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Western Press Review: 'Who Knew What,' U.S.-Russia Summit, Afghanistan, And EU

Prague, 20 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary in today's Western press looks at the continuing controversy over whether the U.S. government and security agencies knew enough to prevent the terrorist attacks of 11 September. Other pieces look at this week's U.S.-Russia summit, Afghanistan, and the EU's struggle to find a robust new role on the geopolitical stage.


Columnist William Safire, writing in "The New York Times," says no single person or organization is to blame for the U.S. government's apparent failure to recognize and act on 11 September warning signs. Instead, he says, many fingers should be pointed at what he calls "the entire national intelligence flop" and recommends setting up an independent 9/11 commission to investigate "who missed what."

Safire notes that it was former President Bill Clinton, not George W. Bush, who received the September 1999 Library of Congress report warning that Al-Qaeda's "Martyrdom Battalion" could crash-land a hijacked airliner into a government building. His presidency continued for 16 more months with no response to the report.

Nor is Bush blameless, Safire continues. Despite his "astute" request for a report on what threat Al-Qaeda posed within the U.S., he erred in directing his request to the CIA and not the FBI, which is responsible for internal security. CIA chief George Tenet, whom Safire describes as a "consummate bureaucrat," would be "the last to ask a rival agency for help in assembling a threat report for the president."

He adds: "Had Tenet the good sense to swallow his agency pride and ask the Justice Department's FBI for its data, a memo written by Phoenix, [Arizona] agent Kenneth Williams" -- urging a sweep of U.S. flight schools to see if Al-Qaeda was infiltrating the country's civil aviation system -- "would quickly have been flushed out."


Two opinion pieces in the "Wall Street Journal Europe" also look at the unfolding debate over intelligence failures in the months leading up to 11 September. In the first, Robert Baer, a former CIA officer based in Lebanon in the early 1980s, says "just knowing" a terrorist group is planning to attack a U.S. target is "not good enough."

He writes: "The U.S. had learned from being under constant terrorist threat in the Middle East since the 1967 Israeli-Arab war that most terrorist threats were bogus, and that acting on them only ended up paralyzing us. Accordingly, CIA field officers understood that before CIA headquarters -- or the White House -- could start moving pieces around in reaction to a threat, it needed to have details: when, where and how an attack would arrive."

In the case of 11 September, Baer writes, "Neither the CIA nor the FBI had anything close to precise information about the planning for the attack before it occurred. [CIA chief George Tenet's] August 6, 2001, briefing to the president that Osama bin Laden might try to hijack U.S. airliners was based on fragmentary, unsubstantiated, and dated information. As for the FBI, the reports from its agents in Phoenix, [Arizona] and Minneapolis, [Minnesota] connecting bin Laden to flight schools were based on speculation and hunches."

There is no doubt, he concludes, that U.S. intelligence agencies could have done better at following leads and sharing information. But, he says, "we shouldn't be blaming President Bush for the intelligence failure. Even if all the CIA reporting and the two FBI reports had landed on his desk at the same time, it is not the president's job to connect the dots. He can only act based on good, solid, finished intelligence. In this case, that wasn't forthcoming."


A second "Wall Street Journal" commentary says that in the wake of last week's "political tempest" over potential 11 September intelligence failures, the U.S. is still left with the "serious question" of whether intelligence warnings can prevent such surprise attacks. "By all means," it says, "let's have an investigation about that, but less to hang someone for failing to heed the last warning than to better understand the next one. The terror war's not over."

Drawing a parallel to the "noise" of contradictory intelligence that prevented the U.S. from anticipating the attack on Pearl Harbor, the paper says security agencies cannot be held accountable for failing to predict the events of 11 September.

"It's charming that liberals in Congress and the media are suddenly discovering that public bureaucracies are incompetent," the paper says. "And it's easy for columnists and other intelligence analysts to declare that the FBI should have heeded the warning about flight-school training from its agent in Phoenix. After September 11 that looks obvious. But before September 11 it was one among hundreds, if not thousands, of such signals that security agencies had to interpret."

