Editorial for Monday — July 28, 2003

• The war that wasn’t updated


The war that wasn’t updated

In 1998, the United States declared war on Osama bin Laden, but nobody came. Not until too late.

CIA Director George Tenet declared war in December 1998, after al-Qaida attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa. But senior FBI officials, including the deputy director of the Counterterrorism Division, never heard about the war. By Sept. 11, 2001, the FBI had exactly one strategic analyst focused entirely on al-Qaida and 100 fewer agents working on terrorism than when the “war” was first declared.

The government’s inadequate response to the knowledge that bin Laden sought to strike within U.S. borders is the focus of last week’s report by the congressional intelligence committees on the events before 9-11. The report found that the government didn’t do enough to respond to a known threat, and still hasn’t done all it should to guard against a future attack.

Beginning in the late 1990s, intelligence agencies received a steady flow of information that bin Laden sought to strike within the United States. In the spring of 1999, they learned of a planned attack in Washington. In August, they heard that bin Laden might try to assassinate the secretary of state and CIA director. After foiling a millennium attack on Los Angeles International Airport, agents heard that bin Laden had targeted the Statue of Liberty. In April 2001, a terrorism source said bin Laden was seeking commercial pilots as terrorists for attacks on “spectacular” targets, such as the World Trade Center. That summer an informant told an FBI agent about two San Diego men who later attacked the Pentagon; the agent didn’t know the men had connections to bin Laden, because the CIA hadn’t told him.

Meanwhile, Mr. Tenet was assembling “the plan” for fighting al-Qaida, including a covert operation to kill bin Laden. But other priorities – Iraq, Yugoslavia and the India-Pakistan nuclear standoff – intervened. Nor did the National Security Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency or the FBI shift resources to the fight. Richard Clarke, the top terrorism expert, said the FBI was “clueless” about al-Qaida.

President George W. Bush reacted to the report by saying he had already “transformed” the government’s response to terrorism. But the report says too little has been done. The FBI still has not performed a comprehensive assessment of the terrorist threat facing the country, and the government needs an overall terrorism czar, it says.

The report is a sound basis for the independent inquiry by former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean. The Kean Commission not only must consider reforms, but also must pry the lid off some of the sensitive information that Mr. Bush would not allow the intelligence committees to disclose, especially the reams of expurgated passages relating to Saudi Arabia and its relationship to terrorists.

No one can know if 9-11 could have been prevented by a real war against al-Qaida. But we owe it to the victims, ourselves and other nations targeted by terrorists to learn all the lessons of that day.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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