Jewish World Review May 23, 2002 / 12 Sivan, 5762
of my journalistic colleagues are fascinated by intelligence
stories. I guess they like the cloak-and-dagger mysteriousness
of it all.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.)
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
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."
was good, tight, operational security on his part and the
part of al Qaeda.
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.
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 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.