Condoleezza Rice’s much-anticipated testimony before the 9/11 Commission was widely touted as having deflected the critique proffered by former counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke that the Bushies were too fixated on Iraq to pay much attention to Al Qaeda. A few days after her appearance, however, it looks like she committed a fatal error when she inadvertently blurted out the truth.
Hailed as the “Warrior Princess,” but looking like a Bad Barbie, the President’s closest foreign policy advisor staunchly defended administration policy down the line. No surprise there. But the stunner of the hearings was this exchange between Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste, veteran Watergate prosecutor, and Rice:
RICE: I remember very well that the president was aware that there were issues inside the United States. He talked to people about this. But I don’t remember the al Qaeda cells as being something that we were told we needed to do something about.
BEN-VENISTE: Isn’t it a fact, Dr. Rice, that the August 6 PDB warned against possible attacks in this country? And I ask you whether you recall the title of that PDB?
RICE: I believe the title was, “Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States.”
BEN-VENISTE: Thank you.
RICE: No, Mr. Ben-Veniste…
BEN-VENISTE: I will get into the…
RICE: I would like to finish my point here.
BEN-VENISTE: I didn’t know there was a point.
Ben-Veniste’s sharp questioning did indeed have a point, which was to crack the Bad Barbie’s plastic veneer and get at the documents the record of this administration’s odd disinterest in Al Qaeda in the crucial months prior to 9/11, in spite of warnings from Clarke and CIA Director George Tenet. The August 6 Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB) was released a few days later, and shows up Rice as a prevaricator, at best, in describing the document as primarily “historical.” It is true that, in terms of word count, much of the memo builds its case that Al Qaeda is planning attacks in the U.S. on the history of Bin Laden’s prior operations and reported threats, concluding:
“FBI information since that time indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York. The FBI is conducting approximately 70 full field investigations throughout the US that it considers Bin Ladin-related. CIA and the FBI are investigating a call to our Embassy in UAE in May saying that a group of Bin Ladin supporters was in the US planning attacks with explosives.”
In reading this, keep in mind the nature of a PDB: it is meant for the eyes of the President and his closest advisors only. Yes, Bush knew about the threat, but was apparently convinced that his law enforcement and intelligence agencies were doing something about it. That is why the most stunning news of the year, so far, is the FBI’s denial that any such investigations as described by Ms. Rice ever existed:
“But the FBI Friday said that those investigations were not limited to al-Qaida and did not focus on al-Qaida cells. FBI spokesman Ed Coggswell said the bureau was trying to determine how the number 70 got into the report.”
Futhermore, Rice testified that the administration’s response to the threat assessment was that the FBI “tasked all 56 of its US field offices to increase surveillance of known suspected terrorists” and put pressure on informants for new leads. But, as Newsday reports:
“That, too, is news to the field offices. Commissioner Timothy J. Roemer told Rice that the commission had ‘to date … found nobody, nobody at the FBI, who knows anything about a tasking of field offices.’ Even Thomas Pickard, at the time acting FBI director, told the panel that he ‘did not tell the field offices to do this,’ Roemer said.”
This brings to mind a recent novel explanation for numerous US intelligence reports that seemed to verify Saddam’s possession of WMD his flunkies and scientific servitors had duped him into believing that such programs were in the making, if not a reality, when in fact it was all an elaborate sham. From what we are beginning to understand, this “Emperor’s New Clothes” scenario is more aptly applied to George W. Bush in the crucial months and days before 9/11.
Somewhere in the chain of command there was a bottleneck, and this raises two questions: where and why?
It seems logical to assign the task of the nation’s security from terrorist attacks to the National Security Advisor, but Condi, as made clear in her testimony, is not taking responsibility. Whether the bottleneck was located in her office, or originated further down the federal hierarchy, answering the question of why is the ostensible purpose of the 9/11 Commission which is charged with discovering how this vast “intelligence failure” occurred, and how to prevent it from ever happening again. But what if there was no failure involved here, but instead a great success: a concerted effort to divert attention away from Al Qaeda (and toward Iraq) that succeeded with crucial inside help provided by operatives working in the upper and mid-level echelons of the US government.
