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Sept. 11 Could Not Have Been Prevented Without Accruing A Lot Of Overtime

Esteemed members of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, good afternoon. As National Security Advisor, my job is to coordinate the efforts of America's intelligence and defense agencies and report directly to the president. I was, and continue to be, in a unique position to understand the threats and dangers our nation faces. It is with utmost confidence and sincerity that I assure each and every one of you that there was no way the federal government could have prevented the horrific events of Sept. 11 without accruing an enormous amount of overtime.

My heart goes out to the families and loved ones of all those who died on that terrible day. Our prayers continue to be with you. Unfortunately, there was absolutely nothing we could have done to predict al-Qaeda's evil plot, without requiring many, many people to stay in the office past 5 p.m.

According to federal law, government employees must be paid time-and-a-half for any work hours beyond 40 and double-time on weekends. Ladies and gentlemen, preventing Sept. 11 would have required hundreds of thousands of unbudgeted overtime hours and, in several cases, overtime plus compensatory paid vacation. Again, may I address the family members of Sept. 11 victims: That tragic day changed us all, but you paid the highest price.

The world was a different place before the day of those horrific attacks. Due to tragic budget constraints before Sept. 11, it was impossible to authorize unlimited overtime pay to defend our country from international and domestic threats. Our nation was in the midst of a fiscal crisis and operating under massive jobs-and-growth tax-cut measures. Turning back the hands of time is impossible, just as it would have been impossible to find money to cover thousands of hours of intelligence-agency overtime. Truly, the bottom line weighed heavy on our hearts and minds.

Predicting what happened on Sept. 11 would have necessitated the hiring of numerous new employees—many of them highly paid specialists in such esoteric fields as Islamic history and Middle Eastern languages.

But it was not simply a matter of incurring additional labor costs. Had we been able to allocate sufficient funds for overtime pay, we would have faced a second significant obstacle. In retrospect, I see it as a tragic coincidence that the dramatic increase in terrorist chatter and threat information coincided with the arrival of the summer, when keeping our vast offices up and running beyond the eight-hour workday would have necessitated substantial central-cooling expenditures.

The brave men and women who work for Central Intelligence, the FBI, the Department of Defense, and the Office of the Vice-President are overworked civil servants, trying to juggle family, personal, and professional lives. We did everything in our power to convince them to spend some of their free time working on issues of national import, but in the summer months, it was difficult to make them see the gravity of al-Qaeda's threat.

For years, we understood that the al-Qaeda network posed a serious danger to the U.S. In the months leading up to Sept. 11, I was in constant contact with CIA Director George Tenet, whose operatives had some leads suggesting possible large-scale, mass-casualty attacks on U.S. soil. Following those leads was cost-prohibitive.

In order to identify and apprehend the Sept. 11 hijackers before they struck, our agents would have had to have logged thousands of hours of the most mundane intelligence analysis. Consider, for example, the logistics of implementing the three-phase strategy to eliminate al-Qaeda. It involved a mission to the Taliban in Afghanistan, increased diplomatic pressure, and increased covert action. It would have been very expensive. The covert action would have entailed the time-consuming translation from Arabic of e-mails, phone transcripts, and bugged conversations. Arabic is an extremely difficult language that only a small number of government employees know. Completing the translations might have involved flying capable employees in from great distances.

Once a series of conversations has been translated, analysts must wade through endless pages of talk of dinner dates, computer purchases, travel plans, and weather reports, searching for anything of national-security interest. Each conversation must not just be recorded, transcribed, translated, and read. It must also be analyzed and formed into a report, which must be typed and copied and collated. Then the report must be discussed, and if action is deemed necessary... You see where I'm going here. We're talking about a massive accrual of hours in all levels of government, top to bottom.

The worst part is, 999 times out of 1,000, the operatives come up with nothing. It's very hard to pay people time-and-a-half when they can't tell you the exact location, date, and method of an imminent terrorist attack. But, considering the high priority President Bush placed on counterterrorism from the day he took office, I assure you that we would not have hesitated to schedule the overtime hours, had we known that a massive terrorist attack was definitely going to happen.

Yes, Mr. Tenet and his top deputies did receive a briefing paper labeled "Islamic Extremist Learns To Fly" in mid-August. Yes, an in-depth investigation of Zacarias Moussaoui might have led the government to the al-Qaeda cell in Germany that planned the Sept. 11 attacks, but the fact remains that we can never be sure. I believe that, during investigations such as this, it's important to stick with what we do know. Ladies and gentlemen: Had that lead been followed, a lot of people would've been working a lot of very long hours.

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