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Why Haven't We Been Attacked?

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By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, March 7, 2008; 12:46 PM

As his divisive presidency winds down, President Bush is increasingly calling attention to something he hopes everyone will give him credit for: There hasn't been another terrorist attack on our shores since 9/11.

In his speech yesterday commemorating the fifth anniversary of the Department of Homeland Security, Bush made this point twice.

"When this department was established following the September the 11th terrorist attacks, it was hard to imagine that we would reach this milestone without another attack on our homeland," he said. Hearing no applause, he said it again: "For those of you who were here five years ago, you think back to that time -- I don't think we would have predicted that five years later there had not been another attack on us."

Such a statement requires an asterisk -- after all, in a still-unsolved attack shortly after 9/11, a half-dozen letters containing anthrax bacteria were mailed to media and government offices, taking five lives.

Nevertheless, Bush has a point. Especially given the widespread fear after 9/11 -- fear that Bush continued to stoke for political gain -- it's reasonable for Americans to feel fortunate that we haven't been hit again.

The relevant question, however, is why? Was it something Bush did? And if so, what? Should Bush's most controversial policies -- including the harsh interrogation of terrorist suspects, the warrantless spying on domestic communication, and the decision to merge 22 different government agencies into an often dysfunctional behemoth -- get any credit?

Yesterday, encouraging homeland security employees to "take enormous pride in the accomplishments of this department," Bush declared that the government has prevented "numerous" attacks. But he only cited two -- neither of which support his argument one bit.

"We've disrupted numerous planned attacks -- including a plot to fly an airplane into the tallest building on the West Coast, and another to blow up passenger jets headed for America across the Atlantic Ocean," he said.

The first of those, generally referred to as the Library Tower plot, should sound familiar. Bush has cited it in defense of his warantless surveillance program (see, for instance, this Feb, 9, 2006 speech) and the CIA's use of interrogation techniques most would consider torture (see, for instance, this Oct. 23, 2007 speech.)

But after the 2006 speech, it quickly became clear that he had overstated the gravity of that alleged plot. As Peter Baker and Dan Eggen of The Washington Post wrote, "several U.S. intelligence officials played down the relative importance of the alleged plot and attributed the timing of Bush's speech to politics. The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to publicly criticize the White House, said there is deep disagreement within the intelligence community over the seriousness of the Library Tower scheme and whether it was ever much more than talk.

"One intelligence official . . . attributed the move to the administration's desire to justify its efforts in the face of criticism of the domestic surveillance program, which has no connection to the incident."

As for the trans-Altantic airplane plot, Bush was referring to the break-up in November 2006 of an alleged plot in Britain to blow up as many as 10 U.S.-bound passenger jets with liquid explosives. But doubts have been raised about whether the plotters were anywhere close to execution. Some apparently didn't have airline reservations, two didn't even have passports, and it's not clear that they were technically capable of assembling the devices in question.


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