A lesson in analysis
by Posted Mon, Dec 1 2003
It is the sacred duty of journalists to make complex events understandable without sacrificing accuracy. Since the September 11 attacks, few journalists have made serious attempts to offer a comprehensive, coherent explanation. Fewer still have offered an explanation.
That is why Gerald Posner's book Why America Slept is so important. The book's only major flaw is the title; a flaw that has special relevance to an audience of journalists who report and write across artificial, national borders. The far more precise title would be “Why Most of the World Slept” because Posner's investigation is not limited to the United States.
Given the tens of billions of dollars spent around the world every year on military forces and so-called U.S. intelligence agencies — including the Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Security Agency and National Security Council — did nobody see the attacks coming?
Until now, handicapping the blame game has been difficult because those who are supposed to be monitoring the evildoers tend to point the finger elsewhere. The disgraceful competition between the CIA and the FBI to find each other at fault has been especially prominent and disgraceful.
As a result of the confusion among laypersons, as well as the vast majority of journalists, Posner's book is a godsend. Posner has done an amazing job of cutting through the layers by detailing a complicated situation through dramatic narrative.
He does not provide a simple answer.
Readers familiar with Posner's previous books will be unsurprised at his success this time. A former Wall Street lawyer who has helped make sense of a crazy world in eight previous books, Posner has never sensationalized his books. Rather than seeking the angle that will maximize sales — as too many authors do because of greed or ego — Posner gathers the evidence, then lets the evidence determine his conclusions. If the evidence confirms the conventional wisdom, so be it. Runaway sales will have to wait.
Before summarizing Posner's conclusions about the blame for 9/11, mentioning a caveat is appropriate here. Posner has conducted lots of original research, including interviews with current and former government officials. But huge portions of the book rely on the global research of others — newspaper reporters, magazine writers, book authors, legislative committees, lawsuits, convicted criminals and international spies. Posner weaves information derived from the secondary sources into his text as if he knows the information is true. Maybe it is. But when Posner cites an article from the ideologically-driven National Review magazine as containing truth about a controversial occurrence, it is fair to ask whether Posner independently evaluated his sources.
Even with that caveat, praise is due; Posner's book contains copious footnotes and endnotes. Readers are not without means to evaluate Posner's version.
“The failure to have prevented 9/11 was a systemic one. Investigators did not get a lucky break early on, and there were many blunders in the immediate run-up to the attack. The seeds of failure, however, were sown repeatedly in almost 20 years of fumbled investigations and misplaced priorities. After a while, the revelations of ineptitude presented in this book no longer cause surprise but only anger.
Could the attack on America have been prevented? Yes.”
Posner's presentation is primarily chronological and occasionally thematic. In Chapter 1, “The Takeover,” Posner vividly describes neighborhoods in Brooklyn settled by wave after wave of men and women from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and other nations bound by their hatred of the Israeli state and of the U.S. government that is Israel's most prominent ally. Those neighborhoods in Brooklyn and elsewhere became the great American melting pot. But a melting pot can contain evildoers as well as immigrants striving to become law-abiding U.S. citizens.
In Chapter 2, “The Intelligence War,” Posner introduces what could fairly be called the book's dominant theme — how petty rivalries between CIA and FBI bureaucrats allowed terrorists to escape detection in the while plotting to destroy American ships, airplanes, monuments, government edifices and office buildings.
Throughout the book, Posner names names. When he takes the CIA, FBI, foreign agencies and the White House to task, Posner identifies individuals rather than anthropomorphizing a lifeless building or bureaucracy.
Occasionally, Posner identifies an individual who tried to solve the problem of terrorist infiltration without worrying first about his or her career.
Other journalists can learn a great deal from Posner: his mining of documents and interviewing of sources across national borders; his use of narrative, rather than he said/she said inverted pyramid news writing, to relate a complicated operation; and from his analytical thinking, which separates a collection of disparate facts from a coherent account.