“Bush’s lack of interest in the flood of attack warnings” before 9/11 (PWW 7/31–8/6) can be explained by this administration’s Iraq obsession.
Two conceptual frames have recently entered our vocabulary. “Groupthink” is used to blame the intelligence agencies for the WMD fiasco. “Failure of imagination” is used to blame the whole body politic for the 9/11 attacks. Both frames are being used to deflect criticism away from the Bush administration. In reality, though, groupthink and failure of imagination uniquely characterize the administration’s maladaptive pre-9/11 behavior.
Groupthink was originally coined for the social science of small-group decision-making. In the present instance, groupthink arose from Bush’s choice of a like-minded team of radical military and foreign policy professionals (Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rice), described in detail by James Mann in his book, “Rise of the Vulcans.” Their groupthink included an overall vision of “global domination through military power” together with the immediate goal of overthrowing Saddam Hussein.
Rejection of expert opinion is a classic symptom of groupthink. It degraded our defenses.
About a week before Bush’s inauguration, our then chief intelligence expert, George Tenet, told Bush, Cheney and Rice that bin Laden was one of the three top threats facing the U.S. Iraq was not on Tenet’s list.
Shortly after the inauguration, Richard Clarke, our al-Qaeda expert, briefed Rice on the urgent need to act against al-Qaeda, and requested an early meeting with the National Security Council to review the threat. His “destroy al-Qaeda” plan was ready for action.
Unfortunately, Rice downgraded Clarke’s position and the NSC meeting was delayed until Sept. 4. Bush finally approved Clarke’s nine-month-old plan on Oct. 25, too late to avert 9/11.
Only 10 days after the inauguration, Bush had already tasked Rumsfeld to “examine our military options” on Iraq. Paul O’Neill, our then treasury secretary, reports his realization at that time that Iraq was the (initially covert) centerpiece of Bush foreign policy. The Vulcans’ groupthink had asserted itself.
The failure of imagination of Bush and the Vulcans regarding 9/11 was related to a second symptom of their groupthink: the illusion of invulnerability, which leads to over-optimism and risk-taking. Fixated on and preoccupied with Iraq, and seeing themselves as creators of a “new world order,” they deprecated other actors, especially non-state actors like al-Qaeda. Wolfowitz, for instance, told Clarke, “You give bin Laden too much credit!”
Secrecy is a symptom of groupthink particular to high officials who are privy to intelligence bearing on national security. Secrecy is obsessive in the Bush administration.
The 9/11 Commission points to the millennium, when the Clinton administration, Congress, the security agencies, major media and the public were on high alert and attacks by al-Qaeda were thwarted. In contrast, the public was unaware of 40 references to al-Qaeda in President Bush’s daily briefings prior to 9/11. The Aug. 6 “aircraft briefing” wasn’t released until April 2004.
The commission report specifically mentions secrecy. Confronted with the crescendo of ominous intelligence, Bush could have and should have alerted the nation by simply revealing what he knew before Congress. That he did not was a grievous failure of imagination.
David Leventhal is a science and mathematics educator. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.