By Terence Kivlin
The Staten Island Advance
Sunday, Dec 21, 2003
Former Vermont Gov. and current presidential candidate Howard Dean is just the latest Democratic critic of President Bush to suggest that he had foreknowledge of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Off and on for over the last two years, Democrats have flirting with the allegation ever since then Rep. Cynthia McKinney of North Carolina blurted it out during an April 2002 interview on a Berkely, Calif., radio station.
"We know there were numerous warnings of the events to come on Sept. 11," declared the fiery Ms. McKinney, who was subsequently defeated for re-election by a Democratic primary opponent. "What did this administration know and and when did they know it?...Who else knew and why did they not warn the innocent people of New York who were needlessly murdered?"
Although she quickly backed down in the face of widespread condemnation, the accusation seemed to acquire legitimacy in Democratic circles here barely a month later when it was reported that Bush was was told at an Aug. 6, 2001 top-secret intelligence briefing at the White House that Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida followers were planning airliner hijackings in the U.S.
The revelation, which was apparently leaked by staffers for the congressional intelligence committees involved in their Sept. 11 probe, triggered a chorus of Democratic demands for a investigation of Bush.
"What did the president know and when did he know it?" demanded House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri, repeating Ms. McKinney's reprise of the famous impeachment slogan used against President Richard Nixon during the Watergate-scandal era.
The biggest finger-pointer was Sen. Hillary Clinton. Brandishing a newspaper with the front-page headline, "Bush Knew!" she appeared on the Senate floor to declare, "The president knew what? My constituents would like to know the answer."
The suspicion that Bush was tipped off about 2001 terrorist onslaught has also long been percolating among the activist relatives of Sept. 11 victims. It is perhaps the main reason why they were disgusted with recent decision by the special commission investigating the attacks not to subpoena the transcripts of all the classified intelligence briefings given to Bush in the weeks prior to Sept. 11.
One Sept. 11 widow, Ellen Mariani of New Hampshire, has even filed a federal lawsuit in Philadelphia accusing the president of letting the attacks happen to justify the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"As an American who lost a loved one in the 'war on terror,' I do pray [for] and support the troops who were sent to Afghanistan and Iraq by you," she said in a recent "open letter" to Bush. "These troops have died and will continue to die for your lies."
As evidence that Bush had something to hide, Mrs. Mariani, whose husband was on one of the planes flown into World Trade Center, pointed to the White House's suppression of the 28-page portion of the intelligence committees' Sept. 11 report dealing with question of whether the Saudis provided al-Qaida with financing.
The redacted pages also figured in Dean's recent speculation on Bush's possible culpability. While fielding questions on a radio call-in show here in Washingon, D.C., he hypothesized that material contained proof that president knew what was coming.
"The most interesting theory I've heard so far...is that he was warned ahead of time by the Saudis," Dean said, adding, "Now, who knows what the real situation is?"
Another Democratic presidential contender, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, has taken the direct approach to blaming Bush for Sept. 11. As president, Bush has to assume responsibility for the terrorist onslaught because it happened on his watch, Clark argued in an October speech.
"This is not something that can be blamed on lower-level intelligence officers," Clark said. "Our great Democratic president Harry Truman said, 'The buck stops here.' And when it comes to our nation's foreign policy, the buck sits squarely on George W. Bush's desk."
Clark urged fellow Democrats not to shrink from this line of attack.
"We must say it again and again, until the American people understand it," he said.
Postscript: In their July 2003 final report, the congressional intelligence committees concluded that although Bush and the intelligence agencies received warnings of impending al-Qaida attacks, the information was not specific enough to have been used to prevent Sept. 11. The panels reported that, according to intelligence officials, the August 2001 White House briefing merely alluded to "uncorroborated information obtained...in 1998 that bin Laden wanted to hijack U.S. planes to gain the release U.S.-held extremists."
But the committees never saw the transcript of the briefing. The White House refused to turn it over.
Terence Kivlan is the Advance's Washingon correspondent. His column appears each week in the Sunday Advance Perspective section. He can be reached at email@example.com.