In the past two weeks, the storm over unheeded intelligence warnings about Sept. 11 has moved further and further away from George W. Bush. The story has not been, as it was at first, what did he know and when did he know it. Rather it has focused on communications within and between intelligence agencies. The president’s nationally televised announcement of a cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security to coordinate intelligence on terrorism can only serve to further insulate him from political fallout.
The polling to date has found no impact on Bush’s still very healthy approval ratings and there is little indication that the public is inclined to hunt for scapegoats. This is not to say that Americans are giving the government or the Bush administration a free pass on the pre-9/11 intelligence lapses. So far, the public’s view is that there is more than enough blame to go around. People are pointing fingers in many different directions, but the two agencies at the center of the controversy are catching most of the blame. A late May Time/CNN poll showed that 59% see the CIA as at least somewhat responsible for failing to prevent the attacks, while the same number (58%) say that about the FBI; fewer see Bush’s advisers, or the president himself, at fault.
And “fault” is a rather elusive concept in this case, because the public generally has taken the view — at least until the most recent round of revelations — that bits and pieces of intelligence that the government collected prior to Sept. 11 were too fragmentary to trigger government action. In an ABC News/Washington Post poll last month, 56% said the warnings were too vague to require a meaningful government response, while 32% felt they were detailed enough to warrant action. (see graphic)
But the ongoing congressional hearings into intelligence failures, likely to last all summer, will guarantee a steady stream of new revelations, even if the hearings are theoretically closed. These disclosures will no doubt impact public opinion. It likely will bolster the belief that bureaucratic ineptness, rather than the fragmentary nature of the pre-9/11 intelligence reports, was to blame for the government’s failure to take action. This could further erode public confidence in the government’s ability to prevent future attacks. Already, the ABC/Post poll found, for the first time since the attacks fewer than half of Americans (46%) have confidence in the government to deter such attacks.
And while it is easy to imagine a summer’s worth of congressional hearings undercutting the public’s esteem for the FBI and CIA — which has remained surprisingly resilient in the face of the controversy — there is less risk for the president. Not only has Bush acknowledged that the FBI and CIA should have done better in sharing information prior to Sept. 11, he is now taking action to try to ensure that occurs.
The congressional probe does contain an element of unpredictability for the White House; such investigations always have the potential to uncover information embarrassing to the president. The investigation also may embolden Democrats to take on the president, although they have moved cautiously since their initial harsh criticism of the president badly backfired. However, short of convincing evidence that the White House knew enough to have prevented the attacks, which seems unlikely to emerge, the president is unlikely to suffer any long-term political damage.