The third anniversary of 9/11 reveals nothing but our continued ignorance of the circumstances surrounding that event, which seems ever more shrouded in mystery. This in spite of the plethora of official reports, issued by the Senate, various congressional committees, and an official U.S. government commission devoted to the subject, which held public hearings, and published its report. The recommendations in that document are even now being signed into law. Yet our understanding of why and how it happened, obscured by myth and the tricks of memory, seems less than when smoke was still pouring out of the twin towers. This seems distinctly odd, but what is odder still is the development of two parallel theories of what really happened on 9/11 that both point to our two best ostensible friends in the Middle East as complicit in, if not the source, of the terror.
The first suspect is Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom of oil, where billionaire sheiks wearing funny red-and-white-checkered headgear live in incredibly decadent luxury while preaching and subsidizing the austere puritanism of Wahhabist Islam. An entire school of thought has grown up on the right as well as the left, positing a Saudi connection to the 9/11 hijackers that has never been proved. The best the Saudi conspiracy theorists can come up with is the 27 redacted pages of the Senate Report on 9/11, the sort of "evidence" that leaves far too much to the imagination. The first 15 minutes of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 – replete with lurid images of sinister-looking Saudis in flowing robes – is the purest and crudest distillation of this theory. Moore, like many on the pro-war right, reiterates the anti-Saudi mantra, reminding viewers that 17 out of 19 of the hijackers were Saudi. Whether or how this means that they were acting on orders from Riyadh is never elaborated on.
There is a purely right-wing version of this theory, without the Bush-bashing, emanating from American Likudnik circles. Adherents of this approach tried to link the hijackers to a friend of a friend of a friend of a third cousin of someone assisted financially by Princess Haifa, wife of Saudi ambassador to the U.S. Prince Bandar, but nothing ever came of it. The leftist version, however, involves the president and his close advisors as the central co-conspirators: this is the "they bombed themselves" school of thought, which somehow manages to drag in the CIA and any number of top U.S. government officials, all supposedly in on a plan to utilize the attacks as the basis of a coup. The methodology of this school is to ask: Cui bono? Who benefits? And they stop there. Because, after all, what more do we need to know?
Well, a few facts would help. But all we get is the redacted pages of the Senate’s 9/11 report and the hazy, fact-free innuendo of books like Forbidden Truth, which posits a conspiracy by an unholy trinity of the Saudi princes, the all-powerful Carlyle Group, and the Bush family.
On the other hand, Senator Bob Graham has written an entire book based on the accusation that the Bush administration deliberately covered up the involvement of Saudi agents with two of the 9/11 conspirators living in San Diego. Graham, the former head of the Senate intelligence committee, and a rather quixotic presidential candidate, avers there is not only "a compelling case that there was Saudi assistance," but also points the finger at President Bush, who supposedly ordered the FBI "to restrain and obfuscate" the 9/11 investigation.
While Senator Graham’s foreign policy views are light years away from my own, I credit him with more than a little inside knowledge of the inner workings of the intelligence community. In a PBS interview with Gwen Ifill, the senator was asked if there were certain facts in the Senate committee report "which are classified that Americans should know about but can’t?" Graham’s reply merited mile-high headlines:
"Yes, going back to your question about what was the greatest surprise. I agree with what Senator Shelby said, the degree to which the agencies were not coordinating was certainly a surprise: but also I was surprised at the evidence that there were foreign governments involved in facilitating the activities of at least some of the terrorists in the United States."
I cite Graham’s comments in my book, The Terror Enigma: 9/11 and the Israeli Connection, because he goes on to make clear that he means more than one foreign government was involved in the events leading up to 9/11. They had some degree of foreknowledge if not outright complicity – and they aren’t through with us yet. Graham continues:
"I am stunned that we have not done a better job of pursuing that to determine if other terrorists received similar supports, and even more important, if the infrastructure of a foreign government assisting terrorists still exists for the current generation of terrorists who are planing the next plots. To me that is an extremely significant issue and most of that information is classified. I think overly classified."
