By terrorism standards the attacks of 9/11 were spectacularly successful, not only in the extent of death and destruction they produced, but in instilling a deep sense of horror in the American public. But the attacks were carried out with the crudest of instruments: commercial airliners hijacked by a dozen men armed only with boxcutters who then played out their roles as suicide bombers. In spite of the incredible boldness of the attacks, it was just another variation on an old theme. Nevertheless, there were those who claimed that terrorism had entered a new era, and that “9/11 changed everything.” This argument as we now know was largely self serving.

Stephen Gale, a terrorism specialist at the University of Pennsylvania, could hardly have been surprised by the nature of the attacks. “Gale was part of a three-man group that presented a terrorism analysis to FAA security officials…in the spring of 1998,” writes Steve Fainaru in a Washington Post article in May 2002. “The analysis described two scenarios: one in which terrorists crashed planes into nuclear power plants along the East Coast; another in which they commandeered Federal Express cargo planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, the White House, the Capitol, the Sears Tower and the Golden Gate Bridge.” [my italics]

Adds Fainaru:

“A broad array of signals -- from foiled plots to FBI field interviews -- suggested for years that al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist groups had considered employing airplanes as missiles and U.S. flight schools as pilot training grounds.

“The clues included a 1995 plot to blow up 11 American jetliners over the Pacific Ocean, then crash a light plane into CIA headquarters -- a suicide mission to have been carried out by a Pakistani pilot who had trained at flight schools in North Carolina, Texas and New York.”

With this background to draw on, plus the intelligence briefing to George Bush one month prior to 9/11 -- the title of which was “Bin Laden Determined to Attack inside the United States” -- Condoleezza Rice nevertheless admitted to being genuinely surprised by the nature of the attacks. Proclaimed Rice in her testimony before the 9/11 Commission, “I don't think anybody [my italics] could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, take another one and slam it into the Pentagon, that they would try to use an airplane as a missile."

Rice’s clueless response is just one reason why she is widely regarded as the most incompetent national security adviser in memory.


This horrific failure by the Bush administration to protect the country from terrorist attack was followed by a series of events that were almost surreal. There was a short-lived attempt to go after the perpetrators, Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. But this quickly gave way to boredom and the “need for a new script,” as Neil Gabler once described it. Bush had to come out of this looking like a warrior, an American hero, rather than the bumbling goat of 9/11 that he was.

We know now that the Bush administration in a matter of only days or weeks after 9/11 turned its attention away from these crude but effective forms of terrorism to focus on the threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction – and in Iraq of all places. The logical disconnect was stunning. We had suddenly gone from terrorists wielding boxcutters and flying planes into buildings to worrying about the most sophisticated weapons, those requiring some understanding and advancement in the fields of chemistry, biology and nuclear physics. Such weapons had been around a long time but had never been used in any major terrorist attack anywhere in the world. Yes, there was the use of Sarin gas in a Tokyo subway, and some post 9/11 anthrax letters in the U.S., but these were trivial incidents by any intelligent measure.

It was also true that Saddam Hussein had used chemical weapons in the war with Iran in the 1980’s – with U.S. assistance and blessing – and later against his own people in 1988. But Iraq had since been decimated, by the first Gulf War and seven years of U.N. weapons confiscation and destruction. None other than Colin Powell, in February 2001, seven months before 9/11, stated, “Saddam Hussein has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power [even] against his neighbors."

Powell would of course go to the United Nations in February 2003 and explain how he was just a little confused two years earlier, and that, in the interim, those two pillars of rational thought, George Bush and Dick Cheney, had convinced the always skeptical Army general that Iraq did have a formidable arsenal of WMD after all, including and above all, the most lethal in mankind’s history, nuclear weapons.

The two issues of Iraq and WMD were quickly fused together by the administration as one, and we were asked to believe that a belligerent Iraq was stalking the U.S. – eager to attack with ready-to-launch WMD (Tony Blair said Saddam could launch his WMD “in 45 minutes.”) One could say it was at this point that George Bush took his first POWs of the war -- the U.S. Congress and the media, both of which surrendered to the Bush administration’s public relations assault.

