Op-ed Submission to the Wall Street Journal
May 11, 2004
What is a Citizen to Do?
How could 19 middle-eastern men simultaneously hijack 4 commercial airplanes in two hours, crash them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and murder 3000 innocent people?
With the billions spent each year on defense and intelligence, why did our nation do so little in a defensive posture to mitigate the vast devastation that was brought upon us by these 19 men?
Our research began with every agency and every policy that could possibly shed some light on why the tragedy of 9/11 was not averted. With each revelation and each new understanding, our naïveté waned and the challenges loomed large. The problems were systemic in nature. Changes were needed everywhere. Agencies, 20 years after the Cold War had ended, were still operating in a Cold War posture. Terrorists were not watch-listed. FBI computers were antiquated. Intelligence agents and supervisors failed to analyze and investigate creatively, aggressively, and with curiosity. Congress and the Executive Branch failed to properly share their growing National Security concerns and garner the will of the nation to fight this new war against terrorism. The media was more prone to cover scandal than terrorism.
Our research revealed that numerous indicators throughout our intelligence history illustrated the use, or intended use of planes as missiles. We found field reports, case files and studies, eye witness testimony, intelligence community threat matrices, and Department of Defense mock drills all addressing the “planes as missiles” idea.
In fact, during the summer of 2001, President Bush attended the G-8 summit in Genoa,Italy where specific protections were put into place to ward against an air attack. Moreover, FBI agents testified in the Embassy bombing trial in NYC during the spring of 2001 that al-Qaeda was interested in suicide hijackers flying planes into buildings—buildings like the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Finally, we learned that the Olympic games in Atlanta and Salt Lake City had included aerial attacks in their security protocols.
Indeed, most haunting is what we found out about Al-Qaeda and their attempt to attack Atlanta, Georgia during the summer Olympics. Because of the heightened protection and alert status during the Atlanta Games, al-Qaeda got “spooked” and called off their planned attack. And thus began the “what ifs?”
What if the pre-9/11 national security apparatus’, agencies and institutions had matched themselves with similar alert levels? What if the 19 hijackers on 9/11 noticed that same type of vigilant security, gotten spooked themselves and delayed their attack by days or even months? More potently, would such a delay have given enough time to our Intelligence Community to discover and/or minimize the damage of the plot?
Could the FBI have had enough time to receive the FISA warrant on Zaccharias Moussaoui? Afterall, the FBI had enough information to meet probable cause for a FISA warrant because French intelligence in August 2001 had handed over a huge file on Moussaoui linking him to terrorist groups. Moreover, given the fact that Moussaoui was attending the same flight school that the FBI had investigated since 1998 because of the many known middle-eastern terrorists training there, maybe the FBI could have applied for and received a simple criminal warrant.
Perhaps, the internal decision in May 2001 by FISA Court Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth that had a “chilling effect” on all FBI surveillance and wiretapping of terrorist organizations-including Al-Qaeda cells in the US, during the spring and summer 2001 could have been lifted or at the very least tempered?
Or maybe the hijackers could have been watch-listed and forbidden to fly on commercial flights? What if the airline pilots were told that hijackers were capable of flying commercial airliners and to not allow anyone into the cockpit-whether or not they were in uniform? What if airport security was told to be on the lookout for possible terrorist suspects and/or contraband such as gas masks, mace, pepper spray, guns and/or knives?
Could the NSA have translated the phone conversations or intercepts of the hijackers, Bin Laden, Bin Laden family members, and other Al-Qaeda operatives that they had in their possession throughout the summer and early fall of 2001? Could the NSA have acted on and/or communicated this information to the FBI, CIA, and National Security Council in time?
Perhaps, FBI Agent David Frasca may have had the time to read the Phoenix memorandum and the Moussaoui information both of which were on his desk by August 2001 and put the two files together?
Could the FBI have had the time to find two of the hijackers, Al-Midhar and Al-hazmi, who were already under investigation for two years by CIA after CIA had conducted surveillance on a terrorist meeting in Malaysia in January 2000? After all, Al-Midhar and Al-Hazmi were living in San Diego, listed in the phone book, had bank accounts in their own names, trained at flight schools and resided with a known FBI informant?
Could CIA have found Marwan Al-Shehi? He was Mohammed Atta’s roommate and visited the same flight school that Moussaoui was arrested at by the FBI. CIA had the name “Marwan” and a phone number given to them by the German government. Could they have had the time to follow-up with this information?
Could our National Security Council’s Principals who first met on September 4, 2001 had more time to hold a second meeting where they could have discussed the threat spikes and foreign government warnings from Russia, Israel, Germany, and Egypt that Al-Qaeda was planning an imminent and spectacular attack on the domestic US? Would our NSC Principals have had the time to harden our homeland security?
Could NORAD have placed fighter jets on shorter alert status, so that our air defense did not arrive too late like it did on 9/11? Perhaps, with over an hour’s worth of notice before the attack on the Pentagon, the F-16’s could have arrived on time to protect our Department of Defense.
Could we learn from this tragedy so that it would not be repeated? Could our fellow citizens be willing to shed sunlight onto the inadequacies of our government’s ability to defend itself against terrorism? Could our elected officials cease the diversionary tactics of “mudslinging” and “name-calling” long enough to allow the facts to be revealed, examined, and fixed? Could the media no longer fall prey to sensational stories and feed the public information that truly informs and educates them about our nation’s ability to fight terrorism?
Democracy cannot prosper on blind-faith. To work effectively, democracy’s foundation -the people, must be well informed. And, in order to be more informed, more responsive, and more prepared for the challenges ahead, we must continue to ask questions to our leaders; that is our duty as responsible citizens. It is why the 9/11 Independent Commission’s investigative work, public hearings, public Final Report and public Recommendations are so vital.
The only way elected officials, agencies and institutions can be held accountable and responsible is if we, the American people, stay vigilant and informed. Before 9/11, the will of the nation to fight terrorism was not present. Post 9/11, the will of this nation exists to confront the battle of terrorism.
But fighting terrorism is not simply an offensive strategy. It is a combined and cumulative process. We need the intelligence agencies to investigate more creatively and aggressively. We need our judicial process to permit the fair and just prosecution of terrorists. We need our foreign policy to issue sanctions to all countries that sponsor terrorism, even if that means our foreign economic dependency suffers. We need our Treasury Department to have the resources to dry up money lines that fund terrorist organizations. We need big business interests to yield to the common good.
Our elected officials who take an oath of office to lead, protect, and serve need to be held responsible and accountable. They must have the courage and curiosity to ask questions, to have established and reliable plans and back-up plans, to demand action, reforms and to welcome personal responsibility.
Most importantly, our elected officials need to remember that they are serving at the will of the people. As our public stewards, it should not be the sanctity of their own political well-being that most consumes their actions and decisions. More correctly, it should be the safety, security and well-being of the people that they serve that should pre-occupy their time.
In a post-9/11 world, it is the responsible preservation of all life that must transcend politics.
Lorie Van Auken