Was 9/11 Avoidable?

I have written several postings related to Various topics including the military, Voting, the economy, religion and etc in America. A list of links have been provided at bottom of this article for your convenience. This article will, however address additional issues in these topics.

People tend to forget why we study history, so we can learn from our mistakes. You would think that we had learned from Pearl Harbor. I guess we did not. We also did not learn from The Korean War and The Vietnam War, because we became embroiled in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the only ones that benefited were the arms dealers and companies like Blackwater(Academi) that provide private armies and security personnel. This article is the sister article to the one I wrote on Pearl Harbor.

THE 9/11 COMMISSION REPORT

Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

We present the narrative of this report and the recommendations that flow from it to the President of the United States, the United States Congress, and the American people for their consideration. Ten Commissioners-five Republicans and five Democrats chosen by elected leaders from our nation’s capital at a time of great partisan division-have come together to present this report without dissent.

We have come together with a unity of purpose because our nation demands it. September 11, 2001, was a day of unprecedented shock and suffering in the history of the United States. The nation was unprepared.

A NATION TRANSFORMED

At 8:46 on the morning of September 11, 2001, the United States became a nation transformed.

An airliner traveling at hundreds of miles per hour and carrying some 10,000 gallons of jet fuel plowed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan. At 9:03, a second airliner hit the South Tower. Fire and smoke billowed upward. Steel, glass, ash, and bodies fell below. The Twin Towers, where up to 50,000 people worked each day, both collapsed less than 90 minutes later.

At 9:37 that same morning, a third airliner slammed into the western face of the Pentagon. At 10:03, a fourth airliner crashed in a field in southern Pennsylvania. It had been aimed at the United States Capitol or the White House, and was forced down by heroic passengers armed with the knowledge that America was under attack.

More than 2,600 people died at the World Trade Center; 125 died at the Pentagon; 256 died on the four planes. The death toll surpassed that at Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

This immeasurable pain was inflicted by 19 young Arabs acting at the behest of Islamist extremists headquartered in distant Afghanistan. Some had been in the United States for more than a year, mixing with the rest of the population. Though four had training as pilots, most were not well-educated. Most spoke English poorly, some hardly at all. In groups of four or five, carrying with them only small knives, box cutters, and cans of Mace or pepper spray, they had hijacked the four planes and turned them into deadly guided missiles.

Why did they do this? How was the attack planned and conceived? How did the U.S. government fail to anticipate and prevent it? What can we do in the future to prevent similar acts of terrorism?

A Shock, Not a Surprise
The 9/11 attacks were a shock, but they should not have come as a surprise. Islamist extremists had given plenty of warning that they meant to kill Americans indiscriminately and in large numbers. Although Usama Bin Ladin himself would not emerge as a signal threat until the late 1990s, the threat of Islamist terrorism grew over the decade.

In February 1993, a group led by Ramzi Yousef tried to bring down the World Trade Center with a truck bomb. They killed six and wounded a thousand. Plans by Omar Abdel Rahman and others to blow up the Holland and Lincoln tunnels and other New York City landmarks were frustrated when the plotters were arrested. In October 1993, Somali tribesmen shot down U.S. helicopters, killing 18 and wounding 73 in an incident that came to be known as “Black Hawk down.” Years later it would be learned that those Somali tribesmen had received help from al Qaeda.

In early 1995, police in Manila uncovered a plot by Ramzi Yousef to blow up a dozen U.S. airliners while they were flying over the Pacific. In November 1995, a car bomb exploded outside the office of the U.S. program manager for the Saudi National Guard in Riyadh, killing five Americans and two others. In June 1996, a truck bomb demolished the Khobar Towers apartment complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing 19 U.S. servicemen and wounding hundreds. The attack was carried out primarily by Saudi Hezbollah, an organization that had received help from the government of Iran.

Until 1997, the U.S. intelligence community viewed Bin Ladin as a financier of terrorism, not as a terrorist leader. In February 1998, Usama Bin Ladin and four others issued a self-styled fatwa, publicly declaring that it was God’s decree that every Muslim should try his utmost to kill any American, military or civilian, anywhere in the world, because of American “occupation” of Islam’s holy places and aggression against Muslims.

In August 1998, Bin Ladin’s group, al Qaeda, carried out near-simultaneous truck bomb attacks on the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The attacks killed 224 people, including 12 Americans, and wounded thousands more.

In December 1999, Jordanian police foiled a plot to bomb hotels and other sites frequented by American tourists, and a U.S. Customs agent arrested Ahmed Ressam at the U.S. Canadian border as he was smuggling in explosives intended for an attack on Los Angeles International Airport.

In October 2000, an al Qaeda team in Aden, Yemen, used a motorboat filled with explosives to blow a hole in the side of a destroyer, the USS Cole, almost sinking the vessel and killing 17 American sailors.

The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were far more elaborate, precise, and destructive than any of these earlier assaults. But by September 2001, the executive branch of the U.S. government, the Congress, the news media, and the American public had received clear warning that Islamist terrorists meant to kill Americans in high numbers.

Who Is the Enemy?
Who is this enemy that created an organization capable of inflicting such horrific damage on the United States? We now know that these attacks were carried out by various groups of Islamist extremists. The 9/11 attack was driven by Usama Bin Ladin.

In the 1980s, young Muslims from around the world went to Afghanistan to join as volunteers in a jihad (or holy struggle) against the Soviet Union. A wealthy Saudi, Usama Bin Ladin, was one of them. Following the defeat of the Soviets in the late 1980s, Bin Ladin and others formed al Qaeda to mobilize jihads elsewhere.

The history, culture, and body of beliefs from which Bin Ladin shapes and spreads his message are largely unknown to many Americans. Seizing on symbols of Islam’s past greatness, he promises to restore pride to people who consider themselves the victims of successive foreign masters. He uses cultural and religious allusions to the holy Qur’an and some of its interpreters. He appeals to people disoriented by cyclonic change as they confront modernity and globalization. His rhetoric selectively draws from multiple sources-Islam, history, and the region’s political and economic malaise.

Bin Ladin also stresses grievances against the United States widely shared in the Muslim world. He inveighed against the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, which is the home of Islam’s holiest sites, and against other U.S. policies in the Middle East.

Upon this political and ideological foundation, Bin Ladin built over the course of a decade a dynamic and lethal organization. He built an infrastructure and organization in Afghanistan that could attract, train, and use recruits against ever more ambitious targets. He rallied new zealots and new money with each demonstration of al Qaeda’s capability. He had forged a close alliance with the Taliban, a regime providing sanctuary for al Qaeda.

By September 11, 2001, al Qaeda possessed

  • leaders able to evaluate, approve, and supervise the planning and direction of a major operation;
  • a personnel system that could recruit candidates, indoctrinate them, vet them, and give them the necessary training;
  • communications sufficient to enable planning and direction of operatives and those who would be helping them;
  • an intelligence effort to gather required information and form assessments of enemy strengths and weaknesses;
  • the ability to move people great distances; and
  • the ability to raise and move the money necessary to finance an attack.

1998 to September 11, 2001
The August 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania established al Qaeda as a potent adversary of the United States.

After launching cruise missile strikes against al Qaeda targets in Afghanistan and Sudan in retaliation for the embassy bombings, the Clinton administration applied diplomatic pressure to try to persuade the Taliban regime in Afghanistan to expel Bin Ladin. The administration also devised covert operations to use CIA-paid foreign agents to capture or kill Bin Ladin and his chief lieutenants. These actions did not stop Bin Ladin or dislodge al Qaeda from its sanctuary.

By late 1998 or early 1999, Bin Ladin and his advisers had agreed on an idea brought to them by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) called the “planes operation.” It would eventually culminate in the 9/11 attacks. Bin Ladin and his chief of operations, Mohammed Atef, occupied undisputed leadership positions atop al Qaeda. Within al Qaeda, they relied heavily on the ideas and enterprise of strong-willed field commanders, such as KSM, to carry out worldwide terrorist operations.

KSM claims that his original plot was even grander than those carried out on 9/11-ten planes would attack targets on both the East and West coasts of the United States. This plan was modified by Bin Ladin, KSM said, owing to its scale and complexity. Bin Ladin provided KSM with four initial operatives for suicide plane attacks within the United States, and in the fall of 1999 training for the attacks began. New recruits included four from a cell of expatriate Muslim extremists who had clustered together in Hamburg, Germany. One became the tactical commander of the operation in the United States: Mohamed Atta.

U.S. intelligence frequently picked up reports of attacks planned by al Qaeda. Working with foreign security services, the CIA broke up some al Qaeda cells. The core of Bin Ladin’s organization nevertheless remained intact. In December 1999, news about the arrests of the terrorist cell in Jordan and the arrest of a terrorist at the U.S.-Canadian border became part of a “millennium alert.” The government was galvanized, and the public was on alert for any possible attack.

In January 2000, the intense intelligence effort glimpsed and then lost sight of two operatives destined for the “planes operation.” Spotted in Kuala Lumpur, the pair were lost passing through Bangkok. On January 15, 2000, they arrived in Los Angeles.

Because these two al Qaeda operatives had spent little time in the West and spoke little, if any, English, it is plausible that they or KSM would have tried to identify, in advance, a friendly contact in the United States. We explored suspicions about whether these two operatives had a support network of accomplices in the United States. The evidence is thin-simply not there for some cases, more worrisome in others.

We do know that soon after arriving in California, the two al Qaeda operatives sought out and found a group of ideologically like-minded Muslims with roots in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, individuals mainly associated with a young Yemeni and others who attended a mosque in San Diego. After a brief stay in Los Angeles about which we know little, the al Qaeda operatives lived openly in San Diego under their true names. They managed to avoid attracting much attention.

By the summer of 2000, three of the four Hamburg cell members had arrived on the East Coast of the United States and had begun pilot training. In early 2001, a fourth future hijacker pilot, Hani Hanjour, journeyed to Arizona with another operative, Nawaf al Hazmi, and conducted his refresher pilot training there. A number of al Qaeda operatives had spent time in Arizona during the 1980s and early 1990s.

During 2000, President Bill Clinton and his advisers renewed diplomatic efforts to get Bin Ladin expelled from Afghanistan. They also renewed secret efforts with some of the Taliban’s opponents-the Northern Alliance-to get enough intelligence to attack Bin Ladin directly. Diplomatic efforts centered on the new military government in Pakistan, and they did not succeed. The efforts with the Northern Alliance revived an inconclusive and secret debate about whether the United States should take sides in Afghanistan’s civil war and support the Taliban’s enemies. The CIA also produced a plan to improve intelligence collection on al Qaeda, including the use of a small, unmanned airplane with a video camera, known as the Predator.

