Tuesday, July 27, 2004

An Excuse-Spouting Bush Is Busted by 9/11 Report


July 27, 2004

Busted! Like a teenager whose beer bash is interrupted by his parents' early return home, President Bush's nearly three years of bragging about his "war on terror" credentials has been exposed by the bipartisan 9/11 commission as nothing more than empty posturing.

Without dissent, five prominent Republicans joined an equal number of their Democratic Party peers in stating unequivocally that the Bush administration got it wrong, both in its lethargic response to an unprecedented level of warnings during what the commission calls the "Summer of Threat," as well as in its inclusion of Iraq in the war on terror.

Although the language of the commission's report was carefully couched to obtain a bipartisan consensus, the indictment of this administration surfaces on almost every page.

Bush was not the first U.S. president to play footsie with Muslim extremists in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, nor was the Clinton administration without fault in its fitful and ineffective response to the Al Qaeda threat. But there was simply no excuse for the near-total indifference of the new president and his top Cabinet officials to strenuous warnings from the outgoing Clinton administration and the government's counter-terrorism experts that something terrible was coming, fast and hard, from Al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden's gang, they said repeatedly, was planning "near-term attacks," which Al Qaeda operatives expected "to have dramatic consequences of catastrophic proportions."

As early as May 2001, the FBI was receiving tips that Bin Laden supporters were planning attacks in the U.S., possibly including the hijacking of planes. On May 29, White House counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke wrote national security advisor Condoleezza Rice that "when these attacks [on Israeli or U.S. facilities] occur, as they likely will, we will wonder what more we could have done to stop them." At the end of June, the commission wrote, "the intelligence reporting consistently described the upcoming attacks as occurring on a calamitous level." In early July, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft was told "that preparations for multiple attacks [by Al Qaeda] were in late stages or already complete and that little additional warning could be expected." By month's end, "the system was blinking red" and could not "get any worse," then-CIA Director George Tenet told the 9/11 commission.

It was at this point, of course, that George W. Bush began the longest presidential vacation in 32 years. On the very first day of his visit to his Texas ranch, Aug. 6, Bush received the now-infamous two-page intelligence alert titled, "Bin Laden Determined to Attack in the United States." Yet instead of returning to the capital to mobilize an energetic defensive posture, he spent an additional 27 days away as the government languished in summer mode, in deep denial.

"In sum," said the 9/11 commission report, "the domestic agencies never mobilized in response to the threat. They did not have the direction, and did not have a plan to institute. The borders were not hardened. Transportation systems were not fortified. Electronic surveillance was not targeted against a domestic threat. State and local law enforcement were not marshaled to augment the FBI's efforts. The public was not warned."

In her public testimony to the commission, Rice argued that the Aug. 6 briefing concerned vague "historical information based on old reporting," adding that "there was no new threat information." When the commission forced the White House to release the document, however, this was exposed as a lie: The document included explicit FBI warnings of "suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York." Furthermore, this briefing was only one of 40 on the threat of Bin Laden that the president received between Jan. 20 and Sept. 11, 2001.

Bush, the commission report also makes clear, compounded U.S. vulnerability by totally misleading Americans about the need to invade Iraq as a part of the "war on terror."

For those, like Vice President Dick Cheney, who continue to insist that the jury is still out on whether Al Qaeda and Iraq were collaborators, the commission's report should be the final word, finding after an exhaustive review that there is no evidence that any of the alleged contacts between Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein "ever developed into a collaborative operational relationship. Nor have we seen evidence indicating that Iraq cooperated with Al Qaeda in developing or carrying out any attacks against the United States."

So, before 9/11, incompetence and sloth. And after? Much worse: a war without end on the wrong battlefield.

Fear of Fraud Paul Krugman

July 27, 2004

It's election night, and early returns suggest trouble for the incumbent. Then, mysteriously, the vote count stops and observers from the challenger's campaign see employees of a voting-machine company, one wearing a badge that identifies him as a county official, typing instructions at computers with access to the vote-tabulating software.

When the count resumes, the incumbent pulls ahead. The challenger demands an investigation. But there are no ballots to recount, and election officials allied with the incumbent refuse to release data that could shed light on whether there was tampering with the electronic records.

This isn't a paranoid fantasy. It's a true account of a recent election in Riverside County, Calif., reported by Andrew Gumbel of the British newspaper The Independent. Mr. Gumbel's full-length report, printed in Los Angeles City Beat, makes hair-raising reading not just because it reinforces concerns about touch-screen voting, but also because it shows how easily officials can stonewall after a suspect election.

Some states, worried about the potential for abuse with voting machines that leave no paper trail, have banned their use this November. But Florida, which may well decide the presidential race, is not among those states, and last month state officials rejected a request to allow independent audits of the machines' integrity. A spokesman for Gov. Jeb Bush accused those seeking audits of trying to "undermine voters' confidence," and declared, "The governor has every confidence in the Department of State and the Division of Elections."

Should the public share that confidence? Consider the felon list.

Florida law denies the vote to convicted felons. In 2000 the state hired a firm to purge supposed felons from the list of registered voters; these voters were turned away from the polls. After the election, determined by 537 votes, it became clear that thousands of people had been wrongly disenfranchised. Since those misidentified as felons were disproportionately Democratic-leaning African-Americans, these errors may have put George W. Bush in the White House.

This year, Florida again hired a private company - Accenture, which recently got a homeland security contract worth up to $10 billion - to prepare a felon list. Remembering 2000, journalists sought copies. State officials stonewalled, but a judge eventually ordered the list released.

