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In the days, weeks, months, and years leading up to the deadliest attack on the United States since Pearl Harbor, September 11, 2001, numerous oversights, inappropriate practices, and simple shortcomings have afflicted the infrastructure intended to shield Americans from such disasters. Many of the post-action findings, and even the largest post-action report of all time, the 9/11 Commission report, investigated what had gone wrong, finding the solutions that the government and public needed to hear. The citizens of the U.S. were confused as to how this kind of horrific and devastating attack could have been carried out against what was supposedly the strongest nation on earth at the time, the United States, and that confusion turned to consternation and anger following the events of 9/11. Perhaps the 9/11 Commission Report best sums up the situation leading up to the attacks by saying; “As best we can determine, neither in 2000 nor in the first eight months of 2001 did any polling organization in the United States think the subject of terrorism sufficiently on the minds of the public to warrant asking a question about it in a major national survey. Bin Laden, al Qaeda, or even terrorism was not an important topic in the 2000 presidential campaign. Congress and the media called little attention to it.” (The 9/11 Commission, 2004). This observation gives us some background as to the general sense of the nation about terrorism prior to 9/11. Clues that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were coming were overlooked or dismissed because of systemic inadequacies that existed in the U.S. government prior to 9/11 as illustrated by the lack of intelligence sharing between government agencies, the reticence of some high-ranking officials to accept that al-Qaeda posed a serious threat to the United States, and the bureaucratic intransigence to warnings that an attack was coming.
The largest problem which faced the U.S. intelligence community prior to 9/11, the Soviet Union, had crumbled in the early 1990’s leaving a power vacuum in several areas of the world where the Soviets used to exert a modicum of influence. For its part, the U.S. intelligence community throughout the 1990’s was still operating under the model that had sustained them throughout the Cold War, an enemy that was predictable, always did things according to exacting procedures, and was for the most part a state actor with very little activity that was asymmetric. Into this vacuum, a myriad of actors, state and non-state, began to flex their collective muscle including Iran, North Korea, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda. Osama bin-Laden and his al-Qaeda organization, however, were the ones to take the lead and fuel the radical Muslim extremist movement. In 1996-97, the intelligence community received new information that Osama bin-Laden controlled al-Qaeda which had “its own targeting agenda and operational commanders” (The 9/11 Commission, 2004). This new information also revealed that al-Qaeda had been involved in “the 1992 attack on a Yemeni hotel quartering U.S. military personnel, the 1993 shoot down of U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters in Somalia, and quite possibly the 1995 Riyadh bombing of the American training mission to the Saudi National Guard” (The 9/11 Commission, 2004). However, because of a lack of intelligence sharing across government agencies, this information was only made available to a few select officials. There was also the problem of the “rivalry” between the CIA and FBI for what the 9/11 Commission Report described as “top-dog status in the intelligence community” (Hillstrom, 2012). The relationship between the FBI and CIA was so bad that a program to exchange agents and share information and foster inter-agency cooperation was, only half-jokingly, referred to as “the hostage exchange” program (Hillstrom, 2012).
Another cause for the failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks was the deep-seated belief in many branches of the U.S. government including several of the major departments and cabinet-level agencies that the threat from al-Qaeda was not compelling enough to warrant any special consideration. Even though senior officials in the Clinton administration had formulated many plans to kill or capture Osama bin-Laden during the 1990’s, none of these plans were ever put into action. The CIA under Clinton actually had an operational plan to neutralize bin-Laden which they had carefully worked out with Afghan tribesmen but the operation was never presented to President Clinton for approval and was quietly shelved because “military official and senior CIA administrators” thought that the plan was “too risky” (Hillstrom, 2012). Another objection to the plan reportedly was concern that Arab nations and others around the world would view the capture or killing of bin-Laden, “who had not yet been convicted of any terrorist crimes” negatively. Of this reticence, CIA analyst Michael Scheuer, who had gathered the most extensive collection of information on Osama bin-Laden and al-Qaeda ever, stated “moral cowardice” on the part of the Clinton administration and Richard Clarke of the Bush administration, had kept the United States from taking out bin-Laden (Hillstrom, 2012). The restraint of the Clinton administration continued into the Bush administration. Senior officials of the Bush administration including Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice and even the President himself were the subject of heavy criticism for not taking the plethora of warnings from intelligence sources about impending terror attacks, presented in the President’s Daily Briefings, seriously in the months leading up to the September attacks (Hillstrom, 2012). On August 6, 2001, a little more than a month before the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center building, President Bush and his inner circle received a briefing entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” (Hillstrom, 2012) and even this did not stir officials to action.
Finally, in the run-up to the September 11, 2001 attacks there were many instances where warnings were ignored. The greatest example of this was the findings from the Hart-Rudman Commission in early January 2001. The commission urged Congress and the Bush administration to move quickly on a series of antiterrorism measures including emphasis on “old-fashioned spy work (such as undercover infiltration of terrorist groups)” to the creation of a cabinet-level position that would be responsible for coordination of all homeland security operations across all federal agencies (Hillstrom, 2012). Gary Hart, co-chairman of the commission testified before Congress in April 2001 that “The prospect of mass casualty terrorism on American soil is growing sharply” and “this danger will be one of the most difficult national security challenges facing the United States – and the one that we are least prepared to face” (Hillstrom, 2012). One must wonder what would have happened if the Congress had acted on this warning.
America and its people paid a terrible price for their collective lack of vision on that warm September morning. International terrorism had visited itself upon the American psyche and would forever be ingrained into the lives of those who lived through it. For its part, the U.S. government learned the lesson of being unprepared in a dangerous world. Failures in many facets of the security apparatus were responsible for allowing the attacks of September 11, 2001 to take place. Intelligence was missed, ignored or not shared within and among the agencies of the U.S. government, official dismissed the credible threat of al-Qaeda for political expedience, and worst of all, officials ignored direct warnings from many of the organizations trusted with keeping the U.S. safe.
Hillstrom, K. (2012). September 11 Terrorist Attacks. Detroit: Omnigraphics. Retrieved from http://ebookcentral.proquest.com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/lib/apus/detail.action?docID=3384053.
The 9/11 Commission. (2004). The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, Official Government edition. [Books24x7 version] Retrieved from http://common.books24x7.com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/toc.aspx?bookid=12782.
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