On the morning of September 11, 2001, Clarke’s anti-al-Qaeda plan was sitting on Bush’s desk, awaiting his signature. It was the ninth National Security Presidential Directive of his presidency.
Would the Bush administration have stopped the 9/11 attacks had it taken the threat more seriously? Possibly. On August 3, a Saudi named Mohamed al-Kahtani tried to enter the United States in Orlando, Florida, allegedly to participate in the 9/11 plot. He was sent back home by a customs official whose only concern was that he might become an illegal immigrant. On August 16, FBI and INS agents in Minnesota arrested another potential hijacker, Zacarias Moussaoui, after being tipped off by his flight instructor. But despite numerous requests, they were denied permission to search his apartment or laptop. These incidents “might have exposed the” 9/11 plot, writes Eichenwald, “had the government been on high alert.”
Clarke makes the same argument. When the Clinton administration received word of a potential attack in December 1999, he notes, President Clinton ordered his national-security adviser to “hold daily meetings with the attorney-general, the CIA, FBI.” As a result, the leaders of those agencies instructed their “field offices to find out everything they can find. It becomes the number one priority of those agencies.” This vigilance, Clarke suggests, contributed to the arrest on December 14 of an Algerian named Ahmed Ressam, who was arriving from Canada with the aim of detonating a bomb at Los Angeles International Airport.
The Bush administration could have done similar in 2001. “Buried in the FBI and CIA,” Clarke notes, “there was information about two of these al-Qaida terrorists who turned out to be hijackers [Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi]. The leadership of the FBI didn’t know that, but if the leadership had to report on a daily basis ... to the White House, he would have shaken the trees and he would have found out those two guys were there.”
Would that have foiled the 9/11 attacks? “There was a chance,” Clarke argues, but top Bush officials “didn’t take it.”
When Donald Trump hurls insults at his opponents, respectable people generally roll their eyes. But it is precisely Trump’s refusal to be respectable that helps him spark debates that elites would rather avoid. And sometimes, those debates are important to have.
Given that George W. Bush’s advisers still dominate the Republican foreign-policy establishment—an establishment that has not broken with his ideological legacy in any fundamental way—his record both before and after 9/11 remains relevant to the terrorism debate today. For many years now, that foreign-policy establishment has insisted that questioning Bush’s failure to stop the September 11 attacks constitutes an outrageous slur. That’s why Fleischer is now calling Trump a “truther.” He’s purposely blurring the line between accusing Bush of having orchestrated the attacks and accusing Bush of having been insufficiently vigilant in trying to stop them. But Bush was insufficiently vigilant. The evidence is overwhelming.
If Jeb’s loyalty to his brother makes it impossible for him to confront that, fine. But he has no right to demand that the rest of the public avert its eyes.