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Freedom's Fidelity

Friday, March 26, 2004

9/11 Inquiry

A year ago, Bush was criticized for being an overly aggressive gunslinging cowboy, now critics charge that he was not aggressive enough in fighting terrorism. So which is it? To be sure the Clinton administration is getting some heat for this too:

On three separate occasions, Clinton officials had information on Osama bin Laden's whereabouts but ruled out strikes aimed at killing him, fearing the intelligence wasn't solid enough or that others also would die, the panel's investigators found.
The panel seems to place more of the blame on Bush though:

But under Bush, especially, the potential for military action seemed to get little attention until it was too late, according to a draft report Tuesday to the panel investigating the worst terrorist attacks in U.S. history.
Some will point out that the Clinton administration had 8 years to review the intelligence while the Bush administration only had 8 months. That's true, but it's not relevant. The "Could 9/11 have been prevented?" inquiries are nonsense. Of course it COULD have been prevented, a mushroom cloud over Afghanistan in 2000 COULD have done that. But what about the political realities of the day? The resulting criticisms stemming from this inquiry ignore those contraints and presuppose that an invasion of Afghanistan would have been politically possible.

Imagine, if in early 2001 the Bush administration announced that there was a shadowy organization, called Al-Qaeda, that lives in the caves of Afghanistan and is in the final stages of a planned assault on U.S. soil that could possibly kill 20,000-30,000 Americans. Because of this threat, Bush says we need to strike their camps and topple the Taliban regime that provides them sanctuary. Everyone would have just gone along with that and taken Bush's and Rumsfeld's word for it right? Right. It seems to me that there would be cries to respect the sovereignty of the Taliban. There would have been those asking for the smoking gun that proved attacks were imminent, because, really how could some guys living in caves, with no weapons of mass destruction be a threat to the mighty United States of America? Bush would have been called a racist, probably a crusader with an anti-Muslim agenda. There would have been charges that the Bush-Cheney oil junta was only trumping up a non-existent threat as a pre-text to invade Afghanistan and control the gateway to the regions energy riches. Even after 9/11 those accusations were made. And if the Bush administration did strike Afghanistan a few months before the attacks, they likely would have happened anyway, and Bush would have then been blamed for enraging the Arab Street, hence triggering the attacks.

Given the opposition the United States faced when it came to toppling Saddam in a post 9/11 climate, it seems almost moronic to believe that the U.N., France, Germany, et al would have gone along with an invasion of Afghanistan in a pre-9/11 world. At that time, there was hardly any real reason to think we needed to invade anywhere ever again. We were cutting our military and intelligence services, the economy was booming and it was the end of history after all. But that was before the risks were altered. We now know that the grave risks of inaction were grossly underestimated. Intelligence of course, is an inexact science. We know there are going to be mistakes and we all agree that we should minimize those mistakes, but the question is which kind of mistakes do we want? It's a trade-off, we can exercise greater skepticism and get less false positives (we conclude that there is a threat where none exists) and more false negatives (we conclude there is no threat where one does in fact exist). That's what we did in the 90's and it got us 9/11. On the other hand, we can be more aggressive when it comes to acting on intelligence and trade some of those false negatives for some false positives, as some would say we did in Iraq. The risk is that another brutal tyrant like Saddam is removed and millions of oppressed people are now free. That is a mistake that history will forgive, and is clearly preferable to the alternative. There is plenty of blame to go around for not seeing 9/11, but we were all caught off guard. That is what this inquiry should teach our leaders.


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