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A Historical Whitewash?

By Kelly Patricia O Meara
Monday, November 24, 2003

Receiving a subpoena in Washington is becoming as common as "credible but nonspecific" terrorist threats, and few are more likely to be issuing them than the bipartisan 10-member commission set up by Congress to investigate the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The problem for the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (also known as the 9/11 Commission) is that Nov. 27 marks its first anniversary and time is running out before the May deadline for filing its report. The 9/11 Commission was allotted 18 months and $14 million to investigate the circumstances that produced the Sept. 11 attacks, but commission insiders say the federal agencies with the most information haven't been cooperating.

The commission is tasked with "providing an authoritative account of the attacks of September 11, 2001, and [making] recommendations as to how to prevent such attacks in the future." More specifically, the commission is mandated to investigate "facts and circumstances relating to the terrorist attacks," including those relating to intelligence and law-enforcement agencies, diplomacy, immigration, nonimmigrant visas and border control, the flow of assets to terrorist organizations, commercial aviation, the role of congressional oversight and resource allocation and other areas determined relevant by the commission.

A Pentagon release says Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld has "directed that the Department [of Defense] be responsive to help ensure the commission can meet its deadlines" - that is, cooperate and do so in a timely fashion.

But across the Potomac River from the Pentagon the White House had been refusing to turn over highly classified presidential daily briefings (PDBs) seen only by the president - specifically an Aug. 6 briefing President George W. received from CIA Director George Tenet titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike the United States." Finally, in a last-minute compromise reached by the White House and the 9/11 commissioners, the White House has agreed to provide "restricted access" to years of PDBs. In line with what many family members of the victims believe to be the White House's already-excessive intrusions into the commission's mission, the agreement will allow a few of the commissioners to review portions of the daily briefings. They will only be allowed to take notes, which then must be vetted by the White House before being shared with the remaining commissioners or made part of the commission's report. But the content of the PDBs will continue to be redacted.

Like the secretary of defense, the White House has been reassuring, saying it "believed it was being fully cooperative with the commission" and that "it hoped to meet all of the panel's demands for documents."

Kristen Breitweiser, who on Sept. 11 lost her husband Ronald in the collapse of the second World Trade Center tower and was instrumental in getting Congress to set up the 9/11 Commission, tells Insight that the vagueness of the official statements are upsetting. "I wrote a letter to the New York Times last week because I didn't like the language of the White House spokeswoman. She said, 'We think we're cooperating.' There is a difference between thinking and knowing, and I think at this point in the game they can't 'think' they're cooperating, they have to 'know' they're cooperating. It was upsetting, and reminiscent of [National Security Adviser] Condoleezza Rice's comment a few days after the attack when she said that the White House 'didn't think they [terrorists] could use planes as missiles.'"

Breitweiser is especially concerned about the many press reports, supported by information gleaned from previous investigations of the events of Sept. 11, that cite nearly a dozen countries as having passed information on to Washington about an impending attack on the United States [see time line at "If the World Was Talking, Why Didn't We Listen?"].

Terrorism intelligence that reportedly was forwarded to the United States prior to the Sept. 11 attacks came from many countries friendly to the United States, including Egypt, Morocco, Argentina, Germany and Jordan (and even from the not-so-friendly Taliban in Afghanistan). Given the long list of prior "general" warnings, Breitweiser thinks it was disingenuous for the president's national-security adviser to express surprise that planes could be used in a terror attack on the United States.

"One of the questions I raise," explains Breitweiser, "and why I think the PDBs need to be released, goes to the vital flow of information. Why didn't that foreign-intelligence information about planes being used as weapons get into the hands of the national-security advisers; why didn't it get to the president? We need to find out where the breakdown occurred. The record is replete with information about planes being used [for planned terror attacks], so how could the national-security adviser come out days after the attack and say the [White House] didn't think planes could be used as missiles?"

"You know," explains Breitweiser, "it is very upsetting that the 9/11 Commission had to subpoena the Federal Aviation Administration [FAA]. According to news reports, there are 150,000 documents that were left out of what the FAA sent to the commission. Those documents went toward the time line of when the FAA notified the North American Aerospace Defense Command [NORAD], when the fighter jets were scrambled and the communications between air-traffic control and the pilots. These are threshold issues that go to the heart of the matter. How did the FAA overlook 150,000 documents pertaining to these issues? It is more than mildly upsetting that they would leave out these documents."

