The 9/11 Commission Report:
Final Report of the National Commission
on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States
- Thomas H Kean, Chair
by Matthew Rothschild
The Progressive magazine, September
0n page 340 of The 9/11 Commission Report
is this sentence: "If the government's leaders understood
the gravity of the threat they faced and understood at the same
time that their policies to eliminate it were not likely to succeed
any time soon, then history's judgment will be harsh."
Let's call the roll.
The much-maligned former President comes
out pretty well in the report. It shows that President Clinton
recognized that "terrorism was a national security problem"
and was "deeply concerned about bin Laden." Clinton
issued three Presidential Decision Directives about the threat.
He received "a special daily pipeline of reports" about
bin Laden and authorized his capture or killing. But the report
faults Clinton for not responding to the October 12, 2000, attack
on the USS Cole, which killed seventeen and wounded forty. It
said he was more interested in brokering a peace between Israel
and the Palestinians in his last few months in office.
Eerily, Clinton received warnings similar
to those that Bush later got. On December 4, 1998, he received
a Presidential Briefing that said, "Bin Laden Preparing to
Hijack U.S. Aircraft and Other Attacks." It added that "two
members of the operational team had evaded security checks during
a recent trial run at an unidentified New York airport."
Clinton's National Security Adviser also
comes off well. He was alert to the risk of terrorism earlier
than most. He deputized counterterrorism expert Richard Clarke
and gave him wide authority, placing him on an equal footing with
cabinet members involved in national security. Berger and Clarke
worked admirably together to prevent the Millennium Plot from
coming to fruition at the end of 1999, the report says. And Berger
urged aggressive action against Al Qaeda after the Cole attack.
"According to Clarke, Berger upbraided DCI [Director of Central
Intelligence] Tenet so sharply after the Cole attack-repeatedly
demanding to know why the United States had to put up with such
attacks-that Tenet walked out of a meeting of the principals."
Berger also stressed to the Bush transition team, and especially
Condoleezza Rice, the gravity of the Al Qaeda threat.
William Cohen and the Joint Chiefs Clinton's
Defense Secretary William Cohen was exceptionally cautious. Relying
on the advice of Joint Chiefs of Staff head General Hugh Shelton,
Cohen scorned the idea of attacking bin Laden and his operations.
Together, Cohen and Shelton concluded that the 1998 cruise missile
retaliation against Al Qaeda for the embassy bombings in Africa
was a waste of million-dollar weapons that hit only "jungle
gym" equipment, in Shelton's words. And they repeatedly dragged
their feet on any plans until the intelligence was clearly actionable,
the report notes, a standard that was never met.
For instance, after the Cole bombings,
when all the intelligence was pointing toward Al Qaeda, the Pentagon
still doubted it. A State Department counterterrorism official
exclaimed, "Does Al Qaeda have to attack the Pentagon to
get their attention?"
He is the one consistent voice in the
report who recognized the danger of bin Laden early on and tried
to grab everyone by the lapels to listen to him. Like a modern-day
Cassandra, he repeatedly underscored to his superiors in both
Administrations the urgency of the problem. Frustrated by the
lack of seriousness on the part of the Bush crowd, he ultimately
asked to be reassigned. When the Bush principals finally got around
to holding their first meeting on Al Qaeda on September 4, 2001,
Clarke sent Rice some advice: "Decisionmakers should imagine
themselves on a future day when the CSG [Counterterrorism Security
Group] has not succeeded in stopping Al Qaeda attacks and hundreds
of Americans lay dead in several countries, including the U.S.
What would those decisionmakers wish that they had done earlier?
The future day could happen at any time." He also urged the
Administration to respond to the Cole bombing by attacking Al
Qaeda's camps. He wrote that he could not understand "why
we continue to allow the existence of large scale Al Qaeda bases
where we know people are being trained to kill Americans."
It wasn't the first time he used such language. On May 29, 2001,
he wrote to Rice and her deputy, Stephen Hadley, "When these
attacks occur, as they likely will, we will wonder what more we
could have done to stop them." (The report does criticize
Clarke, rather peevishly, for failing "to persuade these
agencies to adopt his views, or to persuade his superiors to set
an agenda of the sort he wanted.")
George Tenet and the CIA
If there is one official who bears the
most culpability, it is former CIA Director George Tenet, the
report suggests. Tenet and the CIA were tardy in coming to grips
with bin Laden's role and with Al Qaeda in general. Though bin
Laden issued a fatwa against the United States as early as 1992,
he wasn't taken seriously until 1996, when "the CIA set up
a special unit of a dozen officers" to analyze intelligence
about him and plan operations against him. By March of 1998, the
bin Laden unit at the CIA had run four complete rehearsals for
a capture operation that had a decent chance of success. But Tenet
and his operations deputy deep-sixed the plan. The report notes:
"It was the duty of Tenet and the CIA leadership to balance
the risks of inaction against jeopardizing the lives of their
operatives and agents."
