Behind the Headlines
by Justin Raimondo

October 3, 2001

Behind the 'intelligence failure' that led to 9/11

Leon Hadar, a foreign policy analyst whose books and articles for the libertarian Cato Institute have long argued for a foreign policy of restraint, worries aloud in the Business Times that George W. Bush may lose support if he doesn't invade somebody, somehow, and soon. While support for the President is at an all-time high, Hadar confides that this may not be the case for long:

"In private, insiders are expressing concern that unless the administration 'does something' (that is, some sort of military action that Americans could watch on CNN) and soon, not only would the White House start losing some of its public support, but the post-Sept 11 sense of patriotism would turn into public confusion and anger and damage the sense of national unity that is now dominating Washington and the country."


It may be, however, that the fireworks are about to begin. Tony Blair gave a speech on Tuesday that announced an imminent strike targeted at military installations and designed to avoid civilian casualties: but, don't worry, Tony opined, some good will come of all this, because, according to Ananova, the "world community" is "drawing together." There now – feel better?


The Independent concurs that weeks of seeming inaction are about to come to an end, telling us that "massive" air strikes on Afghanistan are "just days away," and that the operation will consist of two phases: an initial foray of missile strikes, bombs, and "limited" special forces attacks, and a much larger-scale "orchestration" of land, air, and sea power. The big news, however, is in the very last paragraph, where we are told that the "big problem" with this strategy is – what happens next? "It still remains unclear whether the target will remain Afghanistan, as Secretary of State Colin Powell wants, or a broader offensive against Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Colonel Gaddafi in Libya, as advocated by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz," writes Kim Sengupta. Libya? Gee, that wasn't on Bill Kristol's list! Sengupta continues: "If the hawks have their way, Operation Enduring Freedom could well sink into a very messy and enduring war." Let's hope Operation Enduring Quagmire never comes to pass.


As I put it in my last column, "everybody has their little agenda" which they want to attach to the American war effort, and moving quickly to take full advantage is India, Pakistan's major adversary in the region. The Times of India asserts that, if we follow Osama bin Laden's money trail, it leads directly to Islamabad: to hear them tell it, our ally Pakistan is just as guilty as the Taliban, and Al-Qaeda – if not more so. How do they know this? Because California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Off-the-Wall) said so. Hmmmm….


Signs that the whole region is about to blow are everywhere: a car bomb went off outside the state assembly building in Kashmir, and the subsequent 7-hour gun battle between Islamic militants and state security ended with 31 dead and 75 wounded. India blames the Pakistanis, and New Delhi sent a stern warning to Washington, the Times of India tells us, which was delivered personally to President George W. Bush – although it wasn't clear exactly what the Indians threatened to do if their demands were not met. Cut off the US from its vital supply of curry?


Frustrated by the lack of military action, and possessed by the idea that it is necessary to do something, anything, US government agencies (and all too many Americans) are taking it out on anyone who happens to be within range. The other day I visited my favorite corner store, which is run by people of a Middle Eastern hue. I knew, I just knew that they had been hassled, and as I walked into their little shop, I could tell by their downcast eyes and restrained manner that there had been trouble. What I didn't know was how much trouble…


Now, I am normally on very good terms with these guys – they give me credit when I'm broke, and they're friends as well as neighbors. But there was a certain, uh, distance in their greetings as I made my first appearance in weeks, after coming back from a trip, and I really expected more of an enthusiastic welcome. Oh, they tried to be effusive, but beneath the outwardly cheery air I could sense a certain … strain. "So, is anything wrong?" I asked. Wrong? What could be wrong? "Well, I mean, what with the World Trade Center attack, and all – has anyone been hassling you?" Oh, no, no, not at all! But I could see in the guy's face that he was lying: unlike some others, my friendly corner store grocer is not eager to establish his credentials as a victim. Indeed, he seemed deeply ashamed by even the implication of it – which is how I knew that something was up. "Are you sure about that…?"

