Why do I have the feeling that by the time the hearings of the September 11 Commission are over we’ll know less about why the events happened than when we started?
The answer lies in a remark once made by British historian G.M. Trevelyan: “It is often difficult to remember that events that occurred in the far, far distant past were once in the future.”
For about two years after September 11, everyone in America showed admirable restraint in not playing the blame game about the tragic events. Face it, we hadn’t been attacked on our own soil since the War of 1812. There are 5,000 miles of ocean between America and the nearest hostile power. Terrorists were people who set off bombs in cafes in Tel Aviv or poorly guarded embassies in Nairobi. Even the most prescient imaginings only had terrorists hijacking airplanes in Europe and loading them with explosives to head for America or holding passengers hostage to free political prisoners. We got blindsided. As even Richard Clarke is willing to admit, nobody could have seen it coming.
But that’s not enough for partisan politicians and the press. In the middle of an election campaign, the wisdom of those with 20/20 hindsight is now taking over.
Kicking things off last Sunday was the New York Times with a front-page story, “Uneven Response Seen to Terror Risk in Summer ’01.” Notice the passive verb and indefinite subject. Who sees an uneven response? Why the Times, of course. The story leads with a picture of President Bush on his ranch on August 6. There he is playing cowboy instead being out hunting for Mohammed Atta the way he should have been.
On Monday things got even more smug. ‘”New to the Job, Rice Focused on More Traditional Threats.” Poor little Condi. She was just out of grade school then, wasn’t she? Never mind that she already had a decade of experience in international affairs. (After settling a nasty faculty dispute at Stanford, she once remarked, “After persuading the Ukrainians and Belarussians to give up their nuclear weapons, this was nothing.”) But she didn’t have the perfect hindsight of the New York Times.
RICHARD CLARKE HAS BECOME the hero to the press because he saw it all coming. Proof of Bush Administration obtuseness, right? Well let’s take a look at another prophetic voice who spent the 1990 trying to convince the press of a looming threat.
Steve Emerson is to the media what Richard Clarke was to the government. A former CNN correspondent and senior editor at U.S. News & World Report, he became fanatically concerned about terrorist infiltration after stumbling into a 1992 convention of radical Muslim jihadists in Oklahoma City, of all places.
Emerson spent the1990s collecting information on American fundamentalist organizations, making inside contacts, collecting literature and videotapes, sneaking into meetings — at great danger to himself — in disguise. In 1994 he produced a PBS special, Jihad in America, which brought hysterical criticism from American Muslim groups. A fatwa was issued against him and his picture appeared on the front pages of Arab newspapers. By 1998 he was living in hiding. In a 2002 feature article on him in the Brown Alumni News, Richard Clarke was quoted as saying: “I think of Steve as the Paul Revere of Terrorism.” Clark credited Emerson with “repeatedly warning of Al Qaeda sleeper cells in the United States.”
So what was Emerson’s standing with his fellow journalists? Well, he had been permanently banned from National Public Radio. He had been permanently banned from CBS news by Dan Rather for initially attributing the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing to Muslim terrorists (not a bad guess since that was where he originally encountered jihad groups). The New York Times dismissed his book, Terrorist, calling it “marred by factual errors…and by a pervasive anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian bias.” The Nation accused his PBS special of “creating mass hysteria against American Arabs.” In a 1999 profile in Extra, the magazine of the liberal group, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, an unnamed AP Washington editor says, “”We would be very, very, very, very leery of using Steve Emerson.”
SO SOME PEOPLE DID SEE September 11 coming. They were generally regarded as nuts and fanatics — and sometimes remain so today. (Alexander Cockburn recently referred to Emerson as a “terror slut.”)
But the fact remains, America still might have managed to avoid September 11 by serendipity. This is one of the great untold stories of the tragedy — a story that the press still hasn’t gotten right today.
The stroke of luck came in August 2001 when the FBI arrested Zacarias Moussaoui in Minneapolis. Moussaoui, the “20th hijacker,” had aroused suspicion because was attending flight school but didn’t seem to have any interest in learning landing or take-offs — he just wanted to fly the plane. He had an expired visa and ended up in custody. Also taken in custody was Moussaoui’s computer, which we know today contained a host of e-mails that would have revealed the identity of his fellow conspirators and tipped off the plot to hijack airplanes.
As any police detective will tell you, this is how most cases get solved. Legwork and logic can carry you so far. A little bit of luck is always necessary. But chance only favors the prepared mind and America wasn’t prepared.
The problem was the severe restrictions placed on police investigations since the 1960s. A search of personal property can only be executed with a warrant and warrants cannot be issued — as the Fourth Amendment states — except upon “probable cause.” Just what constitutes “probable cause” has been the subject of endless argument between the police and the courts. In August 2001, however, the FBI in Washington played by the rules. When Minneapolis agents asked permission to open Moussaoui’s hard drive, the top brass said there was no probable cause. “All you’ve got is a guy with an expired visa taking flight lessons,” they said. “Where’s the crime?”
Colleen Rowley, the Minneapolis FBI staff attorney who wanted to investigate, became Time magazine’s “2002 Co-Person of the Year” (along with two other “Women Whistleblowers”) because she wrote a May 2002 memo to FBI director Robert Mueller protesting the 2001 decision. As Heather Mac Donald pointed out at the time, only when the issue was framed as “courageous women versus stupid men” did the press suddenly take an interest in the situation. Yet the fight over “probable cause” had been plaguing law enforcement since the 1960s. After playing Russian roulette with crime for forty years, we had finally hit a loaded chamber.
So settle down Thursday and prepare to watch Condoleezza Rice raked over the coals by a bunch of politicos and reporters who saw it all coming when she didn’t. But after it’s all over, let’s put Steve Emerson on the stand and ask how many politicians and reporters were listening to his warnings.