Friday, July 23, 2004

The Reviews Are In 

. . . and unsurprisingly, the consensus opinion seems to be that The 9/11 Commission Report raises at least as many questions as it answers:
FRED KAPLAN, Slate: It turns out that many individuals, panels, and agencies had predicted an attack uncannily similar to what happened on Sept. 11, 2001. The problem was that nobody in a position of power felt compelled to do anything about it.

As early as 1995, Abdul Hakim Murad told Philippine authorities that he and Ramzi Yousef, who was arrested for his role in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, had planned to fly an airplane into CIA headquarters. This wasn't dismissed as a crazy idea. The year before, a group of Algerians actually had hijacked a plane in France with the intention of crashing it into the Eiffel Tower.

In September 1998, a U.S. consulate in East Asia was warned about an impending al-Qaida plot to fly an explosives-laden airplane into an American city.

Around the same time, Richard Clarke, the White House counterterrorism chief, conducted an exercise in which terrorists commandeered a Learjet, loaded it with bombs, and flew it into a target in Washington, D.C. Clarke asked Pentagon officials what they could do to stop such a threat. They answered they could scramble jet fighters, but they would need authority from the president to shoot the plane down. The exercise went no further.

On Dec. 4, 1998, the President's Daily Brief by the CIA warned that "bin Laden and his allies are preparing for an attack in the US, including an aircraft hijacking" to compel the freeing of those responsible and imprisoned for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

The North American Aerospace Defense command also conducted an exercise to counter a terrorist attack involving smashing an airplane into a building (though the scenario assumed the plane would be coming from overseas).

Quite independently, in August 1999, the Federal Aviation Administration's intelligence branch warned of a possible "suicide hijacking operation" by Osama Bin Laden.

On May 1, 2001, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a circular to airliners, informing them of intelligence reports about a possible terrorist hijacking.

On June 22, 2001, the CIA notified its station chiefs about an al-Qaida plot to attack American cities with planes.

All of these scenario-spins (plus several others, similarly spelled out in various blue-ribbon commissions) preceded the infamous President's Daily Brief of Aug. 6, 2001, which warned George W. Bush, "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US."

So, the problem is not imagination, thankfully. If that were the main shortcoming, reform would be nearly impossible. How do you go about ordering bureaucrats to be "more imaginative" or to "think outside the box"? One definition of a bureaucrat might be a person who doesn't realize that he's inside a box to begin with. Another problem with this nostrum is that those who think too far outside the box tend to be dismissed as fanatics. Dick Clarke was seen as "obsessed" with Bin Laden. His counterpart in the State Department told the commission that he was chided by those around him as "a one-note-Johnny nut case."

DAVID CORN, The Nation:The 9/11 report says:

The President was seated in a classroom when, at 9:05, Andrew Card whispered to him: "A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack." The President told us his instinct was to project calm, not to have the country see an excited reaction at a moment of crisis. The press was standing behind the children; he saw their phones and pagers start to ring. The President felt he should project strength and calm until he could better understand what was happening.

In the Moore film, Bush hardly looks as if he is projecting "calm." To me--and, of course, this is a highly subjective view--he has a what-the-hell-should-I-do expression on his face. But Bush backers and detractors are likely to see what they want to in that seven-minute performance. Bush's reaction, though, cannot be judged on the basis of what is now known about the 9/11 attacks. Consider this: when Bush was told about the second plane, it was obvious that the United States was under attack. Today we know that attack involved four planes. But at the moment that Card whispered into his ear, Bush (and everyone else) had no idea about the full extent of the assault. There could have been twenty airliners hijacked. There could have been WMD attacks coming. Perhaps minutes mattered. So how was it a projection of strength and calm for Bush to remain in a classroom--doing nothing--when who-knew-what was happening? . . . .

To recap, then: no working relationship between Hussein and al Qaeda, no Prague meeting, no strong reaction from Bush to the pre-9/11 warnings of a pending al Qaeda attack, no more than routine attention devoted to the al Qaeda threat by the Bush team in the months before September 11. GOPers can wag their fingers at Bill Clinton, who also did not do enough (obviously). But there is no denying this report is bad news for Bush and his crew. If Bush wants this election to be a referendum on how he has handled the threat posed by al Qaeda, this report--available now in local bookstores and online at the 9/11 commission's site--ought to be read by those 49 swing voters in Ohio who will be deciding the election for the rest of us.

