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Still, Never Having to Say 'Sorry'

By Robert Parry
First published on April 5, 2004

Editor's Note: Almost 2 1/2 years ago, we published an article about the Bush administration's strange refusal to admit to even one second thought about its approach toward al-Qaeda in the eight months before the 9/11 attacks. This insistence on the infallibility of George W. Bush and his inner circle is relevant again, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice dismissing as "flatly false" criticism from former President Bill Clinton about the Bush administration's pre-9/11 inattention to the threat.

Indeed, the Right is assembling what amounts to a counter-history -- complete with a fictional docu-drama aired on Disney's ABC-TV -- pinning the blame for 9/11 on Clinton and portraying Bush as a man of principle and resolve. When Clinton angrily protested this revisionist history during a Fox News interview, he faced a new round of ridicule for his "crazed" reaction.

This Orwellian moment, in which the past is altered to justify actions in the present, reminded us of that article from April 5, 2004, which was responding to an earlier phase of this evasion of responsibility. We are republishing the story below:

One could argue there is stiff competition for the most-incredible-comment-from-the-mouth-of-Condoleezza-Rice award, but the winner may be her assertion that she can think of nothing more that the Bush administration could have done to prevent the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Normal people simply don’t say such things. When something goes wrong on their watch, most people think of what they could have done better and the honest ones admit that in hindsight they missed some opportunities. With an event as momentous as a coordinated enemy assault on three prominent U.S. landmarks and the deaths of 3,000 people, it is hard to imagine that the national security coordinator can’t think of anything she, her boss or his administration could have done better in the preceding eight months.

But Condoleezza Rice seems to have adopted George W. Bush’s lifetime attitude of never having to say “Sorry.”

“I would like very much to know what more could have been done given that it was an urgent problem,” Rice told Ed Bradley of CBS News’s “60 Minutes” in a March 28, 2004, broadcast. “I don’t know, Ed, how, after coming into office, inheriting policies that had been in place for at least three of the eight years of the Clinton administration, we could have done more than to continue those polices while we developed more robust policies.”

Well, like maybe, Rice could have urged her boss to cut short his month-long August vacation. Perhaps, after hearing CIA Director George Tenet’s repeated warnings about an imminent al-Qaeda attack, possibly on U.S. soil and possibly involving airplanes, Bush could have demanded that all agencies redouble their search for clues, which we now know did exist in the bowels of federal agencies.

Stem-Cell Research

Instead, George W. Bush cleared brush at the ranch, went fishing and devoted his attentions to philosophical deliberations over stem-cell research. After weeks of soul-searching, he gave a nationally televised speech, delivering his judgment that existing cells from fetuses could be used but not new ones. Some in the U.S. national news media hailed Bush’s decision as “Solomon-like” and proof that he had greater gravitas than his critics would acknowledge.

The next month, Bush and his administration were caught flat-footed by attacks that killed 3,000 people, leveled the two World Trade Center towers and knocked down part of the Pentagon.

Recent examinations of the Bush administration’s pre-Sept. 11 actions also show that Bush’s vacation and his concentration on stem-cell ethics coincided with his administration losing focus on terrorism. The New York Times reported that “the White House’s impulse to deal more forcefully with terrorist threats within the United States peaked July 5 and then leveled off until Sept. 11.”

The administration also had other priorities. On Sept. 6, for example, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld threatened a presidential veto of a proposal by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., to transfer money from strategic missile defense to counter-terrorism. [NYT, April 4, 2004]

While Rice says she can’t think of anything she might have done differently, former counter-terrorism coordinator Richard Clarke has offered a detailed set of actions that should have been undertaken, including “shaking the tree” by having high-level officials from the FBI, CIA, Customs and other federal agencies go back to their bureaucracies and demand any information about the terrorist threat.

Indeed, after Sept. 11, 2001, FBI officials did come forward with evidence they had about suspicious training on aircraft and the fact that two known al-Qaeda operatives had entered the United States although the CIA was not alerted. Either of those bits of evidence combined with other clues might have enabled U.S. authorities to break up the Sept. 11 plot, much as smart police work headed off the al-Qaeda bombings planned for the Millennium celebration at the start of 2000.

In Against All Enemies, Clarke contrasts President Bill Clinton’s urgency over the intelligence warnings that preceded the Millennium events with the lackadaisical approach of Bush and his national security team. Clarke’s account of the success in stopping the Millennium attacks makes for painful reading with the thought that similar determination might have thwarted the Sept. 11 attacks.

During an appearance on CNN's "Larry King Live" on March 24, Clarke also compared the two cases. "In December 1999, we received intelligence reports that there were going to be major al-Qaeda attacks," Clarke said. "President Clinton asked his national security adviser Sandy Berger to hold daily meetings with the attorney general, the FBI director, the CIA director and stop the attacks.