After the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, evidence accumulated that it had been launched by al Qaeda operatives, but without confirmation that Bin Ladin had given the order. The Taliban had earlier been warned that it would be held responsible for another Bin Ladin attack on the United States. The CIA described its findings as a “preliminary judgment”; President Clinton and his chief advisers told us they were waiting for a conclusion before deciding whether to take military action. The military alternatives remained unappealing to them.

The transition to the new Bush administration in late 2000 and early 2001 took place with the Cole issue still pending. President George W. Bush and his chief advisers accepted that al Qaeda was responsible for the attack on the Cole, but did not like the options available for a response.

Bin Ladin’s inference may well have been that attacks, at least at the level of the Cole, were risk free.

The Bush administration began developing a new strategy with the stated goal of eliminating the al Qaeda threat within three to five years.

During the spring and summer of 2001, U.S. intelligence agencies received a stream of warnings that al Qaeda planned, as one report put it, “something very, very, very big.” Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet told us, “The system was blinking red.”

Although Bin Ladin was determined to strike in the United States, as President Clinton had been told and President Bush was reminded in a Presidential Daily Brief article briefed to him in August 2001, the specific threat information pointed overseas. Numerous precautions were taken overseas. Domestic agencies were not effectively mobilized. The threat did not receive national media attention comparable to the millennium alert.

While the United States continued disruption efforts around the world, its emerging strategy to eliminate the al Qaeda threat was to include an enlarged covert action program in Afghanistan, as well as diplomatic strategies for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The process culminated during the summer of 2001 in a draft presidential directive and arguments about the Predator aircraft, which was soon to be deployed with a missile of its own, so that it might be used to attempt to kill Bin Ladin or his chief lieutenants. At a September 4 meeting, President Bush’s chief advisers approved the draft directive of the strategy and endorsed the concept of arming the Predator. This directive on the al Qaeda strategy was awaiting President Bush’s signature on September 11, 2001.

Though the “planes operation” was progressing, the plotters had problems of their own in 2001. Several possible participants dropped out; others could not gain entry into the United States (including one denial at a port of entry and visa denials not related to terrorism). One of the eventual pilots may have considered abandoning the planes operation. Zacarias Moussaoui, who showed up at a flight training school in Minnesota, may have been a candidate to replace him.

Some of the vulnerabilities of the plotters become clear in retrospect. Moussaoui aroused suspicion for seeking fast-track training on how to pilot large jet airliners. He was arrested on August 16, 2001, for violations of immigration regulations. In late August, officials in the intelligence community realized that the terrorists spotted in Southeast Asia in January 2000 had arrived in the United States.

These cases did not prompt urgent action. No one working on these late leads in the summer of 2001 connected them to the high level of threat reporting. In the words of one official, no analytic work foresaw the lightning that could connect the thundercloud to the ground.

As final preparations were under way during the summer of 2001, dissent emerged among al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan over whether to proceed. The Taliban’s chief, Mullah Omar, opposed attacking the United States. Although facing opposition from many of his senior lieutenants, Bin Ladin effectively overruled their objections, and the attacks went forward.

September 11, 2001
The day began with the 19 hijackers getting through a security checkpoint system that they had evidently analyzed and knew how to defeat. Their success rate in penetrating the system was 19 for 19.They took over the four flights, taking advantage of air crews and cockpits that were not prepared for the contingency of a suicide hijacking.

On 9/11, the defense of U.S. air space depended on close interaction between two federal agencies: the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). Existing protocols on 9/11 were unsuited in every respect for an attack in which hijacked planes were used as weapons.

What ensued was a hurried attempt to improvise a defense by civilians who had never handled a hijacked aircraft that attempted to disappear, and by a military unprepared for the transformation of commercial aircraft into weapons of mass destruction.

A shootdown authorization was not communicated to the NORAD air defense sector until 28 minutes after United 93 had crashed in Pennsylvania. Planes were scrambled, but ineffectively, as they did not know where to go or what targets they were to intercept. And once the shootdown order was given, it was not communicated to the pilots. In short, while leaders in Washington believed that the fighters circling above them had been instructed to “take out” hostile aircraft, the only orders actually conveyed to the pilots were to “ID type and tail.”

Like the national defense, the emergency response on 9/11 was necessarily improvised.

In New York City, the Fire Department of New York, the New York Police Department, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the building employees, and the occupants of the buildings did their best to cope with the effects of almost unimaginable events-unfolding furiously over 102 minutes. Casualties were nearly 100 percent at and above the impact zones and were very high among first responders who stayed in danger as they tried to save lives. Despite weaknesses in preparations for disaster, failure to achieve unified incident command, and inadequate communications among responding agencies, all but approximately one hundred of the thousands of civilians who worked below the impact zone escaped, often with help from the emergency responders.

At the Pentagon, while there were also problems of command and control, the emergency response was generally effective. The Incident Command System, a formalized management structure for emergency response in place in the National Capital Region, overcame the inherent complications of a response across local, state, and federal jurisdictions.

Operational Opportunities
We write with the benefit and handicap of hindsight. We are mindful of the danger of being unjust to men and women who made choices in conditions of uncertainty and in circumstances over which they often had little control.

Nonetheless, there were specific points of vulnerability in the plot and opportunities to disrupt it. Operational failures-opportunities that were not or could not be exploited by the organizations and systems of that time-included

  • not watchlisting future hijackers Hazmi and Mihdhar, not trailing them after they traveled to Bangkok, and not informing the FBI about one future hijacker’s U.S. visa or his companion’s travel to the United States;
  • not sharing information linking individuals in the Cole attack to Mihdhar;
  • not taking adequate steps in time to find Mihdhar or Hazmi in the United States;
  • not linking the arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui, described as interested in flight training for the purpose of using an airplane in a terrorist act, to the heightened indications of attack;
  • not discovering false statements on visa applications;
  • not recognizing passports manipulated in a fraudulent manner;
  • not expanding no-fly lists to include names from terrorist watchlists;
  • not searching airline passengers identified by the computer-based CAPPS screening system; and
  • not hardening aircraft cockpit doors or taking other measures to prepare for the possibility of suicide hijackings.

GENERAL FINDINGS

Since the plotters were flexible and resourceful, we cannot know whether any single step or series of steps would have defeated them. What we can say with confidence is that none of the measures adopted by the U.S. government from 1998 to 2001 disturbed or even delayed the progress of the al Qaeda plot. Across the government, there were failures of imagination, policy, capabilities, and management.

Imagination
The most important failure was one of imagination. We do not believe leaders understood the gravity of the threat. The terrorist danger from Bin Ladin and al Qaeda was not a major topic for policy debate among the public, the media, or in the Congress. Indeed, it barely came up during the 2000 presidential campaign.

Al Qaeda’s new brand of terrorism presented challenges to U.S. governmental institutions that they were not well-designed to meet. Though top officials all told us that they understood the danger, we believe there was uncertainty among them as to whether this was just a new and especially venomous version of the ordinary terrorist threat the United States had lived with for decades, or it was indeed radically new, posing a threat beyond any yet experienced.

As late as September 4, 2001, Richard Clarke, the White House staffer long responsible for counterterrorism policy coordination, asserted that the government had not yet made up its mind how to answer the question: “Is al Qida a big deal?”

A week later came the answer.

Policy
Terrorism was not the overriding national security concern for the U.S. government under either the Clinton or the pre-9/11 Bush administration.

The policy challenges were linked to this failure of imagination. Officials in both the Clinton and Bush administrations regarded a full U.S. invasion of Afghanistan as practically inconceivable before 9/11.

Capabilities
Before 9/11, the United States tried to solve the al Qaeda problem with the capabilities it had used in the last stages of the Cold War and its immediate aftermath. These capabilities were insufficient. Little was done to expand or reform them.

The CIA had minimal capacity to conduct paramilitary operations with its own personnel, and it did not seek a large-scale expansion of these capabilities before 9/11. The CIA also needed to improve its capability to collect intelligence from human agents.

At no point before 9/11 was the Department of Defense fully engaged in the mission of countering al Qaeda, even though this was perhaps the most dangerous foreign enemy threatening the United States.

America’s homeland defenders faced outward. NORAD itself was barely able to retain any alert bases at all. Its planning scenarios occasionally considered the danger of hijacked aircraft being guided to American targets, but only aircraft that were coming from overseas.

The most serious weaknesses in agency capabilities were in the domestic arena. The FBI did not have the capability to link the collective knowledge of agents in the field to national priorities. Other domestic agencies deferred to the FBI.

FAA capabilities were weak. Any serious examination of the possibility of a suicide hijacking could have suggested changes to fix glaring vulnerabilities-expanding no-fly lists, searching passengers identified by the CAPPS screening system, deploying federal air marshals domestically, hardening cockpit doors, alerting air crews to a different kind of hijacking possibility than they had been trained to expect. Yet the FAA did not adjust either its own training or training with NORAD to take account of threats other than those experienced in the past.

Management
The missed opportunities to thwart the 9/11 plot were also symptoms of a broader inability to adapt the way government manages problems to the new challenges of the twenty-first century. Action officers should have been able to draw on all available knowledge about al Qaeda in the government. Management should have ensured that information was shared and duties were clearly assigned across agencies, and across the foreign-domestic divide.

There were also broader management issues with respect to how top leaders set priorities and allocated resources. For instance, on December 4, 1998, DCI Tenet issued a directive to several CIA officials and the DDCI for Community Management, stating: “We are at war. I want no resources or people spared in this effort, either inside CIA or the Community.” The memorandum had little overall effect on mobilizing the CIA or the intelligence community. This episode indicates the limitations of the DCI’s authority over the direction of the intelligence community, including agencies within the Department of Defense.

The U.S. government did not find a way of pooling intelligence and using it to guide the planning and assignment of responsibilities for joint operations involving entities as disparate as the CIA, the FBI, the State Department, the military, and the agencies involved in homeland security.

SPECIFIC FINDINGS

Unsuccessful Diplomacy
Beginning in February 1997, and through September 11, 2001, the U.S. government tried to use diplomatic pressure to persuade the Taliban regime in Afghanistan to stop being a sanctuary for al Qaeda, and to expel Bin Ladin to a country where he could face justice. These efforts included warnings and sanctions, but they all failed.

