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My Summary of the Executive Summary

I read the Executive Summary from the 9-11 Commission report. I pulled paragraphs that I found interesting out of the 31-page document. The only time I removed pieces from paragraphs were in the bulleted lists, where I removed bullets that I found less interesting. So, without further ado, here’s my summary of the Executive Summary:

At 8:46 on the morning of September 11, 2001, the United States became a
nation transformed.

The 9/11 attacks were a shock, but they should not have come as a surprise.
Islamist extremists had given plenty of warning that they meant to kill
Americans indiscriminately and in large numbers. Although Usama Bin Ladin
himself would not emerge as a signal threat until the late 1990s, the threat of
Islamist terrorism grew over the decade.

Until 1997, the U.S. intelligence community viewed Bin Ladin as a financier
of terrorism, not as a terrorist leader. In February 1998, Usama Bin
Ladin and four others issued a self-styled fatwa, publicly declaring that it was
God’s decree that every Muslim should try his utmost to kill any American,
military or civilian, anywhere in the world, because of American “occupation” of Islam’s holy places and aggression against Muslims.

The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were far
more elaborate, precise, and destructive than any of these earlier assaults. But by
September 2001, the executive branch of the U.S. government, the Congress,
the news media, and the American public had received clear warning that
Islamist terrorists meant to kill Americans in high numbers.

The history, culture, and body of beliefs from which Bin Ladin shapes and
spreads his message are largely unknown to many Americans. Seizing on symbols
of Islam’s past greatness, he promises to restore pride to people who consider
themselves the victims of successive foreign masters. He uses cultural and
religious allusions to the holy Qur’an and some of its interpreters. He appeals
to people disoriented by cyclonic change as they confront modernity and globalization.
His rhetoric selectively draws from multiple sources—Islam, history,
and the region’s political and economic malaise.

By September 11, 2001, al Qaeda possessed

  • leaders able to evaluate, approve, and supervise the planning and direction
    of a major operation;

  • a personnel system that could recruit candidates, indoctrinate them,
    vet them, and give them the necessary training;

  • communications sufficient to enable planning and direction of operatives
    and those who would be helping them;

  • an intelligence effort to gather required information and form assessments
    of enemy strengths and weaknesses;

  • the ability to move people great distances; and
  • the ability to raise and move the money necessary to finance an attack.

During 2000, President Bill Clinton and his advisers renewed diplomatic
efforts to get Bin Ladin expelled from Afghanistan. They also renewed secret
efforts with some of the Taliban’s opponents—the Northern Alliance—to get
enough intelligence to attack Bin Ladin directly. Diplomatic efforts centered on
the new military government in Pakistan, and they did not succeed.The efforts
with the Northern Alliance revived an inconclusive and secret debate about
whether the United States should take sides in Afghanistan’s civil war and support the Taliban’s enemies. The CIA also produced a plan to improve intelligence
collection on al Qaeda, including the use of a small, unmanned airplane
with a video camera, known as the Predator.

During the spring and summer of 2001, U.S. intelligence agencies received
a stream of warnings that al Qaeda planned, as one report put it, “something
very, very, very big.� Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet told us,“The
system was blinking red.�

The day began with the 19 hijackers getting through a security checkpoint system
that they had evidently analyzed and knew how to defeat.Their success rate
in penetrating the system was 19 for 19.They took over the four flights, taking
advantage of air crews and cockpits that were not prepared for the contingency
of a suicide hijacking.

Nonetheless, there were specific points of vulnerability in the plot and
opportunities to disrupt it. Operational failures—opportunities that were
not or could not be exploited by the organizations and systems of that
time—included

  • not watchlisting future hijackers Hazmi and Mihdhar, not trailing
    them after they traveled to Bangkok, and not informing the FBI about
    one future hijacker’s U.S. visa or his companion’s travel to the United
    States;

  • not sharing information linking individuals in the Cole attack to
    Mihdhar;

  • not taking adequate steps in time to find Mihdhar or Hazmi in the
    United States;

  • not linking the arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui, described as interested in
    flight training for the purpose of using an airplane in a terrorist act, to
    the heightened indications of attack;

  • not discovering false statements on visa applications;
  • not recognizing passports manipulated in a fraudulent manner;
  • not expanding no-fly lists to include names from terrorist watchlists;
  • not searching airline passengers identified by the computer-based
    CAPPS screening system; and

  • not hardening aircraft cockpit doors or taking other measures to prepare
    for the possibility of suicide hijackings.

