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The winter proposals became a victim of the transition process, turf wars and time spent on the pet policies of new top officials. The Bush Administration chose to institute its own "policy review process" on the terrorist threat. Clarke told TIME that the review moved "as fast as could be expected." And Administration officials insist that by the time the review was endorsed by the Bush principals on Sept. 4, it was more aggressive than anything contemplated the previous winter. The final plan, they say, was designed not to "roll back" al-Qaeda but to "eliminate" it. But that delay came at a cost. The Northern Alliance was desperate for help but got little of it. And in a bureaucratic squabble that would be farfetched on The West Wing, nobody in Washington could decide whether a Predator drone--an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and the best possible source of real intelligence on what was happening in the terror camps--should be sent to fly over Afghanistan. So the Predator sat idle from October 2000 until after Sept. 11. No single person was responsible for all this. But "Washington"--that organic compound of officials and politicians, in uniform and out, with faces both familiar and unknown--failed horribly.
Could al-Qaeda's plot have been foiled if the U.S. had taken the fight to the terrorists in January 2001? Perhaps not. The thrust of the winter plan was to attack al-Qaeda outside the U.S. Yet by the beginning of that year, Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, two Arabs who had been leaders of a terrorist cell in Hamburg, Germany, were already living in Florida, honing their skills in flight schools. Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar had been doing the same in Southern California. The hijackers maintained tight security, generally avoided cell phones, rented apartments under false names and used cash--not wire transfers--wherever possible. If every plan to attack al-Qaeda had been executed, and every lead explored, Atta's team might still never have been caught.
But there's another possibility. An aggressive campaign to degrade the terrorist network worldwide--to shut down the conveyor belt of recruits coming out of the Afghan camps, to attack the financial and logistical support on which the hijackers depended--just might have rendered it incapable of carrying out the Sept. 11 attacks. Perhaps some of those who had to approve the operation might have been killed, or the money trail to Florida disrupted. We will never know, because we never tried. This is the secret history of that failure.
Berger was determined that when he left office, Rice should have a full understanding of the terrorist threat. In a sense, this was an admission of failure. For the Clinton years had been marked by a drumbeat of terror attacks against American targets, and they didn't seem to be stopping.