Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan
It is a commonplace problem, put bluntly, that hindsight is always clearer than foresight. This tends to lead to books and articles that claim that something was predicable and the people on the spot were stupid (or deliberately made mistakes) prior to the disaster. As attitudes go, it is far from helpful. The person on the spot will not view a future event as inevitable – and lacks the benefit of hindsight.
It is nearly a decade since 9/11, the day when the world changed once again, tossing our Western Civilisation into uncharted waters. 9/11 brought into plain view the ‘new world disorder,’ the Western existential crisis, the fallacies of Cold War-era thinking and the growing threat of Islamic terrorism. Nothing will ever been quite the same; to paraphrase someone I’ve forgotten, things aren’t what they used to be – but then they never were.
The Eleventh Day starts by recounting everything that took place on 9/11, starting with the terrorists boarding the planes and running through the confusion and shock that prevailed as air traffic controllers, the government and even the military struggled to cope with the chaos. The book pulls no punches in detailing how badly those in charge coped, making mistakes and errors that almost certainly cost lives. It then moves on to the desperate struggle to save people from the Twin Towers.
It rapidly dismisses most of the conspiracy theories centred around 9/11. The idea that ‘Bush did it,’ or ‘Bush let it happen’ has been prevalent, as have theories wondering if the Twin Towers were actually hit by missiles or some other form of covert operation, perhaps including explosives previously placed in the towers by military or intelligence-service engineers. The theories mostly don’t stand up to scrutiny, although it is possible to wonder if the CIA didn’t tell the FBI about the terrorists because the CIA intended to recruit them and may not have realised that they were on a strike mission. As always, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and little has been presented.
The book then moves on to discus the intelligence failures that allowed the terrorists to get into position and strike without being intercepted. There were very definitely heart-breaking moments when the plot could have been stopped, but most of them became clear only with the benefit of hindsight. Certainly, no one could have reasonably connected the death of a prominent anti-Taliban fighter with a terrorist plot in New York. Part of the problem is that intelligence agencies soak in a great deal of crap – lies, nonsense and miscommunications – every day. Valid leads can sometimes be lost in the white noise.
A further problem lay in the political-legal framework established since the end of the Cold War. Congress loaded restrictions on the CIA that barred it, for example, from recruiting known terrorists (precisely how much notice the CIA paid to this instruction is a matter of conjecture). Furthermore, the FBI agents were concerned about following up tips about Middle Eastern men studying aircraft piloting for fear of being accused of racial profiling. The fact remains that the vast majority of suspects who might have been recruited by AQ are generally – publicly, at least – practicing Muslims. It is a fact that it is politically unacceptable to admit.
This was quite bad enough, but it got worse. AQ is/was a more trans-national organisation than most NGOs and corporations. It quite simply didn’t fit in with the terrorist groups of the Cold War; the IRA, for example, was focused on Ireland. The British didn’t have to invade Ireland to win the war; they already controlled Northern Ireland. It was possible to limit AQ’s dependence on other states, but it was never controlled by a single state or even based in a single state. And the one state that could be regarded as a base – Afghanistan – was so poorly governed that even if the Taliban had wanted to hand OBL over, they might not have been able to do it.
Pre-9/11, our networks and precedents were not set up to cope with anything like AQ. It was extremely difficult to track, let alone destroy. And even if we did, there was zero legal precedent to deal with them – unless we counted them as spies, who could be legally shot.
Finally, the book raises a disquieting question that has been largely buried since the attacks. Was a foreign government involved in 9/11? The book focuses on Saudi Arabia in particular, noting that the Saudis never cooperated with the US on tracking terrorism and were unprepared to stop their citizens donating money to terrorists until the terrorists came home in 2004. Given the strange nature of the Saudi Government, it is quite possible that the Saudis did fund AQ, if only to keep their own heads on their shoulders. And there was a great deal of jubilation in Saudi Arabia over 9/11.
Bush is roundly condemned for not focusing on this. The authors do not ask if he could actually have done anything. Saudi Arabia is the largest oil producer in the world. An American invasion of Saudi Arabia would cause a massive global oil shock. In that light, Bush’s decision to invade Iraq makes a great deal of sense; if Iraqi oil came online in great quantities, Saudi Arabia would be far less influential. The US would then be able to deal with it at leisure. Of course, accepting this means accepting that Bush wasn’t actually an idiot.
Overall, The Eleventh Day adds a great deal to our knowledge of 9/11, as well as usefully compiling already-known knowledge and dismissing numerous absurd theories. I doubt, however, if it is truly the final account of 9/11. Much remains to be discovered that may shed new light on the most tragic day of modern history.