The Past Is Gone: What About Now?

Congress is in an inquisitive mood, which, all things considered, is generally better for the common good than when the honorable members are in an acquisitive mood.

Senators and Representatives are keen to ask questions concerning revelations that our intelligence community was not as clueless as many of us assumed on Sept. 11. But the Bush administration, which received some alarming and almost prophetic intelligence reports about terrorist threats last summer, has made it clear that it regards questions as tiresome in the extreme. Nevertheless members of Congress will soon get a chance to rant and rave about the White House’s inability to foresee that 19 Middle Eastern men armed with box cutters and plastic knives could bring down the World Trade Center and very nearly demolish the Pentagon.

No doubt some lessons may be learned by airing what we knew, when we knew it and what we did and didn’t do about it. But am I alone in thinking that Osama bin Laden will be following these proceedings with great care? After all, we’re showing the world just how close we came to figuring out his secret, which means that our intelligence sources are pretty good after all. We didn’t crack the code, but we were coming awfully close. Assuming that bad luck finds Osama alive in some cave in Pakistan, he presumably is doing all he can to find out how the Americans knew as much as they did. And he will surely take steps to make certain that those leaks are plugged by any means necessary.

The phrases “flawless syntax” and “American politicians” are rarely uttered in the same sentence, but when it comes time to question administration officials about last summer’s intelligence reports, the problem will be tense, not coherence. The politicians will want to know, as the man says, what the President knew and when he knew it. The most important issue at the moment, however, is what the President knows and what he intends to do about it. That issue won’t have a public hearing, of course, and it shouldn’t. But behind closed doors, in leak-proof rooms, somebody ought to be asking questions about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.

For example:

Are we satisfied that any martyr for hire already in America feels the hot breath of John Ashcroft on his neck? We should hope the correct answer is, “Oh, yeah-big time.” The notion of bin Laden minions moving unmolested among us is disturbing enough; the possibility that they might know even a moment’s rest in some sympathic safe house in Jersey City or some flophouse off Atlantic Avenue is appalling. The public doesn’t need to know-and, in fact, shouldn’t know-precisely what the F.B.I. is up to in certain neighborhoods. What’s important is that terrorists who hide there come to believe that they are not safe, not even in some rathole owned by a friend. Or somebody who claims to be a friend.

Are we serious when we say we would never stoop to ethnic profiling in combating Al Qaeda at home? Here, of course, the answer had better be, “Hell, no! Do you think we’re stupid?” If, for public consumption, we insist on asking 85-year-old women from suburban Connecticut to remove their shoes before boarding an airplane, that’s fine, as long as it’s understood that this is all just for show. But when the F.B.I. sends undercover agents into the field these days, it’s very unlikely that they’re hanging out in some Irish bar in Inwood, checking for illegal I.R.A. contributions.

Which leads to another question: Are we doing all we can to make the enemy suspicious of everybody, even (or especially) others who share their, er, ethnic profile? The correct answer is: Time will tell, but the effort is being made. Counterterrorism isn’t simply a matter of denying the enemy freedom of movement. A terrorist operating on American soil ought to spend every waking hour wondering if that was a G-man sitting across from him on a bus, or watching him from across the street-even if that person spoke Arabic and quoted something profound from the Koran. But that kind of operation takes time.

When do we remind some Sunni Muslims how much they really hate other Muslims? No time like the present. Creating division in the enemy’s ranks is a time-honored, though not always honorable, tactic. But it sure beats sitting back and allowing a bin Laden type to create the mirage of a pan-Islamic movement against the West.

Has the phrase “energy independence” been used as part of our long-term strategy? Hey, pal, you’re starting to ask too many questions. What are you, some kind of anti-American nut? The Past Is Gone: What About Now?