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Posted by on Jan 2, 2010 in Politics, Society, War | 8 comments

The Politics of Foreknowing the Past

In a column on New Year’s Eve in the NYT, David Brooks wrote:

Various experts have gathered bits of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s biography. Since they can string the facts together to accurately predict the past, they thunder, the intelligence services should have been able to connect the dots to predict the future.

This passage came to mind upon reading some of the responses to the following Newsweek report:   EXCLUSIVE: Obama Got Pre-Christmas Intelligence Briefing About Terror Threats to "Homeland":

President Barack Obama received a high-level briefing only three days before Christmas about possible holiday-period terrorist threats against the US, Newsweek has learned. The briefing was centered on a written report, produced by US intelligence agencies, entitled "Key Homeland Threats", a senior US official said.

Several things come to mind:

1.  Presidents receive security briefings and threat assessments all the time.  The odds are therefore near 100% that after a given attack/attempted attack it will be possible to go back and find out that some vague (or even specific) warnings or concerns had been expressed to the President in some capacity not long before the attack/attempted attack.

2.  A corollary to the above is that one suspects that prior to a holiday, especially travel-intensive ones, that the probability of attacks goes up.

3.  The briefing reported upon in the Newsweek piece did not mention Yemen (Al Qaeda in Yemen has claimed responsibility for the attempted attack), but rather focused concerns on Pakistan (and yet we get responses like this, this and this).

4.  Also, in regards to the usage of such scenarios to score political points, I would point out that Bush was briefed on the possibility that bin Laden wanted to hijack planes prior to 9/11 (a far more specific piece of intel than that cited above).  I blogged on the Presidential Daily Briefing that contained that information here and noted that even with specific information (planes and bin Laden), it was impossible to take that data and translate it into actual policy.   How much moreso, then, was it impossible to act on the information discussed above?

In short:  it is a long way from a general warning that an attack might take place to being able to know what there is to be done about it.

Cross-posted from PoliBlog.

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Copyright 2010 The Moderate Voice
  • DaMav

    I remember the eruption of “Bush Knew” posts and stories after word leaked that he had received a vague report about al Qaeda involving airplanes. As I recall the main concern was that they would hijack some planes and hold hostages for ransom. But the left acted as if Bush should have shut down air travel pre-emptively. A major heated debate broke out on Democratic Underground between the LIHOP (Let It Happen on Purpose) and the MIHOP (Made It Happen on Purpose) factions. Bush was relentlessly castigated for “ignoring a warning” and some of this nonsense continues even today.

    Now we have the situation in partisan reverse. Obama receives a “warning”, then goes on vacation. Certainly dots were not connected, and the system did not perform properly. But to act as if Obama personally were aware of an imminent attack of precisely this nature with specific time and place information and “did nothing” is as over the top offensively asinine as it was when the left did it with Bush.

    Obama has made plenty of mistakes in the War in general and the Christmas bomber incident in particular. Ignoring a general pre-Christmas general warning was not one of them. It does the country no good when hyper-partisans on the right mimic those on the left. There is a reason it’s called “aping”.

  • kathykattenburg

    It wasn’t a “vague report,” DaMav. Click on Dr. Taylor’s link to the Newsweek article and read it. It’s not long at all.

  • kathykattenburg

    OOOPS! DaMav, I should have followed my own advice and read your entire comment. I apologize, abjectly and unqualifiedly. 🙂

    Forgive me?

  • DaMav

    Bwaaahahaha KathyK….
    nobody expects DaMav to defend Barrack Obama
    just like
    nobody expects the… Spanish Inquisition!
    (insert Monty Python skit here)
    🙂 kek kek kek 🙂

    • kathykattenburg

      nobody expects DaMav to defend Barrack Obama

      Exactly, DaMav, lol! But I should know by now that people can surprise you — I’ve seen it happen many times before. It’s one of the things I most love about the human race. Just when you think you’ve got a person pegged, they go and wriggle loose from the peg. 🙂

  • dduck12

    If you read the whole Brooks story (sorry no link) you will see a different slant than Taylor is trying to make it out to be.

  • I hate to do it, but, I have to defend Obama. Unless said briefing said something like “we know darned well there will be an attack within 3 days on an airplane,” what could he do? Similar to that August 6th PDB the left wailed about and Blamed Bush, what could he do? Obama is one man, and there is only so much he can know, and so much he can do. That is why there are professionals in place.

    • dduck12

      yup. The trick is to have the best professionals.

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