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Wednesday, March 24, 2004

You really need a program on this one
From Atrios:
I have to say that Rummy's assertion today that it would have been a mistake to go after Bin Laden before 9/11 because 9/11 would have happened anyway but it would have then be seen as some sort of just retaliation by Bin Laden's people is truly one of the weirdest things I've heard... I guess that's part of the patented Rumsfeld "outside the box" thinking...

I guess that I sort of agree with Atrios that it's weird, but you've got to be careful. Our new hero said exactly the same thing as Rummy did:

Well, this attack would have happened anyway...In fact, if we had killed bin Laden in June with the Predator and this still happened, our friends at CIA would have blamed us, said the attack on New York was retribution, talked again about the overly zealous White House counterterrorism guys. -- Richard Clarke, Against All Enemies, page 27.

Now Rummy probably got the argument straight out of Clarke's book, and is just hoping that someone will jump him for it so he can pull out the book and read from page 27. And it certainly concerns me that Clarke seems more worried, at least in this passage, about what the CIA guys think than about the overall situation. But I have to say that I think that both Clarke and Rummy are right on this one--killing bin Laden before 9/11 wouldn't have stopped 9/11. Atta and the other hijackers were already here, already had their funding, already had their training.

But I see this whole thing as a diversionary tactic. Getting bin Laden then was no more important than it is now. He's just one man, and al Qaeda is a loose network of cells not dependent on one man. Bin Laden the martyr would probably be of just as much use to the overall organization as bin Laden the living person. Maybe without his ongoing leadership al Qaeda would have eventually shrivelled up, but it seems very unlikely that this would have happened before the hijackers had struck. This argument is one of those that the Bushies are using to deflect criticism towards the Clinton administration. If you buy the argument that invading Afghanistan and killing bin Laden was crucial to stopping 9/11, then I think the Bushies win this round.

That isn't the point, though. September 11 could have been stopped if the CIA had told the FBI about the al Qaeda agents living in this country. It could have been stopped if the FBI had more thoroughly investigated the suspicious behavior at the flight schools. And on the simplest level, it could have been stopped just by improving airport screening. Of all the steps taken since 9/11--the war in Afghanistan, the Patriot Act, the holding of hundreds of "detainees," the war in Iraq--only one, the tightened security at the airports, would have been necessary or effective in stopping 9/11. (And the Bushies have already said that they had "chatter" about hijackings, so tightened airport security should have been an obvious step.)

Now I don't like much of anything the Bushies have done since 9/11, and I certainly wouldn't have liked it if they had done them before 9/11. Like a lot of people now, I think the war in Iraq was a horrible act, not just in and of itself but in terms of terrorism. I agree with Clarke that that war is a DEFEAT in the so-called "war on terror"--there are far more people devoted to attacking the U.S. now than there were before. Unlike a lot of people, I also think that the war in Afghanistan was a horrible act. Thousands were killed, of whom no more than a few dozen could possibly have had anything to do with 9/11. The U.S. created far more enemies than it killed or captured. And now, we can even use the Rumsfeld/Clarke argument against that war--killing bin Laden would not stop terrorism.

I still think that it's possible that there is a real smoking gun from the pre-9/11 days--that the Bushies knew it was coming and didn't stop it because they knew how enormous the political benefits would be. If that is the case, then they are the worst criminals in U.S. history, bar none. (And their secrecy and stonewalling certainly adds credence to this possibility.) But if it was a matter of emphasis and priorities, a failure to recognize the seriousness of the threat, a failure to read this memo or that, then I think it is misguided to go after them mainly on their pre-9/11 actions. Their post-9/11 actions have been taken with full knowledge and warnings of the consequences. Their actions abroad in Afghanistan, Iraq and a hundred other places have increased the likelihood of attacks on the U.S., and their slowness in taking real measures to secure the ports, the nuclear plants, the chemical plants, and so on has left us very vulnerable. This is the most damning part of Clarke's argument, and we shouldn't let the Bushies deflect it with excuses about the pre-9/11 failures.