Thursday, April 15, 2004

With the release of that now-infamous White House memo, the stuff has apparently hit the fan. The memo dated August 6, 2001, five weeks prior to the September 11 attacks, informed the President that Al Qaida intended to strike the U.S. on our home turf. Critics have argued that the President was derelict in his duty in not preventing the attack. As usual, the criticism from the left is long on emotion and short on logical analysis. Based on the information available, what could President Bush have done to prevent the September 11th attacks? Let’s examine the facts and apply some logic to the situation.

The “warning” that the president received was nonspecific. What steps could he have taken to prevent the attacks? Prior to 9/11, AQ’s M.O. was using improvised explosive devices (IED’s) mounted on vehicles. Hijacking airplanes is a possibility with any terrorist group, but AQ did not have a history of such operations. Prior hijacking incidents involved using the passengers as hostages, not using the aircraft as weapons. According to the PDB memo, AQ may have been planning a hijacking to gain the release of “‘Blind Shaykh’ 'Umar' Abd aI-Rahman and other US-held extremists.” This falls in line with previous hijackings committed by other terrorist groups.

While improvements in airline security were needed before 9/11, previous administrations made no significant progress in this area either. President Bush is no more at fault in this area than Presidents Clinton, Bush (41), Reagan, and Carter were. With only 9 months in office, he had considerably less time to make the necessary improvements than his predecessors. Even if he had ordered improvements be made the day he received the memo, five weeks is hardly time enough to affect major systemic changes.

With nothing more than a generic threat to go on, the administration could have tried targeting Islamic extremist groups in general. Had they done this, it may have prevented, or at least delayed, the attacks. The problem with this approach is that the same civil libertarians screaming about the Patriot Act today would have had an even bigger bone to pick with this type of approach in a pre-9/11 world.

Prior to the actual hijackings, Atta and company had not committed any crimes, save for minor immigration offenses (not a high priority at the time for people on either side of the political aisle) and criminal conspiracy (hard to prove prior to the actual act that the conspirators are planning, unless one of them “flips” and rats out his confederates). Even carrying box cutters onto commercial aircraft was not illegal at the time. With only five weeks notice, nothing short of a wholesale roundup of Arabs in the United States would have guaranteed the arrest of the hijackers. The ACLU would have (rightfully) thrown a fit.

Another option open to the President was a preemptive strike on AQ and Afghanistan. The folks who have their underwear in a bunch over our invasion of Iraq would have had a field day with that. A memo about vague threats by a terrorist organization that most Americans had never heard of prior to 9/11 would never have convinced the current crop of naysayers. It wouldn’t have convinced the U.N either. While we’re on the subject, you can forget about support from the French, too.

America was not ready to face the terrorist threat on 9/11. Improvements in our law enforcement and intelligence systems have been made. There is still more work to be done. The only positive purpose that the 9/11 commission can serve is as a guide to how to do things better.

Unfortunately, it looks like the commission only serves a political agenda. Rather than deliberating out of public view, like the commissions that investigated the Kennedy assassination and the Pearl Harbor attack did, the members of the 9/11 commission have been holding news conferences, writing op-ed pieces for newspapers, and appearing on Larry King Live. I guess that’s what happens when you entrust such an important task to politicians.

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