Frame Game

The Other Sept. 11

Blame Obama for four deaths in Libya. But don’t blame Bush for nearly 3,000 deaths in New York.

Dick Cheney discussing his memoir, October 2011.

Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

The president was warned of an impending threat of terrorism. He failed to act. The attack came, Americans died, and now the administration is covering up the truth.

That’s what Republicans are arguing in 2012. Which is pretty funny, if you don’t count the dead Americans, because it’s the opposite of what the GOP said 10 years ago. Back then, the conspiracy theories and the 20/20 hindsight were about the original 9/11 attacks. And the Republican Party line was that anyone who accused the president of neglect or deceit was unpatriotic.

Yesterday the Republican National Committee posted a 4,500-word indictment of Obama’s role, or lack thereof, in the recent assault on the Libyan consulate. “Less than two months before the Benghazi attack,” said the RNC, “the State Department determined that ‘the risk of U.S. mission personnel, private U.S. citizens and businesspersons encountering an isolating event as a result of militia or political violence Is HIGH.’ ” Meanwhile, “U.S. security officials repeatedly warned the State Department that more U.S. security personnel were needed in Libya.” Instead, security was cut back.

The RNC mocked Joe Biden for asserting in last week’s vice-presidential debate, “We weren’t told they wanted more security.” It said Biden’s remarks “raised questions about what had been included in the president’s briefing on the U.S. security posture the day before the 9/11 anniversary.” And it skewered White House press secretary Jay Carney for telling reporters “there was no actionable intelligence that suggested there would be an attack at the Benghazi facility.” The larger question, the RNC maintained, was whether Obama, in his security briefing, had been told of previous plots and security concerns more broadly.

Dick Cheney, the former vice president, has been pressing this issue against Obama. On Oct. 2, Cheney said, “The latest thing I’ve heard now is that … they had denied the additional security resources that had been requested by the Benghazi consulate … it looks like the administration’s been involved in a cover-up.” Cheney’s daughter, Liz, elaborated on the evidence: “There was a DOD assessment, there was a CIA assessment. You had the chairman of the Joint Chiefs today say there’s been this thread of intelligence that, in fact, al-Qaida is resurgent in Libya, resurgent particularly in Benghazi. There may well have been information out there that the president should have been aware of, that the State Department should have been aware of.”

Donald Rumsfeld, the former defense secretary, makes the same point. “It’s clear that they misjudged the security situation,” he told Fox News on Oct. 1. A day later, Rumsfeld paraphrased reports that U.S. officials had failed “to respond promptly to a threat report and to concerns that were being expressed by the people in Libya.” Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, was more emphatic. “This is a cover-up,” he charged. “And it’s the worst kind of cover-up, a cover-up that involves our national security, a cover-up that involves the slaughter of four Americans.” On Oct. 9, Giuliani concluded: “We should never have been attacked in Libya. The warnings were manifold. Instead of increasing security, we decreased security. It is quite possible that the ambassador and the other three Americans didn’t have to die if there [had been] a competent reaction.”

Maybe so. Maybe, if Obama and his underlings had heeded the danger signs, those four Americans would be alive today. But it’s pretty rich to hear this complaint about “the events of September 11, 2012” from the people who presided over the original events of Sept. 11. You know, the ones in which nearly 3,000 Americans died.

The 9/11 commission report, issued in July 2004, documented numerous warning signs of that attack, all of which went unheeded. One was a July 2001 memo from the Phoenix FBI office to FBI headquarters, flagging the “possibility of a coordinated effort by Usama Bin Ladin” to train terrorists as pilots in U.S. flight schools. Another was the August 2001 arrest of one of the 9/11 plotters, Zacarias Moussaoui, for suspicious conduct at a flight school, which “was briefed to … top CIA officials.” But the most embarrassing document was the Aug. 6, 2001, Presidential Daily Brief, which carried the title, “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US.”

When the Aug. 6 document came to light in May 2002, Cheney brushed it off. “It didn’t give us any actionable intelligence,” he insisted in a Fox News interview. “It didn’t really give us anything new or anything precise or specific.” As to the rest of the warning signs, Cheney argued,

There wasn’t anything out there that would have allowed us to predict what was going to happen. We found out since Sept. 11 that the FBI had Moussaoui in custody in Minnesota. We didn’t know that before the 11th. That didn’t trickle up to the presidential level. We’ve since heard about the so-called Phoenix memo that dates back to sometime in July, but again that didn’t come up. … In terms of getting down into the nitty gritty, into the weeds of this kind of intelligence reporting, you know, we’re not in the habit of reading the raw intelligence reports from the FBI. There are 56 bureaus around the country, and that stuff—there aren’t enough hours in the day for us to do all of that, so you need a system that deals with it.

In that statement and others, Cheney invoked every excuse he and his allies now deride in the Libya fiasco. The warnings weren’t specific enough. Broad analyses of persistent dangers aren’t actionable. Warnings from our people on the ground didn’t “trickle up to the presidential level.” Connecting the dots isn’t the president’s job. It’s a failure of the “system.”

At the same time, Cheney said the White House shouldn’t give Congress a copy of the Aug. 6 brief. Having dismissed the document as devoid of any new or specific information, he turned around and insisted, even in the same interview, that it was “developed from some of our most secret operations” and “comes from the most sensitive sources and methods that we have as a government. It’s the family jewels.”

Giuliani, whose city had suffered the attack, showed none of his current outrage about neglected warnings. “Nothing so far suggests to me,” he said in May 2002, that the government “would have had the kind of information that would have suggested that kind of attack.” And Rumsfeld, who had lost 125 people at the Pentagon, defended the administration not just for its handling of pre-9/11 information but for its subsequent intelligence failures in Iraq. “If you had said to me a year ago, ‘Describe the situation you’ll be in today one year later,’ ” he told reporters in April 2004, “I would not have described it the way it happens to be today.”

The difference between the failures of Sept. 11, 2001, and the failures of Sept. 11, 2012 isn’t just 2,900 deaths. It’s the ferocity with which Republicans, when they held the White House, denounced their critics as unpatriotic. “Democrat insinuations that the President and Administration had prior knowledge of the September 11th tragedy is an outrageous political attack on the Commander-in-Chief during wartime,” the National Republican Congressional Committee charged in 2002. In a rebuke to Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., Cheney added:

What I want to say to my Democratic friends in the Congress is that they need to be very cautious not to seek political advantage by making incendiary suggestions, as were made by some today, that the White House had advance information that would have prevented the tragic attacks of 9/11. Such commentary is thoroughly irresponsible and totally unworthy of national leaders in a time of war.

I’m sure we can count on this kind of pulling together now that the president is a Democrat, the attack was overseas, and the casualty count is four.

William Saletan’s latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: