Barn door politics
Posted by aogMonday, 15 August 2005 at 17:11 TrackBack Ping URL

The recent flap over the Able Danger lets me get back to one of my favorite dead hobby horses, the terrible state of our intelligence agencies. As I’ve noted before, the USA has as terrible problem in its dysfuntional intelligence agencies. This is a bi-partisan problem and there has been a bi-partisan effort to avoid doing anything about it. In the comment thread above, I think both sides make good points but it does seem to be more about exonerating one side or the other rather than achieving a good understanding of what the problem is. I side more with Preston and Regan in that the idea that the Clinton era was more of a contributor to the problem than any other post-WWII administration. However, apparently one can’t say that without be taken as blaming the Clinton administration for every single problem in our intelligence agencies, which is a view point I completely disagree with — there is an almost endless source of contributors.

Moreover, while I don’t want to exonerate former President Clinton, one must acknowledge that of all his gifts, his best was reading and being part of the zeitgeist of the moment. Clinton was much more of a symptom than a problem. What he did, particularly with regard to screwing up intelligence gathering and processing, was in tune with the times and the culmination of decades of build up (in the same way President Bush’s push to invade Iraq wasn’t some scheme he cooked up with the his buddies at Halliburton but the culmination of decades of American foreign policy). Gorelick built a bigger and higher wall, but the foundation was laid by Senator Church many years before. Porphyrogenitus has a good post that examines this in more depth.

But I want to pursue a different issue. Suppose the Able Danger story is true and this information existed — would it have made any difference? Could Atta have been arrested or stopped, realistically? Consider all of the efforts by the ACLU and other Progressive organizations to spring the captives in Guantanomo. What would have been the political fallout from arresting Atta or even just trailing him? “Paranoid” is a comment epithet thrown around now, after nearly a decade of increasingly deadly Caliphascist attacks and the 11 Sep attacks. Unfortunately, I think that an attack on the scale of 11 Sep was de facto unpreventable because we, as a society, could simply not be serious about the Caliphascist threat. We still aren’t really serious, as demonstrated by the popularity of people like Michael Moore and most of the Democratic Party leadership. The political price that’s being paid is a very slow thing and easily rationalized away, both internally and to what remains of Democratic Party support. What I am left wondering is if some truely massive, WMD attack is as inevitable now as 11 Sep was back then.

Comments — Formatting by Textile
Whitehall Friday, 19 August 2005 at 14:52

We do have some history of stopping terrorist plans before 9/11. Our people are not totally useless. We did prevent the multiple airliner over the Pacific plot, for one.

I suspect that if the FBI had been turned lose on Atta and team, they would have turned up enough on them to at least kick them out of the country.

Granted, breaking up one cell would not prevent all attacks. There’s truth to the observation that you seldom win by playing defense.

Annoying Old Guy Friday, 19 August 2005 at 15:30

I presume you are referring to Operation Bojinka. That was stopped by Philiphine efforts, not American, so I’m not sure what you mean by “we”. This article, which goes in to more depth, supports my point by showing how much other warning was out there at the time yet was ignored. I think an emphasis on any particular failure or even the occasionally successes obscures the bigger problem of a generally indifferent attitutude. I certainly wouldn’t argue that “our people” are completely useless, but even if the people in the field are good and dedicated doesn’t mean they can break through the wall of indifference at higher levels, and it’s that wall that I’m discussing.

Ken Friday, 26 August 2005 at 11:50

“But I want to pursue a different issue. Suppose the Able Danger story is true and this information existed would it have made any difference? Could Atta have been arrested or stopped, realistically?”

Yes, he could have been stopped, in a way extremely advantageous to the Bush administration and public support for the War on Terror in general.

But not by preventing Atta from boarding the plane. That would simply leave the people blind to the threat and open the way for some larger and more destructive plot to come to fruition. Instead, operatives follow Atta and friends onto their planes, then overpower the bad guys (perhaps with smuggled weapons of their own) and save the day. Then, let it be known that the plot was to destroy the World Trade Center, that the World Trade Center hosted 50,000 employees of various enterprises, and encourage the obvious inference that a successful attack could have duplicated the total body count of the entire Vietnam War in a single morning. Since the attack would have been prevented, no one would know that the pilots would unwittingly spare all but 3,000 of the building’s occupants - they’d only know that 50,000 of them would have been in the building struck by the jumbo jets if not for the daring citizens aboard.

Of course all of this presupposes that the Administration actually had access to this information and a reason to suppose that it was more valuable information than the mass of contradictory intelligence it was hidden in…

Annoying Old Guy Friday, 26 August 2005 at 18:47

I suppose that’s possible, but who’d believe that there was such a plot or that it was serious after the arrests? I also suspect it would decrease support for actively pursuing WWIV, since it would be a big boost to the “it’s a law enforcement issue” crowd. I just can’t believe that people would take it more seriously in the event of a foiled plot than in the aftermath of a successful one.

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