WHY DON'T WE HEAR THE WARNINGS?
by Joe Shea
American Reorter Correspondent
BRADENTON, Fla. -- In a flurry of speeches and appearances over the past two weeks, President George W. Bush has commemorated the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and V-J Day with remarks that include a discussion of Sept. 11. The President noted the "surprise" element of both attacks but failed to mention the timely warnings that could have profoundly mitigated the destruction in Hawaii and New York.
Today, on the fopurth anniversary of the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., the feeling is inescapable that not only has President Bush failed to learn the readiness lessons of Sept. 11, 2001, but that government itself is not yet up to the task of wisely integrating shards of information into valuable predictive data.
For those who wonder why government ignored extensive warnings about the devastation that Hurricane Katrina could cause, new documents obtained by the American Reporter suggest that the survival of bureaucrats sometimes requires denial, and that there is more reward for major political parties in placing blame than for congratulating those who would have saved the nation from catastrophe.
At 6:30am on Dec. 7, 1941, two enlisted men intent on mastering the kerosene-fueled radar array at Pearl Harbor arrived at the tower's operations room to continue their education. They were supposed to be under the direction of a junior officer, but he had taken the morning off to go play golf. PFC George Elliott, Jr., of Port Charlotte, Fla., and PFC Joe Lockard fired up the system and began making observations well before the attack. While the flight of Japanese bombers they saw was still more than 60 miles away, Elliott's efforts to warn senior officers were rebuffed. As the planes flew closer, Lockard finally got through to a commander, but he, too, was ignored until the planes were overhead.
As the post-mortem inquiry into their actions, Lockard was forced to lie about the absence of the junior officer, while Elliott refused to do so and was actually declared mentally ill and sent to a hospital before his U.S. Senator got him released four and a half months later. Lockard, who was responsible for much of the delay because he kept telling Elliott that what they were seeing was not a flight of enemy aircraft, was hailed as a hero on the front page of the Honolulu Advertiser.
Elliott eventually got some of the recognition he was due but, embittered by then, refused to accept the Distinguished Service Cross his superiors tried to confer on him. He died last year, leaving behind papers that trace his experience, the suffering he endured for his honesty, and finally revelation of the truth about his role and the belated redemption that came with it. Those documents were turned over to the American Reporter by the executor of his estate.
But this is not just a story about George Elliott, Jr., and Joe Lockard. In the past few months, two forthright officers who also deserved the acclaim and congratulations of a grateful nation for averting the attacks to Sept. 11 have found themselves in a similar dilemma. Part of a small military intelligence unit called Able Danger, these two officers had helped identify - in the Year 2000, more than a year before Sept. 11 - the Saudi hijacker and team leader Mohammed Atta along with the cell of Al-Qaida terrorists who flew two airplanes into the World Trade Center's soaring Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001.
Justice Dept. regulations prevented the dissemination of the Able Danger wiretap data, which was obtained under special rules pertaining to terrorism that prohibit its dissemination to domestic law enforcement agencies that could not have legally acquired it on their own. It was not the failure ordained by that arrangement but the fact that they talked about it that got the two Able Danger officers into trouble. The men, Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer and Capt. Scott Philpott, "were directed to take those 3M yellow stickers and place them over the faces of Atta and the other terrorists and pretend they didn't exist," an intelligence officer told one security-related publication, Government Security News.
"The intelligence officer recalled carrying documents to the offices of Able Danger, which was being run by the Special Operations Command, headquartered in Tampa, Fla. The documents included a photo of Mohammed Atta supplied by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and described Atta's relationship with Osama bin Laden. The officer was very disappointed when lawyers working for Special Ops decided that anyone holding a green card had to be granted essentially the same legal protections as any U.S. citizen. Thus, the information Able Danger had amassed about the only terrorist cell they had located inside the United States could not be shared with the FBI, the lawyers concluded."
That so-called "Gorelick Wall" - the compartmentalization of national security data according to who obtained it and the way it was obtained, formulated by Clinto administration Justice Dept. official Jamie Gorelick, a member of the 9/11 Commission - doomed more than 2,700 Americans on Sept. 11, and cost this nation an estimated $700 billion in economic losses, along with significant limitations on our liberty, almost 2,000 U.S. soldiers' lives, and the lives of 100,000 civilian in Iraq.
The toll in World War II might also have been partly averted. Against the backdrop of Pearl Harbor, desperate attempts weere being made to keep Japan out of the war. A dismal failure in its first raid might have accomplished that, but as with Able Danger's warning in 2000, a year ahead of the attacks, those who might have dne something were foiled by their own reluctance to hear a dangerous truth or failure to understand the truths they did hear.
So it was with Hurricane Katrina. While 8/29 has not yet become part of the national lexicon as 9/11 has, it also marks again the terrible failure of modestly intelligent people to take modestly intelligent steps to avert disaster. If the federal government failed to provide available busses for evacuation, so did New Orleans' school dirtricts, which had hundreds of them. If President Bush failed to hear and understand the dire warnings issued by the National Weather Service and dozens of responsible authorities, he did so for many of the same embarassing reasons that officials ignored al-Qaida's strike team leader and responsible officers ignored the airborne attack squadrons of Japan as they neared Pearl Harbor.
This story would not be complete without an unusual disclosure. I dreamed of an event that turned out to be Sept. 11's destruction of the World Trade Center on the mroning of Aug. 11, 2001, and wrote the striongest possible edfioorial I could appealing for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian standoff. Over the next few weeks, telling only a very few of my friends, I walked around with an awful feeling in the pit of my stomach as I waited for the dreamed-of event to occur. A week or two later, I began to hear the word "Atta" over and over again and intuitively I knew he would be the man responsible for what I dreamed. I did nothing.
If Able Danger and George Elliott, Jr., couldn't avert disatser with the hard information they possessed at a critical moment, whom do you call with a dream and a disembodied voice? I let it happen, too.
American needs to honor people like George Elliott, Anthony Shaffer and Scott Philpott, not so that they will feel better but so that the next time disaster is about to strike we might be a little less reluctant to listen to people like them. Before yet another generation of good men and women go to their graves fighting an unnecessary war, let us learn at least to hear the living.