The staff at the bin Laden unit at the
CIA "felt that they were viewed as alarmists even within
the CIA," and Tenet did not synthesize their work or share
it with other agencies of government, the report notes. Tenet
did issue a directive on December 4, 1998, saying: "We are
at war. I want no resources or people spared in this effort, either
inside CIA or the Community." But he didn't ride herd on
this. "The memorandum had little overall effect on mobilizing
the CIA or the intelligence community." Most amazingly, even
though Tenet said in the summer of 2001 that "the system
was blinking red" and he was receiving reports about imminent,
"spectacular" attacks that could be catastrophic, he
failed to recognize the huge clue that was Zacarias Moussaoui.
"On August 23, DCI Tenet was informed about the Moussaoui
case in a briefing entitled 'Islamic Extremist Learns to Fly.'
Tenet was also told that Moussaoui "wanted to learn to fly
a 747, paid for his training in cash, was interested to learn
the doors do not open in flight, and wanted to fly a simulated
flight from London to New York .... Tenet told us that no connection
to Al Qaeda was apparent to him at the time."
Briefed during the transition that "Al
Qaeda had sleeper cells in more than forty countries, including
the United States," Rice comes across as stolid and bureaucratic
in her response. On January 25, 2001, Clarke sent her a memo that
"We urgently need . . . a Principals
level review on the Al Qaeda network." He warned that Al
Qaeda "is not some narrow, little terrorist issue that needs
to be included in broader regional policy." But Rice did
not heed his alarm. "The national security adviser did not
respond directly to Clarke's memorandum," the report notes.
"No Principals Committee meeting on Al Qaeda was held until
September 4, 2001." After she briefed the President in August
of 2001 about the bin Laden threat, there is no evidence that
she knocked heads together to prevent an attack.
"At no point before 9/11 was the
Department of Defense fully engaged in the mission of countering
Al Qaeda, though this was perhaps the most dangerous foreign enemy
then threatening the United States," the report notes. Rumsfeld
was not interested in retaliating for the Cole attack. "Rumsfeld
thought that too much time had passed." Rumsfeld's priorities
were elsewhere, the report says. "His time was consumed with
getting new officials in place and working on the foundations
of a new defense policy... He did not recall any particular counterterrorism
issue that engaged his attention before 9/11, other than the development
of the Predator unmanned aircraft system." On the afternoon
of 9/11, Rumsfeld wanted to expand the proposed response to Iraq.
Like the man who loses his keys in a dark alley but insists on
looking under the lamppost because the light is better there,
Rumsfeld said "he was not simply interested in striking empty
training sites" in Afghanistan. "He thought the U.S.
response should consider a wide range of options and possibilities.
The Secretary said his instinct was to hit Saddam Hussein at the
The neoconman shows poorly in these pages.
Like Rumsfeld, he was not interested in responding to the attack
on the Cole, since he thought the October attack was "stale,"
the report notes. And he repeatedly
downplayed the risks of Al Qaeda. Embarrassingly,
Wolfowitz "questioned the reporting" about the severity
of the Al Qaeda threats in the summer of 2001, the report notes.
Once the attack happened, "Wolfowitz made the case for striking
Iraq," the report stated, and argued that Iraq "was
ultimately the source of the terrorist problem," according
to Secretary of State Cohn Powell.
On May 9, 2001, Attorney General John
Ashcroft testified to Congress that protecting citizens from terrorist
attacks was "one of the nation's most fundamental responsibilities."
But the very next day, when he submitted his budget, he highlighted
"gun crimes, narcotics trafficking, and civil rights as priorities,"
the report notes. The FBI's counterterrorism expert, Dale Watson,
told the commission that "he almost fell out of his chair
when he saw this memo because it did not mention counterterrorism."
Acting FBI Director Thomas Pickard asked for more counterterrorism
money, "an appeal the Attorney General denied on September
10," the report notes. Ashcroft was repeatedly apprised of
the terrorism warnings by Tenet and Pickard, who testified that
"Ashcroft told him that he did not want to hear about the
threats anymore. Ashcroft denies Pickard's charge."
Among his many duties, the Vice President
in May of 2001 got another one: "President Bush announced
that Vice President Cheney would himself lead an effort looking
at preparations for managing a possible attack by weapons of mass
destruction and at more general problems of national preparedness."
Cheney barely did anything on this, however. "The next few
months were mainly spent organizing the effort and bringing an
admiral from the Sixth Fleet back to Washington to manage it.
