Thursday, December 12, 2013

Analyzing 9/11

The task of understanding exactly what happened on September 11, 2001 has gone on for a decade, and will go on long into the future. To be sure, the basic events are simple and clearly acknowledged. Nineteen Islamic terrorists, mostly from Saudi Arabia, hijacked four airplanes, flying two of them into the World Trade Center (WTC) and one into the Pentagon. The final plane crashed as a result of passengers who resisted the hijacking; the passengers had learned of the plot, and prevent the final aircraft from reaching its target. Approximately 3,000 people died.

Beyond those basic facts, many details of the attacks remain the topic of research. Discovering the minutia of the plot is difficult because it was conceived in secrecy, and because much of the reporting is biased, coming from sources in the Muslim world. Senator Al Franken offers an example:

Six months after 9/11, the Gallup Poll of Islamic Countries found that an overwhelming majority of those surveyed believed that the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had not been the work of Arabs. Well-educated Egyptians and Saudis believed that the Israelis were behind the murder of the three thousand innocents on 9/11, in large part because of articles in their countries' official state newspapers. One of the widely disseminated stories was that no Jews died in the collapse of the Trade Towers because they had received calls telling them not to go to work that day.

When such stories are widely circulated and believed, the historian's task becomes more difficult. Sources must be examined carefully. Another factor which makes the work difficult is the premature release of information. If data are published while investigation and research are still in progress, the released data can contaminate the data which is still to be gathered by creating expected narratives. If an expected narrative about an event exists, then researchers may be predisposed to fit evidence into that narrative, rather than letting the evidence suggest other possible alternatives. Likewise, witnesses being interviewed may reformulate their memories and statement to conform to the expected narrative. This process may be conscious or subconscious.

The same types of concern are at work when a crime lab is asked to examine a sample, without being told the details of the case from which the sample comes. The goal is to keep the research as unbiased as possible.

Naturally, it is expected that all such data will eventually be made available to the pubic.

Franken offers an example data released prematurely in the chaos and emotional trauma following 9/11:

A clearly rattled Orrin Hatch was all over the news that day, blaming Clinton because he had "de-emphasized" the military. Hatch was also the first to confirm al Qaeda's involvement by disclosing classified intercepts between associates of Osama bin Laden about the attack. Asked about it on ABC News two days later, a miffed Donald Rumsfeld said Hatch's leak was the kind that "compromises our sources and methods," and "inhibits our ability to find and deal with terrorists who commit this kind of act."

Hatch's gaffe was twofold. First, by highlighting Clinton's lack of military preparation, he biased historians' analyses; other contributing variables should have received consideration in the absence of Hatch's emphasis on this one variable. Second, Hatch unwittingly alerted Muslim terrorists to the fact that their communications had been compromised; had Hatch not done this, further data might have been mined from such intercepts. As it was, the terrorists quickly changed their communications protocols.

In hindsight, while Hatch's blunder deprived investigators of valuable data which might have saved lives, it did not contaminate the general understanding of 9/11. But it is an example of the type of slip which could have misdirected the analysis. Franken continues:

The disclosure that al Qaeda was responsible did allow Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) to identify the "root of the problem" just hours after the attack: "We had Bill Clinton backing off, letting the Taliban go, over and over again."

Documents revealed that Clinton had been briefed on the Taliban, on al Qaeda, and on Osama bin-Laden. Clinton had nixed various action plans to neutralize the threat of al Qaeda, had weakened the intelligence-gathering of the United Stated, and had weakened the military's ability to carry out such operations.

When Clinton left the White House in January 2001, the incoming administration was concerned about the weakened state of both the military and the various intelligence agencies. Incoming National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice noted:

I knew that there was a serious threat. I'd made that clear in a radio station interview in Detroit during the campaign, stating, "There needs to be better cooperation [among U.S. intelligence agencies] because we don't want to wake up one day and find that Osama bin Laden has been successful on our territory."

Clearly, Condoleezza Rice was well aware of bin Laden long before the 9/11 attacks. Although the various intelligence agencies were aware of the threat from al Qaeda, they had few details, and even fewer concrete suggestions about what to do about that threat. If they had such suggestions, the military lacked the resources to carry them out at that time. The NSC's counterterrorism advisor, Dick Clarke, briefed Rice when the new administration moved into the White House. She recalls that Clarke's presentation was

short on operational content. There was a lot that described al Qaeda but not very much about what to do. He made the point that al Qaeda was a network dedicated to the destruction of the United States. There were numerous slides with faces of al Qaeda operatives and a discussion of their safe haven in Afghanistan. There was very little discussion of Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. At the end I asked Clarke and his team whether we were doing all we could to counter al Qaeda. He made mention of some covert activities and said that he would later brief me on some other efforts.

Despite the numerous failures of the Clinton White House, the new administration did not want to spend time enumerating such shortcomings. In support of George Tenet, a Clinton appointee, Vice President Cheney wrote that

I was a strong supporter inside the White House of what Tenet and the CIA were trying to do. When there were suggestions after 9/11 that we have a group similar to the Warren Commission investigate intelligence failures, I had argued against it, saying it would too easily turn into a witch hunt and that what we needed to do was focus on preventing the next attack.

It is worth noting the broad agreement: liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, Clinton appointees and Bush appointees. Al Franken, Condi Rice, Orrin Hatch, Dana Rohrabacher, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Dick Clarke, George Tenet, and Dick Cheney - that is indeed a broad spectrum of political views.