|April 5, 2006|
Our National Security Could Not Be in Worse Hands
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
According to polls, the public perceives Republicans as stronger on national security than Democrats. Nothing could be further from the truth. Over the past century, Democratic presidents have been the dominant force in protecting our country.
As for the current Administration, our national security has steadily deteriorated since President Bush came into office. For example, he shares major responsibility for the 9/11 disaster. The White House had expert advice and unprecedented warnings from around the world of an impending al-Qaeda attack. These warnings included the use of aircraft as weapons. The President went on vacation and did nothing to prevent the catastrophe. Within months he began diverting our military from the responsible terrorist network to an unnecessary war in Iraq. This diversion has weakened our military, made it difficult to sustain a volunteer army, distracted attention from pressing national security issues, and turned most of the world against us.
Historically, Democratic presidents have been much stronger than Republican ones in protecting the United States against real threats. They include WW I (Wilson), WW II (Roosevelt), the (Truman) Doctrine to contain the Soviet Union, and Kennedy’s nuclear confrontation with the same country during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In each case, there was a strong adversary where the outcome was truly uncertain. In the showdown with the Soviet Union, the world as we now know it could have been destroyed. In more recent times, Clinton led a successful NATO effort to stop the genocide in Kosovo -- without loss of American life.
Over the past century, Republican presidents have managed but one war successfully -- the first Gulf War. In that war, the Republican President led a massive coalition against a small country with little air or sea power and where the outcome was certain. The outcome of the current war in Iraq was thought to be certain, too. However, it has been the worst justified and most poorly managed war in history, even topping our fiasco in Viet-nam.
It is true that a Republican president (Reagan) was in office when the Soviet Union finally ended the cold war. That war had gone on for four decades with presidents from both parties deeply involved. Republicans are quick to claim credit and Reagan did play a major role. However, the winning strategy of nuclear deterrence and containment originated with the Truman Doctrine as reinforced by Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy.
For a true measure of which Party currently is best able to protect our national security, let’s look at the performance of the last two presidents on terrorism -- Presidents Clinton and Bush. The following information is fully-documented and is based on a joint Senate/House inquiry into 9/11, the independent "9/11 Commission Report," and two books, “The Terror Timeline” and “Misuse of Power.”
Clinton on Terrorism
In 1998, Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States and bombed two U.S. embassies. In response, Clinton increased anti-terrorism budgets, launched cruise missiles at al-Qaeda training camps and tried to capture or kill bin Laden and his lieutenants. Clinton also authorized the CIA to assassinate bin Laden. In addition, Clinton arranged to receive a pipeline of daily reports on al-Qaeda activities. His staff considered him obsessive on the subject.
In 1999, Clinton exercised widespread precautions to prevent terrorist attacks of any kind at the crucial turn of the century. These precautions and public awareness helped to prevent further attacks, including one at the Los Angeles airport.
Then, just before the 2000 elections, terrorists struck the U.S.S. Cole. This strike prompted Clinton to prepare a bold plan of attack against al-Qaeda. He decided not to use this plan immediately for two reasons (1) starting a war would mean committing a new administration right away to manage it, and (2) the attack was still under investigation and al Qaeda’s responsibility had yet to be confirmed. During presidential transition, he personally warned Bush that al-Qaeda would be his “gravest and greatest” threat and passed to the new administration his plan of attack in special briefings to Vice President Cheney and National Security Advisor Rice. According to a senior Bush official, the Clinton plan contained all the steps that were eventually taken after 9/11.
Bush on Terrorism
At the outset and again during the spring and summer of 2001, the Bush White House repeatedly received expert advice on the gravity of the threat as well as many warnings from around the world of an impending attack. These warnings, described as the most urgent in decades, specified the use of hijacked aircraft as weapons. For example:
During this period, President Bush received 40 separate CIA briefings on the al-Qaeda threat. One of the last ones said al-Qaeda was “determined to attack the United States.” The CIA Director personally told the White House to expect a significant attack in the near future that “will be spectacular and designed to inflict mass casualties … attack preparations have been made, will occur with little or no warning … this is going to be a big one.” At no time did the President take control, call agency heads together, go into crisis mode, or warn the public. Yet, one simple thing could have made all the difference – calling a cabinet meeting to require protection of commercial aircraft before takeoff – just that one thing.
