“Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”
—Presidential Daily Brief, Aug. 6, 2001
Despite the warnings, we never see the unthinkable coming; that’s why it’s unthinkable. Consider the briefing that landed on George W. Bush’s desk on Aug. 6, 2001: “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” In the years since September 11, the once top-secret document has been used primarily as a political cudgel. The left has claimed that Bush was too busy “clearing brush” on his Crawford, Texas, ranch to heed the hints about hijacked planes; the right has responded that the memo was a recap of bin Laden’s longstanding ambitions rather than an actionable piece of new intelligence. Both arguments have their merits. But amid all the partisan bickering, we’ve overlooked the real reason the title is worth remembering: it reminds us that information won’t always protect us from dangers we can’t imagine. Bush’s subordinates—the people who were responsible, after all, for identifying and thwarting terrorist threats—knew that Zacarias Moussaoui had been taking lessons on how to fly a 747. They knew that an Al Qaeda intelligence report said that something “very, very, very, very” big was about to happen. And yet, because of some failure “of imagination,” as the 9/11 Commission Report put it, they didn’t sound an alarm loud enough to save the 2,976 people who died that day. At the end of the decade, it would be foolish to pretend that the unthinkable couldn’t happen again, regardless of who’s living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.