Linda Ann Wheeler Hilton
Here is the definition of serendipity: the lucky tendency to find interesting or valuable things just by chance.
I offer that definition as introduction because I believe language is, or should be, one of the important tools for those of us who are trying to hold the current administration accountable. Knowing precisely what words mean can keep those words -- and us -- from being manipulated into intentional misunderstanding.
The administration is playing fast and loose with language again.
Here's the link, taken right from BuzzFlash on 2 June 2002:
And here's the quote:
WASHINGTON (AP) - The administration's top law enforcement officers said Sunday that, based on information now known, there was little likelihood they could have detected the Sept. 11 attacks.
"I don't think it was likely," FBI Director Robert Mueller said, despite clues about the hijackings beforehand. Attorney General John Ashcroft did not believe there was "a substantial likelihood" of preventing the attacks.
They've used language to spin the issues and deflect criticism. They're first denying the likelihood of uncovering the specific plot for the Sept. 11 attacks, and most people will accept that on face value. The chances of uncovering all the clues leading to the specific plan for September 11 were slim. But what the statement obscures is the fact that even without having all the dots connected, the plot COULD have been disrupted. It wasn't disrupted, thwarted, prevented, or avoided, obviously, but it COULD have been.
COULD is the operative word.
A change in the scenario as simple as FBI Special Agent Coleen Rowley's Minneapolis office getting the FISA warrant to search Zacarias Moussaoui's computer hard drive could - COULD -- have pushed the other 19 hijackers to move up the mission to another date, only they couldn't get the right flights, or they encountered stiffer security and got caught. Even without connecting all the dots, the plot is foiled.
The whole idea is not to let the spinmeisters equate "couldn't" with "didn't." The hijackers' plans COULD have been disrupted at any of a thousand points. They WEREN'T, but they COULD have been.
(Indeed, in another report at
FBI Director Mueller confidently claims that "potential terrorist attacks had been thwarted in the United States as well as overseas since the Sept. 11 assaults on New York and Washington." Those obviously were the attacks they "could" and "did" thwart. September 11, therefore, is one they "could have" but "didn't.")
Second paragraph, Ashcroft says he didn't think the attacks could have been prevented. Again we've got that dangerous "could," but now it's mingled with "prevented." The implication is that only with all the dots connected could anything have changed, and therefore since connecting all the dots was impossible, changing the history of September 11 was also impossible. That logic doesn't wash. It wouldn't have taken connecting all the dots to change that tragedy. See the above potential scenario, which is only one of many a person with imagination could conjure.
More important, we're talking about people whose responsibility it is to connect the dots, connect as many as possible. Yet they in fact connected almost none of them. They're trying to tell the American people that September 11 was unavoidable, that no one could have stopped it, that no amount of investigation will change anything in the past and therefore no investigation can change what will happen in the future.
And that is pure unadulterated bushit.
I offer the following portrait of an FBI in transition not unlike what it is undergoing right now.
"The image of the old man does not erase easily: J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI for half a century -- the whole span of its existence -- totally a lawman and no part of a politician; crotchety, tyrannical but incorruptible and wholly devoted to the idea that his bureau should remain independent of any administration. U.S. Presidents feared him and he feared none.
"Now, for the first time, the FBI is in the hands of another man. In his first five months, Acting Director Louis Patrick Gray III has shaken things up at the bureau, abandoning Hoover's outdated rules and regulations and shelving a raft of old-line Hoover loyalists. But Gray is not a lawman and has no experience in law enforcement. An ex-navy captain turned lawyer, he has strong political ties to Richard Nixon. After the election, if Nixon wins, he would like to become the FBI's permanent director. But in this election year, Gray's association with the President has brought the bureau perilously close to the political arena and risked the involvement that Hoover so sedulously avoided. Hoover might or might not have chosen to make his agents the principal investigators in the Watergate affair, or have them look into possible improprieties in the wheat sales to Russia. But if he had, the cry that it is absurd to expect the administration to investigate itself would hardly have been raised, such was his own and his bureau's reputation for total independence. It is no fault of Gray's that he has no such shield. But the situation is a powerful argument for those who believe that the next permanent head of the FBI, before everything else, should be a lawman without political strings."
Those two paragraphs opened an article in a national news magazine. Reading them this morning gave me a very creepy sense of deja vu. Instead of an FBI independent of politics and politicians, we now have an FBI protecting itself as a political entity!
Here are two paragraphs from another article on another topic that generated another eerie frisson:
"The official version of the disaster, which came from public inquiries both in England and in the United States, held that the Lusitania was an innocent passenger vessel carrying an innocent cargo, and that the German attack on her amounted to an unprovoked act of war against citizens of a neutral nation, the United States.
"In this excerpt from his forthcoming book "Lusitania," to be published in the U.S. next spring by Little, Brown and Company, a British journalist, Colin Simpson, marshals fresh evidence that challenges this long-accepted version of the sinking. From an investigation making use of a wide variety of sources -- including many documents made available for the first time from the National Archives in Washington, the records of the Cunard Steamship Line, and the British Admiralty -- Simpson has pieced together a new and provocative account of the disaster. He reveals that the Lusitania was heavily armed, and that her manifest had been falsified to hide a large cargo of munitions and other contraband. He offers persuasive evidence that the English Admiralty was very strangely negligent in protecting the ship against attack, and shows that for some 30 years the U.S. government purposely withheld vital information about the sinking from the public."
