Who’s to blame for 9/11?

by Jonathan Curiel
San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, Feb 8, 2004

Bush and Clinton administrations could be faulted for failing to protect the nation against the 2001 assaults

As President Bush prepares to name a commission to investigate why U. S. intelligence vastly overestimated Saddam Hussein’s stocks of weapons of mass destruction, another commission is already trying to pin down why this nation vastly underestimated the murderous intentions of Osama bin Laden on American soil.

The latter panel, called the 9/11 commission, is charged with determining why the United States was so notoriously unprepared for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Its final report is expected in July. But the independent, bipartisan commission is having its own struggles to understand the failure to anticipate and prevent what happened that gruesome day.

Why did the CIA and the FBI ignore repeated warnings that hijackers might strike the United States? What did Bush know in the weeks and months preceding the attacks? Did former President Clinton ignore or soft-pedal earlier threats? And, the biggest question of all: What’s to prevent a similar strike from happening again?

Not since the Warren Commission, which in 1964 investigated the death of President John F. Kennedy, has a Washington panel had so much riding on its conclusions. The report has the potential to affect the 2004 presidential campaign, lead to major changes in the top branches of U.S. government and ease the way for even stricter levels of security around the world.

Kristen Breitweiser has a personal stake in the commission’s work. After her husband, Ronald, was killed in the Sept. 11 attacks, Breitweiser urged Congress to create the 9/11 commission, which it did in November of 2002. (President Bush signed the law that formally established it.) Breitweiser has been involved ever since, so she’s a good barometer of the commission’s progress. Her feeling: Its report may be badly flawed — hamstrung, she says, by an administration that didn’t want it in the first place, and by the commissioners’ own foot-dragging.

“It’s upsetting,” Breitweiser said in a telephone interview from her home in East Brunswick, N.J. “We want a comprehensive report that is going to fix responsibility, going to hold people accountable and going to have solid recommendations for Congress to act upon and fix the problem.”

Breitweiser isn’t alone in her anxiety. Recognizing the gravity of their mission, the commissioners requested a new deadline for their report instead of the original target of May 27. And last week President Bush agreed to delay the due date for two months, until July 26. That would allow the commission to hold more public hearings. Among possible witnesses: President Bush, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and other members of the Bush administration.

The report is likely to point fingers and assign blame. Gary Hart, the former senator who from 1998 to 2001 co-chaired a government commission studying U.S. security that warned of a “catastrophic” terrorist threat on U.S. soil, expects the blame to lead directly to the White House. Hart expects the commission will find conclusive evidence that both presidents Bush and Clinton knew that hijackers were likely to strike the United States.

“I will be amazed if they do not find that the CIA and other agencies warned the administration that we could be attacked sooner rather than later – – I think there’s a smoking gun,” Hart said in a telephone interview from Colorado. “The issue is what did we know and when did we know it.”

One 9/11 widow has already made up her mind. Ellen Mariani, whose husband, Louis, was on the plane that slammed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center, has sued Bush and other members of his administration for alleged negligence. Mariani says she doesn’t trust the commission to do its job. She believes her federal lawsuit — which accuses Bush of attempting to profit from the attacks politically — is the only way to uncover the truth.

“My husband fought four years in the Air Force for our country, and he died on his own soil just like that — and no one is being held responsible, ” Mariani said in a telephone interview from her home in New Hampshire. “No one is coming forward in the government, which is blocking every damn thing they can. That’s a red flag to me that means they are holding something back.”

Mariani, who is 65 and lives on Social Security, said she had an almost innate trust of U.S. government before the attacks. Those feelings were replaced by anger and revulsion when the federal agency known as the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund tried to give her what she calls “hush money.” The payment would have prevented Mariani from suing the government, but the more Mariani learned about the attacks, the more questions she had, questions that went unanswered by U.S. officials. Why, for example, was there at least a 15- minute lapse, she said, from the time her husband’s plane (United Flight 175) was reported hijacked to the time that airport officials in Boston notified the North American Aerospace Defense Command to scramble fighter jets? Had NORAD been notified sooner, Mariani said, its jets might have at least prevented Flight 175 from crashing into the tower.

It is questions such as this that the 9/11 commission is trying to answer. (The commission’s formal title is the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. It’s sometimes referred to as the Kean Commission after its chairman, former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean. Its Web site is www.911commission.gov.)

Late last month, it held its seventh round of public hearings. In testimony, former officials of the Federal Aviation Administration admitted they hadn’t seriously considered the threat of suicide hijackings.

