April 14, 2004
WAR: Playing Offense, Playing Defense
I can't say this often enough: in asking what could have been done pre-September 11, you have to divide the question in two parts: offense (taking the fight to the terrorists) and defense (ratcheting up homeland defense and law enforcement).
On offense, in hindsight, Clinton was a (can we use the phrase?) miserable failure. There are, I think, fair-minded arguments on both sides about whether and what Clinton could or should have done based on what was known at the time, but we now recognize with the benefits of hindsight that he should have done more to pressure and/or topple terror-sponsoring states, finish off the camps in Afghanistan, etc. Bush failed, again in hindsight, by failing to change Clinton's policies in this regard. But with just 8 months in office, no public mandate for war, no consensus on the issue among our allies, and his hands full just trying to get all his foreign policy people through the Senate (the people who want UN approval for everything didn't mind dragging their feet on Bush's UN ambassador), a quick change in policy would have been turning a battleship in a bathtub.
On defense, again, hindsight proves that there were systemic and bipartisan failings in providing for airport security, FBI/CIA cooperation, processing of intelligence, wiretap authority, etc. It seems clear that some of these could have cracked the case if we'd been organized as we are today. None of those systemic failures can be pinned on Bush (again, how many top DOJ jobs were left vacant for weeks or months?), and it's debatable how many can be pinned on Clinton, either. The problems were systemic.
What that leaves is the idea that, even with the faulty apparatus for gathering domestic inteligence and even with the meager infrastructure that existed for screening airline passengers pre-September 11, there was some information that went up the chain to the White House that should have led to the conclusion that something needed to be done ASAP that wasn't already being done. The FBI certainly seems to have been busy reassuring the President that they were all over this issue like PB on J.
What's left? That's where we get this August 6 briefing (although you can't evaluate it if you haven't seen what's in every briefing). As noted below, though, I just don't see what information was in that memo, taken in context and not just in hindsight, that says "stop what we're doing now, call the airports and look for Arab men fitting, you know, a certain profile." The bin Laden threat was indeed well-known - most of us knew September 11 was bin Laden as soon as the planes hit the towers. But the Democrats just haven't made the case that the red warning light of impending airline hijackings, specifically, should have gone off in a way that should have pointed to a practical solution.
According to Christopher Dodd- it wasn't the senate which dragged it's feet on Negroponte's nomination, it was GWB.
"Let's review the time line of this nomination to date. The President
announced his intent to nominate Ambassador Negroponte for the U.N.
post on March 6. The nomination was not submitted to the Senate,
however, until May 14, nearly four months into the Administration, by
contrast, Madeleine Albright was nominated for the U.N. post on January
20, 1993 and confirmed six days later.
On May 3, over a week before the nomination was submitted, the
Committee Democrats wrote the President to request that the
Administration provide documents to the Committee so it could review
issues related to Negroponte's tenure in Honduras. On May 8, Committee
staff submitted a list of requested documents to representatives of the
White House and the State Department. The last document responsive to
the original request of May 8 was not provided, however, until late
July. The Committee staff reviewed several thousand pages of documents
responsive to the request and determined that a number of documents
which were still classified contained important information on
questions raised about Ambassador Negroponte's tenure in Honduras.
The chairman of the committee then requested that the State
Department and CIA undertake a review of documents within the
committee's possession that remained classified with a goal of making
public as much information as possible in order to shed additional
light on what role if any the United States played in the human rights
abuses that were perpetrated against the Honduran people in the first
half of the 1980s, and specifically what knowledge or involvement the
United States Ambassador, at the time Mr. Negroponte, had in those
abuses. The committee also offered to begin hearings prior to the
August recess on U.N. issues, with another hearing to follow in
September on issues related to Negroponte's service in Honduras. The
administration chose to wait until September to begin the hearing
process. So we are talking about a period of approximately fourteen
weeks of working days of the Senate from the time the nomination was
submitted until today. This compares quite favorably when compared to
the Holbrooke nomination which took from February 1999 to August 1999."
Unsurprisingly, Jay Nordlinger of the National Review had a different view at the time of who was delaying the Negroponte nomination, as did USA Today. I liked this firm and decisive quote from the USA Today article:
"It's possible I could vote for John, absolutely," Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., says. "He's a very skilled, capable guy. The questions are what happened down there? Did he know things? Didn't he? I don't know the answers. But I'm not approaching these things with any preconceived notion."
Some things never change.
"But the Democrats just haven't made the case that the red warning light of impending airline hijackings, specifically, should have gone off in a way that should have pointed to a practical solution."
Maybe that's because the point of the 9-11 commission is to discover why the red warning light didn't go off, in order to make solid recommendations for increasing the likelihood of it going off in the future.
Of course, there's always some who want to generate political capital out of this whole thing, like certain Democrat partisans ... and apparently you, Baseball Crank.