We will never forget
“We Will Never Forget.” That poignant sign caught my eye as I watched Thursday morning’s simple yet moving ceremony marking the end of an intensive eight-month-long recovery operation at Ground Zero on the hallowed site of the destroyed World Trade towers in New York City. That massive operation, completed ahead of schedule and under budget, reminds us of what’s really important in our continuing War Against Terrorism.
While some high-profile politicians play an election year blame game in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that killed more than 3,000 innocent civilians in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., the victims’ families continue to mourn their loved ones. At Ground Zero, where more than 2,800 people — including hundreds of New York firemen and policemen — died horrible deaths, two-thirds of the bodies will never be recovered. Although most of the victims were Americans, we should remember that citizens of 80 other countries also lost their lives in the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history.
That’s why we should honor the Sept. 11 victims rather than attempting to find a scapegoat to blame for this horrific tragedy. I think it’s truly distasteful to hear the same “What did he know and when did he know it?” questions that we heard during the Watergate scandal more than 25 years ago. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) asked those questions on “Meet the Press” last Sunday, and I felt sorry for him — sorry because it’s pathetic to focus on President Bush at this point instead of on the psychopathic Islamic killers who perpetrated the terrorist attacks.
I don’t mean to suggest that it’s inappropriate to investigate intelligence failures that occurred prior to the attacks. Of course we should attempt to discover why certain intelligence reports never reached the White House, and to find ways to promote better cooperation between the CIA and the FBI in order to prevent future terrorist attacks. But it’s sick to suggest that President Bush knew about the Sept. 11 attacks in advance, and did nothing about it. No American president would be guilty of such a crime.
FBI Director Robert Mueller took a positive step to improve our intelligence capabilities last Wednesday when he announced a major overhaul of his agency. The massive reorganization will shift hundreds of FBI agents from working on narcotics and white-collar crimes to the War on Terrorism, hire 900 new agents specializing in computers and foreign languages by next September, and strengthen ties with the CIA. Specifically, 25 senior CIA intelligence analysts will work directly with the FBI on a new anti-terrorism task force. And on Thursday, Attorney General John Ashcroft relaxed the rules governing how FBI agents track suspected terrorists in the U.S.
Had such a structure been in place prior to Sept. 11, the FBI would have paid more attention to an angry 13-page memo from Coleen Rowley, the agency’s chief lawyer in Minneapolis, that accused FBI headquarters of “consistently, almost deliberately thwarting” her office’s efforts to investigate the so-called “20th hijacker,” Zacarias Moussaoui, who was arrested before the Sept. 11 attacks. He faces federal terrorism charges that carry the death penalty.
On Wednesday, Mueller praised Ms. Rowley and admitted that his agency may have overlooked other “potential warning signs” prior to the attacks. “With our new priorities, new resources and our new structure, I do believe we are changing the FBI,” Mueller said. “But we must change our culture as well.” And so they must.
Despite 20/20 hindsight, however, I know how difficult it is to sift through the thousands of highly classified intelligence reports that pour into Washington every day, and to decide which ones should be acted upon. I saw hundreds of such reports each day when I worked at the State Department during the Gulf War, and I’m glad I didn’t have to decide which ones to pass along to the Secretary of State. And when I served at American embassies overseas, where bomb threats were a daily occurrence, there was simply no way to act upon every threat that we received. So we had to be selective, as does the Bush administration in deciding which terrorist warnings should be relayed to the public.
As we used to say in the Foreign Service, There’s always too much security until it’s really needed, and then it’s never enough. For example, I thought it was overkill when the embassy security officer decided to station an armed guard inside our house in Lima, Peru, but I accepted the decision after a bomb exploded outside our embassy.
The Bush administration was roundly criticized for issuing “too many” terrorist warnings over the Memorial Day weekend. But can you imagine the congressional and public outcry if there had been a deadly terrorist incident at the Brooklyn Bridge or the Statue of Liberty, and the administration hadn’t issued a warning? It’s a classic damned if you do and damned if you don’t dilemma.
While not implying that it’s unpatriotic to criticize the way President Bush is conducting the War on Terrorism, I believe that we should continue to focus on the real enemies of America — Osama bin Laden and his murderous henchmen, who kill innocent civilians in the name of their twisted religion. That sign at Ground Zero says it all: We will never forget.
Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.