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Laziness in the Face of Mortal Danger


The release of the classified intelligence briefing to President Bush entitled, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the U.S,” which was given to the president more than a month before September 11, illustrates the U.S. government’s failure at what should be its primary purpose: ensuring the security of its citizens.

The rise of the nation-state—and its domination of the international system since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648—occurred because of the increasing costs of security and the armies and armaments used in its quest. At least theoretically, the state’s main function historically—until the rise of the massive welfare states in the 20th century—was supposed to be to protect its citizens. In reality, over the centuries, the state, at the expense of its citizenry, has often had its own political and bureaucratic interests at heart or those of powerful interest groups that support it. Americans like to believe that their government works differently and often cite Abraham Lincoln’s vision of a “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” Unfortunately, many political scientists and public-choice economists who have studied the matter would confirm that the U.S. government behaves no differently from other governments.

Thus, the Bush administration is no different from its historical predecessors. Repeated warnings of a possible al Qaeda attack flowed into the White House during the summer of 2001. Those warnings culminated in the now-famous August 6, 2001, intelligence briefing to the president, which warned of “suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.” Also, the briefing indicated that the “CIA and the F.B.I. are investigating a call to our embassy in the U.A.E. [United Arab Emirates] in May [2001] saying that a group of bin Laden supporters was in the U.S. planning attacks with explosives.” The White House has tried to “spin” the briefing as a historical summary of the al Qaeda threat, but the words “recent” and “May” [2001] indicate that the intelligence agencies were warning of future possible attacks. In sum, the briefing indicates that al Qaeda had targets within U.S. borders in the cross-hairs and was already operating inside U.S. territory.

Yet Condoleeza Rice, the president’s National Security Adviser, in her testimony before the September 11 commission, referring to potential al Qaeda attacks in the United States, admitted, “I remember very well that the president was aware that there were issues inside the United States.” Yet unbelievably, she implicitly admitted administration nonchalance in the face of a major self-evident threat to the U.S. homeland by adding that “I don’t remember the al Qaeda cells being something that we were told we needed to do something about.” Despite all of the warnings that summer and the provocatively titled intelligence briefing in early August, the president didn’t even call a cabinet-level meeting to address terrorism until shortly before the September 11 attacks.

That’s because the Bush administration had, in the words of Rice’s testimony, “other priorities” after taking office. She mentioned North Korea, the Middle East, and the Balkans. Others have mentioned missile defense and China. She concluded, “One doesn’t have the luxury of dealing only with one issue if you are the United States of America…” Not when all of the many interest groups are howling for the U.S. government to address their pet concerns. For example, the missile defense contractors receive billions to construct what promises to be a white elephant—a system that, even if it shoots down real missiles (which is in question), will ultimately be defeated because building more offensive missiles to saturate the defenses is cheaper than augmenting the expensive defensive system. Similarly, the Middle East is always a concern because the oil companies want to ensure that the U.S. government is defending their interests in the region, despite the skepticism of economists—on both the right and the left—of the need to defend oil supplies. And China is always high on the president’s docket because of all of the economic interests involved there. You get the picture.

The laziness with which the administration treated a potentially fundamental threat to America’s citizens and their homeland occurred principally because there were no vested interests pushing action. Instead, interest groups were pressuring for U.S. interventions in far-flung places overseas. Such pre-September 11 sloth was so embarrassing that for two years after acknowledging the August 6th intelligence briefing’s existence, the White House has stonewalled its publication. Now that the briefing finally has been released, such chagrin was well-founded.

Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.

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