Without warning

April 15, 2004|By Thomas G. Mahnken

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration's unprecedented declassification and release of material from the Aug. 6, 2001, presidential daily briefing, or PDB, has rekindled interest in what the president knew about the al-Qaida threat and when he knew it.

To some, such as Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democratic member of the 9/11 commission, the item, titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike Inside the United States," should have provided "warning" of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon that occurred barely a month later. In fact, it is a concrete demonstration of the intelligence community's lack of reliable, detailed information on al-Qaida's plans.

The current effort to understand the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has much in common with attempts to come to grips with past disasters, such as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the Egyptian and Syrian surprise assault on Israel at the beginning of the 1973 October War.

The consensus is that it is relatively easy for a determined adversary to surprise his victim. It is difficult for the victim to sift accurate signals of an impending attack from the sea of inaccurate or irrelevant noise.

As Roberta Wohlstetter concluded in her classic study of Japan's surprise strike, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, the Japanese took the United States unawares not because of the absence of indicators but because of a plethora of contradictory or erroneous reports. Averting surprise becomes even more difficult when the attacker chooses an unexpected mode of attack, as the Japanese did when they chose to use carrier-based aircraft to attack the naval base.

The same phenomena were at work before 9/11. Both the joint congressional inquiry into the events and the independent 9/11 commission have unearthed a number of intercepts of communication between al-Qaida members discussing a forthcoming operation in vague terms. Analysts within the intelligence community also penned several reports in the six months before the attacks discussing the possibility of an al-Qaida strike on U.S. interests.

But viewing these bits of information in isolation is misleading. With the knowledge of hindsight, today's investigators have the luxury of picking these "signals" out of the thousands of reports that crossed the desks of intelligence analysts and policy-makers during that period. Moreover, even these reports are ambiguous. As National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice testified May 8, the U.S. intelligence community received indications that al-Qaida was planning some large attack but lacked any information as to when, where and how.

Al-Qaida's use of airliners as missiles posed an even more daunting analytical challenge. To the extent that intelligence analysts thought about al-Qaida operations involving airliners, it was in terms of either blowing them up or hijacking them to gain release of imprisoned members. While it appears that an analyst or two may have considered the theoretical possibility that al-Qaida might do otherwise, such a view was not taken seriously throughout the intelligence community.

The Aug. 6 PDB item, prepared in response to questions from President Bush, is a microcosm of these difficulties. The document is a collection of what the intelligence community knew about al-Qaida's intent to attack the United States -- most of it dated -- rather than a warning of such an attack.

Indeed, the document does not contain any information that even in hindsight appears to be directly related to the 9/11 attacks.

It discusses the reported recruitment of American Muslims (not Saudis) to conduct attacks in the United States. It also notes the surveillance of federal buildings (not the World Trade Center) in New York, activity that was subsequently determined to be harmless. And it mentions a call to the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi about supporters of Osama bin Laden in the United States planning attacks with explosives. To the extent that it discusses hijacking, it is in the traditional sense of taking hostages to be traded for prisoners rather than using aircraft as manned missiles.

The 9/11 commission, like its predecessor that examined the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, has devolved into an exercise in scapegoating. This is understandable, given the passionate desire of the families of the victims to know what happened and whether the events could have been avoided.

But we already know who was really responsible for these barbarous acts. It was not the Bush administration or the Clinton administration, but a vicious group of radical Islamic terrorists. We should spend less time apportioning blame and more determining what we can do to defeat al-Qaida.

Thomas G. Mahnken is acting director of the Strategic Studies Program at the Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.

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