The 9/11 Blame Game
The attack came, both literally and metaphorically, out of the blue. Literally, in that the hijacked planes that crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001, had been flying in a cloudless sky so blue that it seemed unreal. I happened to be on jury duty that day, in a courthouse only a half–mile or so from what would soon be known as Ground Zero. Some time after the two planes reached their targets, we all poured into the street—just as the second tower collapsed. And this sight, as if it were not impossible to believe in itself, was made all the more incredible by the perfection of the sky stretching so beautifully over it. I felt as though I had been deposited into a scene in one of those disaster movies being filmed (as they used to say) in glorious color.
But the attack came out of the blue in a metaphorical sense as well. About a year later, in November 2002, a bipartisan “9/11 Commission” would be set up to investigate how and why such a huge event could have taken us by surprise and whether it might have been prevented. Because the commission’s public hearings were not held until we were all caught up in the exceptionally poisonous presidential election campaign of 2004, they quickly degenerated into an attempt by the Democrats on the panel to demonstrate that the administration of George W. Bush had been given adequate warnings but had failed to act on them.
Reinforcing this attempt was the testimony of Richard A. Clarke, who had been in charge of the counterterrorist operation in the National Security Council under Bill Clinton and then under Bush before resigning in the aftermath of 9/11. What Clarke for all practical purposes did—both at the hearings and in his hot–off–the–press, bestselling book Against All Enemies—was blame Bush, who had been in office for eight months when the attack occurred, while exonerating Clinton, who had spent eight years doing little of any significance in response to the series of terrorist assaults on American targets in various parts of the world that were launched on his watch.
Yet according to John Lehman, one of the Republican commissioners, Clarke’s original testimony, given in a closed session, had included a “searing indictment of some Clinton officials and Clinton policies.” The Republican members of the commission (but not their Democratic colleagues, who seemed to have known what was coming) were therefore taken aback when, in the public hearings, Clarke omitted his earlier criticisms of Clinton and delivered a one–sided assault on Bush. Then, in a different, though related, context, the commission’s final report would quote material written by Clarke while he was still in office that was inconsistent with his more recent public and much–publicized denial of any relationship whatsoever between Iraq and the Al Qaeda terrorists who had attacked us.
In a less polarized political and cultural climate, these two revelations would have discredited Clarke altogether. But so useful was he to the violently anti-Bush animus then gathering steam that he became the first in a long string of such former members of or outside consultants to the Bush administration who, no matter how seriously their credibility had been damaged, would be rewarded with fame and/or fortune for turning on the president they had once served. (I will have more to say in due course about the most notorious of these, Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV.)
But the point I wish to stress is not that Clarke was exaggerating or lying. It is that the attack on 9/11 did indeed come out of the blue in the sense that no one ever took such a possibility seriously enough to figure out what to do about it. Even Clarke himself, who at a meeting on July 5, 2001, warned that “something really spectacular is going to happen here, and it’s going to happen soon,” had to admit under questioning by one of the 9/11 commissioners that if all his recommendations had been acted upon, the attack still could not have been prevented. And in its final report, the commission, while digging up no fewer than ten episodes that with hindsight could be seen as missed “operational opportunities,” thought that these opportunities could not have been acted on effectively enough to frustrate the attack. Indeed not: not, that is, in the real America as it existed at the time.
It was, to begin with, an America in which the FBI had been so hobbled by congressional restraints that it could scarcely make a move, and so intimidated by legal restrictions that it shied away from taking action even when it had very good reasons to pounce. The most egregious case in point was what happened when, only a month before 9/11, an agent in the FBI’s Minneapolis field office discovered that one Zacarias Moussaui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, had enrolled in a flight school in order to learn how to take off and land a Boeing 747. The agent initiated an investigation, which, the 9/11 Commission report would tell us, led him to conclude that Moussaui was “an Islamic extremist preparing for some future act in furtherance of radical fundamentalist goals.” The agent also suspected that Moussaui was planning to hijack a plane, and to check out this suspicion he wanted to seize and search Moussaui’s laptop computer. For this he needed a warrant, but his superiors at FBI headquarters in Washington did not believe that there was sufficient probable cause of a crime to obtain one. In the hope of getting around this problem, the agent and his colleagues now tried to show that Moussaui was an agent of a foreign power. This set them off on a wild–goose chase involving intelligence agencies in England and France, not to mention the CIA, the FAA, the Customs Service, the State Department, the INS, and the Secret Service. But still no warrant. Why? Because, the 9/11 Commission report explains:
There was substantial disagreement between Minneapolis agents and FBI headquarters [in Washington] as to what Moussaui was planning to do. In one conversation between a Minneapolis supervisor and a headquarters agent, the latter complained that Minneapolis’s…request was couched in a manner intended to get people “spun up.” The supervisor replied that was precisely his intent. He said he was “trying to keep someone from taking a plane and crashing it into the World Trade Center.” The headquarters agent replied that this was not going to happen and that they did not know if Moussaui was a terrorist.
Well, the headquarters agent would eventually find out not only that Moussaui was a terrorist but that he was a member of Al Qaeda and slated to participate in a West Coast follow–up to 9/11.
As if such obstacles were not enough to block an effective counter to the threat of terrorism in pre-9/11 America, there was also the “wall of separation.” This wall was erected during the Clinton administration to obstruct communication or cooperation between the FBI and the CIA. The main purpose was supposedly to prevent secret information and intelligence sources from being compromised by law enforcement agencies and prosecutors. But the idea must also have owed more than a little something to the hope among leftists and liberals that keeping the FBI and the CIA apart would reduce the menace they both allegedly posed to “dissent” and civil liberties.
