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« Phantom Down | Main | Sweet Land Of Liberty »

Twenty-Twenty Hindsight

Everyone's playing Monday morning quarterback about the failure to pick up on the Osama hijacking threat prior to September 11. For me, there are two points here.

First, I don't blame Bush for the failure to prevent it, for reasons that I'll go into in a minute. I do blame Bush for failure to really address the incompetence afterward, and in fact to augment it, with Tom Ridge, and Norm Mineta. I continue to be frustrated with the lack of willingness to confront the issue that there was then, and continues to be now, massive incompetence and bureaucratic turf tending that is going to make it less likely that we will prevent future attacks. I am furious that George Tenet still has his job, that Mineta still has his, that no one has yet been held to account, and there's no seeming willingness to see that anyone is.

My blood boils when I continue to hear nonsense about how this simply proves that we need bigger government, and bigger budgets, instead of the reality, which is that we instead need smaller government, more focused on our security, and less so on transferring wealth from the top down, and indulging the American people in their desire to make someone else responsible for their own lives, and protecting them from their own behavior.

Was this even avoidable? In theory, yes. I wasn't really surprised when it happened. When the first plane hit, I was wondering if it was deliberate, and if so, how it could be pulled off. I ran through the possibilities in my mind, and the only one that made sense was a hijacking. When the second plane hit, the thought jelled--clearly that was what happened. Was it unthinkable? Not to me. The WTC had already been targeted by these nutballs. We had already seen a plane taken down by a suicidal pilot (in the Egypt Air case). So why not?

But in practice, it probably couldn't have been prevented, even had the dots been properly connected. We were simply culturally unable to deal with it until we had the bucket of ice water splashed in our collective face last September.

I agree with "E. Nough"s comments over at Charles Johnson's site:

...assume that the FBI had information on the exact date, time, flight number, and descriptions of suspects. So they raid all the planes, and arrest the 19 dirtbags.

...And then what? Not much, I imagine. Oh, CAIR and its ilk would be having a fit, of course, complaining to everyone, including George W., about profiling and unfair targeting of Arab-Americans. After all, just what did the FBI find? Some box cutters? Those aren't illegal on airplanes. Flight manuals? These men were all attending accredited flight schools, trying to achieve the American dream, etc. etc. So they had one-way tickets: is that a crime? Funeral shrouds? Are you honestly arresting these men for bringing white sheets onto a plane? Korans? So because these men are pious Muslims, you dare to assume...! And really, folks, come on: flying a Boeing into a skyscraper? You've been watching too many movies! Who would come up with something this complicated, when a truck bomb in a garage would do just as well?

And so on and so on. I'm sure at least half these men would have been released within a couple of days. Profiling would be discussed at length on CNN and PBS. Several specials would be made, with weeping, hijab-wearing photogenic young women, describing in perfect Midwestern English the ordeal of being singled out by airport security. American Airlines would issue an apology, and make a contribution to the Arab-American Anti-Defamation Society, with a promise of more "outreach efforts." Norman Mineta would be outraged! and put in all sorts of new restrictions designed specifically to avoid giving extra scrutiny to "people of Middle Eastern appearance." (hey! wait a second!) George W. would go on the record saying that "pro-filling" is "discriminatational" and against everything he holds dear. Clinton would tell a story of his Lebanese-American great-uncle who was once denied entry into the White House. Al Gore would talk about his years of service under Lawrence of Arabia. Pretty soon, the whole thing would be forgotten as another embarrasing example of the Latent Racism in American Society.

Until one day, another group of men board an airliner...

So, given the national mindset in place at the time, and (unfortunately, based on the continuing idiocies coming from the FAA and Ridge about guns in the cockpit and the random searches, and elimination of first-class security lines) perhaps to some degree today, it would have been tough. One thing that might have been effective, though, was the one thing that was effective that day--to change our attitude and policy toward hijacking. Flight 93 was operating under the new paradigm--the three flights before it under the old. And if Flight 93 had known even sooner, they might have been able to save the plane, and prevent the hijackers from getting into the cockpit in the first place.

I agree with Kathy Kinsley.

