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Phantom menace { May 17 2002 }

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Friday, May 17, 2002 2:11 p.m.

The Phantom Menace
By all means, let's have an investigation of any intelligence shortcomings that may have helped make the Sept. 11 atrocity possible. But there's something awfully unseemly about the way some Democrats have been strutting about, patting themselves on the back for their 20/20 hindsight.

On Wednesday CBS News reported that President Bush received an intelligence briefing in August that mentioned that al Qaeda terrorists might hijack airplanes. As the New York Times reports, the warning was hardly news:

The information Mr. Bush received in the Aug. 6 briefing had been public for months. The Federal Aviation Administration published a report called Criminal Acts Against Aviation on its Web site in 2001 before the hijackings that said that although Osama bin Laden "is not known to have attacked civil aviation, he has both the motivation and the wherewithal to do so." It added, "Bin Laden's anti-Western and anti-American attitudes make him and his followers a significant threat to civil aviation, particularly to U.S. civil aviation."

Nonetheless, some Democrats suggested that President Bush was somehow complicit in Sept. 11: "I think what we have to do now is to find out what the president, what the White House knew about the events leading up to 9/11, when they knew it and, most importantly, what was done about it at that time," said Rep. Dick Gephardt, the House minority leader.

In retrospect, of course, the warning that al Qaeda might hijack airplanes was prescient. But on Aug. 6, it must have seemed entirely unremarkable. Terrorists, after all, had been hijacking airplanes for decades, and the briefing made no reference to the novel aspect of Sept. 11: the use of commercial jets as weapons of mass destruction by suicidal murderers.

In a Sept. 15 interview with NBC's Tim Russert (not available on the Web), Vice President Dick Cheney acknowledged that the administration had received warnings--but vague ones--that evil was afoot:

CHENEY: Certainly, we were surprised in the sense that there had been information coming in that a big operation was planned, but that's sort of a trend that you see all the time in these kinds of reports. But we . . .

RUSSERT: No specific threat?

CHENEY: No specific threat involving, really, a domestic operation or involving what happened, obviously. So, clearly, we were surprised by what happened here.

This is consistent with the latest revelations about what the White House knew. On the other hand, there were warnings about this type of terrorism long ago. The Associated Press reports that a 1999 report by the Federal Research Division, an arm of the Library of Congress, speculated that "suicide bomber(s) belonging to al-Qaida's Martyrdom Battalion could crash-land an aircraft packed with high explosives (C-4 and semtex) into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency, or the White House."

As we noted Sept. 19, Philippine authorities say they warned the FBI in 1995 of what CNN described as "a terrorist plot to hijack commercial planes and slam them into the Pentagon, the CIA headquarters and other buildings," of which the Filipinos had learned when they interrogated a terror suspect.

Matt Drudge, meanwhile, has dipped into his archives and turned up this December 1998 report: "Intelligence sources tell TIME they have evidence that bin Laden may be planning his boldest move yet--a strike on Washington or possibly New York City in an eye-for-an-eye retaliation." This makes Josh Marshall testy: "I'm trying to think if I can imagine anything more pitiful than Matt Drudge's attempt to pin this all on Clinton by . . . well, dredging up some 1998 warning about al Qaida planning attacks on NY and DC. Mmmmmmmmm . . . Nope. Couldn't do it."

But the point here isn't to blame Clinton; it's simply to underscore that there was a lot of information out there the meaning of which seems clear now but was not before Sept. 11. The New York Post's John Podhoretz puts it in perspective:

Intelligence failures result from inattention and a lack of focus. We know that in the weeks leading up to Dec. 7, 1941, government workers in far-flung places were finding individual pieces of a confusing puzzle about the movements of the Japanese Navy, which had basically gone missing in the Pacific Ocean. . . .

These chunks of information and others, properly brought together and analyzed, could have provided some measure of advance warning of Pearl Harbor--or at least would have forced Washington to commit new resources to finding out what was really going on.

The same is true of the new revelations regarding 9/11. . . . But it's clear that there was no way for these disparate pieces of the 9/11 puzzle to be assembled. The president's intelligence briefing was, until Sept. 11, purely a foreign-policy matter. And since the CIA is legally prohibited from any role in domestic intelligence-gathering, its agents would not have been welcome at any domestic briefings.

It was business as usual in Washington in the summer of 2001, and we know in retrospect that business as usual proved to be disastrous business indeed. Still, what we saw on Sept. 11 was something entirely new--and therefore nearly impossible to anticipate.

