(This blog entry has been updated)
In July, 2001, a lightweight legacy playboy from Texas was President after an ugly legal battle, and he was just smart enough to surround himself with some very smart people who really, really knew what they wanted to accomplish.
They wanted to rebuild the US military in a big way, dump hundreds of billions of dollars into it, modernize the equipment, streamline operations, and achieve "full spectrum dominance" based on overwhelmingly superior firepower and high tech communications.
They also wanted to position the US a lot more aggressively in global geopolitics. They could see threats on the horizon - anti-hegemonic coalitions of minor powers with the audacity to think they should be allowed to manage their own affairs - and they believed the US needed to be proactive about preventing these coalitions from even aspiring to a larger global or regional role.
They were nervous about the long-term availability of the cheap, abundant petroleum on which the US economy is utterly dependent. Many of them were energy industry executives themselves, and they believed the Caspian region was shaping up to be a major energy supplier. They were determined that the US, and not Russia, Iran, or China, should call the shots there, so they pushed aggressively to establish forward bases, cosy up to former KGB dictators, and invest lots of American money to develop local industries.
As part of their drive to marginalize those potential rivals, the new government planners had to set up energy trade routes that bypassed those rivals completely and left the energy under the control of the US and its local proxies.
Some key logistical linchpins, like Afghanistan, which is smack-dab in the middle of any viable trade route around Iran, were unreliable partners, run by volatile thugs with funny ideas about self-determination.
The critical energy providers also had to be whipped into shape. Iraq was a major headache, because the thug running things there hated America and had signed agreements with Russian and European companies to rebuild its oilfields. Clearly, he had to go. Luckily, Iraq was disarmed and defenseless, and feeble after a decade of punitive sanctions, so they figured it would be a cakewalk to take over the place.
Iran was a much bigger problem. Unlike Iraq, it was able to defend itself from conventional attack, it had the world's second largest oil reserves, and it was busy signing reciprocity contracts with places like Russia and China to supply oil in exchange for more military technology.
It would take a lot of pressure to isolate Iran, but one of the nice side-effects of taking over Iraq is that it would send a clear message to other players in the region not to get in the way of US interests.
Saudi Arabia was a headache. Officially, it was an ally, and plenty of personal and business connections tied Saudi Arabia and the US together, but the local culture was quite hostile to US involvement in the Middle East, and the ruling family had to make a lot of compromises and juggle a lot of competing interests to stay in power.
After the US moved in and set up permanent military bases during the first Gulf War, the CIA-trained guerillas who drove the USSR out of Afghanistan were up in arms again about these crusader forces in the holy land. They tried to blow up the World Trade Centre back in 1993, and since then they took potshots at US embassies and even dared to attack a US Navy destroyer when it was harboured in Yemen.
What's more, they were being funded by some of the rulers in Saudi Arabia, and they had cozied up closely to the thugs running things in Afghanistan.
Still, the people surrounding the new US President were very smart, and where others saw trouble, they saw opportunity. They knew their plan to overhaul the military and topple uncooperative regimes like Iraq wasn't going to sit well with the public, and having a scary bad guy out there could only help matters.
(Remember Pearl Harbor? Before that, Americans wanted nothing to do with that war over in Europe. After the attack, they dove in headfirst. If there's one thing Americans hate, it's having their noses rubbed in it.)
The issues that gripped the President's strategists were too complicated for the public to understand, anyway. Much better to frame it as an old-fashioned, good guys vs. bad guys kind of thing. Keep it nice and simple, and let the clever planners carry the burden of pulling off their great designs.
Savvy analysts understand that it is very difficult to achieve the kind of consensus that the President's planners sought unless facing a major, direct external threat, as existed during WWII and the Cold War.
In fact, as propagandists have long known, the easiest way to drag the public into war is to convince them that they are being attacked and to question the loyalty of those who dissent.
What better way to generate the unquestioning loyalty they needed than to stand aside and let a real terrorist attack happen?
In July, the US intelligence community noticed a major increase in chatter among terrorist communities. They were up to something, and it sounded like it was going to be a doozy. There was talk about an attack in the US itself, talk about airlines and hijackings.
The spies were nervous and the President's antiterrorist advisor was going ballistic. The CIA director tried to discuss the matter with the National Security Advisor, but she ignored him. The President's planners had bigger fish to fry, and another terrorist attack could only help them.
On August 2, 2001, the President set off for a month of mountain biking and brush clearing at his family's summer estate in Crawford, Texas, confident that his smart advisors would take care of things and keep him in the loop.
Every day the President received briefings from the intelligence community. On his fourth day of vacation, he listened to a memo saying those crazy terrorists who blew up the Cole were planning some kind of attack in the US involving airports, recruits in New York, airplane hijackings, and surveillance of federal buildings.
The President smirked at the poor functionary who had to deliver his briefing. "All right, You've covered your ass," the President drawled, and sent him on his way.
The warnings continued to escalate, the President and his planners continued to dismiss them, and a little over a month later, all hell broke loose. Those terrorists who were planning to hijack airplanes and attack the US did just that, and the President and his planners suddenly had precisely the mandate they needed to pursue their objectives, free of domestic opposition.
Hanlon's Razor holds, "Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity," and this has often been used to lend support to the official story about the September 11, 2001 attacks: that they were the result of vast incompetence by a lazy, sloppy government bureaucracy.
Well, maybe. However, it stretches credulity to think the leaders of the US government could read a briefing that a known and well-funded terrorist plans to attack the United States by hijacking airplanes, listen to the director of the CIA warn that a major terrorist attack is in the works, and then do absolutely nothing about it out of mere incompetence.
Unfortunately, the leading conspiracy theory about September 11 is that it was an inside job, executed or at least planned by the US government itself, in the vein of the Northwoods Project. However, the possibility that a conspiracy of this magnitude could be kept under wraps is even harder to swallow than the official story.
But what if the chief planners in the US government, the ones who spent the decade deciding how they would reorganize the world once they were back in power, the ones who determined that they could not achieve their objectives without a "new Pearl Harbor" to mobilize the public and silence dissent, learned just enough about a planned attack to see that it would give them the perfect opportunity?
In the lead-up to the original Pearl Harbor, the US government undertook several calculated provocations against Japan, hoping to goad the Japanese into an attack that would provide the US with a pretext to enter World War II.
Why create the illusion of a terrorist attack when you can have the real thing?
Obviously, we have no way of knowing just how much the President and his strategists knew about the planned attacks, but we do know that those strategists were eager to set the US on a much more aggressive footing with the rest of the world, and they they believed their job would be much easier if the US public believed they were under attack.
We also know they were warned in August that a known terrorist group was planning a major attack against the US, and they did nothing to prevent it, despite the advice of the government's chief anti-terrorism advisor. (Within hours of the attack, the Secretary of Defense was already asking his staff to draw up plans for an invasion of Iraq.)
That leaves us with an incomplete puzzle, and we are left weighing the comparative plausibility of a few different stories that purport to fit the available evidence. Based on this government's pathological mendacity and its relentless efforts to twist reality to serve their goals, I find myself leaning toward the conclusion that they had some idea what was coming and let it happen.
I just hope I'm still around in 25 years when the secret files of this administration are declassified and we get to learn the rest of the story.
Update: This was updated to add subheadings and correct a grammatical error in the original. -Ed.