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Jewish World Review May 23, 2002 / 12 Sivan, 5762

David Silverberg

David Silverberg
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Welcome to the Wonderful World of Intelligence | Most of my journalistic colleagues are fascinated by intelligence stories. I guess they like the cloak-and-dagger mysteriousness of it all.

But I've always disliked dealing with intelligence stories. Sure, they're always interesting, but they're never verifiable and sources are often contradictory. I've also noticed, in talking to intelligence officers, that the greater the uncertainty of knowing something, the more insistent their own conclusions.

Intelligence is just an area that's murky, vague, uncertain and, usually, unknowable. Obtaining raw intelligence just increases your anxiety level without providing any corresponding comfort and there's never anything that you - as a member of the press or public - can do about it. You can only trust the government to be effective.

It's this taste of the intelligence world that the general public is getting every time the government puts out a vague and ill-defined warning of a future terrorist attack. No one knows where or when terrorists will strike, there are just hints and whispers that something is going to happen. One just gets the stress and anxiety without a corresponding ability to act.

It all helps put the pre-Sept. 11 warnings of terrorist activity into perspective. It's clear that the president received general indications that something bad might happen. It's clear that prescient reports of immigrants training at flight schools or the arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui went overlooked. It's also clear that no one was able to connect the dots.

However, that's no excuse for the hysteria that engulfed the Capitol. Some determined sleuthing by reporters turned up a few additional details of briefings, memos and premonitions. But the big enchilada, the story everyone is pursuing - that the president had clear knowledge of the forthcoming Sept. 11 attacks and overlooked, ignored or deliberately accepted them - remains elusive.

It's elusive because it isn't there. After every surprising setback there's finger-pointing and the uncomfortable question: Could this have been prevented? Where did we go wrong? What systems or people failed?

This reaction occurred after Pearl Harbor, after Khobar Towers, after Mogadishu. Keep going and you can see it after Custer's defeat at the Little Big Horn in 1876, the destruction of a Union force at Ball's Bluff at the outset of the Civil War, and even before there was a United States: The destruction of Gen. Edward Braddock's force before Fort Duquesne in 1755 was an immense defeat.

Inevitably, subsequent investigations turn up overlooked omens and ignored analyses. Always, there's someone buried deep in a government bureaucracy or a military hierarchy who warned precisely of the disaster to come but was ignored. (In Gen. Braddock's case the overlooked prophet was George Washington.)

Something that's usually forgotten amidst all the introspective breast beating is the fact that there's an enemy who's taking countermeasures and adhering to his own operational security regime.

Why was America caught unawares by the Sept. 11 attacks? The answer was given by Osama bin Laden himself when he said of the hijackers on a captured videotape that: "All they knew was that they have a martyrdom operation and we asked each of them to go to America, but they didn't know anything about the operation, not even one letter. But they were trained and we did not reveal the operation to them until they are there and just before they boarded the planes."

That was good, tight, operational security on his part and the part of al Qaeda.
Congressional Democrats seem to be realizing that proceeding to unjustifiably blame the administration will not result in any appreciable political gains.

They're cooling their rhetoric. The media is a different matter: Every reporter hopes to be the one to break 9/11-gate and make his reputation. That will keep the story alive for a long time.

Questions about America's preparedness on Sept. 11 are certainly in order - but a vindictive witch-hunt is not. In this regard, proposals for a presidential commission to look into the matter may be a good thing and will, one hopes, lay to rest some of the more bizarre suspicions currently making the rounds.

In the meantime, all we can do is be vigilant, learn what we can from our past mistakes, and do our best not to repeat them. For the foreseeable future we'll face vague threats and unspecified alarms based on incomplete information.

Welcome to the wonderful world of intelligence.

JWR contributor David Silverberg is managing editor of The Hill. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, David Silverberg