Preventing 9/11

NYT: Pre-9/11 Files Show Warnings Were More Dire and Persistent [RSS]

This piece is rather odd, in that the headline and early statements don’t comport with the rather long story that follows. After a rather strange anecdote, we get

The new information produced by the commission so far has led 6 of its 10 members to say or suggest that the attacks could have been prevented, though there is no consensus on when, how or by whom. The commission’s chairman, Thomas H. Kean, a Republican, has described failures at every level of government, any of which, if avoided, could have altered the outcome. Mr. Kerrey, a Democrat, said, “My conclusion is that it could have been prevented. That was not my conclusion when I went on the commission.”

Of course, this is with the advantage of hindsight, essentially unlimited resources, and no other responsibility but to look into one incredibly narrow issue for months.

Among the new themes that have fundamentally reshaped the story of the Sept. 11 attacks are:

Al Qaeda and its leader, Mr. bin Laden, did not blindside the United States, but were a threat recognized and discussed regularly at the highest levels of government for nearly five years before the attacks, in thousands of reports, often accompanied by urgent warnings from lower-level experts.

Presidents Clinton and Bush received regular information about the threat of Al Qaeda and the intention of the bin Laden network to strike inside the United States. Each president made terrorism a stated priority, failed to find a diplomatic solution and viewed military force as a last resort. At the same time, neither grappled with the structural flaws and paralyzing dysfunction that undermined the C.I.A. and the F.B.I., the two agencies on which the nation depended for protection from terrorists. By the end of his second term, Mr. Clinton and the director of the F.B.I., Louis J. Freeh, were barely speaking.

Even when the two agencies cooperated, the results were unimpressive. Mr. Kean said that he viewed the reports on the two agencies as indictments. In late August 2001, George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence, learned that the F.B.I. had arrested Zacarias Moussaoui after he had enrolled in a flight school. Mr. Tenet was given a memorandum titled “Islamic Extremist Learns to Fly.” But he testified that he took no action and did not tell President Bush about the case.

Other than the particulars of memo names and such, none of this is new or even remotely surprising. Anyone with any knowledge of public administration knows that bureaucracies are, well, bureaucratic. Anyone who studies foreign affairs or, indeed, has read a Tom Clancy novel knows that intelligence agencies are highly secretive and reluctant to share information.

Given the advantage of hindsight, it’s easy to go back and look at all the information gathered throughout the government before 9/11 and conclude that somebody should have been able to put all the pieces together and prevent the attack. On September 10, 2001, though, no one had all those pieces. George Tenet, the man who theoretically should have all those pieces (he is, theoretically–but only theoretically–in charge of the entire U.S. intelligence community) and a common denominator in both the Clinton and Bush Administration failures to fix the system, looks incompetent. But it’s grossly unfair given the realities of the day.

Bureaucracies are incredibly resistant to change. It usually takes catastrophic failures to force major reforms. But even two and a half years after 9/11, the transformation is just barely underway.

  • The FBI is just now in the process of a major hiring push for intelligence analysts.
  • The creation of the Department of Homeland Security was almost derailed over whether its employees would have the full protection of civil service unions or could be removed for incompetence.
  • The Transportation Security Agency, created to make airport security more rigorous, is still hamstrung by silly requirements to treat everyone equally rather than focus on the most likely terrorists.

And, of course, as noted many times, it’s not entirely clear what we’d have done about 9/11 even if all the dots had been connected. Given the state of the law at the time, it doesn’t appear that we had enough information to justify arresting the nineteen would-be hijackers. Certainly, grounding all commercial air traffic that day preemptively would have been considered outrageous.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. LOL!

    Looks like you and I are reading the NYT at exactly the same time and reading the exact same stories.

    I think I’ll just re-direct people to OTB and go back to freakin’ bed! 🙂