Friday, September 08, 2006

Culpability and responsbility after 9/11: Bush should have replaced the people in charge 

Glenn Reynolds has a bunch o' links and commentary on the campaign of former Clinton administration officials to spin, modify and suppress the "miniseries" dramatization of the "ghost wars" in advance of the attacks of September 11, 2001. Glenn gets close to my own view:

Before 9/11 -- and what we learned afterward -- I agreed with the basic strategy of trying to contain Islamist terror until it collapsed under the weight of its own stupidity. That was before I realized how widespread it was, and how thoroughly intertwined with hostile states it was. I don't fault the Clinton people for not catching on before I did.

But I do fault the people who are peddling the absurd story that Clinton had this terror thing under control until Bush screwed it up. That's partisan twaddle, and a real disservice in time of war.

He also quotes James Lileks, who is precise:
Just so you know: 9/11 reset the clock for me. All hands went to midnight. I’m interested in what people did after that date, and if the movie shows that before the attack one side lacked feck and the other was feck-deficient, I don't worry about it. It's like revisiting Congressional debates about Hawaiian harbor security in November 1941. Y'all get a pass. The Etch-A-Sketch's turned over. Now: what have you said lately?

I agree with these sentiments as far as they go, but neither addresses the question that historians will puzzle over for a generation: Why didn't Bush fire George Tenet, John Ashcroft and the director of the FBI, Robert Mueller, in the fall of 2001?

The quick response might be that neither were responsible -- in the sense of having "allowed" the attacks through erroneous or negligent acts or omissions -- for the failure of the American security apparatus to detect and interdict the 9/11 conspiracy. This defense may be more debateable in Tenet's case and less so in Ashcroft's case, but it is anyway beside the point. Franklin Roosevelt fired his Pacific command after Pearl Harbor, but not because the men involved were in any actual sense culpable for the defeat on December 7, 1941. He fired them because he knew that the American public needed to be confident in the team that was fighting the war following that first defeat. Indeed, I have read the claim that the investigation into the failure at Pearl Harbor did not occur until after the war because Roosevelt quickly ushered out the men who were most immediately in charge at the time of the attack.

Whatever the actual culpability of the various people who might be tagged with responsibility on September 12 (including various Clinton administration officers who are now protesting ABC's miniseries), only Tenet, Ashcroft and Mueller remained in their jobs. It is not clear why Bush retained them after September 11. Perhaps he did so because he is in fact very reluctant to push out people who have screwed up. Maybe, as a new president (unlike Roosevelt in 1941), Bush was reluctant to part with his team at the beginning of what might have been an extended national crisis. Or maybe Bush just believes that executives should have to clean up their own messes. In any case, I believe that the verdict of history will be that Bush should have fired at least these three men, not because they did anything wrong but because it was essential for Americans that the war be led by people different than the group that lost its opening battle.

UPDATE: Several readers have pointed out that I'm being hard on Mueller in particular, who started as director only a week before the attack. Fair enough. One reader argued that the same logic extended to Ashcroft:
I think it's worth noting that Mueller only started on the job on Sept 3 or 4 -- a week before the attacks. Firing someone who hadn't even gotten the seat warm yet would have been extreme.

The case for firing Aschroft is also not great. He had only been on the job for seven months. As I understand it, he wanted to knock the wall down but was hoping to do it by legislation (not legally necessary b/c it was a product of internal DOJ regs, but practically necessary b/c the FISA court was then giving the wall the force of law ... something it continued to do even post-9/11). He also pushed to get indictment on Khobar which the Clinton folks never did (concededly, this did not stand to have much effect since no one was ever actually arrested or extradited)....

I don't think there was a case for firing Ashcroft -- the AG was not as responsible for 9/11 failures (as of '93, DOJ was the only institution doing ANYTHING about terrorism). The kind of symbolic firings you're talking about would have included not only Tenet but Condi (who was then National Security Adviser, who had decided to demote Clarke -- and thus reduce the profile of counterterrorism on POTUS's staff (although she would argue, with some force, that they were reorganizing and you don't need a principal-level counterterrorism coordinator if you have a National Security Adviser ... but that, of course, would strengthen the case for firing her post 9/11 -- out of FDR-like symbolism, not blame).

