9/11 and Ideology

The presidential candidates are taking down ads and keeping a pretty low profile today, the eleventh anniversary of the attacks on New York and Washington. In some ways that’s a shame. With new information slowly seeping out about how and why this tragedy occurred, it would be interesting to hear how the candidates would address emerging threats to national security that no one much is talking about.

Today’s New York Times features an op-ed by Kurt Eichenwald that directly addresses the indifference of the Bush White House to the al-Qaeda threat–and more importantly, the ideological reasons for it:

The direct warnings to Mr. Bush about the possibility of a Qaeda attack began in the spring of 2001. By May 1, the Central Intelligence Agency told the White House of a report that “a group presently in the United States” was planning a terrorist operation. Weeks later, on June 22, the daily brief reported that Qaeda strikes could be “imminent,” although intelligence suggested the time frame was flexible.

But some in the administration considered the warning to be just bluster. An intelligence official and a member of the Bush administration both told me in interviews that the neoconservative leaders who had recently assumed power at the Pentagon were warning the White House that the C.I.A. had been fooled; according to this theory, Bin Laden was merely pretending to be planning an attack to distract the administration from Saddam Hussein, whom the neoconservatives saw as a greater threat. Intelligence officials, these sources said, protested that the idea of Bin Laden, an Islamic fundamentalist, conspiring with Mr. Hussein, an Iraqi secularist, was ridiculous, but the neoconservatives’ suspicions were nevertheless carrying the day.

This was also the conclusion reached back in 2004 by Peter Bergen in a review of two books on 9/11 and the days before and after it.

The fact that the Bush team was strangely somnambulant about the al Qaeda threat is puzzling. It is not as if they were uninterested in national security, were ill-informed or inexperienced, or did not care about the safety of their countrymen; quite the contrary. Nor did they lack enough information to act; indeed, the Bush team likes to highlight the fact that the president was being constantly briefed about al Qaeda as evidence that he was engaged on the issue. Bush administration officials deny that they failed to take the threat urgently enough, but there is no debating the record that in their public utterances and private meetings, the al Qaeda threat barely registered. The real question then, is why, in the face of all this information about the threat, did the most experienced national security team in memory downgrade the problem?

The short answer is: They were in denial. Bush administration officials entered office believing that the great threats facing the country were a remilitarized China and a few, festering rogue states, especially Iraq–states that might try to challenge American hegemony with long-range missiles or, secondarily, by supporting terrorists. Al Qaeda not only didn’t fit into this worldview, it also posed a direct challenge to it. If a network of stateless terrorists using truck bombs and other low-tech weapons represented the top threat to America’s physical security, it would have been hard to argue that our chief security strategy should be to thwart states by building a missile defense–a goal to which Republican hawks had been committed for nearly two decades.

In other words, bin Laden and al Qaeda were politically and ideologically inconvenient and impossible to square with the Bush worldview–a textbook case of cognitive dissonance.

Makes sense when you look at the personalities involved. Ideology filters how political people view every issue and every bit of information they receive. When you look at the neocon types surrounding Mitt Romney and his national security advisory team, you have to wonder what threats they’d perceive as important–and what threats they might well ignore.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.