Column: Should Bush Take the Blame for the FBI's Failures?

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Mr. Carpenter is a writer and doctoral candidate in American history at the University of Illinois.

After the disastrous 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion--a disaster which President Kennedy had guaranteed by foolishly giving the go-ahead based on boneheaded advice from the CIA and Joint Chiefs of Staff--our commander in chief took the blame. He told reporters"the quite obvious," as he put it:"I am the responsible officer of the government," and as such only he was accountable for the blunder. Privately, Kennedy asked presidential aide Theodore Sorensen rhetorically,"How could I have been so stupid?" Note the"I." Not how the CIA or Joint Chiefs could have been so stupid, but the ultimate first citizen.

How quaint, and such a distant memory. Beginning notably with Kennedy's immediate successor, presidential accountability has since hit the skids. From Vietnam to Watergate, from Iran-Contra to campaign finance shenanigans, the nation's chief executives have run from personal accountability like their podiums were on fire.

By now, presidential accountability is something only a few journalists and political protagonists even bother to mention. The White House views the matter as one that applies only to political enemies and foreign allies. Like the Pope, its chief occupant is infallible. Should something go wrong--like failing to recognize the kinship of intelligence clues, which understood in their aggregate may have spared thousands of American lives--the executive digit starts pointing everywhere but inward. If 43 were captain of a U.S. Navy vessel his officers could forget promotion, because top-dog memos to COMPAC or some such Pentagon acronym would contain blistering top-down blame for any SNAFUs. If abandoning ship, Captain George would be the first one off. After all, he's entitled.

In accepting responsibility for the whacky invasion debacle, Kennedy, being a naturally intuitive creature of domestic Realpolitik, had keen political motives as well. He could eliminate the likelihood of accusatory congressional investigations before they started, and prevent piecemeal leaks to the press by others in the know--the drippy plumbing that inevitably comes with cover-ups or accountability-shifting. There was more than simple honesty and official decency involved in John Kennedy's decision to out himself, though those, indisputably, were factors. It was smart politics.

But out of a reflexive sense of royal infallibility, Bush II and his carnivorous band can't even get the politics right, let alone the honesty or decency. For months they said nothing about the preexistence of scattered clues pertaining to 9/11, guaranteeing a torturous drip, drip, drip of delinquent information on their heads and ours. Then, when the story broke, the White House compounded its sin by treating the expose with offensive casualness. In effect,"Oh yeah, clues were strewn about like bones in an elephant graveyard. But, pray tell, how could we, merely as the advertised sharpest foreign policy experts in the cosmos, possibly know that one was related to another?" If, as ship's captain, Bush had accepted personal responsibility from the beginning, his political headache would never have cranked up to a crisis-migraine.

But he didn't, and hasn't, accepted responsibility. Rather, he's engaged in what he himself painted as the tawdry Washington game of partisan sniping, hypocritically moaning that he"smells politics in the air." If Bush is catching a waft of something malodorous, he might want to check his own underwear--as well as that of Team Bush's.

In an unsolicited response to Hillary Clinton's quite understandable Senate-floor pronouncement that"My constituents"--as the primary targets of 9/11--"would like to know the answers to" what the president knew," Team-member Ari Fleischer declared her a"divider." He prefaced that gratuitous remark with"I'm sorry to say." I guess crocodiles have to compete for tears these days.

He also broadsided what has been, to date, the incredibly loyal opposition. With that supreme snideness we have all come to expect, Fleischer asked,"What did the Democrats know and why weren't they talking to each other?" This, from an administration that one former Republican official has labeled"more imperial" than any since FDR's"during his conduct of World War II."

And, of course, we always have Royalist Regent Dick Cheney, who's never happened upon an executive document or decision worthy of congressional scrutiny. Democrats, he implied a few days back, are only aiding and abetting the al Qaeda enemy and should"be very cautious not to seek political advantage by making incendiary suggestions." At least eminently fair #2 knows how to avoid making incendiary suggestions.

Finally, the Washington Post reported May 18 that"Bush strategists Karl Rove and Mary Matalin and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld called conservative radio hosts to rally the faithful." Assuming they could find one, why did the inspired trio not call a liberal radio host? Could it have been--egads--for partisan reasons? The administration's and its defenders' hypocrisy on partisanship has been, if I may wax poetic, positively splendiferous.

