We don’t want to be writing reports in 2008 or 2009 about what we could have done in August 2007 to avoid another terrorist attack, do we?
Let the Central Intelligence Agency summary of its failings before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks be a lesson to everyone – above all, politicians. Today’s missed opportunities – for example, promoting a secure form of ID – could haunt them tomorrow.
Congress forced the release of the 2005 document against the agency’s wishes. In it, the CIA’s inspector general recommended that former Director George Tenet and other top officials be punished for neglecting to draw up a smart plan against al-Qaida. The previous CIA director, Porter Goss, opposed disciplining them because it “would send the wrong message to our junior officers about taking risks.”
Unfortunately, not taking risks was one of the CIA’s major failings. Former counterterrorism czar Richard A. Clarke wrote in his book “Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror” that risk aversion was a big reason why top managers at the CIA did not forcefully go after al-Qaida before Sept. 11.
They feared the bad things that might have happened had they gotten tough: CIA personnel could have become prisoners of al-Qaida. Congress could have hauled them before committees for helping Northern Alliance leaders involved with the heroin trade in Afghanistan or for abusing al-Qaida prisoners.
But those are risks our protectors are supposed to take. Hurting one’s career should be a small price to pay for defending national security. By holding top CIA officials accountable, we add risk to not taking risks, and that’s how it should be.
Of course, anyone who was gung-ho for destroying al-Qaida had to deal with the crushing laziness of the Bush administration in its first eight months. By the time Bush had arrived in the White House, al-Qaida had already supported the first World Trade Center bombing (1993), a plan to blow up airliners over the Pacific (1995), the bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa (1998), the suicide attack on the USS Cole (2000) and the Millennium Plot to blow up the Los Angeles airport (2000). Yet during that time, the administration did next to nothing about al-Qaida.
In January 2001, Clarke had pleaded with the administration for a Cabinet-level meeting on al- Qaida but was put off. In April, a lower-ranked group was finally convened to discuss terrorism. At that session, Clarke turned the subject to al-Qaida, at which point then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz famously remarked, “Well, I just don’t understand why we are beginning by talking about this one man, bin Laden.” The Cabinet-level meeting didn’t happen until a week before Sept. 11.
Now a private consultant, Clarke recently criticized the widespread efforts to frustrate Real ID, the 2005 federal law that pushes states to create secure driver’s licenses. Without such solid identification, he wrote, “potential terrorists here illegally can easily use phony licenses or, in many states, get real ones issued to them, along with credit cards and all of the other papers needed to blend into our society.”
Politicians of both parties have latched onto a misguided populist revolt against these secure driver’s licenses, and they may rue the day they did. You need just one terrorist waving a fake driver’s license at airport security on his way to committing mayhem, and public opposition to Real ID will vanish.
Accountability is a good thing, and there’s no reason why it should stop at the CIA. The administration’s lame response to the pre-Sept. 11 threat remains open for inspection. And elected officials should know that voters could hold them accountable for failing to support something as simple as a sound ID card.
©2007 The Providence Journal Co.