The first thing that strikes me about the 9-11 Commission’s hearings is former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey.
He’s the other Kerrey, the Democrat from Nebraska, one of the more active members of the commission. His questions today again revealed the intelligence, even-handedness and sense of humor that made him the best candidate for president in 1992. It’s too bad he didn’t win that year. We might have done something about Social Security. We might have prevented the 9-11 attacks.
The second thing that strikes me about the 9-11 hearings is that the attacks could not have been prevented.
Few of the witnesses have been honest enough to admit it, but not one in a million Americans could imagine, on Sept. 10, 2001, that men bright enough to learn how to pilot a commercial jet also could be hateful enough to fly those jets with hundreds of passengers into buildings holding thousands more human beings.
To his credit, Richard Clarke, the former presidential adviser on counter-terrorism, admitted today that, while intelligence services had hints al Qaida might try to hijack aircraft, the word “hijack” at that time meant taking the passengers hostage, not plunging planes into tall buildings.
The only chance to prevent the attacks was in the suspicions about those Saudis taking flying lessons. But someone would have had to press hard and loud in public with that case. Politeness and politics put those suspicions aside. In the end, the 9-11 attack was so inconceivable it was unstoppable.
Presidents Clinton and Bush did too little, probably because they felt too little urgency and too little fear. According to Bob Kerrey, the Clinton team gave the Bush team no plan to eliminate al Qaida, and the Bush team developed none until after the World Trade Center was in ruins.
Considering the obvious, the rest of the 9-11 hearings will be an exercise in highly educated decision-makers using clever words to say they did everything when they probably didn’t, or that they could have done more when they probably couldn’t.