The startling revelations in a new book about warnings of an imminent al-Qaida attack delivered to George W. Bush long before 9/11 give us new insights into his administration’s alleged negligence in preventing the attack, which occurred 11 years ago Tuesday. The book also helps to further explain why the administration, dominated by key neoconservative figures such as then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, segued so quickly to Saddam Hussein after 9/11.
But just as importantly, the book by reporter Kurt Eichenwald, 500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars, raises new questions about the degree to which the neocons of 2001 are still shaping the Mitt Romney campaign of 2012. Because if what Eichenwald is saying is correct, the evidence of the self-delusion of the neoconservatives and hard-liners in the biggest strategic decision in recent American history is all the more compelling, and their return to the Washington scene all the more worrisome.
Eichenwald writes that the Bush administration had much harder intelligence than has been previously revealed about the threat from al-Qaida, beginning in the spring of 2001. By May 1 of that year, he reports, the CIA told the White House of a report that “a group presently in the United States” was planning a terrorist operation. But the CIA was repeatedly rebuffed. “Neoconservative leaders who had recently assumed power at the Pentagon were warning the White House that the CIA had been fooled,” Eichenwald wrote in The New York Times on Tuesday. “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.”
The book sheds new light on one of the mysteries of that period: why Bush and hard-liners in his administration fixated so quickly on Saddam after 9/11, even though the evidence that al-Qaida had acted alone from its base in Afghanistan was overwhelming. According to Eichenwald, senior officials had convinced themselves from the very start of the administration in January 2001 that al-Qaida was in league with Saddam, who was really running the show. Others reported at the time that Wolfowitz, among others, expressed disbelief after 9/11, in meetings at the White House, that bin Laden could have done so much damage acting alone, though of course he had.
And it was not just Wolfowitz. Other neoconservatives or hard-liners who were also urging or supporting the shift to Saddam at the time included some key members of Mitt Romney’s team of “special advisers” on foreign policy: Eric Edelman, deputy national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney; Eliot Cohen, a member of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s Defense Policy Advisory Board; neocon scholar Robert Kagan; and former Defense Department Comptroller Dov Zakheim, as well as other advisers such as former U.N. ambassador John Bolton.
Eichenwald’s reporting is backed up by other real-time reporting in February of 2001, shortly after Bush took office. Newsweek reported as follows: “There is an uneasy feeling in the upper levels of the U.S. government that the threat posed by bin Laden is growing--and coming ever closer to home. Intelligence officials tell Newsweek that they believe bin Laden, the Saudi billionaire who is thought to be hiding out somewhere in Afghanistan, could strike at any time.”
This was also, quite obviously, being communicated to the Bush administration at the time, especially since a mere six days before Bush’s inauguration the FBI came out with a report linking the deadly 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen to al-Qaida.
But the senior officials of the Bush administration, including the president, Rumsfeld, and Cheney, saw the al-Qaida threat through another lens, and no amount of actual—and now-vindicated—intelligence from the CIA was apparently going to convince them otherwise. As George Packer wrote in his 2005 book, The Assassins' Gate: “After the Cold War ended, they sat out the debates of the 1990s [about transnational terror].... When September 11 forced the imagination to grapple with something radically new, the president's foreign policy advisers reached for what they had always known. The threat, as they saw it, lay in well-armed enemy states."