"Every day they went back from the White House to the FBI, to the Justice Department, to the CIA and they shook the trees to find out if there was any information. You know, when you know the United States is going to be attacked, the top people in the United States government ought to be working hands-on to prevent it and working together.

"Now, contrast that with what happened in the summer of 2001, when we even had more clear indications that there was going to be an attack. Did the president ask for daily meetings of his team to try to stop the attack? Did Condi Rice hold meetings of her counterparts to try to stop the attack? No."

The 9/11 commission is also reviewing these missed opportunities. The chairman and vice chairman, New Jersey's former Republican Gov. Thomas Kean and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., said on NBC's "Meet the Press" on April 4 that their panel will conclude that the Sept. 11 attacks were preventable. "The whole story might have been different," Kean said, citing a string of law-enforcement blunders including the "lack of coordination within the FBI" and the FBI's failure to understand the significance of suspected hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui's arrest in August while training to fly passenger jets.

In his book, Clarke offers other examples of pre-Sept. 11 mistakes by the Bush administration, including a downgrading in importance of the counter-terrorism office, a shifting of budget priorities, an obsession with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and an emphasis on conservative ideological issues, such as Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars missile defense program. A more hierarchical White House structure also insulated Bush from direct contact with mid-level national security officials who had specialized on the al-Qaeda issue.

Bush Myth

Clearly, any honest post-mortem by Rice would include a recognition that more could have been done and should have been done. But instead of an admission that mistakes were made, the Bush administration has sought to airbrush the failures of executive leadership from the minds of the American people.

The pre-Sept. 11 reality has been replaced by the reassuring myth of Bush as the infallible leader who instinctively makes the right calls. That was the theme of The Right Man, a book by former Bush speechwriter David Frum. In this view, Bush is sort of an idiot savant who grasps the essence of complex issues even though he may be ignorant of the details and oblivious of the nuances.

Even Bush apparently has bought into this view, calling himself a “gut player” who relies on his “instincts.” According to author Bob Woodward, in Bush at War, “it’s pretty clear that Bush’s role as politician, president and commander in chief is driven by a secular faith in his instincts – his natural and spontaneous conclusions and judgments. His instincts are almost his second religion.”

This Bush infallibility myth was widely disseminated by both conservative and mainstream media outlets in the months after Sept. 11, with prominent journalists, such as NBC’s Tim Russert, even posing questions about whether God had chosen Bush to lead the United States during the crisis. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s "Missed Opportunities of Sept. 11."]

In March 2003, Bush’s overwhelming faith in his “gut” judgments contributed to his determination to invade Iraq, brushing aside opposition from the United Nations, key allies and tens of millions of protesters around the world. That decision has since left more than 600 U.S. soldiers and uncounted thousands of Iraqi civilians dead with no end of the bloodshed in sight. [The number of dead U.S. soldiers is now 2,700, but the reference to “no end of the bloodshed in sight” remains equally true today.]

According to senior U.S. counter-terrorism officials, such as the State Department’s Cofer Black, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq also has sped up the spread of Osama bin Laden’s anti-American ideology.

Bin Laden’s “virulent anti-American rhetoric … has been picked up by a number of Islamic extremist movements which exist around the globe,” Black, former head of the CIA’s Counter-terrorism Center, said in House testimony. “These jihadists view Iraq as a new training ground to build their extremist credentials and hone the skills of the terrorist.” [Washington Post, April 4, 2004]

The views of Black and other counter-terrorism officials bolster another argument made by Clarke – that Bush’s Iraq adventure distracted the U.S. military from its pursuit of bin Laden and al-Qaeda while fueling the fury of a new generation of radical young Arabs. But again, neither Bush nor Rice will acknowledge their mistake in ignoring more pragmatic advice on Iraq from seasoned experts, including Brent Scowcroft, the elder George Bush’s national security adviser. Instead, this new Bush Team went with George W.’s “gut.”

Alerting the People

The chief significance of Clarke’s Against All Enemies is less what the former counter-terrorism coordinator discloses – since much of it was known to those who have followed the issue – than the fact that it has brought Bush’s pre-Sept. 11 inattention to the looming crisis to the attention of the broader American public.

The ferocity of the administration’s attacks on Clarke also demonstrates Team Bush’s awareness that its carefully crafted myth of the Great Leader is in jeopardy.

Possibly the most virulent reactions to Clarke have surrounded his apology to the families who lost loved ones in the Sept. 11 attacks. “Your government failed you, those entrusted with protecting you failed you, and I failed you,” Clarke said at a hearing of the 9/11 commission.

Clarke’s apology underscored two key points: first, that the Sept. 11 attacks were not an unavoidable act of nature but a complex crime that could have been stopped, and second, that no one in the Bush administration had taken responsibility for the catastrophe. Indeed, after possibly the worst intelligence/law enforcement failure in U.S. history, no government official was held accountable. Bush has even made his handling of the disaster a centerpiece of his election campaign.

