The Bush campaign has had a difficult few weeks. Part of its problem comes from the hearings held by the 9/11 Commission: Democrats on the panel have effectively blamed the president for failing to prevent the attacks. A recent Newsweek poll shows that 59 percent of Americans approve of Bush’s handling of terrorism now, compared to 70 percent earlier this year.
I am as inclined as the next person–perhaps more so–to find fault with politicians when things go wrong. Doing so seems reasonable: George Bush led the federal government, and the feds are responsible for securing the life, liberty, and property of Americans against foreign attack. On September 11, Bush failed to do his job.
But here’s the problem with assigning blame: We now know what happened on 9/11, and who did it. Working backwards with that knowledge, the paths leading to the tragedy will seem obvious, as will the missed chances and the intelligence errors. Knowing its end, we may construct a satisfying story with clear plotlines, heroes, and villains.
The August 6, 2001, Presidential Daily Briefing is becoming part of that story. The memo notes Osama bin Laden’s continual threats against the United States, operations here and abroad and, most chilling of all, plans to hijack airliners. Many people reading the memo or listening to the commission’s hearings might ask, “Wasn’t it obvious what was coming a month later? How could Bush have missed the September 11 attacks?” Knowing what we know now, it’s hard not to conclude Bush made a foolish mistake.
But that’s unfair and misleading. On August 6, 2001, the president did not know that September 11 would happen. What he did know presumably can be found in the PDB for that day. As Condoleezza Rice said, the memo is mostly historical; what she did not say was that bin Laden’s history of threats had not led to attacks in the United States. Why should Bush have concluded that there would be any deviation from that track record? (Stating simply that “9/11 happened” is not an answer.)
As Malcolm Gladwell has written in The New Yorker, the best intelligence informs decision-makers about the intentions of enemies and about the details of their operations. The PDB was long on intentions and short on details. It refers generally to “patterns of suspicious activity,” including “recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.” The August 6 PDB, like most intelligence, was ambiguous.
The controversy around the PDB has obscured an unpleasant truth. Presidents and national-security analysts work in a world filled with much noise and few signals. An earlier report on 9/ 11 found that the FBI’s counterterrorism division had 68,000 outstanding leads, of which perhaps a few hundred would have been useful. Inevitably, those responsible for national security will fail to discern the signal in the noise. They will be mistaken, but not necessarily negligent.
The commission’s work also creates a more subtle danger. If the commission’s report works backward from September 11 to assign blame to President Bush (or his predecessors), it will teach an important lesson to future leaders: You will be held strictly liable for any terrorist attacks during your presidency. That sounds great in theory, but the results in practice may be less appealing.
Consider this undoubted truth: Presidents aren’t omniscient. They cannot know about all terrorists and all their plots. To get all the bad guys (and thus avoid blame), presidents will have to overshoot. In killing terrorists abroad, the U.S. will inevitably kill some innocent foreigners. To stop domestic threats, the president will have to cast a wide net and arrest the innocent along with the guilty. Under strict liability, the president will try to reduce the risk of terrorism to zero by any means necessary. That reduction will have some benefits, but it will also impose many costs on our society, some of which are unpredictable now.
Whether the benefits of holding presidents strictly liable for future attacks are likely to outweigh those costs is a tough question that should be answered by the political process, now and in the future. It is not a question to be answered by the unelected National Commission on Terrorist Attacks.
We live life forward, not backwards–in ignorance, not perfect knowledge–which means we must address threats with nets, not scalpels. By ignoring these truths, the 9/11 Commission is pushing the United States toward entirely predictable and preventable future disasters.
–John Samples is director of the Center for Representative Democracy at the Cato Institute.