The U.S. government also pressed two successive Pakistani governments to demand that the Taliban cease providing a sanctuary for Bin Ladin and his organization and, failing that, to cut off their support for the Taliban. Before 9/11, the United States could not find a mix of incentives and pressure that would persuade Pakistan to reconsider its fundamental relationship with the Taliban.

From 1999 through early 2001, the United States pressed the United Arab Emirates, one of the Taliban’s only travel and financial outlets to the outside world, to break off ties and enforce sanctions, especially those related to air travel to Afghanistan. These efforts achieved little before 9/11.

Saudi Arabia has been a problematic ally in combating Islamic extremism. Before 9/11, the Saudi and U.S. governments did not fully share intelligence information or develop an adequate joint effort to track and disrupt the finances of the al Qaeda organization. On the other hand, government officials of Saudi Arabia at the highest levels worked closely with top U.S. officials in major initiatives to solve the Bin Ladin problem with diplomacy.

Lack of Military Options
In response to the request of policymakers, the military prepared an array of limited strike options for attacking Bin Ladin and his organization from May 1998 onward. When they briefed policymakers, the military presented both the pros and cons of those strike options and the associated risks. Policymakers expressed frustration with the range of options presented.

Following the August 20, 1998, missile strikes on al Qaeda targets in Afghanistan and Sudan, both senior military officials and policymakers placed great emphasis on actionable intelligence as the key factor in recommending or deciding to launch military action against Bin Ladin and his organization. They did not want to risk significant collateral damage, and they did not want to miss Bin Ladin and thus make the United States look weak while making Bin Ladin look strong. On three specific occasions in 1998-1999, intelligence was deemed credible enough to warrant planning for possible strikes to kill Bin Ladin. But in each case the strikes did not go forward, because senior policymakers did not regard the intelligence as sufficiently actionable to offset their assessment of the risks.

The Director of Central Intelligence, policymakers, and military officials expressed frustration with the lack of actionable intelligence. Some officials inside the Pentagon, including those in the special forces and the counterterrorism policy office, also expressed frustration with the lack of military action. The Bush administration began to develop new policies toward al Qaeda in 2001, but military plans did not change until after 9/11.

Problems within the Intelligence Community
The intelligence community struggled throughout the 1990s and up to 9/11 to collect intelligence on and analyze the phenomenon of transnational terrorism. The combination of an overwhelming number of priorities, flat budgets, an outmoded structure, and bureaucratic rivalries resulted in an insufficient response to this new challenge.

Many dedicated officers worked day and night for years to piece together the growing body of evidence on al Qaeda and to understand the threats. Yet, while there were many reports on Bin Laden and his growing al Qaeda organization, there was no comprehensive review of what the intelligence community knew and what it did not know, and what that meant. There was no National Intelligence Estimate on terrorism between 1995 and 9/11.

Before 9/11, no agency did more to attack al Qaeda than the CIA. But there were limits to what the CIA was able to achieve by disrupting terrorist activities abroad and by using proxies to try to capture Bin Ladin and his lieutenants in Afghanistan. CIA officers were aware of those limitations.

To put it simply, covert action was not a silver bullet. It was important to engage proxies in Afghanistan and to build various capabilities so that if an opportunity presented itself, the CIA could act on it. But for more than three years, through both the late Clinton and early Bush administrations, the CIA relied on proxy forces, and there was growing frustration within the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center and in the National Security Council staff with the lack of results. The development of the Predator and the push to aid the Northern Alliance were products of this frustration.

Problems in the FBI
From the time of the first World Trade Center attack in 1993, FBI and Department of Justice leadership in Washington and New York became increasingly concerned about the terrorist threat from Islamist extremists to U.S. interests, both at home and abroad. Throughout the 1990s, the FBI’s counterterrorism efforts against international terrorist organizations included both intelligence and criminal investigations. The FBI’s approach to investigations was case-specific, decentralized, and geared toward prosecution. Significant FBI resources were devoted to after-the-fact investigations of major terrorist attacks, resulting in several prosecutions.

The FBI attempted several reform efforts aimed at strengthening its ability to prevent such attacks, but these reform efforts failed to implement organization-wide institutional change. On September 11, 2001, the FBI was limited in several areas critical to an effective preventive counterterrorism strategy. Those working counterterrorism matters did so despite limited intelligence collection and strategic analysis capabilities, a limited capacity to share information both internally and externally, insufficient training, perceived legal barriers to sharing information, and inadequate resources.

Permeable Borders and Immigration Controls
There were opportunities for intelligence and law enforcement to exploit al Qaeda’s travel vulnerabilities. Considered collectively, the 9/11 hijackers

  • included known al Qaeda operatives who could have been watchlisted;
  • presented passports manipulated in a fraudulent manner;
  • presented passports with suspicious indicators of extremism;
  • made detectable false statements on visa applications;
  • made false statements to border officials to gain entry into the United States; and
  • violated immigration laws while in the United States.

Neither the State Department’s consular officers nor the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s inspectors and agents were ever considered full partners in a national counterterrorism effort. Protecting borders was not a national security issue before 9/11.

Permeable Aviation Security
Hijackers studied publicly available materials on the aviation security system and used items that had less metal content than a handgun and were most likely permissible. Though two of the hijackers were on the U.S.TIPOFF terrorist watchlist, the FAA did not use TIPOFF data. The hijackers had to beat only one layer of security-the security checkpoint process. Even though several hijackers were selected for extra screening by the CAPPS system, this led only to greater scrutiny of their checked baggage. Once on board, the hijackers were faced with aircraft personnel who were trained to be nonconfrontational in the event of a hijacking.

Financing
The 9/11 attacks cost somewhere between $400,000 and $500,000 to execute. The operatives spent more than $270,000 in the United States. Additional expenses included travel to obtain passports and visas, travel to the United States, expenses incurred by the plot leader and facilitators outside the United States, and expenses incurred by the people selected to be hijackers who ultimately did not participate.

The conspiracy made extensive use of banks in the United States. The hijackers opened accounts in their own names, using passports and other identification documents. Their transactions were unremarkable and essentially invisible amid the billions of dollars flowing around the world every day.

To date, we have not been able to determine the origin of the money used for the 9/11 attacks. Al Qaeda had many sources of funding and a pre-9/11 annual budget estimated at $30 million. If a particular source of funds had dried up, al Qaeda could easily have found enough money elsewhere to fund the attack.

An Improvised Homeland Defense
The civilian and military defenders of the nation’s airspace-FAA and NORAD-were unprepared for the attacks launched against them. Given that lack of preparedness, they attempted and failed to improvise an effective homeland defense against an unprecedented challenge.

The events of that morning do not reflect discredit on operational personnel. NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector personnel reached out for information and made the best judgments they could based on the information they received. Individual FAA controllers, facility managers, and command center managers were creative and agile in recommending a nationwide alert, ground-stopping local traffic, ordering all aircraft nationwide to land, and executing that unprecedented order flawlessly.

At more senior levels, communication was poor. Senior military and FAA leaders had no effective communication with each other. The chain of command did not function well. The President could not reach some senior officials. The Secretary of Defense did not enter the chain of command until the morning’s key events were over. Air National Guard units with different rules of engagement were scrambled without the knowledge of the President, NORAD, or the National Military Command Center.

Emergency Response
The civilians, firefighters, police officers, emergency medical technicians, and emergency management professionals exhibited steady determination and resolve under horrifying, overwhelming conditions on 9/11.Their actions saved lives and inspired a nation.

Effective decisionmaking in New York was hampered by problems in command and control and in internal communications. Within the Fire Department of New York, this was true for several reasons: the magnitude of the incident was unforeseen; commanders had difficulty communicating with their units; more units were actually dispatched than were ordered by the chiefs; some units self-dispatched; and once units arrived at the World Trade Center, they were neither comprehensively accounted for nor coordinated. The Port Authority’s response was hampered by the lack both of standard operating procedures and of radios capable of enabling multiple commands to respond to an incident in unified fashion. The New York Police Department, because of its history of mobilizing thousands of officers for major events requiring crowd control, had a technical radio capability and protocols more easily adapted to an incident of the magnitude of 9/11.

Congress
The Congress, like the executive branch, responded slowly to the rise of transnational terrorism as a threat to national security. The legislative branch adjusted little and did not restructure itself to address changing threats. Its attention to terrorism was episodic and splintered across several committees. The Congress gave little guidance to executive branch agencies on terrorism, did not reform them in any significant way to meet the threat, and did not systematically perform robust oversight to identify, address, and attempt to resolve the many problems in national security and domestic agencies that became apparent in the aftermath of 9/11.

So long as oversight is undermined by current congressional rules and resolutions, we believe the American people will not get the security they want and need. The United States needs a strong, stable, and capable congressional committee structure to give America’s national intelligence agencies oversight, support, and leadership.

Are We Safer?
Since 9/11, the United States and its allies have killed or captured a majority of al Qaeda’s leadership; toppled the Taliban, which gave al Qaeda sanctuary in Afghanistan; and severely damaged the organization. Yet terrorist attacks continue. Even as we have thwarted attacks, nearly everyone expects they will come. How can this be?

The problem is that al Qaeda represents an ideological movement, not a finite group of people. It initiates and inspires, even if it no longer directs. In this way it has transformed itself into a decentralized force. Bin Ladin may be limited in his ability to organize major attacks from his hideouts. Yet killing or capturing him, while extremely important, would not end terror. His message of inspiration to a new generation of terrorists would continue.

Because of offensive actions against al Qaeda since 9/11, and defensive actions to improve homeland security, we believe we are safer today. But we are not safe. We therefore make the following recommendations that we believe can make America safer and more secure.

RECOMMENDATIONS

Three years after 9/11, the national debate continues about how to protect our nation in this new era. We divide our recommendations into two basic parts: What to do, and how to do it.

WHAT TO DO? A GLOBAL STRATEGY

The enemy is not just “terrorism.” It is the threat posed specifically by Islamist terrorism, by Bin Ladin and others who draw on a long tradition of extreme intolerance within a minority strain of Islam that does not distinguish politics from religion, and distorts both.

The enemy is not Islam, the great world faith, but a perversion of Islam. The enemy goes beyond al Qaeda to include the radical ideological movement, inspired in part by al Qaeda, that has spawned other terrorist groups and violence. Thus our strategy must match our means to two ends: dismantling the al Qaeda network and, in the long term, prevailing over the ideology that contributes to Islamist terrorism.

The first phase of our post-9/11 efforts rightly included military action to topple the Taliban and pursue al Qaeda. This work continues. But long-term success demands the use of all elements of national power: diplomacy, intelligence, covert action, law enforcement, economic policy, foreign aid, public diplomacy, and homeland defense. If we favor one tool while neglecting others, we leave ourselves vulnerable and weaken our national effort.

