Thursday, May 16, 2002

LEARNING THE RIGHT LESSON: It's tempting to get defensive about the gleeful response of Democrats like Senator Edwards and the odious Rep. Gephardt to reports (WaPo, NYT) that the President was warned of a hijacking threat before September 11. And of course some Democrat had to make a Nixonian allusion, as the odious Gephardt
called for a congressional investigation into "what the president and what the White House knew about the events leading up to 9-11, when they knew it and, most importantly, what was done about it at that time." (WaPo)
But the fact is, the government, and by extension the Chief Executive, blew it. If the FBI in Phoenix had gotten together with the FBI in Minnesota, and if the FBI had gotten together with the CIA, and if someone in either organization had read Tom Clancy's Debt of Honor, or had the slightest bit of imagination, a light bulb would have gone off and maybe, maybe even probably, the government could have prevented September 11. But this is hardly a revelation. The government always blows it. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; the Chinese invasion of Korea; the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran; the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut; the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait -- the list of American intelligence failures is quite long, and I didn't even get to the Clinton years. American officials in various agencies at various levels of authority invariably fail to communicate information, because they're lazy, trying to protect bureaucratic turf, or lack an obvious means of communication; when they get information, they use poor judgment or no imagination in analyzing it; and even when they draw logical conclusions from information, they dismiss them because "no one would be that crazy." They're people, after all. After Rep. Gephardt and Sen. Edwards make their political points, people who actually serve useful functions in government will draw practical lessons from this latest massive intelligence failure. The FBI will share intelligence with the CIA, overcoming the ban on domestic intelligence-gathering by the CIA imposed by Democrats; the FBI is already creating a central-clearinghouse for counter-terrorism intelligence, and is jointly briefing the president with the CIA. But the most important lesson to be drawn is that the government will always blow it -- if it only maintains a defensive posture. Our enemies will always find a hole in our wall, a chink in our armor, and will exploit it to devastating effect. After the 1993 World Trade Center attacks; after the Khobar Towers attack; after the African embassy bombings; after the U.S.S. Cole bombing -- we maintained a defensive posture. For each of those attacks, the government may have secretly thwarted dozens of other plots, but that wasn't good enough. Staying on the defensive is like trying to prove a negative proposition: you just can't eliminate all the possibilities. (I think that analogy makes sense.) The lesson to be learned from the intelligence failures of September 11, and from the repeated intelligence failures leading up to it, is that once we know we have an enemy, we must take the war to him. The President seems to have learned and applied that lesson in Afghanistan, and shows every intention of applying it in Iraq. That's more reassuring than anything a committee led by congressional vultures will turn up.

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