Would George W. Bush have been reelected president if the public understood how much responsibility his administration bears for allowing the 9/11 attacks to succeed?
The answer is unknowable and, at this date, moot. Yet it was appalling to learn last week that the White House suppressed until after the election a damning report that exposes the administration as woefully incompetent if not criminally negligent. Belatedly declassified excerpts from still-secret sections of the 9/11 commission report, which focus on the failure of the Federal Aviation Administration to heed multiple warnings that Al Qaeda terrorists were planning to hijack planes as suicide weapons, make clear that this tragedy could have been avoided.
For the last three years, administration apologists have tried to make the FAA the scapegoat for the 9/11 attacks. But it is the president who ultimately is responsible for national security, not a defanged agency that is beholden to the industry it allegedly monitors.
The terrible fact is that the administration took none of the steps that would have put the protection of human life ahead of a diverse set of economic and political interests, which included not offending our friends the Saudis and not hurting the share prices of airline corporations.
The warnings provided by intelligence agencies to the FAA were far clearer and more specific than suggested by Condoleezza Rice's testimony before the 9/11 commission when she reluctantly conceded the existence of a presidential briefing that warned of impending Al Qaeda attacks. Rice had dismissed those warnings as "historical," but according to the newly released section of the 9/11 report, an astonishing 52 of the 105 daily intelligence briefings received by the FAA -- and available to Rice -- before the Sept. 11 attacks made specific reference to Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.
Given this shocking record of indifference on the part of the administration, it is politically understandable that it tried to prevent the formation of the 9/11 commission in the first place, and then for five months prevented the declassification of key sections of the final report. Commission members, including its Republican chairman, Thomas Kean, stated in the past that there was no national security concern that justified keeping those sections of the report from the public.
And let's be clear: The failure to fully disclose what is known about the 9/11 tragedy is not some minor bureaucratic transgression. Not since the Soviets first detonated an atomic bomb more than half a century ago has a single event so affected decision-making in this country, yet the main questions as to how and why it happened remain mostly unanswered.
Even worse, what we do know calls into question our government's explanation that a diabolical international terrorist conspiracy exploited our liberal, naive society. What has emerged, instead, is a portrait of an often bumbling terrorist gang allowed to wreak havoc because the top tiers of the administration were so indifferent to the alarms, which former CIA Director George Tenet described so graphically: "The system was blinking red."
Had the business-friendly administration put safety first and ordered a full complement of air marshals into the air, over the obscene objections of airlines loath to give up paid seats, nearly 3,000 people might not have died that day. And had the president of the United States taken some time from his epic ranch vacation that August to order a nationwide airport alert, two bloody wars abroad, as well as an all-out assault on civil liberties in this country, probably would not have happened.
Instead, an administration that resisted spending the tens of millions required to fortify airline security before 9/11 is nearing the $300-billion mark on Afghanistan and Iraq. And declassified documents have unmistakably said the latter had nothing to do with 9/11. Meanwhile, those countries that at least indirectly did, most notably "allies" Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, have been let off the hook.
Indeed, the 9/11 commission was not allowed to get near that story: It is an unnoticed but startling truth that the basic narrative on the tragedy derives from the interrogations of key detainees whom the 9/11 commissioners were not allowed to interview. Nor were they permitted to even take testimony from the U.S. intelligence personnel who interrogated those prisoners.
When the truth and governmental transparency are arbitrarily trumped by the invocation of national security, the public is simply incapable of making informed decisions on the most crucial decisions we face -- starting with whom we elect as our commander in chief.