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Context of 'May 16, 2002 and After: Democrats Raise Questions about Bush’s Warning of 9/11 Attacks'

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Air Traffic Controllers on board the USS <i>Enterprise</i> guide strike aircraft on bombing runs into Iraq. Photo taken December 17, 1998.Air Traffic Controllers on board the USS Enterprise guide strike aircraft on bombing runs into Iraq. Photo taken December 17, 1998. [Source: US Navy]The US and Britain launch a joint series of over 250 air strikes against Iraqi military targets, in a campaign dubbed “Operation Desert Fox.” The air strikes are designed to, in the mission statement released by the US Navy, “degrade Saddam Hussein’s ability to make and to use weapons of mass destruction,” to “diminish Saddam Hussein’s ability to wage war against his neighbors,” and to “demonstrate to Saddam Hussein the consequences of violating international obligations.” The air strikes are carried out by US Navy and Marine Corps aircraft from the USS Enterprise, from US and British military bases in the region. The strikes feature, among other weaponry, over 400 Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from naval vessels and US Air Force B-52s. Defense officials say that many of the strikes focus on destroying or damaging targets in southern Iraq, including surface-to-air missile sites, airfields, and command-and-control sites, all with the aim of giving US pilots a “safer corridor” to reach targets in the north. [American Forces Press Service, 12/18/1998; Barletta and Jorgensen, 5/1999; Roberts, 2008, pp. 121; US Department of Defense, 3/7/2008] Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz will later say that at least 62 Iraqis are killed in the strikes. No US or British casualties are reported. [BBC, 2002]
Failure to Comply with UN Inspections - President Bill Clinton explains that the military operation was in response to Iraq’s refusal to comply with UN weapons inspections (see December 16, 1998). “The international community gave Saddam one last chance to resume cooperation with the weapons inspectors,” Clinton says. “Saddam’s deception has defeated their effectiveness. Instead of the inspectors disarming Saddam, the Iraqi dictator has disarmed the inspectors.… Saddam has failed to seize the chance. So we had to act and act now.” Clinton continues, “Saddam Hussein must not be allowed to threaten his neighbors or the world with nuclear arms, poison gas, or biological weapons.” He has used them before, Clinton adds, and “left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will use these terrible weapons again.” [American Forces Press Service, 12/17/1998] US Secretary of Defense William Cohen says that the attacks “degraded Saddam Hussein’s ability to deliver chemical and biological weapons,” and defends the US’s right to act unilaterally against Iraq if it is in “our national interest.” British Prime Minister Tony Blair agrees with Clinton’s assessment. “He is a serial breaker of promises,” Blair says. [CNN, 12/16/1998]
Real Aim to Destabilize Hussein? - In January 1999, reporter William Arkin, a defense specialist, will write that he believes the strikes were designed to do far more than punish Iraq for not complying with UN inspections. The extremely specific target listings—down to specific buildings—and the nature of the targets chosen will lead Arkin to believe that Desert Fox was designed to cripple Iraq’s ability to wage war. Only 13 of the 100 or so sites were identified as chemical or biological weapons production or research facilities, Arkin will write. Additionally, Arkin will comment that the US-British strikes were not just to “degrade” Iraq’s military capabilities, but to destabilize the Hussein regime. [Washington Post, 1/17/1999]
Accusations of Political Distraction - Many of Clinton’s political opponents, including Republican lawmakers and conservative commentators and radio hosts, accuse Clinton, both during and after the strikes, of attempting to use a military operation to distract the nation from his admission of a sexual liaison with intern Monica Lewinsky. [BBC, 2002]
Destroys Remainder of Iraq's WMD Stockpiles - In 2004, US weapons inspector David Kay will say that Desert Fox and other 1998 air strikes destroyed the remaining stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons left over from the Gulf War (see January 23, 2004).

Entity Tags: William Arkin, United Nations Special Commission, US Department of Defense, Tony Blair, David Kay, Saddam Hussein, Tariq Aziz, William S. Cohen, Monica Lewinsky, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

