TCS Daily

Pearl Harbor It Wasn't

By Brian E. Finch - February 28, 2002 12:00 AM

It is not difficult to imagine the course the upcoming Congressional hearings on how September 11 could have happened will take. The consensus among the Senators, Congressmen and foreign policy luminaries who have already chimed in is that the investigation should approach 9/11 as though it was caused by the same type of intelligence failures that supposedly allowed the Japanese to successfully attack Pearl Harbor 60 years ago. Senator Robert Torricelli, for instance, recently wrote an editorial in the Washington Post calling for an independent board of inquiry to investigate the "systemic problems" in the intelligence community that led to 9/11, just as Congress did for the attack on Pearl Harbor.

More specifically, the upcoming hearings will likely focus on the "what ifs" of 9/11 (what if Zacarias Moussaoui was made to talk; what if the CIA could have gotten a source into al-Qaeda, etc.). Just like the Pearl Harbor investigation, Congress will dissect numerous morsels of intelligence information to see if there was a piece of the puzzle that, if not overlooked, could have led to the prevention of the 9/11 attacks. Indeed, Sen. Torricelli stated that the investigation should focus on the actions and failures of the law enforcement and intelligence community, not "more general causes."

This is the wrong approach, based in no small part upon the fact that the investigators have the wrong historical analogy (the Pearl Harbor attack) in mind. The investigators need to take a step back and consider that there is a much more appropriate analogy that would shift the focus away from the intelligence community and to those officials responsible for directing U.S. policies in the last decade.

The "what if" investigation Torricelli and others want pursue is: What if the U.S. intelligence community had done something differently and thus been able to determine that 9/11 was being planned? Such an investigation presumes that if there had been advance warning, the 9/11 attacks would not have occurred. That is the type of investigation that occurred after Pearl Harbor (interestingly, many historians argue that the Pearl Harbor attack was as much the result of an institutional belief that the Japanese could not and would not attack Pearl Harbor as any intelligence failure).

A relatively unknown fact is that a "what if" scenario actually happened immediately after Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked the Philippines. The U.S. Army in the Philippines was informed almost immediately of the devastation at Pearl Harbor, that it was now at war with Japan and could expect an attack at any moment. To meet this attack the commander of the U.S. Army in the Philippines, military legend Gen. Douglas A. MacArthur, had at his disposal a large ground force and one of the most modern airfleets in the U.S. arsenal, including 35 modern B-17 bombers and nearly 100 modern fighter planes. With the element of surprise eliminated (the logic of the "what if" scenario goes), MacArthur should have been able to at the very least put up a determined defense against any Japanese air strike. But that is not how it happened.

No one has been able to determine whether, immediately following the raid on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. airplanes in the Philippines were ordered to prepare for an attack against the Japanese or even if they were put in more secure locations. Military historian Ronald Spector notes in his book Eagle Against the Sun that there is great confusion as to what exactly transpired in the Philippines during the twenty-four hours following the raid on Pearl Harbor, due in large part to the fact that MacArthur and his two chief lieutenants gave historians flatly contradicting accounts of what happened. Regardless of what orders MacArthur did or did not give to the U.S. forces, the air armada sat unprepared when the Japanese attack came and suffered the same fate as the one at Pearl Harbor. The American fighters and bombers were caught unprotected on the ground, making them easy prey once more for Japanese pilots. The majority of the B-17s and the modern fighters were either destroyed on the ground or easily shot down in the air. For the second time in two days, the Japanese were able to pull off a devastating air raid on American forces.

Spector called the Philippines debacle "inexplicable," particularly in light of the warnings given to MacArthur. Unlike the attack on Pearl Harbor, however, Gen. MacArthur could not hide behind the excuse of a "surprise" attack. MacArthur was well aware of the Pearl Harbor attack, and that the United States was at war with Japan. Similarly, U.S. military planning (championed in large part by MacArthur) for years had focused on the scenario that if the Japanese struck first it would be in the Philippines. That scenario was such gospel that Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox shouted "My God! This can't be true, this must mean the Philippines" when he received first word of the attack on Pearl Harbor. MacArthur, unlike Adm. Kimmel and Gen. Short (the U.S. commanders at Pearl Harbor), even had the luxury of having a good idea as to where the Japanese strike would come from (Japanese airbases in Taiwan). Yet, nothing was done. If America "slept" at Pearl Harbor, MacArthur had it in a self-induced coma in the Philippines. Whether due to petty bickering, incompetence or simple hubris, MacArthur needlessly sacrificed planes and men that day.