As the focus of the Commission’s investigations zeroes in on the crucial months and weeks prior to 9/11, Sibel Edmonds, a 32-year-old former translator at the National Security Agency, has her turn in the spotlight. She has been trying to direct the attention of government officials and Congress to her explosive contentions. Edmonds says that a cabal of spies, associated with Turkish intelligence, was working inside the NSA listening station, where electronic messages and other sorts of “chatter” are picked up, sifted, and translated, and that they tried to recruit her. They wanted her to refrain from translating certain taped phone conversations and other surveillance, and threatened her when she refused. In an affidavit filed with the Senate Intelligence Committee, Ms. Edmonds testified that “investigations are being compromised, incorrect or misleading translations are being sent to agents in the field. Translations are being blocked and circumvented.”
The NSA is the eyes and ears of the US government as it surveys the world, and its own back yard, assessing threats and preparing to respond. But if foreign agents have penetrated the system, then decision-makers are deliberately blinkered, flailing about in the dark, deaf, dumb, and blind. Just as we were on the eve of 9/11, when two crucial messages were picked up:
“The match is about to begin.”
“Tomorrow is zero hour.”
These bits of “chatter” were given low priority and left untranslated until September 12. Given what we now know about the threat level at that point, how can such a “glitch” be explained?
In spinning the contents of the declassified PDB, the administration’s fallback position is that there is no specific information about a hijacking, or using aircraft as bombs: White House flacks are basically reiterating Rice’s testimony. But Edmonds blows their entire case out of the water.
Her secret testimony before the 9/11 Commission should be declassified and released in full, but, meanwhile, she has come forward on her own to give the gist of it by forthrightly declaring that Condi Rice is telling “an outrageous lie” when she says the US government had no inkling of the nature or imminence of the 9/11 attacks. The British Independent reports:
“Sibel Edmonds said she spent more than three hours in a closed session with the commission’s investigators providing information that was circulating within the FBI in the spring and summer of 2001 suggesting that an attack using aircraft was just months away and the terrorists were in place. The Bush administration, meanwhile, has sought to silence her and has obtained a gagging order from a court by citing the rarely used ‘state secrets privilege.'”
The truth about 9/11 is a “state secret” why am I not surprised? Dan Ellsberg was so right the other day when he pointed out the crucial importance of whistleblowers coming from within the government to reveal what has been so far withheld from the public. A new generation of this heroic breed is now coming forward Richard Clarke, Joe Wilson, Karen Kwiatkowski, and now Sibel Edmonds to shine the light of public scrutiny on the darkest corners of the federal Leviathan. Edmonds spent over three hours with the Commission, and, from what she told The Independent, her testimony must have curled their toes:
“I gave [the commission] details of specific investigation files, the specific dates, specific target information, specific managers in charge of the investigation. I gave them everything so that they could go back and follow up. This is not hearsay. These are things that are documented. These things can be established very easily.”
“There was general information about the time-frame, about methods to be used but not specifically about how they would be used and about people being in place and who was ordering these sorts of terror attacks. There were other cities that were mentioned. Major cities - with skyscrapers.”
No wonder the commissioners seemed unimpressed by Bad Barbie’s suave circumlocutions.
The question of what did the President know and when did he know it is of interest, but the real issue is what didn’t he know and who kept it from him? Which devolves into a more basic inquiry: just who is running the US government, anyway, if anyone?
The administration line is that 9/11 couldn’t have been prevented, that it was merely a question of the CIA and the FBI not cooperating, not to mention all those inconvenient obstacles in the way of government agencies snooping and spying. The Bad Barbie avers that 9/11 happened because we didn’t have a PATRIOT Act back then, but if Clarke, Edmonds, and their fellow whistleblowers are telling even a semblance of the truth, there’s a lot more to it than that.
Edmonds has been speaking out for nearly a year, and her story is now getting major coverage (albeit still mostly in the overseas media) in addition to the respectful attention of the 9/11 Commission. Perhaps this new openness, this glasnost in the field of 9/11 studies, will throw the spotlight on another long-ignored claim that advance warning of 9/11 was in the possession of more than just Osama Bin Laden and his cohorts.
The idea that Israel may have known about the terrorist plot in advance, and, somehow, neglected to inform us, was first raised by Fox News hardly a bastion of anti-Israel sentiment in a four-part investigative report by Carl Cameron. On December 17, 2001, when the nation was still reeling from the shock of the biggest and deadliest terrorist attack in its history, Cameron was the first to raise the question of who knew what, and when:
“There is no indication that the Israelis were involved in the 9/11 attacks, but investigators suspect that the Israelis may have gathered intelligence about the attacks in advance, and not shared it. A highly placed investigator said there are ‘tie-ins.’ But when asked for details, he flatly refused to describe them, saying, ‘evidence linking these Israelis to 9/11 is classified. I cannot tell you about evidence that has been gathered. It’s classified information.'”
