Friday, 07 January, 2005

9/11 Commission Report: Intelligence failure?

The middle part of the 9/11 Comission Report (Chapters 2 through 8) are a rambling discussion of how Usama Bin Laden and his al Qaeda group formed, what made them able to attract a following, their early attacks, our responses, and finally a detailed (although still rambling) account of how the 9/11 attacks were planned and carried out.  There are few surprises here.  The most important thing I got out of those chapters was an appreciation for how well planned and organized the operation was.

When information started leaking out of the 9/11 Commission investigations, some people made a lot of noise about missed opportunities to capture or kill Bin Laden and some of his chiefs during President Clinton's second term.  The Report details some of those opportunities, and explains very well why they weren't taken.  The reasons fall into three categories:  insufficient information on his location, insufficient resources to carry out the attacks, and negative political consequences.  In almost all cases, the political consequences were negative for the country as a whole, not for the President.  On the contrary, Clinton's approval rating domestically would have climbed quite a bit if we had managed to capture or kill Bin Laden.  But the international repercussions for the United States would have been staggering, although one wonders if they would have been any worse than what's happened in response to our Iraq venture.

I often wonder if Bin Laden miscalculated our response to the 9/11 attacks.  Given our responses to their previous attacks, he had every reason to believe that our response to 9/11 would be weak and ineffective.  When al Qaeda carried out the embassy bombings in Africa, we lobbed a few cruise missiles at a manufacturing plant and a couple of terrorist training camps.  We did nothing after the USS Cole bombing.  I suspect that he expected some response to 9/11, but I doubt he imagined that we'd send troops to invade Afghanistan looking for him.

The Report spends a lot of time detailing missed opportunities or "failures" on the intelligence side--information that different agencies had, but that we didn't put together prior to the attacks.  The report is quick to point out situations in which, had we been able to put the information together, we might have or could have prevented the attacks.  The members of the Commission recognize (in writing, at least) that these things that are obvious in hindsight weren't so obvious at the time.  I question whether they actually believe that.

There's no doubt that had the right people in the right agencies been able to share information, we would have learned of the attack plans and prevented them.  However, the relevant information was in bits and pieces spread out over many different agencies, many of whom were prevented by law from sharing information.  Those restrictions on information sharing evolved over the last 20 or 30 years to prevent or lessen abuse and government intrusion into our private lives.  The question isn't whether or not we could have identified the threat and prevented the attacks, but whether we want a national intelligence structure that has the capability to tie together the few bits of information that we did have.  Granted, it would have been nice to prevent the attacks, but at what cost to our own privacy?  The intelligence structure that could have detected and prevented the attacks is a frightening thing in a free society.  More on that when I talk about the Commission's recommendations.