Damned if You Do . . .

Watching several of the Sunday morning talk shows, I’ve noticed two themes:

  • The Bush Administration didn’t do enough with sketchy pieces of intelligence that al Qaeda was going to do something, somewhere, at some time and is therefore responsible for not preventing the 9/11 attacks.
  • The Bush Administration relied too heavily on now-discredited intelligence that Saddam Hussein was ramping up WMD production and used it to launch a war before we were attacked.

From this, I draw two lessons:

  • The opposition party is going to beat you over the head no matter what. (This would be true if the Democrats were in control of the White House, too.)
  • If one is going to make errors based on incomplete intelligence–which is to say, intelligence–too bold is better than not bold enough.
FILED UNDER: Terrorism, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. keith taylor says:

    “The opposition party is going to beat you over the head no matter what”

    Amen to that.

  2. Rodney Dill says:

    If you give them a hammer they are going to hit you with it. (which is not really the case at this point)

    If you give them a comfy chair, then they will use that against you. “No No not the comfy chair.”

    What’s funny is how they try to coach the comfy chair into a hammer.

  3. dondo says:

    I think your top points aren’t correct:

    • The Bush Administration didn’t do ANYTHING AT ALL given information warning that Al-Qa’ida terrorists were on US soil and preparing “for hijackings or other types of attacks, including [conducting] recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.” [Recall that terrorism wasn’t even on the list of Rumsfield’s top priorities.]
    • The Bush Administration was so focused on State sponsored terrorism that they refused to accept dissenting opinions, such that they went to war based on intelligence so weak that virtually no other country was willing to join them.

    From this I need to draw only one lesson:

    • The Bush administration cannot claim that they did a good job about dealing with terrorism. They did an abysmal job.

    I agree, the conversation about “could have prevented 9/11” is pure partison conjecture and not very interesting or useful. But if you reject “terrorism” as a success for the administration, what do you have left?

    It is absolutely true that sometimes a leader has to trust his own instincts and ignore the opinion polls, and for this I give Bush credit. However, it is equally true that the leader has to be accountable for his decisions. Bush was spectacularly wrong on every particular, starting from the justification for war, continuing through the expected reaction from the Iraqis, and including his current response the the escalating insurrection (increased force only breeds more resistence). We are paying a heavy cost for his decision, and will for many, many years. He screwed up, he screwed up big, and he deserves to pay the cost.

    It is unfortunate that our two party system precludes a viable way to present an untainted conservative candidate for this election. Partisan bias aside, there is simply no reason to support the current president.

  4. Boyd says:

    As the saying goes, you can choose your opinions, but you can’t choose your facts.

    The Bush Administration didn’t do ANYTHING AT ALL given information warning that Al-Qa’ida terrorists were on US soil and preparing “for hijackings or other types of attacks…

    Why do you ignore the fact, stated in the PDB, that over 70 investigations into Al Qaeda were ongoing at the time? Obviously, your above statement is flat-out wrong. And the unfortunate part is that it forms the basis of the rest of your comments, which I largely agree with.

    But not your penultimate conclusion:

    He screwed up, he screwed up big, and he deserves to pay the cost.

    Sorry, I don’t see the “big” screw up. Yeah, there have been plenty of mistakes made throughout all the Bush administration since they took office. On the whole, though, I just can’t see where there’s been a net negative result. The only ones who believe the President has been perfect, or who require the President to be perfect, are the lunatic fringes at the ends of the left-right spectrum.

    All in all, I’ve got plenty of reasons to vote for President Bush in November. While I reserve the right to change my mind in the meantime, I don’t expect that will happen.

  5. dondo says:

    I figured someone might try that.

    That there were non-elected officials in the government doing their job doesn’t change the fact that the administration — the guys we actually elect — were asleep at the switch.

  6. dondo says:

    And how can you not look at the fiasco in Iraq and not call that screwed up? We went in with a pathetic, delusional post-invasion plan. There’s been instability since day one, and it’s escalating. I have no doubt that Bush is going to go through with his plan to pull out in June, because it’s becoming a political liability; at that point, the place is going to completely fall apart.

    I wonder if you can be specific in your response. What reasons, exactly, do you have to support Bush?

