The Florida Keys War Part 11
By Chris Oakley
Adapted from material originally posted at Othertimelines.com
Summary: In the previous ten chapters of this series we looked at the causes of the Florida Keys War; the course of the war itself; and how postwar human history was affected by it. In this chapter we’ll look at the ‘Templegate’ scandal that derailed the Gore Administration, the collapse of the Korean disarmament talks, and the grimmest day in American history since Pearl Harbor.
The Emperor Has Too Many Clothes: March 2000-January 2001
For President Gore the Buddhist temple fundraiser scandal-- or “Templegate”, as it was quickly dubbed by an American media deep in love with Watergate analogies --couldn’t have come at a worse time in his political career. The irony was Gore had in fact been telling the truth when he denied accepting illegal funds; the campaign contribution which touched off the controversy had been made not by the temple itself, but by a prosperous member of its congregation.1 The Gore campaign’s chief legal counsel issued a statement declaring that internal investigations had confirmed no campaign laws were broken, and for the time being at least supporters and neutral parties were satisfied with this.2
But many of his critics and would-be successors were skeptical. They were certain Gore was hiding something, and they were bent on finding out what it was. Former tabloid reporter-turned-Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly, in a comment about the scandal on his nightly cable TV show, summarized the feelings of many of Gore’s opponents: “Gore is either the most dishonest Democratic president we’ve ever had or the most clueless.”3
Doing his level best to guarantee that the scandal inflicted the most damage possible on Gore’s political reputation was the job of Republican strategist Karl Rove, a former University of Utah dropout who was campaign manager for GOP frontrunner Jeb Bush.4 Rove drafted a series of attack ads driving home the message that Gore was unfit either morally or intellectually to receive a second term in the White House. Gore’s own top strategist, James Carville, retaliated with counterattack ads depicting Bush as a mediocre frat boy forced to resort to smear tactics because he couldn’t challenge the merits of Gore’s policies.
For a while at least, Carville’s team seemed to have the upper hand; Gore cruised to a re-nomination at the 2000 Democratic National Convention and for most of the summer held a 5-1 lead over Bush among likely voters for the November general elections. But come fall, the tide started to shift in favor of the Bush campaign as questions began to be raised about the president’s handling of the six-party nuclear disarmament talks concerning North Korea; after a promising start, the negotiations had bogged down and Kim Jong Il was dropping vague hints that he might pull out of the talks altogether if he didn’t get certain concessions from Washington.
By late September Jeb Bush had pulled into a dead heat with President Gore, and political pundits on all ends of the spectrum were predicting that the November 7th elections would be the closest America had seen since Kennedy vs. Nixon in 1960. One of Rove’s associates, future U.S. ambassador to the UN John Bolton, was heard to whisper to a friend: “Jesus, this could wind up in the Supreme Court!”5 Bush’s running mate, former Secretary of Defense and Ford White House chief of staff Richard Cheney, joked that the election might have to be settled by a coin toss. While it never quite came to that, the final results of the 2000 presidential race did prove to be something of a nailbiter...
Barely had the dust settled from the Templegate brouhaha when another major scandal engulfed the Gore Administration. On October 1st, just over a month before the election, the Washington Post printed a front-page story reporting that one of the senior men on Gore’s national security team, Sandy Berger, had lost a laptop computer which contained sensitive intelligence and threat assessment data. This spectacular lapse in judgement brought a torrent of criticism not only from the Republicans but also from many of Gore’s fellow Democrats, who with some justification were worried the GOP could exploit this gaffe to seize back the Oval Office.
This time, James Carville’s savvy wasn’t enough to pull Gore’s irons out of the fire. The Republican Party jumped on Berger’s lapse in judgement like a flea on a dog, mounting a full-tilt media offensive to discredit the Gore Administration as riddled with ineptitude; a conservative Democratic Congressman introduced a resolution in the House calling for Gore’s resignation; and even Vice-President Lieberman acknowledged that the Berger laptop scandal was a serious blow to the administration’s credibility, telling NBC News commentator Tim Russert that it “reflects poorly on all of us at the White House”.6
On November 7th, 2000 the American public gave its answer on the question of whether Gore deserved another four years in office-- and that answer was a resounding “No”. 41 of the 50 states went solidly for Jeb Bush, seriously setting back if not ending the Democratic Party’s hopes for implementing the liberal agenda it had set for the next four years. This defeat, combined with the fallout from the Berger laptop scandal, served to diminish any influence Gore might have had once he left the White House.
For the GOP, on the other hand, it was an early Christmas; not only were they in control of both houses of Congress, but after a four-year exile they were taking back the Oval Office, which meant that conservative ideas would once more hold sway in the halls of power in Washington.
