WASHINGTON - Who knew? That's the question bugging Americans as the 9-11 commission tries to figure out what went wrong and how U.S. officials might have prevented the 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S.
The piece de resistance, so to speak, was to be the now-famous Aug. 6, 2001, memo - the presidential daily intelligence briefing, or PDB, that addressed the al-Qaida threat and Osama bin Laden's possible intentions.
After much speculation about its contents and the level of expectancy that usually is scripted with lowered lights and kettledrums, the missing puzzle piece was declassified and released this past weekend. Titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.," the PDB says ... not much.
Not much new, that is. In fact, you have to wonder why the question, who knew? The more apt question - and the shorter list - should be who didn't know? As far as I can tell, the PDB mostly recounts not only what was already known, but what had already been published in the past few years by a variety of news sources.
With the wisdom of uncles Coulda, Shoulda and Woulda, we now can see clearly that the threat was there all along. Why, if you selectively hand-pick, oh, about 23 of the 470 words in the Aug. 6 PDB and artfully rearrange them, the following message surfaces as clearly as a Magic 8 Ball answer:
"A bin ladin (sic) cell in New York to hijack a US aircraft to mount a terrorist strike of World Trade Center (and) in Washington."
Given our knowledge of what did happen, these 23 words are easy to bring into focus, even though they're scattered throughout the document. Without such knowledge - or the paranoid compulsiveness of a Russell Crowe in "A Beautiful Mind" - an objective reading of the PDB produces these salient, if mostly historical, points:
- Bin Laden wanted to attack the U.S. in retaliation for the 1998 U.S. missile strikes on his bases in Afghanistan.
- Bin Laden was connected to the millennium plot to attack the Los Angeles International Airport.
- A clandestine source said in 1998 that a bin Laden cell in New York was recruiting Muslim-American youth for attacks.
- Another source said, again in 1998, that bin Laden wanted to hijack a U.S. aircraft.
The only piece of information that was arguably "new" - and chilling when viewed through the clear lens of hindsight - reads:
"FBI information since that time (1998) indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York."
In addition, the memo said that the FBI was conducting 70 bin Laden-related field investigations throughout the United States following a call to one of our embassies saying that some bin Laden supporters were in the U.S. planning attacks with explosives.
I'm not a counterterrorism expert, but those two sentences seem to suggest the need for increased caution if not alarm, which probably explains why Bush ordered an alert sent to the FAA. But what else could anyone have done? Arrest Arab guys for acting suspiciously?
We have a tendency in this country to frown on things like racial profiling. Or arresting people without tangible proof of conspiracy or crime. We also have a tendency to turn distractedly tendentious during the political season, which our enemies comfortably rely upon.
It is of course useful to try to figure out how we missed what seems so glaringly obvious in retrospect, but the 9-11 commission has degenerated into a mock impeachment trial of President George W. Bush and an indictment of his administration. No serious person honestly believes that Bush would not have tried to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks if he could have.
As long as we're rehashing history, we might find a Time magazine article from Dec. 21, 1998, more instructive than the Aug. 6, 2001, PDB. Titled "Inside the Hunt for Osama," the story recounts, among other things, our government's attempts to prepare for various hypothetical terrorist attacks, none of them involving airplanes being flown into buildings, by the way.
Then-Attorney General Janet Reno called together 200 Washington, D.C., policemen to the FBI's headquarters to plan how they would react under various circumstances.
"But the war game - intended to help the agencies practice working together - quickly melted down into interagency squabbling and finger pointing," according to Time.
You'd think we'd have learned something by now.