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Column: Did President Bush Pass Up an Attempt to Get Bin Laden Before 9-11?

How would Americans have reacted if they had discovered that six months before the outbreak of World War II that Roosevelt's administration was seeking an oil deal with Japan? Or Italy? Or Germany? And what would they think if Roosevelt was threatening war if the deal wasn't consummated?

Americans in the twentieth century have become accustomed to discovering years after the fact that their government was negotiating with or propping up repressive regimes. Many Americans believe that"blowback" is an unavoidable consequence of foreign policy these days. However, what would Americans think about a president that merely a few months before a war on terrorism was negotiating oil deals with the very regime he would later characterize as"evil" because they were harboring terrorists? What if they discovered that Bush's administration for months had been impeding governmental efforts to apprehend one of the leading terrorists whom the administration would later say they wanted"dead or alive?" Wouldn't many Americans express outrage? And justifiably so?

According to several credible reports in the European press (but entirely ignored by America's corporate, flag-waving mainstream media), George W. Bush's administration may have been doing these things. According to these reports, George W. Bush's administration (before his wartime transformation to one of the most popular presidents in American history) was negotiating a deal with the Taliban regime for an oil pipeline in Afghanistan and was even going so far as to threaten the Taliban with war. The administration, it appears, wanted to wrest control over oil in the region from the Russians and believed this pipeline was the key to doing so.

These explosive charges are contained in a book entitled Bin Laden: The Forbidden Truth written by Jean-Charles Brisard and Guillaume Dasquie, former French intelligence analysts. The fact that these charges purportedly come straight from the mouth of the FBI's former Deputy Director John O'Neill (who was killed on his first day at work as chief of security at the World Trade Center on September 11th) makes them even more interesting and worthy of checking out.

According to the book, O'Neill resigned in protest over the Bush's administration attempt to obstruct efforts by both the FBI and CIA to apprehend terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden. According to the book's authors, the Bush Administration began impeding attempts to apprehend Bin Laden as early as February of 2001. They did this to appease the Taliban during negotiations for the pipeline.

Brisard said in a recent interview that"at one moment during the negotiations, the U.S. representatives told the Taliban, 'either you accept our offer of a carpet of gold, or we bury you under a carpet of bombs.'" These negotiations apparently broke down in August of 2001. Less than a month later, the terrorist attack transformed the Bush administration's policy. According to Brisard, just like that the Taliban were suddenly transformed from potential business partners for U.S. corporations into"evil-doers" hiding in caves.

If all of this is true, Mr. Bush's request on January 29th to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle that Senate investigators limit their investigation into the causes of the September 11th terrorist attacks would take on a much more ominous tone. Perhaps the Bush administration does have something quite serious to hide. Bush defends his request to Daschle by claiming that these hearings would endanger intelligence gathering and imperil national security which, as all historians of American politics know, is one of the first things a president says when he has something serious to hide

Wouldn't these revelations, if true, make the influence-peddling Enron scandal pale in comparison? Wouldn't they make Iran-Contra or even Watergate seem sort of trifling? In fact, it would certainly make tawdry stuff like the Lewinsky scandal into a very minor scandal (which is what historians are likely to say about that scandal ultimately anyway). Wouldn't it mean that Bush's administration was partially responsible for September 11th?

If these stories are true, this is the sort of situation that very well could - and dare I say even SHOULD - be investigated by a special prosecutor. This is a situation in which an administration may have compromised the security of ordinary Americans both at home and abroad in order to further its own oily ends. These aren't questions about the president's private behavior or his personal investments. These are legitimate questions about foreign policy and an administration making potentially disastrous foreign policy mistakes. Mistakes that may have cost thousands of Americans their lives.

Why are we hearing nothing about this in our corporate media? Why indeed? It's a complicated situation that is not titillating or tawdry like Condit's or Clinton's pecadilloes but is potentially much more serious! Why has the American media virtually ignored this story? It may not be true (and I'm not presuming that it is) but doesn't it at least need to be checked out? Similar wild-sounding stories have been checked out by our media before. Some of them check out, some don't.

As a historian, I really don't want the American people to find out about this when an enterprising young historian discovers it fifty years from now when the last of the foreign policy papers of George W. Bush are pried from the cold dead hands of the Presidential Library's Chief Archivist. We deserve to know whether this story is true now, not decades from now. If the Bush administration has its way, it may well be fifty years before we learn the truth of the Iran-Contra scandals as well. In fact, there already appears to be much more to these stories than the majority of the"Clinton Scandals" we were treated to by the supposedly liberal media for most of Clinton's time in office. Therefore, it seems that these claims should at least be investigated, whether by the press or a special prosecutor. Is there any doubt Ken Starr would've cheerfully taken over this investigation if the shoe were on the other foot?

If all of this is true, have the negotiations started again with the new Afghan government now that the pesky Taliban is out of the way? Will the new government of Afghanistan announce in the coming weeks plans for a new pipeline? One can only wonder. The press certainly isn't going to enlighten us it appears. They're too busy making a star out of spooky Donald Rumsfeld and telling us how we've"won" the war on terrorism.

The fact that our corporate media doesn't even appear to be looking into these stories is, at the very least, highly irresponsible. And that may end up being the biggest scandal of all.

Editor's Note The New York Times published a story about the French book on November 12, 2001. The article, by Ethan Bronner, began:"A former F.B.I. antiterror official who was killed at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 complained bitterly last summer that the United States was unwilling to confront Saudi Arabia over Osama bin Laden and that oil ruled American foreign policy, according to a new book published in France." The title of the piece:"Oil Diplomacy Muddled U.S. Pursuit of bin Laden, New Book Contends." A search of the paper's website indicates no other articles about the book have been published.