Looking back on it now, it is difficult to choose the precise moment when U.S. government officials--hobbled by old-fashioned rules, saddled with ancient computers that could not talk to one another and riven by silly bureaucratic rivalries--missed their best chance to thwart the plot by 19 hijackers to take over four airplanes, turn them into flying missiles and kill almost 3,000 people nearly two years ago.
Was it in early 1999, when the National Security Agency, eavesdropping on a suspected terrorist facility in the Middle East, first learned (but kept to itself) that a 25-year-old Saudi named Nawaf Alhazmi had links to Osama bin Laden? Or was it in March 2000, when the CIA heard from its spies overseas (but did not tell the FBI) that Alhazmi had flown to Los Angeles a few weeks before? Then there was the bungled meeting between the CIA and the FBI in June 2001, when the CIA hinted at Alhazmi's role but would not put everything it knew on the table. Washington may have had one more chance to change history in late August 2001, when FBI headquarters finally heard that Alhazmi and other bin Laden operatives were loose in the U.S. But against the advice of detectives in the field, agents at FBI headquarters assigned the case a low priority, and nearly two weeks passed before the bureau asked its Los Angeles field office to track down the suspects. That last e-mail was dated Sept. 11, 2001.
All summer long, the normally rarefied issue of secret intelligence--the good and bad, the lost and found--has preoccupied Washington and perplexed the nation. Before Sept. 11, the government was unable or unready to connect the dots left by a growing army of terrorists bent on killing thousands of Americans. More recently, the government has appeared to be a little too ready to connect dots that may not have been there at all--that is, the prewar case for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Two years ago, the bar for proving a danger to our security was set too high; two years later, partly because of what happened on Sept. 11, the bar has seemed a bit too low. How do we get it right?
In the terrifying days that followed the attacks of 2001, when very little was comforting, it was almost a relief to hear top Bush Administration officials argue that there was really no way the U.S. government could have foreseen, much less prevented, the deadly attacks on Washington and New York City. Osama bin Laden's plot was too diabolical, they said, too well executed and too perfectly aimed at the blind spots of our homeland defense for anyone to have imagined or foiled it. "We were surprised by what happened here," said Vice President Dick Cheney five days afterward.
But it is now clear that the real story is much more unsettling. The blunt conclusion of the bipartisan House and Senate joint inquiry into the causes of 9/11, released last week, was that while no one in the government "identified the time, place and specific nature of the attacks," the government lost repeated opportunities to detect, if not disrupt, the hijackers in 2000 and 2001.