(A recently shown National Geographic documentary of Dr. Robert Ballard's discovery and exploration of the Lusitania contained verification of Simpson's and provided additional evidence.)
Ironically, both articles appeared as cover stories in the same magazine -- the October 13, 1972 edition of Life, which I found under my bed this morning while looking for a quilting book for my mother.
Did I know the magazine was there? No, not consciously. In fact, when I went looking for the quilting book, I didn't know I had any old issues of Life, much less that they were under the bed. But not knowing didn't mean I couldn't find them. They were there, just like the clues to the September 11 hijackers' plots.
Would I have categorically denied that the magazines were there? I probably would have said that I certainly didn't think I had any 30-year-old editions of Life stashed under my bed, but I know my own acquisitiveness for such things. I would have to admit that even though I didn't believe I had the magazine there, I COULD have it. And when a quick examination of the area would prove me either right or wrong, such a denial would leave me open to embarrassment. If someone else had reason to believe I might have them and offered evidence to that effect, I'm sure I would have looked first, and then been surprised at the discovery. But I would not likely have denied the possibility. What is improbable is not necessarily impossible.
That is another reminder of the importance of language precision.
Not knowing about the plots didn't mean the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, the White House, the FAA, the airlines, or anyone else couldn't have stopped the deadly missions. Better security at the airports, spot-checks of how well security personnel were following procedures (those "red flags" about passengers paying cash for one-way tickets, for example), publicized use of random sky marshals, any of these COULD have averted the September 11 disasters.
The answer to the primary question -- Could the September 11 disasters have been avoided? -- must emphatically be "Yes." WOULD they, with any certainty, have been averted? That is the question that must remain unanswered, because we simply cannot go back in time and play it again, Sam. But another question, lying quietly unasked behind those other two while they have gained all the attention and publicity and spin, is "If the September 11 disasters could in fact have been avoided, WHY WEREN'T THEY?"
As the article on the Lusitania continued, it revealed that the 1915 disaster, including the loss of nearly 1200 lives, could have been avoided. It could have been, but it wasn't. The question, of course, is WHY WASN'T IT?
What lies in wait for the investigators who probe into the events and non-events leading to and following September 11? If they do not investigate, they will uncover nothing - neither bad news that could imperil the high poll numbers for the administration and its ongoing war on terror, nor good news that could -- COULD -- avert another tragedy like September 11.
As I found out, there were other serendipitous discoveries in that almost 30-year-old magazine.
From an editorial on the up-coming presidential election: "No thoughtful person dare safely assume that the 'balance of terror' between the superpowers will suffice forever to avoid a nuclear conflict. Sooner or later, through either error or irrational international behavior, the arms race, if continued, will lead to disaster. Movement toward disarmament, therefore, should hold a top priority for U.S. foreign policy. The Nixon administration has made a creditable start in this direction through the nuclear arms limitation agreements with the Soviet Union, signed at the White House last week."
Those may very well have been the same agreements the current administration just voided. What an odd, and serendipitous, collection of articles in a nearly 30-year-old magazine.
The truth about the Lusitania disaster, the involvement of the British Admiralty, Winston Churchill, U.S President Woodrow Wilson, and a host of others, was neatly and securely concealed for at least 25 years. According to the Life article,
"On Sept. 20, 1917, Senator Robert La Follette stated in a speech at St. Paul, Minn. that the Lusitania had been carrying munitions and the President was aware of the fact. The Senate promptly attempted to expel him, and in his defense La Follette demanded the true manifest of the Lusitania. It was refused, but Dudley Field Malone, the Collector of Customs in New York, quietly offered to testify on La Follette's behalf. The Senate dropped the case.
"The absence of the true manifest impeded the American court case into the cause of the loss, but this did not prevent a verdict in favor of Cunard and the British Admiralty. The document was actually in President [Woodrow] Wilson's possession and he sealed it in an envelope and placed it in the Treasury archives marked: 'Only to be opened by the President of the United States.'
"By January 1940 Britain and America stood in a relationship almost identical to that of May 1915. On Jan. 21 President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Edwin M. Watson, one of his secretaries, to bring him President Wilson's packet from the Treasury archives. The then Collector of Customs, Harry M. Durning, searched it out and handed it over. Watson sent it to the President with the following note: 'MEMORANDUM FOR THE PRESIDENT: This is from Mr. Durning, and is the original manifest of the S. S. Lusitania. He wanted me to open it but I was afraid to do it until you had seen it. I have thanked Mr. Durning. -- E. M. W.'"
There was a cover-up. There was secrecy. There was lying. And there were the unnecessary, avoidable, but irreversible deaths of many many innocents. The question, relative to September 11, must never be "Could an American president do such a thing?" He COULD; at least one did. The assumption -- and certainly the declaration -- that no American president would even consider such a heinous action must be dismissed immediately. It IS possible, it COULD happen, and it DID happen.
Which brings me, at long last, back to that serendipity thing.
Definition of serendipity: the lucky tendency to find interesting or valuable things just by chance.
I wasn't looking for the October 13, 1972 edition of Life magazine this morning; I didn't even know I had it. I was looking for something else and happened upon the magazine I had acquired long enough ago that I had stashed it away and forgotten it. But at least I was looking. I COULD find it, and I did. No one can find anything, not the FBI, the CIA, or the Senate Intelligence Subcommittee, if they aren't looking for something.