IT'S EASY TO SAY 'I TOLD YOU SO'


There storm of criticism that hit the White House last week about what it knew and didn't know before Sept 11 reminds me of something that happened to me when I was working under cover for the CIA in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley in the early 1980's.  It was a time when the Bekaa was the black hole of terrorism.  Almost every lethal terrorist group in the world, from the Japanese Red Army to Abu Nidal, kept a base there.

We knew the U.S. was their main enemy, and that it would only be a matter of time before one of them would mount  an attack on an American target in Lebanon.  It was not unlike the situation in early 1998, when Osama bin Laden told ABC News that he intended to attack American targets anywhere he could
get them.

But just knowing that one of the groups would attack us was not good enough.  The U.S. had learned from being under constant terrorist threat in the Middle East since the 1967 Israeli-Arab war that most threats were bogus, and that acting on them only ended up paralyzing us.   Accordingly, CIA field officers understood that before CIA headquarters-or the White House-could start moving pieces around in reaction to a threat, it needed to have details:  when, where, and how an attack would arrive.

With this in mind I started to troll the Bekaa Valley for sources.  It wasn't easy.  Eventually, I ran into a man who was related to a radical Shite Muslim leader who had threatened publicly to kill Americans.  It took months before the man finally opened up.  One crisp fall morning he took me outside and whispered:  "Get out of Lebanon, they are going to kidnap an American official." 

With this gem in hand I rushed back to the office to report the threat to Washington and Beirut.   Unfortunately, no one took it seriously.  I dropped the source and forgot about my report, at least until four months later when, on March 16, 1984, the CIA's bureau chief in Beirut, Bill Buckley was kidnapped.

My first reaction was  to yell "I told you so."  If Beirut station had only listened.  But just as quickly I reminded myself that half the problem was that my report lacked the detail that would have made it more credible.  Had it been more specific, Langley might have taken it more seriously, maybe even pulled out Buckley.  I kicked myself for not having gone back to my Shite friend and press him for more information.  But I only figured this out with 20-20 hindsight.

Something a lot like this seems to be happening with the reporting on what President Bush and the intelligence agencies knew prior to Sept. 11.  Neither the CIA nor the FBI had anything close to precise information about the planning for the attack before it occurred.  The CIA's Aug.6, 2001, briefing to the president that Osama bin Laden might try to hijack U.S. airliners was based on fragmentary, unsubstantiated, and dated information.  It was thinner than my kidnapping report.

As for the FBI, the reports from its gents in Phoenix and Minneapolis possibly connecting bin Laden to flight schools were based on speculation and hunches. (In any case, neither the CIA nor the White House saw them.) It looks to me that with the information he had, the president did exactly the right thing-instruct that the threat be passed on to the Federal Aviation Administration, the airlines and the airports.  Issuing a public alert would have been foolish.  What would it have said?  Keep an eye out for hijackers who appear sympathetic to Osama bin Laden? (And how does one spot a hijacker?)

There is no doubt our intelligence agencies could have done better-they should have given the president more precise information on which he could have acted.  The CIA and the FBI should have been more aggressive running down terrorist leads.  They should have pooled their intelligence.  The Immigration and Naturalization Service should have been checking student visas at the flight schools.  The State Department should have been interviewing Saudi applicants.  At the end of the day we will probably conclude it was a systematic failure, and no one agency's fault.  The joint congressional investigation will have the last word.

But in any case, we shouldn't be blaming President Bush for the intelligence failure.  Even if all the CIA reporting and the two FBI reports had landed on his desk a the same time, it is not the president's job to connect the dots.  He can only act based on good, solid, finished intelligence.  In this case, that wasn't forthcoming.  Based on the information he had available prior to 9/11, Bush did the right thing.


Mr. Baer, a former CIA officer, is the author of a memoir, "See No Evil, The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism: (Crown, 2002)

 


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