Maybe the CIA can point to many comparable successes, though it would say that to reveal them would endanger national security. But the U.S. military, a more forthright and less ridiculous group, might decide that there is no need to mess around, and they might go back to World War II and one of their feats that went beyond being merely comparable and was in fact far superior to 9/11 in every conceivable way -- except one. Unlike Mohammed Atta, Colonel Jimmy Doolittle of the U.S. Army Air Corps didn't have to accomplish the big job of keeping together a bunch of scrubs over a long period. He could rely on a team of disciplined volunteers who already knew all about flying planes, and were ready to go in a short span of time.
On April 18, 1941, little more than four months after Pearl Harbor, Doolittle and his men did what few thought could be done. Without mishap they took off in 16 twin-engined B-25 Army bombers from an aircraft carrier, the "Hornet" -- an outstanding accomplishment all by itself because those large planes hadn't been built for such short runway space.
(One of Doolittle's B-25's leaves the "Hornet," headed for glory. Photo from the National Archives.)
They flew 500 miles over the Japanese-dominated ocean and dropped bombs on five of Japan's cities, including Tokyo, just to show Tojo and his accomplices that they were not out of reach of the American military, even with the U.S. Pacific Fleet temporarily decimated.
The raid had the desired effect. The Japanese were deeply shocked and indignant. Sputtering with rage and forgetting all about Pearl Harbor, they called the raid "wholly illegal."
That verged on being a suicide mission, too, because it was out of the question to go back to the carrier, and in any case the "Hornet" was already returning to safer waters, and all the airfields that were close enough were in the hands of the Japanese, who were not likely to congratulate them. So the fliers had to keep heading west, with how they would get back safely to the ground very much up in the air.
The plan had been for the Chinese to have some fields ready, in spite of the Japanese, but a Japanese fishing boat had spotted the carrier, and Doolittle's men had had to launch the raid a day early, or else the bombers would have had to be pushed off the side, so as to bring up the fighters to defend the carrier. Word of that early launch never reached the Chinese, and the 75 crewmen from 15 of the 16 planes ended up scattered all over the place after bailing out or crash landing, with a number of them being injured. Risking death themselves at the hands of the furious Japanese occupiers, the Chinese nevertheless rescued most of the Americans.
Only three airmen died from their dramatic entry into China. Eight others were captured, and of those, four died later, three by execution. One of the five-man crews chose to land in the nearby Soviet Union, and there they were interned, sitting out the rest of the war before finally escaping to Iran.
No real damage was done to the Japanese, except to their pretensions. Part of their pique can be explained by the fact that Emperor Hirohito lived in Tokyo, and the press hastened to assure the public that the Emperor was "quite safe." The real destruction was to rain down on them later.
Doolittle thought the raid was a failure, because, in addition to the loss of some of his men, he had also lost all of his planes. He didn't even get back that only intact B-25 from the Russians. They just loved getting their hands on advanced American planes, and when a few years later a much bigger prize, a B-29 Superfortress, fell into their laps, they didn't give that back either. Instead they copied it, right down to the last rivet and twist of safety wire, and the result became an important part of their air fleet, in case they saw a need to attack the people who had designed the plane -- a weird prefiguring of sorts of 9/11.
But it turned out that, coming so soon after the catastrophe of Pearl Harbor, this raid boosted American morale tremendously and quickly entered the annals of legend. That was helped along by the movie "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," released three years later, in 1944, and starring Van Johnson, Robert Walker, and Spencer Tracy -- a film as well-done as the deeds that it portrayed.