So, too, was the August 6 PDB, and that was declassified quickly enough in response to a national outcry. When the Commission gets around to this particular angle on the 9/11 saga, they might want to talk to the high intelligence official interviewed by Salon’s Christopher Ketcham, who details an extensive covert action by Israeli nationals in the US up to a year prior to 9/11, Israelis claiming to be “art students” were observed conducting surveillance of federal facilities, from Florida to Texas to the Northeast. An inter-agency task force studied the phenomenon, and wrote up a report, which was leaked to the media those heroic whistleblowers strike again! generating a number of news stories, government denials, and an outcry from Israel’s amen corner in the US. But the story refused to die: it was taken up by Le Monde, and Die Zeit, a respected German weekly, which ran a story detailing how Israeli agents were watching Mohammed Atta and his fellow conspirators “24/7,” and that these agents literally lived “Next Door to Mohammed Atta.”
As one of the government whistleblowers interviewed by Cameron put it, the question is not “how could the Israelis have known" the question is “how could they not have known.”
I have covered all of this ground rather extensively in my book, The Terror Enigma: 9/11 and the Israeli Connection, but I want to say here what I wasn’t quite ready to say at the time the book was written.
It is clear to me that, in the words of the declassified PDB, there is “a pattern of suspicious activity” here that goes beyond anything that might be construed as sheer incompetence and/or bad luck. The amount of fairly high-level obstructionism that occurred in the crucial prelude to 9/11 the spring and summer of 2001 that made an effective effort to quash Al Qaeda utterly impossible, is suspicious in and of itself: why didn’t the FBI carry out the President’s clear orders? Combined with the Edmonds revelations and the Israeli “art student” gambit, what we are faced with is the possibility of an organized effort to create an environment in which the terrorists were not only observed by one or more foreign intelligence agencies, but were protected and nurtured. Our foreign policy, in Iraq and elsewhere, is still nurturing them.
Former counter-terrorism chief Clarke and former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill have both noted how the neoconservative element in this administration sought from the beginning to divert attention away from Al Qaeda and toward Saddam Hussein and Iraq. Our propaganda apparatus churned out “intelligence” that was often crudely faked. The neocon media cranked out war manifestoes with prolific ease, as the US media became the government’s echo chamber, and battalions of neocon thinktankers and policy wonks swung into action. While this above-ground army of foreign lobbyists and neoconservative ideologues openly sought to drag us into what they call “World War IV” a global conflict pitting Islam against the US and Israel an underground division of the same army had done the necessary spadework, effectively diverting attention away from the 9/11 plotters.
The declassified PDB mentions “patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.” But that’s what those Israeli “art students” were doing: snooping around federal buildings. Houston’s KHOU-TV reports that one was even found wandering the halls of a government facility in Texas carrying a blueprint of the building: now that’s suspicious! Which is why the anonymous whistleblowers inside the DEA, the INS, and other agencies titled their report “Suspicious Activities Involving Israeli Art Students.”
The “Bush knew” crowd may think itself vindicated by recent developments, but, as I have pointed out above, this is hardly the case: more than ever, it seems that Bush didn’t know, because he was deliberately kept in the dark. Not that he doesn’t have to take ultimate responsibility for what happened on his watch. In any case, the evidence points to some level of foreign involvement, albeit not from Iraq: Turkey and Israel are the main suspects, although, for intelligence purposes, there seems little to distinguish the two.
As we subject the mysterious prehistory of 9/11 to a close reexamination, the official mythology of that seminal event begins to crumble. Behind the phony façade the truth peeks out, shyly, at first, and then with growing confidence. The 19 terrorists who blew up the Pentagon and took down the World Trade Center couldn’t have pulled it off alone: they had to have some form of state assistance, if only passive compliance.
I have long believed that the key to fighting the War Party is demolishing its central myth: the outlandish idea that the 19 Arab hijackers, all on their own, and managing to avoid detection for years, somehow humbled the mightiest superpower on earth. As new revelations make this fairy tale increasingly untenable, the issue of foreign involvement in 9/11 is certain to come to the fore. Just remember: you read it here, first .