Slate's Scott Shuger, however, does find fault with the CIA:

The Aug. 6 briefing to the president was prepared by the CIA. That it mentioned neither previous known suicide-hijacking plots nor the FBI's terror-related concerns about Muslim flight students in Arizona or Minnesota is a damning indictment, not of the president but of the management of American intelligence.

The "C" in CIA stands for Central. The agency is supposed to be the nation's intelligence funnel. Its main job is not protecting its turf or its budget against other agencies--it's reaching out to all sources of intelligence and distilling them into a meaningful product for decision-makers.

Bush has stood by CIA Director George Tenet. But based on what we learned yesterday, it's hard to see why. It's clear now that the failure to do more to prevent what happened on 9/11 didn't stem from a weakness of ground-level sources and methods, but from the intelligence gathering lapses of our top intelligence officials.

At this point, it's worth repeating something we noted on New Year's Eve: a New York Times article detailing the failure of America's antiterror policies from 1993 through 2001, which included this detail:

Administration officials say the president was concerned about the growing threat and frustrated by the halfhearted efforts to thwart Al Qaeda. In July, [Condoleezza] Rice said, Mr. Bush likened the response to the Qaeda threat to "swatting at flies." He said he wanted a plan to "bring this guy down."

An earlier Washington Post report noted that the National Security Council complied with the president's request, preparing "a new CIA covert action program that would have cost as much as $200 million a year." According to the Post, "the plan was almost ready to be presented to Bush when the terrorists struck on Sept. 11." Bush knew who the enemy was and was preparing to confront it, even if he didn't know exactly what it had in store.

What if We Had Acted?
A reader of Charles Johnson's Little Green Footballs blog ponders that question (eighth response):

Assume that the FBI had information on the exact date, time, flight number, and descriptions of suspects. So they raid all the planes, and arrest the 19 dirtbags.

. . . And then what? Not much, I imagine. Oh, CAIR and its ilk would be having a fit, of course, complaining to everyone including George W. about profiling and unfair targeting of Arab-Americans. After all, just what did the FBI find? Some box cutters? Those aren't illegal on airplanes. Flight manuals? These men were all attending accredited flight schools, trying to achieve the American dream, etc. etc. So they had one-way tickets: is that a crime? Funeral shrouds? Are you honestly arresting these men for bringing white sheets onto a plane? Korans? So because these men are pious Muslims, you dare to assume . . .! And really, folks, come on: flying a Boeing into a skyscraper? You've been watching too many movies! Who would come up with something this complicated, when a truck bomb in a garage would do just as well?

And so on and so on. I'm sure at least half these men would have been released within a couple of days. Profiling would be discussed at length on CNN and PBS. Several specials would be made, with weeping, hijab-wearing photogenic young women, describing in perfect Midwestern English the ordeal of being singled out by airport security. American Airlines would issue an apology, and make a contribution to the Arab-American Anti-Defamation Society, with a promise of more "outreach efforts."

Norman Mineta would be outraged! and put in all sorts of new restrictions designed specifically to avoid giving extra scrutiny to "people of Middle Eastern appearance." (hey! wait a second!) George W. would go on the record saying that "pro-filling" is "discriminatational" and against everything he holds dear. Clinton would tell a story of his Lebanese-American great-uncle who was once denied entry into the White House. Al Gore would talk about his years of service under Lawrence of Arabia. Pretty soon, the whole thing would be forgotten as another embarrasing example of the Latent Racism in American Society.

Until one day, another group of men board an airliner . . .

'I'll Bite Your Legs Off!'--II
Top Talib Mullah Mohammad Omar has purportedly surfaced and given an interview to an Arab newspaper. When we last heard from him, six months ago, he was blustering about his plans to destroy America, and in his interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, picked up in the English-language Arab news, he continues the theme: "As for Afghanistan, I can say that the war has just started, its fires have been kindled. That fire will reach the White House because it is the seat of all injustice and oppression and where they launched a war against Islam and Muslims without any legitimate reason."

He also says the Sept. 11 atrocities were " 'great actions' . . ., which achieved their ends. These will be repeated if the United States does not remove their causes."

Life Imitates Best of the Web
Hey, we were only kidding yesterday when we raised the possibility of Marin mujahid John Walker Lindh claiming the Second Amendment gives him the right to take up arms against his country. Turns out we missed a piece in yesterday's New York Times reporting he has already done just that: "In papers filed in federal court, the lawyers said that charging Mr. Lindh with firearms violations would violate his Second Amendment right 'as an individual' to use and possess a firearm."

There's just one problem with this argument: Lindh possessed firearms not as an individual but as an enemy combatant.

