Post-9/11 presidents will see roles differently

Aug. 12, 2013 @ 02:26 PM

Tuesday was the 12th anniversary of what's commonly known as the most famous presidential briefing ever.

On Aug. 6, 2001, President George W. Bush was presented a memo titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." In it, FBI officials warned of intelligence that "indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks."

A little more than a month later, on Sept. 11, 2001, the memo would take on greater significance as 3,000 Americans died in the worst act of terrorism on U.S. soil.

For opponents of President Bush, the memo demonstrated that the Bush administration hadn't taken the threat posed by jihadists seriously enough. For Bush defenders, the briefing's authors failed to connect enough dots to take concrete action.

When the briefing was declassified in 2004, emotions were still raw concerning the death and destruction of the 9/11 terror attacks masterminded by Osama bin Laden and his band of extremists. The emotions may have cooled but the memories haven't.

For countless presidents who will follow Bush, including the current one, the Aug. 6, 2001, memo serves as a warning, a painful reminder for a chief executive to do whatever possible to prevent another 9/11.

How many presidents will view their jobs through the prism of 9/11? Perhaps we should consider how many saw the world in terms of the Cold War. By our count, eight -- from Harry Truman in the late 1940s to George Herbert Walker Bush in the early 1990s.

If the comparison holds, then the United States is still relatively new to life in a post-9/11 world.

Not that we've been sitting idly by. It's amazing what is now commonplace.

The U.S. military has been in Afghanistan since late 2001. We invaded to topple the Taliban government that had allowed bin Laden and al-Qaida free reign. U.S. soldiers are still there, though the Obama administration promises an exit to be complete by next year. What will be gained from the longest war in U.S. history is a matter of debate.

The security screening process at U.S. airports frequently includes long lines as air travelers undergo more scrutiny than they did before 9/11. At this point, most of us remove our shoes as we near the scanner as if by reflex.

As we've learned in greater detail from former NSA contractor-turned self-proclaimed whistleblower Edward Snowden, the phone calls and emails of Americans are being monitored by their government. We should probably remember that this doesn't mean the feds are actually listening to our calls, merely logging when, where and to whom they were made.

Last week, the Obama administration temporarily closed 19 U.S. embassies across the Middle East and Africa. The reason, administration sources say, is because of the discovery of credible threats of an al-Qaida terror plot.

President Barack Obama's opponents noted that this reaction doesn't square with previous administration claims that al-Qaida is "severely diminished" and "decimated." That seems like fair criticism, yet we can easily imagine any president opting for a little egg on his face in exchange for looking like he was asleep on the anti-terrorism watch.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal last week, broadcast journalist Ted Koppel noted, "We have created an economy of fear, an industry of fear, a national psychology of fear. Al-Qaida could never have achieved that on its own. We have inflicted it on ourselves."

He added, "Over the coming years many more Americans will die in car crashes, of gunshot wounds inflicted by family members and by falling off ladders than from any attack by al-Qaida."

That, too, is likely more right than wrong. However, the chances of a chief executive in the near term operating under that reasoning seems unlikely. Probably near the same chances that a president in the middle of the Cold War would have declared that the Soviet Union shouldn't dominate our every move.

Bob Davis is associate publisher/editor of The Anniston Star.