Former US Ambassador Prudence Bushnell writes about Planet Washington and a bitter lesson not learned

Ambassador Prudence BushnellImage via Wikipedia

Former US ambassador to Kenya and Guatemala, Prudence Bushnell who was chief of mission in Nairobi during the twin embassy bombings in Africa writes about Planet Washington and a bitter lesson not learned in WaPo.  Ambassador Bushnell is currently CEO of Sage Associates and lectures and consults on international and leadership topics.  While searching for Ambassador Bushnell’s photo, I also came across John McConnico’s Pulitzer photo of Ambassador Bushnell after laying a wreath at the site of the U.S. Embassy bombing, a grim reminder of our world that has changed forever before 9/11. Excerpt:

As the former U.S. ambassador to Kenya in 1998, I can only shake my head in sorrowful frustration at the reports about our intelligence community coming out of the Washington Post. At the time our embassy was blown up, the intelligence community was small indeed by today’s standards. Small enough to be competently led. It was not.

Notwithstanding a secret Grand Jury indictment of bin Laden, the National Security Agency intercepts of his communications, the scrutiny of the bin Laden-focused Alec Station at the CIA, the investigations of the FBI’s I-49 squad, repeated tactical warnings, and my own two-year efforts to bring attention to our embassy’s vulnerabilities, the intel/law enforcement/policy community was unable to prevent the first two, soon forgotten, attacks on the United States by al-Qaeda.

From the vantage of Planet Washington, although I was a senior career Foreign Service Officer and the president’s personal representative with the responsibility to safeguard American lives in Kenya, I did not have a “need to know” about information vital to our safety. Absent field input, Washington attitudes and assumptions prevailed. To wit:

1. Nairobi was backwater, so why would anyone bother to blow it up?

2. Yes, the embassy was located in the city that housed the well-known and long-established al Qaeda East Africa military cell, but birds do not foul their nests…or whatever the metaphor.

3. Yes, Ambassador Bushnell and then-Commander of the U.S. Central Command, General Zinni, had communicated their security concerns about the embassy, but they were merely field professionals, “civilians,” to the intel/law enforcement/political community of the time.

4. Yes, an intercepted letter from an al Qaeda gang-banger in 1997 indicated the presence of “brothers and engineers” in Mombasa, Kenya but the Nairobi cell had been “disrupted” following a CIA-FBI-Kenyan team raid that same year, so that was that.

5. Yes, a “walk-in” to the embassy a few months later warned of a truck bombing in Nairobi, but another intelligence service considered him a “flake.”

6. And, yes, the Ambassador had defied the system to write a personal letter to the Secretary of State after being reprimanded for “overloading the circuits” about her security concerns, but there was no money and, anyway, the “experts” in Washington said the Nairobi terrorist threat was only medium.

7. No, none of the secret information about al Qaeda known in Washington by the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and the White House NSC was ever discussed with anyone at the Nairobi embassy – or any other embassy for that matter. Nor were pertinent facts held by the federal prosecutors in the South District of New York who were covertly trying to bring bin Laden to trial for his activities in Somalia in 1993. Why? The information was classified and compartmentalized.

8. Yes, the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi was blown up and so was the one in Tanzania… and that was a shame, but it did happen at the peak of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, so no, nothing much changed as a result.

The attacks on the United States through our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and later via a naval destroyer, the USS Cole, did not register strongly enough on Planet Washington to provoke the interagency review we needed to determine what is working and what needs changing in our efforts to deter terrorists.

Instead, after the debacle of September 11, 2001, Planet Washington declared war on these Islamist gang-bangers and threw money, people, arms, secrecy, constitutional infringements and a perpetual state of Orange at the problems they were creating. The lessons my colleagues and I learned — as targets and survivors of an al Qaeda attack, foreign affairs professionals and leadership practitioners — were never sought.

Read the whole thing here.