Posts from August 29, 2004

The 9/11 Report: More dissent

The 9/11 Report: More dissent

: I thought I was alone with my complaints about the 9/11 Commission and how it politicized the process … and then, ironically, how it depoliticized the report to erase the edges and gather consensus at the cost of the best thinking … and then how it sold the comforting but ultimately delusional coulda/woulda/shoulda notion that we could have prevented the attacks and are at fault if we don’t prevent the next … and then how it went on tour to impose its recommendations without the opportunity for debate.

Thank goodness, I am not alone. I have company far wiser than me.

Judge Richard A. Posner of the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals writes a brilliant essay in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review taking apart the too-quickly-accepted wisdom about the 9/11 Commission and its report. Says Judge Posner:

The document is an improbable literary triumph.

However, the commission’s analysis and recommendations are unimpressive. The delay in the commission’s getting up to speed was not its fault but that of the administration, which dragged its heels in turning over documents; yet with completion of its investigation deferred to the presidential election campaign season, the commission should have waited until after the election to release its report. That would have given it time to hone its analysis and advice.

The enormous public relations effort that the commission orchestrated to win support for the report before it could be digested also invites criticism — though it was effective: in a poll conducted just after publication, 61 percent of the respondents said the commission had done a good job, though probably none of them had read the report. The participation of the relatives of the terrorists’ victims (described in the report as the commission’s ”partners”) lends an unserious note to the project (as does the relentless self-promotion of several of the members). One can feel for the families’ loss, but being a victim’s relative doesn’t qualify a person to advise on how the disaster might have been prevented.

(Separately, read this poll of 9/11 families, in which The Times finds that their emotions do not reflect those of America at large. We didn’t need a poll to intuit that.)

Posner goes on to tear apart the essential structure of the commission and its report:

Much more troublesome are the inclusion in the report of recommendations (rather than just investigative findings) and the commissioners’ misplaced, though successful, quest for unanimity. Combining an investigation of the attacks with proposals for preventing future attacks is the same mistake as combining intelligence with policy. The way a problem is described is bound to influence the choice of how to solve it. The commission’s contention that our intelligence structure is unsound predisposed it to blame the structure for the failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks, whether it did or not. And pressure for unanimity encourages just the kind of herd thinking now being blamed for that other recent intelligence failure — the belief that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.

At least the commission was consistent. It believes in centralizing intelligence, and people who prefer centralized, pyramidal governance structures to diversity and competition deprecate dissent. But insistence on unanimity, like central planning, deprives decision makers of a full range of alternatives. For all one knows, the price of unanimity was adopting recommendations that were the second choice of many of the commission’s members or were consequences of horse trading. The premium placed on unanimity undermines the commission’s conclusion that everybody in sight was to blame for the failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks. Given its political composition (and it is evident from the questioning of witnesses by the members that they had not forgotten which political party they belong to), the commission could not have achieved unanimity without apportioning equal blame to the Clinton and Bush administrations, whatever the members actually believe.

What a perfect expression of the fundamental flaw in the commission: Partisan masquerading as unpartisan; investigation morphing into advocacy; independence being abandoned for the sake of influence. By seeking unanimity, the commission silenced its own debate (or at least did not share it) and by silencing debate — first, on the commission and then, in the country — it cut off the effort to find the best solution that comes from the competition of the best ideas.

This will sound odd to say, but the problem with the commission was that it dwelled on the past. Well, of course, you say, wasn’t that the mission: to find out what went wrong so it won’t happen again? In part, yes. But just as the commission accused all of government of a “failure of imagination,” the commission exhibited a similar failure by operating under twin assumptions. First, it assumed that we could have seen what would have happened that day and would have had the political and financial will to have prevented it — when, in fact, most people would have called such intuition merely paranoia. (Imagine the reaction: “You want us to spend billions changing the entire travel industry because you think a hijacker might turn a jet into a bomb? Save it for the X Files, bud.”) Second, it assumed that by learning how to prevent 9/11, we will be better prepared to prevent the next attack — when, in fact, the next attack will be nothing like 9/11; it will be the product of the sick and nimble imagination of these fanatical terrorist enemies. Says Posner:

The tale of how we were surprised by the 9/11 attacks is a product of hindsight; it could not be otherwise. And with the aid of hindsight it is easy to identify missed opportunities (though fewer than had been suspected) to have prevented the attacks, and tempting to leap from that observation to the conclusion that the failure to prevent them was the result not of bad luck, the enemy’s skill and ingenuity or the difficulty of defending against suicide attacks or protecting an almost infinite array of potential targets, but of systemic failures in the nation’s intelligence and security apparatus that can be corrected by changing the apparatus.

