A thought experiment

Mr. Bush refuses to learn from experience.
Here’s hoping the voters are more flexible.

Reader Harold S. Kramer had a dream, which he relates in the form of a small drama:

August 6th, 2001.

(Telephone Rings)

Secretary : Good Morning, Crawford Ranch. How may I direct your call?

OSAMA: Good morning. This is Osama Bin Laden. I want to speak to the President. It’s urgent.

Secretary: One moment please…(pause)

THE PRESIDENT: Osi-Dosey! Long time no talk to. What’s up, big fella?

OSAMA: I am determined to attack a target inside America soon.

THE PRESIDENT: Interesting. Tell me more.

OSAMA: I suppose you want to know where, how, and when?

THE PRESIDENT: Of course. Otherwise it wouldn’t be a “threat warning,” would it?

OSAMA: No can do, W. But I will tell you it will be very soon. My operatives are already in America.

THE PRESIDENT: No kidding?

OSAMA: Yes, and there will be hijackings.

THE PRESIDENT: Is there anything specifically you’d like to recommend that I do about it?

OSAMA: Not especially.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, if you can’t be specific, then there’s no need for me to tell Cheney about this conversation. Your call is of purely historical interest.

OSAMA: Have it your way, Mr. President. But it will be big. Very big.

THE PRESIDENT: No offense, Osi, but you can be sort of a bore at times, you know? I mean, I’m on vacation here.

OSAMA: Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

THE PRESIDENT: Bring it on!

Question: Is there any operationally relevant difference between bin Laden’s message in Mr. Kramer’s dream and the intelligence actually made available to the White House in the July 2001 CIA briefing and the August 6 PDB?

At some level, of course, all this second-guessing is grossly unfair. The Oval Office doesn’t come equipped with a crystal ball, and everything looks clearer in hindsight.

And I strongly agree the country would be better occupied right now figuring out how to restore some semblance of peace to Iraq than arguing about who blew 9-11.

But the insistence of the White House that no mistakes were made seems to me simply unbearable.

Is it certain that an “all hands to battle stations” based on the August 6 PDB would have led to (1) someone figuring out that airplanes might be used as missiles; (2) someone else figuring out that, if that was a threat, the previous guidance to air crews about how to deal with hijacking attempts needed to be scrapped, and locks put on cockpit doors; and (3) sufficiently swift implementation to thwart one or more of the 9-11 attacks? No, it’s not certain.

But the fourth hijacking led to a plane crash rather than the loss of a building because the people on board had gotten the news about the three previous flights. If the FAA had sent out warnings about the Tom Clancy scenario to all flight crews as late as September 10, that might have saved one, or maybe both, of the WTC buildings, and a thousand or more lives.

But the point, it seems to me, is not figuring out now whether that particular scenario would have been played out. The point is that the people responsible for the safety of this nation have been too busy playing CYA to do an honest, competent job of after-action analysis.

In one of Atul Gawande’s beautiful essays on the training of surgeons, he reports that the single characteristic that most clearly distinguishes someone who is going to make it as a surgeon from someone who is going to wash out is his reaction to bad outcomes.

The trainees whose first reaction is “It wasn’t my fault” are too dangerous to have in the OR. The surgeon you want is the one who says “How could I have prevented that?”

By that standard, I wouldn’t let George W. Bush cut my toenails. How about you?

Update

From tonight’s press conference:

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President.

In the last campaign, you were asked a question about the biggest mistake you’d made in your life, and you used to like to joke that it was trading Sammy Sosa.

You’ve looked back before 9-11 for what mistakes might have been made. After 9-11, what would your biggest mistake be, would you say, and what lessons have learned from it?

BUSH: I wish you’d have given me this written question ahead of time so I could plan for it.

John, I’m sure historians will look back and say, gosh, he could’ve done it better this way or that way. You know, I just — I’m sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference, with all the pressure of trying to come up with answer, but it hadn’t yet.

I would’ve gone into Afghanistan the way we went into Afghanistan. Even knowing what I know today about the stockpiles of weapons, I still would’ve called upon the world to deal with Saddam Hussein.

See, I’m of the belief that we’ll find out the truth on the weapons. That’s why we sent up the independent commission. I look forward to hearing the truth as to exactly where they are. They could still be there. They could be hidden, like the 50 tons of mustard gas in a turkey farm.

One of the things that Charlie Duelfer talked about was that he was surprised of the level of intimidation he found amongst people who should know about weapons and their fear of talking about them because they don’t want to be killed.

You know, there’s this kind of — there’s a terror still in the soul of some of the people in Iraq.

They’re worried about getting killed, and therefore they’re not going to talk. But it’ll all settle out, John. We’ll find out the truth about the weapons at some point in time.

However, the fact that he had the capacity to make them bothers me today just like it would have bothered me then. He’s a dangerous man. He’s a man who actually not only had weapons of mass destruction — the reason I can say that with certainty is because he used them.

And I have no doubt in my mind that he would like to have inflicted harm, or paid people to inflict harm, or trained people to inflict harm, on America, because he hated us.

I hope — I don’t want to sound like I have made no mistakes. I’m confident I have. I just haven’t — you just put me under the spot here, and maybe I’m not as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one.

Thank you, Mr. President, for making my point so clearly.

Mr. Bush wishes he’d had advance warning of the question so he could think up an answer: i.e., until the question was put to him on national television, it never occurred to him to retrace his steps and figure out what he’d done wrong. That’s really all a voter needs to know come November.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

One thought on “A thought experiment”

  1. 9/11 Navel Gazing

    There has been much recent discussion about the presidential briefing and relating to 20/20 hindsight regarding 9/11. See for example Edward, Matthew Yglesias , and Kevin Drum. Kevin almost gets it right with, "Look, I know there's a perfectly good…

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