The Vice President's task force was just getting under way when
the 9/11 attack occurred." After the attack, the report details
how Cheney lived out Al Haig's "I'm in charge here"
fantasy. The report notes that Cheney gave the order to the military
to shoot down hijacked aircraft. "In most cases, the chain
of command authorizing the use of force runs from the President
or the Secretary of Defense and from the Secretary to the combatant
commander," says the report. But in this case, Cheney made
the order, after, he says, calling the President for approval.
"There is no documentary evidence for this call," however,
the report notes. After Cheney had authorized a shootdown, White
House Deputy Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten urged him to call the
President to confirm the order, whereupon Cheney did so.
George W Bush
Unlike Clinton, Bush was not attending
to the problem in a hands-on manner, even though he had plenty
of warnings. In September 2000, during the election campaign,
Bush was told by a CIA counterterrorism official that "Americans
would die from terrorism during the next four years." Clinton
himself said he told Bush during the transition, "I think
you will find that by far your biggest threat is bin Laden and
the Al Qaeda." And the warnings kept coming, one after another,
in the Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB). "There were more
than forty intelligence articles in the PDBs from January 20 to
September 10, 2001, that related to bin Laden," the report
notes. The infamous PDB, "Bin Laden Determined to Strike
in U.S.," was number thirty-six. Bush's reaction was amazingly
blasé. "The President told us the August 6 report
was historical in nature," and that he already knew that
bin Laden was dangerous. "He did not recall discussing the
August 6 report with the Attorney General or whether Rice had
done so . . . . We have found no indication of any further discussion
before September 11 among the President and his top advisers of
the possibility of an Al Qaeda attack in the United States."
That is hardly the kind of response you
would expect from a competent commander in chief.
While The 9/11 Commission report provides
enough formation to set the record straight about which individuals
bear responsibility for not preventing this attack, the report
is lacking when it gets down to the policies of the United States
that continue to promote terrorism.
The report recognizes some of the root
causes of terrorism and the various reasons why bin Laden and
Al Qaeda appeal to people in the Arab and Muslim world. It properly
understands that the United States faces a two-fold enemy: not
just Al Qaeda but "a radical ideological movement in the
Islamic world." And it concludes that Islamic fundamentalism
"will menace Americans and American interests long after
Osama bin Laden and his cohorts are killed or captured."
But it does not adequately address how the United States can prevail
"in the longer term over the ideology that gives rise to
And that's because it fails to come to
grips with two costly policies: the U.S. war against Iraq and
the U.S. backing of the Israeli occupation.
The report notes that "support for
the United States has plummeted" in the Islamic world after
its height in the days after 9/11. But its explanation for this
First, it seems to point a finger at Edward
W. Said, the Palestinian American scholar who even in death still
rankles U.S. policymakers. AntiAmerican "views are at best
uninformed about the United States and, at worst, informed by
cartoonish stereotypes, the coarse expression of a fashionable
'Occidentalism' among intellectuals who caricature U.S. values
and policies." Then, it blames the lack of U.S. support on
Al-Jazeera and other Arab media outlets.
Taking a broader view, it does discuss
the problems of illiteracy and poverty in the Middle East (though
its answer is a Middle East Free Trade Area). And it notes the
history of Muslim resentment at their lost power and prestige
in the world.
But when the report examines U.S. policy,
it is painfully agnostic. "America's policy choices have
consequences," it says. "Right or wrong, it is simply
a fact that American policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict and American actions in Iraq are dominant staples of
popular commentary across the Arab and Muslim world. This does
not mean U.S. choices have been wrong. It means those choices
must be integrated with America's message of opportunity to the
Arab and Muslim world."
This is a huge cop-out.
At this late date, it takes willful blindness
for the Commission not to recognize how counterproductive the
Iraq War has been on the war on terror. Bush's blunder has diverted
intelligence and military assets from going after Al Qaeda, it
has alienated other countries (not just our allies) that were
cooperating with the United States, and it continues to provide
recruiting footage for the next Al Qaeda video.
And as far as the U.S. embrace of Ariel
Sharon goes, nothing could be more harmful in the effort to win
what the report calls "the struggle of ideas." There
is simply no way to incorporate Israel's ongoing occupation into
a "message of opportunity" for Arabs and Muslims. You
can't square the circle. Until the United States requires Israel
to come to a just peace with the Palestinians, or until the United
States stops uncritically supporting Israel's occupation, the
well of resentment against America will only deepen.
The authors of The 9/11 Commission Report
evidently found it easier to lay out the shortcomings of U.S.
intelligence, to hint at the failings of the particular individuals
at the helm, and to offer recommendations for bureaucratic change
than to fully come to terms with the ongoing policies of our government
that are reproducing terrorists every day.
Matthew Rothschild is Editor of The Progressive.