WP: Ignatius on 9/11 Report

We’re at war," President Bush told Vice President Cheney that morning. “Somebody’s going to pay.” What makes his statement haunting is that CIA Director George Tenet had written of the al Qaeda threat in a secret memo nearly three years earlier: “We are at war. I want no resources or people spared in this effort, either inside the CIA or the Community.” And yet very little was done to avert the catastrophe that Tenet had seen ahead. The major actors – the principals of the Clinton and Bush administrations, the wary operatives of the CIA, the all-or-nothing generals at the Pentagon, the don’t-cross-the-“wall” bureaucrats at the FBI – all failed to take actions that might have prevented disaster. It’s like watching a car crash in slow motion.

The report’s tone is evenhanded and nonpartisan, but the facts gathered here are devastating for the Bush administration. The Clinton team may have dithered over plans to kidnap (or kill) Osama bin Laden in 1998 and '99, but they did manage to mobilize the government at every level to deal with al Qaeda’s Millennium Plot. The Clinton administration gathered a small crisis group at the White House that made sure every agency worked to thwart al Qaeda’s planned terrorist attack. The Bush team, in contrast, didn’t get serious about bin Laden until those planes hit their targets. Indeed, it’s shattering to read the report’s account of the summer of 2001, well before the assault, when al Qaeda operatives couldn’t stop chattering about the big, big terrorist attack they were planning – and the Bush administration never went into full crisis mode. “Many officials told us they knew something terrible was planned, and they were desperate to stop it,” the report notes. But they didn’t, in part because the White House didn’t take control.

Even after 9/11, some senior Bush officials didn’t seem to get it. Another of those little-noticed footnotes describes a Sept. 20, 2001, memo prepared by Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith, apparently for his boss, Donald H. Rumsfeld. According to the commission, “the author expressed disappointment at the limited options immediately available in Afghanistan and the lack of ground options. The author suggested instead hitting terrorists outside the Middle East in the initial offensive, perhaps deliberately selecting a non-al Qaeda target like Iraq. Since U.S. attacks were expected in Afghanistan, an American attack in South America or Southeast Asia might be a surprise to the terrorists.” If Feith really wrote such a memo, how is it possible that he is still in his job?