I retract my view that Bush should have taken out Mueller, but I still think Ashcroft needed to go. The point is not whether he was actually blameless, but whether the average American would regard him with at least some suspicion as the war unfolded. The arguments in his defense require a lot of knowledge about how Washington and the Justice Department works, not the sort of thing most Americans understand, or would care to understand. In that sense, the symbolism argument works against firing Rice, I think -- the National Security Advisor runs no major agency that can screw up anything, and how many people knew that she had demoted Richard Clarke? More to the point, how much did Richard Clarke matter? By the testimony in his own book, the Clinton administration didn't do what he wanted, either. If there is one dominating takeaway from Clarke's book Against All Enemies, it is that people only began to listen to him after he left the government.


By Blogger Automatic_Wing , at Fri Sep 08, 07:24:00 PM:

It should be remembered that FDR fired a couple of relatively obscure guys in Hawaii, not Washington power players like Henry Stimson or Cordell Hull. My feeling is that Bush didn't want Tenet and Mueller writing books with Washington Post journalists telling "their side" of the story. Would have made everybody look bad.  

By Blogger C. Owen Johnson, at Fri Sep 08, 07:53:00 PM:

As some who was around then, I think I can tell you why Tenet was not fired. The simple fact is that Bush needed the CIA to turn around and start giving us rapid response intel in a new type of conflict. I frankly doubt it was possible to fire the DCI and replace his top managers - without which firing the DCI would have been just disruptive symbolism - and still get the intel we needed. Bush was in a bad spot and he needed to with the team he had.

The military analogy simply doesn’t apply: what militaries do and what intelligence analysts do, and how they both do it, are fundamentally different. Continuity is much more important in intelligence analysis. Further, Roosevelt wasn’t asking the Navy to anything fundamentally different after Pearl Harbor, while Bush was asking the intelligence community to do different things in different ways. I don’t see any way one successfully can do that and shake up the management structure at the same time.

I think it’s almost impossible for anyone who was not working in the intelligence community in the 90s to understand how badly the Clinton Administration screw up the community and especially the CIA. His appointment of Deutch was a disaster as DCI and the damage he did far outlasted his tenure. Politicians in management positions abounded and the agency was constantly being reorganized to support someone’s empire building schemes. There were no clear priorities, no sense of mission, just directives that were always fleeting and often contradictory. Clinton exerted no leadership: he did not even bother to receive the PDB most of the time. That was delegated to his national security advisor, so he was always going off half-cocked based on whatever filtered version of events he was hearing. Neither Berger or Clarke ever provided any strategic vision or even useful direction. Whatever their intent was, their combined effect was more divisive than anything else. As a result, the entire community was basically rudderless.

Bush was just starting to get a handle on things in the Summer of his first term and the intelligence community was just getting used to a having a leader who actually listened to them and had some idea of what he wanted. Things were actually getting straightened out just before 9/11. To go in and stir things up again right after 9/11 would have been courting an even bigger disaster.  

By Blogger Andrewdb, at Fri Sep 08, 08:36:00 PM:

I don't know anything about the inside of the CIA, as apparently Nemesis does, but his comment that "there is no way to ask the intelligence community to do different things in different ways and shake up the management at the same time" (to paraphrase slightly) does not wash.

Changing the management is generally the BEST way to change things.

I do know from people who have worked with Bush I that the Bushes are loath to fire anyone. They usually promote someone to be Special Assistant For Somthing Terribly Important But Without Any Visable Duties - which is why firing the FEMA guy was such a surprise.

I agree with Tigerhawk that it is surprising Tenent was not changed out years before he left (and then with a Medal of Freedom - what _where_ they thinking?)  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Sep 08, 09:21:00 PM:

I believe that Mueller was only confirmed in his job at the fbi in late august or early september, just a few days or weeks before 9/11.

It certainly was a travesty to retain tenet and to give him the medal of freedom.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Sep 08, 09:54:00 PM:

When I came across this interview my jaw nearly dropped to the ground.

Q: I mean, isn’t it the case that this film actually does show Sandy Berger hanging up the phone in the middle of a conference call, when there are U.S. personnel whose lives are at risk on the ground, and they have bin Laden in their sights, and that really nothing like that ever happened?

KEAN: Well, the question, Shaun, is whether — whether it was Sandy Berger, or whether it was the head of the CIA? Whether the call was hung up on or whether it was totally — whether it was disrupted by a failure in communications? I mean, these are all historically, I think, open questions. But again, this is a, you know, this is a miniseries, not a documentary.

