The news: The White House had indeed gotten an inkling that al-Qaeda terrorists were leaning toward plane-hijacking as their next move against the U.S. A Phoenix FBI agent had urged the bureau to look into Middle Eastern men enrolled in flight schools; a Minneapolis agent even wrote in case notes that Zacarias Moussaoui was the kind of guy who might "fly something into the World Trade Center." But still the U.S. intelligence apparatus was unable to stop 9/11 from happening.
Responding to the subtext, that the administration could have prevented 9/11, kept Fleischer and Condoleeza Rice busy for the rest of the week. The explanation is the inherently obvious one: They surprised us, plain and simple, with a planes-as-missiles tactical leap. "There's been a long-standing awareness in the intelligence community, shared with the president, about the potential for bin Laden to have hijacking in the traditional sense," Fleischer said. Bush, he added, put out a secret alert based on the information the administration had, which wasn't much. Added Rice Thursday: "The government did everything that it could in a period in which the information was very generalized, in which there was nothing specific in which to react and had this president known of something more specific or known that a plane was going to be used as a missile, he would have acted on it,"
Which really shouldn't have to be said about the president of the United States that he would have prevented the death of thousands if he'd been able. And yet the New York Post headline and this is not a liberal, Bush-bashing paper we're talking about here implies something out of "Oliver Stone's Pearl Harbor." To be fair, BUSH KNEW was only saying aloud what other news accounts merely muttered.
Members of Congress were readily available for comment along the usual lines. There was the always-reliable (and understandable) "why didn't you tell us before?" complaint, voiced with equal brow-furrowing by top Senate Democrat Tom Daschle and top Republican spy-watcher Richard Shelby. There was the hunt for some serious White House negligence, headed up by House Minority Leader Dick "full investigation" Gephardt. And there was a third response, something Fleischer probably wished the White House reporters had been thinking all along: There is nothing scandalous about this.
"It is not news that the president of the United States is briefed about Osama bin Laden and hijackings. That's just not news," said Porter Goss, Florida Republican and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. He added that he believes the White House took "appropriate" action in response to the warning and stressed that much of the information was not specific.
Yes, the information-processing capabilities of the U.S. intelligence community could maybe use a thorough check up, and yes, there are several investigative committees in Congress doing just that this very week. They may even do some good. Maybe next time al-Qaeda tries for a big hit, the U.S. will be one step ahead, instead of one tactical leap behind. And maybe it won't be. Hindsight is not always 20-20; sometimes it's clouded by things we're sure should be there.
Like, for instance, willful neglect. Said Shelby in summing up the intelligence tragedy: "You put all that together, and you've dotted a lot of things, you've closed some circles, but it didn't happen," he said. "I think it was a lost opportunity. If you put it all in context, not just the briefing of the president, but the FBI is involved here, and I think they could have done a better job, but they didn't."
Self-scrutiny is good government. So is a little restraint, and to hint that the administration wasn't trying to prevent what became the 9/11 tragedy is unfair. And so, for standing there from the very start for that being in fact his job description Ari Fleischer gets our sympathy vote for TIME.com's Person of the Week.