Using and Abusing 9/11 Fears to Set National Security Policy


During a Senate debate last week, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) reached for the most powerful weapon in any argument over national security for nearly the last three years.

The issue was a proposal from Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) to bar private contractors from interrogating military prisoners. Dodd played his high card by arguing that such a ban could reduce the odds of another black eye for America such as the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. But Sessions trumped him by suggesting the ban might increase the chances of another terrorist attack such as Sept. 11.

What if, Sessions asked, “the very best interrogator in the United States of America” was not a military officer but a retired detective who had “the ability to [obtain] information that can save thousands of lives” through skilled interrogation? Could America really deny itself an asset that might help prevent another terrorist attack?


Partly because of that argument, the Senate on Wednesday rejected Dodd’s amendment. That was little surprise. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the best way to build support for any national security initiative has been to portray it as a new line of defense against a repeat of that tragic day.

That was the justification for the Senate passage of the Patriot Act, which greatly expanded Washington’s ability to monitor suspected terrorists. Those arguments drove the creation of the Department of Homeland Security a year later.

The same logic turns up more explicitly in memos from Justice and Defense department attorneys before the Abu Ghraib scandal loosening the limits on acceptable coercion during interrogation.

Writing to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on March 6, 2003, top Pentagon lawyers acknowledged that “even in war, limits to the use and extent of force apply.” But citing Justice Department memos, they concluded “the nation’s right to self-defense has been triggered” by the Sept. 11 attacks. And that meant harm to those under interrogation could be justified “to prevent further attacks on the United States by the Al Qaeda terrorist network.”

This argument, of course, made its most dramatic appearance in President Bush’s drive to win support for war with Iraq. The report last week from the staff of the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks rekindled the debate over whether Bush misled the nation before the war about the extent of the links between Al Qaeda and Iraq.

While finding indications of some contacts between Al Qaeda and Iraq, the commission concluded that Saddam Hussein “apparently never responded” to requests from Osama bin Laden for help in acquiring weapons and establishing training camps. In all, the staff said it did not find evidence of a “collaborative relationship” between Iraq and Al Qaeda.

These conclusions have opened the administration to charges that Bush, and especially Vice President Dick Cheney, exaggerated the previous connections between the dictator and the terrorist. But Al Qaeda’s role in the president’s case for war was always more about the alliance that might develop in the future than the cooperation that had occurred in the past. Like Sessions, Bush leaned heavily on the conditional and those two resonant words: what if.

Regardless of whether Hussein cooperated with Al Qaeda in the past, Bush often suggested, what if he did so in the future. “Secretly, and without fingerprints, he could provide one of his hidden weapons to terrorists, or help them develop their own,” Bush declared before the invasion. “Imagine those 19 hijackers [on Sept. 11] with other weapons and other plans -- this time armed by Saddam Hussein.”

The defeat of Dodd’s amendment last week shows that the “what if” argument still has power. But there are signs a correction is setting in.

Hardly anyone disagrees that the world changed on Sept. 11; the grim evidence continues to arrive in outrages such as the killing of American Paul M. Johnson Jr. in Saudi Arabia on Friday.

But much of this year’s election debate is pivoting on how much the world changed on Sept. 11 -- and whether, in its responses, the administration has moved too far from the values, principles and strategies that guided America before.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the central issue before the voters in 2004 is whether Bush’s responses to the attack -- from the Patriot Act to the invasion of Iraq -- represent an appropriate answer to Sept. 11 or an overreaction that has carried the nation into dangerous waters.

To a degree unimaginable before the Iraq war, critics are now forcefully pressing that latter case. Robert V. Keeley, ambassador to Greece under Ronald Reagan, was part of a group of 27 high-ranking former officials called Diplomats and Military Commanders for Change who issued a statement last week charging that Bush’s policies had left the nation dangerously isolated in the world.

“It has become a mantra that 9/11 changed everything,” Keeley said at the group’s news conference. “In fact it didn’t. The fundamentals of protecting ... our national security have not changed.... What has happened is that mantra has been an excuse to say the president can do anything he wants because ... 9/11 changed everything.”

Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumed Democratic presidential candidate, probably wouldn’t go that far. Through his support for expanding the size of the military, increasing homeland security spending and redirecting NATO toward combating terrorism, he’s made clear he thinks Sept. 11 does demand important changes in America’s priorities.

But in his criticism of the Patriot Act and the way Bush went to war in Iraq, Kerry is clearly signaling that he would tilt away from some of the most aggressive elements of the administration’s response to Sept. 11.

What if, Kerry seems to be arguing, Bush’s answers to the toughest “what if” questions have actually made America less secure? It’s too early to say how America will answer that question, but already a safe bet that nothing else will shape the result in November more.


Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Monday. See current and past columns at