It's not like the scene that has been so upsetting never happened, but rather the detail of how the phone call ended is in dispute.  

By Blogger nedludd, at Fri Sep 08, 10:06:00 PM:

"I agree with these sentiments as far as they go, but neither addresses the question that historians will puzzle over for a generation: Why didn't Bush fire George Tenet, John Ashcroft and the director of the FBI, Robert Mueller, in the fall of 2001?"

Without being disrespectful, I read this and was reminded of something my father said about my uncle Ed who used to manage minor league ball teams in the 1920's and 30's. Whenever a pitcher got into trouble in a ball game, he left them in. When asked why he did that, my father said his reply was "Let em suffer".  

By Blogger C. Owen Johnson, at Fri Sep 08, 10:59:00 PM:

In some cases, especially in industry, I agree with you. Intel works differently however. I could go on about this at great length, but I will refrain as this is just a comment, not a post. But one key point is when you either change any organization's direction or its management you create a period of dislocation and some amount of chaos; things get lost in that shuffle.

In industry, this does not matter much but in the intel business that detail you lost might be the one that tells you when and where the next attack is.

9/11 put the intel community on a war footing; we were actively engaged. There was chaos enough; adding to it would have been foolhardy. There was plenty of time once the smoke had cleared to assess the leadership and make changes. And that's more or less what happened.  

By Blogger C. Owen Johnson, at Fri Sep 08, 11:48:00 PM:

It's probably worth noting that while Roosevelt fired some people in his Pacific command after Pearl Harbor he did not, as far as I recall, fire the head of ONI or even Captain Turner, who had largely taken over -- some say usurped -- the responsibility for disseminating critical intel.

So although Pearl Harbor was a major intelligence failure, Roosevelt responded by shaking up his Pacific Command [who were least at fault and actually showed some good sense], not his intel apparatus. That would come later, just as it did with the current administration.  

By Blogger RonB, at Sat Sep 09, 12:05:00 AM:

Wow, eight swings and eight misses as to why Tenet was kept. You wingnuts might want to read something outside of what Regnery Press publishes.

Tenet and Bush became friends, partially due to their similar temperaments and attitudes. Tenet is also a yes man of the highest order-funnily enough, the guy you want to talk shit about is mostly responsible for allowing the version of the WOT you are witnessing right now.  

By Blogger RonB, at Sat Sep 09, 01:12:00 AM:

By the by, Tigerhawk, I like your site alot. Aint so sure about your commentariat, but you seem like an open minded guy that is curious about both streams of thought. Im thankful for the leeway to debate with your conservative posters.

Please forgive me if I get too acerbic and let me know when Im crossing your line!  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Sat Sep 09, 01:49:00 AM:

RonB, you're more than welcome to hang around -- we have lots of lefty readers, and we rare even call them "barking moonbats."

The key here is to make arguments rather than to allege conclusions that we have all heard before.  

By Blogger RonB, at Sat Sep 09, 02:26:00 AM:

Hawk, I used to be a conservative...nothing worse than a convert, right?

To your point, it might be worth revisiting the things youve all heard before, because most of the allegations and "things youve all heard before" are being confirmed.  

By Blogger Habu_3, at Sat Sep 09, 06:27:00 AM:

There of course is the matter of Clinton's apppointee Jamie Gorelick and "The Wall" which ostensibly impeded several lines of inquiry into what certain suspicious A-rabs were doing at flight schools.
I beleive "the Wall" will go down in hstory, once a perspective is gained, as one of the most idiotic policies to ever come out of D.C.
Of course it was done not to protect the USA but to protect Bill Clinton's impeachable offenses.
The ultimate insult however was to have Jamie Gorelick on the 9-11 Panel. This done once again to guard the Arkansas Mafia leader.
This is akin to having Syria guarantee the Lebanese border.
And we haven't even touched on Sandy Berger's role as National Security Adviser and chief money raiser from the ChiComs..all at the same time. Talk about a traitor who should be hanged, Sandy Berger..next..  

By Blogger GreenmanTim, at Sat Sep 09, 11:39:00 AM:

RonB, care to share what happened to you on the road to Damascus that lead to your conversion? Or was it cumulative grains of sand that tipped the scales for you?  