  7. Rodney Dill says:

    Figured someone might try a little something like the truth? Well that must have strained your brain cell. The fact that this made the PDB and we had investigations involved is the point. Yeah he could’ve had #71+ investigations started, the 5-6 week prior to 9/11 their success would be arguable.

    (BTW I figured someone would try “Oh look they’re trying the truth, they’re not allowed”)

  8. Bstr says:

    Re: Dammed if you do” I am a yellow dog Democrat, I will vote for a yellow dog before I vote Republican. However, you are entirely too correct in your understanding of political debate. The party in power can control the playing field (as in the difference in financing the Whitewater investigations compared to monies for 9/11 commision)and must expect, should expect dramatic rhetoric rather than logical analysis from their opponents.

  9. Paul says:

    The lesson I draw that there is a long and ever growing list of people who qualify for the title Asshat.

    Welcome abord dondo.


    For months I tried to reason with these people and it was for daught. Now I just cut to the chase.

  10. Boyd says:

    dondo, you need to stick to one argument at a time. You originally argued that the PDB “proved” that the Bush administration “screwed up.” I provided counter-argument to that, adding that they had still made plenty of mistakes. You then shift to say that they’re screwing up post-invasion, and then you falsely claim that we’re going to pull out in June.

    Go read up on facts, and not the pseudo-facts presented by the multitudes of liberals (Disclaimer: there are tons of pseudo-facts on the conservative side, too). Stick to the things that are actually knowable, rather than some lunatic’s pipe dream.

    That’s where I’m coming from. I haven’t started from a premise and then pick and choose a fact here, a supposition there, sprinkled with misinformation and stark falsehoods.

    I hate politicians, and there are plenty of things that I find wrong with the Bush administration on a lot of subjects. So what? On the whole, I much prefer their approach than the “let’s talk to the terrorists and see how we can negotiate with them.” They’re willing to die for their cause. I’m willing to grant them their wish.

  11. dondo says:

    I find it amusing to see on the one hand complaints about the lack of logic and facts supporting the liberal case, and on the other hand no facts, but instead personal attacks on the only liberal speaking up here. I don’t expect a friendly reception, but I hope you can come up with something better than insults. As Boyd said articulately, “you can choose your opinions, but you can’t choose your facts.” I don’t agree with the point he made, but I respect the way he made it. The empty insults that have followed are distractions. If someone has a point that makes you uncomfortable and you can’t actually refute it, it is convenient but childish to take refuge in insult. “strained your brain cell,” and “asshat” are amusing, but these epithets do not in any way address the points I have made. Calling me names causes me no discredit; bringing up and refuting extraneous points does not address the facts.

    I grant that my original point was overstated. They did have people investigating domestic terrorism.

    However, here’s the fundamental point:

    Non state-sponsored terrorism was not on the list. On 9/11/2002, Condoleeza Rice was scheduled to give a speech to argue for increased funding for the “missile defense” shield. Domestic terrorism was not mentioned once. Bush didn’t want to “swat at flies” — but he didn’t guard against wasps and spiders, either. There’s really no question about whether he started enough investigations; Rumsfield deeply cut the budget for investigating domestic terrorism. It’s a simple question of what the priorities were. Bush was focused on missile defense systems and mythical Iraqian WMD.

    So on the one hand, the president has a PDB stating that terrorists have been active either currently, or — giving Bush et al the benefit of the doubt, and colored by the most recent post here on OTB quoting Graham and substantiating the historical nature of the data — terrorists have been active for quite some time. On the other hand, terrorism is not a priority.

    I haven’t seen anything which challenges my conclusion: the Bush administration cannot claim that they did a good job about dealing with terrorism. They have done an abysmal job. It was not a priority before the fact; after the fact all they have done is start some wars, one of which has self-evidently not made us safer (there were no WMD in Iraq), the other of which has been inconclusive at best. If there was no time to “harden the cockpits” before 9/11, as Condoleeza Rice has claimed, why has it not happened since?

    If he wants to wrap himself in the 9/11 flag, he needs to take the baggage that comes with it.

  12. Rodney Dill says:

    I do not see valid arguments, in any of the statements above that any actionable evidence existed in the PDB (beyond what the FBI and other parts of the gov’t were already doing). And I’ve read the PDB and know that such actionable evidence does not exit.