Our Friends the French
Our erstwhile colleague Bret Stephens, now editor of the Jerusalem Post, has an interesting essay on the roots of anti-Americanism, which he traces in part to the conflict between the French Revolution's utopian vision and the American Revolution's pragmatic one:

Of the Declaration of Independence, the philosophe Condorcet wrote that it was "a sublime exposition of sacred rights that have too long been forgotten"; America, a Parisian paper editorialized in 1789, was "the hope and the model of the human race." But the French soon grew disenchanted with the American model, so much more limited in its aims than what the French wanted. "Why speak of the best that exists?" another philosophe, Dupont, asked in 1788. "Why not speak of the best that is possible?" "O Nation of France," added Estates General representative Rabaut Saint Etienne, "you are not made to receive example, but to set it!" . . .

Because the French vision of revolution offers the "best that is possible"--the promise of humanity radically transformed and reoriented toward "concord, unity and community"--it acquires a moral stainlessness not to be tainted by the totalitarian means undertaken to achieve it. By contrast, the vision of the American founders takes as its starting point the unshakable mediocrity of mankind; it aims low to meet an easier target. If men were angels, says Madison in The Federalist, there would be no need for government. There is no provision for angels in the American scheme.

'Social Explosion' in Iran?
Ayatollah Ebrahim Amini, a conservative Iranian cleric, warns that his country may be on the verge of revolution. "Society is on the threshold of an explosion. If popular discontent increases, society and the regime will be threatened," warned the ayatollah. He's no "moderate," either; he sits on the Assembly of Experts, the panel that chooses Iran's "supreme leader."

Visa: Not Everywhere You Want to Be
Meanwhile, the Iranian news agency IRNA reports that "Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Asefi said here on Wednesday that the law on restriction of Iranian nationals' visit to the US explicitly contradicts the spirit and principles of the international conventions and the most basic civil rights of citizens." But according to the Lonely Planet travel Web site, Iran doesn't make it easy for Americans--or just about anyone else--to visit: "Everyone needs a visa to visit Iran. Unless you're from Slovenia, Macedonia, Turkey or Japan, this is going to be a hassle. The regulations are baffling, the costs often high."

Jordan vs. Iraq?
Take this with a grain of salt, but UPI speculates that Jordan, one of the few countries to back Iraq in the Gulf War, may get on the right side this time around: "British and U.S. military reconnaissance teams have been spotted in eastern Jordan, close to the Iraqi frontier and diplomats sources say Jordan's King Abdullah is considering the provision of a Special Forces base near the border for Scud-hunting operations inside Iraq." Even more intriguing, the wire service speculates that Abdullah may be looking to restore his fellow Hashemites to the Iraqi throne, which they lost when King Faisal II, an Abdullah cousin, was assassinated in 1958.

A Religion of Peace
Britain's Guardian reports from Baghdad on the new Umm al-Ma'arik mosque, whose minarets are designed to look like Scud missile launchers:

The huge blue-and-white mosque, completed in April last year in time for Saddam's birthday, is replete with references to the war and Saddam. Umm al-Ma'arik is translated by Iraqis as the Mother of All Battles mosque, Saddam's description of the 1991 Gulf war.

Dahar Alani, a custodian of the Mother of All Battles mosque, said the Scud-style minarets were each 43 metres high to mark the "43 days of US aggression". Another minaret was 37 metres high, to represent the year of Saddam's birth, 1937.

One of the most remarkable links with Saddam can be found inside the mosque, where 605 pages of the Koran are laid out in glass cases.

The custodian said the entire text was written in Saddam's blood, which had been mixed with ink and preservatives, producing a red and brown colour with a tinge of blue. "He dedicated 24 litres of blood over three years," Mr Alani said. The calligraphy was the work of an Iraqi artist, Abas al-Baghadi.

Palestine's Baby Boom
The Washington Times, reporting from Gaza, offers this charming vignette of Palestinian Arab life:

A mother lovingly dresses her 12-year-old son in the homemade costume of a suicide bomber, complete with small kaffiyeh, a belt of electrical tape and fake explosives made of plywood.

"I encourage him, and he should do this," said the woman, the mother of six. "God gave him to me to defend our land. Palestinian women must have more and more children till we liberate our land. This is a holy duty for all Palestinian people."

Her son, Abu Ali, joyfully marched in a mask on the day commemorating the Nakba, or "catastrophe," as Palestinians call the day of Israel's founding in 1948.

"I hope to be a martyr," he said. "I hope when I get to 14 or 15 to explode myself."

