9/11 Revisionism

“They will never give the full story” – that’s what former Senator Max Cleland, who resigned from the 9/11 Commission in protest over White House stonewalling, said to Amy Goodman on the “Democracy Now” radio program. But of course not. The Bushies would just as soon commit collective suicide. Just as we had to find out on our own the truth about the Iraq war – that there were no WMD, no links to Al Qaeda, no unmanned drones ready to strike American cities with God-knows-what: it was all a lie – so a similar revisionism is necessary when it comes to examining what happened on 9/11, and why.

Indicative of the Bush administration’s implacable hostility to any revisionist trends when it comes to this sensitive subject is National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice’s bizarre refusal to show up at the public hearings of the Commission. She demurs on the somewhat murky grounds that her testimony might “set a bad precedent” by violating the doctrine of the “separation of powers.” It is hard to make out what this might possibly mean, except that our rulers have now completely separated themselves from the principles of open government and the rule of law. As for setting a precedent, any sign of cooperation from this government in the 9/11 inquiry would be a first.

This administration has put every hurdle in the way of the 9/11 Commission, much to the dismay of the 9/11 families, and the reticence of the Bush camp naturally provokes the question: what do they have to hide? Suspicion heightens when we see those Bush ads touting the President’s leadership during the dark aftermath of the attacks. George W. Bush is campaigning as a “war president,” whose steely leadership in the aftermath of a monstrous terrorist assault deserves to be rewarded with a second term. But if 9/11 is going to be the centerpiece of the President’s reelection campaign, then why are we not supposed to look too closely at the event that gave him more gravitas than he might otherwise have acquired on his own?

The findings of the Commission, at this point, are rather tepid, and far removed from the actual theater of operations in which 9/11 occurred. The Clinton administration, we are told, attempted to resolve the status of Osama bin Laden via diplomatic approaches to the Taliban government in Afghanistan, with the Saudis spearheading an effort that ended in failure. The preliminary report also chronicles complaints of a lack of military action from some in the Pentagon. But the focus, at least so far, on events in faraway Afghanistan is of little relevance when it comes to understanding what happened in New York City on September 11, 2001. While a key task of the Commission is to recreate the context in which the biggest terrorist attack in American history occurred, this is painting with a very broad brush. The details are lost, yet these are precisely what we need to see in order to understand what hit us, how they hit us, and how to prevent them from ever hitting us again.

The initial findings of the Commission lament the fact that “policy-makers and military officials” – eager to launch an attack on Bin Laden in Afghanistan – “expressed frustration with the lack of actionable intelligence.” But the elimination of Bin Laden and his Afghan legions, at that point, would not necessarily have prevented the 9/11 terror attacks. Such an outcome seems highly unlikely, since it assumes the erroneous idea that Al Qaeda is engaged in conventional warfare, with the centralized leadership and hierarchical command structure characteristic of a state. With the leadership gone, the Commission assumes that Al Qaeda would have been unable to carry out operations in the U.S. But by that time, an Al Qaeda cell was already ensconced in the U.S., planning for The Day. The plot was set in motion. What was needed was “actionable intelligence” in America, not Afghanistan.

The “intelligence failure” that made 9/11 possible is routinely explained by U.S. government officials as the result of them not having enough power. If only the draconian strictures of the PATRIOT Act had been in place prior to 9/11 and the government had the unlimited right to spy on us, detain us, and declare us “illegal combatants” at the drop of a hat, they opine, all might have turned out differently. Sounds superficially plausible, except when one considers that there was plenty of actionable intelligence about the 9/11 plotters: there were warnings galore, as we are beginning to discover, not only from foreign intelligence agencies but from our own agents and analysts.

Yes, but these warnings were “nonspecific”: that’s the standard official excuse. Except it isn’t true: the ringleader of the 9/11 plot, Mohammed Atta, was under surveillance by authorities the year before the attacks, in Hamburg, Germany. Atta and his associates were well-known to law enforcement and intelligence agencies, U.S. and foreign, long before the 9/11 terror attacks.

What did they know and when did they know it? That is a key question for the 9/11 Commission to ask, and answer.

What is coming out in the revelations of administration insiders like Richard Clarke and Paul O’Neill is that a peculiar fixation on Iraq displaced the threat from Al Qaeda from the day of Dubya’s inauguration. Sandy Berger, according to reports by Michael Hirsch and Michael Isikoff in Newsweek, became increasingly focused on the threat of domestic terrorism in the latter days of the Clinton administration, and, in briefing Ms. Rice, emphasized the danger, but to no avail. The effort to root out Bin Laden and his agents was marginalized. Out of 100 meetings of the Bush National Security Council held in the pre-9/11 era, 2 were devoted to the terrorist threat.

Clearly, the Bushies had other things on their minds, namely the invasion of Iraq – an obsession driven by the neoconservative policymakers in the Pentagon and the President himself, which did not abate when Al Qaeda struck, but only seemed to intensify. Instead of correcting their Iraqi-centric orientation, in the wake of 9/11, the Bush White House veered in the opposite direction, going off on what is now widely perceived as a wild tangent: in retrospect, this was not an honest error but a deliberate diversion. Inquiring minds want to know: what are we being diverted away from?

Discovering the answer to that question is what 9/11 revisionism is all about. We cannot begin to understand what happened that fateful day without revising what we think we know – which, at this point, isn’t very much. The official story is that the 19 hijackers, without benefit of state sponsorship or the collaboration of any foreign intelligence agency, managed to set up an extensive underground apparatus in the U.S., train as airline pilots, and blend into American society undetected for a period of years. All indications of the coming attack were “nonspecific,” and there were no clear indication that something big was afoot.

