My 9/11 moment came Saturday morning as I was driving across the Francis Scott Key Bridge from D.C. into Virginia. NPR interrupted its memorial commentary to go live from Shanksville, Pa., where a deep baritone was singing an extended, mournful version of Amazing Grace. Suddenly, the scattered clouds parted, momentarily unlocking a sky as crisp blue and sunny as the day the hijacked jetliners flew into the World Trade Center towers and Pentagon. For the first time in the weeks since the riptides of Kabul’s horrific chaos and the 9/11 anniversary fought for space in my mind, I felt genuinely, deeply sad.
Sad for the horrible losses of 9/11, of course, that continue to afflict so many families today. But also deep melancholy from me-mories of the mistakes, de-lusions and deceptions that have brought us to where we are this September 20 years later, on the brink of losing our republic.
They were avoidable.
Did you know that the George W. Bush administration generally brushed off terrorist concerns for its first nine months in office, even after the CIA famously told the president that “the lights were blinking red” about an Al Qaeda attack? Vice President Dick Cheney had put off the first White House homeland se-curity meeting until the mo-rning of—you guessed it—September 11, 2001. Thing is, the White House shouldn’t have needed an engr-aved, “Bin Laden Determ-ined to Strike in the US” in-telligence report to wake up that summer: Plenty of j-ournalists and experts had been zeroing in on the fan-atical terrorists for years, since at least the first, 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, followed by the 1998 attacks on two US embassies in East Africa, and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen.
Likewise, the FBI was watching—to a degree. “Although the FBI formally declared terrorism its number one priority years before 9/11, in 2001 only 6% of FBI personnel were working on counterterrorism issues and FBI special agents received more time for vacation than for counterterrorism training,” political scientist Amy Zegart, author of the forthcoming Spies, Lies, and Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence,wrote recently.
“A massive effort to reform the bureau’s counterterrorism capabilities across the FBI’s US field offices ended in disaster,” Zegart continued in The Atlantic magazine. “Just weeks before 9/11, an internal report gave all 56 offices failing grades. The assessment was considered so embarrassing, it was highly classified and only a handful of copies was ever produced.”
The heads of the FBI and CIA, not to mention the secretaries of State and Defense, take their cues from the White House to a deeply unsettling degree, as we’ve learned to our sorrow again and again. And the Bush administration’s so-called “dream team”—Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell and Rice—were looking elsewhere, toward what would turn out to be the worst foreign policy disaster in American history, the 2003 invasion of Iraq. (The real tragedy of Vietnam was that it had no real consequences beyond its borders; Iraq is very different—and not over.)
In recent weeks, the Kabul catastrophe, coupled with such groundbreaking investigative work as the last of John Sopko’s inspector general reports and Cr-aig Whitlock’s The Afghan-istan Papers: A Secret History of the War, have exposed enough perfidy on the part of America’s leadership class to gag an elephant. Decades worth of such have helped give rise to the insurrectionist demagogues and mobs that now threaten the very existence of our republic.
We’ve all had it up to our keisters with such sickening revelations. What’s next?
Pleas for Accountability
Several important voices are pleading for accountability. One of the most m-oving, to me, came Sunday night from former Army Lieutenant Colonel Jason Dempsey, during a CNN Special Report, America’s Longest War: What Went Wrong in Afghanistan.
“What makes the problem of assessing our failure in Afghanistan difficult,” Dempsey told CNN host Jake Tapper, “is everyone can think they’re doing their best. We all left with great write-ups, and we got a pat on the back. We convinced ourselves that we were doing well, but we never h-eld anybody accountable f-or, well, wait a minute: If everybody gets an A, but the overall effort’s still an F, who do we hold accountable?” Dempsey, his hair grown long, an avid bicycler racing away his rage on the paths along the Potomac, added: ”We have to have these discussions, right? The lives of American soldiers, even if it’s just a dozen, is not a Goddamn rounding error…
“So anyone who truly respects the military should absolutely be calling for a Congressional hearing. It means that you are absolutely questioning the generals so that we don’t replicate what we did in this war for the next one.”
Anthony Cordesman has been studying war and peace for a very long time, with very great prescience. Now Emeritus Chair in Strategy at CSIS, Cordes-man noted in a major paper last week that “the US has a poor history of making effective efforts to learn the lessons of its recent wars, and is already focusing on other strategic issues and the crises that are following the collapse of Afghan-istan.” Rushed official re-ports on the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait and the 2003 invasion of Iraq were sloppy and infected with the military services’ ass-covering. He rues Washington’s addict-ion to “the blame game,” with its partisan divisions and debate—a sample of which was served up Mo-nday with petty Republican sniping at Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on the administration’s Af-ghanistan evacuation effo-rts. Whatever blame the ad-ministration deserves, the nation deserves better than such schoolyard taunting.
What we deserve, and n-eed, is a full, solemn accou-nting across the board. The people need to see and hear a frank examination of the entire two decades following the 9/11 attacks, from t-he decisions of FBI and C-IA leaders to condone mass violations of civil rights here and human rights abr-oad in the name of fighting terrorism, to the misguided, possibly criminal, decisions of civilian, military and i-ntelligence leaders involv-ed in the decisions to inva-de Iraq and lie to thems-elves and the public for ye-ars about progress in Afg-hanistan.
We need, as Frances Fitzgerald put it in the title of her Pulitzer-winning study of the irresolvable conflict between Western and Vietnamese values, a “fire in the lake”—a cleansing. Or, to put in a more familiar lexicon, to bind up our wounds. The American people need to see their government officials admit their mistakes, under the flag of a solemn, bipartisan commission of unblemished notables. Forgiveness will surely come then, and only then can we truly move on. That’s the genius of American political life.
But Congress better move fast—however unlikely the prospect: The other side has its torches lit, and they’re on its way to burn the whole place down.
SpyTalk founder and editor-in-chief Jeff Stein was a military intelligence case officer in Vietnam during 1968 and1969.