Monday 13 October 2003
I am beginning to despise reading. I have lost count of the number of times I have read some passage in a politically-oriented book, and then been uncontrollably motivated to hurl said book against a wall or across the room in fury. My library looks like someone took a weed-whacker to it; all the dust-jackets have taken a fearsome beating.
The book currently on my desk has begun to retain a damaged appearance. Sidney Blumenthal's "The Clinton Wars" is a meticulously researched and foot-noted tour de force through the last ten years of the brainless savagery of American politics. The retelling of the contrived scandals clarioned by a media establishment which abandoned any pretense of journalistic integrity, pushed by a cabal of House members and right-wing activists whose worshipped altar was the desire for raw power, and the sad and sorry tale of the impeachment itself, is a difficult but necessary review of a truly pathetic time in our history. Blumenthal manages to bring his readers back to that tar pit, and keep them enthralled, with an excellent and deft literary touch.
Since I have read most of the other books on the scandal-gasm and impeachment, there was not much through the middle of this book that brought me up short, though Blumenthal does present interviews and perspectives of players on both sides of that aisle which are not present in the other histories (It was amusing to read Congressional impeachment warrior James Rogan speak of being "On the wrong side of history" regarding the trial in the Senate). No, the book began to take its obligatory pounding when I reached page 656, and the second part of the chapter entitled "The Twenty-First Century."
The astounding level of blunt ignorance within the American populace about the events surrounding the attacks of September 11 cannot be easily quantified. In a nation with thousands of newspapers, thousands of radio stations, and a ceaseless data stream from CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, Fox, NBC, ABC, CBS and PBS, some 70% of the population believed as late as a month ago that Saddam Hussein was centrally involved in and personally responsible for the attacks which destroyed the Towers and struck the Pentagon. Beyond that, what most people know about the single most important event in American history does not go much beyond "evildoers" who "hate our freedom."
That is, simply, incredible. It is also not an accident. This ignorance has a great deal to do with the stunning mediocrity of the television news media, that empty well where most Americans go to become informed. This ignorance also, and far more importantly, has a great deal to do with the Clinton-era actions of a large number of conservatives, many of whom are in positions of power today, many of whom are now making careers out of September 11.
The two great myths that have settled across the nation, beyond the Hussein-9/11 connection, are that Clinton did not do enough during his tenure to stop the spread of radical terrorist organizations like al Qaeda, and that the attacks themselves could not have been anticipated or stopped. Blumenthal's insider perspective on these matters bursts the myths entirely, and reveals a level of complicity regarding the attacks within the journalistic realm and the conservative political ranks that is infuriating and disturbing.
Starting in 1995, Clinton took actions against terrorism that were unprecedented in American history. He poured billions and billions of dollars into counterterrorism activities across the entire spectrum of the intelligence community. He poured billions more into the protection of critical infrastructure. He ordered massive federal stockpiling of antidotes and vaccines to prepare for a possible bioterror attack. He order a reorganization of the intelligence community itself, ramming through reforms and new procedures to address the demonstrable threat. Within the National Security Council, "threat meetings" were held three times a week to assess looming conspiracies. His National Security Advisor, Sandy Berger, prepared a voluminous dossier on al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, actively tracking them across the planet. Clinton raised the issue of terrorism in virtually every important speech he gave in the last three years of his tenure. In 1996, Clinton delivered a major address to the United Nations on the matter of international terrorism, calling it "The enemy of our generation."
Behind the scenes, he leaned vigorously on the leaders of nations within the terrorist sphere. In particular, he pushed Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to assist him in dealing with the threat from neighboring Afghanistan and its favorite guest, Osama bin Laden. Before Sharif could be compelled to act, he was thrown out of office by his own army. His replacement, Pervez Musharraf, pointedly refused to do anything to assist Clinton in dealing with these threats. Despite these and other diplomatic setbacks, terrorist cell after terrorist cell were destroyed across the world, and bomb plots against American embassies were thwarted. Because of security concerns, these victories were never revealed to the American people until very recently.
In America, few people heard anything about this. Clinton's dire public warnings about the threat posed by terrorism, and the massive non-secret actions taken to thwart it, went completely unreported by the media, which was far more concerned with stained dresses and baseless Drudge Report rumors. When the administration did act militarily against bin Laden and his terrorist network, the actions were dismissed by partisans within the media and Congress as scandalous "wag the dog" tactics. The TV networks actually broadcast clips of the movie "Wag The Dog" to accentuate the idea that everything the administration was doing was contrived fakery.
The bombing of the Sundanese factory at al-Shifa, in particular, drew wide condemnation from these quarters, despite the fact that the CIA found and certified VX nerve agent precursor in the ground outside the factory, despite the fact that the factory was owned by Osama bin Laden's Military Industrial Corporation, and despite the fact that the manager of the factory lived in bin Laden's villa in Khartoum. The book "Age of Sacred Terror" quantifies the al-Shifa issue thusly: "The dismissal of the al-Shifa attack as a scandalous blunder had serious consequences, including the failure of the public to comprehend the nature of the al Qaeda threat."
In Congress, Clinton was thwarted by the reactionary conservative majority in virtually every attempt he made to pass legislation that would attack al Qaeda and terrorism. His 1996 omnibus terror bill, which included many of the anti-terror measures we now take for granted after September 11, was withered almost to the point of uselessness by attacks from the right; Jesse Helms and Trent Lott were openly dismissive of the threats Clinton spoke of.