What should Americans expect from their government? The goal seems unlimited: Defeat terrorism anywhere in the world. But Americans have also been told to expect the worst: An attack is probably coming; it may be more devastating still.

Vague goals match an amorphous picture of the enemy. Al Qaeda and other groups are popularly described as being all over the world, adaptable, resilient, needing little higher-level organization, and capable of anything. It is an image of an omnipotent hydra of destruction. That image lowers expectations of government effectiveness.

It lowers them too far. Our report shows a determined and capable group of plotters. Yet the group was fragile and occasionally left vulnerable by the marginal, unstable people often attracted to such causes. The enemy made mistakes. The U.S. government was not able to capitalize on them.

No president can promise that a catastrophic attack like that of 9/11 will not happen again. But the American people are entitled to expect that officials will have realistic objectives, clear guidance, and effective organization. They are entitled to see standards for performance so they can judge, with the help of their elected representatives, whether the objectives are being met.

We propose a strategy with three dimensions: (1) attack terrorists and their organizations, (2) prevent the continued growth of Islamist terrorism, and (3) protect against and prepare for terrorist attacks.

Attack Terrorists and Their Organizations

  • Root out sanctuaries.The U.S. government should identify and prioritize actual or potential terrorist sanctuaries and have realistic country or regional strategies for each, utilizing every element of national power and reaching out to countries that can help us.
  • Strengthen long-term U.S. and international commitments to the future of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
  • Confront problems with Saudi Arabia in the open and build a relationship beyond oil, a relationship that both sides can defend to their citizens and includes a shared commitment to reform.

Prevent the Continued Growth of Islamist Terrorism
In October 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asked if enough was being done “to fashion a broad integrated plan to stop the next generation of terrorists.” As part of such a plan, the U.S. government should

  • Define the message and stand as an example of moral leadership in the world. To Muslim parents, terrorists like Bin Ladin have nothing to offer their children but visions of violence and death. America and its friends have the advantage-our vision can offer a better future.
  • Where Muslim governments, even those who are friends, do not offer opportunity, respect the rule of law, or tolerate differences, then the United States needs to stand for a better future.
  • Communicate and defend American ideals in the Islamic world, through much stronger public diplomacy to reach more people, including students and leaders outside of government. Our efforts here should be as strong as they were in combating closed societies during the Cold War.
  • Offer an agenda of opportunity that includes support for public education and economic openness.
  • Develop a comprehensive coalition strategy against Islamist terrorism, using a flexible contact group of leading coalition governments and fashioning a common coalition approach on issues like the treatment of captured terrorists.
  • Devote a maximum effort to the parallel task of countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
  • Expect less from trying to dry up terrorist money and more from following the money for intelligence, as a tool to hunt terrorists, understand their networks, and disrupt their operations.

Protect against and Prepare for Terrorist Attacks

  • Target terrorist travel, an intelligence and security strategy that the 9/11 story showed could be at least as powerful as the effort devoted to terrorist finance.
  • Address problems of screening people with biometric identifiers across agencies and governments, including our border and transportation systems, by designing a comprehensive screening system that addresses common problems and sets common standards. As standards spread, this necessary and ambitious effort could dramatically strengthen the world’s ability to intercept individuals who could pose catastrophic threats.
  • Quickly complete a biometric entry-exit screening system, one that also speeds qualified travelers.
  • Set standards for the issuance of birth certificates and sources of identification, such as driver’s licenses.
  • Develop strategies for neglected parts of our transportation security system. Since 9/11, about 90 percent of the nation’s $5 billion annual investment in transportation security has gone to aviation, to fight the last war.
  • In aviation, prevent arguments about a new computerized profiling system from delaying vital improvements in the “no-fly” and “automatic selectee” lists. Also, give priority to the improvement of checkpoint screening.
  • Determine, with leadership from the President, guidelines for gathering and sharing information in the new security systems that are needed, guidelines that integrate safeguards for privacy and other essential liberties.
  • Underscore that as government power necessarily expands in certain ways, the burden of retaining such powers remains on the executive to demonstrate the value of such powers and ensure adequate supervision of how they are used, including a new board to oversee the implementation of the guidelines needed for gathering and sharing information in these new security systems.
  • Base federal funding for emergency preparedness solely on risks and vulnerabilities, putting New York City and Washington, D.C., at the top of the current list. Such assistance should not remain a program for general revenue sharing or pork-barrel spending.
  • Make homeland security funding contingent on the adoption of an incident command system to strengthen teamwork in a crisis, including a regional approach. Allocate more radio spectrum and improve connectivity for public safety communications, and encourage widespread adoption of newly developed standards for private-sector emergency preparedness-since the private sector controls 85 percent of the nation’s critical infrastructure.

HOW TO DO IT? A DIFFERENT WAY OF ORGANIZING GOVERNMENT

The strategy we have recommended is elaborate, even as presented here very briefly. To implement it will require a government better organized than the one that exists today, with its national security institutions designed half a century ago to win the Cold War. Americans should not settle for incremental, ad hoc adjustments to a system created a generation ago for a world that no longer exists.

Our detailed recommendations are designed to fit together. Their purpose is clear: to build unity of effort across the U.S. government. As one official now serving on the front lines overseas put it to us: “One fight, one team.”

We call for unity of effort in five areas, beginning with unity of effort on the challenge of counterterrorism itself:

  • unifying strategic intelligence and operational planning against Islamist terrorists across the foreign-domestic divide with a National Counterterrorism Center;
  • unifying the intelligence community with a new National Intelligence Director;
  • unifying the many participants in the counterterrorism effort and their knowledge in a network-based information sharing system that transcends traditional governmental boundaries;
  • unifying and strengthening congressional oversight to improve quality and accountability; and
  • strengthening the FBI and homeland defenders.

Unity of Effort: A National Counterterrorism Center
The 9/11 story teaches the value of integrating strategic intelligence from all sources into joint operational planning-with both dimensions spanning the foreign-domestic divide.

  • In some ways, since 9/11, joint work has gotten better. The effort of fighting terrorism has flooded over many of the usual agency boundaries because of its sheer quantity and energy. Attitudes have changed. But the problems of coordination have multiplied. The Defense Department alone has three unified commands (SOCOM, CENTCOM, and NORTHCOM) that deal with terrorism as one of their principal concerns.
  • Much of the public commentary about the 9/11 attacks has focused on “lost opportunities.” Though characterized as problems of “watchlisting,” “information sharing,” or “connecting the dots,” each of these labels is too narrow. They describe the symptoms, not the disease.
  • Breaking the older mold of organization stovepiped purely in executive agencies, we propose a National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) that would borrow the joint, unified command concept adopted in the 1980s by the American military in a civilian agency, combining the joint intelligence function alongside the operations work.
  • The NCTC would build on the existing Terrorist Threat Integration Center and would replace it and other terrorism “fusion centers” within the government. The NCTC would become the authoritative knowledge bank, bringing information to bear on common plans. It should task collection requirements both inside and outside the United States.
  • The NCTC should perform joint operational planning, assigning lead responsibilities to existing agencies and letting them direct the actual execution of the plans.
  • Placed in the Executive Office of the President, headed by a Senate-confirmed official (with rank equal to the deputy head of a cabinet department) who reports to the National Intelligence Director, the NCTC would track implementation of plans. It would be able to influence the leadership and the budgets of the counterterrorism operating arms of the CIA, the FBI, and the departments of Defense and Homeland Security.
  • The NCTC should not be a policymaking body. Its operations and planning should follow the policy direction of the president and the National Security Council.

Unity of Effort: A National Intelligence Director
Since long before 9/11-and continuing to this day-the intelligence community is not organized well for joint intelligence work. It does not employ common standards and practices in reporting intelligence or in training experts overseas and at home. The expensive national capabilities for collecting intelligence have divided management. The structures are too complex and too secret.

  • The community’s head-the Director of Central Intelligence-has at least three jobs: running the CIA, coordinating a 15-agency confederation, and being the intelligence analyst-in-chief to the president. No one person can do all these things.
  • A new National Intelligence Director should be established with two main jobs: (1) to oversee national intelligence centers that combine experts from all the collection disciplines against common targets- like counterterrorism or nuclear proliferation; and (2) to oversee the agencies that contribute to the national intelligence program, a task that includes setting common standards for personnel and information technology.
  • The national intelligence centers would be the unified commands of the intelligence world-a long-overdue reform for intelligence comparable to the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols law that reformed the organization of national defense. The home services-such as the CIA, DIA, NSA, and FBI-would organize, train, and equip the best intelligence professionals in the world, and would handle the execution of intelligence operations in the field.
  • This National Intelligence Director (NID) should be located in the Executive Office of the President and report directly to the president, yet be confirmed by the Senate. In addition to overseeing the National Counterterrorism Center described above (which will include both the national intelligence center for terrorism and the joint operations planning effort), the NID should have three deputies:
    • For foreign intelligence (a deputy who also would be the head of the CIA)
    • For defense intelligence (also the under secretary of defense for intelligence)
    • For homeland intelligence (also the executive assistant director for intelligence at the FBI or the under secretary of homeland security for information analysis and infrastructure protection)
  • The NID should receive a public appropriation for national intelligence, should have authority to hire and fire his or her intelligence deputies, and should be able to set common personnel and information technology policies across the intelligence community.
  • The CIA should concentrate on strengthening the collection capabilities of its clandestine service and the talents of its analysts, building pride in its core expertise.
  • Secrecy stifles oversight, accountability, and information sharing. Unfortunately, all the current organizational incentives encourage overclassification. This balance should change; and as a start, open information should be provided about the overall size of agency intelligence budgets.

Unity of Effort: Sharing Information
The U.S. government has access to a vast amount of information. But it has a weak system for processing and using what it has. The system of “need to know” should be replaced by a system of “need to share.”

  • The President should lead a government-wide effort to bring the major national security institutions into the information revolution, turning a mainframe system into a decentralized network. The obstacles are not technological. Official after official has urged us to call attention to problems with the unglamorous “back office” side of government operations.
  • But no agency can solve the problems on its own-to build the network requires an effort that transcends old divides, solving common legal and policy issues in ways that can help officials know what they can and cannot do. Again, in tackling information issues, America needs unity of effort.

