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Why Warnings Fell on Deaf Ears

What did the president know and when did he know it? Following revelations that the White House had reason to suspect an imminent al-Qaeda attack last year, even The New York Times has noted that the perennial post-Watergate question seems entirely appropriate. Nor should it be put exclusively to President Bush: In most countries, the directors of the internal and external security services would have resigned by now.

But there is also a danger in overemphasizing the stock Washington scandal question, when equally important questions go unanswered. Such as, if the Bush White House was warned, why didn't those warnings resonate? Why wasn't the threat posed by al-Qaeda -- the only entity in recent years to attack U.S. government installations -- foremost in the administration's mind?

There are a lot of potential replies to that question, but the short answer -- and the most convincing one -- is that the Bush administration was still fighting the Cold War. Hence its unhealthy obsession with that weapons relic known as the Star Wars program, and with re-creating a bipolar world in which China would take over enemy duty for the Soviet Union, while Cuba remained a vital threat. Going up against a new evil empire and its satellites, or a regional hegemon, is familiar stuff; asymmetric war against a decentralized enemy with a complex geo-theological worldview isn't. And so while al-Qaeda was responsible for bombing two U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and an American warship in 1999, the central threats to American security, as articulated by the Bush campaign in 2000, were as follows: China, whose hostile intentions were clear from its attempts to influence the 1996 election, might acquire U.S. defense technology, and possibly re-export said technology to unfriendly nations; a smattering of impoverished "rogue states" (including Iraq, another Bush obsession) that might, one day, be able to lob a missile at the United States; and arms-control agreements, which the Bush people find limiting, unverifiable, and expendable.

To be fair, Chinese espionage and defense expansion are matters to be taken seriously, as is the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. But over the last decade, numerous military and intelligence analysts have looked on with concern as elements of the right have ginned up these threats. Their motivation for doing so often looks like little more than Cold War nostalgia, combined with the transparent desire to please defense contractors who are deeply invested in weapons programs initiated more than a decade ago.

Proponents of such blinkered defense priorities -- Andrew Marshall's Office of Net Assessment at the Pentagon, the Rumsfeld commissions on ballistic missiles and space, and Frank Gaffney's private, defense contractor-funded Center for Security Policy come to mind -- have produced a steady stream of reports based on dubious methodology.

"In the case of China and ballistic missile threats from other countries, their logic goes something like this," one of the military's most respected China scholars told me last year. "Here is where their technology is now. Here is where it could be in the near to mid-term future, given the following variables. One possibility could be an ominous one; here's the worst-case scenario, so policy should be to expect that scenario and, accordingly, arm for it. Forget factoring in a close examination of political, economic, social, or environmental trends or issues; don't consider that bellicose statements are often made for domestic consumption or in order to brown-nose aging apparatchiks. Disregard the utility of treaties and nonproliferation regimes, and make sure diplomacy tends toward the coercive rather than the constructive."

There's no need to take this critic's word for it; just visit the Center for Security Policy's Web site. Judging from the dozens of "reports" the center has issued since the August 1998 embassy bombings, the most urgent threats to American national security are, in no particular order: China, ballistic missiles, Cuba, Iraq, and threats posed to Israel by Syria and Yasir Arafat. Osama bin Laden's terrorist network doesn't make the cut. Indeed, only two of the center's "reports" since 1998 have dealt with al-Qaeda, and even those have done so only indirectly. According to the center, the most important lesson learned from the 1998 attacks was one illustrated by the U.S. retaliation against the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant: that there's no way "chemical weapons can be effectively and verifiably banned," which proves that it's necessary to kill any form of chemical weapons control.

It would be tempting to laugh this off if Gaffney's group weren't so influential. As one page on the Center for Security Studies Web site proudly notes, no fewer than 22 of the center's advisory council members now occupy key national security positions in the Bush administration. So no matter what congressional or other inquiries reveal about the failures of intelligence, it should come as no surprise that whatever intelligence was put in front of policy makers about hijacked airplanes (as missiles or otherwise) got little traction. With Iraq spawning terrorist legions, China girding for World War III, North Korea looking to launch a missile at Alaska, and Fidel Castro plotting to destroy the Colossus of the North, there simply wasn't any room for bin Laden in the pantheon of threats that govern the Bush security orthodoxy.

Jason Vest is a Washington-based senior correspondent for The American Prospect.

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