Graham’s lament brings to mind the remark of a government spokesman to Carl Cameron, of Fox News, who reported the following in December 2001:
"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.’“
Now we branch off into the alternate theory, far more controversial than the Saudi conspiracy, which posits that the hijackers were being watched by an extensive Israeli intelligence network operating on U.S. soil. Cameron’s four-part series, broadcast in that bitter winter of 2001, caused a sensation – and then dropped into the black hole of journalistic memory, enjoying a periodic revival as various other aspects of the story came out in dribs and drabs.
Salon reported on a mysterious outbreak of suspicious incidents, in the months prior to 9/11, involving young Israelis who claimed to be "art students," and who made it a habit to approach government facilities as if they were casing the joint. An interagency report was leaked, that documented the activities of this group, which obviously had more to do with the art of intelligence-gathering than with painting. Even more ominously, the young Israelis, in some instances, would approach government employees at home, and clearly had access to information they shouldn’t have.
The Salon piece, by Christopher Ketcham, theorized that the purpose of the "art students" operation might have been to divert attention away from something, to blow a lot of smoke and blind intelligence agencies to activities that were going on right under their noses.
Le Monde followed up with reporting on the geographical synchronicity of the hijackers’ odyssey though America and the location of the various colonies of Israeli "art students," as if the former were being shadowed by the latter:
"More than a third of these ‘students,’ who, according to the report, moved in at least 42 American cities, stated they resided in Florida. Five at least were intercepted in Hollywood, and two in Fort Lauderdale. Hollywood is a town of 25,000 inhabitants to the north of Miami, close to Fort Lauderdale. At least 10 of the 19 terrorists of 9/11 were residing in Florida.
"Four of the five members of the group that diverted American Airlines flight number 11 – Mohammed Atta, Abdulaziz Al-Omari, Walid and Waïl Al-Shehri, as well as one of the five terrorists of United flight 175, Marwan Al-Shehhi – resided all at various times in… Hollywood, Florida. As for Ahmed Fayez, Ahmed and Hamza Al-Ghamdi and Mohand Al-Shehri, who took over United flight 75, like Saïd Al-Ghamdi, Ahmed Al-Haznawi and Ahmed Al-Nami, of United flight 93 which crashed September 11 in Pennsylvania, and Nawaq Al-Hamzi, of AA flight 77 (crashed into the Pentagon), they all at one time resided at Delray Beach, north of Fort Lauderdale.
"This convergence is, inter alia, the origin of the American conviction that one of the tasks of the Israeli “students” would have been to track the Al-Qaida terrorists on their territory, without informing the federal authorities of the existence of the plot."
The Israelis, a silent omnipresent bodyguard, encircled Mohammed Atta and his cohorts, watching, and waiting – for 9/11, the catalytic event that would trigger a war binding the U.S. and Israel closer than ever before, a war that would not end even with the American occupation of Iraq – and would redound mostly to the advantage of the Israelis.
Finally, the respected German weekly Die Zeit capped these revelations with a story entitled "Next Door to Mohammed Atta," which cited French intelligence and focused on the close proximity of the "art students" and the hijackers in the south Florida town of Hollywood, and environs:
"Not until after the attacks of September 11 did the consequences of the spy ring become clear. Apparently the agents were not interested in military or industrial facilities, but were shadowing a number of suspects, who were later involved in the terrorist attacks against the US. According to a report of the French intelligence agency that Die Zeit examined, ‘according to the FBI, Arab terrorists and suspected terror cells lived in Phoenix, Arizona, as well as in Miami and Hollywood, Florida from December 2000 to April 2001 in direct proximity to the Israeli spy cells.’
"According to the report, the Mossad agents were interested in the leader of the terrorists, Mohammed Atta and his key accomplice, Marwan al-Shehi. Both lived in Hamburg before they settled in Hollywood, Florida in order to plan the attacks. A Mossad team was also operating in the same town. The leader, Hanan Serfati, had rented several dwellings. … Everything indicates that the terrorists were constantly observed by the Israelis. The chief Israeli agent was staying right near the post office where the terrorists had a mailbox. The Mossad also had its sights on Atta’s accomplice Khalid al-Midhar, with whom the CIA was also familiar, but allowed to run free.’"
