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Viewpoint by Leonard Pitts Jr.: Flap over 9/11 clues uncalled for

May 30, 2002

Help me with this, if you don't mind.

In the weeks and months after Sept. 11, the federal government issued a seemingly endless stream of terrorism alerts, warning that something bad might happen sometime soon someplace in America. How did you respond? Did you change your daily routine? Did you avoid the mall? Did you take off from work or keep the kids out of school?

Or did you just go about your business — resolved, perhaps, to be vigilant, but resigned to the fact that, in the absence of more specific information, there wasn't much else you could do? And if that's the case, as I suspect it is, then can somebody explain to me the mob that gathered with pitchforks and torches on the White House lawn last week?

I mean, I enjoy tarring and feathering a chief executive as much as the next guy, but I can't fathom the flap that has sprung up over revelations about a briefing President Bush received before Sept. 11. We learned last week that the president was told in August that Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network was planning an attack against the United States and that it might involve hijacking an airliner. The classified CIA briefing did not, according to the White House, contain any information more exact than that — certainly nothing that might lead to the conclusion that an atrocity such as the one that happened a month later was in the offing. Based on that, it's difficult to imagine what Bush might have done differently.


And yet, also based on that, Democrats in Washington spent much of last week threatening congressional investigation and howling for Bush skin. Yes, this most secretive of White Houses should have divulged the information sooner. But it's a long leap from there to imputing ineptness or malfeasance on the part of the president. Last week, though, it was a leap senators like Hillary Clinton seemed all too eager to make. Nor did presidential defenders like Vice President Cheney cover themselves with glory by responding with suggestions that asking questions about this was somehow in bad taste if not downright treasonous.

It's enough to make you want to grab the whole sorry lot of them by the collar and shake them till their eyes rattle like something out of a Warner Bros. cartoon. For criminy sake, boys and girls, there's a war going on, in case you forgot.

For the record: I didn't vote for George W. Bush and have never been favorably impressed by his cognitive abilities. But do I believe he would have stopped the Sept. 11 attacks if he'd had half a chance? Yes. Do I believe he had half a chance? No. Does anybody seriously believe otherwise?

What bothers me is not that questions are being asked but the wrong questions are being asked. Questions designed to gain or deny political advantage rather than questions designed to elicit, well … answers.

The salient fact here is that warning signs were missed. And while hindsight is the very soul of perfection, it's difficult to consider the hints we had before that awful day without wondering if we could not, indeed, have prevented a mass murder. Consider: You had the CIA warning about possible hijackings, an FBI agent in Phoenix suspicious that terrorists were training at U.S. flight schools, FBI agents in Minneapolis investigating Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker.

Like the proverbial blind men attempting to describe the elephant, we had the pieces to the puzzle, but couldn't put it together. Seems like smart analysts coordinating incoming information would have been able to make the connection. Why didn't that happen? Are our information-sharing systems that inefficient? Our bureaucracies that cumbersome? The interagency turf battles that fierce? If so, what's being done to correct the situation?

Speaking as a citizen, I want answers now. Because the next attack is in the planning stages now.

Some of the nation's leaders seem to have forgotten that, seem all too ready to pause here for a little game of politics. Granted, it's their natural inclination to point fingers of blame and try to mount one another's heads on pikes. But the countdown to the next atrocity is under way.

And right now, we just don't have the time for games.

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