Before 9/11, little talk of terror

SUN JOURNAL

Focus: A review of the president's comments before the Sept. 11 attacks finds few references to the threat posed by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida.

April 01, 2004|By Stephens Broening | Stephens Broening,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

President Bush had little to say about terrorism in public during the 7 1/2 months between his inauguration and al-Qaida's devastating attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

In very few of the hundreds of speeches, photo ops, news conferences, communiques, statements, radio addresses and other remarks on record at the White House did he mention the menace of terrorism.

When he did, he was likely to frame the problem of U.S. national security as one that might involve a "rogue state" attempting to blackmail the United States with weapons of mass destruction.

This finding, based on a review of the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, the official record of what the president says, comes during a harsh dispute in Washington over the level of attention the president was paying to what his former counterterrorism coordinator, Richard A. Clarke, contends were insistent warnings of an imminent terrorist attack by al-Qaida.

Except for notifying Congress that he was extending former President Bill Clinton's ban on dealing with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan because it harbored al-Qaida - President Bush appears to have made no public mention of the terrorist organization before Sept. 11, 2001, despite the CIA's conclusion in early 2001 that Osama bin Laden was responsible for the attack on the USS Cole in October 2000.

While it is improbable that forceful statements by the president alone could have prevented the Sept. 11 attacks, it is possible that Bush could have raised public consciousness and encouraged the federal bureaucracy - the FBI, especially - to focus on evidence that a catastrophic strike was looming.

According to a review of the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents (www.gpoaccess .gov/wcomp/index.html), the president noted "terrorism" or "terrorists" on 29 occasions during the months preceding Sept. 11, 2001.

In none of Bush's 32 weekly radio talks before the attacks does the subject of terrorism come up, even though CIA Director George J. Tenet was conveying to the president a growing sense of threat throughout the summer, according to testimony before the commission investigating the disaster.

On five occasions when the president did raise the question of terrorism - such as telling a Friends of Ireland luncheon on March 15 that "terrorism is always and everywhere wrong" - his treatment of it seems almost pro forma.

On eight occasions, he invoked the issue only in connection with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Of the 16 other times, the closest he came to suggesting a sense of urgency was in his first public mention of the subject as president, during a Feb. 13 address at NATO's North Atlantic headquarters in Norfolk, Va. Ambassadors from NATO countries attended.

"First," he said, "we must prepare our nations against the dangers of a new era. The grave threat from nuclear, biological and chemical weapons has not gone away with the Cold War. It has evolved into many separate threats, some of them harder to see and harder to answer. And the adversaries seeking these tools of terror are less predictable, more diverse. With advanced technology, we must confront the threats that come on a missile. With shared intelligence and enforcement, we must confront the threats that come in a shipping container or a suitcase.

"We have no higher priority than the defense of our people against terrorist attack."

With his mention of a shipping container and a suitcase, the president seemed to acknowledge that terrorists could act independently of a national government, though he didn't say so specifically.

In May, the president put Vice President Dick Cheney in charge of planning for the consequences of an attack on the American homeland with chemical, biological or nuclear weapons by hostile governments "or non-state terrorist groups [which] have also demonstrated an interest in acquiring weapons of mass destruction."

For the most part, Bush generally defined the threat as one from "rogue" states - not individuals such as bin Laden - trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

Speaking on March 30 in Billings, Mont., he said, "I'm concerned about rogue nations and leaders that may try to hold the United States or our allies hostage."

He said the United States needed the means to tell "those who may try to hold our nation hostage, `Don't try it. Don't dare.' We need a missile defense system that prevents the world from being held hostage by terrorism."

Similarly on June 8 in Dallas Center, Iowa, the president said, "The true threats of the 21st century are biological and informational warfare. The true threats are the fact that some rogue nations who can't stand America, our allies, our freedoms, or our successes, would try to point a missile at us. And we must have the capacity to shoot that missile down."

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