I cover this material, and more, in The Terror Enigma, but the sequel is being written in today’s headlines. As news of an Israeli spy ring in the Pentagon roils the political waters and causes us to rethink just who our friends and enemies really are, let us pause to consider how we got to where we are today.
And where is that? Hip-deep in Iraq, and in danger of going in over our heads, mired down in a ceaseless war that threatens to expand and has had the exact opposite of its intended result, swelling the ranks of terrorist groups worldwide. As bin Laden and his lieutenants strike from Spain to Russia to Baghdad in a triangle of death spanning two continents, the third anniversary of the 9/11 atrocity only brings the promise of more to come. The project to "democratize" the Middle East has only succeeded in pulverizing it. We have passed the thousand mark in the number of American deaths, but the Iraqis have suffered ten times that in Baghdad alone. Their relatives, loved ones, neighbors and friends will hate us as long as they live, and, in the dark recesses of a cave somewhere, Osama bin Laden is smiling.
But so is Ariel Sharon. The Likudnik dream of a Greater Israel is making important advances: new settlements, along with a new American acquiescence in the face of Israeli aggression, have emboldened and empowered the increasingly militant Israelis. The extremists have won: so much so that Sharon is now considered a "moderate."
The revelation that the FBI has been investigating the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) for over two years, conducting a counterintelligence investigation into Israeli penetration of U.S. Government agencies and the commission of possible illegal acts, including espionage, sheds new light on Israel’s secret war against America, the so far hidden aspect of what we call the war on terrorism. The sheer scope of this investigation, in terms of manpower and other resources, suggests an Israeli covert operation much as Cameron described it: extensive, multi-leveled, and aggressive.
I would urge you to pick up a copy of The Terror Enigma, of course, but I want to stress that it is hardly the last word on the subject. The mystery of 9/11 is a long way from being solved, and today, on this somber anniversary, we seem far from dispersing the murk and myth that obfuscates its true origins. We know that al-Qaeda and ultimately bin Laden conceived the plot, but how did they carry it off without at least some state assistance, however passive and indirect?
The answer, it seems safe to say, is that they didn’t: the Israelis, in my view, had some fair amount of foreknowledge, based on the above evidence, and neglected to let us in on the secret until it was far too late. I am also fully prepared to believe that Senator Graham’s theory has some validity, and that the hijackers were aided by a faction of the Saudi royal family. The two theories, it seems to me, are not mutually exclusive. It wouldn’t be the first time two mortal enemies moved in tandem to their mutual advantage.
If Graham can point to the redacted pages of the Senate committee’s 9/11 report to bolster the link to the Saudis, then the adherents of the Israeli complicity theory can point to the news that the White House is pressuring the Justice Department to quash the investigation into Israel’s spy nest in the Pentagon. As the Financial Times reports:
"An FBI investigation into suspected security breaches involving Pentagon officials and Israel is unlikely to result in prosecution of senior figures following pressure from the White House, according to people familiar with the case…. Analysts said that although the neoconservative proponents of regime change in Iraq and Iran had fallen out of favour with the White House, the presidential election in November still afforded them protection.
"… Sources familiar with the investigation said the White House and John Ashcroft, the US attorney-general, had intervened to apply the brakes. ‘The White House is leaning on the FBI. Some people in the FBI are very upset, they think Ashcroft is playing politics with this,’" a former intelligence official said.
"Paul McNulty, the Virginia district attorney in charge of the probe, had been told to slow down, the sources said. Asked for comment, Mr McNulty’s office would only say that the investigation was continuing."
In the act of covering up, the government admits more than it cares to, fueling what the mandarins of the conventional wisdom deride as "conspiracy theories." But the story of 9/11 is about a conspiracy if it is about anything at all. Three years later, one of the few certainties we have about it is that we have yet to unlock its mysteries.