CIA Director Michael Hayden’s release of an internal report on the agency’s performance prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks has triggered a predictable result: more of the blame game.
While not claiming the CIA could have prevented September 11 – the report says only that if intelligence officers “had been able to view and analyse the full range of information before 11 September 2001, they could have developed a more informed context in which to assess the threat reporting of the spring and summer of that year” – the report contends that then CIA director George Tenet “was either unwilling or unable to marshal the full range of IC (intelligence community) necessary to combat the growing terrorist threat to the US.”
To be sure, the CIA and others made mistakes. For example, an FBI memo warning of the activities of Middle Eastern men at US flight schools never went beyond the desk of a midlevel unit chief in the bureau’s counterterrorism division, though it arrived at headquarters two months before Septemvber 11.
If such mistakes had not happened, perhaps the attacks could have been prevented.
But “could have” is not the same thing as “would have”. Those who believe the latter assume that intelligence is a perfect science, but it is as much art as science.
It is easy with 20—20 hindsight to connect the dots, because you can trace backward from a known event. But that’s not the same thing as trying to connect dots to an event that’s still a work in progress, where, even if the dots were clearly visible beforehand (a big assumption), they could have been connected in different ways to paint very different pictures.
Although the CIA inspector general’s report focuses solely on CIA accountability, it identifies a larger problem which extends far beyond the CIA: “Neither the US government nor the IC had a comprehensive strategy for combating Al Qaeda.”
Before September 11, for example, President Bush didn’t mention Al Qaeda at all in discussing US national security. His focus was on rogue states, weapons of mass destruction, and ballistic missile defence.
And to be fair, the Clinton administration didn’t have bin Laden and Al Qaeda squarely in its sights either.
Trying to understand how September 11 might have been averted requires more than a postmortem on CIA procedures and a second look at the government’s nonexistent strategy for dealing with Al Qaeda. Ultimately, the September 11 terrorist attacks are inextricably linked to US foreign policy.
The September 11 Commission concluded that the rising tide of anti-American Muslim hatred, which draws Muslims to the radical cause, is fuelled more by what we do – that is, by US policies – than by who we are. Our values, culture, and way of life are not the problem; our actions are the problem.
Yet, while the September 11 Commission understood that point, it did not prescribe any real change in America’s post-Cold War foreign policy.
If we are unable to admit that some of our policy choices are wrong, how can we hope to correct them? Certainly, Al Qaeda – not Americans or American society – is solely responsible for the death and destruction of those attacks.
But the US government – under Republican and Democratic administrations alike – must be held accountable for ill-conceived policies that have helped motivate terrorism against the US.
US foreign policy that results in unnecessary military intervention – the Balkans under President Clinton and Iraq under George W Bush – is one of the main causes of the virulent anti-American sentiment fuelling terrorism.
To understand what the US government could have done better to prevent September 11, and, more importantly, to understand how we might prevent future terrorist attacks, we need to adopt a more humble foreign policy, as candidate Bush advocated in 2000.
That responsibility rests squarely in the Oval office, not at CIA headquarters in Virginia. — MCT
* Charles V Pena is a senior fellow at The Independent Institute (www.independent.org), 100 Swan Way, Oakland, California 94621, and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for Winning the War on Terrorism.