An Imperiled Strategy

George W. Bush's strategy of running for re-election as the "Warrior President" is in peril. His approval rating for handling the situation in Iraq has fallen to 44 percent, a new low, according to last week's Gallup Poll. A Harris Interactive poll for Time magazine found that a majority of Americans do not think the Bush administration has a clear, well-thought-out plan for dealing with Iraq.

Iraq has been a divisive issue since before the war started. But once, Bush could fall back on his leadership in the war on terrorism. Now his standing on that issue is also in jeopardy.

The president's rating on fighting terrorism is still relatively high—55 percent approval, according to Gallup—but it is at its lowest point since 9/11. The commission investigating the terrorist attacks is making it harder and harder for Bush to run on the 9/11 issue—and so are the families of 9/11 victims, who have turned themselves into a powerful pressure group.

The families were very critical of the Bush campaign's use of 9/11 images in its advertisements. And they have warned that if the Bush campaign attempts to use Ground Zero as a political backdrop at the Republican National Convention in New York City this summer, outraged families will be there to protest.

Bush is a man of tremendous resolve. In a test of wills, he usually prevails. Yet it appears that, in confrontations with the 9/11 commission, he has finally met his match.

"When we first proposed the 9/11 commission, the White House opposed it, and then eventually supported it," commissioner Tim Roemer, a Democrat, said in a television interview. "When we asked for an extension to do our work, the 9/11 commission went to the White House. They opposed it and then eventually supported it. When we needed some more funds to support our activities, the White House initially opposed it. They eventually supported it. When we went to them to ask for Dr. [Condoleezza] Rice's [sworn public] testimony ... they opposed it—and then eventually they supported it."

Roemer added, "In my personal opinion, the White House's cooperation with the 9/11 commission has been 'better late than never.'"

During National Security Adviser Rice's testimony, the 9/11 commission pressed to have the President's Daily Briefing for August 6, 2001, made public. "We would be happy to have it declassified in full at this time, including its title," commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste told Rice. The title: "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." Once again, the 9/11 commission went eyeball-to-eyeball with the White House, and the White House blinked.

The document was released two days later—on Saturday evening, just before Easter Sunday, in an obvious ploy to bury the news. But the news was pretty striking. The briefing memo was written in response to a specific request from Bush, who asked the intelligence services to assess the possibility of attacks against the U.S. homeland.

The document describes a dangerous terrorist operation that "apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks" inside the United States. The intelligence services identified Osama bin Laden and his operatives as the forces behind the terrorists. The PDB also cited bin Laden's determination to "bring the fighting to America" in retaliation for the 1998 missile strikes against his bases in Afghanistan.

The briefing noted that bin Laden had struck the U.S.S. Cole as well as U.S. embassies in East Africa and that he was "not deterred by setbacks," such as the thwarting of the millennium bombings in Los Angeles, "which may have been part of bin Laden's first serious attempt to implement a terrorist strike in the U.S." The document also warned the president of "patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks."

Bush now says, "I never saw any intelligence that indicated there was going to be an attack on America at a time and a place." But if the August 6 PDB did not say when or where, it did include alarming warnings about who, why, and how. The briefing also noted that the FBI had 70 field investigations under way into activities it regarded as "bin Laden-related." Those were the pieces. What the Bush administration failed to do was put them together.

Rice told the commission, "We had a structural problem in the United States, and that structural problem was that we did not share domestic and foreign intelligence in a way to make a product for policy makers." What do you need to solve that structural problem? Her answer: "A catastrophic event that forces people to think differently, that forces people to overcome all customs and old culture and old fears about domestic intelligence."

In a memorandum dated September 4, 2001, White House counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke warned Rice of just such an event, a terrible day when thousands of Americans would be killed. Rice claimed that memo wasn't a warning to the country. It was a warning to her. "What he was doing was, I think, trying to buck me up," she told the commission, "so that when I went into the principals' meeting, I was sufficiently on guard against the kind of bureaucratic inertia that he had fought all of his life."

That's a damaging admission by Rice. Clarke urged her to stand up to the forces of bureaucratic inertia and demand action against the impending threat. There is no indication that she or Bush took that advice.