Be that as it may, let me cite only three mind-boggling examples of what the “wall of separation” wrought. They come from Lawrence Wright of The New Yorker by way of the conveniently succinct summaries by Dexter Filkins of the New York Times (two publications that one would expect to be justifying the “wall of separation” and not exposing the horrendous damage it did). Here is the first:
The CIA…knew that high–level Qaeda operatives had held a meeting in Malaysia in January 2000, and, later, that two of them had entered the United States. Both men turned out to be part of the team that hijacked the planes on Sept. 11. The CIA failed to inform…the FBI—which might have been able to locate the men and break up the plot—until late in the summer of 2001.
The second such example of the damage done by the “wall of separation” is even worse:
At meetings, CIA analysts dangled photos of two of the eventual hijackers in front of FBI agents, but wouldn’t tell them who they were. The FBI agents could sense that the CIA possessed crucial pieces of evidence about Islamic radicals they were investigating, but couldn’t tell what they were. The tension came to a head at a meeting in New York on June 11, exactly three months before the catastrophe, which ended with FBI and CIA agents shouting at each other across the room.
And the third of the three examples may be the worst of them all:
Ali Soufan, an FBI agent assigned to Al Qaeda, was taken aside on September 12 and finally shown the names and photos of the men the CIA had known for more than a year and a half were in America. The planes had already struck. Soufan ran to the bathroom and retched.
Finally, the America of those far–off days before 9/11 was a country in which politicians and the general public alike were still unable and/or unwilling to believe that terrorism might actually represent a genuine threat. Attention was of course paid by the professionals within the federal government and in various law enforcement agencies whose job it was to keep their eyes open for possible terrorist attacks on American soil. Yet not even they could imagine that anything as big as 9/11 might be in the offing, and when the few lonely exceptions were not being stymied by the “wall of separation,” the initiatives they tried to take were invariably killed off by bureaucratic bungling and inertia.
But returning to the politicians and the public, the general attitude is well captured by Lawrence Wright in the story he tells of another FBI agent named Dan Coleman. By 1998 Coleman had concluded after an extensive investigation (conducted on his own hook) that Al Qaeda “was a worldwide terror organization dedicated to destroying America, but [he] couldn't even get his superiors to return his phone calls on the matter.” As if this was not disheartening enough, what most frightened Coleman about this new type of threat was that no one in America would be able to take it seriously:
It was too bizarre, too primitive and exotic. Up against the confidence that Americans placed in modernity and technology and their own ideals to protect them from the savage pageant of history, the defiant gestures of bin Laden and his followers seemed absurd and even pathetic.
Insofar as the politicians and the general public bothered thinking about terrorism at all, they tended, like the FBI in Wright’s account, to regard it “as a nuisance, not a real threat.” Amazingly, this was precisely how John Kerry—running for president on the Democratic ticket more than two years after bin Laden had vindicated Coleman’s apprehensions in the most spectacular terms—would nostalgically describe the pre–9/11 attitude in the course of advocating a return to it:
We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they’re a nuisance. As a former law enforcement person, I know we’re never going to end prostitution. We’re never going to end illegal gambling. But we’re going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn’t on the rise. It isn’t threatening people’s lives every day, and fundamentally, it’s something that you continue to fight, but it’s not threatening the fabric of your life.
It was because these three conditions—legal restrictions, the wall of separation, and public indifference—prevailed in America before 9/11 that the commission was right to conclude that nothing could have been done to prevent the Al Qaeda attack. But slightly contradicting itself, the commission also said that “the 9/11 attacks were a shock, but they should not have come as a surprise.” Maybe so. And yet, again, there was no one, either in government or out (and probably not even that anonymous FBI agent in Minneapolis), to whom the attacks did not come as a surprise, either in general or in the particular form they took. The commission also spoke of a “failure of imagination.” Maybe so again, and yet the phrase seems inappropriate, implying as it does that success was possible. Surely a failure so widespread deserves to be considered inevitable.
To the New York Times, however, the failure was not at all inevitable. In a front–page editorial disguised as its own news report on the commission’s final report, the Times credited the commission with finding that “an attack described as unimaginable had in fact been imagined, repeatedly.” But not a shred of the documentary evidence cited by the Times for this categorical statement actually predicted that Al Qaeda would hijack commercial airliners and crash them into buildings in New York and Washington. Moreover, all of the evidence, such as it was, came from the 1990s. Nevertheless, the Times “report” contrived to convey the impression that in the fall of 2000 the Bush administration—then not yet even in office—had received fair warning of an imminent attack. To bolster this impression, the Times went on to quote from a briefing given to Bush a month before 9/11. This was only the first of a number of other ostensibly damning documents that would come to light at politically convenient moments in order to discredit Bush (while serving not so incidentally to distract attention from the larger issue at stake). Entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.,” the briefing in question was vague about details, confessed itself unable to “corroborate some of the more sensational threat reporting…that Bin Laden wanted to hijack a U.S. aircraft,” and was in any case only one of many intelligence briefings with no special claim to greater authority than other, conflicting, assessments.
Interestingly, as the report of the 9/11 Commission itself noted, similar suspicions had been aroused by the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Since it could be shown that the then president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had been warned by intelligence reports that the Japanese were considering just such an attack on Pearl Harbor, surely he must have known that it was coming and had chosen to do nothing about it so that he could use it as a pretext for entering into World War II. But as Roberta Wohlstetter would conclusively demonstrate in her classic book Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, Roosevelt had also been assured by other intelligence reports that it was the Panama Canal and/or the Philippines that the Japanese had in their sights. How then was he to tell, amid the “noise” of so many conflicting assessments, which, if any, to heed?