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Published: Sunday, 6/20/2004

What might have been

Horrifying as it was, the attack on America on Sept. 11, 2001, could well have been substantially worse, according to the national commission studying the awful events of that day.

What is emerging from the work of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States is a picture of an al-Qaeda scheme for a terrorist assault far more ambitious in its scope than what was actually carried out Sept. 11.

The White House and the Capitol were already believed to have been potential targets for United Flight 93, which crashed in western Pennsylvania. But now it appears that California and Washington state were also considered in the terrorists' early planning.

Preparations had begun as early as 1999, which raises again the question of why the CIA and the FBI never stumbled upon the plot.

The hearings also revealed that the performance of the Federal Aviation Administration and the United States Air Force were less than sterling on Sept. 11 in terms of preparedness and reaction.

The Air Force appears to have been much better at putting F-16s in the air for shows and ceremonial events, such as President Reagan's funeral, than it was at launching U.S. fighter aircraft to intercept the four flying bombs on Sept. 11.

One Air Force general testified that had the orders to scramble fighter jets been handled more efficiently, the hijacked planes could have been shot down before the World Trade Center and Pentagon were hit.

The reports are also further clouding what has been a key theme and repeated message of President George W. Bush and Vice President Richard B. Cheney until now - that there was direct cooperation between al-Qaeda, which carried out the Sept. 11 attacks, and Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

It is certainly possible that even without a direct link to al-Qaeda, Saddam was planning his own terrorist acts against American interests, as Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested Friday.

But if the information the commission has put together is correct, and it seems sound, then the claim of Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney of active ties is either a case of persistent misunderstanding on their part, or, as some critics are saying, a big lie.

The "big lie" theory goes that the Iraq-al-Qaeda link piece is so critical to the Bush Administration's case for the war that it cannot afford to relinquish it. So it repeats it, hoping that American voters will continue to believe it through the elections in the fall.

One flaw is coming to be endemic to Bush Administration practice: It appears that two key sources - senior al-Qaeda officials Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin al-Shibh - were tortured to obtain the information they provided.

A second problem, one that always exists in dealing with the CIA and the FBI, is that commission members, or anyone else, never know what those agencies have omitted from what they have told you.

Put simply, one can't know what one hasn't been told, or even that the information in question exists.

In any event, the early conclusions are as sobering as they are scary, and the commission's final report, due next month, may only be more of the same.

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