I have been desperate for someone other than bloggers to say this for years. Here's Richard Clark:
[L]istening to Cheney and Rice, it seems that they want to be excused for the measures they authorized after the attacks on the grounds that 9/11 was traumatic. "If you were there in a position of authority and watched Americans drop out of eighty-story buildings because these murderous tyrants went after innocent people," Rice said in her recent comments, "then you were determined to do anything that you could that was legal to prevent that from happening again."
I have little sympathy for this argument. Yes, we went for days with little sleep, and we all assumed that more attacks were coming. But the decisions that Bush officials made in the following months and years -- on Iraq, on detentions, on interrogations, on wiretapping -- were not appropriate. Careful analysis could have replaced the impulse to break all the rules, even more so because the Sept. 11 attacks, though horrifying, should not have surprised senior officials. Cheney's admission that 9/11 caused him to reassess the threats to the nation only underscores how, for months, top officials had ignored warnings from the CIA and the NSC staff that urgent action was needed to preempt a major al-Qaeda attack.
Thus, when Bush's inner circle first really came to grips with the threat of terrorism, they did so in a state of shock -- a bad state in which to develop a coherent response. Fearful of new attacks, they authorized the most extreme measures available, without assessing whether they were really a good idea.
I believe this zeal stemmed in part from concerns about the 2004 presidential election. Many in the White House feared that their inaction prior to the attacks would be publicly detailed before the next vote -- which is why they resisted the 9/11 commission -- and that a second attack would eliminate any chance of a second Bush term. So they decided to leave no doubt that they had done everything imaginable.
The first response they discussed was invading Iraq. While the Pentagon was still burning, Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld was in the White House suggesting an attack against Baghdad. Somehow the administration's leaders could not believe that al-Qaeda could have mounted such a devastating operation, so Iraqi involvement became the convenient explanation. Despite being told repeatedly that Iraq was not involved in 9/11, some, like Cheney, could not abandon the idea. Charles Duelfer of the CIA's Iraq Survey Group recently revealed in his book, "Hide and Seek: The Search for Truth in Iraq," that high-level U.S. officials urged him to consider waterboarding specific Iraqi prisoners of war so that they could provide evidence of an Iraqi role in the terrorist attacks -- a request Duelfer refused. (A recent report indicates that the suggestion came from the vice president's office.) Nevertheless, the lack of evidence did not deter the administration from eventually invading Iraq -- a move many senior Bush officials had wanted to make before 9/11.
On detention, the Bush team leaped to the assumption that U.S. courts and prisons would not work. Before the terrorist attacks, the U.S. counterterrorism program of the 1990s had arrested al-Qaeda terrorists and others around the world and had a 100 percent conviction rate in the U.S. justice system. Yet the American system was abandoned, again as part of a pattern of immediately adopting the most extreme response available. Camps were established around the world, notably in Guantanamo Bay, where prisoners were held without being charged or tried. They became symbols of American overreach, held up as proof that al-Qaeda's anti-American propaganda was right.
Similarly, with regard to interrogation, administration officials conducted no meaningful professional analysis of which techniques worked and which did not. The FBI, which had successfully questioned al-Qaeda terrorists, was effectively excluded from interrogations. Instead, there was the immediate and unwarranted assumption that extreme measures -- such as waterboarding one detainee 183 times -- would be the most effective.
Finally, on wiretapping, rather than beef up the procedures available under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the administration again moved to the extreme, listening in on communications here at home without legal process. FISA did need some modification, but it also allowed for the quick issuance of court orders, as when President Clinton took stepped-up defensive measures in late 1999 under the heightened threat of the new millennium.
Yes, Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice may have been surprised by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 -- but it was because they had not listened. And their surprise led them to adopt extreme counterterrorism techniques -- but it was because they rejected, without analysis, the tactics the Clinton administration had used. The measures they uncritically adopted, which they simply assumed were the best available, were in fact unnecessary and counterproductive.
I was talking to someone the other day about this and we mused about what would have happened if these guys had been in charge during the Cuban Missile Crisis. As it happens, there were many of the same knee-jerk pants wetters among Kennedy's advisors, but his instincts were to find a way to avoid a terrible confrontation rather than seek one. If Cheney had been in charge, there is no doubt in my mind that we would have had nuclear war. Indeed, you'll recall that conservatives were out there proclaiming WW III (and WW IV!) with more glee and excitement than sugar addled six year olds at the circus.
They were partisan hacks who panicked and now they are desperately trying to justify themselves after the fact. Even the best case scenario shows a bunch of people who wanted to "get it right this time" rather than evaluating the threat on its own merits. Thoughtful leadership was MIA in the executive branch (not that it was anywhere obvious for a long, long time anywhere else in the government either.) This behavior from the people who routinely deride liberals for ostensibly operating out of emotion rather than reason, is just funny. They lost it to such an extent that Cheney seized dictatorial powers and basically took over the US military in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, even ordering planes shot out of the air on his own authority.
We didn't know what happened on the inside at the time, but it was clear they were losing it from the very first moments. Having Bush race all over the country on the first day, the bellicose stupidity of their rhetoric and the absurd reaction to the anthrax attacks showed that our leadership was anything but calm, cool and collected. The media jumped in immediately with breathless, uncritical hero worship of Rumsfeld's lunacy and Bush's cowboy rhetoric, turning the instantaneous, opportunistic pivot to Iraq into an inevitability.
Despite all of Cheney's attempts at redemption and the ongoing conservative insistence that their policies "kept the country safe" the truth is that they behaved hysterically and irrationally after the attacks and reinforced every bad American stereotype in existence. Because of their blindered conservative worldview, they simply assumed that anything that had been done by someone other than the airbrushed version of Ronald Reagan had to be wrong and that anything other than schoolyard bully tactics were a form of weakness.
It's true that 9/11 did present an opportunity. America could have shown mature and intelligent global leadership. But it didn't. It behaved like a wounded adolescent giant, its leadership carrying on with "bullhorn moments" and talk of wanted posters and playing cards while an irresponsible media entertained the masses with war porn.
It was an embarrassing --- and dangerous --- display. If there was ever a time for the leadership of this country to play it cool it was then. And they failed the test in almost every way. Good for Richard Clark for calling them out on this.