An Important Read: The 9/11 Commission Report
W. Andrew Arnold
August 17, 2004
I did not intend to read the whole thing. And to be completely honest, Chapter 3 almost ended the matter. Fortunately, the gravity of the tragic drama that unfolds in the first chapter of The 9/11 Commission Report (hereinafter The Report) propels you forward and into an interesting, readable and informative book. Although The Report keeps some doors shut, the examination of 9/11 and the failures of our homeland security is a disturbing work that should be read by anyone interested in the topic of al-Qaeda and “the war on terror.”
For those looking for Fahrenheit 9/11, you will be sorely disappointed. This is an balanced presentation of the facts in the form of a fact filled dramatic narrative. To a certain degree, the balance is achieved through focusing on the bureaucratic responses and pushing the actions of political appointees and elected officials to the periphery. President Bush and Vice-President Cheney only submitted to an hour of questions, and it clearly shows. For this reason, most of the story takes place further down the food chain. An honest observer must take note of an apparent agreement of mutual non-aggression reflected in this bipartisan edition of recent history. Although this is a significant flaw, it does not undermine the overall credibility of the story that it tells or the lessons it draws.
From the very beginning, the near misses jump off the page. On page one, we learn that when Mohamed Atta checked in for his flight from Portland to Boston that he “was selected by a computerized prescreening system known as CAPPS (Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System), created to identify passengers who should be subject to special security measures. Under security rules in place at the time, the only consequence of Atta’s selection by CAPPS was that his checked bags were held off the plane until it was confirmed that he had boarded the aircraft. This did not hinder Atta’s plans.”
Later we are told of the 9:00 call that Lee Hanson received from his son Peter aboard United Airlines Flight 175. American 11 just struck the first tower at 8:46:40, and Peter’s plane will strike the second tower at 9:03:11. In this his second call to his father, Peter Hanson says:
It is getting bad, Dad—a stewardess was stabbed—They seem to have knives and Mace—They said they have a bomb—It’s getting very bad on the plane—Passengers are throwing up and getting sick—The plane is making jerky movements—I don’t think the pilot is flying the plane—I think we are going down—I think they intend to go to Chicago or someplace and fly into a building—Don’t worry, Dad—If it happens, it’ll be very fast—My god, my God.
The call ended abruptly with a woman heard screaming in the background. Lee Hanson watched on TV as his son’s plane flew into the second tower.
The most obvious failure of our government was the failure to get the word out to the planes already in the air. United Airways took its first decisive action to notify its planes at 9:19. United Flight 93 did not get its warning (“Beware any cockpit intrusion—Two [aircraft] hit World Trade Center”) until 9:23. At 9:26, the pilot responds “Ed, confirm latest mssg plz—Jason.” The hijackers attacked at 9:28.
All this is in the first 11 pages.
As you read, you are torn between a sense of optimism in the fact that we were so close on so many occasions, and despair because you know where this story is going. The frustration builds to a climax in Chapter 8, “The System Was Blinking Red.” From the ‘Phoenix Memo” in July 2001 warning of the “‘possibility of a coordinated effort by Usama Bin Ladin’ to send students to the United States to attend civil aviation schools” to the Presidential Daily Brief received by the vacationing George W. Bush on August 6, 2001 entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.,” the system was certainly blinking red. The August 15th arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui would in hindsight seem to have added sirens to the flashing lights. But although on August 23 Tenet was advised of the Moussaoui arrest in a brief entitled “Islamic Extremist Learns to Fly,” British Intelligence did not reveal Moussaoui’s presence at an al-Qaeda training camp until September 13. So close….
As the tragic drama unfolds, we read of many people in government asking the right questions, and just as many others without any answers. In my view, Richard Clarke comes off the best of any high level official. For example, on September 4th, Clarke sent Condoleezza Rice a memo stating:
“Are we serious about dealing with the al Qida threat?...Is al Qida a big deal?...Decision makers should imagine themselves on a future day when CGS has not succeeded in stopping al Qida attacks and hundreds of Americans lay dead in several countries, including the US.”
Clarke continued“[w]hat would those decision makers wish they had done earlier? That future day could happen at any time.” Finally, Clarke stated that he could not understand “why we continue to allow the existence of large scale al Qida bases where we know people are being trained to kill Americans.”
On the other hand, after reading The Report, it is understandable why CIA Director George Tenet resigned. He should have been fired. Tenet was consistently timid and lackadaisical. And although he eventually understood the gravity of the threat, Tenet’s inability to develop a workable plan to get Bin Ladin is painfully obvious, particularly throughout much of the Clinton years. It is not so obvious why Condoleezza Rice and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz are still around. While Tenet advised that “the system was blinking red,” Wolfowitz questioned whether the Bin Ladin threat was even real. Moreover, consider this passage describing the immediate aftermath:
Secretary Powell recalled that Wolfowitz—not Rumsfeld—argued that Iraq was ultimately the source of the terrorist problem and should therefore be attacked. Powell said that Wolfowitz was not able to justify his belief that Iraq was behind 9/11. ‘Paul was always of the view that Iraq was a problem that had to be dealt with,’ Powell said. ‘And he saw this as one way of using this event as a way to deal with the Iraq problem.’
Conspicuous in its absence in The Report is an Iraqi connection. Saudi and Iranian connections are evident through-out the story of 9/11. The alleged April 9th, 2001 meeting in Prague between a member of Iraqi intelligence and Atta is convincingly debunked. A bank surveillance camera places Atta in Virgina Beach on April 4th and he signed a lease in Coral Springs, Florida on April 11th. On April 6, 9, 10, and 11th, Atta’s cell phone records show he used it to call various lodging establishments while in Florida on those days. There are no flight or border records which demonstrate foreign travel by Atta, who used his real name in all his travels.
The complex story is contained in a doable 428 pages, with the footnotes at are over a hundred pages giving the book its thickness and adding lots of useful information. Most of the solutions proposed by The Report are common sense, but not all are uncontroversial. Among the conclusions of this report is that bringing change to Saudia Arabia, Pakistan and Iran are critically connected to winning battle against Islamic terrorists. Also, there is some room for hope: We were so close so many times and understanding how the system failed seems to make our chances the next time a little better.
Finally, The Report makes clear that al-Qaeda is definitely planning a next time. Bin Laden has promised that if the United States does not change it policies in the Middle East, then we will be at war with the Islamic nation that “desires death more than you desire life.” The Report's biggest conclusion is that we will need more than a “war on terrorism” to defeat this enemy. At the moment, this seems to be a lesson that our leaders have yet to learn. Although we know that a few of our leaders detest reading, let’s just hope they read and learn from The 9/11 Commission Report before it’s too late.