By Blogger RonB, at Sat Sep 09, 02:08:00 PM:

Miers. Miers was the final unraveling, when I began to wonder what the fuck these guys were doing. It's been a headlong rush into BDS since then. Of course, our foreign policy is my greatest concern right now, and I have come around to the POV that what we are doing in the ME is counterproductive, heedless and pretty rotten.  

By Blogger Shochu John, at Sat Sep 09, 03:14:00 PM:

Allow me to echo my appreciation for this site and its host(s). I agree with RonB entirely. I was also a Republican at one time, though I vehemently disagreed with the wisdom of the Iraq War, a position which I believe has been clearly vindicated at this point.

I agree with the Lileks quote. There is little value to assigning blame for not expecting an event that virtually nobody had reason to expect, even a symbolic blame to make people feel better.

A better question to ask, in my opinion, is why Tenet was not fired is after the magitude of the Iraq intel failure became apparent. My theory is that the administration would have had to acknowledge the failure in a large, public way in order to duly assign blame. That, however, would require them to stop downplaying the reality in Iraq and deal with it.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Sat Sep 09, 05:17:00 PM:

"Miers. Miers was the final unraveling, when I began to wonder what the fuck these guys were doing."

Really? You're not kidding?

Miers was put forth as a purposeful sabotage by the administration. With O'Conner retiring, they knew they would be pressured to nominate another woman simply because she was a woman, which would hamper choices and could begin a stupid political battle. ("George Bush doesn't care about women!") So they picked one pre-emptively, an underqualified minor ally, and sang her praises. She herself never took it very seriously, but, predictably, people lept on it and bitched and moaned and accused the president of nepotism and incompetence, et cetera. So Miers quietly went away and Bush nominated his *real* candidate. Having already shot down his female candidate, those who would be disinclined to vote for a male kind of lost their way.

You know, it never occurred to me before now that in retrospect anyone would have taken that episode at face value.  

By Blogger Shochu John, at Sat Sep 09, 06:07:00 PM:

Well Dawnfire, I suppose that's possible. I am not sure about the political wisdom of feigning incompetence to get your way. After all, some people might not understand your entirely too clever plan and actually think you’re the kind of prat that thinks his dangerously underqualified personal lawyer should serve on the Supreme Court.

I think you may be surprised by how many more people took the Miers fiasco as a good reason to consider voting for a different political party than as some sort of brilliant ruse.  

By Blogger cakreiz, at Sun Sep 10, 08:52:00 AM:

John and Ronb: the Damascus road discussion brings to mind something I read by the Ass't Village Idiot, a frequent commenter here. Describing himself as a Postliberal, AVI writes, "Conservative issues don't attract me as much as liberal idiocy repels me." My question to you is whether the flipside of this equation drives either of your politics- i.e., whether conservative idiocy repels you more than more than liberal positions attract you? It's an interesting question, but not necessarily one that applies.  

By Blogger Shochu John, at Sun Sep 10, 12:09:00 PM:

The problem I have with that question is that it seems to me that when choosing an ideological position, one has unfettered choice as to what positions to take. If I think that X position is correct and it so happens that a lot of people I dislike also take that position, does X then become a less valid position on the merits? I submit it does not. Further, my positions on issues do not cleanly fit into "liberal" or "conservative" categories. I consider myself a bit of a pragmatist. If the question, however, were whether Republican idiocy repels me more than more than Democratic positions attract me, my answer would be an emphatic "yes."  

By Blogger cakreiz, at Sun Sep 10, 05:44:00 PM:

I appreciate the false dichotomy of a straight "either/or" party choice. Like you, John, I consider myself a pragmatist. Nonetheless, it seems to me that we often find ourselves repelled by something at least as often, maybe more, as we're attracted to something else. Maybe it would be more accuate, for example, to call someone a Not Republican rather than a Dem.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Mon Sep 11, 01:46:00 PM:

"I am not sure about the political wisdom of feigning incompetence to get your way."

So long as you get your way. *shrug*

"I think you may be surprised by how many more people took the Miers fiasco as a good reason to consider voting for a different political party than as some sort of brilliant ruse."

I am, apparently. But that has greater implications concerning the political astuteness of the people in question, rather than the administration.

Most people are not politically astute at all, and it makes me sad that people who lack even a basic understanding of the concept of separation of powers or what is actually in the Constitution are allowed to vote. (thinking of certain family members...)  

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