On Tuesday, as Americans remembered the 3,000 victims of the 9/11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center and consoled their families, the New York Times published an op-ed criticizing President Bush for gross negligence in failing to act more aggressively on intelligence leading up to the attacks. The article was written by Kurt Eichenwald to promote his new book, "500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars."
Though it may have been effective at generating controversy, Eichenwald's piece didn't substantively add to what we already knew about the months before the attacks. It was written in a way to stir up those who would like to blame Bush for 9/11, even while acknowledging he may not have been able to prevent it anyway.
Eichenwald's supposedly major revelation is that Bush received warnings about Al Qaeda months before the infamous Aug. 6 briefing, "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." He writes: "While those documents are still not public, I have read excerpts from many of them, along with other recently declassified records, and come to an inescapable conclusion: the administration's reaction to what Mr. Bush was told in the weeks before that infamous briefing reflected significantly more negligence than has been disclosed. In other words, the Aug. 6 document, for all of the controversy it provoked, is not nearly as shocking as the briefs that came before it." He goes on to note that "The direct warnings to Mr. Bush about the possibility of a Qaeda attack began in the spring of 2001."
Eichenwald goes on to quote bits and pieces of these early intelligence briefings, but he doesn't fundamentally add to what the 9/11 Commission Report stated in 2004: "In the spring of 2001, the level of reporting on terrorist threats and planned attacks increased dramatically ..." The report noted that reports "were made available to President Bush in morning intelligence briefings with [Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet], usually attended by Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Advisor Rice."
Nothing in Eichenwald's reporting suggests Bush had actionable intelligence about a specific plot. He reported that "By May 1, the Central Intelligence Agency told the White House of a report that 'a group presently in the United States' was planning a terrorist operation." What was Bush supposed to do with such information? Eichenwald is vague on that point. Over the course of the piece, he lamented that Bush "failed to take significant action" and that "the alarm bells didn't sound." He wrote that "Throughout that summer, there were events that might have exposed the plans, had the government been on high alert."
Throughout the post-9/11 portion of Bush's presidency, his critics complained about him taking pre-emptive actions on limited evidence that trampled on civil liberties in the name of counterterrorism. What tangible actions would these critics have allowed or approved of in the run-up to 9/11?
Eichenwald ended his op-ed with a whimper: "Could the 9/11 attack have been stopped, had the Bush team reacted with urgency to the warnings contained in all of those daily briefs? We can't ever know."
There's no doubt that there was a regrettable failure of cooperation between law enforcement and the intelligence community in the run-up to 9/11. That failure should be studied carefully to make sure such an attack doesn't happen again. But it's counterproductive to feed the "blame Bush" crowd without good reason.