As I See It
The colossal failure of U.S. intelligence which left the door open for the Sept. 11 World Trade Center catastrophe is rivaled in United States history only by Pearl Harbor sixty years earlier. Prior to the Japanese sneak attack, our military was aware that the Japanese fleet was at sea somewhere in the northern Pacific, and our government had been warned by the British of the possibility of a Japanese attack on Hawaii. In addition, although we had broken the Japanese naval code, the messages which were being intercepted were being filed away without being decoded. And finally when an observer on the northern tip of Oahu picked up a large formation of planes on the radar screen, he was told that it was probably a training flight of our planes and the message went no further. Those oversights resulted in the death of 2300 Americans on Dec. 7, 1941.
The death toll on Sept. l1, 2001, was even greater, approaching 3000, and the failure of our intelligence system was just as complete. A whole series of warnings had been picked up in the months leading-up to the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, but were largely ignored.
On July 10, Phoenix FBI agent Kenneth Williams sent a memorandum about the number of Middle Eastern students attending an Arizona flight school, suggesting that they could be part of an al-Qaida plot. The FBI had previously warned of possible al-Qaida attacks overseas and mentioned the possibility of domestic attacks as well. Nevertheless, Williams’ warning was shortstopped by midlevel unit chiefs at FBI headquarters and never went any further, largely because FBI headquarters wasn’t concentrating on an attack within the United States because they didn’t think al-Qaida had the capability for such an operation. Then on August 5, the FBI arrested Zacarias Moussaoui who had been attending a flight school in Minneapolis, and found out that he had been associated with al-Qaida networks in Europe and Asia. It was also known that he was more interested in learning to fly a plane in flight than in how to take off or land. Despite repeated urgent requests, FBI lawyers denied agents in Minneapolis a warrant to search his computer files. And finally on the morning of Sept. 11, when two groups of Arab men showed up at an airport in Maine, without luggage, to purchase one-way tickets with cash, for a flight to Boston and on to San Francisco, it didn’t raise any suspicion. On the basis of what the FBI already knew, but failed to communicate, all airports in the country should have been on alert for any suspicious activity.
What is truly ludicrous are the lame excuses that have been offered by the National Security people for their massive failure. Responses like, “We didn’t expect an airplane highjacking or terrorist attack in the United States because that type of thing had only occurred overseas.” That’s a repeat of the “Maginot-Line thinking” that led the French to sink a massive portion of their national budget into an underground fortification network along the French-German border to prevent a repeat of the German attack in World War I. So of course in 1940 the Germans didn’t do what the French expected – they merely went around the end of the Maginot Line and overwhelmed France in a few weeks.
Another lame excuse was that if we had known that the highjackers intended to use the planes as flying bombs, we’d have been more vigilant. This shows a grim callousness for the fate of passengers on any highjacked planes other than those used as bombs, and displays a total lack of planning for anything that hadn’t happened before.
And it wasn’t as though we had had no warnings that such a thing might happen. In 1995 a Pakistani confessed that he had learned to fly at U.S. flight schools with the intent of crashing a plane into CIA headquarters. The scenario of a highjacked plane being flown into high-profile targets in the United States had been posited. A terrorist plot to fly a plane into the Eiffel Tower in Paris was uncovered and thwarted. Even more telling is that in early September a Minnesota FBI agent prepared a memo on Moussaoui which postulated that he was capable of flying a plane into the World Trade Center (which terrorists had unsuccessfully attempted to destroy with a bomb in 1993).
Any defense against an enemy has to evaluate all possible scenarios and develop strategies to recognize suspicious activities and counter the enemy’s moves before they materialize. It’s that way in a game of chess, and we are now in a prolonged game of chess with a determined enemy, and with deadly consequences if we fail to outsmart him.
What is of real concern is whether we are any better prepared to head off future terrorist acts before they happen than we were a year ago. Do we yet have a clearinghouse equipped with the trained personnel and software necessary to compile and correlate all of the information needed to give us an effective defense? Or are we such slow learners that we will continue to be victimized?
Glenwood Springs resident Hal Sundin’s column runs every other Thursday in the Post Independent.
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