WASHINGTON — When terrorists plan to strike America, should they call in advance and make reservations? If not - if they aren't specific about time and place - should President Bush and the rest of the federal government be held blameless for failing to stop them? That's been the view of the White House for the past 2-1/2 years, although public pressure may be changing that complacency. We all know by now that, on Aug. 6, 2001, Mr. Bush received a briefing from the CIA warning about "patterns of suspicious activity ... consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks." That's not a "historical" document, as National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice testified before the 9/11 Commission last week - that's an alarm bell that should have been heard.
But Bush wasn't listening, at least not closely. He said: "There was nothing in this report to me that said, 'Oh, by the way, we've got intelligence that says something is about to happen in America.'" It was not a warning, he continued, about "a hijacking of an airplane to fly into a building," but rather about possibly "hijacking of airplanes in order to free somebody that was being held as a prisoner in the United States."
But aren't hijackings of any kind a serious matter? Yes, it's a big country, but there are only about 420 commercial passenger airports in the US. Moreover, for at least a decade, the possibility of kamikaze terrorists on airplanes had been much discussed. In 1994, a deranged man crashed a small plane onto the White House grounds, doing little damage. And in 1995, a plot was uncovered to hijack airplanes and crash them into US targets, including CIA headquarters in Virginia.
Since then, on at least six occasions, according to The Wall Street Journal, the government set up air-defense systems above sensitive events, such as the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Indeed, on 9/11, plans were already under way to protect the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.
So what could Bush have done, even without precise "intel"? He could have "shaken the trees," to use Beltway phraseology. He could have ordered an immediate review of all ongoing counterterrorist activity, demanding daily follow-ups. Last week Ms. Rice said that Bush, in effect, had done just that: "The president of the United States had us at battle stations during this period of time."
But a look at the timeline of 9/11 itself shows that the governmental trees were unshaken that morning. The first sign that something was wrong in the skies over the East Coast came at 8:13 a.m., when American Airlines Flight 11 stopped responding to air traffic control. Within 20 minutes, authorities not only knew that the plane had been hijacked and that a passenger had been killed; they even knew the identity of some of the Arab killers. That plane crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46.
Mightn't those events alone have triggered some recall of the Aug. 6 briefing, if, in fact, Uncle Sam was at "battle stations"? Instead, at 8:55, the presidential motorcade arrived at an elementary school in Florida; Bush went inside to read a book to the children. Then a second hijacked plane - known to be off course for 38 minutes - crashed into the second tower. Bush was told, at 9:07, "America is under attack." Yet amazingly, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was sitting in his regular office a halfhour later when yet another plane struck the Pentagon. Does that sound like "battle stations"? Eighty-four minutes after the first inkling of a hijacked-airplane incident, the defense headquarters of the US was hit by a lumbering passenger airliner, and the defense chief was caught totally unprepared and vulnerable.
Can anybody call that performance a job well done? Bush seems to think so. After all, in the 31 months since, no senior figure involved in the 9/11 disaster has been removed from his or her job. Finally, Bush conceded, "Now may be the time to revamp and reform our intelligence services." That's a start, but only a start.
• James P. Pinkerton, a columnist for Newsday, worked in the White House for President Reagan and the first President Bush. ©Newsday.