The Hindsight Saga

WASHINGTON—The Bush administration reacted angrily yesterday to renewed accusations that it may have ignored advance warning of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. The White House reluctantly confirmed that the president received a letter from Osama Bin Laden just days before the attack. The letter, written on stationery labeled “The Caves at Tora Bora: A Luxury Terrorist Headquarters and Spa,” is believed by the FBI to be genuine. It said:

Dear President Bush:On September 11, or maybe September 12, I plan to hijack several airplanes and fly them into a building or two in lower Manhattan, and maybe a military facility of some sort in Northern Virginia. Consider yourself warned.Yours sincerely,

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer rejected any suggestion that this letter should have alerted the administration about Bin Laden’s plans for Sept. 11. “Look,” he said, “This was a highly ambiguous signal, which was subject to a variety of interpretations. The letter says Sept. 11 or 12.How were we supposed to know that the attack would come on Sept. 11? It might have come on Sept. 12. It would have been the height of irresponsibility to alarm the American people about the possibility of an attack on Sept. 11 when it could just as easily have occurred Sept. 12.”

He also noted that there are many buildings in lower Manhattan—”most of which to this very day have never been subject to a terrorist attack of any sort”—and that Northern Virginia contains a variety of military facilities. “It is easy in hindsight to observe that the Pentagon is in Northern Virginia, but there was no way to be certain that Bin Laden knew this. Many foreigners are under the impression the Pentagon is in the District of Columbia.

“Governing is about judgment,” Fleischer continued. “It is about filtering the tremendous amount of information that pours in and deciding what is relevant and what is not. Do you know how many letters we get from terrorists every week? No, I’m not saying how many. The point is, you don’t know. And you’re not going to find out from me. This administration is not afraid to make the tough calls. It doesn’t matter whether a call is right or wrong. What matters is that it’s tough. Ignoring a clear warning from a known terrorist was one tough call, and this administration is proud to have made it.”

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice noted in an interview that there are several Osamas listed in the Kabul telephone directory. “If Mr. Bin Laden wished us to take his message seriously, he should have had the common courtesy to sign with his last name. Although the president is a friendly and outgoing person, it would not serve America’s interests for him to appear to be on a first-name basis with a terrorist by responding or reacting to Mr. Bin Laden’s letter.”

The White House later clarified that President Bush had, in fact, responded to Bin Laden’s letter, but an official insisted that it was the stock response sent to all letters threatening to hijack airplanes and that there was no special policy applying to letters that also threatened to fly the planes into large buildings. “In fact,” the official said, “It’s the stock response we use for all letters from wealthy individuals.” The response said:

Dear Osama:Thank you for your generous contribution to the Republican National Committee. With the help of Republicans in Congress, I look forward to signing the legislation you request exactly as you have written it.Best wishes,
George W. Bush

Vice President Dick Cheney, appearing on 18 TV talk shows yesterday, called Bin Laden’s letter “a cowardly attempt to sow confusion among the forces of civilization and freedom. If the guy had any guts, he would have told us exactly where and when he planned to attack, rather than hiding behind two alternative dates and a variety of possible locations.”

Cheney said that by ending his letter with the words, “Consider yourself warned,” Bin Laden made it impossible for the administration to take his warning seriously. “For the U.S. government to have indicated in any way that we considered ourselves warned would have been a victory for terrorism. Only by considering ourselves unwarned, and acting as such, could we protect the vital interests of the United States.”

Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, hearings continued for the 25th day on charges that the administration failed to act on warnings from a psychic in Omaha, Neb., last August that “something terrible” was going to happen “sooner or later” on “either the East or the West Coast.” Democrats in Congress are charging that this was a clear prediction of the events of Sept. 11.

“I hesitate to criticize or second-guess the president when we are at war with such a sinister foe,” said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, “But I am deeply concerned that without a thorough inquiry into this matter, the American people may lose an opportunity for me to be deeply concerned.”