While You Were Freaking

As his advisers scared the nation stiff with talk of doomsday, Shrub immersed himself in a hectic, heavyweight schedule. Let's start with the week of May 13, which the prez kicked off by inking an arms deal with Russia, signing the farm bill—and flying to Illinois for a fund-raiser for state attorney general Jim Ryan, a candidate for governor.

Back in Washington on Tuesday, he attended a black-tie gala fund-raiser for the Republican Party, which raised $30 million, and released the first of a set of photos of himself on Air Force One, engaged in a phone conversation with Vice President Dick Cheney after the Sept. 11 attacks. Reserved for those who donate at least $150 to GOP legislative hopefuls, the pics capture a moment when George W. Bush said he was just trying to stay out “of harm's way.”

The next day, May 15, Bush went to Capitol Hill for a discussion of welfare reform. News broke of an FBI agent's early Sept. 11 warning, but it wasn't until the weekend that the administration got it together enough to cover its ass.

On Thursday, May 16, the prez attended a ceremony honoring Ronald Reagan.

Thanking God it was Friday, Bush busied himself presenting the Commander in Chief trophy to the Air Force Academy football team.

On the sixth day, he rested. Then came the storm. Growing furor in Congress over the FBI's failure to respond to early alarms left the administration two choices: counter convincingly or thunder more loudly. Thus on May 19, Cheney announced that more attacks in this country are “almost a certainty.” The next day, FBI chief Robert Mueller said suicide bombings here are “inevitable.” On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put in his two cents with the dire warning that the terrorists “inevitably will get their hands” on nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

Meanwhile, the commander in chief was having himself a good old time. Bush opened the workweek of May 20 with a White House attack on Fidel Castro, presumably a swipe at Jimmy Carter. Bush sought to lift the Cuban menace to new heights, labeling the island nation a redoubt for bioterrorism—a charge that appears to have no credibility. Ramping up, he traveled to Miami that very day, where he gave Castro another kick for the benefit of the Cuban Americans in Miami, a gesture designed to get brother Jeb a key bloc of votes in his upcoming gubernatorial fight. Then he dashed off to Jeb's fund-raiser, while his top advisers began suggesting that the Brooklyn Bridge and Statue of Liberty might be taken out sooner or later.

Back on the White House South Lawn, the president spent Tuesday, May 21, socializing with this year's NCAA champions.

Through all this, the Homeland Security office never changed its alert from yellow, insisting the tips were too vague. They couldn't have been much vaguer than Bush. “The FBI director, yesterday, I talked to him. He comes in every morning, by the way,” Bush explained before taking off for Europe. “So this subject, he came up this morning. He was talking about, he was speculating based upon a lot of intelligence that indicates that the al-Qaida is active, plotting, planning, you know, trying to hit us. So he was speculating. He basically said, 'Look, I wouldn't be surprised if there is another attack, and it's going to be difficult to stop them,' is what he said.”

With that, the commander left his now jittery homeland on Wednesday, May 22, for ice cream in Berlin and another groundbreaking effort: condemning Hitler.

Critics have long lambasted America's lousy intelligence system, but last summer, the system itself—if not the administration running it—appeared to be working. The problem was none of the intelligence helped because low-level requests were rejected by superiors and so much data was ignored.

Besides, Attorney General John Ashcroft and his Justice Department staff may have had their minds elsewhere. That summer, the AG was involved in Operation Avalanche, a scheme to crack down on child pornography. His people were trying to settle the Clinton-era tobacco suits. In May, Ashcroft caused a furor by sending a letter to the National Rifle Association backing an individual's right to own guns. He stirred up more controversy when he found there was no intentional racial or ethical bias in federal death penalty cases.

Preoccupied with his own domestic agenda, the attorney general had no time for international terrorism—although the Justice Department must have thought something was up because Ashcroft began traveling by private jet. As luck would have it, Sept. 11 became a launching pad for some of the administration's other domestic programs.

We now know that soon after the attacks, Ashcroft was informed of the Williams memo but kept it a secret. As if making up for a lost opportunity, he began targeting anyone resembling a Muslim, snaring untold hundreds in a dragnet and imprisoning them on the flimsiest of pretexts. He came up with the rights-limiting Patriot Act, which sailed through Congress, then instructed federal officials to resist at all costs releasing information under the Freedom of Information Act. Top government officials soon joined Congress in blaming the overall intelligence system—a neat scapegoat for themselves, asleep at the switch.

This weekend, the Bilderbergers—a tiny clutch of rich people who think they run the world—will hold their annual secret meeting just outside Washington, in the heart of the industrial military complex, at the Westfields Marriott in Chantilly, Virginia. This is a dreadful comedown for these people, who are used to meeting in ancient castles and on splendid estates where nobody can see them or know they're even there. And to be but a stone's throw from the Pentagon must give them the jitters as well. Talk about a target!

The Bilderberg Group was founded by moderate British lawmaker Denis Healey, David Rockefeller and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands in 1954. The idea was to develop understanding between Europe and America during the Cold War by bringing together the people who matter—financiers, industrialists, politicians and opinion molders. That is, people who have had a proper education, dress appropriately and know how to comport themselves in public.

Bilderbergers quite rightly think of themselves as rather important people. Henry Kissinger may be the best known. Member Vernon Jordan vouched for Bill Clinton in 1991, and he got in. New Jersey senator Jon Corzine sits on the American steering committee. Paul Wolfowitz, easily the Bush ally most gung-ho to whack Iraq, is in the ranks as well.

Not long ago, Healey, now Lord Healey, described the essence of a Bilderberger to The Guardian: “To say we were striving for a one-world government is exaggerated but not wholly unfair. Those of us in Bilderberg felt we couldn't go on forever fighting one another for nothing and killing people and rendering millions homeless. So we felt that a single community throughout the world would be a good thing.”

When push comes to shove, you can't shove a Bilderberger around. “I will tell you this,” Healey continued. “If extremists and leaders of militant groups believe that Bilderberg is out to do them down, then they're right. We are. We are against Islamic fundamentalism, for instance, because it's against democracy.”

Additional reporting by Cassandra Lewis and Gabrielle Jackson.

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