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Tuesday, March 23, 2004

# Posted 11:11 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

HEARINGS AND LISTENINGS: In the course of my dissertation research, I've learned how important it is to read the transcripts of congressional hearings rather than relying on newspaper summaries. If I were in the habit of taking my own advice, I would then read the transcript of today's hearing before the 9/11 commission rather than letting the NYT and WaPo do my intellectual work for me. However, after spending three and a half hours today looking at microform transcripts of Reagan-era hearings on human rights in El Salvador, I no longer have the will to read any further.

So here are my impressions of the summaries: Not much happened because both the Clinton and Bush administration officials called to testify refused to either admit their own failures or accuse others of taking their eye off the ball. Depending on one's perspective, the preliminary findings released by the 9/11 commission were either restrained in their criticism or forceful in their accusation of incompetence.

Surprisingly, it's the WaPo which presents the report as more damaging than the NYT. But regardless of one's take on the issue, nothing all that damaging came out. Personally, I thought that revelations in early 2002 about the failure of the FBI to follow up evidence of Al Qaeda activity in the United States said a lot more about the administration's nonchalance.

Anyhow, things may get more interesting on Wednesday when Richard Clarke testifies. What I'd really like to see are copies of the memos he sent to his superiors warning about the threat from Al Qaeda. Without a close look at the language he used -- and the response that it generated -- it will be hard to know whether his warnings were stunningly prophetic or just business as usual. Surprisingly, even the NYT's editors write that
Mr. Clarke's central complaint -- that the president failed to respond to his urgent request for a cabinet-level meeting on terrorism until days before 9/11 -- is far from conclusive evidence that the administration failed to take the threat seriously until disaster struck.
On a harsher note, the NYT adds that
The most persuasive part of the critique by the former anti-terrorism czar concerns the administration's obsession with Iraq. Mr. Clarke says he and intelligence experts repeatedly assured top officials -- and Mr. Bush himself -- that Iraq was not involved in 9/11 or in supporting Al Qaeda. This fall, when the public has to judge Mr. Bush's decision to invade, voters will know that the president's own counterterrorism adviser had warned him that he was on the wrong track.
That last sentence is a remarkable non-sequitur. In spite of speculation that Saddam might provide chemical or biological weapons to anti-American terrorists, the bread and butter of the Administration's case against Iraq was always that it had failed to disarm. What does that have to do with Clarke's comments about 9/11?

For a more persuasive indictment of the Bush administraiton, take a look at Matt Yglesias' new column in TAP. Matt makes a solid case that terrorism was far from being a Bush administration priority before 9/11. On the other hand, he goes overboard by insisting that the administration tried "to deny that terrorism is a serious threat" and that it favored "abandoning [Clinton's anti-terror strategy] in favor of doing, well, nothing." (Emphasis in original).

So where does this all leave us? Pretty much where we started. There isn't much to praise about Bush's handling of the anti-terror issue before 9/11, but there is still nothing out there solid enough to inflict serious damage on the President's re-election campaign.
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