Breitweiser continues, "Look, it's been more than three years since my husband was murdered. I watched it happen on television and I still don't know why he's dead. I don't know if the FBI was following the hijackers, I don't know what time the fighter jets were scrambled and I don't know why the Port Authority [of New York and New Jersey] didn't tell my husband to leave tower two. There are a lot of questions that I have, that the families of the victims have, and when we try to seek answers from the FBI or intelligence committees, we get one of three answers. First they say they can't tell us because it could hinder [suspected 20th hijacker Zacarias] Moussaoui's right to a fair trial, or they say the information is part of the FBI's ongoing investigation or, finally, that it could compromise sources or methods."

Understandably, Breitweiser is more than a little discouraged. She says, "Just about everyone can figure out that there were failures, that there were huge breakdowns in intelligence. Why not cooperate and let America know that you're cooperating by doing everything you can to get the answers? This is about the lives of people, and I don't understand the reluctance to turn over documents. If you've done nothing wrong, what's the big secret? It's very hard to lose a loved one, to watch it happen - to watch a colossal breakdown and still have no explanation and no assurance that everything is being done so it will never happen again."

Obviously aware of the close attention being paid to the efforts of the commission by the family members of the victims, 9/11 commissioner and former congressman Timothy Roemer (D-Ind.) tells Insight that on the eve of the commission's first anniversary there have been both successes and frustrations. "Some of these areas include access to the value-added information that would help us to reflect on how our policymakers reacted to the threat of terrorism and the extent to which the bureaucracy provided good and timely information. As a member of the House-Senate joint inquiry I said that we needed the PDBs for two reasons. First, it would let us know how the president and other policymakers were informed about an impending tactical or strategic threat of terrorism from al-Qaeda. The other, just as important, is how the organizations, agencies and analysts were getting this important information to the top policymakers. We need to figure out whether from a policy perspective the top people, including former president Bill Clinton and President Bush, were warned and what kind of timely information they had."

Roemer continues, "Certainly you have to investigate if there was prior knowledge in the Clinton and Bush administrations - whether there was a smoking gun. The 9/11 Commission should focus on the policy side and the executive branch: Were there policy failures? Did they develop policies to do something about that threat? Did they work with the other agencies to coordinate and proactively plan together to address the most potent post-Cold War enemy that we could possibly face?"

As Roemer sees it, "There are two fundamentally important questions that are critical for the commission in terms of its credibility. Did we get access to the right documents in order to fulfill our statutory mandate and mission? If we don't get [full and unredacted] access to the PDBs and other policy documents there will forever be questions of the kind that dog and debase some of the other infamous commissions from the past. The other issue involves making sure we know from an accountability perspective what the two administrations knew ahead of time and how they reacted. We've had a number of frustrations, and I have been increasingly vocal and aggressive in trying to get this commission to move forward on these issues because we now have more sand in the bottom of the hourglass than in the top. We've reached the end of our rope so to speak on dealing with access questions when we should be dealing with policy questions, recommendations and working toward our report."

In the end, Roemer believes access to all related data is a matter of life or death. "If we don't get the needed documents and necessary access, if we don't get the answers to our questions for accountability, for the American people and for reforms for the future, we'll have to ask for an extension. That may be the worst nightmare for the White House because then our report will come out closer to the election. ... Getting the facts of what happened on 9/11 won't kill us, but not getting the facts certainly might kill us - meaning that getting at the most sensitive information is essential to getting the facts."

Bill Harvey lost his wife of one month, 31-year old Sara Manley, in the collapse of World Trade Center tower one. He tells Insight that "there seems to be a consensus that the Aug. 6 PDB was about al-Qaeda and using airplanes as weapons. I don't know this to be true, but I believe it is true. One of the questions that no one has really asked is, 'Why was this the issue of the Aug. 6 PDB?' You know, did someone whisper in the president's ear that this was an issue, or maybe the president said al-Qaeda is a threat and came up with it himself?' Maybe we're not giving the president enough credit."

