Presidency: What Did He Know and When Did He Know It?

Mr. Steinhorn, professor of communications at American University, is co-author of the book, By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and The Reality of Race (Dutton, 1999). He is a member of the board of HNN.

"What did he know, and when did he know it?"

That central question in Watergate should be reverberating throughout
America today amid the continuing revelations that President Bush and
his administration knew more about Osama bin Laden's terrorist plans
than the President ever has acknowledged.

It's taken months for this news to come out, but we now know that the
CIA warned the President specifically about the potential for an al
Qaeda hijacking. We also know about FBI memos expressing concern over
terrorist use of American flight training schools. Is there more to

This is a president who has shamelessly used September 11 to his
political advantage -- his advisor, Karl Rove, stated that Republicans
should run on September 11, and most recently the President has been
selling wealthy GOP donors photos of his conversations with the Vice
President that day. Rather than riding the popularity wave from
September 11, shouldn't the president -- who said he would do things
differently in Washington -- have leveled with the American people and
disclosed this information long ago?

We've grown accustomed to thinking of Washington scandals only in terms
of sex, cover-ups, dirty deeds and lying to the public. But let's assume
further revelations come out that the president could have done more to
prevent this tragedy. Shouldn't that rise to the level of scandal -- a
scandal of failed leadership, of incompetence, with historical
ramifications? Wouldn't the consequences of Bush's inaction dwarf
anything President Clinton did in the Oval Office?

Only 11 days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President
Roosevelt issued an executive order establishing a commission"to
ascertain and report the facts relating to the attack," and he named
Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts to head it. Soon after World War II
ended, Congress likewise created a Joint Committee on the Investigation
of the Pearl Harbor Attack. Both reports absolved the Roosevelt
administration but singled out naval commanders in Hawaii for failing to
heed a war warning from Washington, though in the congressional document
two Republican senators filed a blistering minority report criticizing
the Roosevelt administration.

President Bush has often compared September 11 with Pearl Harbor. But
for some reason he initially resisted the creation of a joint
congressional committee to look into September 11. Congress went ahead
anyway, and now the committee is poised to investigate.

As a nation our emotions remain raw, and we may not be ready for any
investigation of what the president and his advisors knew before
September 11. But as a constitutional democracy, we deserve answers.
Once again, we must ask:"What did he know and when did he know it?"

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More Comments:

Scott Spector - 5/18/2002

A tentative answer: he has never shown any ability to process information and weigh alternative response strategies. He would never be capable of either anticipating the potential threat represented by the intelligence information we now know him to have had before 9-11, or, it seems, even understanding the gravity of the situation when told the bald fact of the hijackings. Phrased as a question: Does any serious observer think that Bush is running the country?

Tristan Traviolia - 5/18/2002

The Watergate era was when the Church Committee eviscerated the CIA to prevent it from spying on Americans. Before the recently passed Patriot Act the CIA and FBI could not legally consult, and this doesn't take into account the turf wars between the two agencies. Intelligence is a dirty business. The techniques used to gather information outside the country can turn against Americans at home. The question is "who is more dangerous to us, outside threats or our own intelligence agencies?" From Watergate to 9-11 we thought it was the CIA. Now we will have to weigh the evidence again. Bush and Gore were interchangeable on this one, as they are on so many Presidential duties, but certainly not all. Don't waste time and risk the country's safety going on a Democrat vs. Republican witch hunt. This is a bipartisan problem in the United States intelligence community, and not a "party" problem for those still dissatisfied with the twenty-first centuries version of the Jackson-Adams and Hayes-Tilden.

Edward Winslow - 5/17/2002

The press reported that between his inauguration day and Sept. 11, Bush had spent about 40 percent of his time on vacation. Evidently, when the briefings about Osama bin Laden's terrorist plans to hijack airplanes in the U.S. hit this intellectually shallow president's desk, he was planning yet another vacation to the ranch. It's obvious to anybody but the most obtuse that George W. Bush is simply not up to the job of leading this nation.

Pierre S. Troublion - 5/17/2002

The bigger questions are

1) Why wasn't "What did he know...?" asked by the now-suddenly-vertebrate Democrats last October
(instead seven months later) ?

2) Why are the news media still ignoring the more fundamental questions such as:
a) Why does the U.S. have no coherent policy in the Middle East and Asia ?
b) Why are we supporting war criminals in Israel and medieval dictators in Arabia ?
c) Why did we hear nothing from Republicans but Monica and tax cuts while terrorists were taking their sweet time to slowly hatch their plots ?

Rogelio F. Arteaga - 5/17/2002

Further questions requiring answers include the following
Why -- after being informed of the hijackings before leaving his hotel -- did Bush continue to comply with a previous commitment to visit an elementary school?

Why -- after being informed of the second plane -- did he continue reading to the students for another 30 minutes?

Why --knowing full well the magnitude of the developing events, and having been briefed the month before on the possibility of hijackings taking place -- did he not immediately order protective measures, instead of visiting the school?

This apparent gross dereliction of duty cries out for a thorough investigation. And, sadly perhaps, another impeachment effort.

Rogelio F. Arteaga

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