Peter Morgan  /  Reuters file
A view of Ground Zero in lower Manhattan on Sept.  11, 2001.
By Senior correspondent
updated 4/2/2004 5:51:43 PM ET 2004-04-02T22:51:43

In May of 2001, one of the very few public figures who genuinely raised a warning about the threat al-Qaida and other terrorist groups pose to America won an audience with the new vice president, Dick Cheney. The public figure was a Republican stalwart, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, head of an obscure commission that had just issued a report six months earlier, “Toward a National Strategy for Combating Terrorism.”

In its executive summary, released in December 2000, Gilmore wrote: “The potential for terrorist attacks inside the borders of the United States is a serious emerging threat. … Because the stakes are so high, our nation’s leaders must take seriously the possibility of an escalation of terrorist violence against the homeland.”

Gilmore’s panel studied the problem for two years before the attacks, but he felt the threat was being ignored. “The political and media people had nothing but Chandra and Monica on their minds,” he told me. “Our hearings were open, public events. Not once in two years did a major media outlet cover them.”

Gilmore hoped his meeting with Cheney was a breakthrough. “I had personal ties to the new administration, and the vice president seemed interested. He took notes, and I had a follow-up with one of his aides a few months later,” Gilmore says. “But nothing really happened. In the end, we didn’t see any evidence of any interest at all. No one called us to Congress, no one called us to the executive branch.”

Now and then
This is the important backdrop to next week’s resumption of fire between the White House and its critics over 9/11, a fight that might be called “Who Lost the Trade Centers?”

This weekend, as national security adviser Condoleezza Rice rehearses for her upcoming 9/11 commission testimony, and her nemesis, former NSC aide Richard Clarke, continues a book and media tour to press home his charges that the Bush administration he once worked for failed to heed warnings in early 2001, there are signs of a dangerous diversion from the 9/11 panel’s main job: preventing another 9/11-style attack.

Since Clarke’s book appeared two weeks ago, the debate has turned visceral, emotional and deeply personal — not just to the officials with jobs and reputations at stake, but to tens of thousands of people whose loved ones died in the attacks or in the successive wars of revenge and regime change.

It also has turned away from what many closest to the investigation regard as important. To the dismay of Gov. Thomas Kean, the Republican who chairs the 9/11 panel, politics has become the focus just as the American public begins to pay attention.

"There was no support for pre-emptive action against terrorists before 9/11, and even though Richard Clarke was right in his warnings, he knows that," says Steven Emerson, a terrorism expert and NBC News analyst. "This whodunit stuff is not really that useful."

Forest v. trees

The finger-pointing, rebuttals and character assassinations make good copy and bytes, but they obscure a far more serious and persistent problem: the ineffectiveness of U.S. intelligence agencies, a problem dramatically on display again during 2002 and 2003 in the form of a complete misreading of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities.

“We really, really did not want this to go this way,” says a commission source. “It is a huge diversion. We’re debating a truism: The United States was caught with its pants down, and that includes Republicans and Democrats alike.”

Going back to Desert One, the failed attempt to rescue the Iran hostages in 1979 — no American president, from Ronald Reagan through the George W. Bush of Sept. 10, 2001, chose to take such risks again to forestall or even retaliate against terrorist groups. Bombs, naval bombardment and Tomahawk missiles, which risk only civilian deaths, were the fly-swatter of choice.

One of the Republican members of the commission is John Lehman, who served as Reagan’s secretary of the Navy. He told the American Spectator last month that “you can trace it back as far as the Reagan administration, but it really gained steam in the [first] Bush administration — the increasing dominance of decision-making by lawyers."

The cautious approach advised by government lawyers was handed from one president to the next, from Bush I to Clinton and from Clinton to Bush II. Even after Sept. 11, Lehman notes, a military lawyer talked Central Command officers out of firing a Hellfire missile at a man thought to be Taliban leader Mullah Omar “because he said it would be an assassination and in violation of Gerald Ford’s executive order because you can’t target a state official.”

Risk aversion
Gen. Wayne Downing, the retired former commander of U.S. special operations command, recalls the frustration of being told to draw up plans to “hit back” at terrorists in the 1980s and 1990s only to be ordered to stand down by “a risk-averse Pentagon.”

"I'd like to have a nickel for every operation we developed to deal with terrorists that was never executed,” says Downing, who returned to government after the 9/11 attacks as the first head of the new White House Office for Combating Terrorism. “We did not have the political will to go after these people who had killed our citizens and were planning to kill more of our people in the future. We treated terrorism ... as a crime, not as a new asymmetric form of warfare.”

Did the sudden changing of the guard — from Clinton/Gore to Bush/Cheney — change this attitude?

“That’s not my sense at all,” says Gilmore. “It wasn’t seen as directly threatening to the United States and other foreign policy matters that were urgent."

All of this — all of it — is so much polluted water under the bridge and, many believe, a dangerous diversion from fixing what is still wrong with America’s anti-terrorism defenses: our crazy-quilt, politically competitive intelligence agencies.

To date, the lapses that led to 9/11 have been the subject of no fewer than six major commissions or congressional panels. Each one has cited glaring errors in the handling of evidence in the months leading up to the attacks on the part of the myriad of intelligence and law enforcement agencies charged with preventing such things. The consensus: U.S. intelligence suffered from overlapping jurisdictions, unclear missions, a reluctance to share evidence between agencies and a structure that leaves uncertain who, ultimately, has responsibility for the vital functions of intelligence and counterterrorism.

Rivalries and duplication
In response, efforts to force changes have been made, particularly in defining the mission of the intelligence community as a whole. But the most recent report on the issue, from the bipartisan Markle Task Force, casts serious doubt on aspects of what is being presented as a revamped and battle-ready U.S. intelligence network.

The report, for instance, criticizes the administration for making the intelligence problem worse by creating new agencies with overlapping jurisdictions — the Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC) and the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection (IAIP) office.

“The very fact of the TTIC’s creation has caused confusion within the federal government and among state and local governments about the respective roles of TTIC and DHS,” the report says. “Moreover, neither the TTIC nor the DHS has gotten very far in putting in place the necessary staff or framework for analyzing information and sharing it broadly among the relevant federal, state and local agencies.”

Far from being more coordinated, others say, intelligence agencies proliferated after 9/11, allowing one agency to trump another with an analysis more in line with the wishes of the political leadership.

At the Pentagon, for instance, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld created a new “undersecretary of defense for intelligence” post for one of his closest advisers, Steve Cambone, which many in the field regarded as an effort to ensure intelligence can never be centralized under the CIA director.

“The danger, of course, is that when the administration doesn’t like what CIA is telling it, like on Iraq, it can get a different view from intel shops under defense,” says a 9/11 committee source.

Most also view the FBI, in particular, as an agency that still is not suited for counterterrorism. Says commissioner Lehman: “The attacks of 9/11 exposed a totally dysfunctional government. The intelligence community is in drastic need of repair. There are many, many shortcomings.”

As you listen to Rice and Clarke thrust and parry next week about what should have happened, remember the tense that Lehman is speaking in: the present.

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