Harvey continues, "Even so, I think the president resisted release of the PDBs because he genuinely thinks to do so would create a dangerous constitutional precedent. It's one of those things where you can have an honest disagreement. The 9/11 Commission is charged with making a record of what happened on 9/11, but my own interest in getting the PDBs is to see how and whether the intelligence process failed the last two presidents. I think the PDBs will show the systemic problems with the intelligence community and not necessarily those of the Bush administration."

What does Harvey think about the continuing efforts of the 9/11 Commission? "Well," he says, "I have high hopes, but I've been discouraged by a lot of things. For instance, the lack of urgency on the part of the commission that reaches all the way back into the spring is something we've argued about with them. Now the commissioners see that they're six months away from issuing a report and are becoming frantic. I don't like to be the person who told them so, but I told them. They haven't taken advantage of all the weapons at their disposal to prosecute a vigorous investigation. Yes, they're doing it now, but I wonder if it is too late."

Kyle Hence, cofounder and New York director of 9/11 Citizens Watch, a watchdog group established to monitor the commission, also is concerned about the untimeliness of its recent push to subpoena documents. "Here we are," says Hence, "two-thirds of the way through an 18-month investigation with a commission still waiting on important documents from the DoD [Department of Defense], FAA, CIA and the White House. The commission has taken an overly polite softball approach."

Hence would like to see more-aggressive attempts to get answers to questions such as what happened to U.S. air defenses at the time of the attacks. "Our air defense," says a disgusted Hence, "was a manifest failure on September 11. What is supposed to be the most protected airspace in the world just wasn't defended. Why? Look, warnings came in prior to 9/11 from almost a dozen countries - fairly specific warnings, including information about planes being used and hijackers being trained; even Russian President [Vladimir] Putin said in advance that 25 Arabs were being trained for just such an attack. Who received these warnings, were they shared with the national-security adviser and, if not, why not? The commission should have held hearings until it could determine why U.S. airspace wasn't protected."

Another question, says Hence, "is how the FBI was able to identify all 19 hijackers within a 24- to 48-hour time frame. The suspicion of the families of the victims is that these hijackers already were being tracked. But despite the fact that law enforcement and intelligence say they were caught completely off guard on 9/11 - that no one suspected hijackers would use planes as weapons - the FBI was able to identify every one of these hijackers in a couple of days! And, while speaking about airspace, why is it that members of the bin Laden family and nearly 150 Saudis were allowed to leave the U.S. a couple of days after the attack? Who were these people? Were they interrogated before they were allowed to leave? If they were interrogated, what was gleaned and, if not, why not?"

"Most importantly," says Hence, "we need to know if there was prior warning. I think you can establish a baseline of deception on the part of the White House as far as those warnings are concerned. Initially they said there were no warnings, and then they said 'there were no specific, detailed warnings.' But I think any reasonable person reading the House/Senate Joint Inquiry or press accounts about the warnings that were issued from overseas would say the threats were quite specific, using such words as 'imminent' and 'mass casualties,' etc. Clearly there were warnings."

Aside from the questions, says Hence, "There are concerns about how the commission is conducting interviews. It appears that it has knuckled under, bowed to demands by the administration to have 'minders' sit in on all interviews. The commission said, 'Well, if it's a really important point we'll ask the minders to leave the room.' How conducive is this for someone to get out and really tell the truth when they know a superior is watching over them? I mean how absurd is that? Another problem is that the witnesses are not being asked to testify under oath! Chairman of the 9/11 Commission Thomas Kean [Republican former governor of New Jersey] said something to the effect that 'Well, if they're not under oath, they'll be more forthcoming.' The fact that they're not requiring their witnesses to testify under oath doesn't make any sense."

Hence concludes, "Everyone is polite and everyone is giving them the benefit of the doubt. But the more you look at it, the more it looks like a dog and pony show. Unless the commission forces the issue, and there is a great public outcry to demand that [all] ... cooperate to provide documents that are at issue here, we may be left wondering what led to a commission report that has no weight or standing in the eyes of the public. That would be a tragedy."

Kelly Patricia O'Meara is an investigative reporter for Insight.
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