Sunday, May 19, 2002

Pulitzer-prize winning New York Times columnist Tom Friedman believes that Bush shouldn't be blamed for failing to anticipate the Sept. 11th attacks because

I'm convinced that there was no one there who would have put [the clues] together, who would have imagined evil on the scale Osama bin Laden did.

He could profit by reading more of his own paper --- like the story yesterday which reported that

The F.B.I. knew by 1996 of a specific threat that terrorists in Al Qaeda, Mr. bin Laden's network, might use a plane in a suicide attack against the headquarters of the C.I.A. or another large federal building in the Washington area

and that there had been at least one prior attempt on a civilian target --- a hijacking of a French airliner whose hijackers intended to crash it into the Eiffel Tower, this one in 1994. The same Times article reports that Zac Moussaoui first came under suspicion in 1998, when a friend of his was found to be involved in the African embassy bombings. One of Moussaoui's flight instructors, not only warned the FBI about him, but made a point of telling them that "This man wants training on a 747. A 747 fully loaded with fuel could be used as a weapon!" And the same school had earlier alerted the FAA about another student, now believed to be the pilot of the plane that hit the Pentagon.

The line taken by the current administration's defenders is basically Friedman's --- that the facts were known, but no one could have put them together.

If you buy that argument, it only clarifies the spectacular inappropriateness of the administration's response to the attack after the fact, the ill-named PATRIOT act. They claimed that the attack showed that intelligence and law enforcement agencies needed to be able to gather more information, with far less interference from the courts --- eventually floating an omnibus bill with provisions including, among other things, nationwide judge-shopping for wiretaps, and requiring ISPs to turn over billing records without a warrant. When the Senate balked, the administration publicly threatened to blame them for the next attack.

The rationale for all this was that the government didn't have enough information. Now, they explain their failure to heed specific warnings, like the report by that guy out in Phoenix, by saying they had too much information, and no way to sort the wheat from the chaff. You can't solve that problem by adding more chaff.

And yet adding more chaff is what they have done, not just with the PATRIOT act, which had as one of its overarching themes Government Access to More, but in the subsequent fishing expedition which amounted to asking every Arab-American immigrant whether they were a terrorist --- questions which real terrorists will not answer honestly, and which loyal Arab-Americans whose cooperation the FBI may need will remember as an insult. Yet, every available FBI agent was diverted to this task, and when their numbers proved insufficient, they tried to enlist local law enforcement as well --- though they were stymied in jurisdictions where ethnically based roundups by local police are actually against the law.

Those agents could have been instead asking about suspicious activity around cropdusters, or investigating security around water mains and works --- means of attack that we know that al-Qaeda has considered --- or even combed the dusty shelves of the FBI itself looking for a neglected report on attack modalities we haven't known about yet. Instead, to plagiarize myself, they were out asking immigrant Muslim housewives what they knew about Semtex.

So, I'll say it again: You could make an argument for strict adherence to probable cause requirements, on the purely pragmatic grounds that the FBI's inevitably limited resources are best spent on information that is likely to actually matter.

Two footnotes:

First, Gary Farber attacks unspecified "leftist blogs" for partisanship in criticizing the Bush administration's handling of the issue, and dares them to predict the location and date of the next attack. I don't know who he's talking about, since he doesn't say --- but speaking only for myself, I'm criticizing them not because they're Republican, but because they're in power and screwing up. And the line about predictions is inane. It suggests that since al-Qaeda operatives themselves don't seem to know targets and dates until as soon as possible before the attack, we're helpless. Wrong. That only means that an effective response can't concentrate on guarding the targets, but should instead focus on something else --- like the methods and means of attack. A detailed sweep of flight schools and their students in 1998, when Zac Moussaoui first came under suspiction (yes, under Clinton) might have saved us all a lot of trouble. Ashcroft's program of interrogating every Arab in the country as a possible suspect would not.

Farber's complaint about partisan responses might be better directed at the Bush administration officials who are ludicrously trying to blame Clinton's supposedly inadequate antiterror programs, even though their own administration apparently cut back on them when it entered office.

Second, the Friedman column I started off quoting is full of howlers. My favorite: "Imagining evil of this magnitude simply does not come naturally to the American character". So Tom, seen any summer movies lately? Read a Tom Clancy novel? A comic book? We dote on this stuff.

He also seems to have forgotten that the Manhattan project was a military secret until after the bomb was dropped. I think he meant to cite Apollo, but who can tell?


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