The "what ifs" can kill you.
Something missed. A failure of will. A turn in one direction when the other way was the right path.
Over time, people tend to get past them. We did what we could, they say, and move on.
But, in terms of the tragedy of 9/11, a particular regret lingers for those who might have made a difference.
The alarming August 6, 2001, memo from the CIA to the President "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US" has been widely noted in the past few years.
But, also in August, CIA analysts flew to Crawford to personally brief the President to intrude on his vacation with face-to-face alerts.
The analytical arm of CIA was in a kind of panic mode at this point. Other intelligence services, including those from the Arab world, were sounding an alarm. The arrows were all in the red. They didn't know place or time of an attack, but something was coming. The President needed to know.
Verbal briefings of George W. Bush are acts of almost inestimable import in the affairs of the nation more so than is the case for other recent presidents. He's not much of a reader, this President, and never has been, despite White House efforts to trumpet which serious books he is reading at various times. He's not a President who sees much value in hearing from a wide array of voices he has made that clear. His circle of truly trusted advisers is small smaller as President, in many ways, than it was when he was governor. But he's a very good listener and an extremely visual listener. He sizes people up swiftly and aptly, watches them carefully, and trusts his eyes. It is a gift, this nonverbal acuity, that he relies on in managing the almost overwhelming duties of the presidency: countless decisions each day, each one important; a daunting array of issues to grasp; an endless stream of politicized experts and expert politicos, all speaking in earnest tones. What does George W. Bush do? He makes it personal. He may not have had a great deal of experience, especially in foreign affairs, before arriving in the job, but because of his trust in these interpretive abilities he doesn't view that as a deficit. The expert, sitting before him, has done the hard work, the heavy lifting, and the President tries to gauge how "certain" they are of what they say, even if the issues may be unfamiliar to him. Do they seem nervous or unsure? Are they fudging? Why do they think what they do...and what do they think of him? That last part is very important.
The trap, of course, is that while these tactile, visceral markers can be crucial especially in terms of handling the posturing of top officials they sometimes are not. The thing to focus on, at certain moments, is what someone says, not who is saying it, or how they're saying it.
And, at an eyeball-to-eyeball intelligence briefing during this urgent summer, George W. Bush seems to have made the wrong choice.
He looked hard at the panicked CIA briefer.
"All right," he said. "You've covered your ass, now."
George Tenet and his team had evacuated their offices at CIA headquarters by midmorning on September 11, 2001, but they didn't get far.
Across a concrete square were vacant offices in the CIA's print shop a nondescript two-story building on the Langley, Virginia, campus that generates, daily, the output of a dozen Kinkos, including regular, numerous briefing books over the past year on al Qaeda, or the base. That's where they fled to the place that printed the reports.
Tenet, his deputy John McLaughlin, and a few others crowded into a conference room, a windowless, white square room, and frantically began to work a bank of phones, trying to get updates, status reports, anything. It was early, midday. Facts that would soon be common knowledge familiar even to schoolchildren were coming into focus. Where was clear, as was when and how visible to anyone with a television. Why if it was, indeed, the Islamic extremists they suspected was the unanswered question since the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. The steady growth of jihadist terror had produced a rising hum inside the CIA and, eventually, in other parts of the government. Yet the causes, a clear strategic understanding of what drove the enemy and what they wanted, remained cloudy.
This day brought newfound clarity. At 1:10 p.m., an analyst burst into the room holding printouts. There were manifests from the four flights, just sent to him from an official at the Federal Aviation Administration an agency that had spent the nightmare morning locating and grounding hundreds of planes that were airborne at the moment of the first attack. Sending passenger lists to CIA for review was among the day's first acts of recollection.
"Two names," the analyst said, flattening a page on the table. "These two we know." Everyone crowded around, looking at the printout for American Airlines Flight 77, which had left the Pentagon in flames. Staring back were the names of Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, men who had appeared on various internal lists as members of al Qaeda. Everyone stared at the names. Who...was now visible in history's unforgiving light.
