- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 21, 2002

A lot of people are looking into what President Bush knew and when he knew it in connection with the September 11 terror attacks. They should be asking about what he didn't know and why he didn't know it.

First of all, in fairness to the Bush administration, there's no way that James Bond, Austin Powers or John Shaft, let alone George W. Bush, could have put together the pile of miscellaneous clues that now stand out so brightly and come up with a scenario resembling the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.

The White House most likely did not see September 11 coming any more than the previous administration did, no matter how much Bill Clinton's loyal opposition keeps blaming him for September 11 and just about everything else that is wrong in the world.

Yet, what stands out clearly in hindsight at the Bush White House also looks embarrassing enough to seriously damage the president's carefully crafted image of post-September-11 brilliance.

The White House confirmed disclosures by CBS News that the administration knew as far back as May 2001 that al Qaeda operatives possibly were plotting a hijacking and that the president was briefed in August on the possibility.

Sure, the data were vague and incomplete. Nevertheless, it did not sound at all pleasant to hear White House spokesman Ari Fleischer try to dismiss the reports because they related to a "traditional" hijacking, not a suicide crash.

Adding to Mr. Bush's woes, the paranoid wing of Mr. Bush's opposition, as represented by Rep. Cynthia McKinney, feels vindicated. When the Georgia Democrat called for a probe in mid-April into whether the Bush administration had prior knowledge of the attacks, right-wing commentators rose up to lambaste her as a wacky conspiracy theorist.

Even fellow Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia called her remarks "dangerous, loony and irresponsible."

Suddenly, barely a month later, her remarks sound like the Democratic Party line.

Democratic leaders in both houses of Congress sternly called for wider investigations. Why, they asked, did it take eight months for this new information to dribble out? Even Republican Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, questioned why the folks at the FBI, in particular, were "asleep."

The only difference between Miss McKinney and her party leaders, it appears, is that they waited to gather a few more facts before making their charges. Miss McKinney, by contrast, did not wait for facts when broad, sweeping conjecture would do.

She was "not aware of any evidence showing that President Bush or members of his administration have personally profited from the attacks of 9-11," she said. Still, she said, the mere possibility that Mr. Bush might have let thousands die needlessly to spark a war and benefit his pals in the defense industries was enough reason to have an investigation.

Oh? If the mere possibility that somebody was getting rich off of a calamity were enough reason to call an investigation, Washington would be doing nothing but investigations.

Miss McKinney would do well to remember that both sides in Washington play the blame game. It was not too long ago, for example, that Republicans blew eight years and $73 million of the taxpayers' money on a newsmaking but largely fruitless probe of Bill and Hillary Clinton's Whitewater land deals. The Clintons survived with surprisingly high approval ratings partly because so many of the attacks against them were transparently and cynically political.

So I've got a political peace plan to offer: Democrats should stop blaming Mr. Bush for September 11 if Republicans will stop blaming Mr. Clinton and vice versa. Instead, both sides should join together to find out what went wrong so we can prevent it from happening again.

A fair and balanced probe is not going to be easy in Washington's politically charged, camera-preening atmosphere. Politicians inevitably are tempted to look and sound like they're only one short step away from a grand jury, then fail to deliver. In the meantime, some poor suspected scapegoat's reputation is left needlessly trashed.

Besides, no matter who gets named or blamed or suspected, commissions never fully satisfy the conspiracy theorists. Right, Oliver Stone?

Even in an election year, the country needs to come together in matters of mutual concern like our national security. We should never silence vigorous and healthy debate. We do need to avoid cheap shots. We don't need scapegoats. We need to find out what went wrong and try to make it right.

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