President Bush at his Crawford, Texas, ranch on August 6, 2001. Advisors wait with classified briefings.President Bush at his Crawford, Texas, ranch on August 6, 2001. Advisors wait with classified briefings. [Source: White House]President Bush receives a classified presidential daily briefing (PDB) at his Crawford, Texas ranch indicating that Osama bin Laden might be planning to hijack commercial airliners. The PDB provided to him is entitled, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US.” The entire briefing focuses on the possibility of terrorist attacks inside the US. [New York Times, 5/15/2002; Newsweek, 5/27/2002] The analysts who drafted the briefing will say that they drafted it on the CIA’s initiative (see July 13, 2004), whereas in 2004 Bush will state that he requested a briefing on the topic due to threats relating to a conference in Genoa, Italy, in July 2001, where Western intelligence agencies believed Osama bin Laden was involved in a plot to crash an airplane into a building to kill Bush and other leaders (see April 13, 2004). The analysts will later explain that they saw it as an opportunity to convey that the threat of an al-Qaeda attack in the US was both current and serious. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 260] The existence of this briefing is kept secret, until it is leaked in May 2002, causing a storm of controversy (see May 15, 2002). While National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice will claim the memo is only one and a half pages long, other accounts state it is 11 1/2 pages instead of the usual two or three. [New York Times, 5/15/2002; Newsweek, 5/27/2002; Die Zeit (Hamburg), 10/1/2002] A page and a half of the contents will be released on April 10, 2004; this reportedly is the full content of the briefing. [Washington Post, 4/10/2004] The briefing, as released, states as follows (note that the spelling of certain words are corrected and links have been added):
bullet Clandestine, foreign government, and media reports indicate bin Laden since 1997 has wanted to conduct terrorist attacks in the US (see December 1, 1998). Bin Laden implied in US television interviews in 1997 and 1998 that his followers would follow the example of World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef and “bring the fighting to America” (see May 26, 1998).
bullet After US missile strikes on his base in Afghanistan in 1998, bin Laden told followers he wanted to retaliate in Washington, according to a -REDACTED-service (see December 21, 1998).
bullet An Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) operative told -REDACTED- service at the same time that bin Laden was planning to exploit the operative’s access to the US to mount a terrorist strike.
bullet The millennium plotting in Canada in 1999 may have been part of bin Laden’s first serious attempt to implement a terrorist strike in the US. Convicted plotter Ahmed Ressam has told the FBI that he conceived the idea to attack Los Angeles International Airport himself (see December 14, 1999), but that bin Laden lieutenant Abu Zubaida encouraged him and helped facilitate the operation. Ressam also said that in 1998 Abu Zubaida was planning his own US attack (see Late March-Early April 2001 and May 30, 2001).
bullet Ressam says bin Laden was aware of the Los Angeles operation.
bullet Although bin Laden has not succeeded, his attacks against the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998) demonstrate that he prepares operations years in advance and is not deterred by setbacks. Bin Laden associates surveyed our embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam as early as 1993 (see Late 1993-Late 1994), and some members of the Nairobi cell planning the bombings were arrested and deported in 1997.
bullet Al-Qaeda members—including some who are US citizens—have resided in or traveled to the US for years, and the group apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks (see January 25, 2001). Two al-Qaeda members found guilty in the conspiracy to bomb our embassies in East Africa were US citizens (see September 15, 1998), and a senior EIJ member lived in California in the mid-1990s (see November 1989 and September 10, 1998).
bullet A clandestine source said in 1998 that a bin Laden cell in New York was recruiting Muslim-American youth for attacks (see October-November 1998).
bullet “We have not been able to corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting, such as that from a [REDACTED] service in 1998 saying that bin Laden wanted to hijack a US aircraft to gain the release of ‘Blind Sheikh’ Omar Abdul-Rahman and other US-held extremists” (see 1998, December 4, 1998, and May 23, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 223] According to the Washington Post, this information came from a British service. [Washington Post, 5/18/2002]
bullet Nevertheless, FBI information since that time indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York (see May 30, 2001).
bullet The FBI is conducting approximately 70 full-field investigations throughout the US that it considers bin Laden-related (see August 6, 2001). CIA and the FBI are investigating a call to our embassy in the UAE in May saying that a group or bin Laden supporters was in the US planning attacks with explosives (see May 16-17, 2001). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 223]
In retrospect, the briefing is remarkable for the many warnings that apparently are not included (see for instance, from the summer of 2001 prior to August alone: May 2001, June 2001, June 12, 2001, June 19, 2001, Late Summer 2001, July 2001, July 16, 2001, Late July 2001, Late July 2001, Summer 2001, June 30-July 1, 2001, July 10, 2001, and Early August 2001). According to one account, after the PDB has been given to him, Bush tells the CIA briefer, “You’ve covered your ass now” (see August 6, 2001). Incredibly, the New York Times later reports that after being given the briefing, Bush “[breaks] off from work early and [spends] most of the day fishing.” [New York Times, 5/25/2002] In 2002 and again in 2004, National Security Adviser Rice will incorrectly claim under oath that the briefing only contained historical information from 1998 and before (see May 16, 2002 and April 8, 2004).

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Islamic Jihad, Omar Abdul-Rahman, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Los Angeles International Airport, Condoleezza Rice, Abu Zubaida, Al-Qaeda, World Trade Center, Central Intelligence Agency, 9/11 Commission, Ahmed Ressam, Ramzi Yousef, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

White House political guru Karl Rove tells the Republican National Committee: “We can go to the American people on this issue of winning the war [against terrorism]. We can go to the country on this issue because they trust the Republican Party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America’s military might and thereby protecting America.” In 2008, current deputy White House press secretary Scott McClellan will write: “Rove was the first administration official to publicly make the case for winning the war as a partisan issue, a marked shift in tone from [President] Bush’s repeated emphasis on unity and bipartisanship in confronting and defeating radical Islam.… Rove’s candor about this strategy infuriated suspicious Democrats, who condemned Rove for trying to politicize the war.” Bush will soon begin campaigning for Republicans in the midterm elections using Rove’s strategy. McClellan will note: “As governor [of Texas], he’d maintained good relations with friendly legislators by refusing to campaign against them, even if they were members of the opposing party. Bush’s actions prompted concern and anxiety among Democrats.” [McClellan, 2008, pp. 112-113]

Entity Tags: Scott McClellan, Bush administration (43), George W. Bush, Karl C. Rove, Republican National Committee

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Domestic Propaganda, 2004 Elections

The New York Post has a banner headline on May 16, 2002.The New York Post has a banner headline on May 16, 2002. [Source: New York Post]The Bush administration is embarrassed when the CBS Evening News reveals that President Bush had been warned about al-Qaeda domestic attacks in August 2001 (see August 6, 2001). [New York Times, 5/15/2002; Washington Post, 5/16/2002] CBS’s David Martin reports: “The president’s daily intelligence brief is delivered to the president each morning, often by the director of central intelligence himself. In the weeks before 9/11 it warned that an attack by Osama bin Laden could involve the hijacking of a US aircraft.” [McClellan, 2008, pp. 113] Bush had repeatedly said that he had “no warning” of any kind. Press secretary Ari Fleischer states unequivocally that while Bush had been warned of possible hijackings, “[t]he president did not—not—receive information about the use of airplanes as missiles by suicide bombers.” [New York Times, 5/15/2002; Washington Post, 5/16/2002] “Until the attack took place, I think it’s fair to say that no one envisioned that as a possibility.” [MSNBC, 9/18/2002] Fleischer claims the August memo was titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike the US,” but the real title is soon found to end with “Strike in US” [Washington Post, 5/18/2002] The Guardian will state a few days later, “[T]he memo left little doubt that the hijacked airliners were intended for use as missiles and that intended targets were to be inside the US.” It further states that, “now, as the columnist Joe Conason points out in the current edition of the New York Observer, ‘conspiracy’ begins to take over from ‘incompetence’ as a likely explanation for the failure to heed—and then inform the public about—warnings that might have averted the worst disaster in the nation’s history.” [Guardian, 5/19/2002] Current deputy press secretary Scott McClellan will point out in 2008: “The [CBS] report left much open to question. Was it suggesting that the president had received info that should have led him to act? Was it just a possible warning sign, like many others that may have gone unheeded? Or was it something else, possibly a nonspecific bit of intelligence from years earlier?” McClellan will write that the uncertainty “mattered little to Democratic leaders in Congress. They saw an opportunity to attack the president’s strong suit—his leadership in the war on terrorism—and cut into his enormous popularity ahead of the midterm elections that coming November.” [McClellan, 2008, pp. 113]

Entity Tags: Bush administration (43), David Martin, Osama bin Laden, George W. Bush, Scott McClellan, Ari Fleischer, Joe Conason

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) says he is “gravely concerned” to learn that President Bush “received a warning in August about the threat of hijackers,” referring to a CBS News report revealing that Bush had been warned about a possible hijacking over a month before the 9/11 attacks (see August 6, 2001). Daschle calls on the White House to provide the classified briefing to Congressional investigators. House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-MO) says, using the language of Watergate investigators, “I think what we have to do now is find out what the president, what the White House knew about the events leading up to 9/11, when they knew it, and, most importantly, what was done about it at the time.” White House deputy press secretary Scott McClellan will later write that, as objectionable as the White House finds these statements, “the Democrat who most aroused the ire of the White House and Republicans was New York’s Democratic senator, Hillary Clinton.” Clinton takes the floor of the Senate and says, “We learn today something we might have learned at least eight months ago: that President Bush had been informed last year, before September 11, of a possible al-Qaeda plot to hijack a US airliner.” She displays a New York Post headline that reads, “BUSH KNEW” (see May 15, 2002) and “9/11 BOMBSHELL.” “The president knew what?” Clinton asks. McClellan will write that he and his White House colleagues are “incensed” at Clinton’s rhetoric: “To us, such grandstanding appeared to be a return to the ugly partisan warfare that had come to define Washington and its culture during the 1990s. Politics as war, the innuendo of scandal, and the egregious implication that the president had deliberately neglected the country’s safety—it was all in service of the November election results. All the familiar elements were there. The story and the partisan accusations that followed provided great controversy for the media to cover.” (In this passage, McClellan fails to note that White House political guru Karl Rove had, months before, advised Bush and Republican candidates to use the war to attack Democrats in the November 2002 elections—see January 2002). McClellan will complain that Clinton “had not even bothered to call [the White House] to find out more about the facts behind the headlines before delivering her speech,” and will note: “To us, the disingenuous way the leaders rushed to create a damning story line about the president and his administration crossed a line. Republicans objected vehemently and aggressively in a counteroffensive led by the White House,” with Vice President Dick Cheney calling the Democrats’ questions “incendiary” (see May 16, 2002) and Bush declaring, “Had we any inkling, whatsoever, that terrorists were about to attack our country, we would have moved heaven and earth to protect America.” Bush adds: “And I’m confident that President Clinton would have done the same thing (see September 7, 2003). Any president would have.” McClellan will call Bush’s statement “a gesture toward the rapidly vanishing spirit of bipartisanship.” He will write that Democrats did not, by themselves, break the bipartisanship that had supposedly reigned before CBS broke the news of the August 6 briefing: “Democrats were responding in part to perceived efforts by Republicans seeking political advantage from the president’s aggressive efforts to wage war against Islamist terrorists,” and will note that in 1998, Republicans accused President Clinton of “wagging the dog”—launching military strikes against Iraq to distract the nation from the Monica Lewinsky scandal (see December 16-19, 1998). [McClellan, 2008, pp. 117-118]

Entity Tags: Hillary Clinton, Bush administration (43), George W. Bush, Tom Daschle, Scott McClellan, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Richard Gephardt, Karl C. Rove

