Why America Slept: The Failure to Prevent 9/11/01

Gerald Posner, New York, Random House 2003

By John Bacher (reviewer)

Gerald Posner's book Why America Slept could have well been titled The Price of Oil. It is clear from reading Posner's lament on the blind stupidities that made America vulnerable to the terrorist outrages of September 11th, that a an obsession with oil was the key factor in America's sleeping while fanatics plotted to blow up its cities.

Posner's While America Slept is full of terribly saddening tales of misses that came close to catching those who were planning the bombings of New York and Washington. These include the failure of intelligence and law enforcement agencies to fully cooperate, and the ignoring of prophets who called out in vain for long overdue reforms to facilitate the necessary coordination. But these sorry glitches and blunders pale behind the glaring mistakes that resulted in the September 11th disasters, related to efforts to curry favor with oil-rich dictatorships. All of these screw-ups, moreover, could have been foreseen if those in charge of combatting terror had the same insights as academics in fields such as peace and security studies -- or even their 101-level students.

While many authors in the extensive fields of terrorism, Middle Eastern studies, peace and strategic studies were ignored prophets, Posner's analysis reveals major gaps in their writing. He documents well for instance, how Osama Bin Laden played a crucial role in disrupting United Nations efforts to bring peace and democracy to Somalia. He ignores however, Somalia's subsequent tragic history -- just as other influential opinion makers who slept while the southern part of this now effectively triply-partitioned country became a failed state and a bastion of terrorism.

The UN's retreat from Somalia was just the start of a ignominious kow-towing to oil tyrants. One of the most revealing episodes in While America Slept concerns an infamous flight of May 18, 1996. This took Bin Laden from his former refuge in Sudan -- where his road building efforts helped to pave the way for Canadian oil companies -- to his new sanctuary in Afghanistan, after landing at the airport in Jalalabad in Eastern Pakistan. His C-130 transport plane held the terror mastermind, his family and 150 top aides and lieutenants. This would be the core of the command group which would soon plot the bombing of America.

The C-130 transport plane did not have sufficient fuel storage capacity to fly from Sudan to Pakistan, so it made a refueling stop which was scheduled in Qatar, a small, relatively liberal state with good relations with the United States. Qatari officials didn't want to allow Bin Laden to land without American permission -- which, to their surprise, was quickly granted. Apparently, rather than upset Bin Laden's powerful oil-rich friends, the arch criminal was allowed to slip away unhindered.

The blind stupidity and refusal of American authorities to understand the nature of their enemy is illustrated vividly by Posner in his final chapter. This shows how high ranking officials in both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan assisted terrorism against America. This information emerged as a result of the interrogation of Abu Zubagdah, a Saudi who -- prior to his arrest -- was a key figure of al Qaeda's inner circle and was in charge of its terrorist training camps in Afghanistan.

Zubagdah revealed his network of powerful friends among American's supposed allies as a result of trickery by US intelligence. For all the careful tricks, however, such as making Zubagdah think he was being interviewed by Saudis, the Americans really lucked into his dramatic revelations. They thought he would reveal secrets out of fear of the Saudis -- not because he believed himself to be among friends.

Speaking to Arabic Americans disguised as Saudis, Zubagdah let the cat out of the bag. In order to be released, he cited the names of powerful friends in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia who funded his activities. These people were killed before the Americans could speak to them -- presumably by others in even more powerful positions who did not want to be implicated in 9/11.

The naiveté of American intelligence in refusing to understand what was behind anti-American terrorism was a classic case of obdurate denial of what should be an obvious reality -- that oil-rich states fund terrorism. This denial is similar to the disbelief in the reality of global warming and catastrophic climate change. The reasons for both are the same: To face the facts would invite massive conflict with powerful economic interests engaged in oil production and consumption.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2004

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2004, page 29. Some rights reserved.

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