Lessons of September 11

It’s September 11 again, three years from the day that has gone down in history. That’s a ready-made theme for commemorative newspaper articles, should editors desire to take advantage of it. Perhaps it’s a certain nostalgia for the “We are all Americans now” message from Le Monde back then immediately after the attacks – a sentiment which quickly disappeared at the hands of Bush administration indifference like dew on a sunny summer’s morning – that has me heading for the French press to see whether there’s anything to be said about the anniversary there. Surprisingly, Le Monde itself takes a pass (at least with what it publishes in its on-line edition). But Libération takes up the theme with a couple of articles, starting with the paean to hindsight written by Pascal Riche (that paper’s Washington correspondent): The Missed Signals of 11 September.

By now it’s fairly common knowledge, at least for those whose political inclinations permits them to accept it, that there were plenty of indications during 2001 of some sort of upcoming attack, indications that really should have elicited greater concern on the part of those charged back then (who happen to be the same as those charged right now) with American national security. After all, that is basically the conclusion of the 9/11 Commission. What Riche does here is weave together the tale of warnings missed that relies only partially on that Commission’s report. Obviously, its purpose is to bring interested Frenchmen up-to-speed on the topic, but I find it a useful general summary for any French-reader.


He starts out by recounting the 25 January 2001 meeting (thus only five days into the Bush-the-younger administration) involving anti-terrorism chief Richard Clarke, Steven Hadley representing the National Security Council, Paul Wolfowitz there for the Pentagon, John McLaughlin there for the CIA, and Richard Armitage there for the State Department. That meeting’s purpose was for Clarke to lay out the threat to the US posed by Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda organization, and to propose some counter-measures. These would include providing support to the Northern Alliance of Afghan factions still fighting against the ruling Taliban, bin Laden’s shelterers, and to sic the Predator (a pilotless “drone” aircraft packed with sensors) against bin Laden and his al Qaeda cohorts. But the sense of urgency Clarke was trying to impart immediately ran up against Wolfowitz’s indifference. “I really don’t understand why we’re beginning by talking about this guy, bin Laden,” he announced. “There are other such threats. Iraqi terrorism, for example.” Clarke responded that, in his estimation, bin Laden was “an immediate and serious danger,” but Wolfowitz remained unimpressed, even when McLaughlin chimed in for the CIA to confirm Clarke’s assertion that there was no intelligence establishing Saddam Hussein’s support for international terrorism.

Then, from April, intelligence indications that something big was coming up started to multiply. An intelligence report from 30 June even stated that “Bin Laden is preparing large-scale attacks . . . for a date that is drawing near.” The CIA was worried about a July 4 incident. That of course did not come to pass, but when the CIA tried to warn Attorney General John Ashcroft the following day about the danger, Ashcroft was unimpressed. Approached again a week later, he declared he didn’t want to hear anything more about it. But the signals persisted, and on August 6 President Bush got that infamous PDB – Presidential Daily Briefing – while on vacation at his Crawford ranch: “Bin Laden Determined to Strike the USA.” Of course nothing happened, even as that PDB specifically mentioned the possibility of airplane hijackings. As Riche writes, “the totality of these warnings, all in agreement, is unprecedented in the history of American intelligence.” It even seems that two CIA agents, linked to the anti-terrorism bureau, considered resigning in order to be able to take public their grave misgivings over what might be coming – this according to the 9/11 Commission.

Could any of this really have had an influence on what eventually happened? The 9/11 Commission thinks so, Riche writes. One of the ultimate hijackers, a certain Khalid al-Mihdhar, was already known to American intelligence authorities for involvement in planning for the attack in Yemen of the USS Cole. As he entered the US at least twice during 2001, lower-level agents of both the CIA and FBI tried to get authorization to put him under closer surveillance, but nothing ever came of these. And there was also Zacharias Moussaoui, arrested on 17 August in Minnesota, ostensibly for having overstayed his visa. The FBI agents involved here also tried to gain permission to investigate Moussaoui more thoroughly, but were denied. “I’m just trying to prevent someone from taking an airplane and crashing it into the World Trade Center,” was the eerily-prophetic but frustrated reaction that Riche records from one of them.


This article is supplemented in Libération by an editorial by Patrick Sabatier, entitled simply Lessons. Nothing here as banal as “the warnings should have been paid more heed”; Riche took care of that point pretty well in his own piece. Rather, Sabatier takes as his point of departure the minor storm-in-a-teacup of last week in which the President seemed to admit that the “war on terrorism” cannot be won in the conventional sense, only to disavow this the same day once Democratic Party partisans started to take advantage of this supposed “flip-flop.”

Naturally, here the issue is treated seriously rather than as some childish political football. Terrorism has now become the “fundamental parameter of international politics,” Sabatier writes – although he also notes that George W. Bush has been quick to exploit it “without shame” in the cause of his re-election. Of course the “war against terrorism” cannot he “won” in any conventional sense. It should instead be ranked up with the wars democratic countries had to wage in the 20th century against totalitarian Fascism and Communism, which were strongly ideological as well as military. The ideological struggle is therefore a vital part in winning the war against terrorism, for after all “victory” can only be the state in which “in the Muslim world, as everywhere else, the murderous cocktail of hate of the West, the cult of death, and recourse to brutality without limit preached by bin Laden is isolated, condemned, and combatted.” One must hope, his conclusion reads, that the American president chosen on 2 November will have learned the lessons of post-September 11, namely that military force alone will never be the solution.

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