Terrorism and Television

When Secretary of State Colin Powell went before the United Nations Security Council last February to display the evidence against Saddam Hussein, pundits applauded the eloquence of his long and detailed indictment of the Iraqi dictator. Using highly classified satellite imagery, transcribed recordings of conversations among Iraqi officials and information derived from allied human intelligence sources, the Secretary laid out the case for war.

At the time, many of those who are in the business of gathering and analyzing national security intelligence expressed astonishment and anxiety that America’s methods for collecting, evaluating and disseminating intelligence were being aired live, on international television, for the world to see.

After Secretary Powell’s U.N. exposition, a former senior intelligence official told me that “we gave away the store” and that he was “astounded at what the presentation revealed about our intelligence wherewithal.” Sen. Pat Roberts, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee voiced concern saying, “They frankly revealed more intelligence capabilities and assessment and sources and methods than I’ve ever seen.”

Senior Bush administration national security officials apparently believed that the unprecedented display of intelligence would persuade global skeptics at the United Nations that the Americans and British were right about the threat Saddam posed. There was also a belief shared in Washington and London that such a presentation of “the facts” — proffered by an official as admired as Powell — would help convince uneasy electorates in both nations that a pre-emptive war was the only sensible course.

Someone must have determined that these considerations were more important than what the briefing would reveal to our adversaries — not just in Iraq — but in Jihadist terror cells from Indonesia to the Bekka Valley of Lebanon. Those who made such a calculation added up the costs and benefits — and came up with the wrong answer. The televised U.N. briefing on Feb. 5, 2003 was a mistake.

By the time Powell put those photos and decrypted Iraqi telephone and radio conversations on the air for the world to see, the French and Germans had already dug in their heels to buy time for Saddam. Unlike 1962, when U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson stunned the world with never before seen U-2 photos of Soviet nuclear missiles being shipped to and installed in Cuba, there was little real hope that Powell’s exposition would precipitate a change in their votes in the U.N. Security Council. So exposing to the world how the United States collects and uses intelligence was a major error.

Unfortunately, we haven’t learned from our mistakes. This week, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, otherwise known as the “9-11 Commission,” held open hearings in Washington. Former and current officials charged with protecting the security of the country were paraded before the television cameras to disclose what they knew about Osama bin Laden — and why we were unable to prevent the horrific attack on Sept. 11, 2001.

For the commission, it was a frustrating exercise in Washington finger-pointing from the various witnesses who were sworn to tell the truth. For terrorists plotting their next attack on American citizens, it was another peek inside our past and current intelligence capabilities — and our vulnerabilities.

With the help of several commissioners, the self-serving Richard Clarke, counter-terrorism coordinator during the Clinton administration — who was inexplicably left in place during the early Bush administration — used the forum to promote his new political attack book, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror. In an apparent effort to bolster the perception that only he had the gift of omniscience — he commenced his testimony with a cynical plea that he be “forgiven” for the attack on 9-11.

Clarke’s bogus claim to clairvoyance is belied by numerous others — in and out of government — who were issuing warnings before 9-11. In July 2001, following the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, the 1998 bombings of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the 2000 assault on the USS Cole, and an ominous warning from Osama bin Laden, I wrote in this column: “It’s time to stop treating Osama bin Laden like a bank robber in Peoria. He has declared war on the United States, and we should give him what he wants: war. Those who aid and abet his cause — like the Taliban in Afghanistan, who have hidden him since 1996, and Saparmurat Niyazov in neighboring Turkmenistan — should be put on notice that we regard them to be his allies and treat them accordingly.”

Members of the 9-11 Commission seem to agree with that assessment. But in challenging both the Clinton and Bush administrations for not going after Al Qaeda forcefully enough, they also reveal much of our capabilities and limitations — from how long it takes to modify systems like Predator to adverse assessments of our present allies in Afghanistan. The response from representatives of both administrations is that prior to Sept. 11, 2001, there was no stomach for war in Afghanistan.

In his book, Clarke praises Bill Clinton while condemning George W. Bush for “fail(ing) to act prior to Sept. 11 on the threat from Al Qaeda.” But when Bush acted to eliminate the threat posed by Saddam and engage the terrorist enemy thousands of miles from our shores — in Baghdad instead of Boston — Clarke was at the front of the presidential attack pack.

And in August 2002, while counterterrorism coordinator for President Bush, Clarke said, “There was no plan on al Qaeda that was passed from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration.” He also revealed at that time, that three weeks after taking office, the new Bush team decided that they would “increase CIA resources, for example, for covert action, five-fold, to go after Al Qaeda.”

One need only read the dust cover of Clarke’s book to understand how highly he thinks of himself. Clarke, it states, is “the one person who knows more about Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda than anyone else in this country,” and Clarke knows “better than anyone, why we failed to prevent 9-11.”

Unfortunately the commission, no matter how well intended, offered Clarke a grandstand to promote his screed — and yet another opportunity for our adversaries to glimpse how little we know about how vulnerable we still are to attack.