WASHINGTON -- Security experts and airline officials agree privately that the simultaneous hijacking of four jetliners was an "inside job," probably indicating complicity beyond malfeasance. This makes all the more ominous Tuesday's national catastrophe and its dismal consequences.
Nobody was more vigorous Tuesday in demanding tough military reprisal against the terrorists than former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger. However, he was virtually alone in directing his rage not only at the assassins but also at security arrangements. "I thought we had solved that problem (of air skyjackings)," he said. He pointed out that effective airport security would have prevented the disaster that may exceed the 2,403 deaths in the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
The analogy with the Japanese surprise attack was drawn endlessly by political leaders and journalists. Former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, with a keen sense of history, disagreed: "This, after all, was not Pearl Harbor. We have not lost the Pacific fleet." Unlike Dec. 7, 1941, the second day of infamy was not perpetrated by an enemy that at that time was militarily superior and seemed to put this nation's very existence in question.
In the rage and mourning following Tuesday's disaster, few officials wanted to dwell on how a 10-year hiatus of airline hijackings in this country could be followed by four in one hour. At a minimum, the blame can be put on ill-trained, incompetent personnel performing the screening of passengers. At the worst, security experts fear collusion with the terrorists, possibly even extending to the cockpit. This is a subject that the airlines are loathe to discuss.
The immediate consequence, widely predicted by members of Congress, will be tighter security making life more difficult for airline travelers and other Americans. The instant security measures taken in Washington and around the country came after the greatest terrorist success in world history had run its course and would not have been effective in preventing disaster had it been put in place.
Of greater interest to members of congressional intelligence committees is the surprise element of the attacks. The CIA and FBI are internally at a low point of effectiveness. "Human intelligence" (spying) has been in decline for decades. No amount of security harassment of airline passengers will substitute for effective intelligence. Like Pearl Harbor, the lack of warning Sept. 11 will be investigated.
Unlike Pearl Harbor, however, there is no clear foe. While secret briefings of members of Congress point to Osama bin Laden as the source of the attacks, President Bush's Tuesday night address to the nation named no names. The government, at this writing, actually is not sure. Private sources indicate that the terrorists could be a splinter group of Osama, its identity and whereabouts as yet unknown.
An attack on Afghanistan for sheltering Osama's terrorists will put the United States in danger of being perceived, however incorrectly, as launching a holy war against Islam. There is strong sentiment in Congress for hitting somebody, somewhere who has unsavory terrorist credentials even if not connected with Tuesday's attack.
With a crippled CIA unable to target the assassins, the Bush administration seems headed to deliver the same kind of hammer blows that the Clinton administration used in the Kosovo war rather than surgical strikes aimed at the assassins.
Perhaps the biggest difference with Pearl Harbor is the cause of the conflict. Bush's eloquent call for unity talked of the need to "defend freedom." Unlike Nazi Germany's and Imperial Japan's drive for a new world order, however, the hatred toward the U.S. by the terrorists is an extension of its hatred of Israel rather than world dominion. Secretary of State Colin Powell's laudable efforts at being an even-handed peacemaker makes no difference to terrorists.
Stratfor.com, the private intelligence company, reported Tuesday: "The big winner today, intentionally or not, is the state of Israel." Whatever distance Bush wanted between U.S. and Israeli policy, it was eliminated by terror. The spectacle on television of Palestinian youths and mothers dancing in the streets of East Jerusalem over the slaughter of Americans will not soon be forgotten. The United States and Israel are brought ever closer in a way that cannot improve long-term U.S. policy objectives.