The unofficial story is that the FBI hobbled its own investigation, and didn’t understand the law sufficiently to realize that they had the power to act against suspected terrorists. Another level of the unofficial narrative is what appears to have been the deliberate obstruction of vital intelligence intercepted on the eve of September 11.

In the autumn of 2002, Sibel Edmonds, a former translator at the top-secret listening station maintained by the National Security Agency, stepped forward and testified that:

“Investigations are being compromised. Incorrect or misleading translations are being sent to agents in the field. Translations are being blocked and circumvented.”

Alarm bells should have gone off in the media as well as the government. According to reports in the Washington Post, the Washington Times, and several wire services, the NSA had been blamed for a “glitch” that left two intercepted messages untranslated until September 12: “The match is about to begin,” and “Tomorrow is zero hour.”

Dick Cheney just about blew another gasket over that leak. He and the neocon cabal at the core of this administration would much prefer to leave the truth in an undisclosed location, rather than give the public even a brief glimpse at the dark prehistory of 9/11. The White House refuses to hand over key documents, most significantly the pertinent daily presidential briefings that are the intelligence community’s highest-end product, meant only for the eyes of America’s chief executive and his inner circle. Without access to the briefings, however, we can’t know if Al Qaeda was even on this administration’s radar screen – or what else was going on to distract their attention.

Distraction and diversion: this seems to be the theme, the woof and warp of the Bush administration’s strategy when it comes to deflecting any inquiry into the mysteries of 9/11. Bin Laden attacked us, and we attacked … Iraq. We failed to follow up the evidence accumulated in America, and the investigation was obstructed at every turn by top officials still in charge – but this is apparently none of the 9/11 Commission’s concern. Their focus, instead, is on providing officials and ex-officials of both parties with election-year platforms from which to exonerate themselves and settle partisan scores.

9/11 revisionism is generally viewed as a disreputable collection of “conspiracy theories.” This in spite of the impossibility of framing the 9/11 narrative in any but a conspiratorial context. It was, after all, a conspiracy that led to the wanton murder of over 3000 people in a single horrific day. What is the “war on terrorism” all about – if it is about anything – other than a war against these Islamist conspirators and their accomplices, who don’t usually operate right out in the open?

So it turns out that the official 9/11 narrative is itself a conspiracy theory, albeit one of storybook simplicity. Using “fourth generation” military strategy, evading detection over a period as long as 5 years, and mounting a low-tech assault on an overconfident, unsuspecting opponent, Al Qaeda managed to pull off a veritable ballet of simultaneous hijackings, pirouetting in the sky above the Pentagon and the WTC before plunging into history. They executed their plan with perfect precision, and without technical or intelligence assistance from any source other than those directly traceable to Al Qaeda.

The lesson we are expected to learn from the official storybook version is similarly simple-minded and bereft of any complexity: shut up, obey orders, and stop questioning your leaders. The government knows best, so there’s no need for you to know all that much.

Without disputing the basic facts – that we were attacked, that Al Qaeda has boasted of its responsibility, and that Bin Laden and his associates are at the center of the terrorist conspiracy – 9/11 revisionism allows for far more complexity. This automatically excludes, I’d like to note, such works as the book by a whacked-out French author that denies the planes ever hit the Pentagon, or other examples of the Tinfoil Hat Syndrome. These “alternative” theories of 9/11 are basically derived from some parallel universe where the laws of physics (and logic) don’t seem to apply. I would call this crackpot genre 9/11 denialism, in that it entirely denies what we do know and tries to construct an “alternative” theory out of thin air.

On the other hand, true 9/11 revisionism seeks to build and expand on what we already know, elaborating on the essential context in which this seminal event took place. Revisionism is not an ideology, or a school of thought: it merely describes the process by which we add to our knowledge of history. In gaining access to new documentary evidence, and collecting corroborated testimony, the conscientious 9/11 researcher is bound to be constantly revising the meaning of this singular event.

For the War Party, 9/11 can have only one meaning, and it has nothing to do with a conscientious devotion to truth. Certainly it disallows complexity.

Who knew? That’s what the revisionists want to know.

Who should have known? That’s another question the Bushies would rather not have to answer. Yet people are bound to ask it as long as this administration and its allies in the media wave the bloody shirt of 9/11 as the rationale for endless wars, not to mention four more years of our Republican “war president.”

In opposition to the court historians, whose “official” version of the 9/11 narrative is tailored to justify and excuse the actions (or non-actions) of the government, the 9/11 revisionists – including especially the families of the people who were killed that day – know that the primary function of official commissions is to cover up the criminal incompetence of our rulers – and that is especially true of this particular Commission. The lesson here is that Government, by its very nature, lives and thrives in secrecy, pulling off its depredations in the dark. Our task is nothing less than to light up the dark corners of the 9/11 mystery, and expose the truth to the light of day.

I have done my own part in carrying out this project, but much remains to be done. Although some allusion to the truth may slip through the cracks, what we can say, with supreme confidence, is that the less we expect of the 9/11 Commission, the less likely we are to be bitterly disappointed. 9/11 revisionism may yet find some outlet, and achieve a major breakthrough, but the Commission, while it may provide for some interesting political theater, is unlikely to provide such a venue.

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Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com, and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He is a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and writes a monthly column for Chronicles. He is the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].