If there had been a public education campaign in place last summer, warning that, despite the best efforts of airport security, it wasn't perfect, and that there might be hijackings, and that cooperation with the hijackers would result in the deaths of not only the passengers, but countless more on the ground, what happened on September 11 might have been prevented.

Posted by Rand Simberg at May 16, 2002 10:14 AM
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They'd have needed to reverse 30 years of policy to launch that public education campaign, and this gummint couldn't do it without a trauma of the 9/11 sort. Someone back in the '70s (when the PLO was feasting on the benefits of kidnapping planes and passengers) decided that hijackings were just promo packages for the darling misunderstood thugs, and set policy assuming that if no one resisted no one would face much risk. And of course our gummint thinks its purpose is to shelter all citizens from all risk all the time.

Posted by Hank Bradley at May 16, 2002 04:07 PM

I'm not saying that it's realistic to suppose that they'd do that. Just that that would have been the most effective thing they could have done.

Posted by Rand Simberg at May 16, 2002 04:16 PM

The public education campaign you call for would have never taken place. Before Flight 93, the model for handling a hijack was negotiate, negotiate, negotiate. Pilots, cabin crew and passengers were told never fight or confront the hijacker. When you land, we will negotiate. It was assumed that security would not be perfect, but the back up plan did not assume a suicide attack.

With an organization as large as the FBI or CIA, somewhere, someone is always going to be in the position of saying I told you so. With the amount of intelligence we are getting, I expect there are plenty of indications of hijacking, kidnapping, etc every month. Let?s wait until we hear the specifics of the warning, and the reaction, before we go the Cynthia McKinney route. From what I can tell, everyone was expecting a hostages-for-a-jailed-terrorist type hijacking. They reacted accordingly.

Remember Black Sunday was made in 1977. The bombing in Beriut was in the 1980?s. We?ve had the models and we?ve had the warning, but we haven?t had the ability to believe it would happen.

Posted by Rick V at May 16, 2002 04:38 PM

If the FBI had put all the pieces together, they would have been able to do a lot more to catch these guys. With wiretaps and other surveillance they might have gathered enough information to put together a case for conspiracy. At the very least, they could have put a few armed agents on the planes to see if anything happened.

I?m disturbed by the defensive spin the Whitehouse has put on this. It would be perfectly legitimate for them to say they get about three items a month (or whatever) of the same level of credibility and had no way of knowing that this was the real thing. They could say they don?t publicize low-credibility rumors to avoid burning their intelligence sources.

Instead, we get Condoleezza Rice saying that to release the information ?would have risked shutting down the American civil aviation system.? Wow. Good thing that didn?t happen.

