Long Island Press
Thursday, Feb 19, 2004
When former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean took the helm of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, more popularly known as the 9/11 Commission, the moderate Republican made a vow: He would not let his investigation become another Warren Commission, the 1964 federal inquiry criticized for failing to adequately probe the possibility of conspiracy in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
The 9/11 Commission would look into every aspect of the attacks, and try to illustrate why the United States was so ill-prepared.
But as the original May 27 deadline for the commission’s report fast approaches, eyebrows are already being raised. On Jan. 27, the commissioners asked for 60 more days. The White House repeatedly said “no way” until Feb. 4, when President George W. Bush reversed himself and gave the commission two more months.
Part of the delay has been caused by the Bush administration itself, which has withheld key documents, angering commission members, victims’ families and skeptical citizens all the more. “We’re coming down to the final [months] of the commission and we’re still messing around with access issues,” said former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, who served as one of the commission’s five Democrats until resigning late last year. Cleland, too, sees parallels to the JFK investigation.
“This is the most serious independent investigation since the Warren Commission. And after watching History Channel shows on the Warren Commission…the Warren Commission blew it,” Cleland went on. “I’m not going to be part of that. I’m not going to be part of looking at information only partially. I’m not going to be part of just coming to quick conclusions.”
“It’s just a dog-and-pony show,” says John Judge, co-founder of 9/11 CitizensWatch, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group monitoring the work of the independent bipartisan commission. “It’s just like when you go into the Warren Commission, and you have five areas of inquiry: ‘Who was Oswald?’; ‘Who was Ruby?’; ‘Who was this and that?’ But you don’t have ‘Who shot Kennedy?,'” he says. “They’ve already had a panel on ‘Who are the terrorists?,’ which was all about al Qaeda. So they’re investigating the official line of assumptions.”
The 9/11 hearings have been poorly attended and bloodless in content. Witnesses have been mostly top government officials along with former spies. The media have been largely absent. Citizens’ groups have been shut out of the process, and some 9/11 widows and widowers have become livid with frustration.
Across the nation, a growing number of people are determined to discover the truth about 9/11. Citizen-led organizations such as CitizensWatch and the 9/11 Visibility Project are trying to give the public a say.
But the movement with the most clout is the loose-knit band of some 100 families who are suing airlines and government agencies rather than accept part of the $5 billion payout offered to victims’ relatives in exchange for a promise not to sue. A lawsuit, many feel, offers the best hope of dragging information out into the open.
THE WIDOWS’ JOURNEYS
Ninety-eight percent of the families filed for claims with the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, 20 percent doing so in the final week of the Dec. 22, 2003 deadline.
That number superceded Fund Director Kenneth Feinberg’s “magic minimum” of 90 percent, about which he remained “cautiously optimistic” when the Press spoke to him on Dec. 10.
But it’s the other 2 percent—roughly 125 families filing some 200 separate lawsuits—who are trading millions of dollars for the truth that Feinberg and the commission have to worry about.
“I would rather eat dirt than [get] into the fund,” says Ellen Mariani, whose husband, Louis Mariani, died aboard United Flight 175, the plane that hit the World Trade Center’s South Tower. “I don’t want to sign off my rights as a citizen of this country. I want answers.”
In the wake of the tragedy, Mariani was determined to stay strong. She helped reschedule her daughter’s wedding, originally set for Sept. 12, 2001, and attended it four days after the disaster. But events caught up with her.
“I couldn’t sleep…I had been watching TV. I was writing, listening, and then comparing,” she says. “And nothing was making sense.” She began two years of research into the Bush family’s business and military involvement in the Middle East.
Mariani went through two different lawyers before she found Philip Berg, a Pennsylvania Democratic activist and former gubernatorial candidate. The gravity of the situation is not lost on Berg.
“We’re at a point in our history where the American public must stand up, hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder, and fight,” Berg tells the Press. “We’re losing rights minute by minute here and we’re in a very dangerous time in this country.”
On Nov. 26, 2003, Mariani and Berg filed an amended detailed complaint in their racketeering lawsuit against President Bush and other top officials (Mariani had sued United Airlines two years earlier).
“There’s high levels of people in the Bush administration who knew of, failed to warn, failed to prevent and also are covering up since 9/11,” says Berg. “Ashcroft, for instance, stopped flying commercial aircraft in July of 2001. Why?”
That’s just one of the questions the families want answered.
Mariani isn’t alone.
