Friday, April 16, 2004

Politics Above All

From The Blade/AP:

WASHINGTON (AP) — Six years before the Sept. 11 attacks, the CIA warned in a classified report that Islamic extremists likely would strike on U.S. soil at landmarks in Washington or New York, or through the airline industry, according to intelligence officials.

Though hauntingly prescient, the CIA’s 1995 National Intelligence Estimate did not yet name Osama bin Laden as a terrorist threat.

But within months the intelligence agency developed enough concern about the wealthy, Saudi-born militant to create a specific unit to track him and his followers, the officials told The Associated Press.

And in 1997, the CIA updated its intelligence estimate to ensure bin Laden appeared on its very first page as an emerging threat, cautioning that his growing movement might translate into attacks on U.S. soil, the officials said, divulging new details about the CIA’s 1990s response to the terrorist threat.

The officials took the rare step Thursday of disclosing information in the closely held National Intelligence Estimates and other secret briefings to counter criticisms in a staff report released this week by the independent commission examining pre-Sept. 11 intelligence failures.

That commission report accused the CIA of failing to recognize al-Qaida as a formal terrorist organization until 1999. It characterized the agency as regarding bin Laden mostly as a financier instead of a charismatic leader of the terrorist movement.

But one senior U.S. intelligence official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, said the 1997 National Intelligence Estimate “identified bin Laden and his followers and threats they were making and said it might portend attacks inside the United States.” [emphasis added]

So it’s not like they hadn’t heard of the guy, and the agencies were at least beginning to take steps to track him. Now add that to the attitude of the incoming Bush administration that anything done by those evildoers in the Clinton White House was not to be believed, and you have the makings of a real disconnect. (See Joe Conason’s piece in Salon.com about how the right wing, including Ashcroft, is pre-emptively attacking the 9/11 commission for political cover.)

This raises an interesting question. If Al Gore had been president in the spring and summer of 2001, and assuming he had kept many of the cabinet and agency heads from the previous eight years, would there have been any chance that his administration would have been more on the ball when the threat levels and chatter were going up?