"There it is," said Tenet, quietly, a man meeting a recurring nightmare in daylight. "Confirmation. Oh, Jesus." And then silence. Could have been ten seconds. Could have been a minute.
Two hours later, Air Force One landed at Offut Air Force Base in Nebraska. A shaken George W. Bush assembled principal advisers for a video conference, the first high-level meeting since the attacks. Tenet reported the discovery of known al Qaeda operatives on the manifest of American Airlines Flight 77, including al-Mihdhar, who, noticed by CIA a year before in Malaysia, had a valid U.S. visa, and seemed to have slipped into the country unnoticed by both CIA and FBI. Bush murmured something terse and scolding about miscommunication between the agency and the bureau, but it was flattened by the crush of incoming evidence: al Qaeda. The culprit.
Starting points are ever elusive when does anything really start in the ever-repeating human journey? but this is as close as we will probably get. The facts were indisputable. And a war, some sort of war, was bound to begin.
What happened on September 11 was almost matched in importance by what would happen on September 12.
That was the day America began to gather itself for a response. The reply to tragedy would, ultimately, shape the nation's character.
Familiar faces guiding the ship of state quickly became vessels of an acute yearning a public prayer that the President, his advisers, and the men and women atop government would be capable and courageous and sufficient to the moment. This book is surely about them, carrying new, clarified renditions of what they did, why they did it; what they've learned, what they haven't.
But it is also about a community of Americans who, up to now, have remained largely unseen, the ardent and expert who care not one whit for matters of presentation, for how best to manage the attentions of an anxious American public, or the U.S. Congress, or a wary global community.
These men and women these invisibles are actually fighting the fight. They have to worry only about the battle against shadowy global armies bent on destruction, and about winning it. After grand pronouncements are made describing a new kind of war and the vanquishing of evil, they are the ones who must then fashion a plan, and figure out where to turn and what to do when there is no map, no compass, and a darkened horizon. They report back about how things are really going, and then watch, often in disbelief, as the public is apprised of progress and the latest developments. In an age when assertion tends to overwhelm evidence, when claim so easily trumps fact, they know precisely where the breakpoints lie. That makes them valuable and dangerous; that makes their silence a priority to those who must answer to the vox populi, or, eventually, to posterity.
There are optical illusions at work here. The notables Bush and Cheney, Rice and Tenet are ever conspicuous, magnified, commanding our attention. They take credit and, if unavoidable, blame for things they often had little to do with; they tell us that everything will be fine, or that we should be very afraid, or both. They exude confidence, a key to modern-day success, even while they're privately solicitous of those upon whom their fortunes truly rest: the twenty-something with a flair for Arabic, trolling Web sites day and night; the agent who figures out how the money flows from the vitriolic to the truly violent; the spy who identifies a source ready to talk, and then protects that golden goose at all costs; the paratrooper wearing night-vision goggles who kicks down the door of an apartment in Karachi.
For those at the top, the defining posture is relentless impatience: impatience to justify action and rhetoric and to assuage the guilt that haunts anyone who was in a position of power before 9/11, and might have done something differently. For the sleep-starved professionals just beneath the line of sight as invisible, in many ways, as their murderous opponents the basic emotion is suppressed panic; and a willed conviction, despite contrary evidence, that every problem has a solution.
To understand America's actual response to 9/11, you have to talk to both groups, and hear them talk to each other, an often tense dialogue between those who sweat the details and improvise action plans, the doers; and those from the President on down who check on progress, present the results, and are repositories of public faith. The crucial task, for both sides, is to come up with answers, under pressure that is almost beyond measure.
Grab some shoes and walk in them.
