Eleven years after the fact, the key relevance of 9/11 to Campaign 2012 is that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has surrounded himself with neoconservative foreign policy advisers much as George W. Bush did in 2001, when the neocons let their ideological obsessions blind them to the threat from al-Qaeda.
In spring and summer 2001, the CIA and counterterrorism experts frantically rang warning bells, trying to get President Bush to order a full-court press aimed at stopping an attack that al-Qaeda was plotting. U.S. intelligence agencies weren't sure exactly where al-Qaeda would strike but they were sure that something big was coming.
In the neocon world view, "regime change" in Iraq would be the great "game changer," setting in motion the toppling of hostile governments in Syria and Iran -- and ultimately enabling Israel to dictate surrender terms to its close-in adversaries, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.
So, when many Clinton holdovers renewed their alarms in 2001, the warnings fell mostly on deaf ears inside the Bush administration. Indeed, some of Bush's top neocons believed the CIA analysts were being tricked into getting the inexperienced young President to take his eye off the ball, that is, off Iraq.
In an op-ed for the New York Times on the eleventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, journalist Kurt Eichenwald fills in some missing pieces to the pre-9/11 narrative, putting into context the infamous "Presidential Daily Brief" of Aug. 6, 2001, which was entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S."
Since the PDB was declassified in 2004, Bush's defenders have argued that the President's indifference to the warning was because the PDB was mostly a historical recounting of past al-Qaeda operations. But Eichenwald writes that the PDB was only one of a series of alarming reports that counterintelligence officers were putting before Bush and his national security team.
"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," Eichenwald writes. "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."
For instance, Eichenwald reports that by May 1, 2001, the CIA had informed the White House that "a group presently in the United States" was plotting a terrorist attack. By June 22, a PDB called the expected al-Qaeda strike "imminent" although the precise timing was considered flexible.
So, when the Aug. 6 PDB arrived, it already had a troubling context, mounting evidence that al-Qaeda had placed a team of terrorists inside the United States with plans for a dramatic attack on American soil. Yet, Bush brushed aside the Aug. 6 warning while vacationing at his Texas ranch and literally went fishing. Why?
Eichenwald writes that Bush's nonchalance could be traced to the success of neocon advisers in convincing the President that the warning was "just bluster." The neocons have never been known to be humble in their assessment of their own intellectual prowess and that self-certainty apparently swayed Bush.
According to Eichenwald...
"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."
Eichenwald writes that a PDB of June 29 read, "The U.S. is not the target of a disinformation campaign by Usama Bin Laden." The brief listed evidence, "including an interview that month with a Middle Eastern journalist in which Bin Laden aides warned of a coming attack, as well as competitive pressures that the terrorist leader was feeling, given the number of Islamists being recruited for the separatist Russian region of Chechnya," Eichenwald reports.
The CIA continued to build on its case, including comments from operatives close to bin Laden that the impending attack would have "dramatic consequences" with heavy casualties. "Yet, the White House failed to take significant action," Eichenwald writes.