The good news is the September 11 Commission has stopped playing the blame-Bush game, at least for a while. The “brethren” (to use Democratic commissioner Jamie Gorelick’s phrase) will gather again on May 18 in New York to discuss the performance of emergency response agencies after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The commission’s last session, with President Bush and Vice President Cheney, has left some lingering questions. Like, what’s going on between the White House and the Justice Department?
After the meeting with Bush, the commissioners were quoted saying how well it had gone, how cordial both sides had been, and how generous the president had been to answer questions for more than three hours. The only substantive leak out of the whole thing was a report that Bush had told the commissioners he was irritated with Attorney General John Ashcroft.
The president said he did not approve of Ashcroft’s release of documents showing that Gorelick (a former top official in the Clinton Justice Department) had played a key role in the often-ineffectual antiterrorism efforts of the 1990s. White House spokesman Scott McClellan made it crystal-clear when he said of the document release, “That’s what the Justice Department did. We were not involved in it. I think the president was disappointed about that.”
“The president does not believe we ought to be pointing fingers in this time period,” McClellan continued. “We ought to be working together to help the commission complete its work.”
The news immediately set off intense speculation inside the Justice Department. Was the White House really mad? Or was the president making a wink-and-nod gesture to pacify the commission?
As it turns out, it was a bit of both.
There is little doubt that the White House liked Ashcroft’s aggressive testimony before the commission on April 13. Actually, more than liked it. “They loved it,” says one administration source. “They definitely appreciated Ashcroft’s testimony, because after a month of being pummeled with leaks from the commission, whether it was about Condi Rice, or the president’s daily brief, or Cheney, or you name it, he was the first offense that they had had.”
And a good offense it was. By focusing attention on the so-called “wall” between intelligence and law enforcement, Ashcroft performed three services.
One, he emphasized a serious problem in the government’s antiterrorism efforts, in both the Clinton and Bush administrations.
Two, he turned a spotlight on Gorelick’s role in the Clinton antiterrorism program. Whether or not Gorelick was guilty of raising the “wall,” the extent of her involvement in the 90s made clear that she had a serious conflict of interest in the investigation.
And three, Ashcroft changed the subject.
Before Ashcroft, the commission was all about Bushwhacking. After Ashcroft, a more balanced picture emerged, and the White House was happy about that.
In the days after the attorney general’s testimony, the president had more than one face-to-face meetings with Ashcroft. “Bush had time when he could have slapped Ashcroft down,” says the source. But the president didn’t do it.
The White House was also happy that Ashcroft splashed a bit of reality on the Democratic commissioners’ constant citation of the Clinton administration’s handling of the so-called millennium plot as a model of effective antiterrorism policy.
Justice Department officials knew the story was a bit different. They knew the potential bomber in that case had been caught by luck, not as a result of savvy antiterrorism work. Justice also know that the Clinton administration had done an “after action” review of the millennium matter–a study conducted by none other than Richard Clarke, the White House counterterrorism chief-turned-Bush antagonist.
The review was “a scathing indictment of the last administration’s actions,” says the administration source. “It was exactly how things shouldn’t be run.” Indeed, Clarke is quite critical of the handling of the millennium plot in his book, Against All Enemies.
The virtue of Ashcroft’s testimony is that he came out and said it. “This [National Security Council] millennium after action review declares that the United States barely missed major terrorist attacks in 1999 and cites luck as playing a major role,” Ashcroft testified. “It is clear from the review that actions taken in the millennium period should not be the operating model for the U.S. government.”
So what made President Bush unhappy? It’s possible the president was displeased when the Justice Department released still more documents about Gorelick’s role in the 1990s. But Justice acted only after Gorelick had made many assertions about her actions in a Washington Post op-ed, and after the commission itself requested more information about the “wall.”
Whatever the reason, in the end, Bush took a shot at Ashcroft. Maybe he needed to do so for political reasons. But White House officials should keep in mind that the attorney general has been the best friend they’ve had in this hopelessly politicized investigation.
–Byron York is also a columnist for The Hill, where a version of this first appeared.