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WASHINGTON — “What did they know and when did they know it?” That is a paraphrase of the critical question that dogged Richard Nixon through the dreadful days of Watergate. Now, the same question is being asked again. What did the intelligence community know about the threat of terrorists — specifically, Osama Bin Laden operatives — hijacking commercial airplanes for attacks on America before Sept. 11?

It has been reported that U.S. President George W. Bush was briefed more than a month before the Twin Towers attack that the United States was targeted for hijackings. He was informed on the specifics in August, during his vacation on his ranch in Texas, as a part of his daily intelligence briefing. The information was presented as a part of the international intelligence report, which angered the president and caused some serious reviews of the analytic skills of his intelligence support. How did the CIA pick up information on U.S. threats that the FBI missed?

It has also been acknowledged that an FBI agent in Phoenix had urged an investigation of Middle Eastern men enrolled in flight schools and named Osama bin Laden as the controlling sponsor of the threat. The agent’s July report suggested that bin Laden’s followers could use the schools to train for terror operations. There was never any followup.

The CIA warning might explain why Bush’s aides were so certain that bin Laden was behind the attacks almost as soon as they happened. “We never had any real doubt,” one senior official involved in the crucial decisions made at the White House Sept. 11 said several months ago. Already, several lawmakers who have read the Phoenix memorandum have described it as the most significant document to emerge in Congressional inquiries into whether the government might have been warned about possible hijackings.

At the same time that questions were being asked about the competence of U.S. intelligence agencies, Congress was approving record levels of spending for intelligence activities. Nobody is supposed to know how much we spend on these activities, but the Russians tell me that it is in the neighborhood of $35 billion this year, about 10 percent more than last year. This includes the extra billion Bush threw into the pot after the Sept. 11 attacks. Much of the money will go for new technology, but personnel levels will also be increased.

FBI Director Robert Mueller, who wants to centralize the FBI and to clean up its image after the damage done by the Hansen spy scandal last summer, is revamping the entire agency to make it more responsive to the new challenges of the terrorism threats. He is putting together a “super squad” right here in Washington that will lead all major terrorism investigations worldwide, and is also hiring gumshoes, just like those in the old movies, plus analysts. An Office of Intelligence is being created with an ex-CIA official as its leader to be the official clearinghouse for all of the information that has not been filtering up to the top under the old systems.

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Last week, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter visited Havana and other tourist sites in Cuba. He also threw out the first five balls at the annual all-star baseball game May 14. (The first four of them bounced over the plate.) Cuban President Fidel Castro threw the next pitch, which was fouled off, and the game began.

Before the baseball game, Carter delivered a televised speech to the people of Cuba and the United States in which he criticized Castro for his denial of democracy and human rights in Cuba and Bush for maintaining the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba.

It was vintage Carter, who is probably the greatest president the United States has ever had. Carter takes his business seriously. He knows that his persona is precious and he guards it and uses it effectively to spell out the specific details of his concerns about human rights abuses. He did that in his televised address in Cuba: He spoke to the problems directly and identified legitimate remedies, reading from the Cuban Constitution those sections allowing for citizen petitions for redress of grievances. And he did it right in front of Castro.

Not since the Pope visited Cuba nearly a decade ago have the human rights conditions of that nation received such public attention. Carter hopes that his visit will push Castro to begin some form of democratization and push Bush to end the embargo that for 36 years has failed to impact on Cuba’s domestic politics. Castro has not yet responded. It took him months to make concessions to the Pope, but in the end he did. Bush is scheduled to react this week with even more draconian measures toward Cuba to help his brother capture the Cuban-American vote in his bid for re-election as governor of Florida.

Carter has substantive points to make and he makes them well, but he also has a little mischief in his blood. I met the former president in 1971, just after he was elected governor of Georgia. That was a banner year for great governors, particularly Democrats from the South, such as Reuben Askew from Florida, Dale Bumpers from Arkansas, Bob McNair from South Carolina and Wendell Ford from Kentucky. They were all competent and bright and they got along very well. When they were together, though, it always seemed that Carter would find some way to provoke them, by saying something risky that needed to be said, but that the others were too cautious to mention.

He does this now on a grander scale. He found a way in Cuba to say something significant, something important, something correct and something that is controversial to two important men and he said it dramatically and provoked both of them. It was Jimmy Carter at his best.

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While Carter was on C-SPAN 2 May 14 with Castro at the ball park, Rep. Charles Stenholm (D-TX) was leading a special order on C-SPAN 1 to argue that the Speaker should schedule time for the consideration of a resolution proposing a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget.

For those interested in tracking the national debt, there is a Web site that will tell you exactly what it is at any time of the day or night: www.brillig.com/debt_clock/ Currently it stands at over 6 trillion, with each citizen’s share more than $21,000.

From the time George Washington became president until the time Ronald Reagan took office, the nation created only $1 trillion in debt, even though it fought a number of wars and built roads, railroads and other infrastructure during that period.

Amazing, isn’t it? Since then, however, the debt has soared to $5 trillion. Of the four U.S. presidents who have governed since 1981, only Bill Clinton presented a balanced budget and created a budget surplus. When he left office, there was a record surplus and a projected debt reduction that would have reduced the debt to zero.

The rationale for the Stenholm speech program was to foster opposition to an increase in the debt limit. The secretary of the Treasury has discovered that receipts have been even less than expected and the magic that he had projected for account shifting has been less effective than he planned. Now he needs an increase in borrowing authority of $750 billion, and he needs it fast. That is the largest single increase in our history.

Stenholm will lead the opposition, and he will have company. Not enough to cause havoc in the markets, but enough to require the administration to make many, many special favors to win votes.

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In what may be an all-time record, the Republicans have claimed they raised $33 million from a single political fundraising event on May 14. This surpasses the $28.5 raised in 2000 by the Democrats at a dinner honoring Bill Clinton and then Vice President Al Gore. The Republicans raged at the excesses of that dinner, but seemed to think their own event was A-OK.

The political fallout over fundraising techniques for the moment focuses on the use of a photograph of Bush calling Vice President Dick Cheney from Air Force One on Sept. 11. Democrats are complaining that the picture was obviously taken by a government photographer on a government plane using government film, and therefore should not be used for political fundraising purposes. That complaint is quite weak, and will go nowhere.

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