Monday, April 20, 2009

"Torture" and other aggressive steps were made necessary by a decade of intelligence failure

Mohammed Atta (r) and Flight 93 hijack pilot Ziad Jarrah were able to enter the U.S. freely to plan and carry out 9/11 attacks because they were unknown, despite extensive jihadist activities

The release of the CIA-DOJ "torture" memos has sent politicians and pundits of every stripe into a frenzy of moral preening, political posturing and frequently tortured readings of American law. But the aggressive "intelligence war" that was launched by the U.S. through CIA and other agencies as of late on 9-11 was an understandable, if not in retrospect an altogether admirable, response by a government that would have come under extreme pressure from the American people if it failed to prevent another such attack. As a Democrat, I have always believed that President Gore, notwithstanding his later sharp differences with Bush about Iraq and other issues, would have embarked on pretty much the same course with respect to waging an intelligence war to take down al Qaeda. The nature of the President's overwelming responsibility to protect the nation and its people, combined with the severe limits faced in finding and defeating this unconventional enemy, would have shaped Gore's policies just as they did Bush's.

George Friedman of makes a compelling case for how and why extreme steps were found to be necessary in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Here are siome key excerpts. It's well worth reading the whole thing.

In the wake of 9/11, anyone who wasn’t terrified was not in touch with reality. We know several people who now are quite blasé about 9/11. Unfortunately for them, we knew them in the months after, and they were not nearly as composed then as they are now.

Sept. 11 was terrifying for one main reason: We had little idea about al Qaeda’s capabilities. It was a very reasonable assumption that other al Qaeda cells were operating in the United States and that any day might bring follow-on attacks. (Especially given the group’s reputation for one-two attacks.)...

And while Sept. 11 was frightening enough, there were ample fears that al Qaeda had secured a “suitcase bomb” and that a nuclear attack on a major U.S. city could come at any moment. For individuals, such an attack was simply another possibility....For the government, however, the problem was having scraps of intelligence indicating that al Qaeda might have a nuclear weapon, but not having any way of telling whether those scraps had any value. The president and vice president accordingly were continually kept at different locations, and not for any frivolous reason.

This lack of intelligence led directly to the most extreme fears, which in turn led to extreme measures. Washington simply did not know very much about al Qaeda and its capabilities and intentions in the United States. A lack of knowledge forces people to think of worst-case scenarios. In the absence of intelligence to the contrary after 9/11, the only reasonable assumption was that al Qaeda was planning more — and perhaps worse — attacks.

Collecting intelligence rapidly became the highest national priority. Given the genuine and reasonable fears, no action in pursuit of intelligence was out of the question, so long as it promised quick answers. This led to the authorization of torture, among other things. Torture offered a rapid means to accumulate intelligence, or at least — given the time lag on other means — it was something that had to be tried....

...[P]residents — and others who have taken the same oath — do not have the luxury of the contemplative life. They must act on their oaths, and inaction is an action. Former U.S. President George W. Bush knew that he did not know the threat, and that in order to carry out his oath, he needed very rapidly to find out the threat. He could not know that torture would work, but he clearly did not feel that he had the right to avoid it....

The endless argument over torture, the posturing of both critics and defenders, misses the crucial point. The United States turned to torture because it has experienced a massive intelligence failure reaching back a decade. The U.S. intelligence community simply failed to gather sufficient information on al Qaeda’s intentions, capability, organization and personnel. The use of torture was not part of a competent intelligence effort, but a response to a massive intelligence failure.

That failure was rooted in a range of miscalculations over time. There was the public belief that the end of the Cold War meant the United States didn’t need a major intelligence effort, a point made by the late Sen. Daniel Moynihan. There were the intelligence people who regarded Afghanistan as old news. There was the Torricelli amendment that made recruiting people with ties to terrorist groups illegal without special approval. There were the Middle East experts who could not understand that al Qaeda was fundamentally different from anything seen before. The list of the guilty is endless, and ultimately includes the American people, who always seem to believe that the view of the world as a dangerous place is something made up by contractors and bureaucrats.

Bush was handed an impossible situation on Sept. 11, after just nine months in office. The country demanded protection, and given the intelligence shambles he inherited, he reacted about as well or badly as anyone else might have in the situation. He used the tools he had, and hoped they were good enough.

Again, I recommend reading the whole piece.

Have an opinion about this (and who doesn't)? Post a comment.


  1. You know how I feel about returning fire with equal or more fire. If your opponent is rude enough to behead you in front of a camera and broadcast it, in order to fight that opponent, time to scrap the Geneva convention has come. And Bush (tough I believe Cheney was more behind it) did that.

  2. ... since February 8 there have been at least 6 "suspicious" prisoner deaths. Make a guess which US funded prison ?

  3. except that i disagree that the enhanced techniques constitute "torture."