by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
March 27, 2004
U.S. SLOW TO LEARN TRUTH OF SEPT. 11
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- The Bush administration, the most tightly disciplined and secretive White House in memory, has worked for the last 2 1/2 years to obscure the true story of the events surrounding the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
The Bush team worked equally hard to push its vision of an armed and dangerous Iraq poised to strike at the United States.
What allowed the Bush administration to get away with silence on 9/11 and lies on the extent of the Iraqi threat? The White House staff had managed to cow most of the press into obedience and it also managed to clamp down on internal dissent.
However, nothing can stay hidden for long when there are determined people who won't settle for anything less than the truth. The trouble was that there were too few of these people working at the top echelon of American journalism.
The failure of the American press to effectively challenge the multitude of lies put out by the Bush administration deserves close examination. One can't say conclusively that providing Americans with timely information would have prevented the 9/11 attacks or kept us out of a long, costly and bloody war and occupation Iraq. But it couldn't have hurt.
This week's hearings on the 9/11 attacks are giving Americans an opportunity to learn about the extent of how the Bush administration ignored the threat al-Qaida posed. But the press is not without blame.
At the time that President Bush took office, the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century, a Defense Department-chartered commission headed by former U.S. Senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman, produced a report that concluded that "a direct attack against American citizens on American soil is likely over the next quarter century." It also recommended that the current jumble of federal agencies that dealt with counter-terrorism be replaced by one agency - the National Homeland Security Agency - whose sole task would be dealing with domestic terrorism.
While Congress apparently was taking the Hart-Rudman report seriously, the Bush administration decided to shove it aside and prepare its own response to the issue. In May 2001, the Bush administration announced that Vice President Dick Cheney would study the problem of domestic terrorism and assign primary responsibility for dealing with it to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Before the Bush administration decided to go its own way, Hart and Rudman had briefed Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and urged them to spend more time on dealing with terrorism. Not much happened, and the report was ignored by the press.
"The national media didn't pay attention," Hart told the online magazine Salon after the 9/11 attacks. Hart also remember hearing that one member of his commission was told by a senior reporter of a well-known (but unnamed) publication that "this isn't important, none of this is ever going to happen." Not even The New York Times chose to report on the Hart-Rudman commission's findings until Sept. 12, the day after the attacks.
As for the Cheney report, it never was completed.
The story the Bush people have stuck to all along is that the threats they received were too vague to be acted upon. But how do you account for these two stories from July 2001?
The G8 economic summit in Genoa, Italy, in July 2001 - 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 ha(d) 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, Attorney General 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 why did no one notify other Americans that something might be up?
Another of the advance warnings was in a report in July 2001 from the FBI's Phoenix office that said suspects in a terrorist investigation linked to al-Qaida and bin Laden were attending flight school. The New York Times> reported that one of the people who saw the report filed by Special Agent Kenneth Williams was John O'Neill, the FBI's leading expert on bin Laden and one of its top counter-terrorism people.
O'Neill apparently took the memo seriously and tried to warn the higher ups about it. Nothing was done. It was never shared with the CIA or other intelligence agencies; not even the top echelon of the FBI ever saw it. In the midst of this inaction, the Bush administration was backing off tracking bin Laden because it more interested in cutting a deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan so a oil pipeline could be built.
O'Neill quit the FBI in disgust in August 2001 to take a job as chief of security at the World Trade Center. The pipeline negotiations broke down in August. Bin Laden's forces struck on Sept. 11 and O'Neill died at the hands of the people he had fought so hard to thwart.
How seriously was the Bush administration taking the threat of terrorism prior to 9/11. Ashcroft spent more energy on raiding medical marijuana clubs in California and fighting child pornography than in counter-terrorism. His Justice Department didn't consider terrorism to be a priority before Sept. 11; the day before the attacks he rejected an FBI request for $58 million to hire more counter-terrorism field agents, analysts and translators and proposed a $65 million cut in funds for state and local counter-terrorism programs.
Rumsfeld was more interested in national missile defense. Rice was too busy trying to keep peace between the various factions on the Bush national security team. And there was a general dismissal of anything related to President Clinton by the Bush team.
Since 9/11, we've learned that Russian, German and Israeli intelligence agencies all picked up signals during the summer of 2001 that bin Laden was up to something big. 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 in August 2001 that 25 terrorist pilots had been trained for suicide missions. Also that month, the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad warned the FBI and CIA that up to 200 al-Qaida members were planning a major attack on American targets
And on Aug. 6, 2001, President Bush received a memo entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." It suggested that al-Qaida forces were planning to hijack airliners sometime soon.
Bush was on vacation at his ranch in Texas that month. One only wonders what might of happened had he decided to talk publicly about the possibility that the same folks that blew up the U.S. embassy in Kenya in August 1998 and the U.S.S Cole in Yemen in October 2000 might be planning an attack in this country. But nothing happened.
In 2002, Time magazine reported how the Bush administration ignored a plan developed by the Clinton administration to attack al-Qaida in Afghanistan. In the fall of 2000, the Clinton administration prepared a counter-terrorism plan that included freezing financial assets, aiding countries such as Yemen, Uzbekistan and the Philippines to help them break up terrorist cells, and a combined U.S. air and special operations military campaign in Afghanistan with help from the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.
While the Bush administration eventually did all of these things after 9/11, this plan was already put together almost a year earlier by the Clinton administration after the attack on the U.S.S Cole. President Clinton held off on executing the plan in the last days of his presidency because of the impending transition. Unlike President George H.W. Bush, who stuck the incoming Clinton team with the Somalia mess in the closing days of his term, President Clinton apparently didn't want to do something similar as he left office.
The plan languished in the national security bureaucracy. The proposals weren't re-examined by senior administration officials until April 2001 and weren't reconsidered by the top national security department heads until a week before the Sept. 11 attacks. There's no guarantee that executing the Clinton plan would have foiled the Sept. 11 attacks. But it's now clear that doing something probably would've been better than doing nothing.
It didn't take a commission to learn these things. Some of the information was in the alternative press. Some of it was in the international press. Some of it was circulating on the Internet. Some of it, albeit sporadically, appeared in the mainstream media. All that was missing was someone pulling this information together and laying out a coherent case for the American people.
It has been clear for the last two years that the Bush administration was slow to embrace the issue of imminent Islamic terrorism. It failed to prevent a catastrophic attack, and then turned around and used that attack to justify an invasion of an uninvolved Iraq. All the while, it has hid behind a wall of secrecy and lies, because the truth would expose President Bush as a corrupt and incompetent leader.
The responsibility for the failures of 9/11 falls squarely on President Bush. He has to own up to the fact that there was ample intelligence in the months leading up to the attacks, but no steps were taken to act upon the information to perhaps prevent them. He has to acknowledge that his administration is blocking any honest and comprehensive investigation of 9/11. And he has to acknowledge that on the one issue that he is basing his entire reelection campaign on, he is a fraud.
And now, the press has to push hard to ensure this happens.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.