President George W. Bush scheduled a prime-time speech on the fifth anniversary of September 11 on Monday amid acrimonious election-year debate over whether America is safer and who is to blame for the attacks.
The Oval Office address, marking five years to the hijacked plane attacks that killed almost 3,000 people, is the latest in a series in which Bush has insisted the United States is more secure while still facing an al Qaeda threat.
Bush has been trying to frame a debate on national security to political and policy advantage and keep his Republicans from losing control of the U.S. Congress to Democrats in the November election.
White House spokesman Tony Snow said the Monday speech would not be political and that Bush was not trying to rekindle the warm glow he got from Americans of all political stripes after the attacks, only to lose it along with his high popularity ratings as a result of the Iraq war.
“It’s not to try to draw on some atavistic sense of nostalgia about the date. I think what you do is you reflect on what it means to the country,” Snow said.
Eager to make big gains in November, Democrats issued a report citing failures by the Bush administration and Republicans to enact recommendations on boosting security from an independent commission that investigated the attacks.
They charged Republicans had rebuffed Democratic efforts to boost spending for cargo screening at airports and for shipping and to provide more security for public transportation. They said the administration had fallen short on securing nuclear power and chemical plants.
“The fact is we are not as safe today as we could and should be,” said House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland.
Snow said 35 of 37 recommendations from the 9/11 commission had been enacted and called for bipartisan harmony to expand Bush’s warrantless eavesdropping program and create military tribunals — issues on which Democrats and some Republicans have deep differences with the president.
As Americans prepared to observe the anniversary with solemn remembrances, Democrats were on the defensive over a made-for-television miniseries suggesting then-President Bill Clinton and his top aides did too little to head off Osama bin Laden in the years before the 2001 attacks.
Chronicling events leading up to September 11, the program — due to be broadcast on Sunday and Monday — suggests the Clinton administration was too distracted by the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal to deal properly with the gathering threat posed by Islamic militants. Bush took over from Clinton eight months before the September 11 attacks.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has called the five-hour ABC miniseries “a work of fiction” and demanded it be canceled. The network reportedly was making last-second edits to try to satisfy the critics.
The White House’s Snow said that while “for a long period of time Osama bin Laden was able to build up power and influence around the world,” any president regardless of party would have acted against him if it was known what al Qaeda was planning.
Bush risks missing millions of viewers on Monday night because the Washington Redskins and Minnesota Vikings will be two hours into their National Football League season-opener on sports cable network ESPN at the same time as his speech, estimated to last 16 to 18 minutes.
NO LONGER UNITED
The political unity that Bush experienced in the months after September 11 has long since given way to bitter partisanship over the Iraq war.
Bush has faced questions about whether the war in Iraq is a distraction from the al Qaeda threat. He acknowledges it has been hard to convince Americans that Iraq is a “critical part of the war on terror.”
The speech will cap Bush’s observances of the fifth anniversary of the single most dramatic event of his presidency. He will travel to New York on Sunday to the site of the destroyed World Trade Center towers.
On Monday, the anniversary day, Bush travels to Shanksville, Pennsylvania, to pay homage to the victims of United Flight 93, which crashed after a passenger revolt against its hijackers before it reached targets in Washington.
Later on Monday, Bush was to visit the Pentagon to honor the memory of those killed when a hijacked plane slammed into the building.
(Additional reporting by Donna Smith, Richard Cowan, Vicki Allen and Thomas Ferraro)
© Reuters 2006