In 1997, three men in a Brooklyn shack— two from Jordan who identified themselves as Palestinian and one from Egypt— were days away from blowing up New York's "A" subway train as an audition for membership into Hamas.
But their new roommate, who in his few days in the country found Americans to be "nice" and so became confused as to why his roommates wanted to blow them up, flagged down a police car on a Brooklyn street an hour before midnight on July 29. Mohammed Chindluri (search) couldn't speak a word of English, so he played charades with the officer while repeating "Bomba! Bomba!" Rather than ignore the wildman, the officer chose to follow up. Police stormed the Park Slope shack that Chindluri led them to at dawn, shooting the suspects as they reached for the detonator.
High-ranking investigators said the intended attack had the makings of a suicide mission, and it was meant to hit the Atlantic Avenue station, which the New York Times described as "a commuting nexus that includes 10 subway lines and a Long Island Rail Road terminal."
Despite all the congratulations exchanged between the mayor and the police department after the attack had been successfully averted—and the police do deserve credit for looking into the claims of the crazed, gesticulating little man from the Middle East—the fact remains that the only reason we weren't attacked in July of 1997 was Chindluri's change of heart (he was supposed to help coordinate the attack). In other words, pure luck. After all, the deliveries of explosives that were taking place by truck every week to the Brooklyn shack on a route in plain sight of police went unnoted.
On Thursday, in her testimony before the 9/11 Commission (search), National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told a similar story regarding the United States' preparedness for possible attacks during the millenial new year. In contrast to Richard Clarke's testimony (search), Rice reminded us that it wasn't a "shaking of the trees" that averted millennium attacks planned for December of 1999, but a vigilant customs inspector. It turns out that the border patrols weren't even on alert, as Clarke claimed they'd been. It was the alertness and the actions of a customs agent at the Canadian border, named Diana Dean, and her team that set things into motion and stopped Ahmed Ressem (search), who was transporting explosives.
The thwarted millennium attacks, together with the 1997 incident, points to just how randomly our security apparatus often functioned prior to the current administration's reorganizing of our intelligence system. Even now, negligence continues. Indeed, it's a miracle that we have been attacked on our soil as infrequently as we have been.
It wasn't until the first large-scale attack from the Middle East within our borders actually succeeded that the American public lifted an eyebrow. Our false sense of security, buttressed by a complacency abetted by the 1990s economic well-being, was evident from a USA Today headline that appeared shortly after 9/11: "WTC Widows: A Quiet Fury." The article mentioned a common sentiment among the women: "I thought it couldn't happen here."
Why not? Did they think that the targets of the terror training camps in the Middle East—featured in countless documentaries for more than a decade-were somewhere on Pluto? Or that the trainees were just keeping themselves busy? That there would be no fruits to their labor?
Just as when the daily— but prevented— suicide bombings in Israel are referred to among the media and the public as "periods of calm," here too, common logic seems to go: prevented attack equals no attack attempted. We seem to be dismissive of catastrophes that are narrowly and randomly averted like those of 1997 and 1999.
If the American public wants a commission assigning blame to someone other than those who perpetrated the attacks of Sept. 11, it can turn its pointing finger inward. Our security apparatus of the 1990s was a reflection of the complacent, less than vigilant public it was protecting. It was an era of zero interest in foreign policy and national security, an era upon which then president-elect Bill Clinton could comment: "...I've been traveling around our country for a year and no one cares about foreign policy other than about six journalists."
As Rice said in her testimony, nothing less was being done under the Bush watch than was being done under the Clinton watch. Everything that was being done continued to be done as additional measures were being evaluated. This not only leaves hollow Richard Clarke's blaming of an administration that fired him while crediting one that didn't, it also implicates those people who today are eager to point fingers after the fact.
It's a shame that most people can't see the dung piling up until they're drowning in it.