Thursday 25 March 2004

The Still Missing Dots in the 9/11 Inquiry

by Trowbridge H. Ford

The best way to stop any constructive investigation of a serious disaster, and thereby prevent any possible punishment of those responsible, and remedies against it recurring is to throw a security net over what actually happened. This prevents everyone from knowing who screwed up, when and how, leaving only a trail of alarming rumors, missed opportunities, and convenient red-herrings. In the end, one is left with the bitter taste of accepting the flawed system as it is.

In no case is this better illustrated than in the current hearings that America's National Commission on Terrorist Attacks has been conducting in Washington. With an agreement that no secret operatives, actual operations or key terrorists in the attacks will be identified, the public is being presented with a most vague account of what actually occurred. Not only are there semantic differences over what constituted plans, operations, and options, there are all kinds of confusions about who may have been conducting them, and for what purpose.

The best illustration of the confusions is all the talk about dots, whatever they may be, and what they represent. They could be people, cruical intelligence, fatal misconceptions - you name it. Dots become euphenisms for all kinds of things. Then people in charge are talking about their institutions in most confusing personal and collective ways.

The best evidence of this was supplied by Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet when he testified: "We didn't steal the secret that told us what the plot was, we didn't recruit the right people or technically collect the data, notwithstanding ernormous effort to do so." The DCI did not describe the secrets that the Agency had stolen about the plot - apparently simple hijackings in return for dropping all demands on the Taliban for handing over Al-Qaeda's leader Osama bin Laden - the agents it had recruited to prevent it, and the anecdotal efforts it had made to put the vast data into some kind of perspective, though it attempts proved prodigious.

More incredibly, the Commission did not ask him to explain any of these sweeping statements, settling for querying him about the complete red-herring about why bin Laden had not been assassinated nearly three years earlier, everyone ultimately admitting that even if successful, it would not have prevented the 9/11 attacks.

For good measure, the DCI even added this about Agency efforts but still without any response by the Commissioners: "We didn't integetrate all the data we had properly, and probably we had a lot of data that we didn't know about that if everybody'd known about maybe we would have had a chance. I can't predict to you one way or another." As for who "we" was in this context - it apparently was not the Agency's two counterterrorist experts who almost resigned because of the benighted way things were going before the attacks - we have no clearer idea of who they were than his earlier references to them in explaining the vast CIA's failures.

Fortunately, for the FBI, its Director, Robert Mueller, was not put through this embarrassment as he had just taken over the Bureau when the attacks occurred, and the Commission did not have the courage of confronting the discredited former Director, Louis Freeh, with a more embarrassing ordeal about why it had not connected the dots it knew about before he departed.

Of course, all these questions could have been clarified by the Commission forcing the DCI to admit that the Agency had taken on an aggressive counterterrorist agenda after the Bureau's Robert Hanssen had been exposed as a Soviet spy - what it had suffered from for six years after the Agency's Aldrich "Rick" Ames had been outed for working for Moscow in 1994. The CIA wanted to teach the Bureau a law-enforcement lesson in the worst way, though it did not have the necessary legal authority to ensure success. CIA agents do not have the power of arrest, or to carry guns in the domestic United States.

Still, once Al-Qaeda's Khalid Sheikh Mohammed carried out an attack on the USS Cole in October 2000 while it was attempting to refuel in Aden - what the Agency had learned was in the offing during a meeting of his operatives at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia the previous January - CIA planned for rounding up all his agents after their leaders made their way to the United States, ultimately assembling them in Los Angeles. To ensure the plan's success, the Agency prevailed upon the State Department to cut the only knowledgeable counterterrorist agent in the Bureau, John O'Neill, out of the investigation of the attack on the Cole, leading to his resignation, and actual murder in the attacks.

Then the Agency, thinking that the coast was clear for a colossal coup, allowed Mohammed's chief operatives Khalid Al-Midhar and Nawaq Al-Hamzi to enter the States so that they could activate all the sleeper cells already within the country for the roundup. To help guarantee success, the Agency placed four agents on the United plane which crashed into the WTC's North Tower, eight agents on the plane which was ultimately forced down in Pennsylania, and three agents and Mrs. Barabara Olson, wife of Solicitor General Ted Olson, and coordinator of the whole operation, on the plane which slammed into the Pentagaon.

Of course, the Agency refuses to allow mention of the hijackers, especially Al-Midhar and Al-Hamzi, for fear that it will be forced to release the complete passenger lists of the doomed flights - what could lead to the identification of its agents on the last three flights, and the the exposure of the whole hamfisted operation.

In sum, until the Commission starts talking about unmentionable operatives and agents, and starts questioning the Solictitor General about his wife's role and actions in it, one can be assured that it is getting nowhere.