- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Last week’s revelation of 50 pre-September11,al Qaeda-related warnings to the Federal Aviation Administration, and the publication of an early 2001 National Security Council memo warning of the Osama bin Laden threat, point to the utter failure of the Goss-Graham and Kean-Hamilton commissions. Unable to stand up and state the obvious negligence and failure of senior intelligence community officials helped get America to September 11. The oblivious commissioners forced a reorganization of the intelligence community that increases bureaucracy and locks in the mentality that Americans are expendable.

The recent disclosures show, again, that there was no lack of good intelligence before September 11, no failure to “connect the dots.” From late 1996 onward, for example, intelligence community leaders and senior NSC officials knew al Qaeda was seeking weapons of mass destruction in a professional manner; they also knew Soviet nuclear weapons were not secured. U.S. officials therefore knew bin Laden was seeking a nuclear capability that could be found in the Soviet arsenal. Common sense should have dictated immediate, vigorous and risk-taking efforts to destroy al Qaeda and secure Soviet weapons. None was attempted.

After 1996, the quality and quantity of intelligence about al Qaeda grew geometrically, as last week’s disclosures begin to show, and yet senior officials refused to act. Indeed, the most caustic critics of the Bush administration’s failure to attack al Qaeda sat squarely amid an avalanche of excellent intelligence about bin Laden’s capabilities and location, read the material, screwed up their courage and did nothing. Indeed, an objective review of chances to capture or kill bin Laden finds nearly all occurred under Bill Clinton’s watch not under Mr. Bush’s eight to10 occasions from May 1998 to July 1999 alone, per the Kean-Hamilton report. Mr. Bush’s sole chance to kill bin Laden came at Tora Bora in December 2001, but there the genetic timidity of U.S. Army generals forbid risking the lives of U.S. soldiers and sub-contracted the elimination of bin Laden to pro-bin Laden Afghan guerrillas.

To be fair, Mr. Bush’s invasion of Iraq has made the anti-bin Laden war vastly more difficult and its outcome uncertain, but the fact that bin Laden is not long dead rests in the hands of Mr. Clinton’s senior NSC and intelligence officials. On each chance to eliminate bin Laden documented by Kean-Hamilton, those officials decided the “intelligence was not good enough to act.”

Read closely, the September 11 report shows that protecting Americans was not the top priority of these officials; their priority was keeping international opinion sweet and protecting an Arab prince whose family was buying billions of dollars of fighter aircraft. In terms of risk-taking, the Clinton administration’s most dicey anti-terrorism operation surely was Former National Security Adviser Samuel Berger’s reputed clandestine removal of bin Laden-related documents from the National Archives in his socks and undies. Nerves of steel and a thirst for daring-do but only when party rather than republic is at risk.

I have not directly blamed Mr. Clinton for the failures to act. While he is ultimately responsible, it seems clear from post-September 11 books, articles and testimony that he wanted action but was always dissuaded by NSC advisers, CIA Director George Tenet, and those paragons of risk aversion, the chairmen of the Joint Chiefs. And such a situation is not a Democratic-only problem. For a year before the Iraq invasion, U.S. intelligence gave the Bush administration precise locational data in northern Iraq for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. This top-tier terrorism target should now be a smoldering memory; instead, he is murdering U.S. soldiers and Marines. Why? Because Mr. Bush’s advisers wanted to keep European opinion sweet. They wanted French and German forces for the Iraq invasion and feared killing al-Zarqawi might make the oh-so-sensitive Europeans throw a hissy fit.

One wonders if American parents know their sons and daughters have been killed by al-Zarqawi because the president’s advisers were more interested in stopping Europeans from huffing off in a snit than in protecting their children? Ulysses S. Grant once wrote, “No man ought to win a victory who is not willing to run the risk of defeat.” Now, thanks to the refusal of the two sets of commissioners to judge the culpability of senior personnel for September 11, America is stuck with a surfeit of the sort of officials Grant described. And, amazingly, those officials are leading the uneducated and massively disruptive reorganization of an intelligence community that delivered timely, accurate and detailed pre-September 11 reporting about al Qaeda, data on which many of the same individuals did not act. And, as a mocking coda to this misadventure, the Clinton administration’s risk-averse veterans heap abuse and scorn on the Bush administration which, for all its many faults, has never had a tenth of the chances to eliminate bin Laden given to the Clintonians. Poor America.

Michael F. Scheuer resigned from CIA in late 2004 after a 22-year career. From 1996-99, he ran CIA’s bin Laden operations. He is the author of “Through Our Enemies’ Eyes” and “Imperial Hubris.”

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