Unity of Effort: Congress Congress took too little action to adjust itself or to restructure the executive branch to address the emerging terrorist threat. Congressional oversight for intelligence-and counterterrorism-is dysfunctional. Both Congress and the executive need to do more to minimize national security risks during transitions between administrations.

  • For intelligence oversight, we propose two options: either a joint committee on the old model of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy or a single committee in each house combining authorizing and appropriating committees. Our central message is the same: the intelligence committees cannot carry out their oversight function unless they are made stronger, and thereby have both clear responsibility and accountability for that oversight.
  • Congress should create a single, principal point of oversight and review for homeland security. There should be one permanent standing committee for homeland security in each chamber.
  • We propose reforms to speed up the nomination, financial reporting, security clearance, and confirmation process for national security officials at the start of an administration, and suggest steps to make sure that incoming administrations have the information they need.

Unity of Effort: Organizing America’s Defenses in the United States
We have considered several proposals relating to the future of the domestic intelligence and counterterrorism mission. Adding a new domestic intelligence agency will not solve America’s problems in collecting and analyzing intelligence within the United States. We do not recommend creating one.

  • We propose the establishment of a specialized and integrated national security workforce at the FBI, consisting of agents, analysts, linguists, and surveillance specialists who are recruited, trained, rewarded, and retained to ensure the development of an institutional culture imbued with a deep expertise in intelligence and national security.At several points we asked: Who has the responsibility for defending us at home? Responsibility for America’s national defense is shared by the Department of Defense, with its new Northern Command, and by the Department of Homeland Security.They must have a clear delineation of roles, missions, and authority.
  • The Department of Defense and its oversight committees should regularly assess the adequacy of Northern Command’s strategies and planning to defend against military threats to the homeland.
  • The Department of Homeland Security and its oversight committees should regularly assess the types of threats the country faces, in order to determine the adequacy of the government’s plans and the readiness of the government to respond to those threats.

* * *

We call on the American people to remember how we all felt on 9/11, to remember not only the unspeakable horror but how we came together as a nation-one nation. Unity of purpose and unity of effort are the way we will defeat this enemy and make America safer for our children and grandchildren.

We look forward to a national debate on the merits of what we have recommended, and we will participate vigorously in that debate.

How U.S. Intelligence Misjudged the Growing Threat Behind 9/11

Among the missteps: lack of intel-sharing between agencies, tepid responses to earlier attacks and a failure to grasp the magnitude of the terrorists’ ambitions.

For most Americans (and those around the world), the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 came as a shock. But for American and international investigators, warning signs of the attack had been brewing for more than a decade. Below, several key seeds that bore fruit on 9/11:

The Soviet-Afghan war laid the table for later conflicts.

In the 1980s, future al-Qaeda leaders including Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and others joined in Afghanistan’s war against the Soviet Union, an experience that helped radicalize them in the decade that followed.

When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, they were fiercely resisted by Afghan fighters known as mujahideen, who declared a holy war, or “jihad,” against the Soviets, whom they considered infidels. The mujahideen quickly gained support from other parts of the Islamic world, with thousands flocking to Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight in or support the Afghan resistance. Among those supporters: bin Laden and other future leaders of extremist groups. The logistical and tactical lessons—and the relationships formed amongst these Muslim resistance leaders—had lasting consequences.

In the early 1990s, a fundamentalist Islamic group known as the Taliban, comprised primarily of former mujahideen, rose to power in post-war Afghanistan. They took over the country in 1996, establishing a harsh, repressive regime that provided support and protection for bin Laden, who returned to the country with other extremists and soon founded al-Qaeda.

A post-WWI treaty angered bin Laden.

Al-Qaeda was created, in part, to globalize the fight between fundamentalist Islam and the Western world. To that end, its leaders leveraged new communications technologies of the ’90s—satellite cable stations and the world wide web—to spread their jihadist messages to the wider Muslim world and attract converts to their cause.

Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups also looked to avenge what they considered decades of mistreatment of Arab nations at the hands of the West. Bin Laden and others specifically made reference to the Sykes-Picot Treaty of 1916, a secret negotiation during World War I that carved up the Ottoman Empire and created new Arab states in the Middle East. Its intention: to deny these states self-rule and keep them under British and French control, or influence.

Osama bin Laden, leader of the terrorist group al-Qaeda, explaining why he has declared a 'jihad' or holy war against the United States on August 20, 1998 from a cave hideout somewhere in Afghanistan.
Osama bin Laden, leader of the terrorist group al-Qaeda, explaining why he has declared a ‘jihad’ or holy war against the United States on August 20, 1998 from a cave hideout somewhere in Afghanistan.CNN/Getty Images

“What America is tasting now is something insignificant compared to what we have tasted for scores of years,” said bin Laden in one of his first addresses after 9/11. “The Islamic world has been tasting this humiliation and this degradation for 80 years.” The Sykes-Picot agreement, Peter Bergen wrote in Prospect Magazine, had “the same resonance [for bin Laden] that the 1919 treaty of Versailles did for Hitler. It must be avenged and reversed.”

For bin Laden, a prime example of this “humiliation” was the presence of American and coalition troops in Saudi Arabia (home to some of Islam’s holiest sites) during the 1991 Persian Gulf War against then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. He used it as one of the pretexts for his declaration of jihad against the United States.

As Islamic nations fought among themselves, bin Laden wanted the U.S. out of the fray.

Bin Laden and others were also highly critical of their home countries, whose authoritarian regimes had brutally cracked down on dissenting voices. Their plans for jihad included toppling these regimes, which they considered apostates who had abandoned their Muslim principles.

Bin Laden believed that fighting the “far enemy” of the United States would force the superpower to withdraw from the Middle East entirely, allowing extremists like al-Qaeda to take control from the “near enemies,” including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Muslim nations. “War with the United States was not a goal in and of itself, but rather an instrument designed to help his brand of extremist Islam survive and flourish among the believers,” wrote Michael Scott Doran in a 2002 issue of Foreign Affairs. “Americans, in short, have been drawn into somebody else’s civil war.”

New York Police Department Bomb Squad inspects the crater caused a terrorist's truck bomb at the World Trade Center on February 26, 1993.
New York Police Department Bomb Squad inspects the crater caused a terrorist’s truck bomb at the World Trade Center on February 26, 1993.Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images

American intelligence agencies were slow to connect the dots—and realize the threat.

The first jihadist attack on U.S. soil, the February 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, killed six people and injured more than 1,000. Authorities arrested several Islamic terrorists soon after, but the mastermind, Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, wasn’t apprehended until two years later, when investigators discovered evidence of even more terrorist plots—including a planned assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II and the bombing of American airliners. The plotters also had ties to Omar Abdel Rahman, an Egyptian extremist known as the “Blind Sheik,” who was later convicted of plots to destroy several New York City landmarks.

Throughout the 1990s, bin Laden, Sheikh Mohammad and others funded and set up terrorist-training centers in the Middle East and Africa, as well as cells to train recruits in Western cities like Hamburg, Germany. But it wasn’t until 1996 that the CIA set up a unit, known as “Alec Station,” to track bin Laden. That same year, bin Laden declared a jihad against the United States; the following year, in his first interview with a Western TV journalist (CNN’s Peter Arnett), he articulated al-Qaeda’s plans against America.

It wasn’t until after the bombing of two U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998, which killed more than 200 people, that American investigators began to suspect that Yousef and others had ties to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. In fact, Yousef’s uncle was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a high-ranking al-Qaeda member, and the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, plans for which were already underway.

Photos of suspected 9/11 hijackers of American Airlines flight #11, United Airlines flight #93, American Airlines flight #77 and United Airlines flight #175.
Photos of suspected 9/11 hijackers of American Airlines flight #11, United Airlines flight #93, American Airlines flight #77 and United Airlines flight #175.FBI/Getty Images

The CIA had numerous chances—but blew them.

In the 1990s, law-enforcement agencies had multiple opportunities to stop the plot, but failed—because of a lack of coordinated intelligence-sharing, bureaucratic infighting and a failure to grasp the sheer scope of the threat at hand. “I think the resources the country mustered to prevent al-Qaeda terrorism were not proportionate to the scale of the threat,” said Steve Coll, author of Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden. “That was a problem that did cross into the first nine months of the Bush administration but germinated mostly during the Clinton administration.”

Some in the intelligence community didn’t believe that Arab extremists were coordinated enough to work together to plot large-scale attacks, despite having worked together in Afghanistan to force Soviet withdrawal. Even as al-Qaeda’s attacks grew in scope, agencies were reluctant to fully accept that the group diverged from previous terrorists in that they were willing to kill civilians on a large scale.

Even the investigators who could see the outlines of a bigger conspiracy had little support from highest levels, and didn’t receive the time, funding and support they needed for full investigations. And when the United States did launch retaliatory attacks on al-Qaeda (including after the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000), they were limited enough in scope that bin Laden and others felt emboldened to move forward with 9/11 plans.

As Coll says, “They got lucky. If the scale of this attack had been prevented—even if the hijackings had been limited to a single one—it would not have changed the course of American history the way September 11 did… That turned out to be their highest military achievement. If it had been prevented, history might have turned in a different way.”

All the Ways America Failed to Stop the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks

These are some of the most studied days in American history, and some of the saddest. From President George W. Bush receiving his first warning on August 6 until that Tuesday of September 11, 19 Middle Eastern men methodically moved forward towards implementing their diabolical plot: unmolested by any authorities, undetected by either intelligence agencies or airlines.

U.S. intelligence knew that something was coming—something big—but it was anything but methodical. Despite countless signs that some terrorist planning and preparations involved large commercial airliners, the CIA was never able to put the pieces together. But more important, neither the CIA nor the FBI (nor other agencies) effectively used the tools that were at their disposal. There was no nationwide manhunt, no definitive warning to airlines or airport security. The federal government moved forward—oblivious, lackadaisical, even incompetent—with leaders mostly on vacation and workers never able to assemble the mosaic.

After 9/11, there was finger-pointing at President Bush and the White House, between the previous Bill Clinton and the Bush administration, at the CIA, NSA, FBI and even at the Pentagon for missing things and for not focusing. America came to know about “actionable intelligence” and “the wall” and “connecting the dots”; the public was told repeatedly that the laws of the United States, and the civil rights that all Americans enjoyed, were to blame for the attacks. What followed was the largest reorganization of the government since World War II, vast new domestic intelligence authorities, and an endless war. The government justified warrantless surveillance, secret prisons and torture by asserting that the rules as they then existed did not allow for effective counter-terrorism.

Over the next 37 days, Newsweek will reconstruct the road to 9/11 as it was constructed 20 years ago, day by day.