Spector wrote that MacArthur could justifiably have been relieved for his poor performance in the Philippines. However, through his own spin machine, MacArthur transformed his defeat in the Philippines into a legendary defensive stand. The Roosevelt Administration, desperate for a hero, lauded MacArthur for his defense of the Philippines, going so far as to secure him a Congressional Medal of Honor. The legend of MacArthur grew to the point that only a few historians today dare challenge his image as an American hero.

How does MacArthur's failure relate to 9/11? Put simply, much like MacArthur should have known the Japanese were going to attack, America should have known bin Laden was coming. Instead of focusing on how the intelligence community "missed" something (even conceding that it may well have), Congress needs to look hard at the previous administration and what it did and did not do to prepare for a terrorist attack.

If one looks back at how the Clinton administration dealt with Usama bin Laden, its failure to adequately prepare for a well-known threat is as obvious as MacArthur's. It is "inexplicable" that bin Laden could attack America once almost every two years, killing soldiers and sailors, crippling a billion dollar destroyer and blowing up an American embassy, and the only response was an ineffective cruise-missile strike. Former Clinton administration officials must recognize this, as already one can see elements of its infamous spin machine in effect. The Washington Post ran a two-part series about Clinton's efforts to undermine bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Clinton advisors noted how an attack submarine was deployed to launch a cruise missile strike on short notice against bin Laden and that indigenous elements were recruited by the C.I.A. to try and capture or kill bin Laden. Such stories now come off as nothing more than desperate attempts to protect Clinton's image.

More such excuses will no doubt arise as to why Clinton's attempts to get bin Laden did not and could not succeed (nota bene: MacArthur did the same thing when he inaccurately said the loss of his planes was meaningless as they were antiquated). Clinton administration supporters will likely try to explain away any shortcomings in the fight against bin Laden by arguing that was never sufficient intelligence to locate bin Laden or that bolder steps were diplomatically impractical. The truth is there is no excuse. If the intelligence was not available, it should have been a priority to get it, and if that meant dealing with unsavory characters or stepping on toes, so be it. If putting troops in Afghanistan would have angered the "Arab street" or wasted some of the "political capital" Clinton hoarded like a child hoards Halloween candy, so be it.

Clinton obviously did not do so despite the fact that (even more so than MacArthur) he had at his disposal the military tools necessary to eviscerate the looming threat. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Henry Shelton said that there was "absolutely nothing" that prevented the U.S. from conducting the same type of military operations in the 1990s that are going on now. If you combine that along with the strong constraints Clinton placed on operations against bin Laden and the well-known Clinton Doctrine ("Do what it takes -- unless it could negatively affect the poll numbers"), one can reasonably surmise that the Clinton administration pursued ineffective, piecemeal, actions. Such piecemeal actions led to what military historians call "defeat in detail," wherein a smaller force defeats a larger foe one small piece at a time. That occurred here as, despite knowing who our foe was and having the ability to strike at him decisively, bin Laden was able to chip away at American bit by bit, culminating in 9/11.

Sept. 11 was a yet another well-planned bin Laden strike against the United States, and one for which we should have been on the look out for. But, we were not. For years we let bin Laden take his time and prepare successively bolder strikes. We may not have known exactly when and where he would strike, but we knew enough to know he was going to do it. That is why 9/11 is inexcusable. Instead of heeding the logic that follows repeated attacks (i.e. go out and conduct the best defense - offense), we sat around, bickered about what to do and let ourselves be caught flat-footed once again.

The failure of 9/11 is not about what source was not utilized or piece of intelligence was misread; it is about the leaders who knew what was coming and did not react forcefully. Gen. MacArthur was fortunate in that his other successes overshadowed the Philippines debacle. The Clinton administration will not be so lucky if Congress does its job.

Brian E. Finch is attorney in Washington, D.C.

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