If George Bush had listened to Joe Biden instead of Donald Rumsfeld, the history of the past seven years would have been very different. We might have prevented 9/11.
On September 10, 2001, Senator Biden, then (as now) chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, prophetically warned of the new Bush administration's exclusive focus on missile defenses in a speech at the National Press Club. He said, "We will have diverted all that money to address the least likely threat while the real threats come into this country in the hold of a ship, or the belly of a plane, or are smuggled into a city in the middle of the night in a vial in a backpack."
A major reason why the Bush administration was unprepared for the terrorist attacks was that its senior officials had consistently looked for threats in all the wrong places. In addition to the now well-known (but then secret) obsession with Iraq, the top national security priority of the administration was breaking out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and deploying what it claimed would be quick, cheap and effective anti-missile weapons.
Donald Rumsfeld, as chairman of the 1998 Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, had warned that America faced an urgent threat of attack by ballistic missiles that could be fielded within five years by Iraq, Iran or North Korea .
When Rumsfeld became secretary of defense in 2001, this threat inflation became official doctrine. Budgets for these weapons soared from $4 billion a year to $8 billion (to $12 billion requested this year). Senior officials and members of the cabinet made it their top agenda item in countless meetings with NATO allies, Russia and China. Just a few months before September 11, five cabinet members, including National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, went to Moscow to convince Russia to agree to tear up the ABM treaty.
Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith was in Moscow the same day Joe Biden was speaking in Washington. Biden was pleading for action to prevent a catastrophic terrorist attack; Feith was demanding Russian acquiescence to new anti-missile weapons.
As Maureen Dowd wrote in the September 5, 2001 New York Times, "Why can George W. Bush think of nothing but a missile shield? Our president is caught in the grip of an obsession worthy of literature."
Biden was not clairvoyant. He just paid attention.
Experts--apart from the neoconservatives--had warned for years of the terrorist threat. The Commission on National Security in the 21st Century, chaired by former senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudmen, said in February 2001 that America was increasingly vulnerable to hostile attacks on the homeland, and U.S. military superiority would not protect us. That same month Admiral Thomas Wilson, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told Congress that he feared a "major terrorist attack against United States interest, either here or abroad, perhaps with a weapon designed to produce mass casualties," over the next twelve to twenty-four months.
Biden understood what the real experts were saying. He had been warning of the misplaced priorities for months. He knew that just because Bush officials trumpeted their national security credentials that did not mean they knew what the real threats were or what to do about them.
They should have listened to Joe.