TCS Daily

Whose Failure?

By Brian E. Finch - May 17, 2002 12:00 AM

Some Democrats in Congress, with the media happily in tow, are salivating at the news that President George W. Bush and his staff received generalized warnings during the summer of 2001 that there was a plot linked to Osama bin Laden to hijack U.S. passenger jets. They hope to make it appear that the Bush administration, and the president himself, was asleep at the helm.

What is happening is an exercise in hindsight. We are looking at the pre-9/11 intelligence through a rear view mirror that makes murky messages suddenly seem crystal clear.
Presidential aspirants, though, hoping to capitalize politically on this American tragedy, might find a serious investigation damaging to their endeavors. For the sleeper in the details is what was handed Bush in regards to intelligence operations by the previous administration.

What We Know

Based on the reaction by the press and Capitol Hill, you would think that President Bush received a transcript of a bin Laden conversation laying out the hijackers plans in excruciating detail. This is of course not the case. It appears that the information the president received detailed a generalized threat about a "conventional hijacking" (i.e. hijackers take over the plane and make demands upon the U.S. government).

Here is what we presently know: Sometime in May 2001, the U.S. intelligence community informed the Bush administration of an "increased danger" of hijackings. In early August 2001, President Bush, as part of an intelligence briefing, was informed the general hijacking threat along with a host of indications of possible attacks, including on targets abroad. As a result of this intelligence, the Department of Transportation, the Federal Aviation Administration and airports around the country were warned of the possibility of a terrorist hijacking from U.S. soil. However, specific details were not given, and, according to the White House, none of the reports ever included the possibility of the hijackers using the planes as suicide weapons. Meanwhile, the FBI and CIA came across tidbits of information related to the hijackers, but those small pieces were not shared with other agencies or lost in the shuffle.

The facts however appear to be unimportant to the more hysterical elements on Capitol Hill. Sen. Tom Daschle solemnly intoned that he was "gravely concerned" about the president's knowledge of bin Laden's plot and House Minority Richard Gephardt launched calls for a full-scale investigation into the president's actions. Also chiming in was Democratic darling Sen. John Edwards, who immediately concluded that the intelligence tidbits should have led to "bells and whistles going off."

Put It In Context

If the information that has been revealed should set off bells and whistles as Sen. Edwards suggests, our intelligence agencies would be profoundly deaf. The U.S. intelligence and law enforcement community receives literally tens of thousands of pieces of information each day. The credibility of each piece must be assessed and then placed into context (often a futile task). There is no doubt that pieces of information existed that may have touched upon a part of the hijacking plot, but so far nothing revealed constitutes a "Eureka!" moment.

If we could think about the newly revealed information with a pre-9/11 mindset, we would be hard put to know that it told us - or what the president or administration officials could do to protect us. Even the capture of a hijacker likely would not have led to an understanding of their real intent. The captured videotape of Bin Laden talking about the hijackings demonstrates that the hijackers didn't know of each other's missions and most didn't know they were on suicide missions.

Indeed, there is proof of these circumstances surrounding the alleged 20th hijacker, Zacarias Moussaoui. He was arrested well before the attacks, yet he revealed nothing. In fact, press reports indicate that even if the FBI had had the opportunity to review materials in his possession (including a computer), it still would not have been enough to uncover the 9/11 plot.

And consider the detainees at Guantanamo Bay - U.S. interrogators have been applying all sorts of pressure to these prisoners, yet, as far as we know, not that much useful information has been revealed. Indeed many of the tactics used on the Gitmo prisoners, if used on Arabs picked up from flights schools, would no doubt have resulted in the ACLU launching a massive (and likely successful) campaign to label their detention and treatment as racist and example of Bush, Cheney and Ashcroft treating the Constitution like a used Kleenex. In other words, nothing that has been revealed yet would actually have led to a foiling of the plot.

No Unringing The Bell

The way the evidence is now being discussed, though, reveals we cannot unring a bell - i.e. we are incapable of looking at pre-9/11 information as though 9/11 had not occurred. People cannot erase from their mind their knowledge of what happened, and so when they see isolated pieces of information, they fill in the gaps unconsciously with the information that only became available afterwards. Thus, everything makes sense and the pieces of the puzzle all fall readily into place. Of course this is not helpful, because all it does is unfairly assign blame.

But the evidence does point to a larger problem, one the Bush administration inherited on coming to office and had no realistic opportunity to correct by 9/11.

The pre-9/11 information only existed in small shreds. Sen. Bob Graham, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, usefully noted that it highlights the lack of coordination between U.S. intelligence agencies. That type of systemic problem, along with the fact U.S. agencies had not been told to put terrorism and bin Laden higher on their priority list, points the finger of failure not at President Bush but rather at President Clinton.

If the Clinton administration had had the political will to directly and aggressively confront terrorism, our intelligence and law enforcement agencies would have stood a much better chance of detecting the 9/11 plot. Starting from the World Trade Center attack, the Clinton administration had at least seven years to put terrorism higher on the threat list and take bold action. It had the evidence of the dangers posed to U.S. interests by bin Laden from his attacks upon U.S. interests once every two years. But Clinton never developed a coordinated intelligence response to the terrorist threats, with the kind of human intelligence necessary to track down terrorist cells. So, they were alive and active years before Bush took office.

As important as what President Bush knew and when he knew it - which appears to be not much from the information revealed thus far - is the question why he didn't know with clarity much more. And the answer to that lies in the failure of a system that the Clinton administration had ample warning to set right, but didn't.

If Democrats in Congress really intend a serious investigation, they must examine closely what the Clinton administration did. Those primping for television cameras now, though, appear merely to be trying to create source material for 2004 Democratic presidential campaign commercials.

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