At his inauguration in January of 2001, the new chief executive made two points very clear right off the bat in regard to US foreign policy: one, that the White House would continue working to maintain strong diplomatic and economic ties with Havana; and two, that the second Bush Administration would not knuckle under to any threats or bribe offers from North Korea on the issue of nuclear disarmament. This second vow upset the powers-that-be in Pyongyang; it was a confirmation of their fears that Bush would be much less willing to back off from a military showdown than Gore had been.
...And Teach Them How To War: January 20th-September 10th, 2001
With Jeb Bush in the White House, America’s foes abroad had cause for concern; the new commander-in-chief not only adopted a more aggressive stance on dealing with threats to US national security overseas but also pushed hard in Congress to broaden the Justice Department’s resources and authority in combating terrorists on the domestic front. Counterespioniage, which had declined in importance following the Soviet Union’s collapse at the end of the Cold War, once again became a major priority for Washington.
Less than three months after Bush took office he was confronted with his first major foreign policy problem when a US Navy P-3C reconnaissance plane exploded during a routine surveillance mission near Hainan Island. Official Chinese sources claimed the aircraft’s destruction was the result of mechanical failure; CIA investigation of the incident, however, suggested the P-3C might in fact have been shot down by a surface-to-air missile fired from a PLA base on Hainan’s southern coast.
Bush’s Secretary of State, former CIA director Robert Gates, flew to Beijing in early May of 2001 with a twofold mission: to try and get the truth from the Jiang Zemin government about the P-3C incident and to deliver a blunt message to the CPC leadership that there would be grave consequences for China if it turned out that the reconnaissance plane had been intentionally destroyed. For weeks tensions ran high on both sides of the Pacific; while Americans vented their outrage over what might be an act of war, the Chinese feared the US Congress might vote to strip them of their “most favored nation” trading status-- possibly even give President Bush the green light to engage in military reprisal against China.
The truth about the Hainan incident finally emerged in July of 2001 when a salvage expedition in the South China Sea recovered several fragments of wreckage from the doomed P-3C. A thorough examination of these fragments by an international team of aviation disaster experts determined that the recon plane had indeed been destroyed by mechanical failure, most likely a spark of static electricity igniting fuel vapors in one of the plane’s gas tanks.7
With relief, Washington and Beijing finally backed off from the confrontation which had been previously looming over the loss of the P-3C. Though demands for an apology for the plane’s coming so close to Chinese airspace persisted for several months afterward, there were no further repercussions over the Hainan episode.
North Korea, on the other hand, continued to seethe over the Bush Administration’s refusal to soften its position on the nuclear disarmament issue. In August of 2001 Kim Jong Il’s regime showed that displeasure by unilaterally pulling out of the six-nation disarmament talks and blaming what it said was “the relentless hostile and evil attitude of the United States toward our great nation and Dear Leader”.8
California Democratic representative Nancy Pelosi criticized President Bush for what she called “needlessly alienating a potential partner in the task of achieving world peace”.9 Most Americans, however, favored Bush’s tough stance, particularly Korean-Americans who resented Kim for oppressing millions of his own people and forcing so many of them to go into exile. Many of the more conservative elements of Congress, and of Bush’s cabinet, favored pre-emptive invasion of North Korea as a last resort should sanctions and diplomatic pressure fail to drive the Kim regime back to the bargaining table.
Bush’s National Security advisor, Robert Mueller, cautioned his colleagues while they were dealing with North Korea not to ignore another major US adversary: Iran. The fundamentalist Islamic regime in Tehran had long viewed the United States as the greatest enemy of the Iranian people, and that view had only hardened after Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq was toppled in the Gulf War.
Mueller was right to be concerned: even as headlines throughout the world trumpeted the news of North Korea’s withdrawal from the six-nation disarmament talks, the Iranian foreign intelligence service was putting the final touches on a covert operation aimed at bringing America to its knees. Given the innocuous code name “Plan 14”, it involved turning passenger jets into suicide bombs to destroy some of America’s most famous landmarks, and while it wouldn’t quite come off as intended it would succeed in plunging the nation into a pit of horror and grief the likes of which it hadn’t experienced since Pearl Harbor.
The Iranian government gave the green light to commence Plan 14 on September 10th, 2001; the first buildings that were to be targeted were the iconic towers of the World Trade Center in New York. As symbols of American financial and technological might, they were regarded by the mullahs in Tehran as the ideal starting point for their planned terror campaign against the power they dubbed “the Great Satan”.
Going For The Jugular: September 11th, 2001
Rogue states like Iran seldom, if ever, get their own hands dirty when seeking to strike out at the world’s major powers. They generally prefer to work through proxies that, while serving that particular state’s interests of the moment, have no direct connection to the state itself, thus allowing it to maintain what’s known in the intelligence trade as “plausible deniability”.