The paper continues: "What worries us much more than what was missed on September 11 is that a similar mind set may be causing missed signals now." It adds: "The FBI seems devoted to its 'lone nut' theory of the anthrax terror, to the point of dismissing credible reports that one of the September 11 hijackers had anthrax himself. [The U.S. Department of Transportation] refuses to racially profile even suspicious types trying to board airlines. And the CIA and State Department have both been reluctant to trust reports from democratic opponents of [Iraqi leader] Saddam Hussein. This is the kind of thinking that could produce the next intelligence failure."


Finally, a commentary in the British "Times" says: "There is simply no way that any government can guarantee to protect its citizens from such acts of terrorism, any more than it could abolish accidents in the air or on the railways." The present furor over the U.S. intelligence scandal, it says, "reveals little about what really happened before the attacks on New York and Washington, but a lot about how a culture of fear, caution and conspiracy-mongering has taken hold of Western societies post-September 11."

In the months that have followed, the commentary continues, "U.S. authorities have done more than Osama bin Laden to spread fear and panic, publicizing every rumor of impending terrorist atrocities across America and the West. [The government's] defensive response to the latest who-knew-what row was to announce that Al-Qaeda is now planning an even bigger attack on America -- 'intelligence' based on what the FBI admits is 'chatter' and 'an abundance of caution.' "

The result, it says, only "makes matters worse -- creating an endless cycle of anxiety, accusations and unrealistic demands for reassurance."


Commentator Bruce Anderson, in Britain's "Independent," writes about the secondary role that Europe seems now to be playing in global politics, in light of the new NATO-Russia Council and U.S. criticisms of the defense capabilities of its NATO allies.

Anderson says that during the Cold War, many European leaders believed the principal threat to European stability did not arise from Moscow's desire to export communist ideology but from the ideological impatience of the United States.

"At least in private -- and sometimes in public -- European politicians wanted the Americans to be less intransigent towards Russia," Anderson says. "That wish has now been granted. As [British Foreign Secretary] Jack Straw has put it, the latest round of U.S./NATO/Russian negotiations marks the funeral of the Cold War."

With the end of the Cold War, however, Anderson notes that "Europe will finally cease to be the center of the Earth." He says the "geo-political center of gravity has shifted, irrevocably," caused in part by both the events of 11 September and a "fundamental realignment" of Washington's relations with Russia.

Despite anxieties over links with Iran, Anderson says the U.S. no longer sees any reason to quarrel with Russia. And he puts forward the theory that the Bush administration's world view has more in common with that of the Russians than with any of the Europeans, Britain excepted.

Anderson says the events of 11 September caused American policy makers to become aware of the contrast between unlimited military might and an elusive threat, a lesson already learned by Russian President Vladimir Putin in breakaway Chechnya, for example. Washington and Moscow both realize they are living in a dangerous world.

"In contrast," he writes, "Europeans refuse either to acknowledge the dangers or -- Britain again excepted -- to make an adequate military contribution to the [NATO] alliance. So the Americans see less and less point in that alliance: less and less reason to listen to what the Europeans have to say."

Future generations of European leaders are not going to enjoy it, Anderson concludes, when the Americans and Russians do deals over their heads, "and when it becomes apparent that America's most important special relationship is the Russian one."


Writing in "The New York Times," political science professor and Russia expert Michael McFaul says that despite the achievements expected to come out of this week's U.S.-Russia summit -- most notably a signed arms-reduction treaty -- the meeting "will only be a partial success if [U.S. President George W.] Bush fails to push for greater democracy."

Unfortunately, McFaul writes, the trend in Russia is moving away from democracy. Russian President Vladimir Putin's apparent disregard for media freedom, human rights in Chechnya, and even governmental balance of power -- illustrated by his recent "reform" of the Federation Council, or upper house of parliament, which substantially weakened the body's ability to check presidential power -- are all grounds for alarm.