“This may be uncharted waters, but I was thrown in a pool on Sept. 11, 2001, and had to learn to swim,” says 9/11 widow Monica Gabrielle, of West Haven, Conn. “No one has been fired. No one has been demoted. The same people who are guarding us today on an elevated security alert are the same people who were working that day.” She describes her late husband, Richard Gabrielle, an insurance broker who lay trapped underneath rubble as the South Tower collapsed: “He was a gentle man, and he was alive, trying to get out of that building that day. The dead. The dying. The smoke. The terror. No one should have suffered like that. I want accountability. I need answers.”
Gabrielle is represented by Kreindler & Kreindler, the Manhattan firm that won $2 million in 1995 for 13 American Airlines passengers who had experienced 28 seconds of severe turbulence. Gabrielle is one of many plaintiffs represented by the firm who have joined others in filing suit against the airlines and security firms involved in 9/11. Also named are Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, certain governments, and parties accused of masterminding the attacks.
As Gabrielle’s attorney, Brian Alexander, sees it, the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund is the byproduct of powerful airline lobbying. “The legislation[that created the fund] was designed to protect the airlines first and foremost—and it was airline lobbyists who pushed it,” Alexander says. “The Victim Compensation Fund for the families was an afterthought.”
Skeptical of the Mariani suit’s chances, Alexander says, “At the end of the day there are legal defenses that the government can take, they get to be stupid, they can be as negligent as all get-out, and they will still win, especially when you’re talking about intelligence.”
But Mariani’s goal is not victory in court, but a closer pass at the truth.
Creating an independent 9/11 commission was a Herculean effort, seemingly resisted by the Bush administration from the start. When it couldn’t stop the juggernaut, the administration tapped controversial figure Henry Kissinger to be chairman. Kissinger, former national security adviser and secretary of state to Richard Nixon, had been both lauded and lambasted for his role in international affairs. Kissinger bowed out of the assignment rather than disclose who his international consulting clients were.
Since then, the commission has become publicly frustrated by the administration’s refusal to allow full access to documents, notably the Aug. 6, 2001 daily brief prepared by the CIA and seen by the president, which referred to possible commercial airline attacks. After Commissioner Cleland resigned (to take a job as a director of the Export/Import Bank), a compromise was reached: The panel received a lengthy briefings summary edited by the White House then prepared by two 9/11 commissioners.
Then there was the funding. The commission was expected to adhere to a mere $3 million budget to reach its findings within 18 months. After some time, the budget was increased to $12 million. Many believe the panel is still being stiffed, considering the gravity of the task and the number of people killed. After all, $40 million was spent investigating the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, which caused seven deaths. Republicans in Congress gave Kenneth Starr $47 million and five years for the Clinton investigation, which focused on real estate dealings and the president receiving fellatio from an intern.
In addition to secrecy and underfunding, many feel the commission’s pursuits are compromised by the interests of its members (see sidebar). Some observers see nothing more than a collection of D.C. insiders who won’t rock the boat. This theory gained credence recently when the commission called two of its own, Executive Director Philip Zelikow and Jamie Gorelick, as witnesses. Zelikow worked with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice during the first Bush administration and as part of the current administration’s transition team. Gorelick was deputy attorney general during the Clinton presidency. Zelikow and Gorelick were interviewed by the panel regarding their influence on national security policy and terrorism.
“Did [Zelikow] interview himself about his own role in the failures that left us defenseless?” asked Lori Van Auken, one of the 9/11 widows.
Indeed, the commission may not even be meeting its own legal mandates. According to the legislation that created it, members should have no connection to any administration or to anyone potentially associated with the case. But as their résumés clearly show, the majority of commissioners break Rule 2 and the Republican commissioners break Rule 1.
Then there has been the absence of meaningful testimony from witnesses. In late January, the commission heard from an immigration inspector, Jose Melendez-Perez, of Orlando, Fla. He prevented Mohamed al-Qahtani, believed by many to be a 20th hijacker, from entering the country in late August 2001. Authorities believe that hijacker Mohamed Atta was at Orlando International airport to meet al-Qahtani, but Melendez-Perez put al-Qahtani on a plane back to Saudi Arabia. It would perhaps be more instructive to interview those officers who stopped nine hijackers but in the end let 19 of them board planes, even though between two and eight had fraudulent visas. But those officials have not been called as witnesses.
THE HEARINGS BEGIN
On March 31, 2003, the commission commenced its hearings, downtown near Ground Zero in the dusty but regal U.S. Customs Building. The spacious auditorium was one-third full of observers and media. With Gov. Kean in charge, things were proceeding civilly.
Survivors of the 9/11 tragedy spoke first—stockbrokers and Port Authority cops who had escaped the blaze with burns or emotional scars. It was hard not to be moved when a beefy police officer’s testimony was choked by tears. Victims emphasized that they were not angry, and didn’t want to “point fingers.” But then a panel of widows and widowers urged the panel to find who was responsible—and “point fingers.”
