- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 3, 2001

Where was the CIA? That is one of the many questions that have kept nagging at yours truly since terrorists hit the United States on Sept. 11. We had many warnings that terrorists were taking aim at Americans, particularly the Osama bin Laden gang of thugs. There was the New York World Trade Center bombing of 1993. There were the two attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa which elicited a particularly lame response from Bill Clinton, who was then in the throes of the Monica Lewinsky affair. There was the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen. Why in the world was the agency, whose job is to detect and nab the bad guys before they get to us, not more vigilant and better prepared?

And, for the life of me, I cannot understand why President Bush continues to affirm his unwavering support for the man who is running this sorry outfit Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet. Wouldn't most of us tend to waver just a bit in the face of such devastating failure? Somehow Mr. Tenet seems to have protected status. Why? Who protects him? And what other failures can we expect to pay dearly for in the future? In any other democracy, Mr. Tenet would have handed in a lengthy and tortured letter of resignation long ago.

From the foreign media in particular, one hears some skepticism about the information coming out of the U.S. government. Perhaps we in the American media are still a little too close to the shock and horror of the attacks on the land we love to pursue these lines of questions, and we still feel the entirely appropriate urge to rally around the president and the flag, taking some affront that anyone would doubt the administration's motivations. But, in the long run, patriotism should not keep us from asking the tough questions about how we got to this point and our plans for the war on terrorism.

One question that won't go away is how we could have been taken by such an appalling surprise, only to find 24 hours later that an overload of information exists about the terrorists and their network. The sun had not set on that fateful Tuesday before names of the hijackers had started spilling out. In short order, we learned where they lived and what flight schools they attended in preparation for their kamikaze act. We found that one had asked to learn to fly straight, not needing instruction in take-off and landing without raising any particular alarm bells?

Now, just a few weeks later, we know what these criminals looked like, courtesy of photos released by the FBI. We have an estimated cost of their deadly operation around half a million dollars and counting. We know the whereabouts of their Germany-based master planners. We know what credit cards they used, or tried to use. We know what they did the night before they went on their sick suicide mission, at least if they followed the written instructions handed out by their leader, with details all the way down to whether they should shower and brush their teeth. We know how they were brainwashed and that some of them had doubts as they faced certain death. We even know that Osama bin Laden bragged to his adopted mother on the phone about the attack two days before it happened.

Now, they say that hindsight is 20/20. But in this instance, a case of total blindness has been followed by a hawk's eye view of the hijacking in the most astonishing detail. Clearly, this amount of information does not materialize overnight and much of it was available before Sept. 11. How could this mammoth plot have gone undetected under the circumstances?

Terror networks do not appear overnight either, and our intelligence services obviously had these folks in their sights for a while. In fact, the New York Times reported this week that the CIA has been inside Afghanistan trying to kill bin Laden for the past three years after the Clinton administration concluded that bumping him off would not conflict with U.S. policy on assassinating enemy heads of state. Unfortunately, the man who got assassinated instead, just before the terrorist attack, was Ahmed Shah Massoud, the military leader of the largest anti-Taliban group in Afghanistan. As difficult as dealing with this insidious, unscrupulous terrorist network is, it has to be considered that the Clinton administration, which appointed Mr. Tenet, did not do enough. It would be awful were the Bush administration to compound its failures.

Mr. Bush has repeatedly asked Americans to be patient and to accept that the war on terrorism will be fought unconventionally, sometimes far from the limelight of the news media. Fair enough. We are not fighting a conventional enemy. However, it still remains the duty of the press to report as much of what we learn as can be shared without endangering national security. And we are still waiting for answers to all those questions.

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