Washington — Americans’ antipathy to the study of history is a boon for pundits and politicians, especially when they feel the urge to declaim on urgent matters. Today, in Washington, our pundits and pols, expounding on September 11 and the concomitant “intelligence breakdown” in vacua, can do so with the greatest freedom of expression imaginable. History will not disturb the flow of their criticism. Facts will not interrupt their moral indignation. They speak of September 11 and the “intelligence breakdown” as if both had neither precedents nor ancestry. That is good for them; it allows them to exempt their class from past foolishness and, particularly in the case of the “intelligence breakdown,” from any responsibility that history attests to.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was but the most relevant precedent for analyzing September 11. There were others. As for last summer’s “intelligence breakdown,” its ancestry can be traced to Senator Frank Church and his colleagues on the Senate select intelligence committee of the 1970s. Now Senator Church’s congressional successors are investigating the CIA and FBI. Do a past committee’s blunders chasten them? Not if they are studiously unaware of them.
For Pearl Harbor’s relevance to September 11, consult the history books, most recently Thomas Fleming’s The New Dealers’ War. From the early 1930s on there was ample evidence that the Japanese could devastate Pearl in a sneak attack and increasing evidence right up to that “date which will live in infamy” that the attack was coming. James Q. Wilson recently noted that there have been other breaches of the peace that leaders might have anticipated. For instance, plenty of evidence preceded Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union and North Korea’s attack on South Korea. Yet Stalin and the South Koreans were caught unaware. In a classic work of history (and of policy analysis) Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, Roberta Wohlstetter explained the intelligence lapse at Pearl. The solid evidence of an impending attack was not discerned by our government’s leaders because of their prejudices, an abundance of false warnings, and misleading intelligence. This Wohlstetter termed “noise.”
By the mid-1940s our leaders had become mindful of that “noise,” and so they set up an agency to analyze intelligence so that never again would “noise” distract them from solid intelligence. The agency was called the CIA. In the past its analysts have had a passable record, but by last summer the CIA had become sufficiently bureaucratized to fail to distinguish the ominous signs of imminent danger from the “noise.”
The CIA and the FBI’s failures have been — as all such failures inevitably are — human failures, but there were other causes now apparently lost to the mists of history. Congressional grandstanding since the Watergate period has impeded our intelligence agencies’ effectiveness. The same gaudy grandstanding has distracted the CIA and the FBI, as it has confused the electorate about an emerging threat to our national security. That threat is aggression waged not by governments but by terrorists who act as the guerrilla agents of truly barbaric governments. Up until September 11, America had formed no national consensus on terrorism. In the Clinton years, the terrorists’ activities were merely the provocation for bluster and several sallies into “wag the dog” political tactics.
Political grandstanding caused the FBI’s focus to widen and blur every time the pols came up with a new crime to federalize. Naturally the FBI lost its focus. But the politicians’ most grievous blow to the FBI came in the wake of Watergate at the Church hearings where they lost themselves in harangues against the Nixon Administration’s misbehavior. That this misbehavior had precedents in earlier Administrations, for instance those of FDR and JFK, went unremarked. Yet the consequence was to hobble the FBI from gathering intelligence on just the kind of groups as the group that flew hijacked jetliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Nineteen-seventies-era congressional restrictions have until recently made it more difficult for Federal agencies to conduct some wiretaps and certain searches than for local police agencies. The CIA and the FBI have been barred from doing some of the kinds of work that are essential for the surveillance of terrorists.
The USA Patriot Act relaxes some of the restrictions that enfeebled Federal intelligence gathering in the 1970s. Sobered by war, the pols have acted prudently in creating this legislation, but now if I sense the currents in Washington correctly, the pols are being tempted to give the Church committee a reprise. It would be reassuring if while reviewing CIA and FBI performance prior to September 11, they read some history and came to recognize that not only incompetent intelligence officers had a hand in allowing terrorism to spread. The politicians and the pundits too played a role.