The airport security photographs and the 9/11 Commission’s report, both made public Thursday, were a chilling reminder to Americans of the terrorist assault on our country.
In the Dulles airport video (made available to news organizations by lawyers representing 9/11 victims’ families), terrorists were shown being inspected at security checkpoints in the terminal, yet still were allowed to board the plane they then hijacked and flew into the Pentagon.
The executive summary of the commission report, meanwhile, is a must-read description of how the Sept. 11 attacks came about. It pieces together the rise of al-Qaida and the planning and execution of its murderous plot against the United States. And, the report explains the contemporaneous missteps, shortcomings and inattention from U.S. intelligence agencies and public policy makers that allowed the plot to unfold. Whatever policy directions our country takes to prevent future attacks will be based to a great degree on what the commission found out and reconstructed as a sequence of events. Capturing the “big picture” of what Americans failed to see and understand about terrorism — as it happened right in front of them in the 1990s — is one undisputed value of this report.
The report describes the intelligence failures. It is difficult to read because it shows how our government, through negligence and just bad luck, failed to protect us. Earlier terrorist attacks, such as the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole, “did not prompt urgent action. … Existing protocols” of the Federal Aviation Administration and the North American Aerospace Defense Command “were unsuited in every respect for an attack in which hijacked planes were used as weapons.”
The U.S. defense posture at the time looked outward to a Soviet threat that no longer existed, not inward to the new terrorist threat — where it might come from, what it might look like, how to respond. Information was not shared among agencies. Important leads on the terrorists were not followed up. “Al-Qaida’s new brand of terrorism presented challenges to U.S. governmental institutions that they were not well-designed to meet.” The nation’s “permeable borders” allowed the terrorists to enter, plot and kill.
The report shows the attack “was the result of a lot of things not going right — from airports all the way up to policy,” said Charles Pena, senior fellow and director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at the Independent Institute. But the report “could have highlighted better that, in the post-Cold War world, we didn’t re-orient” defense and intelligence policy.
The problem, in summary, was the “U.S. government is used to fighting a nation state,” the defunct Soviet Union, Ivan Eland said; he’s senior fellow and director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at the Independent Institute. “Now it’s fighting nimble terrorists.”
The report blamed Congress for not properly supervising intelligence agencies, but went easy on both Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. “(The commission was) trying to be non-partisan,” Eland explained. “In some ways it was laudable. But I would have preferred that they were more critical of both. They shouldn’t be left off the hook. Clinton missed his chances” to stop the terrorists during his eight years in office. “And Bush missed his chances before 9/11.”
After all, we would add, both men took an oath of office to “preserve, protect and defend” our country. Yet the terrorists’ planning took place in part on Clinton’s watch and the attack on Bush’s.
The report is available online: