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.