That is the leap the commission makes, and it is not sustained by the report’s narrative. The narrative points to something different, banal and deeply disturbing: that it is almost impossible to take effective action to prevent something that hasn’t occurred previously. Once the 9/11 attacks did occur, measures were taken that have reduced the likelihood of a recurrence. But before the attacks, it was psychologically and politically impossible to take those measures. The government knew that Al Qaeda had attacked United States facilities and would do so again. But the idea that it would do so by infiltrating operatives into this country to learn to fly commercial aircraft and then crash such aircraft into buildings was so grotesque that anyone who had proposed that we take costly measures to prevent such an event would have been considered a candidate for commitment. No terrorist had hijacked an American commercial aircraft anywhere in the world since 1986….

The problem isn’t just that people find it extraordinarily difficult to take novel risks seriously; it is also that there is no way the government can survey the entire range of possible disasters and act to prevent each and every one of them. As the commission observes, ”Historically, decisive security action took place only after a disaster had occurred or a specific plot had been discovered.” It has always been thus, and probably always will be. For example, as the report explains, the 1993 truck bombing of the World Trade Center led to extensive safety improvements that markedly reduced the toll from the 9/11 attacks; in other words, only to the slight extent that the 9/11 attacks had a precedent were significant defensive steps taken in advance.

Posner goes on to say that our failures before 9/11 were not so dire as has been presented and neither have our failures since. He stops reading the narrative at page 338 and lists seven improvements in our defenses implied by the findings and he sees progress: Passengers and baggage are being screened and cockpit doors are secure; legal barriers to sharing information are down; customs is taking greater care with immigrants. He also argues that the thousands of agents assigned to an unwinnable war on drugs should be transferred to the far more urgent war on terrorism, though he acknowledges political impediments to that. We should be training more students in Arabic (I wonder why my local schools haven’t added it) and we should have better evacuation plans for buildings.

His big point is that the FBI is the biggest problem; it’s a police force that’s not good at intelligence. But note this week that it’s not the FBI that’s being reorganized under the demands of the commission but the CIA. Posner has much more in his analysis of the CIA and the FBI and what to do with them; go read it all.

The most frightening thing about the 9/11 Commission report and the reaction to it is that we will do everything they so forcefully insist we should do and then we will relax and say, whew!, we’re safe now. But, of course, we won’t be. We secure planes and the terrorists attack trains. We secure New York and the terrorists attack New Jersey. We look for men and the terrorists send women. We expect bombs and the terrorists send germs.

The most frightening thing about the 9/11 Commission is its sureness. We shouldn’t be so sure. Says Posner:

Illustrating the psychological and political difficulty of taking novel threats seriously, the commission’s recommendations are implicitly concerned with preventing a more or less exact replay of 9/11. Apart from a few sentences on the possibility of nuclear terrorism, and of threats to other modes of transportation besides airplanes, the broader range of potential threats, notably those of bioterrorism and cyberterrorism, is ignored….

So the report ends on a flat note. But one can sympathize with the commission’s problem. To conclude after a protracted, expensive and much ballyhooed investigation that there is really rather little that can be done to reduce the likelihood of future terrorist attacks beyond what is being done already, at least if the focus is on the sort of terrorist attacks that have occurred in the past rather than on the newer threats of bioterrorism and cyberterrorism, would be a real downer — even a tad un-American. Americans are not fatalists. When a person dies at the age of 95, his family is apt to ascribe his death to a medical failure. When the nation experiences a surprise attack, our instinctive reaction is not that we were surprised by a clever adversary but that we had the wrong strategies or structure and let’s change them and then we’ll be safe. Actually, the strategies and structure weren’t so bad; they’ve been improved; further improvements are likely to have only a marginal effect; and greater dangers may be gathering of which we are unaware and haven’t a clue as to how to prevent.

Hell, even after I saw the result of the first jet hitting the first tower on September 11th, I didn’t believe what I had seen. I heard people on the street around me who saw just what I saw say “plane” but I thought it was just a rumor and I wasn’t alone. It was not until we heard about the Pentagon and saw the second jet hit that we could all be sure.

Yes, we suffer from a failure of imagination. We do not, thank God, have the sick imaginations of evil, murdering, fanatical terrorists.

That is precisely why we should not act sure. That is why we should be seeking more debate, not less; more frightening scenarios, not fewer; more suggestions, not just the commission’s.

That is why we need more voices like Judge Posner’s challenging us all.