Why America Slept

President John F. Kennedy’s senior thesis at Harvard University eventually grew into the short book Why England Slept. It explained how the enormous human losses of World War I cemented the minds of many in England, especially in the intellectual classes, into a hard pacifism of denial. English leadership slept while the German military under the Nazis grew well past that necessary for defense. Even when slightly awakened by the German threat against Czechoslovakia, it was possible to accept verbal assurances from the Nazis, declare “peace in our time,” and fall once again into a blithe slumber until crisis made sleep impossible.

Using that situation as a metaphor for our current one, Gerald Posner’s Why America Slept explores how it was possible for America to largely ignore the grave and gathering threat of Muslim extremism. Like the English exhausted after World War I, the West and particularly the United States, after the end of the 50-year Cold War felt entitled to pull away from international matters.

Posner’s tale takes us through the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. When Ronald Reagan withdrew troops from Lebanon after over 200 American marines were killed by a suicide bomber, anti-Western forces in the Middle East began to believe that America was a paper tiger, a degenerate colossus unwilling to act even in its own self interest. This notion was amplified during the Clinton Administration that was unwilling to take meaningful forceful action when a former American president was targeted for assassination, when American soldiers where ambushed during a humanitarian mission in Somalia, and when 17 sailors on the US Navy’s Cole were killed by a explosives-laden small craft.

Some of the reluctance to deal with Islamic extremism was a consequence of genuine efforts by the Clinton Administration to break the impasse between Palestinians and Israelis. As former Clinton political advisor Dick Morris explained, “In Bill Clinton’s epoch, terror was primarily a criminal justice problem which must not be allowed to get in the way of the `real’ foreign policy issues.” According to Posner, “Clinton rejected efforts to name Hamas as a terror organization for fear it might upset” Middle East negotiations. Vice President Al Gore led a commission on aviation safety and security that recommended dozens of changes, while Clinton “made no effort to implement any of the suggestions, considering them too disruptive to travel.”

This focus on a criminal justice approach explains why at least two (and perhaps more) opportunities to apprehend Osma bin Laden were squandered. According to Posner, even Clinton acknowledges that the failure to seize bin Laden was the biggest mistake of his Administration.

Perhaps most discouraging was failure after failure by the FBI, CIA, and INS in protecting the homeland. Part of this was associated with constraints by Congress imposed in the early 1970’s and further constraints that emerged as a consequence of the Iran-Contra scandal. The INS had plans to keep track of people entering the United States on student visas that might have netted some of the September 11th hijackers. These plans were circumvented when American universities, that earn $11 billion dollars a year from 550,000 foreign students, refused to cooperate with the program.

The FBI was particularly inept as middle-level management fear of failure or criticism allowed the FBI to ignore key signs that might have given us a shot at preventing the attacks of September 11. A flight school instructor in Minneapolis became suspicious when student Zacarious Moussaoui was only interested in how to steer planes and how much damage a 747 could cause if it crashed into anything. The instructor notified the local FBI and Moussaoui was detained for visa violations. The local FBI contacted the CIA and found that the French were interested in Moussaoui as a potential airplane hijacker. When local FBI agent Coleen Rowley contacted the FBI in Washington for a warrant to search Moussaoui’s computer, FBI headquarters, misinterpreting their own rules, dismissed the request. Instead Rowley was reprimanded for contacting the CIA without going through channels. According to Posner, if Moussaoui’s computer had been searched, key clues that might have helped prevent 9/11 would have been obtained. Given the timing, in all likelihood, the attacks of September 11th would have still have happened, but we “could have gotten lucky” and possibly managed to stop them

When the Bush Administration arrived in 2001, they too were inclined to focus on domestic issues much as the Clinton Administration had. Indeed, Bush boasted a less interventionist and humbler foreign policy, disinclined to engage in the same nation building efforts that Clinton championed in Bosnia. This passive foreign policy is at odds with the caricature of a Bush committed to going after Iraq to complete his father’s unfinished business. At the time of the 9/11 attacks, the new FBI Director, Robert Mueller, had just assumed office, the CIA was run by George Tenet, a Clinton appointee, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was just tasked with determining what was happening domestically with Al Qaeda. With regard to terrorism, the Bush Administration did not hit the ground running when they assumed office.

It is bad enough when somnolent policies or bureaucratic inertia allow nefarious terrorists to plan and execute a large-scale terrorist attack on US soil. Those are sins of omission. It is quite another thing when ostensible friends like the Saudis work against American interests. The Faustian bargain the Saudis made with Al Qaeda was to provide financial support in exchange for Al Qaeda refraining from attacks on Saudi soil. Recent attacks in Saudi Arabia suggest that this bargain has collapsed.

On March 28, 2002, seven months after the attacks of September 11, US Special and Pakistani forces captured Abu Zubaydah, one of Al Qaeda’s top leaders. After capture, Zubdaydah was uncooperative.

One method used to break the will of a captured prisoner is to fool the prisoner into believing that he is being placed into the custody of another country; a country decidedly pre-Miranda in its interrogation techniques.

Using US soldiers fluent in Saudi-accented Arabic, Zubaydah was convinced that he was transported into Saudi custody. Rather than becoming apprehensive when Zubaydah believed he was alone with Saudis out of ear shot of Americans, he attempted to play his “Get Out of Jail Free” card. Zubaydah asked his supposed Saudi jailors to contact Prince Ahmed bin Salman bin Abdul-Aziz, a nephew of King Fahd. Suddenly, Zubaydah was a fount of information as he tried to persuade his captors that he indeed did have high level benefactors. Zubaydah explained how Prince Ahmed and Mushaf Ali Mir, chief of Pakastani intelligence, both knew an attack was scheduled for September 11, although they did not know the details of the plot.

Of course, when confronted, the Saudi and Pakistani governments denied helping Al Qaeda. However, four months later, Prince Ahmed died of a heart attack at the age of 43. Another Saudi cited by Zubaydah died in a car accident and yet another “died of thirst” in the dessert. Pakistani Mushaf Ali Mir and a plane load of associates died in a plane crash a little while later. Posner suggests that these deaths were not coincidental.

Although Posner’s book is disheartening, it also offers hope. The terrorists who carried out the September 11 attacks, were not particularly clever. Any number of relatively small changes in homeland security would have made it much easier to track and capture these terrorists. Now that we have been re-awakened, we must not be lulled to sleep once again.

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