Jewish World Review March 31, 2004 / 9 Nissan, 5764
What could have prevented 9/11
The premise underlying the recrimination surrounding the National
Commission on Terrorist Attacks and Richard Clarke's allegations is that
there was something the Clinton or Bush administration could have done to
So, what might that have been?
The Clinton administration tried to get Osama bin Laden in a number of
ways. As a result of U.S. importuning, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan pressured
the Taliban to give him up.
Local and Pakistani forces were enlisted to try to capture him.
The U.S. tried to kill Bin Laden in a cruise missile attack, and missiles
were kept on standby for some time in hopes of getting another opportunity.
So, what else could the Clinton administration have done?
Arguably, it could have taken more direct U.S. action to capture or kill
bin Laden. In his testimony to the commission, Clinton National Security
Advisor Sandy Berger said that the president "pressed often for military
'boots on the ground' options."
In fact, plans were developed involving both CIA operatives and Special
Operations Forces. But both the CIA and top-ranking military officials
recommended against the operations, because of the risk compared to the
probability of success.
Richard Clarke proposed two additional courses of action. The first was to
provide assistance to the Northern Alliance, which was fighting the
There were many problems associated with the Northern Alliance. It had ties
to Iran, which had been directly connected to the 1996 Khobar Towers
bombing in Saudi Arabia. The alliance was also implicated in the narcotics
trade and represented an ethnic minority in Afghanistan.
The Clinton administration declined to assist the alliance, a decision hard
to argue with given that its forces continue to be an obstacle to the
democratic unification of Afghanistan today.
Clarke also argued for steady bombing of al-Qaida facilities. But, again,
the Clinton administration decided against it, since the identifiable
targets were overwhelmingly small and relatively valueless.
When the Bush administration took over, it continued the authorization for covert operations that had been in place during the Clinton administration. And it began developing more aggressive plans, including aid not only to the Northern Alliance, but also to opposition groups from the ethnic majority Pashtuns.
During the spring and summer of 2001, there was a spike in threat reports.
Clarke has compared the Bush administration's response to this spike
unfavorably with the Clinton administration's response to a similar spike
before the Millennium celebrations in this country.
There was an important difference in the threats, however. The Millennium
threats included domestic U.S. targets. According to CIA Director George
Tenet, to the extent there was any specificity in the pre-9/11 threats,
they were about overseas targets.
Moreover, the difference in response seems to have been more management
style than substance. In his Meet the Press interview, Clarke described a
frenzy of meetings among senior Clinton officials, including the president.
The Bush administration followed more of a chain-of-command structure, but
the substantive response was pretty much the same: warning were issued,
security beefed up, counterintelligence operations intensified.
In fact, Tenet described pre-9/11 activities as "Millennium threat mode" to
the commission staff and in his own testimony cited examples of plots
disrupted as a result of the intensified effort.
Of course, the most important plot, the 9/11 attack, was not disrupted. It
was always likely that, in retrospect, things that would have prevented it
would become evident. Indeed, most of the hijackers should have never been
allowed into the country because their visa applications were incomplete.
And national security agencies knew a couple of al-Qaida operatives, who
turned out to be key to the 9/11 attack, were in the country but didn't
apprehend or surveill them.
In terms of national strategy, even more aggressive action to incapacitate
and defund terrorism might have prevented 9/11. But without 9/11, the
international cooperation needed for success would have been difficult to
Afghanistan could have been invaded much earlier to depose the Taliban and
eliminate Bin Laden's safe haven. But even that would have been no
Moreover, invading Afghanistan prior to 9/11 would have been pre-emption on
a grand scale, and at a time during which the Sunni al-Qaida terrorists
being harbored by the Taliban weren't an obviously greater threat to the
United States than the terrorists being supported by Iran and Syria.
If recriminations were limited to those advocating such a course of action
at the time, the silence would be deafening.
03/26/04: Knock off the high-stakes blame game
02/27/04: How not to achieve a mandate