Commentary Magazine


Nobody Was Prepared for 9/11

Perhaps it’s because we’re in an election season or perhaps it’s that more than ten years have passed since 9/11, but either way the New York Times has dropped its pretense of solemnity when noting the anniversary of the most deadly attack on the American homeland. Though it’s taken a while, the day of reflection and remembrance is now just another tawdry news “peg” on which to hang sordid partisan accusations.

The accusation itself? Oh, nothing new—George W. Bush is to blame for 9/11, naturally. Places like the Nation are labeling today’s Times op-ed by Kurt Eichenwald a “bombshell,” but that’s only so if you’ve been living in a bomb-shelter. Eichenwald’s main revelation is no revelation at all—just a cynically timed cut-and-paste job. He writes that the oft-cited “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” intelligence document given to Bush a month before 9/11 “is not nearly as shocking as the briefs that came before it.” Taken together, Eichenwald maintains, “ the administration’s reaction to what Mr. Bush was told in the weeks before that infamous briefing reflected significantly more negligence than has been disclosed.” So Bush is even more to blame than you thought he was.

Except, of course, Eichenwald’s information is rehashed and inconsequential. He writes:

The direct warnings to Mr. Bush about the possibility of a Qaeda attack began in the spring of 2001. By May 1, the Central Intelligence Agency told the White House of a report that “a group presently in the United States” was planning a terrorist operation. Weeks later, on June 22, the daily brief reported that Qaeda strikes could be “imminent,” although intelligence suggested the time frame was flexible.

But some in the administration considered the warning to be just bluster.

This is undoubtedly earth-shattering news to those who didn’t bother to read the 9/11 Commission Report (published in 2004), in which these warnings were first disclosed. Perhaps for Eichenwald’s next bombshell he’ll reveal that a highly trained Navy SEAL team killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan in May of 2011. That successive American administrations had underestimated the threat of Islamist terrorism for a quarter century before 9/11 isn’t exactly news. Ronald Reagan responded to terrorist acts with discrete and ineffective cruise missile strikes. In 1989, George H.W. Bush closed the American embassy in Afghanistan and left us clueless as to what the Taliban and al-Qaeda were up to. Bill Clinton was president during the 1993 Islamist bombing of the World Trade Center; passed on several opportunities to kill Osama bin Laden; and did nothing after the 2000 strike on the USS Cole, which was known for a fact to be the work of al-Qaeda.

As for those who “considered the warning to be just bluster,” they included more than Iraq-obsessed neocons (Eichenwald’s charge). In fact, the New York Times itself ran a telling op-ed by former State Department official Larry C. Johnson on July 10, 2001. It reads like a perfect mirror image of today’s op-ed. In it, Johnson claimed that,

Americans are bedeviled by fantasies about terrorism. They seem to believe that terrorism is the greatest threat to the United States and that it is becoming more widespread and lethal. They are likely to think that the United States is the most popular target of terrorists. And they almost certainly have the impression that extremist Islamic groups cause most terrorism.

None of these beliefs are based in fact.

Silly Americans. Thanks to the New York Times, we were made to understand (two months prior to 9/11) that terrorism hype was just a matter of “bureaucracies in the military and in intelligence agencies that are desperate to find an enemy to justify budget growth.”

Not so much a bombshell as a bomb.

But still, Johnson’s piece is useful in getting at the real issue of pre-9/11 vigilance. As that ridiculous document makes plain, absolutely nothing about the United States—not its political, intelligence, or military institutions, nor its civilian culture—was remotely prepared for what happened 11 years ago.

In Eichenwald’s telling, the would-be heroes are his anonymous sources in the intelligence community. “[T]he C.I.A. prepared an analysis that all but pleaded with the White House to accept that the danger from Bin Laden was real,” he writes. But nothing he quotes in the all-important briefings told of who, where, and when al-Qaeda would attack. What were administration officials left with but a sense of purblind and pervasive foreboding? Presidents are briefed on real dangers everyday, but to act on each vague warning with maximum vigilance is to preside over a country on lockdown. Eichenwald rightly laments that while 9/11 conspirators Zacarias Moussaoui and Mohamed al-Kahtani were both detained in the summer of 2001, “the dots were not connected, and Washington did not react.” But who exactly is being identified by the proper noun “Washington” here? Was it not the job of the intelligence community to connect those dots? A small unit within the CIA was charged with tracking bin Laden since the mid-1990s. Yet the community that was so bent on forcing the immovable Bush administration to see the danger before its very eyes gleaned precisely nothing from the detention of two terrorists involved in a plot that would soon kill some 3,000 Americans.

One last thought. Life-saving anti-terrorism policies met extraordinary public opposition even after the United States was attacked on 9/11. Just imagine that the Bush administration (or any administration) had sought to topple the Taliban, waterboard suspects, or institute the Patriot Act during peacetime. Such measures would have been the only possible prophylactic against 9/11—and they would have made manifest every leftist delusion about America being a tyrannical police state. The truth is, we need no more “bombshell” revelations about pre-9/11 warnings. Osama bin Laden announced his intention to attack the United States at least as early as 1997. We just didn’t take him at his word. Look around and see if history isn’t preparing to repeat itself while we play 9/11 politics.

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