The Truth About Sept. 11
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One year has passed since Sept. 11. Yet we, the American people, still don't know exactly what happened. There are still no plans for a public investigation of how more than 3,000 Americans lost their lives, of what could have been done to prevent the attacks or reduce their impact.
Secrecy has been the watchword of the obsessively inscrutable Bush Administration. So preoccupied is the Administration with keeping the people's business away from the people that, rather than spark a national discussion of what went wrong and what we could do better, these public servants are asking members of Congress to take lie-detector tests -- to find out who's been leaking plans to attack Iraq.
Without a doubt, military intelligence requires secrecy. But there is no conceivable national security interest in keeping Americans in the dark about Sept. 11. A crisis whose first few weeks were marked by patriotic unity rapidly devolved into a divisive "war on terrorism" marked by opportunistic assaults on the Bill of Rights, old-fashioned oil wars and a cynical neo-McCarthyism whereby those who questioned Bush and the Republican Party were smeared as "anti-American." United We Stand bumper stickers aside, the terrorists have skillfully turned us against each other: citizen against immigrant, Republican against Democrat, Christian against Muslim. Secrecy only deepens those divisions.
To hell with closed-door Congressional hearings. America needs a full, open, publicly televised investigation into 9/11, and it needed it last October. Using the post-JFK assassination Warren Commission as a model is a start, though that panel's lack of openness fed conspiracy theories that continue to cause Americans to distrust their government four decades later. The best way to avoid alienating the public from its public servants is to keep an investigation 100-percent transparent.
During times of crisis both the electorate and the elected forget that this country belongs to the people. As American citizens and taxpayers, therefore, we deserve -- and should demand -- honest answers to the following still-unanswered questions:
Before The Attacks
What did Bush know and when did he know it? A few months ago it was revealed that, while vacationing in Crawford, Texas on Aug. 6, 2001, Bush had received an "analytical report" warning from National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice that a terrorist attack was imminent. What was the exact nature of that warning? How detailed was it? Should Bush have cut short his vacation and headed back to Washington? The administration has stonewalled on this issue, but they can allay suspicions of a September Surprise only by coming clean now about the briefings he received before 9/11.
Did Echelon cough up the 9-10 warnings? The National Security Agency acknowledges that it "intercepted" two messages (one said "tomorrow is zero hour") from terrorists indicating that the next day, Sept. 11, would be the date of a major attack. Unfortunately, those messages weren't processed and evaluated until it was too late, on Sept. 12. The NSA maintains a sophisticated voice- and keyword-recognition computer system called Echelon. A former NSA director told the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur that Echelon uses automation to monitor every phone call, fax transmission, email and wire transfer in the world. Did the 9-10 warning come from Echelon? Is Echelon being used to monitor ordinary Americans? Is there any way to speed up the rate at which the NSA processes important intercepts?
The September Surprise
Why didn't our Air Force shoot down the hijacked planes? Air traffic controllers lost contact with all four aircraft within minutes of takeoff. Two were off course and ignored controllers for more than an hour and a half, yet the mightiest air defense network in the world failed to prevent the suicide bombers from striking their targets. Did overworked air traffic controllers fail to notice the errant planes? How long did it take them to get the word to military authorities? Did a bureaucratically inept Air Force fail to react quickly enough?
Why were only 12 jets patrolling U.S. airspace? According to The New York Times, only 12 Air Force National Guard planes, most of them on the ground, were assigned to patrol the entire continental United States at the time of the attacks. Whose judgment determined that this level of protection was adequate? What would happen in the event of a nuclear first strike against the U.S.? Would an increased budget have increased that number, and what is our current field strength?
What is American policy concerning hijackings? Had an Air Force jet successfully intercepted one of the doomed flights, would its pilot have been ordered to shoot it down? If so, would that order have had to come from the President, or would a lower-ranked official be sufficient? If a shooting were authorized, would it ever be implemented over a densely populated area? Passengers need to know where they stand before they board a plane.
Was United Flight 93 shot down over Pennsylvania? The Pentagon has neither denied shooting down Flight 93 nor confirmed that its heroic passengers caused the flight to crash while trying to wrest its controls from the hijackers. The flight was airborne some two and a half hours before crashing outside Shanksville, leading many to speculate that it was fired upon to protect the White House or other likely targets in Washington. It seems unlikely that a cockpit voice recording of a struggle between passengers and jihadis exists; if it did, why not release such an inspiring artifact to a public hungry for inspiration? All 9/11 flight information, including any Flight 93 recordings, ought to be given to the media. And it's time for the military to indicate whether or not it, rather than the passengers, brought down the jet.
Why didn't federal law require reinforced cockpit doors? This common-sense proposal had been adopted by carriers in other countries years earlier, but not in the United States. Did the airlines lobby against the move because of increased costs? If so, which airlines? And which federal officials and/or members of Congress are criminally responsible for jeopardizing the safety of the flying public for the sake of a few bucks?
