Thursday, July 22, 2004

Mountain Brings Forth a Mouse

Pundits, prophets, and political hacks are tearing through the 9/11 Commission Report, hoping to fetch up a weapon handy to beat the other side. But the big picture? After all that talk and anguish and tawdriness, nothing new. The whole country got whacked that sunny morning almost three years ago. We all stared at the pictures and the video footage, disbelieving, stunned. Nobody expected it.

OK, I'm not supposed to expect it, and neither are you. But what about the men and women in power? The report doesn't change the answer: Nobody expected it. And after the report, all sorts of recommendations for how to change Congress, the spy agencies, and the entire structure of government, start to percolate. They'll be dead by Election Day.

Because this is our choice: do we want to live in a country where spies are limited, government keeps its hands off its citizens, and people practice their freedoms uninhibited? Or do we want a government that is ruthlessy efficient at spying, anticipating trouble, and keeping track of every detail that might someday connect to something else?

We've looked at that choice and turned away. Invade Afghanistan, attack Iraq. Argue about peace and oil. Change one party for another. Those things we can do, they can drown out the bigger questions.

How can we engage in a generation-long struggle againt an amorphous, stateless, potent, rich enemy that takes the form of a branch of one of the world's great religion, without fundamentally changing the nature of our government and national culture, without becoming a different nation than what we are? Look what the Civil War did to us in four years.

This bit of the report, detailing events of 1998, is nothing new, either, in principle.

On December 20, intelligence indicated Bin Ladin would be spending the night at the Haji Habash house, part of the governor's residence in Kandahar. The chief of the Bin Ladin unit, "Mike," told us that he promptly briefed Tenet and his deputy, John Gordon. From the field, the CIA's Gary Schroen advised: "Hit him tonight -- we may not get another chance." An urgent teleconference of principals was arranged.

The principals considered a cruise missile strike to try to kill Bin Ladin. One issue they discussed was the potential collateral damage -- the number of innocent bystanders who would be killed or wounded. General Zinni predicted a number well over 200 and was concerned about damage to a nearby mosque .... By the end of the meeting, the principals decided against recommending to the President that he order a strike ....

Some lower-level officials were angry. "Mike" reported to Schroen that he had been unable to sleep after this decision. "I'm sure we'll regret not acting last night," he wrote, criticizing the principals for "worrying that some stray shrapnel might hit the Habash mosque and offend Muslims."

The principals, he said, were "obsessed" with trying to get others -- Saudis, Pakistanis, Afghan tribals -- to "do what we won't do." Schroen was disappointed too. "We should have done it last night," he wrote. "We may well come to regret the decision not to go ahead." [9-11 Report, page 147-148]

In the cruel math of Realpolitik, trade 200 lives for 3,000? But subtract from your mind, if possible, every image of 9/11, every falling, burning, bleeding body, every tear and gasp of rage. Then kill the same 200 people on the chance -- mere chance -- that this one man might succeed in his plan to wreak devastation on America.

And imagine the reaction in the U.N. General Assembly, in the Middle Eastern mosques, in the German and French press.