Toward the end of his second term, President Clinton was frustrated that the CIA didn't have the capability to take out Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. According to the Sept. 11 commission report, Clinton told Gen. Hugh Shelton, "You know it would scare the s--- out of al Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters into the middle of their camp."
But there was no movie-grade crack ninja team that knew where to go to get bin Laden -- without killing innocent women and children. Instead, there were squabbles over which agency or department would pay for the Predator drones that flew over Afghanistan in search of bin Laden and arguments over which risks were acceptable to get a man who had declared war on America.
Even when a drone found bin Laden at a favored compound, there was no decisive movie moment in which the reluctant president ordered action heroes to get the bad guy. Instead, there were officials who chimed in on the unreliability of intelligence and lawyers who explored if it would be legal for a U.S. team to kill bin Laden -- on purpose or by accident.
After President Bush took office in 2001, the same forces dished up inaction. Officialdom put off attacking al Qaeda in retaliation for the October 2000 terrorist attack on the destroyer Cole that killed 17 because the attack was, by then, "stale" and, the advisers said, they wanted to devise a new, more effective plan of attack. In the meantime, they had no plan.
The simple fact is, until Sept. 11, 2001, it is doubtful either president could have garnered the support needed, domestically or internationally, to stop Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.
U.S. intelligence operatives lacked the knowledge needed to wage a surgical attack. Neither president was eager to risk failure. Why should he?
A potent weapon in bin Laden's arsenal was America's success: Its leaders in Washington and its top bureaucrats were in that fat and happy sphere, analogous to middle age, in which it is easier to do nothing new than to do something new, and where risk presents more possibility of loss than gain. What the commission called "a failure of imagination" was also a fear of innovation.
That middle-age spread had softened the Department of Justice under both Attorneys General Janet Reno and John Ashcroft. Instrumental was a 1995 memo, written by Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick, which outlined the congressional intent of "the wall," the legal limits on sharing of information between intelligence and criminal prosecutors. The Sept. 11 commission claims the memo was "misunderstood and misapplied" by justice workers and the courts. If so, it was straightened out only after years of intelligence operatives keeping information from FBI agents that might have saved lives. "Someday, someone will die," an FBI agent warned an attorney from the National Security Law Unit involved in the Cole investigation, "and wall or not, the public will not understand why we were not more effective and throwing every resource we had at a certain 'problem.'"
In August 2001, lawyers at FBI headquarters found insufficient probable cause to allow Minneapolis agents to search the laptop of Zacarias Moussaoui, who was being held for overstaying his visa after agents learned he was taking lessons to fly planes, with an interest only in taking off or landing. A Minneapolis FBI supervisor warned that he was "trying to keep someone from taking a plane and crashing it into the World Trade Center."
On the ground level of law enforcement, things worked better. New York firefighters and police officers, aided by civilians who walked each other to safety, saved precious lives on Sept. 11. Alerted passengers on Flight 93 bravely fought so that their plane would crash in a Pennsylvania field and not into a Washington monument. As Sept. 11 commission member Slade Gorton told the San Francisco Chronicle, it was "a midlevel FAA employee" who grounded America's planes while folks at Federal Aviation Administration headquarters were considering the move.
The Sept. 11 report offers some practical suggestions about how government entities could more effectively handle a future attack -- and, better yet, prevent one. But the commission itself fell into the familiar trap of this overly comfortable country -- in insisting on consensus, even if it made its recommendations less effective. For example, its recommendation on the Patriot Act, parts of which are set to expire in 2005: "We think that a full and informed debate on the Patriot Act would be healthy." (Not a lesson in political courage.)
And these are the recommendations that the commission members believe to be so important that they must be passed forthwith?
Once again, going along to get along trumps results. When consensus means more than success, failure is an option.
Especially without the ninjas.