After the October 1984 Brighton bomb - an attempt to assassinate the British Prime Minister and other members of Britain's government - the Provisional IRA warned in a statement afterwards: "Today we were unlucky, but remember, we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always..."
And while these matters can't just be put down to luck, I think the truth is that al-Qaeda got 'lucky' against the United States on 9/11. Or maybe it was 'chance' more than 'luck'? Whichever, I think we have to accept that no amount of fences can prevent terrorist attacks altogether, and in the face of a determined terrorist cell, the security services are - to an extent - reactive agents reliant on chance, and not a little luck, as much as skill.
The novelty of the 9/11 Report is that it is perhaps the first attempt to publicly and openly examine a terrorist atrocity as a systemic failure as much as a human tragedy. The authors of the Report are sensitive but also clinical in their focus. The most productive and illuminating section of the Report is its explanation of what occurred. Many have pointed to the omission of the testimony of George Tenet, and I agree that is a major omission, but what comes out of the Report very clearly is that the failures on 9/11 (and before) were numerous and multifarious and not confined to a few select individuals. There were the local immigration enforcement officials who did not pick-up on, or act on, certain warning signs concerning the individual cell members. There was a White House that - apparently - wasn't as alert to the threat or as open as it could be to the possibility of a terrorist attack on the continental United States of this scale and magnitude. We read of a previous administration (Clinton's) that did not take the threat as seriously as it should have done. The Report also highlights an intelligence community that was inexplicably inert to the strange movements and actions of the cell members within the United States and elsewhere. And a military response that was designed to save lives in any kind of attack scenario, but that proved wholly inadequate on the day. And so on.
The Report is less effective in its recommendations. Here it is neutered and uninspiring. Instead of setting-out how the United States might build a security apparatus fit for the random and amorphous threat environment of the post-Cold War information society, the Report respects existing doctrinal military approaches. Instead of calling for the United States to build a real international community with equality and justice - not least for its own security and protection - the Report sets forward recommendations about maintaining 'American values'. The authors are mentally stuck in the late 20th. century and the idea that the United States can, and should, boss the world. This is less a call to action, more a call for business as usual with a little tinkering here and there. Some mention is made of failed intelligence and security methodologies that were found wanting, and the Report rightly takes issue with foreign policy and America's appeasing attitude to Saudi Arabia and the dependence on oil, but none of these important issues are examined in-depth. Instead, the Commission members have adopted the conventional mindset and bureaucratised the issues, 'shifting the deck chairs' in the classically complacent way of people in charge, deciding that what is needed are different government structures, various oppressive security measures and "defending American ideals and values" abroad: the latter is shorthand, I think, for waging more wars. Indeed, the irony of the Report is that, for all the Commission's acute insight into many of the issues, most of their recommendations are of the type that detract from that insight and can only aggravate the problems that led to the attacks in the first place. That is a tragedy, but on reading the entire Report I reminded myself that the material had been compiled by 'government people' (an American might call them 'Washington people') and my expectations were modified accordingly. In hindsight, the Report was a whitewash.
It is important to recognise that the failures that could have prevented 9/11 are ultimately traceable right back to the White House, an important factor that the Commission never got to grips with. Let me say that I do not accept the conspiracist conjectures of the 9/11 'Truthers', and I also think the 'chance and luck' explanation merits some room here as it must be accepted that while many such attacks are planned and foiled every year, some will succeed. But nor can I accept the complacency of officials who wish to minimise the shocking negligence of those charged and paid to protect the public from these outrages. Having said that, the true role of the 9/11 Commission was to clinically examine what had happened and why, and recommend what should happen next. For all its faults, I actually take the unfashionable view that to engage in a political blame game would have been counter-productive. I do think President Bush and Vice-President Cheney ought to have been required to give evidence openly and publicly, and on oath, but I am in two minds as to the likely effectiveness of such an exercise. In a way I am glad that the Commission did not insist on it, but I also recall that the public examination of Condoleezza Rice - Bush's first term National Security Adviser - was very revealing about the complacency of that administration. It would have been a valuable civic exercise, but it would also have been a media circus focused on causing embarrassment to individuals, and it is doubtful that anything of value would have come out of it.
All in all, this is still an important document and essential reading for anyone wishing to understand the attacks and the global political situation generally.