Bush may have feared that public awareness of the threat would further sink an already sagging economy and endanger his reelection. Yet, the American people needed to be highly aware, observant, and proactive. As with Clinton at the turn of the century, presidential leadership would have stimulated public participation and a new level of energy, creativity, and cooperation among federal agencies. Reenergizing the nation on the likelihood of a terrorist attack would have left us much better prepared to avert the horrible tragedy.
Following the attack, the President evaded all responsibility and, for a year, attempted to block formation of a congressionally-created investigative commission. When that didn’t work, he stonewalled the commission for more than another year -- creating much delay and limiting access to witnesses and sensitive records. The White House obstructionist tactics finally forced the Commission to threaten use of subpoenas.
The end result was a two-year obstruction of the 9/11 investigation, even though it could only strengthen our national security. What was our Commander-in-Chief thinking about? There is just one explanation – fear that his month-long August vacation in Texas had left the nation unprepared and vulnerable to one of the greatest threats of our time, and, further, that public knowledge of this would endanger his reelection.
The 9/11 Commission's Dilemma
If White House responsibility for 9/11 is clear, why didn’t the 9/11 Commission reach the same conclusion and why is it that the general public still doesn’t get it? Actually, much of the information needed to indict the White House is in the 9/11 Commission’s report. It is contained in three sections – "The New Administration’s Approach" (p. 203), "The System Was Blinking Red" (p. 254), and "Policy and Management" (p. 348). However, these sections are separated by 50 to 100 distracting pages. To fully understand their implications, a reader must focus on these sections uninterrupted, one after another. Other reviewers of the report also questioned the Commission’s omission (“Misuse of Power,” pp. 82-83). The Commission did point out that federal agencies never mobilized a response, got direction, or had a plan. They just didn’t explain why.
Another problem is that the many dire warnings from other countries cited above were not discussed in the Commission’s report. Although they were in other unclassified documents, the White House chose not to declassify them for the Commission purposes until long after the presidential election. Nevertheless, the Commission must have known about the warnings, so why didn’t they reach the obvious conclusion? The answer is simple.
First, you must put yourself in the Commission’s shoes at the time. The presidential election was fast approaching and the Commission members were evenly split -- half Republican, half Democrat. They all knew that any assessment of top-level government responsibility could throw a national election. While some Commissioners did explore White House negligence, Republican members immediately became defensive, and at least one of them was getting rebuttal information directly from the White House. A full-fledged effort to hold Bush even partially accountable would have created mutiny within the Commission.
To avoid a no-consensus report that would gather dust, the Commission elected to issue a unified one that hopefully would prevent future attacks. So they omitted any findings of top-level responsibility. How they managed to do this is described in the book Misuse of Power, pp. 83-86. Other reviewers of the report had a similar reaction to the omission of any White House responsibility. For example, an analysis in the New York Review of Books said:
The Commission had a sworn duty under its charter to pinpoint the underlying causes of our nation’s vulnerability and recommend corrective measures. Instead of addressing the presidential level, the Commission finessed the situation by alleging a failure of imagination regarding the method of attack. Actually, as shown in our examples, the most likely method of attack had been reported to us by intelligence sources from other countries. The real failure of imagination was on the part of the Commission itself. They could not figure a way to reconcile their sworn duty with the politics of a presidential election.
The most incredible thing is that President Bush has exploited this national tragedy for his personal gain … with absolutely no accountability. Had Bush prevented the 9/11 attacks, terrorism would not be the powerful issue it is today. But, he didn’t prevent the attacks. Ironically, his pre-9/11 neglect created a national crisis which he used to gain control of Congress, support a war in Iraq, and get reelected. His campaign slogan was “Stay Safe; Reelect Bush.”
