Federal counter-terrorism officials on Friday disclosed for the first time that during his interrogations, Mohammed said he hadn’t completely abandoned the prospect of a second wave of attacks, but had turned the idea over to a trusted aide named Hambali, the chief of operations for an Al Qaeda affiliate group in South Asia, Jemaah Islamiyah.
Hambali, also known as Riduan Isamuddin, in turn is believed to have chosen several men to launch the attacks, including a pilot, and had set aside some money to pay for them, according to one senior counter-terrorism official.
Those men were soon captured, however, and the plot never progressed past the planning stages, according to several counter-terrorism officials.
“To take that and make it into a disrupted plot is just ludicrous,” said one senior FBI official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with departmental guidelines.
So, that explains the CIA version of the timeline — that there was one plot on the building broken up in 2002, and a new plot underway in 2003, and it was the latter one that was thwarted by information provided by KSM. But then the we’re still left with a debate over how far along the plot was, and more abstractly, how far along a terrorist plot has to be before a government gets credit for thwarting it.
This is, I think, one of the most difficult aspects of evaluating counterterrorism policy — that we see the reality of the controversial actions taken in the name of preventing attacks, but the prospect of an attack always remains theoretical. Thus, anybody opposed to a given policy can claim that the plot would have never actually materialized, while those in favor of a given policy can claim that the policy saved lives. If a few men of modest resources discuss a plan to destroy the Empire State Building that they’re unlikely to pull off, how far do we go to disrupt them? On the other hand if we’re able to disrupt such plots in the early stages, isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t that precisely what successful counterterrorism looks like? Isn’t that the kind of detective work that we failed to do on Sept. 11? In the early stages, if you had read that a group of terrorists was planning on sending men to hijack airplanes with box-cutters and fly them into buildings, destroying the Twin Towers and damaging the Pentagon, and killing 3,000 people, it probably would have sounded far fetched to most people.
Taken together, this is all the more reason why the government has to release more information about what actually went on so that we can have an informed debate. This shouldn’t be ideological. On an issue like health care, before opposing sides get into practical policy disputes, there is a basic philosophical difference as to whether it is a proper function of government to provide everybody with health care. But there’s no reason why conservatives, as a matter of ideology, should be committed to defending the interrogation techniques used during the Bush administration. All that should matter is whether or not they made us safer relative to the damage those practices did to our image around the world, as well as to undermine American resolve in the War on Terror. And we simply do not have enough information at this point to honestly assess this question.