"Well," said the grocer, "there was this one guy who came in and said something about us being Arabs. But when I told him I'm from Greece he seemed to calm down, and said: 'Oh, I guess that's okay, then, since Greece is a member of NATO – right?' Then there was the guy who just came in and yelled at us," said my friend, "although I couldn't really say what he was angry about. I don't think he knew himself."

"Hmmm," I grunted disapprovingly, "is that it?"

"Oh yeah, yeah, really it's nothing."

"Oh – really?" I looked at him skeptically.

"Well, there were those two guys from the FBI…."

Say what?

As it turns out, my friendly corner grocer – and his helper, whom he says is "half Palestinian" (yeah, right!) – had a visit from two G-men, who flashed their badges and asked a whole lot of questions. It seems someone had reported the two of them for uttering "anti-American" sentiments. The agents were very polite, and apologized even while they probed: "We're just doing our job," they explained. "We have to investigate every lead."


The wartime atmosphere of fear and suspicion has invaded the tree-lined streets and elegant Victorians of "enlightened" oh-so-liberal San Francisco – Pacific Heights, no less! No one is safe, not even the guys who run the corner store half a block from my door. But those guys are no more terrorists than the British guy who lives upstairs and plays disco full blast at 3 in the morning, or the elegant old woman who, decked out in matching chemise, hat, and shoes, walks her fox terrier by my doorstep at precisely 4 in the afternoon each and every day.


Is this how the FBI is busily "protecting" us from the terrorist threat – by following up "tips" phoned in by cranks whose lives have been given new meaning by the crisis? Don't they have anything better to do? Apparently not, if news of their recent activities is any indication. That very night I was astonished to read in the Houston Chronicle that the feds had seriously "investigated" the random remark of a fifth grade kid in Garland, Texas, who reportedly told a teacher, on September 10, that World War III was going to start the next day. Perhaps the teacher recalled, after the twin towers went down, how the kid had said, according to the Chronicle, that the war would start "and the US would lose." Was this a miniature fifth columnist in her class? She reported it to school officials, who passed the "tip" to the FBI. As it turned out, the whole incident seems to have been a case of mass hysteria, with the teacher later claiming she couldn't be quite sure of just what the kid had meant. So, let's get this straight: the FBI spent how many hours, and tax dollars, "investigating" the ramblings of a mere child and a hysterical female?


We are living in a nightmarish world where the FBI can knock on anyone's door, come barging in and administer an on-the-spot loyalty test, asking about certain "anti-American" sentiments supposedly expressed. Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown relates the story of what happened to Itedal Shalabi and her family, one day, when her 11-year-old son burst into her room with the news: "Mom, mom, it's the FBI!"


"As you can imagine, Shalabi awoke in a hurry," remarks Brown. Yeah, I'll just bet. The two female agents informed Shalabi that some unnamed woman had accused her of "raising a terrorist." Shalabi says that her accuser had characterized her son as "a possible Hamas who wanted to die as a fighter." The agents went on to say that the whole basis of this was a newspaper article – not that they had seen or read the article themselves, you understand. Someone had merely reported this information, and they were just following up. No doubt they apologized, and gave out the same line their buddies gave to my corner grocer: sorry, we're just doing our job. But are they? Then why didn't they follow up this worthless "tip" in the public library, where back issues of most newspapers are archived? (The answer to this question is beyond human understanding.) Instead, they barged into Itedal Shalabi's home and asked her if she was raising a little terrorist.


The alleged "evidence" that Shalabi was bring up a little Osama bin Laden was based on a newspaper article, published last December in the Chicago Tribune, on the rise of Arab-American political activism, and here, in toto, is what it said about the "suspects":

''Itedal Shalabi's son Suhiab, 8, has asked if he could fight with other young Palestinians against the Israelis."

"'I tell him, 'No. You can fight instead with an education. You can educate millions,' said Shalabi, a social worker who specialized in working with Arab families.''

By seeking to educate her son, she was nurturing a little terrorist – this was the accusation John Ashcroft's "Anti-Terrorism Task Force" was confronting her with. Suhiab Shalabi, by the way, is all of 9 years old.


