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December 19, 2004

After The 9/11 Commission: What Next?

John Lehman reflects on what he learned from the 9/11 Commission hearings:

The things that shocked me the most may not be the things you might expect. After being out of the government since 1987, the greatest shock was the tremendous growth of legalism and lawyers at every level of the policy process. This was a new thing. There were plenty of lawyers back in the Reagan administration, but the dominance of the legalistic approach to every policy issue was totally new and, frankly, debilitating to the policy process.
The second most shocking thing to me was the utter failure of the government, our media, and our academicians to grasp the nature of our enemy.... We’ve utterly failed to grasp the breadth, spread, and depth of the enemy that we allowed to develop around the globe over some 30 years. And it wasn’t because there weren’t warnings. Any traveler, many of you, going out to Southeast Asia or traveling through Egypt or in Pakistan could see, and perceptive people wrote about, twenty or twenty-five years ago, the phenomenon of the puritanical, missionary zeal that was taking over the Salafist religious establishment in much of the Islamic world and preaching an aberrant and extremist-form interpretation of Islam that was built on hatred, that was calling on all Muslims to rise up and to join the war against the infidels, led by the United States. And for 30 years we ignored it.
We ignored also the growth of terrorism in the hands of these Islamists. In 1983 we lost 241 Marines. Our president, who was—obviously as a devotee of President Reagan I believe he’s—one of the greatest presidents we’ve ever had. Yet his reaction was “We will bring these terrorists to justice.” Let the police handle it. And while he wanted to retaliate, his government did not. So we did nothing. And Osama bin Laden later wrote a fatwa saying: Look at this, the Americans lose 241 of their sons and what do they do? They pack up and run home and leave defeated. They do not retaliate, they turn over Lebanon to the Syrians. Time after time, as the Islamists learned that terrorism worked, that if you killed Americans abroad, whether diplomats in Lebanon or soldiers in Saudi barracks or diplomats in African embassies, you could count on one thing. The Americans would say “We will bring these terrorists to justice” and then do nothing.
As we studied these documents, the internal papers, the recommendations of the top advisers to presidents, we were shocked at the failure to grasp the extent of evil that was stalking us. So that was the second-most shocking thing. The third most shocking thing was a culture that had evolved in our government of total non-accountability. Nobody’s responsible. After the greatest failure, the greatest disaster in American history of civilians being targeted and successfully attacked, the enemy, defeating every single defense that we had arrayed against them with confidence, with brazenness, so sure that they didn’t even bother to have a back-up plan.

It bothers Lehman that despite what he says were 'warning signs', no one was held accountable for 9/11: not the FAA, nor the State Department for their sloppy visa procedures, nor the FBI or CIA. I still find this line of reasoning rather suspect: these organizations all worked for a public unwilling to tolerate rigorous security measures. Pre-9/11, they simply did not see the need. They don't see the need now, after 3,000 people have died.

Does anyone really believe, had officials taken appropriate security measures, they would have been applauded by an uneducated and complacent public that still doesn't see the need for the Patriot Act? That decries "racial profiling", as if 19 arthritic Caucasian grandmothers from Lithuania hijacked those planes and flew them into the World Trade Center three years ago? Lehman eventually gets around to admitting this in his backhanded way:

That is why we said, in our first finding, that the greatest failure of 9-11 was a failure of imagination, a failure of all of us, of American political leaders, of commentators, of media people, Congressmen, presidents, a failure to imagine the broad nature of this evil and its effectiveness and its concentrated targeting on the United States and its people. So there were many shocking things.

Is it not even more shocking that, having seen what 19 men with boxcutters can do, we still fail to imagine what horrors are possible and to take appropriate precautions? That almost 50% of the country strongly supported a presidential candidate who "longs for the days when terrorism will be just a nuisance"?