The record of the days leading up to those fateful hours clarifies how much of what followed 9/11 was avoidable. The panicked overreactions and compounding of errors were rooted in a belief—that more attacks and even the use of weapons of mass destruction were ahead—that was itself based on bad intelligence and the inability of the government to see a big picture.

“I don’t think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center,” Condoleezza Rice famously said after the attacks. But in the month and six days preceding the attacks, just such a scenario was being discussed within the FBI. The arrest of Minneapolis-based Zacarias Moussaoui on August 16, a man who was trying to learn how to fly Boeing 747’s and whom the FBI concluded was a radical Muslim, alarmed the intelligence community and the FAA—but prompted no airline or public warnings. No laws or policies stood in the way of searching Moussaoui’s computer and belongings: the FBI simply chose not to pursue a criminal search warrant. And while various offices within the FBI fought with each other about what to do, no one outside the Bureau ever stood in their way. They just failed.

At the CIA, old intelligence was finally read in August. For over a year, the Agency possessed intelligence reports that two individuals, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, “known” to be al Qaeda operatives, were in the United States and had been since January 2000. One of those individuals had even flown to the Middle East and returned to New York on July 4th. The two men were belatedly watch-listed from entering again (they were already in America) and notifications went out to the FBI Field Office in Los Angeles to look for the men, with agents there checking computer databases and some hotel registers but doing little more. But the CIA failed to analyze the very intelligence it possessed: that the two had been to Malaysia before they came to the U.S. and had stayed with a man who was Moussaoui’s erstwhile employer in the United States. And Moussaoui got his money from one Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, who was also a former roommate of Mohammed Atta and the link between the main 9/11 hijackers and al Qaeda central. In other words, the “dots” were in their possession but the CIA never made the connection.

At the NSA, various communications intercepts were also picked up—their own and those of allied agencies—that indicated general plotting and specific warnings of some imminent act. But the NSA didn’t translate the intercepts before 9/11. They weren’t focused. Collection of “more” was prioritized over collection of what was needed.

After 9/11, the most astounding, tragic error of all emerged, one that is still not fully understood today. It wasn’t until high-level al Qaeda leaders were captured in 2002 that the intelligence community found out that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) was the mastermind of the airplanes operations. Intelligence had come in during these final days identifying someone known was “Mukhtar” (the brain) and another man named Abdulrahman al-Ghamdi were recruiting and sending terrorists to America to learn flight training. Both names were aliases for KSM. And the very same KSM—whom the intelligence community said they’d never heard of—had been indicted in 1996 by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York for his involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center attack and a plot to hijack and use airplanes as weapons. He had been watch-listed and was even the subject of an unsuccessful kidnapping by FBI and CIA operatives. But then the intelligence community seemed to forget his existence. They never followed up.

There were other giant failures. Tens of thousands of dollars flowed to the hijackers in the United States, and the Department of the Treasury didn’t notice (they had every authority and mandate to do so). There was the infamous “Phoenix Memo” written by an insightful FBI agent in July, warning that Middle Eastern men were taking flight lessons in the United States. And other pieces of the puzzle—that Moussaoui was connected to Bin al-Shibh of Hamburg cell fame (which meant he was connected to the pilots present in the United States), that Moussaoui was connected to the California duo, that KSM was the mastermind—existed in the U.S. intelligence and law enforcement communities but was never understood. The CIA, the FBI and the rest of the intelligence community just failed to do their jobs. The White House failed to focus and heed the signs. The FAA failed to issue sufficient warning, and dozens of airline and security employees failed to do their jobs on the morning of September 11th when 19 men—some with questionable documentation and at least one who couldn’t even speak enough English to answer security questions—boarded airplanes and turned that sunny Tuesday into one of America’s darkest days.

Were the 9/11 Attacks Preventable?

It has now been twenty years since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 plunged the nation into shock, consternation, grief, and fear. Amid the despair over the loss of nearly three thousand lives and the anxieties about further strikes, many questions arose over how such a devastating blow on American soil could have happened. The most important of them was also the most elusive: were the attacks preventable? After two decades of investigation, the answer remains an equivocal “perhaps.”

Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were well aware that the Islamist militant Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network posed a serious threat to American interests and lives. Clinton compared him to the wealthy, ruthless villains in James Bond movies. To combat the dangers that Al Qaeda created, he and his advisers considered a wide range of military and diplomatic options that ranged from kidnapping bin Laden to U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan. But the use of cruise missiles against Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan in 1998 produced acutely disappointing results. Other military alternatives seemed too risky or too likely to fail and diplomatic initiatives proved fruitless.

During the transition after the 2000 presidential election, Clinton and other national security officials delivered stark warnings to the incoming Bush administration that bin Laden and his network were a “tremendous threat.” The immediacy of the problem was heightened by Al Qaeda’s bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in the harbor of Aden, Yemen in October 2000, which caused massive damage to the ship and claimed the lives of 17 crew members. Clinton and his advisers strongly recommended prompt consideration of the options they had weighed.

Bush and high-level national security officials were not greatly impressed. They regarded terrorism as an important but not top-priority problem. The president later revealed that he did not feel a “sense of urgency” about bin Laden and that his “blood was not . . . boiling.”

The Bush administration viewed Clinton’s campaign against Al Qaeda as weak and ineffective, and it was dismissive of the advice it received. Rather than drawing on the experiences of its predecessor, it embarked on the preparation of a “more comprehensive approach” that National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice believed would be more successful. During the spring and summer of 2001, it worked at an unhurried pace, even in the face of dire warnings from the U.S. intelligence community that Al Qaeda was planning attacks that could be “spectacular” and “inflict mass casualties,” perhaps in the continental United States.

Eight months after he took office, Bush’s White House completed its comprehensive plan to combat Al Qaeda. The steps it included in the form of a National Security Presidential Directive (NSPD) were strikingly similar to the options the administration had inherited from Clinton. The final draft of the NSPD called for greater assistance to anti-Taliban groups in Afghanistan, diplomatic pressure on the Taliban to stop providing bin Laden safe haven, enhanced covert activities in Afghanistan, budget increases for counterterrorism, and as a last resort, direct military intervention by the United States. This proposal was little different in its essentials than what the Clinton administration had outlined, and it offered no novel suggestions on how to carry out its objectives more successfully. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage later commented that there was “stunning continuity” in the approaches of the two administrations.

The NSPD landed on Bush’s desk for signature on September 10, 2001.

The troubling question that arises is: could the calamities that occurred the following day have been prevented if the NSPD had been approved and issued earlier? There is no way of answering this question definitively; it is unavoidably counterfactual. Yet it needs to be considered. The 9/11 plot was not so foolproof that it could not have been foiled by greater anticipation and modest defensive measures.

The threat that Al Qaeda presented was well known in general terms within the national security apparatus of the federal government, even if specific information about possible attacks was missing. But responsible officials and agencies did not do enough to confront the problem. A presidential statement like the NSPD of September 10, if distributed sooner, could have called attention to the dangers of potential terrorists present in the United States. The CIA and the FBI failed to track the whereabouts or investigate the activities of two known Al Qaeda operatives who lived openly in California for about 20 months, took flying lessons, and participated in the hijackings on 9/11.

On July 5, 2001, high-level officials from seven agencies received a briefing from the National Security Council’s National Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Richard A. Clarke. He cited the dangers that Al Qaeda presented and the possibility that it “might try to hit us at home.” The agencies responsible for homeland security did not react in meaningful ways to the warning, largely because a terrorist strike seemed far less likely in the territorial United States than abroad. Perhaps an earlier NSPD, armed with the weight of presidential authority, would have sharpened the focus on the risks of a terrorist plot within America and galvanized security officials and agencies into effective action. Perhaps, for example, the Federal Aviation Administration would have tightened airline boarding procedures or made terrorists’ access to cockpits more difficult. The FBI instructed its field offices to make certain they were ready to collect evidence in the event of a terrorist assault, but it did not order them to take any special steps to prevent an attack from occurring.

Even if the “what-if” queries surrounding the failures that allowed 9/11 to happen cannot be answered, we can agree with Condoleezza Rice’s heartfelt admission in her memoirs: “I did everything I could. I was convinced of that intellectually. But, given the severity of what occurred, I clearly hadn’t done enough.” Earlier adoption of the NSPD might not have made a difference. But the haunting thought remains that it might have spared America the agony of 9/11.

9/11: Three Major Mistakes

John Rizzo was the CIA’s chief legal officer for six-and-a-half of the first eight years following the 9/11 attacks. He is writing this on the cusp of the tenth anniversary of those attacks, now retired from the Agency for nearly two years after a total of 34 years of service as a CIA lawyer. In the decade that has passed since that ghastly sunny September morning, our country—and the CIA—has become a much different place. Having reflected on all the counterterrorist operations that the Agency has conducted in those years, and on all the controversies and frequent opprobrium it has weathered for some of those actions, he believes there are a number of lessons that we in CIA learned in the course of that unprecedented period of our history.


Regrettably, the lessons are mostly painful, as valuable lessons usually are. Certainly, some are personally painful to him, since they were mistakes and misjudgments CIA made in which he played a role. Nonetheless, he summarizes a few of them here in a necessarily brief (and incomplete) list to offer an assessment of what the post-9/11 years taught at least one grizzled Agency lifer.

ONE: KEEP CONGRESS INFORMED. EIGHT WAS NOT ENOUGH.

A few days after the attacks, President Bush signed a top-secret directive to CIA authorizing an unprecedented array of covert actions against Al Qaeda and its leadership. Like almost every such authorization issued by presidents over the previous quarter-century, this one was provided to the intelligence committees of the House and Senate as well as the defense subcommittees of the House and Senate appropriations committees. However, the White House directed that details about the most ambitious, sensitive and potentially explosive new program authorized by the President—the capture, incommunicado detention and aggressive interrogation of senior Al Qaeda operatives—could only be shared with the leaders of the House and Senate, plus the chair and ranking member of the two intelligence committees.

As always, CIA dutifully followed White House orders, so for the next five years we only told those select members—euphemistically dubbed the “Gang of 8″—about the program as it developed and expanded. Only they were briefed on CIA’s secret detention facilities overseas and the employment of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs), including the waterboarding of high-value detainees like Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheik Mohammad.

While used only rarely in the past, the “Gang of 8” notification process is explicitly authorized in the congressional oversight provisions of the National Security Act for covert actions of “extraordinary” sensitivity. It was an entirely lawful way to proceed to notify Congress about the EIT program. Yet he is convinced it proved to have disastrous consequences for CIA.

