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August 20, 2004

Costly Mistakes and Fatal Consequences

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

I've spent two days of my vacation last week holed up with a good book. No, not the latest Grisham legal thriller or Clancy military page turner, but the Authorized Edition of the Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Acts Upon the United States.

Funny thing is that parts of the report DO read like a Clancy novel. Surreptitious movements, clandestine meetings, fake passports, and bureaucratic bungling are all devices used by fiction writers who specialize in quasi-military subjects.

I was struck by four fundamental decisions (or in some cases, lack of a decision) that either facilitated the horrendous loss of life on September 11, 2001, or have contributed to the inability to locate and capture or kill Osama bin Laden.

First, Janet Reno, the United States Attorney General under President Bill Clinton, demanded a strict adherence to her interpretation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a law passed by Congress in 1978. FISA spelled out how searches could be conducted and how prosecutors could (and couldn't) use information pertinent to criminal investigations if it had been collected under FISA rules. This procedure became known within Justice as the "wall."

The 9/11 Commission found that the Justice Department (under Reno) had promulgated procedures that were "almost immediately misunderstood and misapplied." It got so bad that at one point the sole office responsible for Justice Department oversight of the "wall" threatened to stop sending FBI warrant requests to the FISA Court. In the words of the 9/11 Commission, the "flow of information withered."

Sadly, a well-constructed policy, designed to enhance information transfer between FBI agents investigating criminal conduct and prosecutors trying the cases, might have led to arrests and convictions of terrorists who ended up flying planes into buildings.

Second, and my winner of the most tragic bureaucratic blunder of the last 10 years, is the action of senior Department of Defense official Jan Lodal.

When Defense Department officials were working with Clinton's aide Richard Clark (the guy who advised and criticized both Clinton and Bush) to develop a plan for early missile strikes against bin Laden's training facilities and infrastructure in response to the African embassy bombings, disagreement broke out about how best to target terror groups like al Qaeda.

The Defense Department's Assistant Secretary for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict had developed a broad plan, involving the use of a wide range of military options and tactics to target bin Laden and his band of killers-in-training. That plan, by all accounts well-designed and presented, was out-of-step with the thinking of the aforementioned Richard Clark. Clark had advocated a series of rolling strikes targeting specific camps and businesses serving bin Laden's interests.

When the broader plan was presented to the Office of the Undersecretary for Policy Walter Slocombe, it was given to Slocombe's chief deputy, Jan Lodal. The warning that accompanied the presentation was that the future might bring "horrific attacks," and in that case "we will have no choice, nor, unfortunately, will we have a plan."

So did Deputy Chief Lodal rush the report to his boss? Did he gather the bright thinkers of the Undersecretary's Office to analyze the details? No, the 9/11 Commission report states that the person who presented the report was told Deputy Chief Lodal felt the plan "too aggressive." The plan went no farther than his office. Today, he cannot remember the episode, or even seeing the paper.

Third, each of the murderers on September 11, 2001, made his way through airport security, some at Dulles, some at Newark, and some at Boston. All of them had to walk through a screening device, and all of them had to appear at a check-in counter. A few of them were selected for special screening at check-in.

Unfortunately, all this accomplished was having their checked luggage held until airline personnel could verify that they had boarded.

Several of them set off metal detectors as they walked to the boarding area. In each case, they were hand-screened with a metal detector. None were prohibited from boarding a plane.

If only that special screening had included a component requiring a personal interview, even a quick face-to-face with a customer service or security professional. In all likelihood their nervousness and lack of credible reason to be traveling to a destination would have been enough to trigger more intense investigations.

Finally, and to show that I am not fueling any partisan fires here, the Commission makes clear that the decision to divert U.S. military force to the invasion of Iraq took a toll on efforts to locate and attack Osama bin Laden and his band of thugs, killers, and misguided warriors.

In addition to spreading special operations forces and equipment thin, the decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein has been used as a recruitment tool by al Qaeda, turning a man (Saddam) who was previously hated and vilified by bin Laden into a martyr in the war to expel U.S. forces from the Muslim Holy Land.

The 9/11 Commission avoids outright criticism of the Bush Administration, but clearly questions whether prosecuting a war on two fronts is the best use of U.S. forces in the Gulf region.

The Commission report details several excellent recommendations, all of which have been well-covered by people much more capable than I. Suffice it to say that this report demonstrates that sometimes a Commission can produce a meaningful, thoughtful, and beneficial result that leaves us better than we were before it began.

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