May 20, 2002
Federal Intelligence and Terrorism
Last week ended with a flurry of news stories alleging that the Bush administration had advance knowledge of the September 11th terrorist attacks. The Presidentís political opponents wasted little time in seizing the opportunity to accuse him of a coverup, implying that he allowed the terrible events of that day to happen through inaction. Most Americans rightfully dismiss these accusations and recognize them as partisan opportunism, knowing that President Bush would never willfully allow such a tragedy to take place if he could have prevented it. We need to raise the tenor of the debate in Washington and place national security interests before party interests.
Clearly the President did not know anything about particular dates, or that hijacked planes would be used as missiles and flown into buildings. In fact, it appears that many of the terrorists themselves did not know the true nature of their mission until the planes were in the air. The administration did know that Bin Laden rabidly hated the U.S., and that Al Qaida had threatened terrorist action, but this vague and generalized information could have applied to dozens of terrorist organizations. What exactly would we have the President do with this knowledge? Do we really think he should he have shut down the nationís air travel system and caused widespread panic? Had he done so, the same politicians criticizing him now would have accused him of overreacting. Hindsight gives us easy wisdom now, but our focus should be on preventing terrorism in the future. We should take the present opportunity not to criticize the President, but rather to take a hard look at both our intelligence practices and our foreign policy.
It is perfectly reasonable to question the failure of our federal intelligence community to detect and prevent the September 11 attacks. We should remember that the most of our knowledge about the Al Qaida threat was gathered, or should have been gathered, by the Clinton CIA. Both the CIA and the FBI knew Bin Laden was active during the 1990s, particularly after our bombing of his facilities in Sudan and Afghanistan in 1998. Yet despite the $40 billion annual intelligence budget, our convoluted system of intelligence gathering has not made us more secure.
Since September 11th we have heard predictable calls for vastly increasing the budgets of those agencies charged with intelligence gathering- including the CIA, FBI, ATF, INS, DIA, and NSA- but perhaps those agencies need to consolidate rather than expand their efforts. The current system involves too many bureaucrats, too much overlap, too many turf battles, too little information sharing, and no clear accountability. Why do we insist on perpetuating failed agencies and policies, throwing more and more money at problems that stem from bureaucratic culture rather than funding problems? Why do we think $60 or $80 billion will change what $40 billion could not?
The finger-pointing blame game also obscures the deeper problem of our interventionist foreign policy. If we are serious about preventing future terrorist attacks, we must have the character to honestly examine our own role in creating enemies around the world. This does not mean we can ever excuse terrorism, or that we should not retaliate against those responsible for September 11th. It does mean, however, that we must critically reexamine our policy of stationing hundreds of thousands of troops abroad while our own borders and skies remain unprotected.