Errors of Commission

The hijacking of the probe into the 9-11 hijackers

According to the notes, Rumsfeld learned that "one guy is associate of bomber"—the Al Qaeda suicide bomber who attacked the U.S. warship in Yemen in 2000.

At 2:40, the notes report, Rumsfeld was beginning to take aim at the target close to his heart: He wants the "best info fast. Judge whether good enough hit S.H. [Saddam Hussein] at same time. Not only UBL [Osama Bin Laden]. Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not." This was the first indication that Rumsfeld was disregarding specific intelligence clearly linking the attack to Al Qaeda and instead had begun to fantasize about getting Saddam Hussein.

Hours later, White House terrorism adviser Richard Clarke went to the White House for meetings that Clarke believed would concern U.S. vulnerabilities, possible future attacks, and what might be done to prevent them. As he writes in one of the most famous passages from his book, Clarke "instead walked into a series of discussions about Iraq."

"At first," Clarke writes, "I was incredulous that we were talking about something other than getting Al Qaeda. Then I realized with almost a sharp physical pain that Rumsfeld and [Deputy Defense Secretary Paul] Wolfowitz were going to try to take advantage of this national tragedy to promote their agenda about Iraq. Since the beginning of the administration, indeed well before, they had been pressing for a war with Iraq. My friends in the Pentagon had been telling me that the word was we would be invading Iraq sometime in 2002."

Rumsfeld's breezy dismissal of Al Qaeda's involvement in the attacks in the face of specific intelligence is hard to fathom. And if there is buried somewhere in the Pentagon a military intelligence operation—its existence approved at the highest levels—that knew all about Atta and Al Qaeda, then Rumsfeld's behavior is indefensible.

The 9-11 Commission was established to get to the bottom of the attacks that day. However, it often skipped over key issues:

*Bush and Cheney were interviewed together, in secret, with no record of the meeting.

*Florida senator Bob Graham's joint congressional inquiry had unearthed the outlines of what may have been a Saudi spy operation linked to Al Qaeda and operating in the U.S. But the commission dismissed Saudi involvement and cleared the royal family.

*The commission never seriously inquired into the activities of Pakistan, whose secret intelligence agency had created the Taliban and subsequently backed Al Qaeda.

*The commission had no time for FBI translator Sibel Edmonds, who came up with one tale after another of fishy operations in the FBI translations section, including the mind-boggling information that FBI interpreters were being sent to Guantánamo to translate languages they could not speak.

*The congressional joint inquiry discovered that an FBI informant on the West Coast, unbeknownst to the Bureau, rented an apartment to two hijackers. When Graham tried to interview the landlord, the FBI refused. Later a top FBI official told Graham that the White House had blocked the informant's testimony. The commission dismissed all this.

*The commission skipped over the scandalous mess at the FAA, suppressing a staff study saying that the agency had ignored numerous warnings issued in the months before the attack. After the election, the commission released parts of this study, leaving some of it classified.

*The commission never seriously inquired into intelligence failures at the Hamburg cell where Atta lived off and on and which was a key center for planning the attacks.

Every day it looks as if the government's main probe of 9-11 has turned into a political fix.

Additional reporting: Halley Bondy

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