Who locked the roof doors at the World Trade Center? During the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, hundreds of workers escaped smoke by going to the roofs. On Sept. 11 hundreds died when they went up dozens of flights of stairs only to find those same roof doors locked. Why did city fire officials order those doors locked between 1993 and 2001, and more importantly, why didn't they post notices through the World Trade Center complex to advise that roof doors would no longer be unlocked? Prosecutions may be in order for criminal negligence.
Who skimped on FDNY communications? Scores of New York firefighters died in the stairwells of the World Trade Center after they'd been ordered to evacuate the buildings -- because they couldn't hear those orders on their antiquated radio system. The fire department had requested up-to-date equipment years earlier. Which city officials refused to allocate the necessary funding, causing firefighters to die needlessly? Do the FDNY and other urban fire departments now have better communications?
How much asbestos was released by the World Trade Center collapse? World Trade was one-third completed when builders stopped using asbestos fire retardant, which means that the equivalent of four normal-width 60-story skyscrapers full of a banned carcinogen was pulverized and released in a cloud that blanketed lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. The Environmental Protection Agency has never come clean on what may eventually become known as America's Chernobyl, but New Yorkers deserve to know the full extent of their exposure.
Why was the Pentagon so vulnerable? Not only did Defense Department employees perish at the Pentagon, the attack revealed that even the headquarters of American military power can be successfully targeted. Does the Pentagon have a surface-to-air missile system that could avert similar catastrophes in the future? If not, one should be constructed.
What about the other knives? After American planes were grounded, investigators found box cutters attached under seats on Delta flights out of Boston's Logan airport and from Atlanta bound for Brussels. Was anyone ever arrested in connection with would-be hijackings of these other flights? What were the intended targets of those aborted hijackings? Were those box cutters, and those on the four hijacked flights, placed there by personnel who service aircraft ("These look like an inside job," a U.S. official told Time magazine) or were they smuggled aboard through lax security checkpoints by would-be hijackers?
Were there other plots? American officials have questioned thousands of individuals in connection with 9/11. Have they uncovered other schemes intended for that day, or for later on?
Aftermath: The War on Terrorism
Did anyone take responsibility or make demands? It's difficult to imagine that the group that carried out an act as expensive and carefully planned as 9/11 chose not to claim credit for it. Furthermore, terrorist organizations typically make demands -- requests for changes in policy, say, or the release of political prisoners. Secretary of State Colin Powell initially promised to provide proof of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda group's leading role as instigators of 9/11, but has since reneged on that pledge. Moreover, that assertion doesn't fit bin Laden's known methods; rather than plan or carry out operations himself, he usually agrees to fully or partially fund plots conceived and executed by other Islamist groups. If the Bush Administration received communiqués from a group or groups claiming responsibility for 9/11, Americans need to know that.
When did the U.S. decide to invade Afghanistan? As recently as April 2001, the Bush administration funneled millions of dollars in aid to the Taliban in order to reward the hardline Islamic regime for virtually eliminating opium production. By June, however, relations had cooled noticeably and invasion plans were being prepared. Would we have invaded Afghanistan if Sept. 11 hadn't happened? Were there any discussions between future U.S. puppet Hamid Karzai and the Bush administration before or immediately after 9/11?
Where was Osama bin Laden on 9/11? Afghans told reporters that bin Laden and his entourage fled Afghanistan for Kashmir on Sept. 10, yet military officials were saying as late as January that the world's most wanted man was holed up in the Tora Bora region. Did the U.S. really know where Osama was on 9/11, and if so, where was he? Why weren't American commandos inserted into Afghanistan or Pakistan in order to apprehend him? If the U.S. knew that he had left Afghanistan, is this why it refused to negotiate with the Taliban for his extradition?
How many civilians died in Afghanistan? Perhaps the most deliberately underreported story of 2001-2002 was the number of Afghan civilians killed by American bombs, missiles, mines and bullets. (Estimates begin at CNN's conservative 3,500.) While the Pentagon's argument that it is difficult to track these things from satellites and high-flying planes rings true, there's no doubt that they know more than they care to admit. We deserve to know how many innocent people our tax dollars have killed, and how many of their relatives now have reason to despise America.
Is the government spying on American citizens? Not only is the federal government asking postal workers and meter readers to report on anything unusual they see in our homes, anecdotal evidence suggests that opponents of administration policy are being targeted for wiretaps and other forms of harassment and intimidation by government intelligence agencies. Obviously there is no place for such retro-Cold War behavior in this country; the FBI, CIA and NSA must reveal and cease all such unconstitutional activities against Americans.
Why doesn't the Bush administration want a real investigation of 9/11? The House and Senate, whose intelligence committees are now meeting in private, are considering bills that would set up limited, closed-door independent investigative panels, but Bush has stymied even those watered-down efforts at openness, arguing they "would cause a further diversion of essential personnel from their duties fighting the war." What is he hiding? Americans pay George W. Bush's salary, and Americans deserve to know what he's doing.
Ted Rall's new book, "To Afghanistan and Back," is available at nbmpub.com.