cole,” only elicited more yawns from Bush’s top security aides.

By the summer, Clarke finally had the iron-clad proof he needed to convince Rice and the president to take action against bin Laden. On June 21 – less than three months before the 9-11 attacks – Clarke fired off another memo to Rice and Hadley alerting them that a new al-Qaeda video claimed responsibility for the Cole. His memo couldn’t have been more plain: “Al Qida[sic] Video Claims Responsibility for Cole Attack.”

More yawns.

Later that month, two Saudi jihadists arrested by Bahraini authorities during the summer threat spike told their captors that their al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan had held celebratory parties over the Cole attack.

By now, Clarke’s hair was on fire. He dashed off another memo to Rice on June 29.

Rice again did nothing – except demote Clarke, that is.

Why were Bush’s neocon security advisers so insouciant about terrorism? They were still fighting the last war. Obsessed over Russia, China, Iraq and missile defense, the cold warriors refused to give an audience to the career White House security experts who presciently warned about the new greater threat from al-Qaeda terrorists.

The White House before 9/11 held some 100 Cabinet meetings on Iraq, Russia, missile defense and other Bush-41 hobbyhorses, and only one on terrorism. Rice insists al-Qaeda was priority No. 1, but a speech she’d planned to deliver on Sept. 11, 2001, contained no mention of al-Qaeda, 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 passenger airliner variety.

In fact, Rice overlooked al-Qaeda in every public speech she made between Jan. 20, 2001, and Sept. 11, 2001, a Nexis search reveals. Even stretching all the way back to early 1993, when the World Trade Center was first hit, Rice mentions al-Qaeda not a single time in any speech, article or media interview.

By comparison, she cites Iraq more than 1,000 times from 1993 to 2001.

And the same misguided set of priorities were in place over at the Pentagon in the run-up to 9/11. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his neoconspirators were just as stuck in the Cold War. Al-Qaeda hardly registered on their radar screen, either – even though the attack on the Cole was arguably an act of war. Al-Qaeda killed 17 U.S. sailors and injured more than 30 while nearly sinking a Navy destroyer anchored in the port of Aden, Yemen. Yet there was no response from the Pentagon at all.

“Secretary Rumsfeld did not order the preparation of any new military plans against either al-Qaeda or the Taliban before 9/11,” states a staff report released by the 9/11 Commission in 2004.

Zero. Zip. Nada. Rummy apparently was too busy drawing up plans to invade Iraq.

When Bush stepped into office, he clearly had learned nothing from the previous administration’s grave mistake of underestimating bin Laden, attack after bigger terror attack. Nor did he learn anything from his own mistake of blowing him off after the Cole.

Bush now crows about taking out “the mastermind of the USS Cole bombing who was the chief of al-Qaeda’s operations in the Persian Gulf.” That would be Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, captured in 2002 – only after the 9-11 attacks. Again, Bush is fighting the last war, always one step behind. If he had focused on bin Laden and al-Qaeda as the career White House security experts were pleading for him to do before 9-11, if he had retaliated for the brazen attack on a U.S. warship by an enemy that had already declared war on us, perhaps 9-11 could have been diverted.

Even after 9/11, Bush didn’t go after bin Laden hard enough. He let him live another day – 1,830 days to be exact. He’s failed to decapitated the al-Qaeda leadership, because he got distracted once again fighting a previous war – in this case his daddy’s. And in doing so he’s only played right into his hands of bin Laden, who is making great hay of the “crusaders” attacking and occupying (admittedly, for no good reason) the seat of the old Islamic caliphate.

If a President Gore had attacked the wrong country and blown off bin Laden for another five years, we’d never hear the end of it from Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and the rest of the Koolaid crowd. Or from me. Yet President Bush gets a pass? “Patriots,” my ass.