Assigning blame based on what we now think someone should have known is a fruitless and possibly dangerous game. Connecting the dots is easy if you know what the picture looks like.
Last week, the New York Times published an opinion piece headlined “The deafness before the storm.” In it, author Kurt Eichenwald argued that President George W. Bush was negligent in not doing more to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks.
The gist of his argument is that much more was known about al-Qaida and its intentions than generally has been believed. To Eichenwald, that suggests the Bush administration should have been able to figure it out had it been truly committed to preventing terrorism.
Eichenwald, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and a former Times reporter, cites passages from various intelligence reports in the months leading up to Sept. 11. On May 1, 2001, the CIA said “a group presently in the United States” was planning an attack. In June, another CIA warning said an al-Qaida strike was “imminent.” On July 1, a brief said an attack “will occur soon.”
But at least as recounted by Eichenwald, those warnings offer little more specificity than a Magic 8 Ball. Of course, terrorists were planning an attack. Somebody, somewhere always is. What is missing is what kind of strike, when and where. There had been the first, thwarted attempt to blow up the World Trade Center, and since Sept. 11, 2001, the ridiculous shoe- and underwear bombers, but most foreign terrorist attacks against U.S. facilities or people – before and after Sept. 11 – have been overseas.
Eichenwald also reports that while the CIA “grew apoplectic” over its concerns about al-Qaida, the neoconservatives in charge at the Pentagon were “warning the White House that the CIA had been fooled.” Their view was that al-Qaida was feigning an attack to distract the U.S. from Saddam Hussein.
Nonetheless, Eichenwald concludes: “Throughout that summer, there were events that might have exposed the plans, had the government been on high alert.”
The key word there is “might” – that and the assumption that all that was needed to connect those dots was greater vigilance. In fact, a great deal of luck or a touch of clairvoyance was needed more.
There is, of course, a certain tautological clarity to blaming Bush. He was president and a horrible terrorist attack happened on his watch.
But by that standard, every president for the last 80 years was just as guilty – Reagan for the Marines killed in Beirut, Clinton for the Hezbollah bombing of the Khobar Towers and the al-Qaida attacks on embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, and now Obama for the deaths in Libya.
And most suffered the same second-guessing through hindsight. For decades after Pearl Harbor, there was an ongoing effort to prove that President Franklin Roosevelt was complicit in, or at least had foreknowledge of, the Japanese attack. We do love to connect those dots.
People lay awake for thousands of years staring at dots of light, and they discerned patterns in them. But for all their effort and imagination, there really are no bulls or lions in the night sky.
Leading up to Sept. 11, some people saw some things that, with the clarity of hindsight, we now connect to the Twin Towers. Others did not. We should try to learn from that, and presuming we could have done better is not where to start.
There is more than enough for which George W. Bush can legitimately be blamed. But it is unfair – and more important, unhelpful – to hold him to a standard neither his predecessors nor his successors could meet.