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The Price of Success

It’s often said, I think correctly, that the administration’s extraordinary success in preventing terrorist attacks in the U.S. over the last four-plus years has been a mixed blessing, in that many Americans probably underestimate the danger posed by terrorist groups and fail to credit the administration for its remarkable record.
Today, President Bush addressed the National Guard Association of the United States, and delivered another excellent speech on the war against Islamic terror. The full text is here. It’s all worth reading. Here is the section that has been widely reported, where Bush describes a plot against Los Angeles that was thwarted in 2002:

Since September the 11th, the United States and our coalition partners have disrupted a number of serious al Qaeda terrorist plots — including plots to attack targets inside the United States. Let me give you an example. In the weeks after September the 11th, while Americans were still recovering from an unprecedented strike on our homeland, al Qaeda was already busy planning its next attack. We now know that in October 2001, Khalid Shaykh Muhammad — the mastermind of the September the 11th attacks — had already set in motion a plan to have terrorist operatives hijack an airplane using shoe bombs to breach the cockpit door, and fly the plane into the tallest building on the West Coast. We believe the intended target was Liberty [sic] Tower in Los Angeles, California.*
Rather than use Arab hijackers as he had on September the 11th, Khalid Shaykh Muhammad sought out young men from Southeast Asia — whom he believed would not arouse as much suspicion. To help carry out this plan, he tapped a terrorist named Hambali, one of the leaders of an al Qaeda affiliated group in Southeast Asia called “J-I.” JI terrorists were responsible for a series of deadly attacks in Southeast Asia, and members of the group had trained with al Qaeda. Hambali recruited several key operatives who had been training in Afghanistan. Once the operatives were recruited, they met with Osama bin Laden, and then began preparations for the West Coast attack.
Their plot was derailed in early 2002 when a Southeast Asian nation arrested a key al Qaeda operative. Subsequent debriefings and other intelligence operations made clear the intended target, and how al Qaeda hoped to execute it. This critical intelligence helped other allies capture the ringleaders and other known operatives who had been recruited for this plot. The West Coast plot had been thwarted. Our efforts did not end there. In the summer of 2003, our partners in Southeast Asia conducted another successful manhunt that led to the capture of the terrorist Hambali.
As the West Coast plot shows, in the war on terror we face a relentless and determined enemy that operates in many nations — so protecting our citizens requires unprecedented cooperation from many nations as well. It took the combined efforts of several countries to break up this plot. By working together, we took dangerous terrorists off the streets; by working together we stopped a catastrophic attack on our homeland.

There have been many such successes since September 2001. The only observation I would add is about this easily-overlooked portion of the President’s narrative:

Their plot was derailed in early 2002 when a Southeast Asian nation arrested a key al Qaeda operative. Subsequent debriefings and other intelligence operations made clear the intended target, and how al Qaeda hoped to execute it.

I’m just guessing that the “subsequent debriefings” didn’t involve hiring a lawyer for the terrorist and asking him, pretty please, to reveal the plot.

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