Six years ago this month, as al-Qaida agents here in the United States made final preparations for an attack that would murder 3,000 Americans and change the course of history, parts of the U.S. government were quietly warning top officials that trouble was brewing. That message never got through to the American people, who went about their business that summer in blissful, crippling ignorance.
Today that ignorance is gone, and we have a much better idea of the dangers facing us. As the declassified version of a new U.S. intelligence assessment warned this week, "the U.S. Homeland will face a persistent and evolving terrorist threat" over the next few years from Islamic terror groups, "driven by their undiminished intent to attack the Homeland and a continued effort by these terrorist groups to adapt and improve their capabilities."
While the United States is now better prepared to detect and fend off attack, the intelligence community reports, al-Qaida has also been active. In fact, it has "protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability" to the degree that "the United States currently is in a heightened threat environment."
In other words, after all this war and death and the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars, we are back to where we were six years ago. That is utterly unacceptable. In the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11, the notion that Osama bin Laden would still be alive and free come 2007, still fully capable of inspiring if not leading attacks on this country, would not have seemed plausible. Yet that is exactly where we find ourselves.
That situation is in part testament to just how difficult it can be to destroy a movement that has no real center of gravity, that feeds on resentment and anger and ignorance, all of which float freely in the modern world. However, it is also an indictment of America's political and military leadership, which has responded to a complex challenge with simplistic solutions that have relied too much on violence and too little on wisdom.
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The prime example is of course Iraq. In the wake of Sept. 11, we did not invade Iraq because it posed a threat. We invaded because in the eyes of the Bush administration, Iraq posed an opportunity. It offered a place to demonstrate to the world the dominance of U.S. military power and our willingness to use it against those who dared to challenge us, an approach that had the added advantage of being popular with an American people still outraged at being attacked.
Unfortunately, as a strategy to win the hearts and minds of the Arab world, it was doomed to failure. By using our power against an oil-rich Arab nation with no link to Sept. 11, even one headed by a tyrant as vicious as Saddam Hussein, we had allowed ourselves to be provoked by our enemies into confirming the worst that they said about us. That mistake has fostered anti-Americanism around the world and squandered much of the international support we once enjoyed.
We are now left to deal with the consequences of that failure, to take what lessons we can from the recent past and apply them to the future. One of the most important of those lessons involves the necessity of at least some degree of government candor with the American people.
Too many times, the assessments of our best military and intelligence experts have been slanted to fit a preordained political outcome, and too often the media have been complacent in accepting that slant as unchallenged truth. The release of the intelligence assessment, with its relative honesty, suggests that at least some government officials are now prepared to be more frank with those they are supposed to serve.
That will be critically important as we attempt to recover from past mistakes. Information is not a means by which a government manipulates its people to preordained ends. In a democracy - and this is supposed to be about democracy - information is the means by which a people governs itself. A government that must lie to its people to achieve its ends has in effect rendered itself illegitimate.
Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor of the AJC. His column appears Mondays and Thursdays.
© 2007 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution