Ronald Kessler reporting from Washington, D.C. —
In the sweep of history, George W. Bush will be seen as one of our greatest presidents because of the decisions he made to keep us safe after 9/11.
Few outside the intelligence community recognize the enormity of those decisions. But Bush’s proclamation just after the terrorist attack that any country harboring a terrorist will be considered a terrorist country alone meant that Arab countries began cooperating in the war on terror, turning over thousands of terrorists and leads.
Two days after the attack, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and Attorney General John Ashcroft began to brief Bush.
“They talked about how the terrorists got plane tickets, got on planes, moved from one airport to another, and then attacked our citizens,” Andy Card, Bush’s chief of staff, told me for my book “The Secrets of the FBI.” “And the president, while he was very interested in that report, said, ‘Mr. Director, that’s building a case for prosecution. I want to know what you have to say about the terrorist threats that haven’t materialized yet and how we can prevent them.’”
Mueller took the message back to headquarters: Instead of simply responding to an attack, interdict them. Of course, the FBI had always sought to prevent terrorist attacks before they occurred. But under former FBI Director Louis Freeh’s leadership, the FBI tended to treat each incident as a separate case instead of recognizing the larger threat and mounting an effort against the entire al-Qaida organization, as the bureau had done with the Ku Klux Klan and the Mafia.
On top of that, before 9/11, because of relentless media criticism and a lack of clear authority under Justice Department guidelines, the FBI had become so gun shy and politically correct that even though terrorists were known to hatch their plots in mosques, the FBI was averse to following suspects there.
Under the guidelines in place before 9/11, FBI agents could not even look at online chat rooms to develop leads on people who might be recruiting terrorists or distributing information on making explosives. The FBI had to first determine that there was a sound investigative basis before it could sign on to chat rooms any 12-year-old could enter.
“We were told before 9/11 that we were not allowed to conduct investigative activity on the internet, even though it’s public,” Arthur M. “Art” Cummings II, who headed counterterrorism investigations, says. “Same thing with a mosque. It’s a gathering open to the public, but we were absolutely precluded from going into a mosque as an FBI agent. And precluded from having a source in a mosque report on anything in the mosque, or look at anything in the mosque, unless we had a specific target within the mosque.”
In 2005, Bush established the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean, Va., where 200 analysts from the CIA and FBI sit side by side analyzing threats 24 hours a day. A secure video conference takes place three times a day with all members of the intelligence community and the White House to analyze threats and parcel out leads.
Bush’s USA Patriot Act tore down the so-called wall imposed by Attorney General Janet Reno, a wall that prevented FBI agents from sharing information with each other and with the CIA. The much-maligned Patriot Act has allowed the FBI to wiretap a terrorist regardless of what phone he uses, an authority the FBI already had in organized crime cases. The National Security Agency (NSA) intercepts ordered by Bush opened for the FBI a window on terrorist activity within the U.S.
Since 9/11, the FBI, CIA, and the military have rolled up some 5,000 terrorists worldwide — a headline you will never see in The New York Times. Thus, many plots are never hatched, because terrorists have been killed, arrested, or sent back to their own countries and imprisoned.
By tripling the number of drones on order, Bush made it possible for President Obama to take out dozens of key al-Qaida leaders. And as Leon Panetta said when he was CIA director, Bush’s coercive interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, provided clues that helped lead to Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan.
Because of Bush’s decisions, America has not had a successful foreign terrorist attack since 9/11. Instead of hailing the efforts to connect the dots, the media demonize Bush and those who are trying to protect us, portraying the tools that uncover clues to plots as “spying on innocent Americans.” When a plot is successfully rolled up, the media minimize it.
The media have even managed to portray Saddam Hussein as relatively benign. But as revealed in my book “The Terrorist Watch,” in seven months of secret debriefings, Saddam admitted to FBI agent George Piro that he planned to resume his weapons of mass destruction program — including developing nuclear weapons — within a year.
Many in the media could not bear to hear that Bush might have been at least partially right about Saddam, and few newspapers reported the story.
While the media underplay the threats and distort descriptions of the measures needed to uncover the next plot, they undermine the war on terror by revealing secrets of how the FBI and CIA are trying to stop the next attack.
If the media revealed real abuses, they would be justified in exposing them, but that has not been the case. Since 9/11, the courts and Congress have allowed all of the Bush programs for uncovering terrorists to continue.
As with President Bush, the media portrayed Ronald Reagan as a bellicose fool. When Reagan appealed to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” the media went ballistic. Yet Reagan’s policy of dramatically increasing defense spending eventually convinced the Soviets essentially to give up.
A 2011 Gallup Poll found Americans now rank Reagan as our greatest president, ahead of Abraham Lincoln, Bill Clinton, and John F. Kennedy. Over time, Bush will be seen in the same light, recognized for keeping us safe and winning the war on terror.
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. He is the New York Times bestselling author of books on the Secret Service, FBI, and CIA. Read more reports from Ronald Kessler — Click Here Now.
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