Terror Takes a Holiday
Remember the 13 Palestinian terrorists who left Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity and went to a resort hotel in Cyprus a week ago? They're still there, and it looks as though they may be for a while, because the European Union officials who had agreed to take them in are getting cold feet. "A Greek spokesman cast doubt on a quick resolution of the problem, suggesting it could drag on until shortly before an EU summit in Seville on June 21-22," Ha'aretz reports. That would put their stay in Cyprus at six weeks. Maybe the EU-niks want to make sure the terrorists comply with European vacation policy.

Take That, Chomsky!
Lawrence Summers, Harvard's president, says he has no intention of divesting the university of investments in companies that do business in Israel, as a coalition of anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic and anti-American professors, students, alumni and staffers have demanded. "The suggestion that [Israel's] defense against terrorist attacks is inherently immoral seems to me to be an unsupportable one," the Harvard Crimson quotes him as saying. "It would be one I would be acutely uncomfortable with."

The online petition calling for divestment now has 459 signatures, up a pathetic 3.6% since we noted it Tuesday. The antidivestment petition has 4,480 signatures, a tad under 10 times as many as the pro-divestment one and an increase of 36.5% since Tuesday.

Convergence of Kooks
David Duke may have been blacklisted by the Arab News, but you can still read his work at the Web site of the DC Independent Media Center, "an all-volunteer group of media producers, working as part of the international network of Indymedia centers to be a viable alternative to corporate media's profit-driven agenda."

Stupidity Watch
Dan Rather says he practices self-censorship, and therefore is a victim of terrorism. Or something like that. "It is an obscene comparison . . . but you know there was a time in South Africa that people would put flaming tyres around people's necks if they dissented," the Independent quotes Rather as saying. "And in some ways the fear is that you will be necklaced here, you will have a flaming tyre of lack of patriotism put around your neck."

Schmelvis, Man of Peace
Fox News profiles Dan Hartal, a Hasidic Elvis impersonator who goes by the stage name "Schmelvis." He's produced a documentary film called "Schmelvis: Searching for the King's Jewish Roots," which is due for August release, and it turns out Palestinian kids love him:

Hartal and the film crew went to Israel to plant a tree for Presley, the traditional way to honor a Jew who dies in the diaspora. In Jerusalem, Schmelvis was called upon to put on an impromptu show for Palestinian schoolchildren.

"It was this incredible moment for me to see that Schmelvis, this conservative, right-wing Jewish person, and he's forced to confront this busload of children," [producer Evan] Beloff said. "I think he changed, certainly a little bit."

And the children went wild.

"These Arab children, purportedly his enemy, are going crazy for this Star-of-David-wearing Elvis impersonator, and I saw that this wasn't Schmelvis, this was Elvis that was doing this, this unifying force," Wallace said. has more information on the forthcoming movie.

Look Who's Talking
Syndicated columnist Norman Solomon complains that the U.S. Senate is undemocratic because, rather than follow the one-man, one-vote principle, it gives greater representation to citizens in smaller states. Yawn. It's an old argument and an irrelevant one, since Article V of the Constitution stipulates that "no State, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate"--even by constitutional amendment.

What's funny about this, though, is where this column appears: in the Arab News, published in Saudi Arabia, a nation whose idea of equal suffrage is not to let anyone vote.

(Elizabeth Crowley helps compile Best of the Web Today. Thanks to Marie Bourgeois, Robert Eleazer, Jim Orheim, Patricia Catto, Fred Furia, Damian Bennett, Raghu Desikan, Daniel Goldstein, S.E. Brenner, Jonathan Burack, Greg Billings, Ari Rossenfeld, Michael Segal, Paul Music, Randy Schwartz, Bob Hovorka, Roger McKinney, Gershom Martin, B.J. Clark, Ian Clark, Marie Bourgeois, David Merrill, Carey Gage, Dan Fehringer, Brenda Walker and Ed Graff. If you have a tip, write us at, and please include the URL.)

Today on OpinionJournal:

Robert Pollock: Will Omar Karsou be the Palestinian Mandela?
Daniel Henninger: Political correctness breeds more hateful speech.
Peggy Noonan: Why Bush is like FDR.
And on the Taste page:

Review & Outlook: Even in a mock trial, home-schoolers win.
Tony & Tacky: The government grows some bad bud.
Tunku Varadarajan: Oh say, can you hear, a singer ruining that noble song?
Joanne Kaufman: The Learning Annex offers classes for the masses.
Brian McGuire: Don't call it a religion! So what is theosophy?
And don't miss "WSJ Editorial Board With Stuart Varney," tonight at 9 p.m. EDT and PDT on CNBC.

Copyright 2002 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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Ashcroft learned { May 21 2002 }
August memo focused on attacks in US { May 19 2002 }
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