Posted by Mark Draughn at May 16, 2002 04:52 PM

Your article is the best thing I've seen on this question (or comes closest to mirroring my thoughts?). The fact that Tenet didn't offer his resignation on Sep. 12 says all that could be said about the concept of honor in the federal government. Have there been any high level (i.e. Cabinet secretary or deputy secretary)resignations in Washington on matters of principle since the Saturday Night Massacre? The fact that Bush not only didn't fire Tenet but went out of his way to praise him (when he wasn't too busy extolling Islam as a religion of peace) speaks volumes as to the insulation of the Beltway denizens and the separation between the governing and the governed. The Bushes, who are men of not inconsiderable virtues but less than considerable intellect, are loyal to their friends and allies, and the fact that the loyalty may be harmful to the citizenry they were sworn to serve does not enter into their thinking. Tenet was a friend and colleague of President Bush; regardless of the enormity of the intelligence failure on his watch, he had to be defended. As to Mineta, he was put into the cabinet, in the most inconsequential post, to show that this administration was bipartisan. The fact that Transportation is now a crucially important post and that Mineta has repeatedly displayed his inability to handle any job greater than Congressman (and even that eventually proved too much for him) is no reason for George W. to replace him. The Bushes are loyal. They just lack the "vision" to realize that this "loyalty" can be harmful to the country.
In the days before this question would have earned the label "racist",there used to be a hypothetical posed in college philosophy classes as to whether you would allow the death of one million Chinese in order to prevent or obtain some end important to yourself. Just as those of us who were ordinary citizens (not saints) prefered the death of one million residents of Peking to serious harm to our child, the governing class (and George W.)are more solicitous of the reputations of their fellows in the Cabinet room than of the well being of the citizenry.
We are no more real to the President than the Pekinese were to an American college student in the 60s (which is why Chinese figured in the hypo; not because of their skin color but because they were so far removed from us geographically and otherwise that they were not "real"). The hypo only becomes difficult when you are asked to choose between your spouse and all your other relatives, neighbors and friends.
Both sides in Washington are now talking past each other. Daschle and Gephardt, desperate for a political issue, are trying to suggest that poor George W. personally was given enough intelligence information that he should have deduced that the September 11 attack was probable/likely/possible and alerted the airlines/public/military/Sen. Daschle/Rep. Gephardt/Barbara Bush. Nonsense! Based on what he was told (and ignoring his ability to interpret intelligence data)the only thing he might have been expected to do was to tell the FBI and the CIA to do their jobs well. That's really not something you should have to tell those bodies; they are expected to function effectively. Condoleeza, also, is being silly when she raises the specter of grounding all civil aviation. Both sides are exaggerating and both sides are, intentionally, not speaking to the point: Was there a failure by our intelligence agencies and how can that be resolved? Given what's now coming to light about the FBI field agents' warnings on Arab flight students (regardless of Bush's August briefing), our people clearly missed obvious signs. Tenet should go, if only for claiming to Congress soon after Sep. 11 that the CIA did its job well. Mueller should go now for recently claiming that the FBI's failure was due to the fact that they had no one charged with evaluating intelligence received from various sources and drawing a conclusion from the data. If the FBI had only 3 employees, one should have been charged with evaluating what the other 2 were discovering.
But God watches over the American Republic. The Senate under Daschle will do everything they can to accuse Bush of active malfeasance in office, the NY Times will run an investigative series that strongly implies that Bush is actually the 43rd son of UBL, Reps. McKinney, Waters and Nadler will demand a DNA sample from Bush to follow up on this story, Trent Lott will denounce the entire Democratic party as unpatriotic, and the upshot of all this mud-slinging will be that the hypo will suddenly become real for President Bush and will involve him and the upcoming elections, not just the citizenry. Thus President Bush will realize that the incompetence of Messrs. Tenet, Mueller and Mineta, and the impossibility of effecting any real change in their fiefdoms without new headmen, will require that he accept the resignation of these wonderful public servants well before the November elections.
And don't accuse me of being Pollyanna; I've been rooting for the Red Sox and the Cal Bears for decades; I always believe in miracles.

Posted by Mike Brennan at May 16, 2002 09:07 PM

If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, it would be Christmas every day for you guys wouldn't it.

Calm the fuck down, everybody. You seem to be believing every piece of p.r. that has been on T.V., in Clancy books and in crappy movies about the CIA and FBI. Yes, the unwritten code of the military and CIA after WWII was never again would our country be attacked without warning. They are not omnipotent, omnipresent entities. Not everything is wrapped up in 300 pages so you can get a good nights sleep. Put things in perspective, it took 3 years of planning to launch D-Day, and we knew where the hell the German army was.

Posted by Joe at May 16, 2002 09:11 PM

"With wiretaps and other surveillance they might have gathered enough information to put together a case for conspiracy. At the very least, they could have put a few armed agents on the planes to see if anything happened."

Huh? Again, what happens when something like this gets leaked. CAIR immediately starts shouting "PROFILING!!!" Armed agents? Do you realize how many planes there are in the air in a given week?

What's worse, imagine if warnings had been issued, armed agents put on planes, the current pseudo-security implemented. We'd have been treated to incessent Jay Letterman andDave Leno jokes and Saturday Night Live skits about this, with the Democrats carping about how the Bush people are afraid to look into their closets because they believe terrorists lurk inside. Hell, no one believes the warnings that are being issued now, because nothing has happened since.

Hindsight is great. Recognize its limitations.

Posted by raoul ortega at May 16, 2002 09:18 PM

Political correctness should have died on September 11... I've believed this since that day... and the proponents of it will never admit that they contributed to this problem.