Other National Security Issues
A “Star Wars” missile shield, the pet project of the Bush Administration, was supposed to be deployed in 2004. The system’s “kill vehicles” are intended to fly into space and destroy enemy warheads. Years of test failures have thrown the program into disarray. Some say “it is an unworkable defense against a nonexistent threat.” The program is expected to cost over $250 billion. There is still no certainty that the “kill vehicle” can’t be defeated with clouds of decoys.
It’s been over four years since 9/11, and we still do not have a coastal defense against low-flying cruise missiles or rockets fired by terrorists from offshore – a much more likely threat than the one posed by long range missiles.
Most everyone today is concerned about the extent of our border security. Investigators from the U.S. Government Accountability Office recently used fake documents to smuggle into this country enough radioactive material to make two dirty bombs.
Nuclear proliferation is the preeminent national security issue of our time and is governed by an international treaty. In mid-2005, a worldwide UN conference took place to close gaping holes in this treaty. Neither the President nor his national Security Advisor found time to attend. The conference failed. A former Secretary of Defense says our “hair trigger” nuclear response is immoral, illegal, militarily unnecessary, and dreadfully dangerous. He believes that the U.S. must lead the way toward elimination of these weapons and no longer rely on them as a foreign policy tool.
The Bush Administration has withdrawn from the 30-year Anti-Ballistic Treaty, which banned space weapons. It is seeking superiority in space weapons at enormous costs to the taxpayer. Other countries will not abandon space to the U.S. and an arms race and cold war may ensue. This has huge implications for our deficit-ridden budgets.
The President does not have a comprehensive policy to eradicate the root causes of terrorism. After stalling for several months, the Administration finally released a report in mid-2005 showing a massive increase in world-wide terrorism … it had tripled in the last year alone. The main ingredients of a comprehensive policy to eventually eradicate terrorism are outlined in the book, Misuse of Power.
Accountability and the Elections
Already there have been consequences due to the failure to hold a president accountable for his role in 9/11. For example, there could have been a different president today dedicated to improving our relations with other countries and strengthening our national security. As for the Katrina disaster, knowledge that a president can be held accountable would surely have led to a much faster White House response, averting much loss of life and destruction of property.
A major distraction from the war on terror has been Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Diverting our military power from a high-level threat to a nonexistent one will come back to haunt us some day. Bush could have easily avoided this war by simply allowing international experts on the ground in Iraq to finish their search for illegal weapons. Instead, he overstated inherently uncertain intelligence, forced the inspectors to leave Iraq, and invaded.
We’ve heard hundreds of times from the Administration that everyone else believed as they did that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Actually, there were dissenting views from within our own intelligence community, from other countries (Germany, for example), and from international inspectors on the ground in Iraq. (see Misuse of Power, pp. 100-107). Bush told the nation he would invade only as a last resort but did not do so. There is no greater abuse of office by a president than misleading our nation into war.
Republicans cannot afford to lose Congress in the upcoming fall elections. If they do, the Democratic Congress will hold hearings on the legality and constitutionality of various Bush Administration actions, including how we went to war in Iraq. To avoid losing Congress, the Administration will continue to use the fear generated by 9/11 and promote a new and credible national security threat. They believe this will play to their advantage in the elections. In truth, our national security could not be in worse hands.
We are less safe than ever.
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Burt Hall has served as a group director on matters of national security in the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and authored articles on 9/11, the war in Iraq, and terrorism strategy. He is coauthor, with Ed Asner, of Misuse of Power: How the Far Right Gained and Misuses Power, reviewed by BuzzFlash. At the GAO, Mr. Hall became an expert in the procurement field and was instrumental in creating the Truth in Negotiations Act, the modernized and unified federal procurement statute, and the initial government-wide policy on acquisition of major weapon systems. He is a graduate of the Advanced Management Program of Harvard University.
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