One of the hallmarks of analysis of the 9/11 attacks is the tragic, infuriating manner that most Americans in and out of public life disregarded a threat that grew throughout the nineties: the attempted bombings of airliners in the Philippines, the bombing at our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole… One could throw in the Khobar Towers bombing as well.
The pre-9/11 attacks only briefly impacted the public debate. In the 1990s many politicians, much of the media, and much of the public seemed to think that as long as the threat was primarily to Americans overseas, it was a less pressing concern. Out of sight, out of mind.
The argument that “Bush ignored warnings” is a hardy perennial of the Left’s worldview. Here’s how a New York Times column marked the 9/11 anniversary earlier this week:
In the aftermath of 9/11, Bush officials attempted to deflect criticism that they had ignored C.I.A. warnings by saying they had not been told when and where the attack would occur. That is true, as far as it goes, but it misses the point. Throughout that summer, there were events that might have exposed the plans, had the government been on high alert. Indeed, even as the Aug. 6 brief was being prepared, Mohamed al-Kahtani, a Saudi believed to have been assigned a role in the 9/11 attacks, was stopped at an airport in Orlando, Fla., by a suspicious customs agent and sent back overseas on Aug. 4. Two weeks later, another co-conspirator, Zacarias Moussaoui, was arrested on immigration charges in Minnesota after arousing suspicions at a flight school. But the dots were not connected, and Washington did not react.
Could the 9/11 attack have been stopped, had the Bush team reacted with urgency to the warnings contained in all of those daily briefs? We can’t ever know. And that may be the most agonizing reality of all.
You never hear many specifics about what the Bush administration could or should have done; without knowing the details of the plot, or the identities of the perpetrators, the only thing the government can do is tell all security personnel to “be on alert.” (We know that a pre-9/11 use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on someone like Moussaoui in FBI custody was unthinkable.) By the time the hijackers pulled out their box-cutters, the only people in a position to respond were on the planes themselves, or an effort for the dreadful option of shooting down the hijacked airliners.
Now we see new attacks on Americans overseas.
But if the Independent’s sources are right, the warnings about threats to our diplomats in Libya were clearer:
According to senior diplomatic sources, the US State Department had credible information 48 hours before mobs charged the consulate in Benghazi, and the embassy in Cairo, that American missions may be targeted, but no warnings were given for diplomats to go on high alert and “lockdown”, under which movement is severely restricted.
The second 9/11 attacks, the ones on our diplomatic personnel on Tuesday, seem a bit simpler to defend against than hijacked airliners; either get our personnel out of an insufficiently secured location or send in Marines and a Fleet Anti-Terrorist Security Team, as the president ordered after the attacks.
So why didn’t that happen?