Posted by TVH at May 16, 2002 10:30 PM

Woudn't have worked. I can't believe that the entire Democratic media empire would have gone from making on-air comments about how much safer they felt when Bush was on vacation (! CNN, during the nightly anchor broadcast ...journalistic ethics, my ass) to seriously reporting that the Bush administration felt there was a serious terrorist threat on this scale. What would've happened would've been a whole new raft of snide "Bush is an idiot" political cartoons and a few well-covered speeches by Jesie Jackson about how all of this proves that Bush is a racist.

Posted by David Paglia at May 17, 2002 12:44 AM

Joe, I was responding to the quote from "E. Nough,? which said that even if ?the FBI had information on the exact date, time, flight number, and descriptions of suspects? they couldn?t do much because box cutters, flight manuals, funeral shrouds, and one-way tickets aren?t illegal. That makes it harder, but not impossible: With that much information, and a little surveillance, the FBI could have taped them discussing the attack and the caught them committing an overt act, such as trying to board the plane. That?s a conspiracy case. Plenty of people have gone to jail this way.

Even if the FBI didn?t have a solid case, if the hijackers all bought plane tickets, it wouldn?t take a genius to say ?lets send ten agents from the Boston office on a trip to California? on each plane. I certainly wasn?t suggesting putting agents on every plane flying.

I don?t know if it was bad luck, incompetence, misplaced priorities, or simply not possible, but if the FBI had caught a few more clues, September 11 would have just been a Tuesday.

Posted by Mark Draughn at May 17, 2002 02:06 PM

Mark, how would they have found the hijackers and discovered the plot in the first place? I mean, the *specific* plot? Those nebulous warnings wouldn't have helped much. They did twig onto Massosoui, and had they pursued that, it might have unraveled the whole thing. That, IMHO, is the biggest practical failure of the whole story, but big bureaucracies don't move very fast, and they simply weren't given enough time for their methods to work. That those methods must change is a given. The question is, will they? I suspect they are even now, but Bush, who is unnaturally protective of government minions (because of dad? who knows?) will cover anything that looks harmful to the bureaucracy. Hell, he's even covered for Clinton before. I'd like to see some punishment for the really egregious mistakes, but in the climate of this partisan and very public Demo witchhunt, Bush probably feels he can't afford to give even a single inch, or a single subordinate, without appearing to confirm all the Donks's wild charges. Which is a shame, because if the Dems were sincerely interested in improving things - and they aren't - they would have gone about this differently. But they aren't after realistic responsibility and bureaucratic change - they're after Bush's popularity numbers.

Posted by Bill Quick at May 18, 2002 10:37 AM

How about addressing the real issue, the fact the Bush Administration lied. 8 months ago they said that there were no signs, no warnings period. Now, we find out that there were signs and warnings given directly to them. This is a complete seperate issue from the second guessing hindsight. The Administration got caught lying. The question is why?

Posted by Midderpidge at May 18, 2002 03:48 PM

>> How about addressing the real issue, the fact the Bush Administration lied. 8 months ago they said that there were no signs, no warnings period.

How about some understanding of the word "know".

Consider the following. I'm pretty sure that Paul Newman has at least one phone in the US; let's assume that it's true and I know it. I do know what US phone numbers look like, so I can dial numbers until I get him.

Do those two things imply that I know Paul Newman's phone number in any useful sense? (Hint - the answer is "no".)

Even if you give me his area code, or zip code, (which narrows the number down considerably) I still don't usefully know Paul Newman's phone number.

In the sense that I know Paul Newman's phone number, the US govt is "aware" of bazillions of threats. There's a long way from that fact to anything important.

BTW - I note that we're still waiting for someone to respond to the allegation that those complaining are pretty much the reason why nothing could have been done....

I suspect that we'll wait for a while - after all, we still can't do many of the things that might have made a difference....

Posted by Andy Freeman at May 18, 2002 07:09 PM

When Gore was vp, didn't he chair a committee on increasing air travel safety that recommended making cockpit doors secure? A sturdy, lockable cockpit door would prevent a hijacker access to the pilots and controls.

These recommendations were never enacted. Air carriers complained that to retrofit secure doors would cost too much. "free-trade" prevails in the marketplace of ideas.

Posted by citizen Able at May 20, 2002 12:07 PM

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