Joe Conason's Journal

Could the government have prevented 9/11? Early reports on a congressional investigation offer muddled answers.

By Salon Staff
Published July 24, 2003 6:51PM (EDT)

The right questions about 9/11
Until I have a chance to read the full 800-page joint congressional report on Sept. 11 (minus redacted material), the only descriptions of its findings available to me come from reporters who have talked to politicians. What we have heard so far about the report's conclusions from those sources is ambiguous, to say the least -- with the New York Times asserting that the report says the attacks could have been stopped, and the Associated Press insisting that the report says no such thing. There are many other aspects of the story that demand examination, such as the role of the Saudis and the counterterror measures taken by the Clinton and Bush administrations -- but for the moment, speculation about what might have been remains the most compelling story.

The lead in today's Times account states quite baldly that the attacks "were preventable, but the plot went undetected because of communications lapses between the FBI and CIA, which failed to share intelligence related to two hijackers." This morning's A.P. dispatch acknowledges that "the CIA failed to act on intelligence it had about hijackers, the FBI was unable to track al Qaeda in the United States, and key National Security Agency communications intercepts never were circulated." Even if those "failures" had been avoided, however, the A.P. says "no evidence surfaced in the probe by the House and Senate intelligence committees to show that the government could have prevented the attacks that killed more than 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania."

This kind of confusion often arises from framing the wrong questions. If we ask whether the government could have prevented the attacks by al-Qaida, the most honest response will always be "maybe," because there are too many unknown variables to prove otherwise. For example, had law enforcement picked up the plotters whose names were known to the intelligence community, they might well have been replaced without exposing the conspiracy. Or perhaps they would have cracked under interrogation and busted their network.

A better question would be more specific: Did U.S. intelligence and police agencies wisely and professionally use the information that was available to them at the time? The answer offered by the Times, the A.P. and everyone else with access to the report's findings is clearly no.

The committee press conference following the release of the report was tantalizing. For example, what kind of information about the Saudi oligarchy was omitted from the report's declassified version? On that sore subject, Reuters offers these sentences: "A high-level U.S. government officer cited greater Saudi cooperation when asked how the Sept. 11 attacks might have been prevented. In May 2001, the U.S. government became aware that an individual in Saudi Arabia was in contact with a senior al Qaeda operative and was most likely aware of an upcoming al Qaeda operation." More tomorrow.

[12:41 p.m. PDT, July 24, 2003]

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