Weapons Inspectors Return to Iraq

As war fever in the U.S. built, Saddam Hussein played a clever hand. He admitted U.N. weapons inspectors back into Iraq in November 2002 as Bush and his gang were hyping the war and preparing for invasion. Now, if you’re the president of the United States and you’re really interested in a possible threat from WMD in Iraq, you see this as at least a minor victory. Saddam Hussein, after four years of banning the weapons inspectors, has finally given in under threat of U.S. military action, and it may not be necessary now to wage a costly and deadly war in Iraq. As president and commander in chief, it would appear you have done a commendable job.

As the weapons inspections continued through early 2003 and consistently failed to find any evidence of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons (We now know there were none to be found!), the U.N. team came under increasing criticism, much of it from Dick Cheney, who consistently tried to discredit chief weapons inspector Hans Blix. There was also evidence of deliberate interference and harassment from Washington. According to a CBS News report in February 2003 by correspondent Mark Phillips:

“U.N. arms inspectors are privately complaining about the quality of U.S. intelligence and accusing the United States of sending them on wild-goose chases… [and] American tips that lead to one dead end after another… So frustrated have the inspectors become that one source has referred to the U.S. intelligence they've been getting as ‘garbage after garbage after garbage.’“

As the weapons inspections advanced, the Bush administration was losing the public relations momentum -- call it hysteria – it had worked so hard to build for more than a year. Moreover, the administration certainly had to suspect that there were no WMD to be found since they had “cooked the intelligence,” as the Downing Street memo described it. Bush was caught in a corner. The pretext for invasion was slowly disappearing, yet Bush had worked too long and hard for this war to let it slip from his grasp at the last minute. A force of over 200,000 troops was amassed in the Persian Gulf region waiting for orders. Bush continued his sleight of hand. He proceeded to claim that Saddam Hussein was making fools of Hans Blix and his team. After all, the U.S. had sound intelligence that Hussein had WMD, and if Blix couldn’t find them that was his failing. The U.S couldn’t wait. On March 18 the U.N. inspection team was forced to leave Iraq, and the following day Bush’s invasion began, without U.N. approval, but with a “coalition of the willing.”

How Did Bush Get Away With It?

How can we look back on the Bush administration’s argument for war with Iraq and see it as anything but total horseshit? To add to the shamefulness of it all, the Bush administration’s sleight of hand wasn’t even clever or deft. Even through the fog of fear and patriotism, the simple truth is, you really had to be stupid to buy the argument for invasion. Presidents have lied before, but there has never been anything like this in American history.

And what a war this has been. It was meant to be quick and decisive and we were to be greeted as liberators. Now, almost three years later, Iraq is in ruin, teetering on civil war, more than 2,200 U.S. service men and women are dead, all at unfathomable cost to the country of $250 billion currently, and rapidly approaching half a trillion dollars. But the Iraq debacle should surprise no one. It can be viewed fittingly as part of a mix of failures -- a president of extremely limited abilities, combined with a misguided Neocon ideology, and the president’s sense of some Divine calling.

One need only look at the other egregious failures of this administration to see how it all fits together -- $1.3 trillion in tax cuts that were nothing more than a boon for the rich and a “looting of the U.S. Treasury,” as Nobel Laureate in economics, George Akerloff put it; the shameful Medicare drug plan, nothing but a giveaway to the pharmaceutical industry; and of course the Hurricane Katrina disaster, the victims of which have no powerful lobbyists to represent them in Washington. The list goes on.

There was a time -- not that long ago really -- when America had real leadership, men and women of integrity in both parties who understood America’s responsibility to its people and its role in world affairs. Now the rest of the world looks on in disbelief as the once mighty and proud United States, twisting and turning in frustration and embarrassment, attempts to navigate through and around a president who is very much in charge, but who is utterly incompetent, and perhaps even mad.

We are victims of the old Chinese curse: We live in truly interesting times.

Gerald S. Rellick, Ph.D., worked in aerospace industry for 22 years. He now teaches in the California Community College system.