Everything is crystal clear through what physicians call the "retrospectascope." Using this instrument, critics have been quick to seize upon the "Phoenix memo" as evidence that the Bush administration may have had foreknowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks. The memo purportedly warned of "Middle Eastern men" taking flight training at American schools.
"Aha!" pronounced the second-guessers. "What did the president know, and when did he know it?" (That last was Rep. Richard C. Gephardt, D-Mo.)
Not so fast Woodward and Bernstein wannabees. In the first place, we cannot evaluate the administration's or FBI's handling of this memo until we know better how many similar reports and memos the government was receiving at the time. This memo stands out now because it turned out to be correct. But just as the government received many -- often conflicting -- signs of a possible Japanese attack before Pearl Harbor, picking out the accurate warning from amid the chatter is often possible only in retrospect.
The Phoenix memo's author, agent Kenneth Williams, explained in recent congressional testimony that he never predicted the Sept. 11 attacks but merely drew attention to the worrying sign that men with possible ties to terrorists were taking flying lessons in the United States. He did not mark the memo "urgent" but merely "routine." So the fact that his memo failed to galvanize the U.S. government is hardly shocking.
Beyond all that, let's recall the climate in August of 2001. If the FBI had started questioning flight-school students merely because they were of Middle Eastern origin, the agency would have risked a public-relations disaster.
Recall the purifying ritual of self-blame after Oklahoma City, when dozens of editorials decried our national "rush to judgment" because authorities had originally believed that the explosion ignited by Timothy McVeigh might have been the work of international terrorists. "Unwarranted Suspicion: Muslims Were the First to be Accused of the Oklahoma City Bombing. Why?" ran a typical headline of the time.
The Chicago Sun Times ran an opinion piece condemning the "anti-Arab hysteria after the Oklahoma City bombing." And the Vancouver Sun crowed after McVeigh's arrest, "They have met the enemy, and it is them." The paper went on to scold, "No matter how great the pressure for news, there is no excuse for media outlets ... to make snap judgments laying the blame for such a heinous crime at the hands of a particular religious group or nationality."
Surely Dick Gephardt would have been among the first to condemn the FBI if it had aggressively interrogated the Arabs taking flying lessons.
When your greatest source of pride is nonjudgmentalism, you will pretend not to see even what is patently obvious. In reality, it was perfectly legitimate and understandable for Americans to suppose, however briefly, that the perpetrators of Oklahoma City were Arab terrorists. Arabs had bombed the World Trade Center (the first time) only months before, and had attacked American officials in the Sudan, Lebanon and Egypt. They had brought down a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, and killed 260 Marines in their barracks in Lebanon. Truck bombs were a Middle East specialty.
Culture has consequences. Before 9-11, our culture had elevated nonjudgmentalism to the level of civic religion. We've been told that "everything has changed" since then.
But not everything has. Some continue to worship the old civic religion. The Department of Transportation under Norm Mineta (the lone Democrat in the Bush Cabinet) has declined to examine young Arab-looking males more carefully than other airline passengers and has refused to permit pilots to carry guns. Both decisions defy common sense.
The FBI, having botched a number of high-profile cases in recent years, including the Wen Ho Lee case, the fingering of innocent Richard Jewell for the Atlanta bombing, the Ruby Ridge disaster, mishandling the McVeigh documents thus delaying his execution and failing to detect mole Robert Hanssen, certainly deserves and apparently requires close investigation. And certainly the CIA, with its paucity of foreign-language speakers and abundance of caution, needs a shaking up, too.
But as we evaluate our failures, let's not indulge the too easy assumption that events like Sept. 11 were readily detectable.