Thus, when the time came to implement Plan 14, the Iranians avoided as much as possible having any of their own people participate in the attacks on American soil. Instead, they used Islamic extremists recruited from terror cells throughout Europe and from countries like Saudi Arabia and Yemen; the deceptively simple plan for each of these cells was to hijack a passenger jet and crash it into a well-known US landmark the World Trade Center or the Pentagon in Washington.
In theory it was a very well-thought out strategy, and had it not been for the diligence of Western intelligence investigators the Iranian government might have gotten away with it scot-free...
It was 8:32 AM US Eastern time on the morning of September 11th, 2001 when the first suicide plane rammed the north tower of the World Trade Center; the explosion produced by the impact was so loud it could be heard across the Hudson River in New Jersey. As people were reacting to the sudden calamity, a second plane hit the south tower and an already chaotic scene was transformed into a Dantean inferno. But worse was to come: just before 9:00 AM, the third plane involved in Plan 14 hit the Pentagon just as many of its staff were reporting for work.
At the time of these attacks, President Bush and Vice-President Cheney were flying back to Washington after having attended the dedication of the USS Scorpion Memorial in Key West the previous day;10 when word came of the suicide bombings at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Air Force One and Air Force Two were both diverted to undisclosed locations for security reasons. No sooner had Air Force One touched down than Bush was advised that a fourth plane had crashed into San Francisco Bay, just missing the Golden Gate Bridge, while Illinois Air National Guard fighter jets had intercepted the fifth en route to the Sears Tower in Chicago.
The sixth plane never came anywhere near its intended target; supposed to hit Capitol Hill, it instead crashed in the woods near Shanksville, Pennsylvania when its pilots intentionally steered the plane into a dive that sent it spiraling out of control until it hit the ground and evaporated in a ball of fire. A seventh plane, bound for Seattle’s Space Needle, became the scene of an unforgettable act of heroism when its passengers turned the tables on their would-be killers, overpowering that particular group of hijackers and placing them under citizen’s arrest while the plane’s crew made an emergency landing in Anchorage; upon its arrival Alaska state troopers placed the hijackers under arrested and held them for 48 hours before they were turned over to the custody of federal marshals.
Back in Tehran, the Iranian intelligence officials who’d devised Plan 14 felt a twinge of disappointment that four of the seven planes committed to the 9/11 attacks had missed their assigned targets. They were immensely gratified, however, at the damage inflicted in New York City and Washington; at last, they thought, the Great Satan was beginning its final collapse and the world would soon be safe for the establishment of Islam’s long dreamed- of global caliphate.
The attacks had indeed taken a heavy toll; 3500 perished in the New York City strike while 110 were killed at the Pentagon, and 310 passengers and crew along with six hijackers went down with the jet that plunged into San Francisco Bay. The plane which was supposed to have brought down the Sears Tower eventually ran out of fuel and came down in a field in central Minnesota, leaving another 270 people dead.
But if anyone in the Iranian ruling circle had any notions of the White House being intimidated by the carnage their proxies had wrought on American soil, they would quickly be disabused of those notions...
To Be Continued
1 In keeping with the principle of the separation of church and state, tax-exempt religious organizations in the US are strictly prohibited from making donations to any political candidate regardless of that candidate’s party affiliation. Ordinary citizens who are religious, however, can make such donations so long as they’re doing so strictly as individuals and not on behalf of any church or other official body.
2 Subsequent media and Justice Department inquiries into the case would vindicate Gore-- albeit not in time to save his hopes for a second term.3 The O’Reilly Factor, April 5th, 2000; in an off-camera aside that spoke volumes about his contempt for liberals in general and Gore in particular, O’Reilly added that he was betting on "clueless". 4 Jeb’s brother, then-Texas governor George W. Bush, had considered campaigning for the Republican nomination but decided against it, believing that his chances of winning the White House would be better in 2004.
5 Quoted from the article "Crunch Time For Both Gore and Bush" in the September 23rd, 2000 edition of the New York Times.
6 Quoted from the October 22nd, 2000 edition of NBC’s Meet The Press.
7 Reminiscent in some respects of the TWA Flight 800 disaster in 1996 and proving the veracity of what a great man once said: "Never attribute to malice anything that can be satisfactorily explained by stupidity". Because of DOD mismanagement and budget squabbles in Congress, the flame retardation technology that might have prevented the P-3C’s explosion and saved the lives of its crew had not been installed prior to its ill-fated flight near Hainan.
8 Excerpt from an August 7th, 2001 Korean Central News Agency statement formally announcing the North Korean government’s withdrawal from the six-nation discussions.
9 "Pelosi Lambastes Jeb Bush’s Handling of Korean Nuclear Talks", San Francisco Chronicle, August 10th, 2001.
10 The submarine which played a vital role in detecting the approach of Castro’s invasion force in the first hours of the Florida Keys War was lost with all hands in a reactor accident in 1968.