Man Without Qualities

Thursday, May 16, 2002

What Terrorists Do

"Why did it take eight months for us to receive this information?" asks Senator Daschle, referring to the report that the White House knew prior to Sept. 11 that Osama bin Laden was seeking to hijack aircraft.

Well, this information was released by the White House of its own accord. So the answer to Mr. Daschle's question is probably: "The White House is releasing this information eight months after September 11 so it doesn't get released thirteen months after September 11 - just in time for Election Day."

But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this affair is the present suggestion of Messrs. Daschle, Gephardt and other Democrats that their thinking and policies prior to September 11 did not assume that all major terrorist organizations - including Osama bin Laden's - were generally interested in aircraft hijackings. The only news in yesterday's White House "revelations" was that White house aides had actually briefed the President on non-specific reports of bin Laden's hijacking interest - and this could be news only because it is interesting that an aid would brief the President on something anyone who cared to think about the matter would assume to be the case anyway.

To assist the national Democratic leadership, here is a hypothetical July. 2001 White House conversation between aides:

First Aide: "Al Qaida - that terrorist organization that did the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1996 killing of 19 US soldiers in Saudi Arabia, and the 1998 bombings in Kenya and Tanzania - is still in business, isn't it?"

Second Aide: "They're out there. That kind of organization - like Hezbolla, Islamic Jihad, Friends of the Earth, that kind of group - pop up when they can. They try to kill a major business executive, or plant a bomb or hijack a plane. We just got some report that al Qaida would like to hijack planes - but there's nothing specific, as usual, so nothing new."

First Aide: "What the heck do we do with a report like that?"

Second Aide: "What can you do with it? Maybe we mention it to POTUS on a laundry list day. He knows these groups are out there trying to get away with this stuff - everybody knows. What the heck else do you DO if you're a terrorist."

In contrast, according to Messrs. Daschle, Gephardt and such other Democrats, conversations among Congressional Democrats apparently went more like this:

Mr. Daschle: "Al Qaida, that terrorist organization that blew up the bomb in the World Trade Center in 1992 is still in business, isn't it?"

Mr. Gephardt: "I don't think we can assume they're out there. I generally think that kind of organization - like Hezbolla, Islamic Jihad, that kind of group - either ceases to exist or goes straight not more than thirty days after they pop up and kill a major business executive, or plant a bomb or hijack a plane. We haven't got a report that al Qaida would like to hijack planes in the last thirty days, so I'm assuming they've gone into charitable work. I've structured all Democrat intelligence legislation in the House based on that assumption. I suppose if we got a report we'd have to say something - those reports come in all the time. But thy never have anything specific in them."

Mr. Daschle: "What the heck do you do with a report like that?"

Mr. Gephardt: "What can you do with it? I just treat them as sacred cows I pat as we walk by. You can't take that stuff seriously."

There is a remarkable self-destructiveness in the proposals of Messrs. Daschle and Gephardt to hold hearings and investigations on this topic. Immediately following the September 11 disasters many people began to point out that the successful terrorism could be placed at the door of Clinton-era restrictions on the intelligence services and other Clinton administration misfeasance and nonfeasance. The Bush White House deliberately did not engage in such finger pointing - and there could have been a serious political downside if it had. But if Messrs. Daschle and Gephardt get their way, the Bush Administration will have an essentially free hand to savage its Democrat predecessor.

Is that what the Democrats want? Do they want to force the administration to argue that the reason the reports were non-specific, and therefore useless, was that the Clinton Administration had made it all but impossible to obtain specific information by prohibiting the use of criminal informants and otherwise crippling the intelligence services? Do the Democrats think such White House arguments couldn't be supported?

It is worth noting that the junior Senator from New York has not joined with Messrs. Daschle and Gephardt on this topic to date. And New York's interests were affected a lot more by these events than those of Missouri and South Dakota.

UPDATE: The comments of Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee, add an interesting twist: "There was a lot of information. I believe and others believe, if it had been acted on properly we may have had a different situation on Sept. 11." Is there that big a rift between the White House and this Senator?

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