Just keep trying

Intelligence Failure? (IV)

Craig at Lead and Gold has an observation about the “they had to have 100% success” remarks about our ability to prevent 9/11:

The original plot to hijack planes and fly them into buildings was disrupted when the police in Manila arrested one of the conspirators and forced the other two to flee. By the end of 1996 all three were in US custody (including Ramzi Yusef).

One of the first pilots for the reconstituted plot (Ramzi Binalshibh) WAS denied entry into the US. Al Qaeda found other volunteers. When Moussaoui was arrested, the plot continued.

Clearly, AQ did not need 100% success from end to end. They simply needed to keep trying, and get a short string of successes at some point. Fielding understates the real problems we faced in 2001 by minimizing the tenacity of the terrorists.

Similarly, do we know for sure that Atta’s original plan called for four and only four planes? For all we know, our actions might have forced them to scale back their plan. That’s the problem with intelligence, the murkiness is so deep, nearly every statement of fact can be questioned five different ways.

Now, the cynical may say “well, they were only able to put together a ‘short string of successes’ after Bush took office”. But despite any complaints about Bush & Co. not stepping up anti-terror policies quickly enough, it seems pretty evident that things weren’t any easier for the bad guys under Bush, even if they weren’t harder enough to prevent 9/11.

What if the talk of additional planes targeting Chicago and Los Angeles are true? Bush may be 100% responsible for preventing 9/18. Or Clinton may be responsible for preventing 01/01/01.

We don’t know. And that’s the way it is in intelligence and counter-terrorism.

If we had swooped down on the hijackers after the 8/6/01 PDB, despite the fact that the 8/6/01 PDB didn’t help anyone at all, we might have learned enough from the prisoners to step up airport security and watch foreigners in the US more closely. For a while. But the paradigm woudn’t have changed, and at some point our guard would have been lowered again.

I’m not trying to say that 9/11 was inevitable, even if we delayed it. Not at all. But everyone seems to ready to find a scapegoat that they’re ignoring the rules of the game. The attacks probably had already been delayed several times over the previous years. But as long as the masterminds and the resources were left alone, they were free to keep adapting and adjusting.

For another take on what may have transpired if we had stopped 9/11, check this out at Easterblogg.