A couple of weeks ago, at the Republican National Convention, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush did his best to defend George W. Bush’s record, reminding his audience that the former president “kept us safe.” It’s one of those boasts that’s always been hard to understand given some of the tragedies of the Bush era.
Most notably, of course, were the attacks of 9/11, carried out 11 years ago today. We learned in 2004, during testimony from Condoleezza Rice to the 9/11 Commission, that Bush received an intelligence briefing on Aug. 6, 2001, at which he was handed a memo with an important headline: “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”
Bush, however, was on a month-long vacation at the time. He heard the briefer out and replied, “All right. You’ve covered your ass, now.” A month later, al Qaeda killed 3,000 Americans.
As scandalous as that sounds, we are still learning more about the events of that summer. Kurt Eichenwald has a piece in the New York Times today reporting that the declassified Aug. 6 memo has become notorious, but it appears even worse when “read in conjunction with the daily briefs preceding Aug. 6, the ones the Bush administration would not release.” [Update: Eichenwald is scheduled to appear on The Rachel Maddow Show tonight.]
The direct warnings to Mr. Bush about the possibility of a Qaeda attack began in the spring of 2001. 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. Weeks later, on June 22, the daily brief reported that Qaeda strikes could be “imminent,” although intelligence suggested the time frame was flexible.
But some in the administration considered the warning to be just bluster. An intelligence official and a member of the Bush administration both told me in interviews that the neoconservative leaders who had recently assumed power at the Pentagon were warning the White House that the C.I.A. had been fooled; according to this theory, Bin Laden was merely pretending to be planning an attack to distract the administration from Saddam Hussein, whom the neoconservatives saw as a greater threat. Intelligence officials, these sources said, protested that the idea of Bin Laden, an Islamic fundamentalist, conspiring with Mr. Hussein, an Iraqi secularist, was ridiculous, but the neoconservatives’ suspicions were nevertheless carrying the day.
In response, the C.I.A. prepared an analysis that all but pleaded with the White House to accept that the danger from Bin Laden was real.
Bush and his team chose not to take these warnings seriously. The CIA kept repeating the warnings throughout the summer of 2001, and the Bush White House kept failing to take significant action, to the point that officials at the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center became “apoplectic.”
Eleven years later, the political establishment continues to look at the Bush/Cheney team as credible voices on counter-terrorism, and Jeb Bush’s boasts about his brother “keeping us safe” actually drew applause in Tampa.
To put it mildly, it is a reputation in need of revision.