Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Pinning the Blame


fact, the commission gives a devastating picture of the chaos within the Bush administration on the morning of the attacks, when the President famously remained in the Florida classroom for some five to seven minutes (according to the report) after learning of the second attack on the World Trade Center. But this is just one of several examples that morning of questionable judgment on the part of the President, as well as of the officials traveling with him, including his chief of staff, Andrew Card, and his political mentor, Karl Rove. Bush told the commission that he attributed the first crash, which he learned of before he entered the school classroom, to "pilot error," but this seems strange, since it is unlikely that a pilot would accidentally stray into a very tall, prominent building in a highly controlled air space on a clear autumn day. Subtly but damningly, the report makes it clear that after Bush left the classroom, "the focus was on the President's statement to the nation"—his "message"—rather than on taking charge of the nation's response to the attacks.

The President didn't convene a meeting of his National Security Council until after all of the planes had crashed. And though the chain of command for military actions runs from the president to the secretary of defense, Bush didn't call Rumsfeld for nearly an hour after the second tower was hit, though more than a half-hour lapsed between the crash into the second tower in New York and the attack on the Pentagon. Morever, despite the established chain of command, Bush in that call didn't discuss with Rumsfeld the authorization to shoot down planes. Astonishingly, according to information the commission received between the writing of the staff reports and the final report, the secretary of defense, upon learning of the two attacks in New York, simply returned to the work he had already been doing in his Pentagon office.

The White House, I was told, pressed for two things about these hours to be included in the final report. First, it wanted the commission to publish Bush's statement, as it did, that he remained in the classroom because he "felt he should project strength and calm until he could better understand what was happening"—though the fact that a calamity had taken place wasn't exactly a secret. Second, the White House wanted the report to include Libby's description of Cheney's very quick decision—"in about the time it takes a batter to decide to swing"—that United Flight 93, which was believed to be headed toward Washington, should be shot down. Some commissioners found this description hardly flattering, but at the Republicans' insistence it remained in the final report.

The White House was apparently so upset by the staff report's account of Cheney's deciding on his own to give the order to shoot down the planes that it overlooked the statement in another staff report, presented at the same time, that though there had been "contacts" between Iraq and al-Qaeda—involving al-Qaeda representatives seeking help from Iraq but not receiving it—"they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship."

Once it received prominent attention in the press, this clear contradiction of one of the administration's principal arguments for going to war— which had been repeated only two days earlier by Cheney—could not be left unchallenged by the White House. Bush said that the staff report validated his claims of "ties" between Saddam and al-Qaeda. In a television interview the day after the staff report was published, Cheney attacked the press for reporting accurately what the commission had said. (One commissioner, Jim Thompson, made similar comments on Bill O'Reilly's show.) In the final report, the commission said there had been no "collaborative operational relationship." One commissioner told me the word "operational" was added for clarity; another said that it was intended to underscore the fact that Bush's and Cheney's assertions were wrong. In announcing on August 2 his proposals for acting on the commission's recommendations, Bush, ignoring the language of the report, repeated his vague claim that Saddam Hussein "had terrorist ties."