Taken together, the 9/11 hearings and the 2004 presidential campaign are an almost lethally demoralizing combination. William Faulkner famously said (or wrote) that the past is not really dead; it is not even past. Well, he was a smart man but even he probably couldn’t have anticipated the way we have gone spelunking down the memory hole these last few weeks, mining for votes. First, Bush/Kerry rekindled the debate over Vietnam. Then, the hearings turned into the kind of “it wasn’t my fault; it was all your fault” sort of exercise that obscures the past in the smog of partisanship when what most people outside of Washington would settle for is a little more clarity.
With this crew and these hearings — fat chance. When it is not about votes; it is about book sales and television ratings. Will the hearings produce any new information or insights or — perish — the kind of wisdom it will take to prevent a future 9/11?
One would like to say that this is not for lack of trying but, alas. The hearings are plainly meant to change votes, not policy or tactics. The exercise is a pumped-up campaign commercial, longer and more expensive than the average 30 second spot and just about as illuminating.
One watches the former governors of New Jersey and Illinois (two states where the government can’t rein in the Mafia), a former special counsel to the Watergate Committee (who still seems to think that the bad guys live in the White House), a former congressperson, former Secretary of the Navy … watches the whole cast of formers and despairs. The CIA may have been inept before 9/11 (having been emasculated by inquisitions like this one) but one feels some compassion for Director Tenet. He was dealing with the unknown and groping in a fog of incomplete and conflicting information. These guys are dealing with actual events; with facts. (“Facts on the ground” is the current, fancy locution.) Their job is not to guess what might happen but to explain what has already happened, and they have had months to get ready with the added benefit of lavish staff. Still, they can’t get it right. And don’t appear, really, to be trying.
Dealing with shadows on the wall and specters in the night, the CIA blew it.
These guys are shooting at fish in a barrel and missing with every shot.
At the end of the day (as everyone likes to say), the commission will deliver a report and it will not do much to explain why we were so utterly and disastrously surprised on 9/11. Nor is it likely to prevent our being surprised again.
THE THING IS, surprise attacks are America’s weakness. Just as some boxers are suckers for the left hook, we have a way of getting surprised. Consider: Pearl Harbor, Manila (where the Japanese caught us unprepared 24 hours after Pearl Harbor), and the Battle of the Bulge. Then, we were surprised when the North Koreans invaded the South and again when the Chinese came across the Yalu. Nobody saw Sputnik coming. Khrushchev caught us off guard with the Berlin Wall and missiles in Cuba.
In Vietnam, Tet was a complete surprise.
Jimmy Carter was surprised when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.
We were surprised in Beirut when a suicide bomber blew up the Marine Barracks.
Likewise, George Bush when Iraqi tanks rolled into Kuwait.
And, of course, every single terrorist attack in the
’90s came as a big surprise. Which led up to the gaudiest and most lamentable of all the surprise attacks, this one on our own soil.
PERHAPS THE COMMISSIONERS could take a day away from their lawyerly nitpicking and ask if there might be something in the American character or psyche that makes us especially vulnerable to surprise attacks. (They ain’t going to do it, but one can dream.) Could this be the dark side of a peculiarly American virtue? Part complacency and smugness in our own strength and perceived invulnerability but, also, a kind of naïve trust and belief that since it is unfair to hit someone when he isn’t looking, people won’t do that. Jimmy Carter was shocked, shocked when the Soviet Union sent troops into Afghanistan. And our intelligence services before World War II — good as they were — labored under an administration whose Secretary of War didn’t believe that “gentlemen read other gentlemen’s mail.” This presupposed, of course, that the world was full of gentlemen.
Old habits die hard. The CIA and, especially, the FBI were restricted in what they could do before 9/11 by policies that required them to act like gentlemen. No racial profiling. No sharing of foreign and domestic intelligence product. No peeking; no fair.
In one sense, the commission’s self-inflicted irrelevance is … well, irrelevant. The lesson of 9/11 has already been learned and a doctrine to prevent its repetition has been formulated. Without actually saying it, President Bush made it plain that as a nation, we are tired of being surprised by our enemies, over and over again.
What else, after all, is the Bush doctrine of preemption? We are not, it says, going to wait around for the opportunity to turn the other cheek. If you are planning on hitting us with a surprise attack, be prepared to be surprised, yourself.
For this new doctrine to work, two things are necessary. First, intelligence must be good (we can’t afford to be “gentlemen”) and the commission hasn’t done much to make one hopeful on this score. Nor, in truth, has President Bush. Admiral Kimmel and General Short were relieved after Pearl Harbor. George Tenet is still running the CIA, insisting that the agency did a good job.
And, then, preemption isn’t much of a doctrine unless your enemies believe you mean it. In undermining the administration that formulated the doctrine, the commission makes it less credible.
So, when the hearings are over — and it can’t come soon enough — the commission may have made us more vulnerable to a repeat of 9/11. Will, in short, have made the situation it was created to solve, worse.
Geoffrey Norman is a writer in Dorset, Vermont.