These lessons are personally painful to him. There were mistakes and misjudgments CIA made in which he played a role.

For one thing, such notifications are only really suitable for surgical, discrete, “one-off” actions; the May 2011 raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound is a perfect example. The detention and interrogation program, by contrast, was complex, costly, and open-ended in duration, evolving into an ever more treacherous legal and political terrain for the Agency to navigate. From its beginning, what CIA needed above all from Congress was stalwart, bipartisan cover—for their understanding and acquiescence that the continuing Al Qaeda threat required unprecedented measures. They needed it for the time down the road from 9/11 when, absent a second catastrophic attack, the political winds inevitably would change once the initial shock, horror, and outrage about what happened that day abated.

They were naïve in believing that the “Gang of 8” would play that role. There is no way to expect that from a handful of politicians being made to listen some very dicey and chilling information in sporadic, off-the-record sessions. Sure enough, as time went by and controversy over leaked details about the program grew, the only cover they provided was for themselves. In the earliest days of his Administration, President Obama rescinded and publicly repudiated the Agency’s detention and interrogation program, and for good measure declassified virtually every detail of the program.

Shortly thereafter, almost seven years after CIA first informed her about its employment of waterboarding and the other EITs, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, stood before the cameras and claimed that all CIA ever told her was that waterboarding was being “considered” as an interrogation tactic, not that it would be ever employed. Confronted with evidence to the contrary, the Speaker subsequently conceded that she had been informed about EITs from the outset but insisted she was always opposed to them but powerless to do anything to stop them. None of which was true, but in hindsight the Speaker’s moonwalk was hardly unforeseeable.

Meanwhile, other than the chair and ranking member, the two intelligence committees would be kept in the dark for the first five years of the program, as was every other member of Congress. In effect, they were given a pass on any oversight and responsibility for the program, as the attacks about what the Agency was doing escalated in the media. And to what end, all this extraordinary secrecy? Over those five years, many of the details about the program were leaking out, drip by drip, from elsewhere in the Government.

Things falling through the cracks: something he saw happen far too often in my long Agency career.

Restricting Congress’ knowledge about the detention and interrogation program was foolish and feckless. It was a White House decision, but those in the senior ranks of the Agency—the ones who bore the brunt of that decision—should have pushed back earlier and harder than we did. We should have insisted from the outset that, as a minimum, all the members of the intelligence committees (and senior staffers too) be apprised of all the details all along the way, on the record and with a transcriber present. To allow the committees—compel them, really—to take a stand on the merits to either endorse the program or stop it in its tracks.

Instead, they let Congress off the hook.

TWO: WHEN A SENSITIVE OPERATION GOES AWRY, CONFESS ERROR RIGHT AWAY. BETTER TO BE ACCUSED OF A SCREW-UP THAN A COVER-UP

In 2002, CIA videotaped the interrogation of the first captured Al Qaeda terrorist to be water-boarded. It was lawfully conducted, but the tapes were graphic and hard to watch. Almost immediately, those in CIA who made the tapes wanted to destroy them, fearing the faces of the interrogators on the tapes would put them in danger if and when they were ever made public. He, and two successive CIA directors, rejected the idea for three years until November 2005, when the head of CIA’s clandestine service, defying orders, went behind his back and destroyed them. That was bad enough, but what the Agency failed to do next made things infinitely worse.

While they had informed the intelligence committee leadership in early 2003 of the tapes’ existence, they did not tell them on a timely basis about their unauthorized destruction. It was not their intent to hide that fact; it was simply a communications breakdown inside CIA in which then-Director Porter Goss neglected to inform the leadership as they agreed he would do the day they learned about the destruction. To this day he is convinced it was an unintentional oversight on his part, and he blames himself for not following up to make sure they had informed the Hill. The whole thing had just fallen through the cracks, something he saw happen far too often in his long Agency career.

Flash forward two years later, to December 2007. Nothing stays secret in CIA forever, and certainly nothing so explosive as the unauthorized destruction of videotapes of CIA waterboarding somebody. The New York Times unearthed the entire mess and ran a series of breathless page one stories. The intelligence committees predictably went ballistic, as they always do when they first find out about an intelligence fiasco via the media. In the ensuing pandemonium, He was hauled before Congress for a four-hour grilling. Far worse, a three-year Federal criminal investigation was launched, sapping CIA resources and morale.

Confessing to error may sting, but being accused of hiding their mistakes is far more painful and damaging.

Ultimately, the various investigations would find no evidence of a cover-up, but rather that the whole thing was one monumental screw-up. But the damage to the Agency was done, and it was all self-inflicted. We should have made damn sure that the intelligence committees’ leadership—if not the full committees—they were told about the destruction as soon as it happened. To take whatever lumps they deserved (and they clearly deserved some) then and there. They should have done the same thing with judges presiding over then-pending court cases potentially implicating the tapes, even if they weren’t obligated to do so as a technical legal matter. In short, they should have told everyone in all three branches in the Government who had even an arguable need to know.

In the intelligence world, confessing to error may sting, but being accused of hiding their mistakes is far more painful and lasting.

THREE: CIA PLACED TOO MUCH EMPHASIS ON THE ENHANCED INTERROGATION PROGRAM

On its face, this lesson would appear counterintuitive. The EITs, with their introduction of the term “waterboarding” into the national lexicon, furnished much of the oxygen firing the controversies of the post 9/11 years. And yet, to the extent that CIA personnel were involved in unsanctioned treatment of prisoners in those years—and those cases were few and far between—almost none of them involved prisoners who were subjected to EITs. Looking back, he has concluded that was because they devoted so much attention to that program and were so scrupulous about using our most highly trained and experienced officers in that effort. What’s more, there were always medical personnel, and frequently CIA lawyers, on the scene monitoring the EITs to ensure they stayed within carefully prescribed standards approved in writing by the Justice Department.

But at the same time, and particularly in the first few years after 9/11, CIA officers took part in numerous other interrogations of Al Qaeda captives, none significant enough to meet the criteria for EITs. These relatively low-level captures tended to be ad hoc, unforeseen and generally under the radar of those of us in CIA headquarters. Our officers in the field, many of whom were newly arrived on the scene and thrust into the breach with little counterterrorist experience, were frequently left to their own devices in dealing with their captives. Under tremendous stress and in often isolated, dangerous areas, most performed professionally and valiantly.

But every once in a while, there were apparent excesses in their treatment of their prisoners. Back at Langley, consumed by our focus on capturing the biggest Al Qaeda quarry and on overseeing the EIT program, our attentions were largely turned elsewhere. That, he has come to believe, was a mistake. An understandable, inevitable mistake perhaps, but a mistake nonetheless.

They should have recognized that all CIA counterterrorist prisoners carry risks, as well as rewards, and approached all of them accordingly.


As he indicated at the beginning of this piece, his list here is necessarily truncated. There are plenty of other lessons he learned, and with more space he could talk about them. For instance, stalking and killing a big-name terrorist evidently is less legally risky, and is viewed in many quarters as far less morally objectionable than capturing and aggressively interrogating one. Or that trying to create from scratch a new framework of military tribunals to prosecute accused terrorists has proven to be a well-intentioned but utterly failed exercise. It is a travesty and disgrace that, 10 years after 9/11, there has yet to be a trial, much less a conviction, of any Al Qaeda figure in custody with 9/11 blood on his hands.

But he will end on a different note. A decade after 9/11, there has not been another successful Al Qaeda attack on the homeland. And Osama Bin Laden has met his just desserts. All in all, not a bad bottom-line for CIA and the rest of the U.S. intelligence community.

What more is there to say about 9/11 on its 20th anniversary? TV specials grapple with that very issue.

On Sept. 11, 2001, a high school government teacher, trying to make sense of the attacks for himself as much as he was for us, made a pronouncement she couldn’t understand at the time: We’d be talking about and living with the ramifications of the day’s events for the next 20 years.

The dozens of late August and early September TV specials memorializing the 20th anniversary of 9/11 have proved Mr. McCollaum more than right. The difficult question to grapple with now is how to remember and reflect upon an event that transformed the United States, arguably far more than it should have. Each of the makers of 9/11 programming have had to answer that for themselves, and their disparate tacks reveal the competing impulses with which to observe the nearly 3,000 people killed on that day, the wars launched in their name, and the fears and resilience that have defined the country ever since.

The fall of the twin towers was a uniquely televised tragedy; their site in Manhattan, the country’s media capital, helped create seemingly endless amounts of footage of the destruction. Along with, of course, the staggering death count there, the mass circulation of those unreal, movie-like images of the World Trade Center — planes plowing into buildings, skyscrapers collapsing and victims jumping to their deaths — cemented 9/11 in the national imagination as an exclusively New York event, an overshadowing of the Pentagon crash and Shanksville deaths rarely challenged by TV memorials.

The most honest and exhaustive retrospective is “Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror” (Netflix), which, encouragingly, enjoys a place in the streaming site’s Top 10 carousel at the time of writing. If you have the time or energy for only one TV commemoration, make it this one. Directed by Brian Knappenberger, the five-part docuseries foregrounds an unfortunate facet of 9/11 remembrance: For the country at large, that date can’t be extricated from the disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the justifications of torture by the George W. Bush administration, and the subsequent increase in surveillance and Islamophobia within the United States.

Without partisan or ideological bias, “Turning Point” provides an opportunity to look back at the blunders in the “war on terror” (especially the lead-up to the Iraq War), the atrocities at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, and the delusions of the Rumsfeld and Bush doctrines to make strange and outrageous once again what we’ve come to accept as normal — all while paying respect to the dead and the first responders who sacrificed their lives and their health. That de-normalizing lens, fortified by perspectives from Afghans, provides an invaluable service, recalling many of the Bush White House’s human rights scandals while reminding us that none of them were preordained. Though occasionally dry, the docuseries’ sober tone also makes for a welcome refuge from the sea of maudlin or faux-suspenseful 9/11 content elsewhere.

Just as critical but more domestically focused is the “Frontline” installment “America After 9/11”. Whereas the telos of “Turning Point” is the American departure from Afghanistan, “America After 9/11” provocatively draws a straight line from Sept. 11 to Jan. 6, calling this year’s insurrection “the logical endpoint of the 9/11 era.” Director Michael Kirk’s argument — somewhat spicy for public television — focuses on the leadership failures of the past two decades that have resulted in civic division and distrust. It’s particularly compelling in laying out the lies that got us into Iraq — a theater under-discussed in 9/11 analyses but key to Kirk’s assertions of Americans’ increasing cynicism toward the government and mainstream media since the early 2000s.

