Saturday, July 24, 2004

Where's Rummy? 

From Gail Sheehy in Mother Jones:
The National Military Command Center (NMCC) inside the Pentagon was the nerve center of the military’s response to the attacks on 9-11. But the lead military officer that day, Brigadier General Montague Winfield, told the commission that the center had been leaderless.“For 30 minutes we couldn’t find [Secretary Rumsfeld].” Where was Rumsfeld on 9-11? I put the question to the commission's vice chair, Lee Hamilton, following the release of the report the commissioners call “the definitive account of 9-11.”

“We investigated very carefully Mr. Rumsfeld’s actions,” said Hamilton. “He was having breakfast with Congressional leaders, and they hear a plane has hit the Pentagon, and he runs out.”

“He had to have been told before the Pentagon was hit that two trade centers were hit and the country was under attack,” I suggested.

Was the commission comfortable with the fact that the country’s Secretary of Defense was not in the chain of command or present in the Pentagon’s command center until all four suicide hijacked planes were down?

“I’m not going to answer that question,” said Hamilton, and turned away. The commission did provide some detail on the movements of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, but none that offers much reassurance. The report shows that nothing Bush and Cheney did or said that day had any effect on the devastation planned by 19 suicide hijackers and their lethal leader—despite warnings going back to 1996 that bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network were an urgent threat to America’s national security.

When President Bush finally agreed to have a “conversation” with the 9-11 commissioners--provided it was not under oath, not recorded, and Cheney was at his side--the account the two top leaders gave was murky and unverifiable. On the crucial matter of whether fighters should be sent up to protect the nation’s capital, for example, the final report says that “the Vice President stated that he called the President to discuss the rules of engagement for ordering [air cover].” But, it continues, the two did not order air cover because it would “do no good unless pilots had instructions on whether they were authorized to shoot if the plane would not divert.” The job of issuing such instructions belonged to Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld . . . .

Don Rumsfeld is known as a take-charge kind of guy. Why was he so uncharacteristically passive in the face of terrorists who were able to kill nearly 3,000 Americans in one morning? It is impossible to answer, and now that the commission has rolled up its report, there will be no forum for follow-up questions. But it is worth noting the ideological context: For years, the secretary had focused on what he considered to be America’s most pressing national security need--and it wasn’t fighting Al Qaeda.

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