Former President George W. Bush has used the 12th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks to apologize for not doing more to prevent the tragedy.
In an exclusive interview with Oprah at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, the normally confident Bush dropped his Texas-sized swagger and expressed contrition for not recognizing the threat sooner.
“To be honest with you Oprah, Bin Laden wasn’t really on my radar,” he explained. “I was so focused on Saddam Hussein that I couldn’t see anything else. My CIA guys would come in and say ‘Bin Laden’s prepping an attack,’ ‘Bin Laden’s prepping an attack,’ and I was pretty much like ‘Whatever. What do you got on Saddam?’
“There was a general lack of awareness. I’m pretty sure Condi Rice didn’t even known who Bin Laden was. I had heard of him, but he sounded like more of a two-bit criminal to me so I didn’t take him seriously. And that malunderestimation (sic) really cost us as a nation.
“You know Bill Clinton made a lot of mistakes on Bin Laden, and I think he should apologize too. But I was at the wheel. It happened on my watch. I was warned. I didn’t listen. And I am sorry. I really am. I could have done more to prevent these tragedies.”
Although in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks Bush saw his popularity surge, many have criticized his administration’s behavior on that day and the months leading up to it.
The most visible critique has been that of Bush himself for continuing to read the children’s book “My Pet Goat” to an elementary school classroom for seven minutes after an adviser told him “the nation is under attack.” But perhaps more significant were the multiple unheeded warnings from the intelligence community that Bin Laden was determined to strike inside the United States.
Before Sept. 11 the White House had held only two meetings on the issue of terrorism, yet managed to find time for six meetings with Enron executives. Upon taking office in January 2001, the Bush Administration threatened to veto higher funding for counter-terrorism efforts, and cancelled a top secret program tracking Al-Qaeda operatives within the United States.
In the interview today, Bush not only recognized the failures but also explained how they had a wide-ranging impact on his presidency.
“I think we went into Iraq because we didn’t want to admit we were wrong. In the summer of 2001, our focus was on Saddam and not Al-Qaeda. I think we all felt guilty about that. We all felt so guilty we couldn’t admit our mistake. We needed to turn Iraq into a bigger threat than Al-Qaeda. Because if we did, then we didn’t need to face the reality that we miscalculated.”
“Do you know who Gennadi Osipovich is?” Bush asked Oprah. “Gennadi Osipovich is the Russian pilot who shot down Korean Air Flight 007, a passenger jet flying over the Soviet Union. They locked missiles onto it and blew it out of the sky because it accidentally violated Soviet airspace.
“Osipovich felt so guilty about what he had done he couldn’t admit the truth. To this day he says he shot down a spy plane. I mean it was full of passengers. They found the bodies. There’s zero percent chance it was anything other than a passenger plane. But extreme guilt can do that to people. It can warp your sense of reality.
“I think that’s what happened to us with Iraq after 9/11. Saddam had to be more important than Bin Laden because that justified us paying attention to him before the attacks. But we were wrong. And it feels good to finally admit that. We were wrong.”
Oprah also asked the former president how he was holding up in his personal life.
“You know Oprah, I’m a changed person,” he replied. “I’ve rededicated myself to my faith. I’ve become a vegan, and I’m going to therapy, which has really been helping. I’ve learned how to accept my failures and limitations. I wasn’t the best president, but that’s OK. I’m just working on trying to be a great husband and a good father. If I can do that I’ll be at peace with myself.”
Bush served as U.S. president from 2001 to 2009. He previously served as governor of Texas and co-founded an oil company that went bankrupt with one of Osama Bin Laden’s older brothers.