Who knew?

Posted: May 22, 2002 12:00 AM
A school of thought in law enforcement holds that when a police officer is killed in the line of duty, the officer did something wrong. The intent is not to blame the victim, but to figure out what the next cop might do differently to avoid being killed. The same approach should be applied to Sept. 11. It would help, however, if the joint Senate and House Intelligence Committee investigation of what went wrong came without gratuitous slaps at the good guys. Consider the words of Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., referring to the New York Post headline, "Bush Knew." She said: "The president knew what? My constituents would like to know the answers to that and many other questions. Not to blame the president or any other American, but just to know." What bunk. "Just to know" is Clintonese for: The senator doesn't have the brass to come out and blame Bush, so she hides behind the dishonest pose of just asking questions. Of course, Bush knew. Clinton knew. Before Sept. 11, anyone who read the paper knew. Islamic terrorists bombed the World Trade Center in 1993. Authorities arrested an Osama bin Laden foot soldier named Ahmed Ressam, who planned on blowing up Los Angeles International Airport for the millennium. There were warnings for Americans traveling abroad that summer. (I remember well. I traveled despite them.) In public testimony in February 2000, CIA chief George Tenet said of bin Laden, "Everything we have learned recently confirms our conviction that he wants to strike further blows against America." Recently, Americans learned a few new specifics. A savvy FBI agent in Phoenix wrote a memo last July suggesting that bin Laden's operation might enroll terrorists in American flight schools. In August, a presidential daily briefing used the term hijack -- a word not used in briefings for Intelligence Committee members such as the highly credible Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., according to her spokesman. August is also when the FBI arrested Zacarias Moussaoui -- the reputed 20th hijacker -- on a visa violation. According to the CIA, the FBI sent some of the names in the Phoenix memo to the CIA as information, but it never disclosed why. There are some who believe that if the Phoenix memo and CIA briefings were disseminated to the right people, some smart operator might have connected the dots and possibly prevented the Sept. 11 attacks. A Newsweek poll reports that 55 percent of Americans think Bush should have issued hijack warnings. No matter that the hijacking mentioned in the briefing was supposed to be part of an effort to free Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman -- which means, it was wrong. And it's easy to forget that presidents routinely learn of potential national security threats. When the ash was still thick over lower Manhattan, I remember wondering how long it would be before some Americans started looking for other Americans to blame for this very un-American attack. In the weeks after the terror, Americans understood that the attack was made easier because we were living in blissful denial. There had been warnings, but Americans had better things to do than live in fear of a remote, undefined danger. Time has abetted the human need to blame other people. Besides, if we can blame Washington for not being vigilant to a point that most would have considered paranoid in August 2001, we can craft a fiction that government preparedness can save us from evil people who will attack anyone anywhere.