Why Security Was So Poor On 9/11/2001

I am one of those peculiar people who likes to read government reports. I do this because sometimes things are hidden there in plain sight, so to speak. A particularly salient example is a GAO report from September 1997 carrying the title “COMBATING TERRORISM: Federal Agencies’ Efforts to Implement National Policy and Strategy” (GAO/NSIAD-97-254) . The paper is a useful look into what the Clinton Administration considered effective defense against Terrorism.

I begin with the Executive Summary, which contains two key statements. Right there on page 2, this paper identified President Clinton’s Presidential Decision Directive 39 (PDD-39) as the “central blueprint for the U.S. counterterrorism strategy“. So I take you now to Appendix 1, where the unclassified abstract of PDD-39 was to be found. The opening sentence reads “Terrorism is both a threat to our national security as well as a criminal act“. Tying terrorism to crime from the beginning thereby tied the hands of government agencies right from the start, as it compelled warfighting offices to defer to criminal process agencies, and made no provision whatsoever for immediate or effective retaliation on terrorist organizations which attack the United States, its interests, allies, or citizens. The Policy vaguely directs that the U.S. Government will “make no concessions to terrorists“, and will “expand the program of counterterrorism” and will “reduce vulnerabilities affecting U.S. airports, aircraft/passengers” (huh – that worked out real well, didn’t it?) and promises to “exclude/deport persons who pose a terrorist threat”. Yes, that’s right – no promise to arrest terrorists attempting to enter the United States or who are already here and present a threat – just show them the door and hope they stay out? The policy did have an idea of what to do if a 9/11-type attack occurred; the Policy promised that “If large scale casualties and infrastructure damage occur, the President may appoint a Personal Representative for consequence management as the on scene Federal authority during recovery“. The feeling I get from PDD-39, is that Bubba didn’t take terrorism seriously at all.


The Executive Summary also made a point of stressing that “certain acts of terrorism are federal crimes no matter where they are committed“. Ooooh, so if Bubba had been President on 9/11, Osama and his boys, well, they could have been charged with a crime. Hooo boy, that sure made them think twice, huh?

But wait, it gets better. On page 3, the report explains that in order to establish effective control and direction of counter-terrorism work, “various interagency groups have been formed to coordinate the efforts of the more than 40 federal agencies, bureaus, and offices that combat terrorism“. Ok, besides guaranteeing the consumption of vast amounts of coffee and pastries, does anyone seriously believe that these ‘interagency groups‘ got much accomplished? I note that no hierarchy of authority is referenced between them, nor any timeline for recommendations and implementation.

The report says that the NSC has responsibility for combating terrorism. But when you start digging into the details, the job changes quickly. On page 3 the report observes that the actual decisions are made by an “Interagency Working Group on Counterterrorism, led by the State Department“. Yes, the State Department.

The Report explains that terrorist incidents would be addressed by the assignment of a “lead agency” in each case. For Domestic events, the FBI is the lead agency, and for foreign events, the State Department takes charge. Got that? The Embassy bombings would warrant a diplomatic protest and 9/11 would mean hoping for extradition after a grand jury heard the case. A less pragmatic response is hard to imagine.

It gets worse. The Report, and remember this is a report specifically written to address what the United States would do to prevent or respond to a terrorist attack, has no coordinated plan ready in advance to respond to an attack. Instead, the Report simply says that “some federal agencies respond to a crisis and seek to bring the perpetrators to justice, other agencies manage the consequences of an incident” (page 5). With that in mind, the chaos in New York on 9/11 makes a grim sense.

The Report has a flow chart of command authority on page 21. It’s worth noting that there are six layers of people between those making a decision and those who would carry it out, and that this Report puts the National Security Agency, CIA, Secret Service, ATF, and Customs at bottom rung of the ladder, with no authority of their own in a crisis or direct access to the President or the National Security Advisor, who is not even listed on the chart as a source or recipient of information in a terrorist crisis.

In addition, none of the Working Groups, regardless of their experience or skills, is given direct access to the NSC or the White House, but are required to submit their advice through a bureaucratic channel (page 23).

The Report, on page 24, then revealed a true shocker – results of the Working Groups are included in reports developed into talking points, to be discussed with other members of the G-8. That means that concerns and policy development for the National Security of the United States could be and conceivably was discussed with members of the governments of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and Russia. Note that as of 2001, at least four of these seven countries were in contact and cooperation with enemies of the United States, and were opposed to American policy in several key venues.

I pause here to have a laugh at Al Gore; the Report notes on page 28 that the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security, “known as the Gore Commission”, “called for (1) developing an automated passenger profiling system, (2) increasing the frequency of passenger inspections, and (3) increasing reliance on canine teams and equipment to detect explosives“. So Gore can just shut up about privacy rights.

So, just what would happen is a terrorist group committed an act on U.S. soil and the mastermind was hiding outside the U.S.? On page 54, the Report assures us that “the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, together with the Department of Justice … ordinarily prosecutes the offense. When terrorist suspects are located overseas, an indictment is usually obtained in a U.S. court before their apprehension, if possible.” Well, it’s certainly nice to know that even after committing an atrocity on U.S. soil, the rights of terrorists would be so carefully protected in American courts.

The Report is a masterpiece of bureaucratic falderol and political garbage. Nowhere is terrorism plainly recognized for what it is, an act of war against the United States which demands an immediate and effective deterrence, and failing that unlimited response potential. When pirates raided U.S. freighters, President Jefferson sent in Marines to Tripoli. When Mexican bandits raided American territory, President Polk sent the Army in. With that in mind, Bush’s response to 9/11 was not only effective and constitutional, but historically consistent, morally sound and necessary. This Report shows us that Clinton/Gore were neither serious nor competent to address the peril.

(I initially published this article on March 29, 2006 on my personal blog. In the light of recent events, it seems necessary to repeat myself.)

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