The Miami Herald quickly discovered that 2,100 citizens who had been granted clemency, restoring their voting rights, were nonetheless on the banned-voter list. Then The Sarasota Herald-Tribune discovered that only 61 of more than 47,000 supposed felons were Hispanic. So the list would have wrongly disenfranchised many legitimate African-American voters, while wrongly enfranchising many Hispanic felons. It escaped nobody's attention that in Florida, Hispanic voters tend to support Republicans.

After first denying any systematic problem, state officials declared it an innocent mistake. They told Accenture to match a list of registered voters to a list of felons, flagging anyone whose name, date of birth and race was the same on both lists. They didn't realize, they said, that this would automatically miss felons who identified themselves as Hispanic because that category exists on voter rolls but not in state criminal records.

But employees of a company that prepared earlier felon lists say that they repeatedly warned state election officials about that very problem.

Let's not be coy. Jeb Bush says he won't allow an independent examination of voting machines because he has "every confidence" in his handpicked election officials. Yet those officials have a history of slipshod performance on other matters related to voting and somehow their errors always end up favoring Republicans. Why should anyone trust their verdict on the integrity of voting machines, when another convenient mistake could deliver a Republican victory in a high-stakes national election?

This shouldn't be a partisan issue. Think about what a tainted election would do to America's sense of itself, and its role in the world. In the face of official stonewalling, doubters probably wouldn't be able to prove one way or the other whether the vote count was distorted - but if the result looked suspicious, most of the world and many Americans would believe the worst. I'll write soon about what can be done in the few weeks that remain, but here's a first step: if Governor Bush cares at all about the future of the nation, as well as his family's political fortunes, he will allow that independent audit.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

The Saudis and 9/11

Scrutinizing the Saudi Connection


In establishing how the government failed to prevent the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the 9/11 Commission Report is excellent. Its grasp of some details, however, is less than reassuring - particularly details about Saudi Arabia, which it calls, in a gross understatement, "a problematic ally in combating Islamic extremism."

Perhaps even more startling is the report's conclusion that the panel has "found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually" helped to finance Al Qaeda. It does say that unnamed wealthy Saudi sympathizers, and leading Saudi charities, sent money to the terror group. But the report fails to mine any of the widely available reporting and research that establishes the degree to which many of the suspect charities cited by the United States are controlled directly by the Saudi government or some of its ministers.

The report makes no mention, for example, of an October 2002 study by the Council of Foreign Relations that draws opposite conclusions about the role of Saudi charities and how "Saudi officials have turned a blind eye to this problem." The 9/11 panel also misses an opportunity to more fully explore an intelligence coup in 2002, when American agents in Bosnia retrieved computer files of the so-called Golden Chain, a group of Mr. bin Laden's early financial supporters.

Reported to be among the 20 names on this list were a former government minister in Saudi Arabia, three billionaire banking tycoons and several top industrialists. Yet the report neither confirms nor denies this. Nor does it address what, if anything, the Saudis did with the information, or whether the men were ever arrested by Saudi authorities.

These failures are ones of omission, but the questions are of vital significance. Less important, perhaps, but more well known is the story of how many prominent Saudis, including members of the bin Laden family, were able to fly out of the United States within days of 9/11.

On Sept. 13, 2001, a private jet flew from Tampa, Fla., to Lexington, Ky., before leaving the country later that same day. On board were top Saudi businessmen and members of the royal family. The assertion is that they were afforded extraordinary treatment since they flew out after the most cursory F.B.I. checks and at a time when American airspace was still closed to private aviation.

For a long time, the White House, the Federal Aviation Administration and the F.B.I. denied that any such flights had taken place on the 13th, and the first day of travel was the 14th. Now the report of the 9/11 Commission finally admits the flight was on the 13th - but it fails to quell the controversy. Rather, the report says the flight only took off "after national airspace was open" and quotes the pilot saying there was "nothing unusual whatsoever" about that flight.

The report fails, however, to note that when the flights occurred, airspace was open only to a limited number of commercial - not private - planes. And it attributes incorrect positions maintained for months by the federal government, particularly the F.B.I., to a "misunderstanding" between federal and local law enforcement.

Moreover, the report makes no effort to determine whether the question of the special repatriation of high-ranking Saudis from the United States was discussed on the same day as the first flight in a private meeting - no aides permitted - between President Bush and the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. The ambassador has denied that the subject was discussed in his conversation with the president. But did the commission ask the president about it when it had the opportunity to question him? If so, there is no indication in the report.

The report makes no mention that one of the Saudis on the flight that left Kentucky for Saudi Arabia was Prince Ahmed bin Salman. Nephew to King Fahd, Prince Ahmed was later mentioned to American interrogators in March 2002 by none other than Abu Zubaydah, a top Qaeda official captured that same month. The connection, if any, between a top operative of Al Qaeda and a leading member of the royal family has remained unresolved despite Saudi denials. Prince Ahmed cannot be asked: he died in 2002, at the age of 43, from complications from stomach surgery in a Riyadh hospital.

Not only does the 9/11 report fail to resolve the matter of whether Mr. Zubaydah - who featured prominently in the now infamous Presidential Daily Briefing of Aug. 6, 2001 - was telling the truth when he named Prince Ahmed and several other princes as his contacts, but they do not even mention the prince in the entire report. The report does have seven references to Mr. Zubaydah's interrogations, yet not a single one is from March, the month of his capture, and the time he made his startling and still unproven accusations about high-ranking Saudi royals.

Of course, none of these matters undermine the report's central conclusions about what went wrong inside the United States leading up to 9/11. And satisfying answers to questions about the relationship between the Saudis and Al Qaeda might not be available yet. But the commission could have at least asked them. By failing to address adequately how Saudi leaders helped Al Qaeda flourish, the commission has risked damaging its otherwise good work.

Gerald Posner, the author of "Why America Slept: The Failure to Prevent 9/11," is writing a book about the Saudi royal family.