Should Bush have anticipated Sept. 11?

Politics and policy.
May 20 2002 6:21 PM

Bum Rap

Bush should have anticipated Sept. 11? Easy for you to say.

If only the Bush administration had heeded a 1999 Library of Congress report on The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism, the latest terrorist strike against the United States need never have happened. In that report, experts commissioned by the National Intelligence Council outlined "New Forms of Terrorist-Threat Scenarios." From that discussion and clues in other government reports, the FBI, the CIA, and the White House could have pieced together and averted the deadly plot that has since unfolded.

The plot to which I'm referring, of course, is last week's suicide bombing of a U.S. Navy destroyer docked in Baltimore, which claimed the lives of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and more than 100 sailors. This despicable deed, perpetrated by Tamil guerrillas using a small submarine packed with explosives, was telegraphed years in advance. It should have been obvious to anyone who read the 1999 NIC report and other intelligence-related documents freely available on the Internet.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

The NIC report advised policymakers, "The world leaders in terrorist suicide attacks are not the Islamic fundamentalists, but the Tamils of Sri Lanka." The report warned that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, was "the only terrorist group to have assassinated three heads of government" and that it posed a threat to the United States.

The administration's professed surprise at the use of a submarine to execute the attack rings hollow. As the NIC report noted, the LTTE had previously blown up "at least one naval battleship." A Winter 1999 report by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, citing a Sri Lankan intelligence source, added that LTTE members had "allegedly received glider, micro-light and speedboat training … for future 'kamikaze' strikes." In April 2001, an analysis of Patterns of Global Terrorism by the U.S. State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism referred to the discovery of "a partially completed submersible at a shipyard in Phuket, Thailand, owned by an LTTE-sympathizer."

The use of an all-female crew to gain easier entry to the United States likewise should have been anticipated. As the NIC report noted, the LTTE has a "limitless supply of female suicide commandos." Nor should the crew's entry through Canada have caught the government unaware. The LTTE's use of Canada as a "portal to the United States" was cited three years ago by Michael Pearson, an official of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, in testimony before a House subcommittee. As for the cyber-attack that disrupted U.S. military communications just before the bombing, FBI Director Louis Freeh warned senators a year ago that Tamil terrorists had already "engaged in attacks on foreign government Web-sites and e-mail servers."

There's only one good reason to excuse the administration for failing to anticipate this terrorist strike: It never happened. And yet every quotation attributed to the reports cited above is accurate. So is the entire first paragraph of this story. The NIC report did project new "Terrorist-Threat Scenarios." In addition to the LTTE, it named another dangerous terrorist organization, al-Qaida, and suggested methods by which that organization might strike the United States. Other government reports hinted at the same culprit and the same methods. The difference is that one scenario happened, and the other didn't.

In retrospect, it seems obvious to many people that the FBI, the CIA, and the White House should have "connected the dots" and anticipated al-Qaida's use of hijacked planes to hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But everything seems more obvious in retrospect, because you know which things are true and which aren't. What makes hindsight so easy is that you know not just what you needed to worry about, but what you didn't need to worry about. Identifying threats and mobilizing to prevent them isn't as easy as finding a single pattern. Intelligence is full of patterns involving numerous groups, targets, and methods. If you're the president of the United States or one of his intelligence advisers, you have to decide which threats are most worth investigating, mobilizing for, or disrupting people's everyday lives for.

It's easy, after the fact, for reporters and political opponents to go back and dig up reports that hinted at what eventually happened. They don't have to sort through the false leads and alternative scenarios. They know how the story ends.

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