Previous reports have contended that Washington officials and intelligence agencies knew, or should have known, before Sept. 11 that Muslim radicals were planning a major attack on the United States.

According to the report of a congressional inquiry released in December 2002, U.S. intelligence knew as early as 1994 that terrorists were considering hijacking airplanes and flying them into populous places in the United States. Muslim fundamentalists had already tried to bring down the World Trade Center with a car bomb in 1993. The 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Africa, which killed hundreds and wounded thousands, were more proof that Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda were looking for big targets.

By summer 2001, however, U.S. intelligence agencies still had not coordinated their anti-terrorism efforts, and that failure led to numerous missed opportunities. For example, future hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi — who were being monitored by the CIA for their connection to al Qaeda — lived in San Diego (al-Hazmi was listed in the phone book) while they planned their roles in the attacks. The FBI didn’t know about the CIA’s efforts, so even though an FBI informant was in contact with al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi in San Diego, the FBI didn’t pursue the two hijackers more aggressively, according to the congressional inquiry.

The 9/11 commission used that inquiry as the basis for its own investigation. By trying to sort out blame, the commission is stepping into a political minefield. Every statement by commissioners — including Kean’s public comments that the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were “preventable” — is being used by Democrats as evidence that “Bush knew.”

It’s been reported (by Time magazine and Gerald Posner in his recent book “Why America Slept”) and confirmed by the White House that, on Aug. 6, 2001, the CIA briefed Bush at his Texas ranch on the possibility that al Qaeda might try to hijack airplanes in the United States. How much of a tip-off was that? How much would that information have popped out amid the hundreds of other matters Bush was responsible for? On May 16, 2002, Condoleezza Rice said, “I don’t think anybody could have predicted that they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile.”

Bush’s critics want the 9/11 commission (the membership of which is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans) to highlight the administration’s purported misstatements and inconsistencies. Recently, Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark insisted that “the full truth” will reveal that Bush “did not do everything he could have done to protect the United States of America before 9/11.” That remains to be seen.

The president’s detractors have been skeptical of his actions from the moment Congress created the commission on Nov. 27, 2002. Under terms of the mandate, Bush appointed the commission’s chair while Congress named the nine other commissioners. Bush at first chose as chairman Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon’s former national security adviser and secretary of state. Within weeks, Kissinger resigned because of demands that he disclose the clients of his international consulting firm. Bush then appointed Kean, also a Republican. Kean has demonstrated his independence, complaining about the panel’s access to White House material. The commission has threatened to subpoena the documents.

Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert who is the author of “Inside Al Qaeda, ” spoke to the commission at a public hearing nine months ago. He says people shouldn’t look at the commission as a panacea — that no matter what it concludes on what went wrong and how the United States can prevent future attacks, al Qaeda and other terrorist groups will probably find another way to attack this country. Gunaratna’s concerns mirror those of FBI Director Robert Mueller, who said last month that terrorists would “quite probably” hit again within U.S. borders.

“The United States shouldn’t wait (for the recommendations of) the commission’s report, but should move now — otherwise valuable time will be lost,” says Gunaratna, who is head of terrorism research at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore. “America is today facing a severe threat — a threat that will not diminish. All indications are that it’s increasing. In time, groups (of terrorists) will conduct even more bold and daring strikes.”

The commission’s deadline could be extended by Congress to late summer or even after the November election. The report is certain to be politicized.

“Everyone’s going to put their own stamp on it,” Hart said. “To the degree that it’s critical of Clinton, the Bush people will point their finger at Clinton. To the degree that it’s critical of Bush, the Clinton people will point their finger at Bush. This (may be) an unresolved issue. Let’s compare it to Pearl Harbor. Sixty years later, books are still being written about what Franklin Roosevelt knew, what did the Navy know, what did the security services know. And you still have conspiracies, (including one) that Roosevelt knew but didn’t take action because he wanted to get us into World War II. That’s why the Kean commission is so important. They have a chance to lay the factual foundation that will reduce — but not eliminate — controversies over the facts.”

Although finding the truth can’t bring back Louis Mariani, his widow said it would help her come to terms with his violent death and the deaths of 3,000 other people on Sept. 11. Mariani said she’s been through hell in the past 2 1/2 years.

Breitweiser, 32, said commission chairman Kean has already done her a service by admitting publicly that the attacks were preventable.

“To hear that my husband didn’t necessarily have to die does not come as a surprise to me,” she said. “What comes as a surprise is that, finally, someone in an official capacity is acknowledging that. We’ve never had anyone come close to that.”