Two big news items this week seem to confirm what I suspected all along, which is that the 9/11 attacks were not prevented in large part because of information processing problems, rather than a failure of information gathering. Today, it’s been reported that President Bush was briefed in August on a possible attack by terrorists working with Osama bin Laden that involved hijacking planes. Earlier this month, we learned that FBI agents in Arizona were concerned about Arab students at US flight training schools in July, 2001.
I don’t think it’s fair at this point to say that the administration was falling down on the job, and doing so would be pointless anyway. The question is how we can synthesize the information that we have to prevent attacks in the future. Just the two bits of data mentioned above, if used together, could have thwarted the attacks. Knowing that Arab students at US flight schools were suspect and that a potential hijacking scheme was in the works, we could have provided airlines with a list of names gleaned from a list of suspect students at flight schools around the country. Given the fact that some of the hijackers were on lists of suspected terrorists anyway, and that there were other red flags in the travel plans of the hijackers (one way tickets, no luggage, several tickets bought with the same credit card, etc), surely we had enough information to prevent some or all of the hijackings. Tom Ridge ought to be spending 16 hours a day working with people to figure out how to turn all the information we have into something meaningful, and then putting it into the right hands.
The question one would ask of the Bush administration is whether the warning about the upcoming terrorist attack that was received in August was something routine, or something exceptional. If various warnings of terrorist attacks are received every day or every week, I can see how the warning in question could slip through the cracks. If there were something special about it, then it seems like the fact that it did not lead to steps that could have prevented the 9/11 attacks bears further investigation.