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Enough Blame to Share

March 24, 2004|Gerald Posner

Just as the 9/11 commission is beginning its public hearings to figure out what went wrong with America's defense, Washington is again being diverted by one of its favorite pastimes: the blame game.

The latest round of partisan finger-pointing has been kicked off by former U.S. counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, who squarely accuses the Bush administration of failing to prevent the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Democrats, eager to find a chink in the president's anti-terror armor, have embraced Clarke's charges as historical revelations. Republicans, circling the wagons around their commander in chief, have already tried to undermine Clarke's credibility by portraying him as a disgruntled ex-employee with impure motives.

In research for my latest book, I found Clarke to be one of the few heroes in the Bush White House. He was a career bureaucrat who served under four presidents and one of the first officials to recognize the seriousness of the threat posed by Al Qaeda and Islamic fundamentalists. But it is disappointing to see Clarke pick on only one of the four administrations under which he served; after all, there were decades of American incompetence and inaction, and they all deserve a share of the blame.

Clarke, almost more than any other past or present federal official, should be aware of the failures of every Republican and Democratic administration since Ronald Reagan. Not a single president should boast of his work and commitment to fighting terrorism prior to 9/11.

When George W. Bush took office, he and his aides talked tougher than their Clinton counterparts but often seemed more preoccupied with ambitious military projects like missile defense than with chasing Al Qaeda. On Sept. 10, the day before the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft submitted his first budget. He requested funding increases for 68 departments but rejected the FBI's requests for $58 million for 149 new counterterrorism agents, 54 extra translators and 200 additional analysts.

That same day, Vice President Dick Cheney said he needed six months more to study a draft of homeland security legislation; he considered other matters more pressing.

As infuriating -- and politically damaging -- as these miscues are, the Democratic record for the previous eight years is every bit as frustrating, both for mistakes and policy failures. From not appreciating the importance of the first World Trade Center attack, in 1993, to sending the wrong signal to Al Qaeda when the U.S. hastily withdrew from Somalia after 18 troops were killed, to failing to go after Osama bin Laden in Sudan in 1996, to a weak retaliation after hundreds were killed in the 1998 East African embassy bombings, to no retaliation at all after the 2000 assault on the destroyer Cole, there is little the Clinton administration can boast about regarding steps that might have prevented a 9/11-type attack.

President Clinton seemed curiously uninterested when it came to terrorism. His former political advisor, Dick Morris, has said: "You could talk to him about income redistribution and he would talk to you for hours and hours. Talk to him about terrorism and all you'd get was a series of grunts."

The word "terrorism" was barely mentioned during the 2000 presidential campaign. It was not an issue that either party thought was important to voters in staking out reasons why a candidate deserved the White House.

Clarke knows better than to blame any one administration. And so do most of the partisans now pointing fingers at each other.

No one party or administration is to blame for 9/11. They all are. There was a systematic failure to recognize the early threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism, and a thorough unwillingness to aggressively confront that threat once it was identified. If the 9/11 commission does its work correctly, both parties will have to hang their heads in shame before the electorate this November.

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Gerald Posner is the author of "Why America Slept: The Failure to Prevent 9/11" (Random House, 2003).

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