December 19, 2003 | Peter

Unlearned Lessons from 9-11

SBS recently showed another interesting documentary on US intelligence failures before September 11, 2001. I know they have their problems at the moment, but SBS continues to make the ABC look staid and timid, especially because they regularly air docos not sourced in either the US or Britain.
But back to September 11. One of the lessons from the gross intelligence failure seems to be that not only did the various agencies not talk to each other, they are are just too big to act with any alacrity. In this sense they are experiencing the same organisational problem that business corporations did in the 1980s and 90s. The corporate response was more information technology and radical restructuring, streamlining decision making. But given the legal, international relations and other implications, can intelligence agencies do this?
It is quite amazing how little President Bush has been called to account for September 11. In an International Politics tutorial held a few days afterwards, one of my American exchange students said, “It happenned on his watch, and he’ll pay for that”. As Truman used to say, the buck supposedly stops with the President.
But this does not appear to have taken place. The Whitehouse has clearly lined up CIA boss Tenet to take the fall and pointed the finger at just about everyone but themselves.
Apparently the out-going Clinton officials told the new guys that terrorism and specifically Bin Laden were their biggest headaches, but the Bush team wanted to concentrate on China, missile defence and Iraq. Then Tenet made some noise about terrorism as number one threat but failed to back it up with more resources or action.
This makes Bush and his team clearly culpable to me. If they had really been on the ball, as opposed to dreaming about rearranging world power relations, it is hard to see how something as terrible and dramatic as the airplane attacks could have occurred.
El Quaida is relatively small, dispersed and decentralised (indeed, some people think it is so nebulous as an organisation that they question whether it exists as anything but a Western idea). This was a strength when taking on the monolithic structure of US intelligence, which was built to face off with the even more monolithic Soviet apparatus. The US may or may not be able to reconfigure its own agencies to think and act small and fast. The good news is that smaller states, like Australia, should be more flexible and thus effective. Against terrrorism, smallness and agility are important. So maybe in this case we are better off than the huge, spawling US, as long as we don’t become too locked into US or other agendas.

Posted by Peter at 12:14 pm | Comments (3) |
Filed under: Uncategorized


  1. it does look as if we are becoming increasingly locked into the US.

    Comment by Gary Sauer-Thompson — December 21, 2003 @ 9:12 pm

  2. The S11 alleged-intelligence-failure debate seems to be unduly masking some more central issues–and the reluctance of the Bush administration to pursue an objective inquiry. Eg, there is convincing forensic evidence that the Twin Towers demolition required pre-installed explosive charges, since combustion of aviation fuel cannot possibly achieve the temperature needed to melt or even deform steel in the way that occurred. Until scientifically debunked, this evidence will continue to point to a Pearl-Harbour-style action aimed at furthering covert policy objectives while turning a pragmatic blind eye to the truth.

    Comment by Brian Jenkins — December 22, 2003 @ 9:15 pm

  3. The problem with assertions like those about pre-placed explosives and insuffient burning temperature is that those of us who are not experts cannot make sense of it. What you get is duelling experts cancelling each other out, and the status quo as far as public awareness goes. Whatever actually happened, it is the ensuing debate and conclusions that will determine the overall effect.
    Of course, if such an action could be proven…
    But 62 years after Pearl Harbour, what is the publically accepted truth?

    Comment by peter mcmahon — December 23, 2003 @ 1:04 am

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