A lost opportunity

April 09, 2004|By Scott Armstrong

WASHINGTON -- After a nervous start, Condoleezza Rice carefully groomed the Bush administration's mussed account of the road to Sept. 11 yesterday, easily disposing with the 9/11 commission's comparative nitpicking.

Concentrating on more superficial disagreements, the commission let slip by its best opportunity to date for public insight into why 9/11 happened, what could and should have been done and whether our government has learned any meaningful lessons.

Commissions -- like congressional committees -- are born convinced that if each member asks their own set of questions, sheer repetition will assure thoroughness. This theory is as remarkable for its longevity as for its failure.

The few inquiries which informed and educated are exceptions, among them the Senate Watergate hearings, the House Nixon impeachment proceedings and the House-Senate Iran-Contra investigation.

All of these all share three features missing today:

Organized, coherent and detailed public examination of a witness by at most two main questioners -- usually counsel rather than members -- building cohesively on many hours of private testimony.

Detailed and well-documented historical context, framing both questions and answers and allowing probes into new areas.

Staring down presidents and their minions over access to people and documents deemed necessary with the iron will to declassify and publish all of the facts.

Is there value in asking rhetorically tough questions which don't -- and, by design, can't -- get informative answers to predictable sequences of interpretations of surface facts? Thus, the question should not be whether there was a "silver bullet" that could have stopped 9/11. The important questions deal with the process that molds any bullets. The silver bullets -- clear action alternatives -- never emerge without intelligence that is understood in context. The commission played Russian roulette with empty chambers searching for silver bullets.

The repetition of "why didn't we respond to the (USS) Cole (bombing)" and "why not attack Afghanistan earlier" begs more fundamental questions about what the terrorists are all about. Last week, former National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger talked of "growing evidence" of al-Qaida involvement in the USS Cole bombing at the time of the transition from the Clinton to the Bush presidency. The guided missile destroyer was attacked in a Yemeni harbor in October 2000.

Ms. Rice dodged the issue by repeating that neither administration had acted. But what was the "growing evidence"? News accounts, Pentagon comments and leaked testimony show this as the melding of connections between Saudi and Yemeni operatives tied together by a regional network of radical clerics -- Salifists -- who are now believed to have approved and targeted terrorist acts within al-Qaida and its affiliates. These connections are essential to understanding the structure of al-Qaida decision-making before 9/11 and even today.

In fact, evidence became sufficiently authoritative in 2002 that a missile was fired by an unmanned Predator in Yemen, assassinating several operatives allegedly involved in the Cole attack, including an American citizen. Who were these people and how do they relate to al-Qaida? Is it true that they were not controlled by Osama bin Laden but coordinated with him? Do they report to the same circle of Salifist leadership to which bin Laden reported before he became a fugitive? U.S. intelligence postulates the answers based on decrypted messages intercepted from their phone and Internet communications.

Yet the analyses of these intercepts, much less the raw intercepts, seem to be beyond the commission's grasp -- literally and figuratively.

Can't enough of the analysis be declassified to allow us to see the origins of 9/11 and the motivations of its intellectual authors? Ms. Rice opened the door when she said "we were moving to a different concept that said that you had to hold at risk what they cared about, not just try and punish them, not just try to go after bin Laden."

This was but one opportunity for follow-up on fundamental questions provided by Ms. Rice. But each resulted in a commission member ignoring the opening and plunging on with their preplanned questions.

Ms. Rice said, "America's al-Qaida policy wasn't working because our Afghanistan policy wasn't working, and our Afghanistan policy wasn't working because our Pakistan policy wasn't working."

This and a clumsy nonquestion about Iraq from commission member Bob Kerrey, a former Democratic senator from Nebraska, opened the door to a meaningful elucidation of a Bush administration regional policy which underdeploys troops to Afghanistan because they are deployed in Iraq.

The allegation by counterterrorism expert Richard A. Clarke that invading Iraq undercut the war on terror, failed to find evidence of Iraqi terrorism, and has created a sanctuary and a breeding ground for terrorists. What questions about policy toward al-Qaida operations could be more relevant? But there was no follow-up.

The commission failed to understand or even question the context of the famous June 21, 2001 meeting to which CIA Director George Tenet arrived "with his hair on fire" about imminent terrorist threats. His burning hair was largely about terrorism events abroad, most likely in Saudi Arabia where the royal family had failed to cooperate with U.S. anti-terrorist efforts.

For the commission once again, there was no context, no questions and no answers.

Scott Armstrong was founder of the National Security Archive and is director of the Information Trust.

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