That this is happening in America is the hallmark of the "new era" everyone insists is upon us. It is an era of sheer madness, in which the constitutional protections afforded to ordinary citizens are being discarded, willy nilly, like so much excess baggage from a sinking ship. The war hysteria affords a window of opportunity for the spiteful, the ambitious, the cretins among us to come out of the closet in all their hideous glory, not only unafraid of rebuke but positively basking in the wartime atmosphere of fear and unreason. So far, the FBI has received a grand total of 225,000 "leads" on the twin towers terrorist attack: over 100,000 from an Internet site where anyone can settle a score, in total anonymity. Another 18,000 were hissed in over the phone, and 106,000 have been generated by the efforts of FBI investigators. Brown reports that "tips are screened and prioritized."


One can only wonder what sort of standard is being applied here that would lead the FBI to the doorstep of Itedal Shalabi, some schoolboy in Texas – or my friendly corner grocery. You have only to read Seymour Hersh's devastating review of "What Went Wrong," in the New Yorker, to see all too clearly that we are dealing with a bunch of Keystone Kops – who are pitted against some of the cleverest, most fanatical, and certainly the most ruthlessly efficient enemies the US has ever had to confront.


Hersh details the bureaucratic rivalries between various departments, the warring fiefdoms that make interagency cooperation completely untenable. We are told that the FBI, which is so concerned about what the two Arab guys on my corner are up to, is convinced that the 9/11 terror plotters were just a bunch of amateurs. "The investigators," Hersh writes, "are now split into at least two factions":

"One, centered in the F.B.I., believes that the terrorists may not have been 'a cohesive group,' as one involved official put it, before they started training and working together on this operation. 'These guys look like a pickup basketball team,' he said. 'A bunch of guys who got together.'"


Can you believe this jerk? An underground cell pulls off the most spectacularly destructive act of terrorism in US history, in which 6,000-plus were killed, and we are supposed to believe that this was nothing more than a bunch of guys who got together? Yeah, I can see it now: they were all sitting around the kitchen table on a Saturday night, wondering whether to go to the Bodacious Strip Lounge or stay home and read the Koran, when someone said: "Hey, I know: let's hijack four commercial airliners, run one into the Pentagon, ram two into the World Trade Center, and aim one at the White House. Whaddaya say?"


According to the FBI upper echelons, the terrorists got "lucky." Hersh cites an unnamed official, who elaborates on this exculpatory theme:

"In your wildest dreams, do you think they thought they'd be able to pull off four hijackings? Just taking out one jet and getting it into the ground would have been a success. These are not supermen."

The same might be said of America's G-men, who didn't have a clue about a plot that had been generating right under their noses for years. Hersh writes that the FBI "is still trying to sort out the identities and backgrounds of the hijackers. The fact is, the official acknowledged, 'we don't know much about them.'" The fact is, the FBI doesn't seem to know much about anything – except how to harass law-abiding loyal Americans and make excuses.


The terrorists "were simply lucky" – that, in a nutshell, is the thesis of the highest law enforcement agency in the land, and it isn't very comforting, now is it? Nor is such a transparent excuse very convincing: entirely aside from how incredibly self serving it is. To anyone who actually saw the twin towers go down, and saw what they did to the Pentagon, either on the scene or on television, such an explanation – sheer luck! – is incredible on its face. Incredible, and scary, because it raises a question: So these are the people charged with protecting us? As Ayn Rand once asked, in a not-so-different context: "Who will protect us from our protectors?"


Hersh details the various bungles, and simple bureaucratic inertia, that set the context for the 9/11 catastrophe, but draws no conclusions himself, aside from speculating that there are going to be a few personnel changes, starting with CIA director George Tenet. His analysis is that the various federal agencies charged with defending the nation were far more interested in defending their own bureaucratic turf. George W. Bush thinks this can be solved by creating yet another federal agency, one with the ominous moniker of "Homeland Security." Endless duplication is how government reproduces itself and grows bigger by the year, the month, the hour. Like some sprawling amoebae out of a grade-B science fiction movie, the Blob that is Eating America separates, and fuses, splits and re-fuses, its various tentacles ceaselessly waving, probing, grasping for power.


