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The New York Times
November 20, 2002

'Breakdown': A Catastrophic Failure to Think the Unthinkable

By Sam Roberts

Among the most challenging questions prompted by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is precisely how the government would have responded to specific threats that commercial airlines were going to be hijacked and turned into weapons against targets in New York and Washington. Would all flights have been grounded? For how long? Would all Arabs at or near airports have been interrogated? Would potential targets have been evacuated and secured?

  In "Breakdown: How America's Intelligence Failures Led to September 11," Bill Gertz doesn't answer those questions. Instead he poses an even more chilling one: Why did America's intelligence apparatus fail to assemble and interpret clues that, in hindsight at least, might have suggested something pretty close to what the terrorists were about to inflict?

  He convincingly argues his bottom line: "There was a failure within the American intelligence community to think the unthinkable; there was a failure to think that a major terrorist strike against the United States was possible."

  Gertz, who has made this case in print as a defense and national security reporter for The Washington Times, marshals his evidence in a slim volume that is inflated by about one-third with reproductions of various documents, some of which, paradoxically, seem all the more valuable because entire pages have been redacted, thanks to national security constraints.

  And his well-argued case is occasionally freighted by his own predispositions. Do supporters of people he dislikes have to be "cronies"? Does it really matter that something happened on Halloween? He sniffs that after an analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency resigned to protest that his warnings of a terror attack were ignored, the analyst's supervisors restricted his computer access and, when he failed to show up for work, even feared that he had defected. Imagine, though, if under other circumstances the analyst had defected. Gertz would have been among the first to find out and to wag his finger.

  Still, he balances his occasionally grating finger-wagging and second-guessing with the candid perspective offered by a career State Department analyst who said he had analyzed about 9,000 terrorist threats over 25 years. "I can only think of about two dozen reports which provided all the key pieces of a credible terrorist plot," the analyst is quoted as saying. "I think it is crucial that the American people understand the quest of detecting key pieces of a terrorist plot is extremely difficult."

  "My purpose in writing this book," Gertz says, "was not simply to point the finger of blame but to start a public debate on the failings and weaknesses of American intelligence." His book may not have started that debate, but he stokes it and the public's demand for a more vigorous intelligence apparatus.


    'BREAKDOWN: How America's Intelligence Failures Led to Sept. 11'

  By Bill Gertz

  Illustrated. 273 pages. Regnery. $27.95.