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The video sleeve for ‘DC 9/11.’The video sleeve for ‘DC 9/11.’ [Source: Internet Movie Database (.com)]Showtime broadcasts a “docudrama” about the 9/11 attacks and the White House’s response, entitled DC 9/11: Time of Crisis. According to New York Times author and media critic Frank Rich, the film drastically rewrites history to portray President Bush as “an unironic action-movie superhero.” In the movie, Bush—portrayed by actor Timothy Bottoms, who played Bush in Comedy Central’s satiric That’s My Bush!—is shown overruling his Secret Service detail and ordering Air Force One to return to Washington immediately, an event which never happened (see (10:32 a.m.) September 11, 2001 and (4:00 p.m.) September 11, 2001). “If some tinhorn terrorist wants me, tell him to come and get me!” the movie Bush shouts. “I’ll be at home, waiting for the b_stard!” The movie Bush has other lines that establish his desire to get back to Washington, including, “The American people want to know where their damn president is!” and “People can’t have an AWOL president!” In one scene, a Secret Service agent questions Bush’s demand to return to Washington by saying, “But Mr. President—” only to be cut off by Bush, who snaps, “Try ‘Commander in Chief.’ Whose present command is: Take the president home!” In reality, most of the orders on 9/11 were given by Vice President Dick Cheney and counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke, but in the movie, Bush is the man in charge. “Hike military alert status to Delta,” he orders Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. “That’s the military, the CIA, foreign, domestic, everything,” he explains. “And if you haven’t gone to Defcon 3, you oughtta.” To Cheney, he barks: “Vice? We are at war.” The White House team are, in Rich’s words, “portrayed as the very model of efficiency and derring-do.” [Washington Post, 6/19/2003; New York Times, 9/5/2003; Rich, 2006, pp. 25-26] New York Times reviewer Alessandra Stanley notes that Bush is the unquestioned hero of the film, with British Prime Minister Tony Blair portrayed as “not very eloquent” and Cheney depicted as “a kowtowing yes-man.” [New York Times, 9/5/2003]
Conservative Pundits Influenced Script - The movie is produced by Lionel Chetwynd, whom Rich calls “the go-to conservative in B-list Hollywood.” For the movie script, Chetwynd was given unprecedently broad access to top White House officials, including Bush. He also received the assistance of conservative Washington pundits Charles Krauthammer, Morton Kondracke, and Fred Barnes, who cover the Bush White House for such media outlets as Fox News, the Weekly Standard, and the Washington Post. Rich later writes that much of the film seems based on Bob Woodward’s “hagiographic [book] Bush at War (see November 25, 2002).” [Washington Post, 6/19/2003; Rich, 2006, pp. 25-26]
Propaganda Effort? - Before the movie airs, Toronto Sun columnist Linda McQuaig called the film an attempt to mythologize Bush in a fashion similar to Hollywood’s re-creation of the Wild West’s Wyatt Earp, and wrote that the film “is sure to help the White House further its two-pronged reelection strategy: Keep Americans terrified of terrorism and make Bush look like the guy best able to defend them.” Texas radio commentator Jim Hightower added that the movie would present Bush as “a combination of Harrison Ford and Arnold Schwarzenegger.… Instead of the doe-eyed, uncertain, worried figure that he was that day, Bush-on-film is transformed into an infallible, John Wayne-ish, Patton-type leader, barking orders to the Secret Service and demanding that the pilots return him immediately to the White House.” Chetwynd himself has acknowledged that he is a “great admirer” of Bush, and has close ties to the White House. In late 2001, Bush appointed him to the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. “This isn’t propaganda,” Chetwynd insisted during the shooting of the movie, adding: “Everything in the movie is [based on] two or three sources. I’m not reinventing the wheel here.… I don’t think it’s possible to do a revision of this particular bit of history. Every scholar who has looked at this has come to the same place that this film does. There’s nothing here that Bob Woodward would disagree with.… It’s a straightforward docudrama. I would hope what’s presented is a fully colored and nuanced picture of a human being in a difficult situation.” [Washington Post, 6/19/2003] Rich will later write that the film is “unmistakably a propaganda effort on behalf of a sitting administration.” [Rich, 2006, pp. 25-26]
Blaming the Clinton Administration - Perhaps most questionably, Stanley writes, the film “rarely misses a chance to suggest that the Clinton administration’s weakness was to blame for the disaster.” Bush, she notes, is portrayed as a more decisive leader than his predecessor: in the film, he tells Blair over the telephone: “I want to inflict pain [on the attackers]. Bring enough damage so they understand there is a new team here, a fundamental change in our policy.” [New York Times, 9/5/2003]
9/11 Widow Unhappy with Film - Kristen Breitweiser, who lost her husband in the attack on the World Trade Center, calls the film “a mind-numbingly boring, revisionist, two-hour-long wish list of how 9/11 might have gone if we had real leaders in the current administration.” She adds: “It is understandable that so little time is actually devoted to the president’s true actions on the morning of 9/11. Because to show the entire 23 minutes from 9:03 to 9:25 a.m., when President Bush, in reality, remained seated and listening to ‘second grade story-hour’ while people like my husband were burning alive inside the World Trade Center towers, would run counter to Karl Rove’s art direction and grand vision.” Breitweiser questions numerous aspects of the film: “Miscellaneous things that surprised me included the fact that the film perpetuates the big fat lie that Air Force One was a target. Forgive me, but I thought the White House admitted at the end of September 2001 that Air Force One was never a target, that no code words were spoken and that it was all a lie (see (10:32 a.m.) September 11, 2001 and September 12, 2001-March 2004). So what gives?… Not surprisingly, there is no mention of accountability. Not once does anyone say, ‘How the hell did this happen? Heads will roll!’ I was hoping that, at least behind closed doors, there were words like, ‘Look, we really screwed up! Let’s make sure we find out what went wrong and that it never happens again!’ Nope, no such luck.” [Salon, 9/8/2003]

Entity Tags: Charles Krauthammer, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Richard A. Clarke, Showtime, Alessandra Stanley, Tony Blair, Bob Woodward, Morton Kondracke, Lionel Chetwynd, Timothy Bottoms, Kristen Breitweiser, Donald Rumsfeld, Clinton administration, Fred Barnes, Frank Rich, Karl C. Rove, George W. Bush, Linda McQuaig, Jim Hightower

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, Domestic Propaganda, 2004 Elections

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