JAMES RIDGEWAY, The Village Voice: The military commanders charged with protecting the nation get off scot-free. Ditto the FAA, which, it turns out, has been sitting on photos of the hijackers taken as they walked through the lame security apparatus at Dulles airport in Washington, set off alarms, and then were permitted to proceed. The Justice Department and the FBI continued to cover up their parts in the mess, most notably by refusing to permit public testimony by whistle-blower translator Sibel Edmonds, along with a second person who translated an interview with a top FBI "asset"—a former high-level Iranian intelligence officer under the Shah—who gave U.S. agents news from Afghanistan, where the officer's own operatives remained in place. This knowledgeable man told the FBI in April 2001 that Osama bin Laden was planning to use planes to attack one or another of five American cities—including New York. What happened to that report?

As for Edmonds, we are still in the dark—because the government won't let her talk. What did she mean when she was quoted as saying, "My translations of the 9-11 intercepts included [terrorist] money laundering, detailed and date-specific information. . . . If they were to do real investigations, we would see several significant high-level criminal prosecutions in this country [the U.S.] . . . and believe me, they will do everything to cover this up" . . . .

Getting to the bottom of the close relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan's spy agency could prove dangerous to some reputations.

Writing today in The Guardian (U.K.), Michael Meacher, a member of the British Parliament and former environment minister, pointed out that Omar Sheikh, who's about to hang for the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, wired $100,000 before the 9-11 attacks to lead hijacker Mohammed Atta—on the orders of General Mahmoud Ahmed, then head of the ISI.

And it turns out, Meacher writes, that General Ahmed was in D.C. on September 11, 2001: He had just had a series of meetings "in the White House, the Pentagon, the National Security Council, and with George Tenet . . . and Marc Grossman, the undersecretary of state for political affairs. When Ahmed was exposed by The Wall Street Journal as having sent the money to the hijackers, he was forced to 'retire' by President Pervez Musharraf. Why hasn't the U.S. demanded that he be questioned and tried in court?"

Then Meacher zooms in on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a bin Laden lieutenant often identified in reports as "KSM." He was arrested in Pakistan in March 2003. A congressional report has identified him as having been "active in recruiting people to travel outside Afghanistan, including to the U.S., on behalf of bin Laden."

Meacher wryly notes that, although the CIA and FBI were both aware of that, "neither agency apparently recognized the significance of a bin Laden lieutenant sending terrorists to the U.S. and asking them to establish contacts with colleagues already there." And he points out that The New York Times has already written that "American officials said that KSM, once Al Qaeda's top operational commander, personally executed Daniel Pearl . . . but he was unlikely to be accused of the crime in an American criminal court because of the risk of divulging classified information." Meacher adds, "Indeed, he may never be brought to trial."

Bottom line: Some events preceding 9-11 implicate too many people high up in both the Clinton and Bush administrations for either Kerry or Bush to raise the issue in an election campaign.
UPDATE: Add Charles Pierce at Altercation:
I don't know at what point my head exploded. Maybe it was when Tom Kean was complimenting Bill O'Reilly on the latter's analytical abilities, or when Condi Rice was waxing all serious with Sean Hannity. Maybe it was earlier, when Lee Hamilton suggested that nobody was reading enough Tom Clancy. (After yesterday, and given the dive he took 20 years ago on Iran-Contra, Hamilton is now the Greg Louganis of the national security state.) I mean, Christ's sweet name, a failure of imagination? Not on the part of Gary Hart or Warren Rudman or Al Gore, or Coleen Rowley, or the people in Phoenix, or poor, dead John O'Neill. Their imaginations didn't fail. In fact, the single most preposterous part of yesterday's report was its tsk-tsking of how the recommendations of previous commissions were ignored. Who ignored them?


It was the acronyms.

Everybody's guilty so nobody is.

Read the footnotes, and remember, every time a conversation with either George Bush or Dick Cheney is cited, that this testimony was not given under oath, and under circumstances that were flatly bizarre, and that the testimony was given by two men who fought hard against the very existence of the commission, especially the former, who has made no mistake that he can recall, and is not specifically contradicted in any way by this report. Instead, it was an exercise designed -- as was the Tower Commission before it -- to reassure us that the problem is in structural institutional details, and not in the men tasked to do great deeds for us so that we don't strain ourselves in the exercise of self-government. (To his everlasting credit, Bob Kerrey seemed to be rather pissed on this very point.)

I, for one, completely trust the administration that brought Elliott Abrams back into public service, hired John Ashcroft and Ted Olson to oversee the Justice Department, and continues to employ Paul Wolfowitz to appoint a new "Intelligence Czar," essentially handing to that person a job it took J. Edgar Hoover 50 years to build for himself. I'm feeling very bipartisan about that.

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