Even as a federal judge ruled that the NSA mass data collection of Americans exposed by Edward Snowden is unconstitutional and a panel appointed by Obama released findings calling for the end of the NSA bulk data collection, and as congress prepares to vote on The Freedom Act which would eliminate the NSA's intrusive mass surveillance, especially when it comes to American citizens, it is useful to remember how we got here.
General Keith Alexander reminded us of that once again, when, in his most recent appearance before a senate oversight committee and for the upteenth time since the programs were exposed by Edward Snowden, he defended them by invoking the 911 attacks.
Alexander has repeatedly, in every congressional hearing in which he has given testimony has tried to make the claim that the NSA bulk data collection of Americans phone calls and Internet activity was not in place prior to the 911 attacks and had they been the program would have prevented the 911 attack.
The assertion is and has been a complete and well documented fabrication and a denial of all the facts surrounding the attacks and prior intelligence.
Alexander is able to do this because the truth about the 911 attacks brought to light by the 911 Commission hearings were virtually buried because neither the news media nor Democrats, and certainly not Republicans wanted to make an issue of what amounted to the Bush administration ignoring valuable and specific intelligence that would have prevented the attacks in what might have been the worst case of gross negligence by government officials with regards to the national security of the United States in American history.
Prior to the 911 attacks Bush, Rice and others in the Bush administration had enough intelligence (without any of the current NSA programs) to have prevented the attacks. They were warned by intelligence officials repeatedly of a massive impending attack against the United States which they dismissed and ignored.
Its been a dirty little open secret for 12 years, one that neither the news media, Democrats or Republicans have wanted to touch for different reasons preferring instead to perpetuate the lies and myths that there was nothing the Bush administration could have done to stop it. The Bush administration tried to place the blame on intelligence failures And Alexander has sought to capitalize on those myths.
The 911 Commission through documents and direct testimony showed that from the day Bush took office terrorism was rejected as a real threat against the United States. they believed Clinton overstated the danger and their number one national security priority was getting out of the ABM treaty with Russia and reviving Star Wars.
The Bush administration was so contemptuous of terrorism as a threat that during the 911 hearings the assistant director of the FBI testified to the Commission, that when he went to Attorney General John Ashcroft with issues related to Al-Qaeda he said Ashcroft told him, " don't ever come to me with anything related to terrorism again".
This in spite of the fact that during Bush's transition period, Bush was told by the heads of every intelligence agency in the country as well as former president Bill Clinton and outgoing national security advisor Sandy Berger that Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda were the biggest threat to U.S. national security in the world
Bush and Rice dismissed it and in fact one of Bush's first decisions regarding terrorism when he took office was to demote Richard Clarke, the White House anti-terrorism chief for 20 years under Reagan, Bush 41 and Clinton, from cabinet level status to sub cabinet status reducing his access to the president. Bush also dissolved what Clarke called the Meeting of the Principals, where on a daily basis, the heads of every government agency related to terrorism -- the Attorney General, Director of CIA, FBI, ATF, Immigration etc. would have a meeting chaired by Clarke and share all the terrorist related intelligence received by each agency in the previous 24 hours.
One of the biggest criticisms the 911 Commission had under Bush was a lack of sharing of intelligence between agencies. That was a direct result of Bush's decision to end what had been a top priority during the Clinton administration.
Testimony and documents further showed that in July of 2001, CIA intercepts of Al-Qaeda traffic so concerned CIA Director George Tenant so much he sought an emergency meeting with then national security advisor Rice to discuss it. Rice testified she didn't remember the meeting though White House logs showed it took place.
From July on and with increasing frequency intercepts by the CIA that the United States was about to be hit with a major terrorist attack were so dire that Richard Clarke testified that in August of 2001 he and Tenant were " running around the White House like men with their hair on fire" trying to warn Bush and Rice of the impending attack. One of the CIA translations of an Al-Qaeda intercept in August of 2001 was " the match has been lit".