McFaul asks: "Why should Mr. Bush or the American people care? First, the obvious: Democracy is a good system of government and one desired by Russians. [Second], dictatorship is unlikely to help the economy. [And third], an autocratic Russia will eventually threaten the United States."

Bush, on his visit, "must speak the truth about Russia's democratic backsliding," McFaul writes. "He needs particularly to speak about Chechnya, acknowledging that terrorists there must be stopped but emphasizing that not all Chechens are terrorists and the only road to peace and security in the Caucasus is political, not military. Second, if Mr. Bush truly values his relationship with Mr. Putin, then he should speak candidly about the democratic criteria for genuine partnership between our nations. Third, he must make a special effort to meet with those in Russia fighting for democracy and human rights."


Two pieces in today's press review look at the situation in Afghanistan. In the first, published in the British "Guardian," commentator Madeleine Bunting looks at the apparent failure of British marines to engage Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters in Operation Condor and says this latest military endeavor looks "about as farcical as every other operation in Afghanistan has done in the past six months."

Bunting adds: "We know as much about Operation Condor as we do about its predecessors -- Anaconda, Ptarmigan, Snipe -- and before that, Tora Bora: very, very little. Follow the reports for the past six months and there is a ludicrous pattern of claims of victory, then a few discordant details trickle out and, finally, an admission of failure."

In this latest venture, she writes, it is unclear what British troops are realistically expecting to find. If there are no Al-Qaeda or Taliban fighters to be found, it's no wonder: "Al-Qaeda, like any terrorist organization, doesn't need a base in Afghanistan to launch its attacks, while the Taliban can sit tight, quietly recruiting and regrouping, before re-emerging in Afghan politics."

Add to this the fact that crimes against women, warlordism, ethnic clashes, and poppy harvesting have all been on the rise since the routing of the Taliban last December, she says, and Afghanistan runs the risk of becoming one of the most "embarrassing" chapters in British military history.

Bunting concludes: "By the time of the first anniversary of the fall of Kabul it will no longer be possible to ignore the accumulation of these awkward details, and we will be embarrassed to be reminded of our naive triumphalism. The war was a crude and clumsy intervention which did little for the wretched Afghans, and even less for the struggle against terrorism."


Fred Hiatt, writing in "The Washington Post," looks at the apparent gap between continued unrest in Afghanistan and President George W. Bush's vision -- announced last month -- of evoking the spirit of the Marshall Plan in helping to bring peace and prosperity to the war-torn country.

Hiatt calls this gap especially alarming "because in fact the United States is not making a maximum, Marshall Plan-style effort. While the president may talk about helping the Afghan people achieve their aspirations, his policy is not as grand." He adds, "U.S. credibility will suffer if the nation pretends to have goals that its policy cannot support."

Hiatt cites Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz as offering the most honest assessment to date of U.S. policy in Afghanistan. In an interview last week, Hiatt writes, Wolfowitz supported the rebuilding of schools and hospitals but cautioned against an expansive nation-building role. Hiatt says that, according to Wolfowitz, "the United States and its allies should help build a national army and police force; use international peacekeepers to preserve security in the capital, Kabul; and assign small teams of U.S. special forces to work with warlords. [To] do more, the deputy secretary suggested, would be to dangerously ignore Afghanistan's culture of 'regional powers with a great deal of autonomy.' "

In the end, Hiatt quotes Wolfowitz as saying, "'The goal is to try to create conditions so that Afghanistan does not revert to the same kind of haven for terrorists that it became after the Soviets left eventually, and that in turn means trying to at least limit the kind of human suffering that takes place when there are widespread civil wars."

But Hiatt takes issue with this strategy, saying in part, "In entering Afghanistan and deposing the government, the United States took ownership of its problems in a way that it cannot now avoid. To convince particularly the Muslim world that it cares about more than self-preservation, America must in fact help Afghans realize their aspirations -- and that can't be done in the long run at the side of brutal warlords."

(RFE/RL's Grant Podelco contributed to this report.)