In their defense against questions posed by journalists and members of the Commission investigating the 9/11 hijackings the Bush Administration has erected a brilliant and highly effective set of rhetorical defenses. The head bulwark is the claim that the Administration had no "actionable intelligence" prior to the 9/11 attacks. During her testimony to the Commission National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice reiterated the claim that the Administration did not know when, where and how terrorists would attack the US. This is a fairly worn line of defense, one that Rice offered as early as May 2002 when she said
: "I don't think anybody could have predicted that they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile." Knowledge of the "whens, wheres and hows" is what is now commonly referenced by the useful phrase "actionable intelligence." Incidentally saying we had no actionable intelligence is much fancier and sexier than simply admitting you did not know what is essentially your job to know, and it serves the useful purpose of diverting attention from follow-up questions dealing with why
you did not know what you were supposed to know. A lesson to all you students, if you are ever asked why you failed that math course instead of clumsily admitting that you did not know where the class would meet nor at what time, nor would you know the course material even if you did know the time and location, just say: "I did not have enough actionable intelligence to pass." Period. End of story.
A more substantive line of inquiry for those trying to understand why and how the hijackings succeeded is answering the question: why
did the Administration not know what it should have known? And these are precisely the questions phrases like "actionable intelligence" and "silver bullet" are intended to pre-empt. Instead of consoling ourselves with the hollow answers that the Administration did not have enough information to prevent the attacks we can ask whether the Administration could have done more to obtain
As things now stand the information available to the Administration prior to 9/11 is looking more actionable, but first, let us consider the task of preventing an attack of 9/11 caliber. It is much more difficult to prevent a conspiracy of 5 then a conspiracy of fifty. In a way, the magnitude of the attacks made the task of subverting Al-Qaida's plans easier for US intelligence agencies. There were 19 known hijackers in the air on September 11, 2001. To operationalize the hijackings Al-Qaida had to have a sizeable number of personnell to provide financial and logistical support, communication, couriers and scouts: members assisting with travel and immigration authorities. The recently released August 6, 2001 Presidential Daily Brief says as much:
"Al-Qa'ida members--including some who are US citizens--have resided or traveled to the US for years, and the group apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks."
Let us assume that from top-to-bottom, from Bin Laden himself to the 19th hijacker there was one logistical support operative for every suicide hijacker. That would make for about 40 conspirators, many traveling in and out of the US, some tracked by US and foreign intelligence agencies. More from the PDB:
An Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) operative told an _ service at the same time that Bin Laden was planning to exploit the operative's access to the US to mount a terrorist strike.
Remember that two of the known hijackers were on the FBI's watch list. We also have to consider that the attacks were planned from Afghanistan, requiring rather long lines of communication. The longer the lines of communication, the more points are available for interception. Also keep in mind, that the hijacking 19 were using unprotected chat software at public internet cafes to communicate. What would an Administration intent on preventing an imminent attack by these foreign fighters have to do to thwart it?
Firstly, find known and suspected Al-Qaida members and track them;
Secondly, intercept lines of communications and let one conspirator take investigators to others;
Thirdly, accumulate sufficient evidence to break up the conspiracy and arrest, try or deport those involved.
These are practicable steps on the way to actionable intelligence, steps the executive authorities, it seems, failed to take. Why?
Between the lines of the released PDB are written other questions:
What steps were taken to track the movement of known and suspected Al Quaida operatives in and out of the US?
It appears that an Egyptian Islamic Jihad operative was in contact with a foreign or domestic intelligence service and an Al Qaida member involved in preparations for an attack on the US. Were steps taken to find and track the Al Quaida member via the EIJ operative? If not, why?
Note the language used in the PDB: "the group apparently maintains a support structure that could aid attacks". Not "allegedly" or "supposedly", but "apparently". If US intelligence knew something about Al Quaida's supporting operatives what steps were taken to find and track them?
The August 6 PDB suggests that some degree of monitoring did, indeed, take place: "...FBI information ... indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York." We need to know more about this "suspicious activity" in to determine whether its classifications as "not actionable" is appropriate or a tragic misjudgement.