WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Americans' antipathy to the study of history
is a boon for pundits and politicians, especially when they feel the urge to
declaim on urgent matters.
Today, in Washington, our pundits and pols, expounding on Sept.
11 and the concomitant "intelligence breakdown" in vacua, (END
ITAL) can do so with the greatest freedom of expression imaginable. History
will not disturb the flow of their criticism. Facts will not interrupt their
moral indignation. They speak of Sept. 11 and the "intelligence breakdown"
as if both had neither precedents nor ancestry. That is good for them; it
allows them to exempt their class from past foolishness and, particularly in
the case of the "intelligence breakdown," from any responsibility that
history attests to.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was but the most relevant
precedent for analyzing Sept. 11. There were others. As for last summer's
"intelligence breakdown," its ancestry can be traced to Sen. Frank Church
and his colleagues on the Senate select intelligence committee of the 1970s.
Now Church's congressional successors are investigating the CIA and FBI. Do
a past committee's blunders chasten them? Not if they are studiously unaware
For Pearl Harbor's relevance to Sept. 11, consult the history
books -- most recently Thomas Fleming's "The New Dealers' War." From the
early 1930s on, there was ample evidence that the Japanese could devastate
Pearl in a sneak attack and increasing evidence right up to that "date which
will live in infamy" that the attack was coming.
James Q. Wilson recently noted that there have been other
breaches of the peace that leaders might have anticipated. For instance,
plenty of evidence preceded Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union and North
Korea's attack on South Korea. Yet Stalin and the South Koreans were caught
unaware. In a classic work of history (and of policy analysis) "Pearl
Harbor: Warning and Decision," Roberta Wohlstetter explained the
intelligence lapse at Pearl. The solid evidence of an impending attack was
not discerned by our government's leaders because of their prejudices, an
abundance of false warnings and misleading intelligence. This Wohlstetter
By the mid-1940s, our leaders had become mindful of that
"noise," and so they set up an agency to analyze intelligence so that never
again would "noise" distract them from solid intelligence. The agency was
called the CIA. In the past, its analysts have had a passable record, but by
last summer the CIA had become sufficiently bureaucratized to fail to
distinguish the ominous signs of imminent danger from the "noise."
The CIA and the FBI's failures have been -- as all such failures
inevitably are -- human failures, but there were other causes now apparently
lost to the mists of history. Congressional grandstanding since the
Watergate period has impeded our intelligence agencies' effectiveness.
The same gaudy grandstanding has distracted the CIA and the FBI,
as it has confused the electorate about an emerging threat to our national
security. That threat is aggression waged not by governments but by
terrorists who act as the guerrilla agents of truly barbaric governments. Up
until Sept. 11, America had formed no national consensus on terrorism. In
the Clinton years, the terrorists' activities were merely the provocation
for bluster and several sallies into "wag the dog" political tactics.
Political grandstanding caused the FBI's focus to widen and blur
every time the pols came up with a new crime to federalize. Naturally the
FBI lost its focus. But the politicians' most grievous blow to the FBI came
in the wake of Watergate at the Church hearings, where they lost themselves
in harangues against the Nixon administration's misbehavior. That this
misbehavior had precedents in earlier administrations, for instance those of
FDR and JFK, went unremarked. Yet the consequence was to hobble the FBI from
gathering intelligence on just the kind of groups as the one that flew
hijacked jetliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. 1970s-era
congressional restrictions have until recently made it more difficult for
Federal agencies to conduct some wiretaps and certain searches than for
local police agencies. CIA and FBI have been barred from doing some of the
kinds of work that are essential for the surveillance of terrorists.
The Patriot Act relaxes some of the restrictions that enfeebled
Federal intelligence gathering in the 1970s. Sobered by war, the pols have
acted prudently in creating this legislation, but now if I sense the
currents in Washington correctly, the pols are being tempted to give the
Church committee a reprise. It would be reassuring if, while reviewing CIA
and FBI performance prior to Sept. 11, they read some history and came to
recognize that not only incompetent intelligence officers had a hand in
allowing terrorism to spread. The politicians and the pundits, too, played a