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Prejudging the 9/11 report

WASHINGTON

THE PROBLEM is not Tom Kean's assertion that the terrorist attack on the United States two years ago was preventable, it is President Bush's repeated assurance that it was not. The vaunted Bush attack machine stirred briefly last week, but paused before ginning up the conservative establishment for an assault on the moderate Republican chairman of the commission investigating Sept. 11, 2001.

 

Instead, the White House decided to lead a fresh burst of weird propaganda on a nearly two-year-old theme about unconnected dots and intelligence chatter, designed to create the impression that the attacks were literally bolts from the blue instead of evidence that the government had been caught napping. The political response to a few progress report-type comments by former New Jersey governor Kean displays the protective line that has been drawn by Bush National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and CIA Director George Tenet.What really matters -- far more than any eventual citing of specific individuals or even recommendations for policy changes -- is a detailed narrative of the terrorist plot's unfolding. Telling us all exactly what happened, if it is done with ruthless thoroughness, will be what counts next spring. Kean's judgment in making early comments to CBS, then ABC and The New York Times, is open to question on the traditional grounds that it unnecessarily courts a suspicion of prejudgment. However, given the enormity of what happened, a few signs of official life are more important to public confidence, especially after an unnecessarily ugly period of half-hearted "cooperation" from the White House, Defense Department, various transportation and immigration agencies, and New York City itself.

One reason the attack machine didn't unload on Kean immediately last week was that he quickly amended his comments to make "clear" that he was only saying officials at the operational level two years ago deserved to be singled out for blame and that no judgments had been reached about senior officials. That was noncommittal and gave the White House nothing defined to shoot at.

A more dangerous comment was the unthinking impulse of Howard Dean to pass along, even as he said he didn't personally believe it, a "rumor" that Saudi Arabian officials had prior knowledge of the terrorist plot. In a charged atmosphere were partisanship and credibility are antonyms, that is the kind of behavior that actually undermines the commission, not to mention Dean's own reputation.

From what I could find out about what remains an appropriately confidential and sensitive (as well as massive) inquiry, what is most important about the current views of the chairman of the 10-member, bipartisan body has nothing to do with one-dimensional blame.

What really counts, I'm told, is the growing view that the basic narrative of facts that most Americans think they know about 9/11 is in many, if not most respects inaccurate. I am not referring to the notion still spread by administration officials like Cheney that Saddam Hussein is implicated, a proposition believed by more than half the people surveyed in a post-capture poll.

Rather than speculate, it is enough for now to note that Bush did not listen to the insistence of departing Clinton administration officials (themselves culpable for other reasons) in 2001 that Al Qaeda was the most serious, imminent threat to the country, that high-level fears persisted through that summer in the counter-terrorism world, that money from Saudi Arabia was going to Al Qaeda operatives, that the hijackers and their supporters left clues that the existing US network should have picked up, and that real concerns about the use of hijacked airplanes as missiles went to Rumsfeld and Bush at a minimum.

That is why the least understandable argument of all is the line first used by Rice in May of 2002, that no one could have foreseen that terrorists would hijack airplanes and crash-fly them into buildings. It is especially odd coming from the coordination person in the White House who was also in charge of keeping Bush informed about a world he only dimly understood. It is also odd coming from the official who had an administration plan for actions against Al Qaeda on her desk on the day of the attacks.

As the commission's work progresses, most Americans will appreciate the fact that there is a guy in charge willing to remind everyone of the obvious fact that nothing like this happens totally out of the blue. That is hardly prejudging a probe that is far from complete.

However, those who assert that nothing could have been done ahead of time are the ones guilty of prejudging. And those were the people in charge of the store.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is oliphant@globe.com.

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