The missed opportunities to thwart the 9/11 plot were also symptoms of a
broader inability to adapt the way government manages problems to the new
challenges of the twenty-first century. Action officers should have been able to
draw on all available knowledge about al Qaeda in the government.
Management should have ensured that information was shared and duties were
clearly assigned across agencies, and across the foreign-domestic divide.

There were opportunities for intelligence and law enforcement to exploit al
Qaeda’s travel vulnerabilities. Considered collectively, the 9/11 hijackers

  • included known al Qaeda operatives who could have been watchlisted;
  • presented passports manipulated in a fraudulent manner;
  • presented passports with suspicious indicators of extremism;
  • made detectable false statements on visa applications;
  • made false statements to border officials to gain entry into the United
    States; and

  • violated immigration laws while in the United States.

The civilians, firefighters, police officers, emergency medical technicians, and
emergency management professionals exhibited steady determination and
resolve under horrifying, overwhelming conditions on 9/11.Their actions saved
lives and inspired a nation.

Since 9/11, the United States and its allies have killed or captured a majority of
al Qaeda’s leadership; toppled the Taliban, which gave al Qaeda sanctuary in
Afghanistan; and severely damaged the organization.Yet terrorist attacks continue.
Even as we have thwarted attacks, nearly everyone expects they will come.
How can this be?
The problem is that al Qaeda represents an ideological movement, not a
finite group of people. It initiates and inspires, even if it no longer directs. In this
way it has transformed itself into a decentralized force. Bin Ladin may be limited
in his ability to organize major attacks from his hideouts.Yet killing or capturing
him, while extremely important, would not end terror. His message of
inspiration to a new generation of terrorists would continue.
Because of offensive actions against al Qaeda since 9/11, and defensive
actions to improve homeland security,we believe we are safer today. But we are
not safe.We therefore make the following recommendations that we believe can
make America safer and more secure.

No president can promise that a catastrophic attack like that of 9/11 will not
happen again. But the American people are entitled to expect that officials will
have realistic objectives, clear guidance, and effective organization. They are
entitled to see standards for performance so they can judge, with the help of
their elected representatives, whether the objectives are being met.

In October 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asked if enough was
being done “to fashion a broad integrated plan to stop the next generation of
terrorists.� As part of such a plan, the U.S. government should

  • Define the message and stand as an example of moral leadership in the
    world. To Muslim parents, terrorists like Bin Ladin have nothing to
    offer their children but visions of violence and death.America and its
    friends have the advantage—our vision can offer a better future.

  • Communicate and defend American ideals in the Islamic world,
    through much stronger public diplomacy to reach more people,
    including students and leaders outside of government. Our efforts here
    should be as strong as they were in combating closed societies during
    the Cold War.

  • Expect less from trying to dry up terrorist money and more from following
    the money for intelligence, as a tool to hunt terrorists, understand their networks, and disrupt their operations.

The strategy we have recommended is elaborate, even as presented here very
briefly.To implement it will require a government better organized than the one
that exists today, with its national security institutions designed half a century
ago to win the Cold War. Americans should not settle for incremental, ad hoc
adjustments to a system created a generation ago for a world that no longer
exists.

We call on the American people to remember how we all felt on 9/11, to
remember not only the unspeakable horror but how we came together as a
nation—one nation. Unity of purpose and unity of effort are the way we will
defeat this enemy and make America safer for our children and grandchildren.
We look forward to a national debate on the merits of what we have recommended,
and we will participate vigorously in that debate.

July 22, 2004