There were other things that, frankly, did not surprise us. The total incompetence of our intelligence establishment. Those of us who had been in government knew that we had evolved an intelligence community—and community is the very wrong word to use—that had developed so many stovepipes and so many horizontal layers of bureaucracy, that it was impossible for common sense and good intelligence to exist. And the reason was that Congress did not want an intelligence establishment that was effective. After Watergate, after Iran contra, Congress passed layer upon layer of restrictions and legislation building these stovepipes, so that you would have FBI agents in Phoenix with top-secret clearances writing memos saying “Hey, there are all these young Arab males learning to fly, shouldn’t we start investigating them?” and simultaneously analysts at Langley with top-secret clearances writing memos saying “We’ve been analyzing the communications among Al Qaeda people and they keep talking about using aircraft as missiles,” and these analysts were not allowed, would have been fired, if they had talked to the agents. Because Congress prohibited it. They did not have a need to know, you can’t have people sharing that kind of information, it could lead to abuse. And so the dots were never connected because Congress did not want them connected. They were much more concerned with looking through the rearview mirror, looking at the abuses of people’s rights to privacy twenty years ago, and absolutizing that at the expense of any competence in our intelligence capability.

Unfortunately, it's not just Congress that is obstructing the process: it's the courts. Immigration officials are afraid to round up Hispanic-looking suspects for fear of being accused of racial profiling. I'm not sure what other ethnic groups they're expecting to come over the Mexican border: Chinese? Africans? And thanks to lawsuits from the ACLU, the TSA now has a no racial profiling policy to match that at Immigration. So after having been attacked by Islamists of Middle-Eastern origin, we are prohibited from considering Middle-Eastern origin as a possible reason for detaining a suspect and possibly averting another attack.

Lehman has some recommendations for the future:

First we have to go and kill them where they are. I’m talking about the trained, committed terrorists, the teams that are organized, that are operating, that are doing their best to obtain nuclear weapons and WMD from the former Soviet Union or from rogue scientists or whatever. Their top objective is to set off a nuclear weapon in Grand Central Station or somewhere like that to kill the maximum number of innocent Americans. That is their top objective. And we can’t sit by and hope we can stop them at our borders, we have got to go kill them first. We’ve got to stop them from getting those weapons. We’ve got to deny them the sanctuaries that we’ve permitted them in Sudan, in Afghanistan. We’ve got to preempt, we’ve got to be proactive, we’ve got to go get them. We can’t let them take advantage of the fact that there are so many areas of the world where no one’s writ runs.
And there are many other diplomatic initiatives. We have to work carefully with the Egyptians and with the Saudis and with the Pakistanis. It would feel good to give them an ultimatum, to say “Either you deny bin Laden sanctuary in the northwest territories or we’ll come in and get him ourselves.” But what that would do would be to bring about Mr. Musharraf’s fall and the certain raising up of a Taliban regime in Pakistan, that would be a Taliban regime with 200 nuclear weapons. So the solutions are not as simple as what we might in our frustration feel we need to do.

He also wants to engage the enemy on the battleground of ideas: in the madrassas. To counter the anti-American rhetoric that has created a generated of hate-filled fanatics, we must take the fight to the classroom.

A lengthy article, but well worth reading in its entirety.

Thanks to my Dad for the link.

Posted by Cassandra at December 19, 2004 05:14 AM

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Tracked on June 30, 2005 08:53 PM


Cool. Hat-tipping your Dad! Did he give you the actual link?:)

I think you know we broadly agree on this topic. However, I do think that Bush should have cleaned out the chain of command after September 11. This meant, at a minimum, firing Tenet and Ashcroft. This had to happen not because either of these men were necessarily culpable, but because the public needed to know that the people in charge at the time of the intelligence failure -- and it was, by definition, a massive one -- would not be the people launching the counterattack. Indeed, we had to endure the absurd 9/11 Commission because Bush did not clean out the chain of command -- otherwise, his argument that we should wait until after the war to carry out the investigation might very well have carried the day.

Posted by: Jack at December 19, 2004 09:54 PM

That's patently ridiculous. The institutional problems have been built in for years, so fire the new AG after he's been in office for less than six months? So how long until we get a new AG?
And Tenet? his probelm is/was that his agency had been demoralized for years by the "hands off" approach fostered by Clinton and that criminal b*****d Torricelli (who should be in a penitentiary making little rocks out of big rocks, but that's just me). The CIA was VERY instrumental in our efforts in Afghanistan, but lopping off their Director at that moment would have created a BIG management crises just when they could be most effective.
Yeah, manage the government by 'symbolism', that's the way it's been done for years, and look at the harvest that we've reaped.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at December 20, 2004 10:59 PM

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