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9/11 inquiry reveals a lesson learned the hard way

Sept. 11 and the surrounding inquiries held on Capitol Hill Monday and Tuesday dominated the news over the last few days. High officials of both the Clinton and Bush administration testified, sometimes contradicting each other, in their attempt to paint a picture of events surrounding the attacks. It became clear, rather quickly, that because of the contradictions, a decision that this administration or the previous one were negligent will be hard, if not impossible to come by.

Former terrorism adviser Richard Clarke, probably the most notable speaker due to the waves his book Against All Enemies has made since its publication on Monday, also testified. Clarke issued some sobering statements that may haunt the Bush re-election campaign for months to come. When commission members thanked him for speaking even though the Bush administration had already begun discrediting him, he simply said, “I knew what the price would be.”

When asked if he was contradicting former statements, he said he had been working for the president, a job that included the task “to highlight the positive aspects of what the administration had done and to minimize the negative aspects.” Clarke went on to say that this had nothing to do with “misleading the public” nor was it immoral — it is simply how politics are conducted in Washington, D.C.

The clearest statement of the two-day session came from CIA director George Tenet addressing the family members present who lost relatives or loved ones in the attacks. He simply said, “We’ve got to do a hell of a lot better,” a statement many others agreed with.

Both former Secretary of State Madeline Albright and former National Security Adviser Samuel Berger said that because the attack on the USS Cole had not been confirmed as the work of al-Qaida until Dec. 1999, the end of the Clinton presidency, it did not retaliate against them with full force. Both Albright and Berger said the Clinton administration wanted to be sure it retaliated against the right people. In many cases, such as the crash of a TWA flight near Long Island in 1996, cases that were thought to be clearly terrorism, even using eyewitness accounts, later turned out to be accidents.

The pair also said that the cruise missiles fired into terrorist camps in Afghanistan in which Osama bin Laden was said to be at the time, had been a clear statement. Albright said, “We did not … launch cruise missiles for the purpose of serving legal papers.”

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld disagreed with the statement, saying such attacks achieved “next to nothing” and were simply a way to “bounce the rubble” before the terrorist put “their tents right back up.” Such attacks were not stopping the “human conveyer belts” that put out one recruit after another, he said.

It should be noted, though, that in the ’90s, India and Pakistan were involved in a nuclear standoff. Any missiles sent to Afghanistan could, therefore, have led to a devastating incident in an already fragile situation.

The hearings did, however, raise some concerns whether the Bush administration did or did not brush away the al-Qaida threat. If this was indeed the case, the perception of Bush being tough on terrorism may be proven false.

It will be hard to sort through the testimonies and rule one way or another. One woman who had lost a family member summed up the situation when she said in an interview with CNN that the commission may be heading for “paralysis by analysis.”

Thankfully though, most organizations and people involved have learned from the mistakes made. Referring to prevailing attitudes prior to 9/11, Clarke said, “People (tended) to think you’re nuts” when you discussed terrorists plots. Now government officials and also the public are much quicker to respond to threats of any sort.