A writer friend of mine, Paul Allman, told me he was glad that his late criminology professor father hadn't lived to suffer the media platitude that the attack on the World Trade Center was "inevitable." Such triteness would have infuriated James J. Allman, a St. Louis city detective who believed good police work could defeat criminals before they acted.
I recalled Paul's remark after the disclosure that the CIA briefed George W. Bush on a bin Laden hijacking plot more than a month before the event. The more I thought about it, the more I grew infuriated, for everything about this "news" suggests that at least some of the police were doing their job, while the politicians were busy doing something altogether different.
What did the President know, and when did he know it?
We know that Bush the younger doesn't retain much beyond the starting lineup of the 1954 New York Giants. But still -- a plane-hijacking scheme in U.S. airspace concocted by a prime suspect in the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and a secondary suspect in the first attempt to demolish the World Trade Center in 1993?
Last fall, for dramatic effect, I suggested to an audience at the New School in New York that if the U.S. had a parliament, the government might well have fallen after Sept. 11. Now I'm in earnest; somebody high up should pay for what looks like criminal negligence.
But instead of resignations we get mealy-mouthed apologies from FBI Director Robert Mueller, the administration's designated fall guy. Mr. Mueller's childlike promise to work harder to "connect the dots" is designed to protect his political superiors from blame by changing the subject -- to the notion that bureaucratic bungling, not political corruption, is the problem.
On the contrary, some bureaucrats were exceedingly competent. Indeed, it's hard to see how new "investigative powers" will increase the FBI's effectiveness when it's clear that agents Coleen Rowley and Kenneth Williams already had all the necessary information to make arrests (as was done with Zacarias Moussaoui), or at least haul the student pilots in for questioning. It's very likely that specialists in the bureau's counterterrorism section were fully aware of the possibility that the planes might be aimed at the twin towers.
The FBI must have known, for example, of the 1993 public testimony by another competent bureaucrat, Guy Tozzoli, a former director of the World Trade Center. After the first bombing, he not only proposed that the Port Authority prepare for the eventuality of a plane hitting the towers, but he recounted that officials had already simulated such a "total disaster" with a Boeing 707 in the late 1970s.
"It's very difficult to talk about a bomb," Mr. Tozzoli told New York State Senator Roy Goodman. "But you know, things can happen." Besides, it's a good bet that someone in the FBI had heard the same stories that George W. Bush's Navy pilot dad told him when he was a kid -- the ones about the Japanese kamikaze pilots who used their planes . . . as suicide bombs.
So while the bureaucrats were actually looking for bad guys, what were the politicians up to? In a particularly fatuous defence of the administration, Thomas Friedman of The New York Times argued that "the failure to prevent Sept. 11 was not a failure of intelligence or co-ordination" but rather an inability to "have imagined evil on the scale Osama bin Laden did." (I'm not sure what this means -- but even someone as poorly educated as Mr. Bush has heard of Adolf Hitler, whose imagination went a good deal further than Mr. bin Laden's.)
In fact, a White House coverup of the causes and origins of Sept. 11 began almost immediately with the safe passage (within a week of the attack) out of the U.S. provided to 14 members of the bin Laden family, before they could be interrogated by the FBI. By November, the White House public-relations department was no doubt panicking when Ben Laden: la vérité interdite by Jean-Charles Brisard and Guillaume Dasquié appeared, quoting John O'Neill, the former director of antiterrorism in the New York office of the FBI.
According to the authors, Mr. O'Neill had complained in July, 2001, that Saudi Arabian government pressure on Washington, seconded by U.S. oil interests, had prevented him from from properly investigating al-Qaeda: "All the answers, all the keys to dismantling Osama bin Laden's organization can be found in Saudi Arabia," he is quoted as saying.
Perhaps I have an imagination livelier than Mr. Friedman, but I suspect Mr. O'Neill read the "Phoenix Memo" in August, before he resigned from the FBI in frustration to take the job of security director of the World Trade Center -- where he died on Sept. 11. And I can very easily imagine Mr. O'Neill turning in his grave upon hearing the sonorous drip of Robert Mueller's phony mea culpa.
It's not hard to believe Mr. O'Neill's reported version of events, since the BBC and Guardian newspaper essentially corroborated it last November when they reported that the Clinton administration discouraged the FBI from inquiring, in 1996, into the relationship between Osama's brothers Abdulla and Omar bin Laden and a terrorist front organization, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, when the two were based in Falls Church, Va. The story said the political pressure against investigating rich Saudis only increased when the new Bush administration came to power.
Finally, I can imagine that the higher-ups in the White House, sensitive to George Bush the elder's business relationship with the Carlyle Group and its Saudi investors, told the FBI and Mr. O'Neill that asking questions about bin Ladens and Saudi royals was bad diplomacy, not to mention bad business.
Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that the White House "slept" in the late summer of 2001. During the prior Bush administration, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, told our then-ally Saddam Hussein that the U.S. had "no opinions on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait."
Saddam was evidently emboldened by our professed neutrality. The next thing we knew, George the First was calling his reliable old client a Hitler equivalent. Might we imagine a similar "appeasement" scenario here?
Osama bin Laden is a former CIA asset who went off the reservation when he started complaining about the U.S. troops stationed on holy Muslim soil near Mecca. The Saudi royals "stripped" Osama of his citizenship, or so they say, for making violent threats against their persons and against their mercenary guards, the Western infidels in U.S. Army fatigues. He then started planting bombs at U.S. installations and plotting to overthrow the Saudi monarchy.
Yet when the Sudanese government offered to turn Osama over in 1996, the Clinton administration and the Saudis passed, whence the elegant rich kid with the great wardrobe decamped for Afghanistan to become the honoured guest of the Saudi-subsidized and U.S.-supported Taliban. King Fahd's family was happy to tolerate Osama from a distance, and even help him; its two-faced policy quieted the angry sheiks who agree with Mr. bin Laden that the Saudi monarchy has sold out their country for American money.
Could it be that the U.S. government, once again, let it be known in the torpid heat of an uneventful summer that it had "no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts?" As Ms. Glaspie later put it, "Obviously I didn't think, and nobody else did, that the Iraqis were going to take all of Kuwait." Well, our government says it didn't "think" Osama would hit the twin towers, either. Or that both towers of the whole damn thing would fall down with all those people in them.
We need a new foreign policy, free of oil politics and Bush-family conflicts of interest. But first we need a new government. Prof. Allman never pretended that smart cops could beat devious politicians. John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper's Magazine.