Sorry to annoy you with this, White House. But the 9/11 inquiry is important.

By Joe Rothstein
US Politics Today

Sunday, December 07, 2003
Link to original

In my last column I reviewed some of the events leading up to 9/11 to demonstrate (and I don’t want to be uncharitable here to those involved) that a roomful of blind monkeys could have anticipated that hijacked airplanes might be used against U.S. targets. The signs and signals apparently were everywhere. It required a colossal break-down of responsibility by many U.S. security agencies for the hijackers to succeed.

But there’s more to this failure than the run-up to 9/11. Our government agencies didn’t distinguish themselves any better on the day of the attack than they had during events leading up to it.

For starters, 19 hijackers were able to board planes at multiple airports, even though U.S. security agencies knew many of them by name and knew they were dangerous. In fact, it appears that 15 of the 19 were in the country illegally. (I’ll get back to that in a minute).

Then there was this remarkable oversight: despite the fact that all airlines had been placed on a high state of alert, the FAA continued to let passengers board planes with razors and knives with blades up to 4 inches long in their carry-ons. How seriously are you taking your job of public protection if, in the face of dire warning from our own terrorism experts, you still let people board planes with deadly weapons? A four-inch blade isn’t what you use to file your nails or remove your whiskers.

Another baffling question is what happened after the FAA, the Air Force and other officials were aware that a hijacking was in progress.

Once American Airlines alerted the FAA to its hijacking, it took a full 20 minutes for the FAA to report the hijacking to the North American Air Defense Command, which serves as the cop on the beat for the nation’s air lanes.

As it happened, NORAD was in the midst of one of its periodic training exercises at the time, so the organization was at-the-ready, on full alert, with all the top people where you would want them in such emergency. Yet even in full alert condition NORAD took another 30 minutes to scramble planes.

Now you might excuse NORAD for its hesitancy, given the unprecedented nature of the conditions it faced. But don’t let them off too easily. Dozens of times between June 2000 and September 1, 2001, NORAD had scrambled planes to answer calls for unusual aerial reports.

Looking at the intervals involved, you can surmise that NORAD might have had time between notification and calamity to intercept the second plane heading to the World Trade Center.

If NORAD failed to protect New York, what are we to think of the situation in Washington, D.C.? NORAD scrambled planes from southern Virginia, not from Andrews Air Force Base just across the river from the Pentagon where they could have easily intercepted the hijacked plane, which didn’t hit the Pentagon until one hour and 45 minutes after Washington Air Traffic Control knew about the first hijackings.

And here’s another weird fact. Secretary Rumsfeld was at his desk when the plane hit the Pentagon and immediately rushed out to help the victims. But what was he doing at his desk? Why was the first news he had about this national emergency a big ball of fire at his doorstep? Two planes had already hit the World Trade Center. Two more hijacked planes were out there somewhere. If anyone had clued Rumsfeld into the fact that one of those strays was circling Washington and taking a bead on the Pentagon, it’s very doubtful Rumsfeld would have been at his desk when the plane hit. Isn’t that what war rooms are for? To deal with the unexpected emergency?

Then there’s the strange circumstance surrounding President Bush. While all of this was happening, he traveled to a school, met the kids and read books to them—while his country was being devastated by enemy attack. Isn’t that why they carry those Black Boxes? So Presidents can react quickly when the country is threatened?

Meanwhile back in New York, the Port Authority, which managed the Trade Towers, apparently had an 11 minute warning that the second plane was bearing down on Tower 2. Express elevators went from the top floor to the bottom in one minute. But no warnings were given to people in the building. Multiple trips in multiple elevators could have carried a lot of people to safety. Instead of calling for evacuation, the PA system was telling people not to panic, to go back to their desks, even while those unfortunate enough to be on the higher floors of Tower 1 were jumping or falling to their deaths.

Getting back to the hijackers themselves, within hours of the attacks, the FBI was all over places where they lived, flight schools where they trained, even a store in Bangor, Maine, where five of them rented cell phones the day before. All of their names and photos were published a day or two later.

What does this tell you? Only that the FBI knew a lot about these people. The FBI just failed to act on that knowledge before the tragedy.

Now, if you were in charge of a government where failure was so pervasive, wouldn’t you want to get to the bottom of it? Wouldn’t you want to find those responsible and get them out of the way before they failed again? Wouldn’t you think the people of the United States had the right to a full explanation of why the CIA, the FBI, the INS, NORAD, the FAA, the Secret Service, and others we rely on for our security were unable to provide it?

That’s what is so mystifying about the White House’s resistance to an independent 9/11 inquiry. The President fought hard against creating a commission of inquiry. He gave in only on condition he could appoint the chairman and the commission would last only 18 months. Then he tried to appoint Henry Kissinger, the least credible person in America for the job, as chairman. Since the commission was created the White House and the agencies it controls has been stonewalling turning records to let the commission do its job—obviously hoping to run out the 18 month clock.

Why should the commission have to make a deal with the White House to see relevant papers? Why should the commission have to subpoena relevant papers from the FAA and NORAD? Aren’t we all on the same side? Why is it us against them?

Within hours of the space shuttle Columbia disaster, an independent inquiry was formed. The commission held hearings and already has reported findings. Structural changes are under way. Appropriate heads have rolled.

Sure I’m talking hindsight here. It’s always easier to know what might happen after it’s happened. But isn’t that what post-tragedy inquiries are for? To get the facts? To take measures to insure that there’s no repetition? To let the public in on the true story so they will have confidence in the process? There were multiple inquiries into the failures of Pearl Harbor, conducted while we were fighting the biggest war in our nation’s history. Admirals and generals lost their jobs over it. Communications systems were radically changed because of it.

Creating a Department of Homeland Security hardly measures up to the the kind of serious analysis that 9/11 requires. Mueller still runs the FBI. Tenet still runs the CIA. Condoleezza Rice is still the national security advisor. If there have been any purges or penalties for failure in these or other agencies, we’ve yet to hear about them.

This inquiry into 9/11 is a big deal. The White House should stop treating it like a minor annoyance.

Joe Rothstein, editor of, is a former daily newspaper editor and long-time national political strategist based in Washington, D.C.