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Who knew what when?
September 11 intelligence failures must be investigated — and the White House must cooperate

LET’S BE CLEAR: any suggestion that the Bush administration failed to act on specific information that could have prevented September 11’s terrorist attacks is absurd. Yet we need to be equally clear that calls by Democratic leaders like Senate majority leader Tom Daschle and House minority leader Richard Gephardt to investigate what the White House knew and when it knew it cannot be equated with blaming Bush for the attacks.

There is nothing wrong with noting, as Gephardt did last week, that "what we have to do now is to find out what the president, what the White House, knew about the events leading up to 9/11, when they knew it, and, most importantly, what was done about it at that time." We need an independent, outside investigation into the intelligence failures that created the security gaps that made the September 11 terrorist attacks possible. There must be consequences for those who failed to do their jobs. And we need to do everything possible to ensure this never happens again.

In the eight months since the terrorist attacks, information has trickled out about who knew what, when it was known, and what was done about it. This week’s issue of Time magazine sums it up by outlining four discrete intelligence failures leading up to September 11: 1) an August CIA memo to Bush warned of potential terrorist hijackings of American airlines, but never mentioned the possibility of using those airplanes as bombs; 2) the FBI ignored a memo by its agent in Phoenix, Arizona, who noted that Arabs were signing up for lessons at flight schools and called for an investigation into whether they might be Al Qaeda terrorists; 3) last summer, counterterrorist authorities picked up warning signs that an Al Qaeda terror attack was imminent, but no one focused on the possibility that the attack might occur domestically; and 4) neither the FBI nor the CIA notified the White House Counterterrorism Security Group of the arrest of Islamic extremist Zacarias Moussaoui, who sought instruction at a Minnesota flight school.

Based on this information, every American deserves to know why the FBI supervisors who ignored the Phoenix memo still have jobs with the bureau. (Last Friday, it was reported that the CIA’s counterterrorism head and the head of the FBI’s Osama bin Laden unit are leaving, but that amounts to mere window-dressing.) Every American deserves to know why the FBI is so disorganized that two offices looking into the same phenomenon — the suspicious enrollment in flight schools of students with ties to Islamic extremists — were never made aware of each other’s work.

Last August, in Minnesota, FBI agents were investigating the background of Zacarias Moussaoui, who was arrested on an immigration violation after enrolling in a flight school. Previously, in January and February of last year, Phoenix FBI agents had investigated similar complaints from a local flight school about one of its students, a man named Hani Hanjour, who is believed to have piloted American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon. It is not playing partisan politics to wonder if events might have gone differently if the Phoenix memo, written in July during that office’s continuing investigation into Hanjour, had been read by the Minnesota agents, instead of disappearing, as Time put it, into the "black hole of bureaucratic hell that is the FBI."

Every American deserves to know why the Bush administration ignored frantic warnings from the outgoing Clinton administration about the threats to US safety posed by Al Qaeda. In the current issue of Newsweek magazine, a devastating portrait emerges of a Bush White House bent on pursuing isolationist policies and a conservative social agenda. Former national-security advisor Sandy Berger was consumed with the possibility of Al Qaeda–sponsored terrorist attacks and warned incoming national-security advisor Condoleezza Rice during the transition from the Clinton to the Bush administration that she would be "spending more time on this issue than on any other," as Newsweek reports. Though Rice was alarmed, she was more interested in developing a missile-defense shield. Former FBI director Louis Freeh, who, it must be noted, presided over one of the most scandal-ridden periods in the bureau’s history, saw the pursuit of counterterrorism as the agency’s highest priority. But incoming attorney general John Ashcroft ordered the bureau to get back to the basics: "violent crime, drugs, child porn," as Newsweek writes.

Mistakes were made at nearly every turn by everyone in a position to make a difference. Is this why the White House continues to resist an overarching investigation into intelligence failures? The Bush administration’s argument that an investigation would hurt the war effort makes no sense. After all, during World War II President Franklin D. Roosevelt cooperated with congressional investigations into the Pearl Harbor attacks, and it didn’t hurt our war efforts. The notion that an investigation would detract from Bush’s status as a world leader in the war on terror is equally absurd. Tragic events, not ability or inclination, thrust Bush upon the world stage. How will an investigation diminish his new status? And the final purported excuse, that an investigation would feed into partisan sniping, is disingenuous. The Clinton administration, though it eventually took the issue seriously, wasted plenty of opportunities to deal with Al Qaeda. There is more than enough blame to go around for both political parties.

Meanwhile, what really diverts attention from the war on terror are White House attempts to turn calls for an investigation into partisan politics. During an appearance in New York last Friday, Vice-President Dick Cheney warned Democrats to be "very cautious not to seek political advantage by making incendiary suggestions ... that the White House had advance information that would have prevented the tragic attacks of 9/11." In fact, it was a Republican lawmaker, not a Democrat, who raised the possibility that Bush could have prevented September 11. Last week, Senator Richard Shelby, a Republican from Alabama who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee and who is believed to have seen the Phoenix memo, said, "There was a lot of information. I believe and others believe [that] if it had been acted on properly, we may have had a different situation on September 11."

This country must see an independent investigation. We not only need answers to these questions, we deserve them. Newsweek reports that Kathy Ashton, whose son Tommy died in the attacks on the World Trade Center, wonders why Congress is looking into the collapse of Enron but has yet to investigate the September 11 attacks. "Why, eight months later, are we not investigating the mass murder of 3000 human beings on American soil by an enemy of the United States that was enabled to carry out this mass murder because many agencies in this country dropped the ball?" she asks.

It’s a fair question.

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Issue Date: May 23 - 30, 2002
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