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Bill Press is a syndicated columnist, CNN political commentator and author of the newly-published book Spin This!

Bill Press: Don't ask what went wrong, it's unpatriotic!

By Bill Press
Tribune Media Services

WASHINGTON (Tribune Media Services) -- If you believe Dick Cheney, don't read this column. It's unpatriotic.

At a Republican fund-raiser last week, he attacked anybody who dares raise questions about what the president knew about possible terrorist attacks before September 11. "Such commentary is thoroughly irresponsible and totally unworthy of national leaders in a time of war."

Dick Cheney is dead wrong. It is not irresponsible to demand that bureaucrats do the job we pay them to do. It is not irresponsible to expect people in authority to be held responsible for dumb, and perhaps fatal, mistakes. And, finally, it is not irresponsible, even in time of war, to raise questions about the presidency of George W. Bush.

Americans deserve to know what went wrong. How did the CIA, the FBI and the White House miss so many clues before September 11 about what Osama bin Laden was planning next for the United States? Who is responsible for the screw-ups? Whose heads are going to roll? And how can we be sure the problem has been fixed?

Immediately after September 11, we were told there were no advance warnings. We now know that's not true. There were plenty of warnings. They were simply ignored. There were lots of dots. Nobody ever connected them.

With Dick Cheney's permission, let's review the facts. Those 19 terrorists did not just slip into the country and carry out their terrorist attacks. They had been here for years, planning and getting ready. And, despite the fact that several were on the FBI's most-wanted list, they were living openly in major metropolitan areas, renting cars and apartments in their own names, procuring driver's licenses and taking flying lessons.

As an example of how brazen they were, ringleader Mohammed Atta and a colleague even rented a small plane in Miami. When their plane stalled before takeoff, on Miami's active runway, they simply climbed out of the plane and walked out of the airport and were never stopped or questioned. These guys were not trying to hide. They didn't have to. Where was the FBI?

Wait. It gets worse. We recently learned that at least one member of the FBI was worried. On July 10, 2001, an agent in the bureau's Phoenix office wrote a memo warning that many Middle Eastern men with connections to Osama bin Laden were taking flight lessons in various training schools around the country, and might be up to no good. He sent a memo to FBI headquarters, suggesting agency intervention. Nothing happened. The FBI director and the attorney general never even heard about the warning until shortly after 9/11. Why not?

Then in early August, President Bush, as he was beginning his Texas vacation, was warned by the CIA that agents of Osama bin Laden might be planning to hijack American planes. And in mid-August, al-Qaida member Zacarias Moussouai was arrested by the FBI in Minnesota after applying for lessons on how to fly a jumbo jet, but not how to take off or land.

And what happened? Still nothing! Call me irresponsible, but I'm still curious: Why didn't the FBI and CIA act on their information? Why didn't the president, for example, order a pre-emptive strike against Osama bin Laden? After the bombings of U.S. embassies and the attack on the USS Cole, didn't his name ring any bells in the Texas countryside?

Defending their collective failure to act, the White House, FBI and CIA argue that the warnings were too "vague" and that, prior to September 11, nobody ever imagined hijackers would use airliners as suicide bombs. Not true. In 1996, Philippine authorities informed the CIA that they had arrested terrorists with plans for flying planes into American buildings. And a 1999 interagency government study specifically warned of a possible al-Qaida terrorist attack in which a jet would crash "into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the CIA, or the White House."

Clearly, there was not only a massive intelligence failure before September 11, but also a failure to act on what intelligence existed. And that demands what the Bush White House opposes: an immediate, thorough, public and bipartisan congressional investigation of whether the terrorist attacks of 9/11 could have been prevented.

As for Dick Cheney's outrageous claim that those who question George Bush's leadership are irresponsible (read: unpatriotic), Republican President Teddy Roosevelt said it best: "To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public."




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