- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 29, 2004

The public and the media should be thinking about how to measure the credibility of the forthcoming September 11 Commission findings.

In this regard, a key measure of credibility will be whether the commission clearly and decisively addresses the situation prior to September 11 and how the situation facilitated the success of the terrorist atrocities. All other measures are secondary since the events that unfolded during and after September 11 were constrained by pre-attack attitudes, training, and capabilities.

Even without involvement in the commission hearings and without access to documented information, classified or unclassified, the public and media can prepare for such an evaluation by developing a logical formulation of conditions and events that led to the pre-September 11 situation. These can then be used to assess the commission’s methodology and its report for any inconsistencies, suppression of ideas or misrepresentation of facts.

The following are eight measures of credibility that might be used as an assessment tool.

(1) First World Trade Center attack (Feb. 26, 1993) — The virtual scale of this event was identical to that of September 11, 2001. Both attacks had two objectives — destruction of the World Trade Center buildings along with collateral damage to other adjacent structures, and the deaths of 20,000 to 40,000 people. The actual numbers were far less, for various reasons. Had the first attack succeeded, the September 11 Commission would have met eight years earlier.

(2) The pre September 11 situation resulting from this event owed to the original attack not being treated as a result of an “intelligence failure,” even though its objectives were massive on any scale. As a result, there were no substantial changes over the next eight years to resolve deficiencies in government management, refocuse intelligence resources toward the Middle East and increase internal national security.

The persistent underlying condition seems that terror events involving thousands of casualties were viewed as unrealistic and unbelievable; therefore, no major changes were required.

(3) Other terrorist events: The above conditions that ruled out future events involving large scale casualties seems to have been reinforced by follow-up terrorist events such as attacks on the marine barracks in Lebanon (241 killed) and the attack on the USS Cole (17 killed).

The result was continuation of the status quo on government management, intelligence focus, and internal national security.

(4) Bush administration legitimacy: During the time leading up to September 11, the Bush administration faced continued attacks over its right to be in the White House. These attacks affected government functioning by delaying the normal transition process for several months. In fact, the process so deviated from the norm that intelligence and defense policy decisions that usuallly would have been completed in the summer were delayed until September — hardly time enough for implementation prior to September 11.

(5) Racial profiling: Restricting government agencies from focusing on racial groups where known criminal activity is centered was and is today considered unacceptable, with grave political consequences. These restrictions covered the Muslims in the United States. Had any law enforcement agency claimed 19 Muslims were potential perpetrators of a horrendous attack whose objective was the death of 20,000 to 40,000 people, that agency would have been met with protests of discrimination. It can be called the “little old lady syndrome,” where time must be spent investigating everyone though most obviously have neither the ability nor inclination to be a threat.

(6) Suppressed border control: The political environment for controlling the entry and movement of foreigners was acrimonious, with constant attempts to loosen restrictions. There was what could be called an “open borders” atmosphere.

(7) Definition of “airplane hijacking:” There was a set definition of airplane hijacking in the government and throughout the public limited to commandeering a planeload of people to be used as hostages for political purposes. This definition made consideration of any September 11 scenarios incomprehensible. In particular, an orchestrated attack against buildings in the United States using four to 10 planeloads of people within one hour would have been considered an attempt to frighten the American public.

(7) Restrictions on intelligence sharing: There has always been a belief intelligence assets should be restricted to overseas activities and not used for internal U.S. crime prevention. Through the years leading up to September 11, the rules for following these beliefs were strengthened. This had become so solidified that any attempt to change it would have presented as a direct attack by the Bush administration on the very foundation of the Constitution, with the specter of George Orwell’s “1984” just over the horizon.

(8) Going into a recession: The economy leading up to September 11 saw rising unemployment and the first phases of a recession. In this respect, the health of the airline industry was seriously in question. Further curbs on travel and significant public and private investments in “homeland security” without a well-defined and verified attack scenario would not be tolerated by the public and would be viewed by politicians as an attempt to divert attention from Bush administration “illegitimacy.”

Once the public and the media have convinced themselves the September 11 commission has adequately addressed the above credibility measures, they should consider how the commission used the information in addressing two questions.

• First, were the events of September 11 the results of an intelligence failure? “Failure” implies someone or some organization was not doing its job. Two concerns come to mind. Were there political and moral restrictions on government activities that would have constrained any conclusions identifying an event like those of September 11? And should we rate anything short of 100 percent success (on the part of intelligence) as a failure?

• Second, given the situation prior to September 11, what information, coupled with specific defensive actions, would have been necessary to prevent the terrorist attacks? Basically, would the financially troubled airlines, a public already facing significant airport delays, and politicians ready to call any administration action an overreaction, stand for shutting down several airports (originally 10 planes were to be used in the attack) without firm evidence (a captured terrorist) specifying the time and the targets?

Let us hope the September 11 Commission addresses these items. Otherwise, their product will be suspect.


Mr. Heimach is a former Air Force colonel.

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