July 24, 2003 | National Review Online

Learning the Hard Way

Even a cursory glance at the 900-page congressional 9/11 report released Thursday should lead to some conclusions – and, hopefully, to some consensus. For example:

The inquiry found no “smoking gun,” no intelligence that – had it been better understood or more creatively interpreted – would have provided advance warning of the attack. But the report also makes clear that part of the problem was that our gumshoes and spooks weren't looking for guns – smoking or otherwise – in the places they were most likely to be hidden.

The 19 hijackers had many contacts and interactions in radicalized mosques here and abroad. Prior to 9/11 (as former CIA agent Robert Baer also reported in his book, See No Evil) the rules prohibited agents from gathering intelligence in such houses of worship. That policy was sensitive and politically correct – and it may have cost many innocent lives.

 The inquiry found that no one “connected the dots” – but that's because no one had all the dots to look at. In other words, the attacks went undetected largely because of poor communications between the FBI, the CIA, and other agencies. This wasn't a matter of people failing to do their jobs – it was a matter of people being discouraged from doing their jobs. Pre-9/11, under prevailing laws, rules ,and policies, relevant information could not be shared freely among intelligence and law-enforcement agencies. What has solved this problem? The Patriot Act.

It's time for the ACLU and others on the left, along with their libertarian allies on the right, to stop their shrill and automatic criticism of the Patriot Act and of Attorney General John Ashcroft. They need to at least recognize the significance of what both are trying to achieve.

Yes, we must always be vigilant in preserving our freedoms. But that can't be accomplished unless we also protect our security. A few years from now, if the war on terrorism is going well, we can take a second look at what weapons we still need and what weapons we can discard. But right now the Patriot Act is necessary – as Ashcroft has maintained, and as many prominent Democrats – John Kerry, John Edwards, Bob Graham, Tom Daschle, and Joe Biden among them – have attested.

 The inquiry found that most of our friends overseas failed to recognize the jihadist terrorist threat – or perhaps thought it had nothing to do with them. They certainly didn't provide much cooperation to counter it. President Clinton's national-security adviser, Sandy Berger, told the congressional panel that only the United Kingdom shared the U.S. assessment of al Qaeda. Before September 11, it was not illegal to be a member of foreign terrorist organizations in Germany or even to raise funds for terrorists groups there. (German policy pre-9/11 looks a lot like what the ACLU wants U.S. policy to be now. If that's not accurate, the ACLU should explain the difference.)

 The report found that the FBI and the CIA failed to take significant actions against terrorism. This, despite the fact that as early as 1983, several hundred Americans were killed by Hezbollah's suicide terrorist bombers in Beirut. This, despite the first World Trade Center attack, the bombings of our embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, the attack on Khobar Towers, and the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole. This, despite the fact that throughout the 1990s, tens of thousands of terrorists were being trained in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq, and other places.

But it wasn't just these agencies that misunderstood the seriousness of the threat posed by jihadist terrorism. It was top leaders in Congress and in several administrations. More astonishing, perhaps, is how many people continue to resist looking reality in the face even today.

 Sections of the report dealing with Saudi Arabia were largely deleted. Some Democrats – and a few Republicans as well – are arguing that those redactions are not necessary to protect sources and methods. They may be right but those of us without top-secret clearance probably haven't enough information to make the call.

What we can say is that there is no doubt that prominent Saudis have been involved in both funding and encouraging terrorism. What we can say is the Saudi regime has not yet been open and forthcoming about the extent of Saudi involvement. At some point, hopefully sooner rather than later, we'll find out what was blacked out. At some point, hopefully sooner rather than later, members of the Saudi royal family will make the choice they have spent years avoiding: Do they want to be America's ally in the Islamic world? Or do they want to continue spreading Wahhabi hatred and incitement against Christians, Jews, moderate Muslims, and Hindus? They can't be the former while doing the latter for much longer.

Finally, the point of this report and others that will follow should not be to place blame. These inquiries should not be used as grist for the usual political mills. We need to learn – from our mistakes as well as from our successes. As rapidly as possible, we need to find the most effective ways to defend ourselves from an enemy who is as dangerous and as insidious as any the Free World has faced.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.