From on high, it's a dance of fitful indirection, furrowed brows, and passive verbs. Of getting reports on one potential threat after another, knowing most of them are specious, but not understanding exactly why that is indisputably so, or what you might be missing, and then calling another meeting to try to better target your questions. And, along the way, deciding what people busy Americans on the partisan landscape or some congressional oversight committee should know, in an era when political savants contend that speaking truth in public is a dangerous practice. And then, it's time for the next briefing, the next conference table and spiderweb chart filled with hard-to-parse Arab names and gossamer connections. In a quieter time, Bill Clinton could grouse to Alan Greenspan that his presidential fortunes and those of the country's economy would be determined by judgments from the bond market. Now, they may be determined by whether some mall security guard in Palo Alto notices that the guy in Neiman Marcus is wearing an overcoat in the summer and smells like gardenias and is carrying a funny suitcase; and it will be further determined the nation's fate, that is by whether that guard calls the FBI, and whether someone answers, and whether the call is transferred to somebody else who knows what all that means, in time.
But, wait, does the FBI even know that the CIA is all but sure that a hundred or so suitcase nuclear weapons, produced way back when by the Soviets, are unaccounted for? And that bin Laden, along with the Chechen rebels and a bunch of terrorist groups you've never heard of, have been actively trying to get their hands on that kind of a weapon for years? Should they know? Does it help if FBI knows? or, for that matter, the busy pedestrian, who can be easily frozen by fear into not buying, or doing, or dreaming big, and if people stop any of those things, en masse, the gears of prosperity and uplift will start to slow, God forbid. Then again, fear, no doubt has its place, trumping other emotions, focusing a distracted rabble and getting them orderly and seeing clearly what their earnest leaders are up against. Appreciation, especially without too many probing questions, is a lovely thing. So, at day's end, maybe we'll release a little information, just a tiny part of this bracing story or that, to let everyone know that they should be afraid, of course, but not so very much because we the duly elected and our trusted appointees are in control of the situation.
And while this is decided, across the conference table sit a group of unheralded warriors who are trying to pick up your subtly self-interested line of reasoning. You suspect that they're sizing you up, all the while, and you're probably right that it's not all that favorably, but they're sympathetic to your modern-day dilemma, as you are to theirs, especially because theirs may be the tougher job the one upon which everything really rests.
From their shoes, you can actually feel the soft turf of a shifting landscape. Changes with each step. Walk a while, and you begin to know enough to sense what you don't know, or can't be sure of, as well as the few helpful things that have been discovered and verified about how the world's terror networks now operate, and how they are evolving. You know that the enemy is everywhere and nowhere, crouched, patient and clever, watching how you move so they can move in the opposite direction, the surprising direction, undetected. You whipsaw between grudging respect for their methodology and murderous rage if you only get your hands on the courier, the cell leader, the top lieutenant, then they'd know suffering. And tell all. If only. And then you could sleep, at least that night, because you'd know where to aim the armed aerial drone or the muscled-up unit with the night-vision goggles so much firepower, built up and ready; so few clues about where to point it. Or so few good clues, solid clues. Plenty of noise, God knows, leads galore, piled to the ceiling, and you spend half your life chasing nothing, garbage. Everything starts to look suspicious: whole groups of people with their strange tongues and habits and deeply held certainties prompt alarm, because the ways they move from anger to rage to violence are not so very clear, and if one out of a hundred, a thousand, makes that jump you're talking an army a vast, invisible army un-uniformed and moving freely through a marketplace where anything can be found and tried unbelievably destructive stuff all click and buy, with downloadable manuals. And you haven't seen your wife, or husband, or kids, or whoever you care about in weeks, or months; and while you thrash this way and that, everyone you meet, including your bosses, asks "Are we safe, are we safe yet?" even people who should know better while you miss everything: the baby showers, the school plays, the weddings and funerals. And you look for handles, a framework from the familiar, to make sense of the solemn insanity of this life, deep inside the so-called "war on terror," and you realize you're neck-deep in a global game of Marco Polo, in an ocean-size pool but all of it deadly serious, winner take all. It's terrible in that pool. Especially when it's deathly quiet the way it is in the months after 9/11 and no one is answering when you yell "Marco," and you only feel the occasional whoosh as your opponent silently passes, and you snap around while images of burning buildings and exploding planes dance behind your closed eyelids.
