In his patriotic essay "England, Your England," George Orwell turned a famous aphorism inside-out. "Probably the battle of Waterloo WAS won on the playing fields of Eton," he wrote "but the opening battles of all subsequent wars have been lost there." Writing in 1941 with German bombers overhead and his country's very survival at stake, Orwell felt no compunction about speaking plainly. The nation's strength, he believed, lay in the ordinary Englishman's deep commitment to democratic values, but the "military incompetence which has again and again startled the world" was a direct consequence of England's feckless aristocracy. Until the country quit recruiting its leadership from the society pages, it would court disaster.
Seventeen months into the administration of George W. Bush, the United States' first hereditary president, Americans face an analogous situation. Military competence isn't a problem, nor is the nation's survival at stake. The al-Qaida terrorists who struck on 9/11 have the capacity to inflict terrible suffering and pain, but not to threaten our independence. Rather, it's the nation's POLITICAL will that's in doubt: its ability to get to the bottom of what went wrong in the nation's vaunted intelligence agencies, to mend what's broken, and to hold our leaders accountable.
Maybe nobody could have prevented 9/11. But it doesn't follow that Americans should give in to fatalism. For almost nine months, we have been given repeated assurances: first, that the Bush administration had "no warning" of the impending terrorist attack, then that such warnings as the White House did, in fact, receive were too "vague" to be of any real use, and finally that to ask further questions would be somehow injurious to the campaign against terrorism, if not downright unpatriotic. Only secrecy and unquestioning faith in our annointed leaders, we're told, can save us.
An administration that came to power on uncounted ballots now argues that a public inquiry might tempt politicians to seek partisan advantage. Very well then, let them try. Answering legitimate questions is precisely what the democratic process, a bit like the adversarial process in a courtroom, was designed to do. While emotionally appealing, the idea that we should be above politics is an argument for monarchy--an attempt to avoid scrutiny and accountability by an administration which insists upon strict performance standards for welfare recipients, schoolteachers and the nation's fourth graders.
Only the mood of craven power-worship among Washington pundits and the rabbit-like timidity of congressional Democrats makes something so elementary worth saying. Another truism: people who lie usually have something to hide. The most telling part of Minneapolis FBI agent Coleen Rowley's courageous open letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller, published on Time's website, was why she was putting her career on the line: "I feel that certain facts...have, up to now, been omitted, downplayed, glossed over and/or mischaracterized in an effort to avoid or minimize personal and/or institutional embarrassment on the part of the FBI and/or perhaps even FOR IMPROPER POLITICAL REASONS." [my emphasis]
It's symptomatic that most press accounts failed to cite that part of Rowley's letter. Nevertheless, a circumstantial case can be made that the intelligence agencies failed to "connect the dots" with regard to al-Qaida for pretty much the same reason the CIA failed to anticipate the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989: not because they lacked the data or expertise, but because documenting the advanced debility of the Soviet Empire during the Reagan administration was the quickest way to destroy one's career.
Whatever its shortcomings, the Clinton administration took Osama bin Laden seriously. If it failed to capture or kill him, it wasn't for lack of trying. Spending on anti-terrorist measures more than doubled. Clinton devoted many speeches to the problem, including a major address to the U.N. General Assembly upstaged by Congress's same-day release of his grand jury testimony in the Lewinsky fiasco. Following the 1998 African embassy bombings, he held cabinet-level meetings "nearly weekly" to direct the fight against bin Laden. "'Candidly speaking," Army intelligence specialist Lt. Gen. Donald Kerrick told the Washington Post on Jan. 19, "' I didn't detect that kind of focus' in the Bush administration. 'That's not being derogatory. It's just a fact.'"
the Washington bureaucracy got the message loud and clear. As the un-Clinton,
Bush didn't want to hear about al-Qaida. Newsweek reports that Attorney
General John Ashcroft had an "extraordinary confrontation" with then-FBI
director Louis Freeh, informing him that drugs, violent crime and child
pornography were the agency's new priorities, not counter-terrorism. Agents
in Minneapolis, who correctly believed they had an al-Qaida suspect in
custody, met so many bureaucratic roadblocks they joked that bin Laden
must have infiltrated FBI headquarters. The Bush administration's determination
to avoid a probe of intelligence failures appears to have less to do with
protecting national security than hiding its own blunders.