jdeyIt is a curious fact that, after extensive investigations accompanied by intensive media coverage, the United States Government has failed to get to the bottom of any of the three major attacks launched against it by al Qaeda in the autumn of 2001.

Three attacks?

Yes, and therein lies part of the problem.

When we speak of intelligence failures, we ordinarily refer to the mistakes made by intelligence agencies in the time leading up to an event. But there is another kind of intelligence failure: Retrospective Intelligence Failure (RIF).

RIF is a failure to assess correctly the available evidence after an event to determine its cause and significance. Clearly, some events will remain forever enshrouded in mystery for lack of sufficient evidence. But when investigations fail to interpret fuller evidence correctly, it can lead to:

  1. Unfair treatment of wrongly suspected individuals or groups;
  2. The expense of unnecessary, misguided investigatory efforts;
  3. Conclusions that mislead the public and the government regarding the real threat;
  4. Inability to assess properly the performance of the intelligence agencies before the event;
  5. Misplaced trust in government officials or allied governments;
  6. Expensive fixes of nonexistent or low-priority deficiencies; and
  7. A reduced capacity to deter or detect such events in the future.

In effect, RIFs constitute a significant and at times major portion of the overall payoff of an attack for the terrorist cause. While one could term them simply failed investigations, it is more useful to consider them as part of the ongoing intelligence collection and analysis process, which serves a critical function in society’s response to a challenge. Unlike a garden-variety intelligence failure to foresee some upcoming event, which ceases once the event has occurred, an RIF becomes a suppurative wound that can weaken the government and society for year after year unless and until it is healed.

Social psychologists argue that terrorists rely on group psychology whereby the acts of a few individuals create such fear and uncertainty that a society will behave in a self-destructive manner (Worchel, 2003). From this perspective, RIF serves as an index of society’s incapacity to handle a challenge and as a facilitator of further self-destructive acts. That is why it is vitally important to get to the bottom of things, to understand them in the deepest and truest way possible.

Three Attacks

A correct analysis of the events of 2001 shows that official and public perceptions of what happened are both wide of the mark.

Not one of the investigations of the attacks of September 11, 2001 against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon has focused sufficiently on the critical issue of criminal negligence. Were President Bush and his top advisers provided timely intelligence that would have led a reasonable person to take preventive action that would have thwarted the attacks?

In fact, there were at least two very specific instances of such intelligence.

The first was the CIA report of August 6, 2001 entitled “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US”. That was a general yet very pointed warning.

The second was specific.

The Zacarias Moussaoui case went through FBI channels to the CIA. CIA grasped its significance and reported it in a written analysis. The clear implication was that Muslim terrorists inside the United States were planning a “Bojinka” plot to hijack aircraft and crash them into key buildings. However, it appears that none of the investigations asked Director of Central Intelligence Tenet, President Bush, or any other significant actor whether this intelligence was given to the President himself. Yet persuasive circumstantial evidence ( Anomalous Mistake-driven Opportunity Creation (AMOC)) shows that it and/or similar intelligence was.

The 9/11 Commission Report’s account of this subject relies mainly on Tenet, who is a known misleader, as in the issue of the purported Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that justified the U.S. attack on Iraq. Whereas most of the 9/11 Commission Report contains detailed, documented, high-quality information and analysis, the part of the Report relating to what exactly the President and Vice President knew becomes uncharacteristically vague. In this critical sense, the Report must be considered a cover-up.

In other words, in spite of dozens of intelligence mistakes in the run-up to 9/11, at the end of the day the intelligence system provided the necessary and sufficient intelligence to the chief executive: a general yet pointedly chilling warning and a specific, very palpable threat.  It is also very possible (or one could say even very likely) that other clear indications of the threat were given to Bush.

So it was an Intelligence Success—and a grievous operational failure on the part of President Bush. It was a case of criminal negligence.

The RIF in this case has thus far let the culprit(s)—the President and his top advisers—off the hook and with the freedom, popular support, and motivation (to distract attention from their culpability) to engage in the above-mentioned self-destructive behaviors that further the goals of the terrorists.

The second al Qaeda attack was the mailing of anthrax-laced letters in September and October, 2001 that led to five deaths, caused a great deal of disruption, and spread fear among the people. Newly available evidence (see below) suggests that the Mailer was Abderraouf Jdey, a Canadian of Tunisian origin and a close associate of the 9/11 terrorists.

The author of this article reported to FBI the analysis pointing to Jdey in September, 2004. Since that time FBI appears to have confirmed the identification of Jdey as the Mailer soon thereafter. Then Director Robert Mueller conspired with President Bush to suppress the evidence.

The third al Qaeda attack of the autumn of 2001 was the destruction of American Airlines Flight #587 from Kennedy International Airport on November 12, killing hundreds of innocents.

The extensive formal inquiry into the crash rejected any notion of terrorist causation, but it never found a solid alternative explanation. Nor is it clear that the investigators considered telling pieces of circumstantial evidence pointing to al Qaeda. According to a 2004 revelation by the Canadian National Post of a top secret Canadian Security Intelligence Service report, detainee Mohammed Mansour Jabarah reported under interrogation that Abderraouf Jdey brought down Flight #587 with a shoebomb. This accords with all the available evidence.

Meanwhile, aside from a few fleeting references, the media have shyed away from discussing the crash in the context of terrorism. Very few people are even aware, therefore, that this was the third major al Qaeda attack. The failed investigation and embarrassingly inadequate media coverage of the Flight #587 crash constitute the third RIF.

For further information and analysis regarding RIFs #2 and 3, see Was Abderraouf Jdey The Anthrax Mailer?.

The Way Forward

An instructive pattern emerges from these three cases: they all contain a certain resistance to investigating the obvious.

In the case of the 9/11 attacks, investigators have accumulated massive detail and many insights. But they have unaccountably failed to ask the right question—a very simple one: what did President Bush know and when did he know it?—and so have drawn very wrong conclusions. In the anthrax mailings case, the FBI and media set aside a good deal of telling evidence and logic to pursue a delusory domestic terrorist. Drs. Steven Hatfill and Kenneth Berry, physicians investigated on the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence, are classic false positives. And in the case of Flight #587, both the investigators and the media refused to countenance open discussion and analysis that would have led to identifying an al Qaeda operative as the perpetrator, and a shoebomb as his weapon.

So these cases have entered into the realm of “hidden events” (Westrum, 1982) whose inner reality may be known by various individuals in the society but remains unknown to the public at large, mainly owing to the efforts of the Government and media to suppress anything that does not fit the official version. Those in possession of such information find that it is “impacted knowledge”—it cannot break through the gums of suppression and hence festers on.

Given the perception that the United States Government and people have not yet got to the bottom of any of these three cases, one might be inclined to throw up one’s hands in despair. How will Americans ever prevail in the so-called War on Terrorism if they systematically fail to understand what has really happened? Or will new and more competent observers and players come onto the scene and the passage of time reveal information that will lead to a correct appreciation of these events?

A concept for our times: Retrospective Intelligence Failure (RIF).


Westrum, R. (1982), “Social Intelligence about Hidden Events,” Knowledge 3(3), 381-400

Worchel, Stephen (2003), “Come One, Come All: Toward Understanding the Process of Collective Behavior,” in: The Sage Handbook of Social Psychology. Sage: Thousand Oaks CA, 476-493, p. 489

*****

Kenneth J. Dillon is an historian who writes on science, medicine, and history.  See the biosketch at About Us.

 

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