Tucked within the colliding perspectives, there were, from the very start, a few things that were shared. The notables and the invisibles together embraced a profound sense of urgency. All parties took a vow of sorts on September 12. As public servants, they solemnly swore to do whatever they could to confront and defeat al Qaeda and its global network of terrorists and supporters. They vowed to work each day and every night. They'd press themselves toward clear-eyed and innovative thinking. They'd stop at nothing.
Just as soon as they figured out where to start.
The preferred analogy inside government for these early days is the Apollo 13 challenge, a reliable standard, as well, of management schools and motivational speakers. It refers to a particular moment in 1970 when an air filter on a disabled NASA craft, 200,000 miles from Earth, needed to be built with whatever the astronauts had on hand. An engineering team in Houston gathered a sampling of all the loose items aboard the distant spacecraft duct tape, hoses, medical equipment dumped them on a table, and got to work. They needed a remedy, a way to attach a square filter into a round fitting, in a few hours, or the crew would be asphyxiated. The solution also had to be elegant; it was no good if the crew couldn't manage the construction. Driving the proceedings is a mantra that has become ubiquitous since Ron Howard's movie about the mission was released in 1995: "Failure is not an option."
All this applies nicely to the "war on terror." Decisions made in the wake of the catastrophe carried the same improvisational and emotional force. That latter part is easy to forget: the desire to help, in any way possible, was the first, pure impulse. Agencies of the world's most powerful nation were impelled to employ whatever they had available to match an unforeseen mission, a new charge; to find, each of them, a worthwhile avenue for their institutional might. Sometimes this worked. Often it did not. Paths were set early, in crisis. Failure or even the admission of small defeats or confusion was not an option. The Pentagon had a standing army. CIA, and its eavesdropping affiliates from the National Security Agency (NSA) on down, had intelligence the night vision to pierce the darkness. Justice had the rule of law, and FBI an army of domestic agents. Treasury had access to global financial data...and so forth, building by building, across the frightened capital. Where each path led, in large measure, would define the coming four-plus years, where we, as a nation, are now. And where we are bound.
All throughout, however, humming beneath the smooth surface of press releases and official-speak, has been a rising din of "cognitive dissonance" that evocative term for how collisions of competing ideas create dissonance, a discomfiting noise that compels the mind to modify existing beliefs or invent new ones as it searches for quiet. It is that process that so often drives forward motion in the cacophony of modern life.
The vast federal government, under stress, does not work quite so efficiently as a single mind. It has protective urges, competing agendas, rules for who does what and who represents actions to the citizenry, the sovereign, the bosses; it accomplishes a great deal, yes, but is defined often by its dysfunctions. And that means it lies and dissembles, hides what it can, and sometimes acts out of self-preservation, because without your trust it is nothing but office space.
This has long been the case a matter of life force trapped inside bureaucracies that everyone from Max Weber to Stephen R. Covey has fretted over and maybe that's just something to be accepted, a point of resignation. Maybe, people don't really want to know about the internal disputes and roiling uncertainty, the dissonance. Or maybe they don't want to take on the turmoil and clarity that inhabit those on history's fault line both the notables, who watch each active verb, and their fierce, frank invisible partners, whom you will now meet in the coming pages as, side by side, they chase shadows on the cave wall of an enemy who is newly armed with destructive capability and sectarian certainty, and patience, and clever resolve, and, maybe, tactical advantage.
In sleepier times, you could just go about your life and shrug, and say that there are mortgages to pay and children to school, sitcoms to watch, and that, from the start, two centuries ago, even some founding fathers felt the noisy rabble, beyond the ramparts, couldn't "handle the truth."
But these are not ordinary times. Knowledge, in fact, is power, enough to burn off fear. And you at least ought to know what the hell's been going on.
It's what Americans do.
Copyright © 2006 by Ron Suskind