Clinton wanted to attack the financial underpinnings of the al-Qaeda network by banning American companies and individuals from dealing with foreign banks and financial institutions that al Qaeda was using for its money-laundering operations. Texas Senator Phil Gramm, chairman of the Banking Committee, killed Clinton's bill on this matter and called it "totalitarian." In fact, he was compelled to kill the bill because his most devoted patrons, the Enron Corporation and its criminal executives in Houston, were using those same terrorist financial networks to launder their own dirty money and rip off the Enron stockholders.
Just before departing office, Clinton managed to make a deal with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to have some twenty nations close tax havens used by al Qaeda. His term ended before the deal was sealed, and the incoming Bush administration acted immediately to destroy the agreement. According to Time magazine, in an article entitled "Banking on Secrecy" published in October of 2001, Bush economic advisors Larry Lindsey and R. Glenn Hubbard were urged by think tanks like the Center for Freedom and Prosperity to opt out of the coalition Clinton had formed. The conservative Heritage Foundation lobbied Bush's Treasury Secretary, Paul O'Neill, to do the same. In the end, the lobbyists got what they wanted, and the Bush administration pulled America out of the plan. The Time article stated, "Without the world's financial superpower, the biggest effort in years to rid the world's financial system of dirty money was short-circuited."
This laundry list of partisan catastrophes goes on and on. Far from being inept on the matter of terrorism, Clinton was profoundly activist in his attempts to address terrorism. Much of his work was foiled by right-wing Congressional conservatives who, simply, refused to accept the fact that he was President. These men, paid to work for the public trust, spent eight years working diligently to paralyze any and all Clinton policies, including anti-terror initiatives that, if enacted, would have gone a long way towards thwarting the September 11 attacks. Beyond them lay the worthless television media, which ignored and spun the terrorist issue as it pursued salacious leaks from Ken Starr's office, leaving the American people drowning in a swamp of ignorance on a matter of deadly global importance.
Over and above the theoretical questions regarding whether or not Clinton's anti-terror policies, if passed, would have stopped September 11 lies the very real fact that attacks very much like 9/11 were, in fact, stopped dead by the Clinton administration. The most glaring example of this came on December 31, 1999, when the world gathered to celebrate the passing of the millennium. On that night, al Qaeda was gathering as well.
The terrorist network planned to simultaneously attack the national airports in Washington DC and Los Angeles, the Amman Raddison Hotel in Jordan, a constellation of holy sites in Israel, and the USS The Sullivans at dock in Yemen. Each and every single one of these plots, which ranged from one side of the planet to the other, was foiled by the efforts of the Clinton administration. Speaking for the first time about these millennium plots, in a speech delivered to the Coast Guard Academy on May 17, 2000, Clinton said, "I want to tell you a story that, unfortunately, will not be the last example you will have to face."
Clinton proved that Osama bin Laden and his terror network can be foiled, can be thwarted, can be stopped. The multifaceted and complex nature of the international millennium plots rivals the plans laid before September 11, and involved counter-terrorism actions within several countries and across the entire American intelligence and military community. All resources were brought to bear, and the terrorists went down to defeat. The proof is in the pudding here. September 11, like the millennium plots, could have been avoided.
Couple this with other facts about the Bush administration we now have in hand. The administration was warned about a massive terror plot in the months before September by the security services of several countries, including Israel, Egypt, Germany and Russia. CIA Director George Tenet delivered a specific briefing on the matter to the administration on August 8, 2001. The massive compendium of data on Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda compiled by Sandy Berger, and delivered to Condoleezza Rice upon his departure, went completely and admittedly unread until the attacks took place. The attacks themselves managed, for over an hour, to pierce the most formidable air defense system in the history of the Earth without a single fighter aircraft taking wing until the catastrophe was concluded.
It is not fashionable these days to pine for the return of William Jefferson Clinton. Given the facts above, and the realities we face about the administration of George W. Bush, and the realities we endure regarding the aftermath of September 11, the United States of America would be, and was, well served by its previous leader. That we do not know this, that September 11 happened at all, that it was such a wretched shock to the American people, that we were so woefully unprepared, can be laid at the feet of a failed news media establishment, and at the feet of a pack of power-mad conservative extremists who now have a great deal to atone for.
Had Clinton been heeded, the measures he espoused would have been put in place, and a number of powerful bulwarks would have been thrown into the paths of those commercial airplanes. Had the news media been something other than a purveyor of masturbation fantasies from the far-right, the American people would have know the threats we faced, and would have compelled their Congressmen to act. Had Congress itself been something other than an institution ruled by narrow men whose only desire was to break a sitting President by any means necessary, we would very probably still have a New York skyline dominated by two soaring towers.
Had the Bush administration not continued this pattern of gross partisan ineptitude and heeded the blitz of domestic and international warnings, instead of trooping off to Texas for a month-long vacation, had Bush's National Security Advisor done one hour's worth of her homework, we probably would not be in the grotesque global mess that currently envelops us. Never forget that many of the activists who pushed throughout the 1990s for the annihilation of all things Clinton are now foursquare in charge of the country today.
These are the sins of September 11. Thank you, Sidney. I'm sorry I broke your book.
William Rivers Pitt is the Managing Editor of truthout.org. He is a New York Times and international best-selling author of three books - "War On Iraq," available from Context Books, "The Greatest Sedition is Silence," available from Pluto Press, and "Our Flag, Too: The Paradox of Patriotism," available in August from Context Books.