Via ThinkProgress, which watches CNN so you don’t have to, Holocaust-trivializer and Expelled frontman Ben Stein and conservative radio host Larry Elder discuss 9/11:
Ben Stein’s comments around 1:20 are the least sensible from the entire clip, and that’s saying quite a bit.
Elder’s claim is that George Bush deserves credit for the fact that there were no terrorist attacks on American soil during his presidency, except for 9/11 and the anthrax attacks, which don’t count because 9/11 planning began before January 20, 2001 (when Bush took office). So Clinton was responsible, since he failed to disrupt the planning, but Bush is not responsible, despite failing to disrupt the actual execution of the plan.
This is dumb, and Elder should know better. But he’s at least wise enough not to state explicitly that Bush isn’t responsible, merely insisting that Clinton bear blame beyond what he deserves.
Ben Stein, not content with playing second fiddle in this duet of the damned, jumps in to take a solo halfway through.
Larry King, incredulously, asks Elder “George Bush had nothing to do with this?” As Elder is responding “I didn’t say he didn’t,” Stein interjects “I don’t think, I don’t think anyone blames George Bush for 9/11. I mean no one in his right mind blames George Bush for 9/11.”
According to the 9/11 Commission, a bipartisan panel whose analysis of 9/11 remains the gold standard, the Clinton administration was tracking al Qaeda operatives who went on to take part in 9/11, both domestically and abroad. The Bush CIA and FBI lost track of them, and reduced the priority of counter-terrorism. In a Jan. 3, 2000 memo, counter-terror chief Richard Clarke and his staff noted “Foreign terrorist sleeper cells are present in the US and attacks on the US are likely” (emphasis in original).
Bill Clinton told the Commission that, during a briefing between him and president-elect Bush in late 2000, he said “I think you will find that by far your biggest threat is Bin Ladin and the al Qaeda.” Bush ignored the memo, telling the 9/11 Commission that he “did not recall discussing the August 6 report with the Attorney General or whether Rice had done so.” Indeed, the Commission “found no indication of any further discussion before September 11 among the President and his top advisers of the possibility of a threat of an al Qaeda attack in the United States. … Tenet does not recall any discussions with the President of the domestic threat during this period,” despite repeated briefings on terrorism in subsequent days. On August 7, 2001, the day after that briefing, Bush was “carefree as he spoke about the books he was reading, the work he was doing on his nearby ranch, his love of hot-weather jogging, his golf game and his 55th birthday.” His mind seemed to be focused on the effect of “hit[ting] the speed limit” on his golf swing.
Other Clinton staffers emphasized the importance of targeting al Qaeda to their incoming equivalents, including Richard Clarke, still head of counterterrorism in the National Security Council. He renewed that call in a January 25, 2001 memo to the new administration, requesting an immediate review of the administration’s handling of al Qaeda. No such meeting took place until September 4, 2001. Clarke stepped out of counterterrorism in May or June, frustrated that the new administration was rehashing old decisions that had been proposed in the Clinton years, and not moving forward. He told the 9/11 Commission that he was “frustrated with his role and with an administration that he considered not ‘serious about al Qaeda.’ ”
Others were pressuring the President and others to pay closer attention. A worried CIA sent Bush a briefing with the emphatic title: “Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US.” CIA director Tenet said that “The system was blinking red,” and that, in July of 2001, things could not “get any worse.” In early July, Tenet, Clarke, and others warned the FBI, FAA, Secret Service, Coast Guard, INS, and other groups involved in counterterrorism that “al Qaeda is planning a major attack on us. … Cancel summer vacations, schedule overtime, have your terrorist reaction teams on alert to move fast. Tell me, tell each other, about anything unusual.” (Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror) But the President and his closest advisors ignored the threats, and warnings about odd flight school students were dismissed by FBI officials, while the CIA and NSA failed to warn domestic law enforcement that know al Qaeda operatives were in the US.
Could Bush have prevented 9/11? There’s no way to know. But did his lackadaisical attitude toward terrorism allow the threat to grow? Surely, and no one in his right mind should deny that George Bush shares some of that blame.