Asleep at the Wheel
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It has taken three years for the details of the terrorist plot of 9/11 to emerge. The fateful turns that led to the attacks have finally entered the public discourse. Their lessons, however, have yet to be learned.
The first lesson is that the highest officials in government did not want us to know the truth.
They already had the story they wanted Americans to believe: Nearly 3,000 people had died, we were assured, because the terrorists turned our liberties against us, had brazenly exploited our open society. According to this official view, the atrocities were inevitable, the plot so diabolical and its execution so precise that only a superhero could have prevented it.
It sounded right. For the American people, the terror seemed to have fallen out of that near-perfect September sky, out of the clear blue.
We now know otherwise. The report of the 9/11 Commission lays the story bare in exhaustive, forensic detail:
- That Condoleezza Rice in the White House press room told reporters May 16, 2002: "I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, taken another one and slam it into the Pentagon; that they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile."
- That George Tenet, in testimony before Congress, countered Rice's claim: "The documents we've provided show some 12 reports spread over seven years which pertain to possible use of aircraft as terrorist weapons. We disseminated those reports to the appropriate agencies, such as the FAA, the Department of Transportation, and the FBI as they came in."
- That the CIA in late 1999 had identified one of the future hijackers, Khalid al Mihdhar, tracked him and a companion to Malaysia, obtained a photocopy of his Saudi passport, learned he had a U.S. visa valid until April 2000, obtained photographs of him and his associates, recognized that "something more nefarious [was] afoot," and then promptly lost Mihdhar, and his traveling partner and fellow future hijacker, Nawaf al Hazmi, in Thailand.
- That Mihdhar and Hazmi arrived in Los Angeles aboard a United Airlines flight on Jan 15, 2000.
- That Mihdhar was, according to a 9/11 Commission staff report, "a known al Qaeda operative at the time."
- That Mihdhar and Hazmi lived openly in San Diego, obtained California drivers' licenses in their own names, even rooming for a time with an FBI informant.
- Even when the CIA learned of Mihdhar and Hazmi's arrival, their names were not added to a terror watchlist until August 24, 2001.
- That even today, after three years of intensive FBI investigation, the 9/11 Staff conceded an "inability to ascertain the activities of Hazmi and Mihdhar during their first two weeks in the United States...."
- That FBI director Robert Mueller said, "They gave no hint to those around what they were about. They came lawfully. They lived lawfully. They trained lawfully."
- That the staff of the 9/11 Commission endeavored "to dispel the myth that [the hijackers'] entry into the United States was 'clean and legal.'"
- "That all 19 of the still-existing hijacker [visa] applications were incomplete in some way..."
- That the hijackers cleared U.S Customs a total of 33 times over 21 months through 9 airports.
- Ziad Jarrah, one of the 4 pilots, entered the U.S. a total of seven times between May 2000 and August 2001.
- That "in all, [the hijackers] had 25 contacts with consular officers and 43 contacts with immigration and customs authorities."
- That Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, "KSM," the mastermind of the terror plot, used "a travel facilitator" to acquire a U.S. visa on July 23, 2001 in Saudi Arabia – even though he had been indicted in the Southern District of NY in 1996.
- That Mohammed Atta was readmitted to the US on January 10, 2001 – even though he had overstayed his previous visa by a month.
- That even when Atta was referred for further, "secondary inspection" at Customs, "Atta's secondary inspector misjudged him as a tourist, even though Atta presented him with a student/school form as a basis for entry."
- That "in late June, 2001, when intelligence indicated that al Qaeda was planning a major attack against U.S. interests in the near future, the Visa Express Program in Saudi Arabia was expanded to include all applicants in Saudi Arabia."
- That, "according to the GAO, consular officers in Riyadh refused .15 percent of Saudi citizen visa applications during the period from September 11, 2000 to April 30, 2001."
- That U.S. visa policy in Saudi Arabia "derived from several sources"...including "common interests" that "resulted in what one senior consular official serving in Saudi Arabia described as 'a culture in our mission in Saudi Arabia to be as accommodating as we possibly could.'"
- That when the 9/11 Commission staff "asked consular officials whether they felt pressure from their superiors or others to issue visas, they answered that pressure was applied from several sources, including the U.S. ambassador, Saudi government officials or businesspeople, and members of the U.S. Congress."
- That "al Qaeda's senior leadership" stopped using a satellite phone, and the NSA lost an effective avenue of surveillance, "almost immediately after a leak to the Washington Times" in August 1998 – just after the Clinton administration's failed strike on his Afghan camp.
- That on 9/11 "the Secretary of Defense did not enter the chain of command until the morning's key events were over."
- That at 10:39 am on 9/11, Vice-President Cheney informed the Secretary of Defense that "...it's my understanding they've already taken a couple of aircraft out."
- That "NORAD and the FAA were unprepared for the type of attacks launched against the United States on September 11th, 2001. They struggled, under difficult circumstances, to improvise a homeland defense against an unprecedented challenge they had never before encountered and had never trained to meet."
Then on page 265 the final report of the Commission concludes that the terrorists "exploited deep institutional failings within our government."
That is not the whole truth. What are institutions if not the lengthened influence of individuals? "The system failed" is the catchphrase now in vogue in Washington. Critics and fans alike of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush still rely on this hollow analysis. But "the system" is no mindless mechanism operating independently of the men and women individuals with names, power, and obligations – who are charged with making it work. Before "the system" can fail, they must fail.
The Commissioners avoided blaming any government officials, past or present, for the failure to prevent the attacks. They maintain that their job was not to assign individual blame, but provide the most complete and frank account of the decisive events surrounding the attack. To that end, they succeeded.
But to stop there is to stop short. Read the final report of the Commission carefully – connect the dots – and a fuller pattern emerges: Key government officials failed the system, and they failed the American people.
Judges and social workers talk of the "circle of accountability." The 9/11 Commission was indeed an historic undertaking. Yet in spreading the blame as broadly as it possibly could, the Commissioners, rather than enlarging that circle, have all but closed it. Americans deserve better than to allow accountability to be passed off as a mere abstraction; they should know where the buck stops. The nearly 3,000 men and women who died on 9/11 deserve better, too. It will not bring them back to hold accountable the particular officials in high office who could have acted and did not. But it will assure that they did not die in vain.
This commentary is associated with "9/11: For the Record" a one-hour documentary by Bill Moyers, Andrew Meier, and Sherry Jones which airs on PBS' NOW with Bill Moyers, on Friday, September 10 at 9 PM (check local listings).