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Devastating Washington Post analysis of Bush administration's failure to take bin Laden seriously

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UPDATE: The article is from 2002, I'd totally not realized the date. I guess this is a look back at what journalism used to be like.


1. Bush could have gone after bin Laden, but he held back.

The Bush administration now had in its hands what one participant called "the holy grail" of a three-year quest by the U.S. government – a tool that could kill bin Laden within minutes of finding him. The CIA planned and practiced the operation. But for the next three months, before the catastrophe of Sept. 11, President Bush and his advisers held back.
2. Bush was more interested in SDI than going after bin Laden.
Bush and his top aides had higher priorities – above all, ballistic missile defense.
3. Bush criticized Clinton anti-terror policies, then did the same policies:
Privately, as the strategy took form in spring and summer, the Bush team expressed disdain for the counterterrorist policies it had inherited from President Bill Clinton. Speaking of national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, a colleague said that "what she characterized as the Clinton administration approach was 'empty rhetoric that made us look feckless.'‚"

Yet a careful review of the Bush administration's early record on terrorism finds more continuity than change from the Clinton years, measured in actions taken and decisions made. Where the new team shifted direction, it did not always choose a more aggressive path...
4. Bush concluded in February 2001 that bin Laden was behind the USS Cole attack. Then Bush did absolutely nothing to respond.
At least twice, Bush conveyed the message to the Taliban that the United States would hold the regime responsible for an al Qaeda attack. But after concluding that bin Laden's group had carried out the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole – a conclusion stated without hedge in a Feb. 9 briefing for Vice President Cheney – the new administration did not choose to order armed forces into action.
5. Rumsfeld cut extra money for counterterrorism.
In his first budget, Bush spent $13.6 billion on counterterrorist programs across 40 departments and agencies. That compares with $12 billion in the previous fiscal year, according to the Office of Management and Budget. There were also somewhat higher gaps this year, however, between what military commanders said they needed to combat terrorists and what they got. When the Senate Armed Services Committee tried to fill those gaps with $600 million diverted from ballistic missile defense, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said he would recommend a veto. That threat came Sept. 9.
6. Clinton National Security Adviser Sandy Berger warned Condi Rice about Al Qaeda
"I said to Condi, 'You're going to spend more time during your four years on terrorism generally and al Qaeda specifically than any other issue,' " he said. Bush administration officials gave a similar account.
7. Bush's team said Clinton was in fact TOO focused on getting bin Laden.
Bush's team had different reasons. They had already begun discussions, one adviser said, of whether bin Laden's death would be enough. And they were convinced that "this wasn't about [bin Laden], this was about al Qaeda, and that's why we had to go after the network as a whole."

Personalizing the struggle to one man, he said, was "one of the fallacies" of the Clinton team's approach.
8. Bush White House simply didn't make terrorism a priority.
"The U.S. government can only manage at the highest level a certain number of issues at one time – two or three," said Michael Sheehan, the State Department's former coordinator for counterterrorism. "You can't get to the principals on any other issue. That's in any administration."

Before Sept. 11, terrorism did not make that cut.
9. Clinton staff met weekly to coordinate anti-terror battle, Bush's advisers didn't have nearly the same zeal for the issue.
He noticed a difference on terrorism. Clinton's Cabinet advisers, burning with the urgency of their losses to bin Laden in the African embassy bombings in 1998 and the Cole attack in 2000, had met "nearly weekly" to direct the fight, Kerrick said. Among Bush's first-line advisers, "candidly speaking, I didn't detect" that kind of focus, he said. "That's not being derogatory. It's just a fact. I didn't detect any activity but what Dick Clarke and the CSG were doing."

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