Especially when under the sway of presidential admonitions on the subject, we tend to forget that two-way partisanship is a good thing in a healthy democracy. The White House, on the other hand, seems to believe partisanship is OK, as long as it's the one behind the partisan wheel on a one-way street. The pity is, this time around--and with respect to such a tragic occurrence--it was avoidable, had only the nation's first citizen accepted the responsibility that was officially his. Some grasp this. Others can't, or what's more indictable, won't.

© Copyright 2002 P. M. Carpenter

Fifth Columnist is published weekly by History News Network and

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Clayton E. Cramer - 6/4/2002

But probably not on a web site that generally carries serious history columns. It isn't that Mr. Carpenter is attacking the first president I have ever voted for; it is that so much of it is such blatantly partisan attack.

It is very clear that the government screwed up on this. As the evidence comes out, it seems that there is plenty of blame to go around. The CIA's secretiveness kept useful intelligence away from the FBI. The FBI's bureaucracy wasn't interested in some serious concerns coming in from the field, some of which, if acted on, could probably have stopped at least one or two of the hijackings. The laws passed in the early 1990s because of the FBI's COINTELPRO abuses were too strict. FBI agents were not allowed to gather intelligence by surfing the Web, reading newspapers, or attending public meetings in mosques. The August, 2001 intelligence briefing to the president was vague about the nature of the attack, and perhaps, because it wasn't terribly new or specific, wasn't taken seriously enough.

Mr. Carpenter's attacks on Bush, however, are a mass of innuendo. Many of the same criticisms could be made of the Clinton Administration and how it responded to much of the same intelligence. (Mr. Carpenter, for some reason, doesn't have a bad word to say about how the Clinton Administration dealt with bin Laden.) A free society has an intrinsic weakness to terrorists. Get over it--and stop using it for partisan advantage.

Jacob Goldfinger - 5/31/2002

Otherwise, you might not write something as false and inflammatory as your claim that those who question the administration's knowledge of terrorist activities before Sept. 11 "imply treasonous foreknowledge of the mass murder of US citizens."

As you know, not a single senator has suggested any such thing, nor has anyone else from the congressional leadership - from BOTH parties, it should be noted.

The only partisan slander here is your own. And yes, it is quite disgusting.

David Fitzpatrick - 5/30/2002

In my experience, a president's acceptance of "responsibility" (whatever that means) has served only to shortcut much-needed investigations, both of conduct of policy and of its formulation. The Bay of Pigs is a wonderful example of this, as is Reagan's acceptance of "responsibility" for the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. Once someone accepts "responsibility" the need for a thorough investigation is obviated, and business goes on as it had before.

William Heuisler - 5/28/2002

Mr. Carpenter would enjoy himself quite a bit less if he knew how unenlightened and dogmatic his writings come across to his more sophisticated readers. He gleefully brackets hatred of W with apocryphal history and delights in benightnedness like a child eating mud. First he slobbers JFK with convenient fiction: Mr. Carpenter, most observers now agree the Playa Giron invasion could have succeeded had not the President withdrawn the promised air cover of the Seventh Fleet (hull down under the Northeast horizon) and allowed all sixteen air strikes on Castro's Southern Air fields. As it was, the Brigade held out for three days without any support and only surrendered after a Cuban armored column finally arrived down a long, exposed road. Had JFK told the truth of his Bay of Pigs treachery, his star-crossed presidency would have been even more tragic. Speaking of treachery, when Senators ask "what the President knew" prior to 9/11, they imply treasonous foreknowledge of the mass murder of US citizens. Treason and murder? W must be worse than Stalin or Hitler...or Benedict Arnold. But the so-called August briefing is now recognized as warmed-over intelligence from at least two prior years - and as having been shared with the Senate Intelligence Committee and available to the Senate Leader. This "careless" partisan slander is as digusting as those who repeat it and makes me long for the Code Duello. Wouldn't it be refreshing if Mr. Carpenter included the murderously duplicitous Robert Macnamara and LBJ in his mud-fest? But that would be fair and scholarly, and not as much fun. Bill Heuisler Tucson, AZ