“America After 9/11” sees that cynicism as a justified reaction to the war on terror, which saw the United States lose credibility (where it had it) as a legal and moral force around the world. Emma Sky, an adviser to the military, sums up much of the episode when she says of 9/11, “The U.S. response to that event included invading Iraq and Afghanistan, holding people without due process, torturing detainees in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay, kidnapping suspects in one country and transporting them to another, and assassinating people in countries where the U.S. wasn’t even at war. In this obsessive hunt to eradicate terrorists, [the U.S.] undermined the very rules-based international order that it had set up and led for 70 years.”

Kirk’s argument feels necessarily incomplete; the disaffection of the past 20 years has many more roots than the war on terror, as corrosive as that was and is to Americans’ loss of faith in their institutions. But it’s a worthwhile revisit of the sundry moments that eroded not just Americans’ belief in government, but the very idea of unity itself. And if you down “America After 9/11” and find yourself wanting more despairing examples of government overreach, there’s also “Frontline’s” “In the Shadow of 9/11”  by “Leaving Neverland” director Dan Reed, who profiles a group of Black men in Miami whose lives were destroyed by an FBI anti-terrorism investigation, despite the men’s utter lack of connection to al-Qaeda.

Spike Lee’s “NYC Epicenters 9/112021½” on HBO (the final episode of which airs Sept. 11) isn’t so interested in unity, either — he repeatedly refers to Donald Trump as “President Agent Orange” — but the legendary auteur is certainly interested in people. As the New Yorker’s Doreen St. Félix has noted, New York is the Brooklyn native’s muse, and with his four-part, nearly eight-hour documentary, for which he interviewed more than 200 people, Lee achieves a lively and bumpy human texture missing in so many other 9/11 memorials.

Only the second half of “NYC Epicenters” is dedicated to the World Trade Center attacks; the first half deals with crises created by the coronavirus pandemic and Trump’s hatemongering. (Ample time is given to Charlottesville, the separation of children from parents at the border and the spate of anti-Asian attacks across the country.) Last month, Lee caught flak for including interviews with 9/11 conspiracy theorists and has since excised those segments from the final chapter, though a brief discussion about the possibility that United 93 was shot down by the government remains in the penultimate one.

Still, there’s a lot to like about this stylish and personal portrait of New York’s heart and vigor, which includes interviews with Lee’s children, as well as friends and collaborators such as Steve Buscemi, Rosie Perez, Jon Stewart, Jeffrey Wright and Busta Rhymes. (Lee also brings up the Knicks. A lot.) There’s a genuine curiosity and spirited engagement in his interviews with his fellow New Yorkers, whether in spotlighting the under told stories of maritime evacuations from Lower Manhattan after the twin towers’ collapse or the renewed anger at the assurances immediately following the attacks that the air around the wreckage was safe to breathe. There’s as much of Lee as there is of his subjects in “NYC Epicenters,” but the authorial presence adds to the miniseries’ intimacy and sense of transparency.

That intimacy is strangely lacking in “9/11: The Legacy” (History Channel, airing Sept. 10), a too-superficial overview of children whose lives have been impacted by the attacks. And it’s also missing in “9/11: One Day in America” (National Geographic, available now), a seven-hour docuseries made in partnership with the National September 11 Memorial Museum that relays, in occasionally gruesome detail, the post-apocalyptic sights witnessed by survivors and heroic first responders.

The country’s law enforcement and national security agencies came under heavy fire after 9/11, which may be why specials like “Race Against Time: The CIA and 9/11” (CBS, airing Sept. 10) and “The 26th Street Garage: The FBI’S Untold Story” (Paramount Plus, airing Sept. 9)attempt to revise those agencies’ reputations where it concerns their anti-terrorism efforts.

But the most prominent forum for whitewashing one’s post-9/11 image is “9/11: Inside the President’s War Room” (Apple TV Plus, available now), which includes new interviews with George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Ari Fleischer, Karl Rove and other staples of the administration, as well as never-before-seen photos. Focusing tightly on the first 12 hours after the attacks, the 90-minute documentary, from British filmmaker Adam Wishart, offers Bush a chance to push back on the perceptions of his incompetence on Sept. 11, with little to no pushback from the director.

Perhaps for a presidential biographer, there’s something to be gleaned from minute details like the outdated furniture in Cheney’s bunker or Bush’s desire to have one of his first televised responses to 9/11 set in the Oval Office. Narrated by an intoning Jeff Daniels, “Inside the President’s War Room” certainly captures the chaos and confusion in the hours after the first plane hit North Tower, as various agencies scramble to figure out the scope of the attacks.

But the documentary allows Bush to wax on at length about what leadership amid crisis means to him, without having to answer for Afghanistan, Iraq, torture or the countless disastrous policies and avoidable deaths under his watch. But 20 years later, those topics, like the ongoing war on terror, are the open sores that we need to continue to address, lest we forget.

Global war on terror: Enormous and avoidable price of 9/11

The September 11, 2001, terror attacks by Al Qaeda were meant to harm the US, and they did, but in ways that Osama bin Laden probably never imagined. President George W Bush’s response to the attacks compromised US’ basic principles, undermined its economy and weakened its security.

The attack on Afghanistan that followed the 9/11 attacks was understandable, but the subsequent invasion of Iraq was entirely unconnected to Al Qaeda – as much as Bush tried to establish a link. That war of choice quickly became very expensive – orders of magnitude beyond the $60 billion claimed at the beginning – as colossal incompetence met dishonest misrepresentation.

Indeed, when Linda Bilmes and I calculated US’ war costs three years ago, the conservative tally was $3-5 trillion. Since then, the costs have mounted further. With almost 50% of returning troops eligible to receive some level of disability payment, and more than 6,00,000 treated so far in veterans’ medical facilities, we now estimate that future disability payments and healthcare costs will total $600-900 billion. But the social costs – reflected in veteran suicides, which have topped 18 per day in recent years, and family break-ups – are incalculable.

Even if Bush could be forgiven for taking the US, and much of the rest of the world, to war on false pretences, and for misrepresenting the cost of the venture, there is no excuse for how he chose to finance it. His was the first war in history paid for entirely on credit. As the US went into battle, with deficits already soaring from his 2001 tax cut, Bush decided to plunge ahead with yet another round of tax ‘relief’ for the wealthy.

Today, the US is focused on unemployment and the deficit. Both threats to the US’ future can, in no small measure, be traced to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Increased defence spending, together with the Bush tax cuts, is a key reason why the US went from a fiscal surplus of 2% of GDP when Bush was elected to its parlous deficit and debt position today. Direct government spending on those wars so far amounts to roughly $2 trillion – $17,000 for every US household – with bills yet to be received increasing this amount by more than 50%.

Moreover, as Bilmes and I argued in our book, The Three Trillion Dollar War, the wars contributed to US’ macroeconomic weaknesses, which exacerbated its deficits and debt burden. Then, as now, disruption in west Asia led to higher oil prices, forcing Americans to spend money on oil imports that they otherwise could have spent buying goods produced in the US.

But then, the US Federal Reserve hid these weaknesses by engineering a housing bubble that led to a consumption boom. It will take years to overcome the excessive indebtedness and real-estate overhang that resulted.

Ironically, the wars have undermined US’ (and the world’s) security, again in ways that bin Laden could not have imagined. An unpopular war would have made military recruitment difficult in any circumstances. But, as Bush tried to deceive US about the wars’ costs, he underfunded the troops, refusing even basic expenditures: say, for armored and mine-resistant vehicles needed to protect American lives, or for adequate healthcare for returning veterans. A US court recently ruled that veterans’ rights have been violated.

Military overreach has predictably led to nervousness about using military power, and others’ knowledge of this threatens to weaken US’ security as well. But US’ real strength, more than its military and economic power, is its ‘soft power’, its moral authority. And this, too, was weakened: as the US violated basic human rights such as habeas corpus and the right not to be tortured, its long-standing commitment to international law was called into question.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, the US and its allies knew that long-term victory required winning hearts and minds. But mistakes in the early years of those wars complicated that already-difficult battle. The wars’ collateral damage has been massive: by some accounts, more than a million Iraqis have died, directly or indirectly, because of the war. According to some studies, at least 1,37,000 civilians have died violently in Afghanistan and Iraq in the last 10 years; among Iraqis alone, there are 1.8 million refugees and 1.7 million internally displaced people.

Not all of the consequences were disastrous. The deficits to which US’ debt-funded wars contributed so mightily are now forcing the US to face the reality of budget constraints. US’ military spending still nearly equals that of the rest of the world combined, two decades after the end of the Cold War. Some of the increased expenditures went to the costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the broader global war on terrorism, but much of it was wasted on weapons that don’t work against enemies that don’t exist. Now , at last, those resources are likely to be redeployed, and the US will get more security by paying less.

Al Qaeda, while not conquered, no longer appears to be the threat that loomed so large in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. But the price paid in getting to this point, in the US and elsewhere, has been enormous – and mostly avoidable. The legacy will be with us for a long time. It pays to think before acting.

So with all the trillions that we have spent, and the countless thousands if not millions of lives that have been lost do to the 20 years of war, we are no better off then right after 9/11. Al Qaeda is more powerful than before, now with all of our weapons that we left behind. It appears that we still have not learned our lesson. As bureaucracies become larger and larger they become less and less efficient. This also holds true with agencies, like the CIA and the FBI, where they are more concerned with protecting their budgets than they are in serving the purposes they were created for. So while the 9/11 tragedy was totally avoidable, similar events will most assuredly take place again.

Resources

newsweek.com, “All the Ways America Failed to Stop the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks.” BY WILLIAM M. ARKIN; historynewsnetwork.org, “Were the 9/11 Attacks Preventable?” By Samuel Walker; hoover.org, “9/11: Three Major Mistakes.” by John Rizzo; washingtonpost.com, “What more is there to say about 9/11 on its 20th anniversary? TV specials grapple with that very issue.” By Inkoo Kang; govinfo.library.unt.edu, “THE 9/11 COMMISSION REPORT: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States”; history.com, “How U.S. Intelligence Misjudged the Growing Threat Behind 9/11: Among the missteps: lack of intel-sharing between agencies, tepid responses to earlier attacks and a failure to grasp the magnitude of the terrorists’ ambitions.” By BARBARA MARANZANI; economictimes.indianatimes.com, “Global war on terror: Enormous and avoidable price of 9/11.” By Joseph E. Stiglitz;

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