Why we must begin to imagine the unimaginable

I would sleep easier in my bed if I knew the Cabinet had read the 9/11 report

Every American bookshop this summer has been selling the 9/11 report. Three years after the event - the anniversary is next Saturday - there is still a great deal to learn from the 500-page analysis prepared by the Commission on Terrorist Attacks. The report raises scores of interesting questions and costs just $10. I bought it on holiday and couldn't put it down. Anybody in Britain who is interested in public affairs, or involved in them, ought to read it.

But before I come back to the central issue whether the institutional failings it reveals can be found in our own security services and police forces, I want to describe the practical use to which I shall put the report in the coming weeks. I shall distribute copies of chapter 9, "Heroism and Horror" to the people responsible for the offices I visit - The Independent's premises in London's Docklands, the Church Commissioners a stone's throw from Parliament, the Children's Mutual in Tunbridge Wells and so on. I want it used as a checklist.

For chapter 9 tells how the emergency services in New York coped. Many small things went wrong. The public address announcements were not heard in many locations within the Twin Towers. Many workers were unable to use the emergency intercom phones as they had been advised to do in fire drills. Instead, many called 911, the equivalent of our 999. But the 911 system was not equipped to handle the enormous volume of calls and was in the event totally useless.

Of course much more serious were the institutional deficiencies. In 1998, a source walked into an American consulate in East Asia and mentioned the possibility of flying an aircraft filled with explosives into a US city. Later that same year, President Clinton received a briefing entitled "Bin Laden preparing to hijack US aircraft and other attacks". By mid 2001 most of the intelligence community recognised that the number and severity of threat reports was unprecedented. George Tenet, the Director of Central Intelligence, said the system was "blinking red". An FBI official in Minneapolis, where one of the hijackers was attending flying school, was taken to task for preparing alarmist accounts. In response he told headquarters that he was trying to "keep someone from taking a plane and crashing it into the World Trade Center".

In the report's analysis of institutional failings, the first thing that caught my eye was a shortcoming with which I am familiar. The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) is stated to have had "woefully inadequate" information systems. So did Scotland Yard when I was one of a number of outsiders asked to comment on the Metropolitan Police's plans to improve their records management. Scotland Yard then was in exactly the same situation that the FBI found itself on 11 September. It lacked the ability to know what it knew. Could the Commissioner, Sir John Stevens, kindly tell us before he retires whether or not he considers that Scotland Yard has now cracked this problem.

There is a stage beyond knowing what you know, however. In the case of the FBI, the commission put it as follows: the bureau did not have the capability to link the collective knowledge of agents in the field to national priorities. How much harder it must be for Britain's regional police forces to place certain local incidents into the context of the fight against terrorism.

However, British arrangements appear better than America's in two respects. First, we have a specialist domestic security service, M15. In the US, the FBI discharges this task alongside its bread-and-butter work of investigating white-collar crime, drugs and gangs. It gives counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism low priority. With M15 we avoid this trap.

Second, through the much maligned Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), we have an institutional ability to look at the big picture. The 9/11 Commission bemoans the fact that no analytic work foresaw the lightening that could connect the thundercloud to the ground. The 11 September attacks fell into the void between foreign and domestic threats. In Britain the JIC bridges the gap or, at least, it has the wherewithal to do so.

Nonetheless 11 September was unimaginable. That is why the commission proposes a way of making the exercise of imagination routine or even bureaucratic. First, it says, deliberately and regularly spend some time thinking how surprise attacks might be launched. Then make sure that there is a process of identifying telltale indicators. Where feasible, collect intelligence of these indicators. And finally, of course, adopt defences to deflect the most dangerous possibilities.

I wrote at the beginning that people involved in public affairs ought to read the 9/11 report. I would certainly sleep easier in my bed if I knew that the Cabinet, the Cabinet Office, the relevant government departments, the security services and senior police officers had considered its findings. Have they?

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