Another intercept in August of 2001 indicated that the U.S. was about to be hit with a major Al-Qaeda attack and that the attack, in the words of the CIA translator, was going to be "spectacular".
The coup de grace, was the August 6,2001 Presidential Daily Briefing, a collection of reports from all the intelligence agencies in one briefing given to the president that represents what the intelligence agencies think is the most important for the president to have. This briefing was entitled " Bin Laden Determined to Strike Within the United States".
In this briefing (which can be accessed online), Bush and Rice were told that not only that there was intelligence that Al-Qaeda was going to attack within the United States, it presented intelligence that Al-Qaeda cells were already in the United States, that they had been observed in New York City putting office buildings under surveillance, and, unbelievably told Bush and Rice that the plan to attack inside the United States was going to involve the hijacking of U.S. commercial airliners. And remember, this was within the same time frame that Clarke and Tenant were "running around the White House like men with their hair on fire" armed with the CIA intercepts confirming an Al-Qaeda attack was imminent.
Incomprehensibly, Bush and Rice did nothing and Bush went on vacation to Crawford.
In her testimony before the 911 Commission when Rice was asked pointedly about having the intelligence that Al-Qaeda planned to hijack commercial airliners as part of their attack on the U.S. by committee counsel Richard Ben Veniste, her answer was " we had no idea they were going to use the planes as missiles".
Like hijacking U.S. airliners and holding hostages or threatening the lives of hundreds if not thousands of passengers was something to be dismissed?
It was during this testimony that Rice uttered her now famous line that became an overused Washington and news media cliche when she said "we couldn't connect the dots".
To this day almost everyone in the news media and in politics who appropriated that metaphor, including General Alexander who invoked being able to "connect the dots" at least four times in his last congressional appearance, never fully understood the full meaning of Rice's remark.
Rice is a highly educated person with a highly sophisticated vocabulary. She could have chosen any metaphor or combination of words to express the failure of the Bush administration to stop the attacks. But a case can be made that " we couldn't connect the dots" was an unintended confession on her part that, far from their being intelligence failures, they simply dropped the ball.
Connecting the dots is after all, a child's game. A series of dots is in front of you, each one with a number and all one has to do is draw a line from one dot to the other in consecutive order to see the whole picture. Rice admitted that they couldn't do that. In fact they didn't even try.
One wonders what the future might have been had the news media or even Democrats for that matter gone after the Bush administration for ignoring the intelligence they had in the 911 attacks with even half the ferocity they used in going after Anthony Weiner over his online sex chats. There is a real possibility Bush and Cheney might not have finished out their first term. At the very least they would have lost to John Kerry in 2004 and the course of history would have been dramatically changed. And it would have never led to the NSA bulk data collection and their intrusive surveillance into innocent American citizens because it was only after the 911 attacks that the NSA got its marching orders from Bush and Cheney.
For a brief moment during Alexander's senate testimony, senator Patrick Leahy addressed Alexander's attempts at misrepresenting the facts surrounding 911 as justification for the NSA programs having not been in place prior to 911 when Leahy replied that at the time "the FBI alone had enough information" so that"anyone with "half a brain" could have used that intelligence to have prevented the 911 attacks.
Leahy didn't press the point beyond that, dismissed Alexander's 911 assertions, and moved on to his next question. The congress, in its vote on the Freedom Act in January, will have the final answer
NOTE: A Federal judge in New York, in a law suit filed by the ACLU issued a ruling contrary to the one issued by a federal judge in Washington, and found the NSA data collection legal. In a bizarre ruling which the ACLU is appealing, the judge seemed to ignore his sole purpose which was to rule on law and constitutionality and instead, his rulling was filled with his own personal opinions of the value of the program. What was notable, was that in that ruling, he too cited the 911 attacks and that the government did not have the data collection program in place at the time, again ignoring the facts that the Bush Administration had more than enough intelligence to stop the attacks at the time without the meta data collection and simply failed to act.