This story of Keystone Kops paralyzed by bureaucratism and motivated by the spirit of petty self-aggrandizement and perpetual infighting is truly frightening. For what it tells us is that there is something very wrong with our institutions, and the elites that run them, and therefore we are all of us in mortal danger. In my the-day-after column, I wrote:

"With one well-coordinated blow, the entire free world has been paralyzed. It is as if a rock-wielding David has hit a glass Goliath straight between the eyes, shattering the imperial colossus and bringing down the whole top-heavy apparatus with an earthshaking roar."

I meant this in the sense of the stark inequality of the two adversaries, and certainly not to valorize the terrorists in any way, although the more Biblically-inclined among my readers might have noted that David was, after all, the good guy in the fable. In any case, the terrorists are more like the Myrmidons, if you want to get mythological about it, those merciless soldiers who sprang up out of soil sown with dragon's teeth, special pets of Ares, the Greek god of war.


In any case, the title of that earlier column, "Imperial Paralysis," illustrates the theme that underlies the haplessness of our government officials, and their pathetic attempts to "protect" us – now that the horse is out of the barn. Who can doubt that the intelligence failures exposed by Hersh are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg? Let's cut the "unity" crap and start blaming someone – someone, that is, other than my corner grocer.


Let's have a thorough and deep investigation of the all-pervasive incompetence that has paralyzed the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, and the whole alphabet soup of federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies. These bureaucratic fiefdoms are answerable to no one, not the congress and not even the President, but are, in effect, entities unto themselves. They are empires within the Empire, and they are too large, too top-heavy, and too bloated with tax dollars to be able to move quickly or efficiently – except in the cause of preserving and expanding their budgets, their perks, and their power.


This is a structural defect of Empire. It is prone to decadence – that is, it is bound to lose sight of its original purpose and meaning, and begin to break down. The scope of our various law enforcement agencies is international, and their combined budgets total untold billions, deploying armies of agents. If John Ashcroft has his way, they will be armed with virtually unlimited power to lock up anyone for an indefinite period and close down anything – websites, foundations, organizations of any sort – on the grounds that they could be shown to be sympathetic to alleged terrorists, or possibly "harboring" terroristic ideas themselves. Yet it is precisely this awesome array, this overwhelming apparatus, that will prove, in the end, to be its own undoing.


For it is too big to make rational decisions. Like the dinosaur, it is huge but has a tiny little brain, one big enough to let it lumber about, and cause a lot of spectacular damage, but also vulnerable in other ways. The vulnerability of empires, everywhere and at all times, is too well-known to go into here. From Gibbon to Chalmers Johnson, the chroniclers of imperial decline have all delivered the same funeral oration, with certain stylistic differences but all emphasizing the same set of themes. While Johnson analyzes the economic and geopolitical dynamics of an American Imperium in decline, Gibbon shows how empire corrupts the moral character of a people, so that in the end they deserve a Nero, or a Caligula.


Yeah, but we don't deserve this – the bungling, the excuses, the sheer incompetence of fat-cat bureaucrats who, after all, hold our lives in their hands. Not yet, at any rate. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson are flat out wrong about how the terrorist attack was payment for our sins. Right now, we're paying for the US government's sins: not only those of the federal nomenklatura, who failed to detect a wide-ranging and sophisticated operation more than 5 years in the making, despite several warnings – but also those of our foreign policy makers, who delight in playing with entire peoples like pieces on a chessboard. Blinded by arrogance, and hobbled by incompetence, the imperial armies ride off into battle, headed for certain defeat.


Aha! Defeatism! This was a favorite epithet of the World War II New Dealers, who labeled any criticism of or opposition to their Great Leader "defeatist" if not downright treasonous. It was self-serving sanctimonious bullhockey then, just as it is now. I have news for the FBI, the CIA, and the rest of our "intelligence community": if they are looking for the secret of how and why Osama bin Laden succeeded in blowing up the two biggest symbols of a once great nation, they won't find it at the dinky little Arab grocery store down on the corner. For that, they need to look elsewhere – and fast.

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