How Bush Hit the 'Trifecta' on 9/11--and the Public Lost Big-Time

It is sickening to contemplate an administration intentionally looking the other way while terrorists scheme so that whatever havoc they wreak can provide cover for the president to raid Social Security.

by Brad Carlton
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Bush, in the weeks before September 11, pledged to honor the sanctity of the Social Security lockbox except in the event of recession, war, or a national emergency. But after "everything changed" on 9/11, he reportedly gloated to his budget director, Mitch Daniels, "Lucky me--I hit the trifecta!" At the time, this comment (a variation of which is being recycled for laughs at current GOP fundraisers) seemed merely offensive. But in light of revelations that Bush's August 6 briefing memo was titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike U.S.," Bush's "luck" and weird prescience are worth more than passing scrutiny.

Whenever someone is suspected of a crime, investigators look for a motive in addition to actual proof of guilt to determine, a posteriori, whether there was malice aforethought. In cases of criminal negligence, motive must also be deduced, a priori, to answer the question: were preventive failures due to craftiness or mere cluelessness?

The serial apologists of the Bush Is Not Stupid crowd are rather incongruously opting for the latter, this in the wake of the scandal about pre-9/11 failures to issue precisely the kinds of public warnings and security directives that accompanied the also "non-specific" Y2K threats. For now, it is difficult to say who knew what when because the administration is not exactly being forthcoming, preferring instead to use the scandal as an excuse to broaden the FBI's snoop powers. However: there was a potential motive for the administration to sit on perceived terrorist threats.

Think back to the days before 9/11. The topic on everyone's lips (Condit aside) was: what will happen when budget realities force Bush to raid Social Security? He had explicitly promised during his campaign to establish a contingency fund for severe emergencies that would keep Social Security untouched. But the economy was tanking and the costs of the tax cut made the raid inevitable. Even Daniels acknowledged that the government would be forced to tap Social Security to the tune of $14 billion to fund pending legislation. Strangely, Bush kept insisting, "We can work together to avoid dipping into Social Security." But, beginning August 24, he gave himself an escape clause: "I've said that the only reason we should use Social Security funds is in case of an economic recession or war." (Three days earlier he had said that there should be "special consideration" in the budget for these contingencies. Otherwise, this was completely new rhetoric.)

September 4: businessman and commentator Ben Cohen ran a mock "help wanted" ad reading, "Serious enemy needed to justify Pentagon budget increase. Defense contractors desperate." Same day: a CBS poll found that 66 percent of Americans did not think a recession (extant, but not yet confirmed) was reason enough to tap Social Security. September 6: Bush invented another exception. "The only time to use Social Security money is in times of war, times of recession, or times of severe emergency." September 11: he had all three. Lucky Bush.

Then, on the morning of September 12, Bush announced his very first post-9/11 policy move. Because the attacks were "more than acts of terror; they were acts of war, this morning I am sending to Congress a request for emergency funding authority." On cue, pundits like Tim Russert chirped, "Suddenly the Social Security lockbox seems so trivial." Since then the trust fund has been strip-mined to subsidize pork barrel and deficit spending with no political fallout for the president.

These extraordinary coincidences have gone unremarked in the media, who have entirely missed that the terms of the "trifecta"--note that the word connotes something you bet on--was never mentioned until two-and-a-half weeks after Bush's August 6 briefing and days before 9/11. (He has since claimed the 'trifecta' was a campaign promise. This is a lie.) It is sickening to contemplate an administration intentionally looking the other way while terrorists scheme so that whatever havoc they wreak can provide cover for the president to raid Social Security. But we journalists are paid to have strong stomachs, and we should be hardy enough to admit that the scenario is conceivable, for three reasons.

First and most obviously, defense contractors contributed more than $8.7 million to Republican campaigns in 2000. They stood to gain billions from the fallout of a successful terrorist strike.

Second, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill advocated the abolition of Social Security and Medicare in a May 20, 2001 interview with the Financial Times. "Able-bodied adults should save enough on a regular basis so that they can provide for their own retirement, and, for that matter, health and medical needs," he said, adding, "The president is also intrigued about the possibility of fixing this mess."

Third, and by far most importantly, Bush needed to save his presidency, which by August was already in serious danger of sinking into fiscal chaos and one-term ignominy. This is a viable motive. Whether or not Bush or someone in his administration acted on it by winking at hijacking threats remains to be seen.

But it was unsettling, though still inconclusive, to read in the May 17 Washington Post, "Members of congressional committees investigating the pre-Sept. 11 warnings said yesterday that there is far more damaging information that has not yet been disclosed about the government's knowledge of and inaction over events leading up to Sept. 11."

Outrageously, the public is now being told that there aren't sufficient votes in Congress to approve an investigation by a blue ribbon panel. The alternative intelligence committee investigation is only pro forma public anesthesia. It will not do: the committee's oversight role potentially implicates its own members. To clear up all doubts, there must be an independent, public inquiry. It is well past time to insist on a return to open government.

Brad Carlton is an investigative reporter currently living in South Carolina.

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This story was published on June 12, 2002.