Tuesday, September 11, 2012

9/11 @ 11: The future ignored

ELEVEN YEARS after the worst terrorist attack on the United States, life painfully, dutifully, heroically goes on in a country forever wounded by the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

NBC4 New York reports today that construction is going to resume at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. Museum officials and the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey came to an agreement on Monday, a pact that restarts the work that stopped last year over disputes over funding for the museum and who would have oversight of the location.

NBC4, citing an announcement from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, also reported that the federal government will add 14 categories of cancer to the list of 9/11-related sicknesses covered by the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act. It’s expected to make a lot more of the heroic first responders who sifted through the rubble for months at Ground Zero eligible for financial compensation.

But thanks to an op-ed in The New York Times — a piece that included as much information as opinion — this anniversary of a disaster that unified a nation bears an added agony. More than we thought before, more than we were led to believe before, the future was ignored long before it arrived.

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IN THE OP-ED, Kurt Eichenwald, a veteran New York Times reporter and author of several books, writes in detail about how the knowledge of the George W. Bush administration about an expected attack by the al-Qaeda terrorist network apparently goes back earlier than first thought. Months earlier.

It’s of course common knowledge that on Aug. 6, 2001, President Bush received a “presidential daily brief” that outlined U.S. intelligence’s perception of the threat posed by al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, at that time its spiritual and operational leader. That brief — made visible to moviegoers in a scene from the Michael Moore film “Fahrenheit 9/11” — bore the unmistakeable headline: “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”

Eichenwald writes:

On April 10, 2004, the Bush White House declassified that daily brief — and only that daily brief — in response to pressure from the 9/11 Commission, which was investigating the events leading to the attack. Administration officials dismissed the document’s significance, saying that, despite the jaw-dropping headline, it was only an assessment of Al Qaeda’s history, not a warning of the impending attack. While some critics considered that claim absurd, a close reading of the brief showed that the argument had some validity.

That is, unless it was read in conjunction with the daily briefs preceding Aug. 6 [2001], the ones the Bush administration would not release. While those documents are still not public, I have read excerpts from many of them, along with other recently declassified records, and come to an inescapable conclusion: the administration’s reaction to what Mr. Bush was told in the weeks before that infamous briefing reflected significantly more negligence than has been disclosed. In other words, the Aug. 6 document, for all of the controversy it provoked, is not nearly as shocking as the briefs that came before it.

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The direct warnings to Mr. Bush about the possibility of a Qaeda attack began in the spring of 2001. By May 1, the Central Intelligence Agency told the White House of a report that “a group presently in the United States” was planning a terrorist operation. Weeks later, on June 22, the daily brief reported that Qaeda strikes could be “imminent,” although intelligence suggested the time frame was flexible.

But some in the administration considered the warning to be just bluster. An intelligence official and a member of the Bush administration both told me in interviews that the neoconservative leaders who had recently assumed power at the Pentagon were warning the White House that the C.I.A. had been fooled; according to this theory, Bin Laden was merely pretending to be planning an attack to distract the administration from Saddam Hussein, whom the neoconservatives saw as a greater threat. Intelligence officials, these sources said, protested that the idea of Bin Laden, an Islamic fundamentalist, conspiring with Mr. Hussein, an Iraqi secularist, was ridiculous, but the neoconservatives’ suspicions were nevertheless carrying the day.

 In response, the C.I.A. prepared an analysis that all but pleaded with the White House to accept that the danger from Bin Laden was real.

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“The U.S. is not the target of a disinformation campaign by Usama Bin Laden,” the daily brief of June 29 read, using the government’s transliteration of Bin Laden’s first name. Going on for more than a page, the document recited much of the evidence, including an interview that month with a Middle Eastern journalist in which Bin Laden aides warned of a coming attack, as well as competitive pressures that the terrorist leader was feeling, given the number of Islamists being recruited for the separatist Russian region of Chechnya.

And the C.I.A. repeated the warnings in the briefs that followed. Operatives connected to Bin Laden, one reported on June 29, expected the planned near-term attacks to have “dramatic consequences,” including major casualties. On July 1, the brief stated that the operation had been delayed, but “will occur soon.” Some of the briefs again reminded Mr. Bush that the attack timing was flexible, and that, despite any perceived delay, the planned assault was on track.

Yet, the White House failed to take significant action. Officials at the Counterterrorism Center of the C.I.A. grew apoplectic. On July 9, at a meeting of the counterterrorism group, one official suggested that the staff put in for a transfer so that somebody else would be responsible when the attack took place, two people who were there told me in interviews. The suggestion was batted down, they said, because there would be no time to train anyone else.

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That same day in Chechnya, according to intelligence I reviewed, Ibn Al-Khattab, an extremist who was known for his brutality and his links to Al Qaeda, told his followers that there would soon be very big news. Within 48 hours, an intelligence official told me, that information was conveyed to the White House, providing more data supporting the C.I.A.’s warnings. Still, the alarm bells didn’t sound.

On July 24, Mr. Bush was notified that the attack was still being readied, but that it had been postponed, perhaps by a few months. But the president did not feel the briefings on potential attacks were sufficient, one intelligence official told me, and instead asked for a broader analysis on Al Qaeda, its aspirations and its history. In response, the C.I.A. set to work on the Aug. 6 brief.

The rest is history. And current events.

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FROM ALL available evidence, the word “groupthink” was first used publicly by sociologist and writer William H. Whyte, Jr., in a March 1952 article in Fortune magazine. The word, then and now, describes a psychological predisposition within a group to value consensus above pursuit of a more realistic assessment of anticipated events — what Whyte called “rationalized conformity.”

At earlier pivotal moments in modern American history, groupthink has occurred at the highest levels of American government, preceding events from the Bay of Pigs invasion (when the Kennedy administration accepted the CIA plan of attack tout court) to Pearl Harbor (when the Roosevelt administration refused to believe the Japanese would dare to mount an attack against American forces in the Pacific).

The events of eleven years ago today reflect a similar failure of imagination, and more: 9/11 was proof of what can happen when rationalized conformity combines with the twin dangers of a militarily powerful nation and a geopolitically incurious national leadership: the arrogance of power and the power of arrogance.

We live with the outcome of that tragic equation today. We’ll be living with it as long as American memory endures.

Image credits: Presidential daily brief Aug. 6, 2001: public domain. President Bush and Andrew Card:  AFP/Getty Images. World Trade Center collapse: Robert, via Wikipedia, republished under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. 9/11 tribute in light: KimCarpenter NJ, via Wikipedia, republished under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. World Trade Center aerial view: Det. Greg Semendinger, NYPD Aviation Unit. Groupthink illustration: © 1952 Fortune magazine. Reproduced via Wikipedia under fair use provisions of U.S. copyright law. Fair-use rationale: Use of the illustration historicizes the psychological phenomenon it describes, particularly in the context of events related to 9/11, and visually distills that phenomenon.

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