Jewish World Review March 31, 2004 / 9 Nissan, 5764

Robert Robb

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What could have prevented 9/11 | The premise underlying the recrimination surrounding the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks and Richard Clarke's allegations is that there was something the Clinton or Bush administration could have done to prevent 9/11.

So, what might that have been?

The Clinton administration tried to get Osama bin Laden in a number of ways. As a result of U.S. importuning, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan pressured the Taliban to give him up.

Local and Pakistani forces were enlisted to try to capture him.

The U.S. tried to kill Bin Laden in a cruise missile attack, and missiles were kept on standby for some time in hopes of getting another opportunity.

So, what else could the Clinton administration have done?

Arguably, it could have taken more direct U.S. action to capture or kill bin Laden. In his testimony to the commission, Clinton National Security Advisor Sandy Berger said that the president "pressed often for military 'boots on the ground' options."

In fact, plans were developed involving both CIA operatives and Special Operations Forces. But both the CIA and top-ranking military officials recommended against the operations, because of the risk compared to the probability of success.

Richard Clarke proposed two additional courses of action. The first was to provide assistance to the Northern Alliance, which was fighting the Taliban.

There were many problems associated with the Northern Alliance. It had ties to Iran, which had been directly connected to the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia. The alliance was also implicated in the narcotics trade and represented an ethnic minority in Afghanistan.

The Clinton administration declined to assist the alliance, a decision hard to argue with given that its forces continue to be an obstacle to the democratic unification of Afghanistan today.

Clarke also argued for steady bombing of al-Qaida facilities. But, again, the Clinton administration decided against it, since the identifiable targets were overwhelmingly small and relatively valueless.

When the Bush administration took over, it continued the authorization for covert operations that had been in place during the Clinton administration. And it began developing more aggressive plans, including aid not only to the Northern Alliance, but also to opposition groups from the ethnic majority Pashtuns.

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During the spring and summer of 2001, there was a spike in threat reports.

Clarke has compared the Bush administration's response to this spike unfavorably with the Clinton administration's response to a similar spike before the Millennium celebrations in this country.

There was an important difference in the threats, however. The Millennium threats included domestic U.S. targets. According to CIA Director George Tenet, to the extent there was any specificity in the pre-9/11 threats, they were about overseas targets.

Moreover, the difference in response seems to have been more management style than substance. In his Meet the Press interview, Clarke described a frenzy of meetings among senior Clinton officials, including the president. The Bush administration followed more of a chain-of-command structure, but the substantive response was pretty much the same: warning were issued, security beefed up, counterintelligence operations intensified.

In fact, Tenet described pre-9/11 activities as "Millennium threat mode" to the commission staff and in his own testimony cited examples of plots disrupted as a result of the intensified effort.

Of course, the most important plot, the 9/11 attack, was not disrupted. It was always likely that, in retrospect, things that would have prevented it would become evident. Indeed, most of the hijackers should have never been allowed into the country because their visa applications were incomplete.

And national security agencies knew a couple of al-Qaida operatives, who turned out to be key to the 9/11 attack, were in the country but didn't apprehend or surveill them.

In terms of national strategy, even more aggressive action to incapacitate and defund terrorism might have prevented 9/11. But without 9/11, the international cooperation needed for success would have been difficult to obtain.

Afghanistan could have been invaded much earlier to depose the Taliban and eliminate Bin Laden's safe haven. But even that would have been no guarantee.

Moreover, invading Afghanistan prior to 9/11 would have been pre-emption on a grand scale, and at a time during which the Sunni al-Qaida terrorists being harbored by the Taliban weren't an obviously greater threat to the United States than the terrorists being supported by Iran and Syria.

If recriminations were limited to those advocating such a course of action at the time, the silence would be deafening.

JWR contributor Robert Robb is a columnist for The Arizona Republic. Comment by clicking here.


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