It was a day 20 years ago that I drove to Marshall University to teach a 9:30 a.m. class, first stopping to mail a care package to my son, Dan, 25, at his Marine Corps base in California. The class over, I walked to my department’s office, where I saw a group of faculty members and students huddled near a television screen. Osama bin Laden’s terrorist group had struck.
A tearful graduate student, herself a former Marine, said she feared a recall to the fight that surely awaited. My thoughts turned to Dan and what soon might befall him. Watching that screen, we wondered how it could have happened. Twenty years later, we have some answers.
Eight months before the attacks, President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney had assumed office, fortunate to have Richard Clarke as terrorism chief. Clarke had already served under two presidents.
In the months that followed the attacks, Clarke would tell the 9/11 Commission’s investigators that he had perpetually been stymied in his efforts to meet with his superior, Cheney, to warn of al-Qaida’s mounting threat. Evidently, Cheney had turned a deaf ear to Clarke because both he and President Bush were focused on invading Iraq and overthrowing its brutal dictator, Saddam Hussein.
Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill confirmed Clarke’s testimony. He told the commission how, a mere week into office, in a meeting of the National Security Council, Bush had insisted that the United States had to “take out” Hussein. Meanwhile, unrelated to Hussein and Iraq, the darkening storm clouds of al-Qaida were gathering force.
The president and vice president ignored, dismissed or downplayed far more than just Clarke’s warnings. Three months before 9/11, intelligence officials had advised airlines of a possible terrorist strike at the Los Angeles airport. Additional intelligence findings kept emerging. One described young men in Florida who were learning how to fly wide-body jets while expressing no interest in understanding how to land them. Another alert said that bin Laden might use planes as flying torpedoes, aimed at U.S. targets.
Incredibly, at the White House, little or no preventive action was being taken. On Aug. 6, 2001, the president was handed a bulletin titled, “Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.” And still, nothing was done to prevent what would happen just five weeks later. By the end of its investigation, the 9/11 Commission had discovered that, in the months prior to the attacks, 40 warnings that mentioned either bin Laden or al-Qaida, or both, had been directed to the White House.
All the while, Bush, Cheney and their colleagues had been preoccupied with dreamy visions of establishing a Western-style democracy in Iraq. And while they entertained themselves with that fantasy, out in the periphery, the toxic potency of al-Qaida’s thunderheads steadily intensified, until finally unleashing their destructive force on Sept. 11, 2001.
Today and always, we hold in reverence the memories of those who died on the planes and in the offices and as first responders, as we also remember those who perished in the war that followed.
The graduate student of whom I spoke was not recalled to the Marine Corps and soon completed her master’s degree. Three years later, my son Dan was discharged after serving two tours of duty in the Iraq war.
But the war in Iraq slogged on for a decade, a quagmire created by Bush and Cheney, who exploited the patriotism aroused on 9/11 to convince Americans of two untruths: That Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and that it had ties to those who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks. These were that era’s “Big Lies.”