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On Point

Investigating 9-11

by Austin Bay

The binder marked "TOP SECRET" is both treasured family heirloom and sad testament to poor coordination and drastic lack of imagination.

My father-in-law served as Lt. Gen. Walter Short's defense counsel in his Pearl Harbor court-martial. Short had the wicked luck of being senior U.S. Army commander in the Hawaiian Islands on Dec. 7, 1941.

After World War II, my father-in-law managed to wring several bookshelves of court-martial documents from the War Department, including a series of strategic intelligence reports given to President Roosevelt in the months preceding the Day of Infamy.

The documents are no longer state secrets, of course, and are readily available, to historians, conspiracy theorists and even congressional investigators.

Peruse the intel assessments, and you enter a world of prisms, fogged glass, the vaguely known, the suspected and the speculative. The intelligence briefs capture "the big picture," the grand aims of Germany and Japan. War between the United States and Japan looms -- but as for when and how, much less where? The "middle picture" -- the military operation featuring Japanese naval air striking Hawaii -- was missed. Only hindsight clarifies, in the deadly light of consequences.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, instead of burning battleships, our deadly light of consequences is the fiery demise of the World Trade Center and flames licking the Pentagon.

History doesn't repeat itself, not literally. Pearl Harbor was a defensible military target. The targets of 9-11 were American cultural and political icons, targets far more difficult to anticipate and harder for a free society to protect from fanatics.

However, history does repeat thematically. The Army and Navy never quite figured out who was in charge of defending Hawaii. Defense of the Islands was not centralized, either, and a key radar pick-up of approaching Japanese aircraft was neither properly understood nor disseminated. At the national level, there was no overall honcho for intel assessment and dissemination. The aftermath of 9-11 indicates the CIA and FBI failed to coordinate intelligence. The FBI handles domestic security, but CIA sources are critical when we face foreign enemies. U.S. domestic surveillance runs smack into the Bill of Rights, the guarantor of American freedom. Our freedom allows terrorists to operate with few restrictions.

Putting the pieces together -- foreseeing an impending operation, that "middle picture" -- is particularly difficult. In 1984, I participated in a war game featuring a Cessna rigged with a tiny nuke and flown by a suicide pilot. The kamikaze idea was out there. Emerging evidence indicates the FBI speculated in summer 2001 that hijackers might fly planes into buildings. The "little picture" traces of Osama bin Laden's millennial kamikaze operation were being detected. The "very big picture" was also available -- Islamist zealots hate America with a hate that recognizes no earthly boundaries.

The middle picture, however, remained sketchy. The dots and colors didn't form a pattern in the minds of men and women unable to see a new design for evil. Besides, intuition is not a skill honed by bureaucracies, and CIA and FBI are bureaucracies. Thus improvements in information analysis and dissemination might not have stopped 9-11. Apparently, several hijackers didn't know their mission was suicidal, which reinforced the terrorists' "operational security." This suggests definitely knowing how and when, in the case of terror organizations, means inside sources. Those take time o develop and mean renewed emphasis at CIA on HUMINT (human spies).

A thorough congressional investigation of the 9-11 intelligence failure must also assay any "pre-emptive" opportunities the United States had to penetrate bin Laden's network. Did Sudan really offer bin Laden to the Clinton administration? How close did our cruise missiles come to killing him in 1998? Pre-emptive operations can prevent 9-11s.

Adm. William "Bull" Halsey had a pre-emptive operation in mind when he took his carriers out of Pearl in early December 1941. Bull told his sailors if they met Japanese they were to attack. Some thought the bluff carrier commander was borderline nuts. History indicates the son of a gun had imagination and an astute, intuitive mind.

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