The 9/11 Blame Game

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Wouldn't you have thought, five years later, we'd be done arguing about who was to blame for 9/11?

I just assumed that after one congressional probe, a two-years-long bipartisan commission and more solid journalism than even our business has awards for — and that would be a lot — we could all agree that fingers could be safely pointed at at least three entities: the terrorists, for launching the attacks; and both the Clinton and Bush administrations, for acting too timidly to stop them, despite all the warning signs.

End of story. Can we move on now?

No, instead, we're witnessing a full dynastic rumble about who is to blame.

Chris Wallace asked Clinton last weekend if he had done enough to get bin Laden. Clinton eventually said no, but not before he leveled two charges at the Bush White House — one legit, one not. First, he said the Bush team demoted his counterterror czar Richard Clarke. That's technically right, but even the Kean-Hamilton commission noted Clarke continued to function at the same level of authority inside the White House as before. (Many Democrats just refuse to believe this.)

But what really teed off the Bushies is that Clinton then said that his successor "did not try" to kill or stop bin Laden for the first eight months in office — that is, the eight months before the 9/11 atttacks. The Bush White House has always been hugely sensitive about this charge because, well, there is some truth to it. The new administration came into office and put terror about third or fourth down on its list of big worries, behind Russia, the ABM treaty, and sorting out that unexpected spy plane problem with the Chinese. (Many Republicans just refuse to believe this.)

And the person (besides Bush himself) most responsible for ordering things that way was Condoleezza Rice, then the National Security Adviser, a longtime Russia expert. It was always my impression that Rice made it through all the after-action reviews of 9/11 surprisingly unscathed — and I think that clean accounting helps explain why Rice, who is now Secretary of State, jumped into this slapfest on Monday. That's when she charged that Clinton failed to leave behind a "comprehensive" strategy for dealing with bin Laden. If by that she means a plan to invade Afghanistan, she's partly right — Clinton's terror advisers presented a plan that stopped short of invasion. But even if invasion had been included, such a plan would have gone nowhere. Everyone knows the first thing the Bush team did was reflexively throw out anything that had Clinton's scent, much less his name, on it.

That reflex really burned the Clintons — who maintain that the nation would be far better off if Bush had stuck with prevailing U.S. policy with regard to the Koreas and China and the Middle East — and was almost surely what provoked Sen. Hillary Clinton to step in Tuesday and counter-slap Rice. Sen. Clinton said her husband would not have sat on his hands if he had seen, as Bush did, an intelligence estimate in August 2001 suggesting that bin Laden might try to run some jetliners into skyscrapers.

That's an imponderable. Simply because Mrs. Clinton is in the mix, there will be another round today, or maybe two, before the day is over. There's nothing like a good dynastic rumble to wake up both parties' sleepy activist core. But all it has done is remind us that both sides are to blame.