At lunchtime, CitizensWatch served sandwiches at its press conference, held in the same building. John Judge and co-founder Kyle Hence put together a list of “unanswered questions” that they urged the commission to address.
Their questions include: Why were three top FBI agents blocked from tracking the terrorists before 9/11? Why did the FBI convince the University of Iowa to destroy the system that could track every kind of anthrax 10 days before the mailing of the first envelope? Eleven months later, these questions remain unasked and unanswered.
Judge, a journalist who has made a name for himself by looking into possible conspiracies in history, is careful to make clear that he doesn’t believe everything he’s heard—and he’s heard a lot. He is critical of certain voices, some coming from the far right, who link 9/11 to a Jewish/Israeli conspiracy. The theory that no one of Jewish descent was in the WTC that day is easily dismissed by a look at the list of the victims.
If Judge were chair of the 9/11 Commission, who would he call as witnesses?
“Not the FAA/NORAD top brass at the Pentagon,” says Judge. “I would call the pilots. I would call the base commanders, people on the horn at the air traffic controller’s.”
At a Dec. 16 forum at Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Shelter Rock in Manhasset, a coalition of Long Island groups attempted to answer the questions: How—and why—did the campaign against terrorism become a war on Iraq? What are the financial connections between the Bush and bin Laden families? Did a “crisis presidency” give the far right leeway to transform U.S. policies? The coalition included representatives of such diverse groups as Five Towns Forum and L.I. Freespace. Hofstra Professor Michael D’Innocenzo, German 9/11 expert Nico Haupt and Massapequa’s Michael Kane of the local hard rock/hip-hop group Clarity, whose song themes include questioning the government’s knowledge of the attacks, were among the panelists.
After the showing of the film Aftermath: Unanswered Questions from 9/11, Kane, a recent finalist in www.MoveOn.org’s “Bush in 30 Seconds” online video contest, spoke to the crowd. The questions that were thrown around could make anyone dizzy.
What about the unusual activity in the options markets for United Airlines and American Airlines in the days before 9/11? Why did National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice make contradictory remarks in her May 16, 2002 press briefing? She stated, “I don’t think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, take another one and slam it into the Pentagon.” Yet there was a long line of published intelligence dating back to 1994 that specifically warned of bin Laden using aircraft as bombs. The San Francisco Chronicle reported an upsurge in threats in mid-July, including specific information of a threat to President Bush at a summit in Genoa, Italy. That threat is said to have included an airplanes-as-missiles plot.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said that in the weeks before the attacks, the Egyptian intelligence service warned U.S. officials of a possible attack by the bin Laden terrorist network, according to The New York Times. The White House, however, responded that the United States had no warnings at all.
OUTSIDE THE U.S.
Non-American audiences are finding it a lot easier to imagine the worst. Many Europeans pride themselves on their more critical views of U.S. policy, and are quick to point out that the same figures who participated in the Iran/Contra scandal (Colin Powell, Dick Armitage, Elliot Abrams and Dick Cheney) are back in the saddle in this White House.
These views have translated into best- seller status for several books on the subject. One author, Andreas Von Bulow, is a former German cabinet member. In France, a title called The Forbidden Truth also enjoyed notoriety and heavy sales. Co-author Jean-Charles Brisard met with FBI counterterror chief John O’Neil, and documents how O’Neil was frustrated with how the administration accommodated the Taliban and bin Laden. O’Neil, who resigned from the FBI to become head of security at the Twin Towers, died on 9/11.
The mainstream American media refuses to give most theories serious coverage. Then again, maybe the pundits are finally coming around. Recently, Mariani’s lawyer Phil Berg has been appearing on major television news programs and in newspaper interviews.
Daniel Hopsicker, author of Barry & “the Boys” : The CIA, the Mob and America’s Secret History, has spent the past few years in Venice, Fla., researching Huffman Aviation, where two of three 9/11 pilots allegedly trained. The seamy dirt he uncovered was partly revealed in Mohamed Atta and the Venice Flying Circus, a video released in 2002, with more in his forthcoming book, Welcome to Terrorland, due out this month. Hopsicker reports that he wouldn’t be able to get information if it weren’t for insiders willing to blow a whistle. “Sept. 11 was so overwhelming,” he says, “that people who are functionaries for that secret government are still human, like you and I. It’s compelled some of them to break ranks.”
“What I saw, after a number of people talked about the FBI silencing them, was that American streak that won’t let that happen,” he continues. “Real Americans won’t be silenced.”