Security failures before Oct. 7 echo 9/11

by Carl P. Leubsdorf

From the outset, the grim parallels have been uncanny.

Both the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the Sept. 11, 2001 al-Qaida attack on the United States were unexpected, unprovoked terrorist attacks that took thousands of innocent lives and exacerbated global tensions.

Now, details are emerging of another unfortunate parallel: Benjamin Netanyahu’s government of Israel, even more so than the George W. Bush administration in the United States, was asleep at the switch, ignoring warnings of just such an attack that occurred.

Reports that Israeli security officials received such warnings have circulated since the Hamas attack, but now more tangible evidence has emerged.

According to The New York Times, which said it had reviewed the 40-page document in question, top security officials in the Israeli government obtained a point-by-point Hamas plan for the assault more than a year before it occurred.

But they dismissed the plan as beyond Hamas’ capability to implement. The Times report said it was unclear if the report reached Netanyahu. (American officials were unaware of it, administration spokesman John Kirby said.)

That disclosure — and the reasons given for not taking it more seriously — echoes what happened in the U.S. 22 years earlier when a team of al-Qaida suicide terrorists flew two planes into the World Trade Center’s twin towers, a third into Washington’s Pentagon and aimed a fourth at the Capitol, causing chaos and some 3,000 deaths.

Prior to the attack, there was increased but vague chatter on networks used by terrorist groups of impending activity, and the Bush administration received warnings of a potentially big attack — though not with as much specificity as did the Israelis.

The prime written example of which we know was the president’s daily intelligence briefing on Aug. 6, 2001, which raised the prospect of terrorists hijacking an American aircraft to blackmail the government into releasing terrorists held since al-Qaida’s 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

But American officials took no specific response to that warning and have always insisted it was not only imprecise but made no suggestion of using hijacked planes as missiles to be flown into U.S. buildings. Testifying before the bipartisan commission set up to investigate the attacks, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice detailed efforts taken to increase alertness toward possible terrorist attacks but contended, “there was no silver bullet that could have prevented the 9/11 attacks.”

The commission made no specific assessment of blame, noting that, despite the increased alerts that al-Qaida was planning “something big,” the specific threat information in the president’s Aug. 6, 2001, briefing “pointed overseas. Numerous precautions were taken overseas. Domestic agencies were not effectively mobilized.

In a broader sense, the panel suggested one problem was that terrorism was “not the overriding national security concern” of either the Clinton administration or the Bush administration, which began in January 2001. It cited recurring intelligence communications failures and said that the government was attempting to counter advanced terrorist techniques “with the capabilities it had used in the last stages of the Cold War and its immediate aftermath. These capabilities were insufficient. Little was done to expand or reform them.”

After the attacks, Bush skillfully reached out to top Democrats to mobilize public opinion behind a military response to the attacks on the Afghanistan base of the terrorists. Strong public support undoubtedly helped him avoid any direct criticism for having initially been less than vigilant. The administration made a political issue of those who criticized its responses and Bush got through the 2004 election without paying any political price. Ultimately, however, his ill-considered decision to expand the anti-terrorist effort from Afghanistan to Iraq and the subsequent failures there sapped his public support and led to Democratic victories in the 2006 and 2008 elections.

Given the degree to which the Oct. 7 attacks threatened Israel’s viability, political accountability ought to come sooner for Netanyahu, who has been weakened by personal scandals and his unfortunate effort to limit the authority of the country’s Supreme Court to protect himself.

In office for most of the last 14 years, he has maintained a tenuous majority in the Knesset though his alliance with ultra right-wing religious parties that backed his hard-line policies against the Palestinians.

Immediately after Oct. 7, criticism over the government’s unpreparedness forced Netanyahu to form a unity government with his main rival, Benny Gantz.

Presumably, when the war against Hamas ends, Netanyahu will pay the political price.  Change can’t come too soon for many U.S. Jews — and presumably the Biden administration — who are devoted to Israel but appalled at Netanyahu’s willingness to weaken its democratic norms for his personal benefit.

In that way, the political aftermath of Oct. 7 will be far different in Israel than the aftermath of Sept. 11 in the United States, where Bush managed to emerge stronger politically despite presiding over one of the country’s worst modern disasters.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Email: carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com.