On Native Ground
WHO KNEW WHAT, WHEN, BEFORE SEPT. 11?
by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- A few weeks ago, Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) called for an investigation into whether the Bush administration had prior knowledge of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and whether anything was done to prevent them.
"Instead of Congress investigating what went wrong, President Bush placed a phone call to [Senate] Majority Leader Tom Daschle asking him not to investigate the events of September 11," McKinney said in an interview with a Berkeley, Calif., radio station. "And hot on the heels of the president's phone call was another phone call from the vice president asking that Tom Daschle not investigate. My question is what do they have to hide?"
McKinney believes one of the things that President Bush had to hide was the interests of the Carlyle Group, the investment firm where his father is a board member which also own several defense contracting firms. McKinney quoted a story from the Los Angeles Times where the Carlyle Group - shortly after September 11 - earned $237 million in just one day from selling shares in United Defense Industries, the Army's fifth-largest contractor and maker of the now-infamous Crusader artillery piece.
The reaction to McKinney's remarks was predictable. She was written off as a loony conspiracy theorist.
The Washington Post quoted Carlyle Group spokesman Chris Ullman asking, "Did she say these things while standing on a grassy knoll in Roswell, New Mexico?"
Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) was even nastier. "It would be easier to pass this off as just another loony statement," he said. "But at second glance, it is more than that. It is very dangerous and irresponsible."
One could forgive McKinney for gloating when the news came out that the Bush administration indeed had some advance knowledge that Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist group was planning some sort of attack. But being right is the best revenge.
"It now becomes clear why the Bush administration has been vigorously opposing congressional hearings," McKinney said on May 16. "The Bush administration has been engaged in a conspiracy of silence. If committed and patriotic people had not been pushing for disclosure, today's revelations would have been hidden by the White House."
It is definitely time for a thorough, robust and credible investigation into what happened before, during and after Sept. 11. James Ridgeway of The Village Voice neatly laid out the case in an online column on May 16.
"Consider the bare facts: The attacks happened on George Bush's watch. He was in charge. And now he admits to having known in general what was going to happen. Terrorists were slipping into the country. They were studying at American flight schools. They intended to hijack planes. They were financed by Osama bin Laden. Knowing all of this, Bush still left us totally undefended. And for this performance, his approval ratings soared."
Ridgeway asked that if President Bush had known all this during the summer, why didn't he tell Congress or warn the FAA and the airlines so airport security could be improved? And if President Bush knew so much about a potential attack before September 11, how come he didn't do more on Sept. 11 to take charge of the situation?
We now know the answer. Instead protecting the nation, President Bush protected his political power instead. It is a testament to the power of spin control that such a stunning failure could be turned into his finest hour and that he could be transformed into a latter-day Churchill.
The Republicans and their allies in the press have tried to blame what happened on Sept. 11 on President Bill Clinton. A comparison is in order.
Think of the run-up to the millennium celebrations on Jan. 1, 2000. Security was tightened around the country. Some - including myself - thought it was an overreaction, but several terrorist plots were foiled due to the stepped-up security and advance knowledge based on intelligence gathering that something could happen. New Year's Eve celebrations around the nation went off without a hitch.
Now compare that to the Bush administration's response to what it knew prior to September 11. FBI agents in Arizona issued warnings last summer that a large number of Arab men were seeking pilot, security and airport operations training at American flight schools. Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged "20th hijacker," was arrested by the FBI in August in Minnesota after suspicious activity at one of these schools.
The German intelligence agency BND warned the U.S. and Israel that terrorists were planning to hijack planes to fly them into buildings. That was echoed by Russia's intelligence services; they told the CIA last August that 25 terrorist pilots had been trained for suicide missions. Also in August, the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad warned the FBI and the CIA that up to 200 al-Qaida members were planning a major attack on American targets.
Did anyone connect the dots? Remembering the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, the 1995 and 1996 bombings of U.S. military facilities in Saudi Arabia, the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya, and the 2000 attack on the U.S.S Cole - all linked to Osama bin Laden - did anyone take any of last summer's information seriously? Or was there simply a failure of imagination; a refusal to believe that 19 men could almost simultaneously hijack four airliners and use them as weapons to kill more than 3,000 people?
The answer is clearly, no.
The responsibility for all this falls squarely on President Bush. He has to own up to the fact that there was ample intelligence in the weeks leading up to the attacks, but no steps were taken to act upon the information to perhaps prevent them.
The president's people have been saying the threats they received were too vague to be acted upon. But how do you account for these two stories from last July?
The G8 economic summit in Genoa, Italy, last July - which President Bush attended - featured extraordinary security, including ground-to-air missile batteries. According to a report in the The Times of London that month, "the Italian Defense Ministry [had] taken the precaution after a tip by 'a friendly foreign intelligence service' that Islamic suicide bombers might try to attack the summit in a small aircraft or helicopter."
During that same month, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft stopped taking commercial flights. CBS News reported at the time the reason Ashcroft started flying exclusively in private aircraft was because of a "threat assessment" by the FBI.
Here were two instances where threats were received and acted upon. But no one thought to notify other Americans that something might be up?
There are some who say that the Bush administration allowed the attacks to happen, knowing the political gain that would come from it. That President Bush allowed the attacks to happen can't be proven, but we know that he and the Republican Party - aided by the general spinelessness of the Democratic Party - have used the September 11 attacks for huge political gain. We also know the Carlyle Group and other defense interests have profited nicely from the "war on terror."
Instead of protecting his approval rating, it's time that President Bush thought about protecting the American people and respecting the democratic process. If he really wants to show he's a leader, he and his administration should stop the stonewalling and level with the American people about what did and didn't happen in the weeks prior to September 11. We also need to know if there were any underlying reasons why nothing was done.
Such an investigation won't undo the carnage of September 11, but it may help prevent another attack from taking place.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books).