To counter Clarke, White House allies have engaged in a smear campaign that has tried to whip up Bush’s followers, in part, by portraying Clarke's apology as a ploy by a clever cynic who only feigned remorse.

“One has to admire it,” wrote neoconservative columnist Charles Krauthammer. “The most cynical and brilliantly delivered apology in recent memory.”

Ignoring Clarke’s public remarks about the actions not taken that might have rolled up the Sept. 11 conspirators, Krauthammer insisted there was nothing Bush could have done to prevent the attacks and thus he had no reason to apologize to the families of the victims. “They were all victims of al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda alone,” Krauthammer wrote.

Changing course in the same column, however, Krauthammer went on to suggest that if any American is responsible, it is Richard Clarke, “who for 12 years was the U.S. government official most responsible for preventing a Sept. 11.” [Washington Post, April 2, 2004]

But the ugliness of the anti-Clarke attacks from Krauthammer and other Bush defenders underscores another point: Bush’s lifetime experience of avoiding blame. This pattern can be traced back to his early adulthood when he epitomized the phrase “failing up” and rejected his father’s efforts to impose discipline even for outrageous personal conduct.

In one famous incident, a 26-year-old George W. Bush had taken his younger brother Marvin out drinking during a holiday visit to his parent’s house in the Washington area. After getting intoxicated, George careened his car homeward through the residential neighborhood.

“Drunk and driving erratically, George W. barreled the car into a neighbor’s garbage can, and the thing affixed itself to the car wheel,” wrote his biographer Bill Minutaglio in First Son. “He drove down the street with the metal garbage can noisily banging and slapping on the pavement right up until he made the turn and finally started rolling up and onto the driveway of his parents’ home in the pleasant, family-oriented neighborhood they had just moved into.”

When George H.W. Bush demanded to talk with his son, George W. was neither contrite nor apologetic. Instead he threatened his father. “I hear you’re looking for me,” said George W. “You wanna go mano a mano right here?”

After a life of never admitting mistakes, Bush still sees no reason to say he’s sorry.

Beyond the failure the protect the nation from the Sept. 11 attacks, neither Bush nor his top aides have apologized for repeated false and misleading statements about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and its government’s supposed ties to al-Qaeda. Rice famously warned the American people about the potential for “a mushroom cloud” and Bush repeatedly left the impression in speeches that Saddam Hussein was behind the Sept. 11 attacks.

While a few of the administration's bogus claims have been retracted, Bush and his advisers have never expressed regret for misleading the American people. To the shock of many families of American soldiers who have died in Iraq, Bush went so far as to make the failed search for WMD the topic of jokes at a black-tie dinner with the Washington press corps in March 2004.

Bush’s unapologetic behavior has continued in his treatment of the 9/11 commission. Bush’s White House counsel has repeatedly set restrictive conditions that the commissioners must accept before Bush will deign to speak with them. The latest list of conditions includes no public testimony, no sworn testimony, no one-on-one testimony (Vice President Dick Cheney must be there, too), and no follow-up testimony for himself or any other White House official.

But it’s also true that Bush and his national security team are not the only ones who owe the American people an apology. All of us who have participated in the nation’s political life – especially those of us in Washington – should shoulder a share of the blame.

Indeed, every pundit or politician who mocked President Clinton’s 1998 attack on al-Qaeda sites as a “wag the dog” ploy – and thereby made it harder to follow up – should beg the forgiveness of the Sept. 11 families. If we lived in a world where accountability mattered, every one of those smirking pundits and opportunistic pols would be called on to resign or be fired. None, of course, has.

Those editorialists and activists who thought not much was at stake in Election 2000, that there was no difference between a well-qualified public servant like Al Gore and a ne’er-do-well neophyte like George W. Bush, also should acknowledge their misjudgment and its consequences. Thousands of innocent people have died – and thousands more will die.

Even those of us who have raised our voices about the lies and the distortions must admit that we haven’t done so loudly enough. As Clarke said in his apology to the families, simply trying hard doesn’t cut it. The bottom line is we didn’t challenge the lies and the goofy sideshows nearly as aggressively as we should have. As participants in a democracy, all Americans must take responsibility for what the government does and we all need to do more.

To start with, the American people should demand a full and truthful account of the important events that preceded the Sept. 11 attacks. There's also a desperate need for an honest recounting of many historical events from the last quarter century -- especially about U.S. policies in the Middle East -- that have been hidden from the public.

Another worthwhile step toward accountability would be to wrest admissions from those who have played a part in this ongoing tragedy – and most especially Condoleezza Rice and George W. Bush – that there were plenty of missed opportunities and plenty of reasons to say, “Sorry.”


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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