  13. Rodney Dill says:

    -scratch exit, make that exist

  14. Boyd says:

    I’ve posted this in comments somewhere recently, so please forgive me if you’ve read me saying something similar before.

    dondo, I don’t have any idea what your background is, but I’d be willing to bet it doesn’t have anything to do with intelligence analysis. I did that for 20 years in the Navy, and lemme tell you, if I had connected these kinds of dots that you folks are using to indict the Bush administration, and briefed that to my Admiral or Captain, encouraging action, I would have had my manhood handed to me on a platter.

    And I’m no apologist for the Bush administration; I’ve got a few problems with what they’ve done, and that’s not a comprehensive list. But it’s unreasonable to state that the administration could have realistically done anything to prevent the September 11 attacks.

    And lastly, I’ll strongly disagree with your contention that the administration’s actions since 9/11 to counter terrorism have been “abysmal.” Terrorists are focused on Iraq and elsewhere, not the United States. They tried at least once to mount an attack in Great Britain, and were foiled. They succeeded once in Spain, and were thwarted once, that we know of.

    I have faith that there have been many other plans and attempts that our country’s actions have prevented from reaching their culmination.

    So, we continue to disagree. But I don’t think either of us expected to convince the other, did we?

  15. Juliette says:

    I find it amusing to see on the one hand complaints about the lack of logic and facts supporting the liberal case, and on the other hand no facts, but instead personal attacks on the only liberal speaking up here.

    It’s all about you, isn’t it, dondo? Not whether the republicans made a mistake or not, not whether the democrats can do better or not, but about poor little you being picked on by the big bad republicans.

    Be a man (or woman), state you case logically or find some kiddy board on which to play “stop picking on me.”

  16. dondo says:

    Boyd — thanks for posting. It’s encouraging to hear calm, reasoned discussion in the midst of all the — uh, less reasoned discussion. I’ve added your Blog to my regular reading list; while I’m (obviously) quite liberal, I try to understand reasoned views that I may find uncomfortable at first glimpse. Even if I don’t agree or accept them, I am listening.

    You’re absolutely right, I’ve never been involved in intelligence analysis. I expect that there’s a lot of noise around any signal. As I said originally, I don’t think the key point of the PDB is that anybody “could have prevented 9/11” — that’s just politics.

    My central criticism around all this is not that 9/11 happened, but that “terrorism” wasn’t a particular priority for Bush before it, that afterwards he wrapped himself in it, and that his policies are long term disasters.

    I’d be interested in a real conversation about that last. You argue that the action in Iraq has drawn the terrorists; do you have any data to back that? I haven’t seen any graphs or charts on the incidence of terrorist attack — well, actually, the only chart I have seen was focused on the point that terrorism from citizens a la Timothy McVeigh vastly outweighs any other, both from the perspective of incidence and impact — but I have seen no data to support the assertion that the incidence has gone down. Do you have some?

    I am evaluating Iraq with a 20-30 year timeline. Unless something astonishing happens soon, Iraq is going to be unstable for a long time; I don’t see how the actions we are taking is going to make anyone in that area more friendly to us. There is plenty to make the children hate us, and they will grow up. Is it not clear that Bush’s expectations were completely out of step with reality? He deeply underestimated the level of resistence to expect, the troop forces required, and the overall costs. He continues to meet force with “overwhelming force” — doesn’t that play into the hands of the terrorists?

    My question earlier was a sincere one. While you may not agree that he has screwed it up completely, surely you grant that his policies have been quite dubious. If you remove “terrorism” from the list of his successes, what DO you have left?

  17. Boyd says:

    I’m a bit pressed for time right now, and I can’t give you a decent response, dondo. How ’bout I pick it up later today. I’ll post something over on my blog with a trackback to James’s post to save his bandwidth.

    For the record, it appears that we’ve moved the conversation away from pre-9/11 to post-9/11, and it also appears that we agree that there was really nothing the Bush administration could have reasonably been expected to do to prevent those attacks.

    Anyway, I’ll pick up from here on my blog later today.

  18. Boyd says:

    Response up at my blog.