Wednesday, September 08, 2004

The 9/11 Commission Report

I've listened to about half of the audio version of the 9/11 Commission Report (available here in audio format, or here in a free, downloadable PDF). It's 20 hours total, so it will be awhile before I hear the whole thing. Maybe I'll have more to say at the end, but the thing that strikes me so far is that its effort to stay bipartisan makes the narrative clearly political. I mean that in the sense that it goes to such great political/diplomatic lengths to avoid making conclusions about what the US did or should have done, even when conclusions would be valuable. I suspect they avoid assigning blame for the past so that they could maximize unity around their recommendations for the future. I'm not sure that's the best way to learn from history.

Still, it's very important to read it, and makes a good contrast to Clarke's book, Against All Enemies. It's been several months since I listened to Clarke's book, but the contrast struck me most where both described an aborted attempt to pay Afghan tribal forces to capture or kill Bin Laden in 1998. Clarke described the proposal as "half-assed", but the Commission indicates that it was the last good chance to get him. The Commission implies that Clarke may have played a role in killing the project, and that George Tenet at CIA did as well, saying the mission would only be defined as successful if Bin Laden was captured, not killed. The Commission doesn't clarify, but this suggests that Afghan tribals would not have been paid if they killed Bin Laden.

The Commission emphasizes the uselessness of viewing this in hindsight and draws no conclusions, but that doesn't excuse all mis-steps. If the project was the last best chance, then you should probably take the chance, even if it is half-assed. Saying that capturing alone, not killing, constituted success also was a huge mistake, even discounting hindsight. Police units kill dangerous people all the time in the course of trying to capture them. Policemen still get paid. Tenet's definition was intended to stop the project.

Tenet, the Clinton administration, and Clarke himself all come off somewhat worse in the Commission report than in Clarke's book. I still have no doubt though that Clinton did a better job on terrorism than "War President" Bush.

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