WASHINGTON, D.C.—It’s no secret the FBI let at least two 9-11 hijackers—Hazmi and Mihdhar—slip through its fingers when they landed in California in 2000 and proceeded to live openly under their own names in San Diego before moving into position for the attack. What makes the situation especially ludicrous is that one of these hijackers rented a room from a San Diego landlord who was an FBI informant on the Muslim community.
That’s bad enough. But after 9-11, when the Joint Congressional Intelligence Committee found out what had been going on, the FBI refused to allow the informant to be interviewed by the committee staff or to testify.
The FBI actually took steps to hide this man so Congress could not find him. All this is described at some length in former senator Bob Graham’s book Intelligence Matters—the one book on this entire affair written by an actual participant in the behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing over what was permitted to come into public view about 9-11. Graham was chairman of the joint congressional investigation.
To resolve the informant question, Graham writes, he met with Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI director Robert Mueller, and other top officials. But when he tried to serve a subpoena on one top FBI official, the man shrank away and would not take the piece of paper. In the end, Graham says, he discovered that the FBI was taking its hard line on the informant on orders from the White House.
Now comes the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General with a lengthy description of the FBI’s relationship with the landlord asset. Like the congressional committee, the inspector general did not interview the landlord, but relies on secondhand information gathered from FBI agents. The landlord no longer works for the Bureau. The inspector general reports, “In July 2003 the asset was given a $100,000 payment and closed as an asset.”
It is interesting to note that the 9-11 Commission was formed in late 2002. The Joint Congressional Inquiry, which discovered the landlord’s existence and sought unsuccessfully to question him, issued its final report July 24, 2003.
Bush’s last quacks
Bush might look like a lame duck, but it would be foolish to underestimate a president’s power in the midst of war. His veto power is formidable. And this president is in the unique position to institutionalize conservative rule by appointing as many as three Supreme Court justices. Places where this lame duck can still do some damage:
BOLTON: Insisting that John Bolton’s nomination as U.N. ambassador is still alive, Bush in a recent press conference slammed the Dems for their blocking tactics. Hill Republicans are split. Fire is going out of the debate, and Bolton still might well slide through.
UNITED NATIONS: Bolton is Bush’s gift to conservatives who want to dump the U.N. But the oil-for-food scandals are an unexpected GOP political plus, showing the U.N. to be corrupt, badly in need of reform and new leadership. And now comes news that the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency had secret how-to-make-a-bomb files stolen, again making the U.N. look incompetent and even dangerous.
JUDGES: In the face-saving deal with Democrats, Bush got three judges through, including Janice Brown, a Federalist Society member, who argues that liberalism is just a stepping stone toward slavery and who once labeled a 1930s landmark court decision permitting the government to regulate the workplace “the triumph of our own socialist revolution.” This deal supposedly defangs Bill Frist’s “nuclear option” plan for getting rid of the filibuster by letting some right-wing judges get through while making plans for a down and dirty fight over Bush’s first appointment to the Supreme Court, expected later this summer. As for a new chief justice, Washington conservatives still argue over Thomas or Scalia.
With Bush shilly-shallying about gay marriage and loosening up the rules on stem cell research, the president needs once more to rally the Christian right to his cause. And that looks to be Roe v. Wade, the litmus test for a Supreme Court justice.
SOCIAL SECURITY: Republicans in Congress cannot agree about Social Security changes, and the emergence of former Clinton treasury secretary Robert Rubin as a powerful new Democratic backroom economics coach makes the administration vulnerable. Bush’s barnstorming earlier this year pushed Social Security into the national limelight, and he has successfully scared people into thinking something must be done—especially young adults who believe their future depends on changing the system.
ENERGY: Bush’s energy proposals don’t mean more oil or lower prices. (Some energy experts see the price of oil soon hitting $150 per barrel.) That’s not the point. Such minor plays as oil drilling in Alaska are powerful symbols in Bush’s continuing effort to maintain and extend his support within the big business community. That’s what counts, not energy policy. There is no energy policy, and there hasn’t been one since Three Mile Island’s meltdown in ’79.
WAR: With the Iraqi insurgency continuing and what could be a Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan, the U.S. is stuck with troops spread dangerously thin in the Middle East and Central Asia. American commanders say we can’t fight another war with the existing military. That means a draft and more money for defense or the downsizing of neocon plans for a military remake of the world. Winnable or not, war is a good way to rally support at home. It can mean more jobs in the defense industry and another round of patriotism. By the time the mess in the Middle East sorts itself out, Bush and his cronies will be long gone. With Bush, rational thinking on defense policy depends on the political drift at home. Bush has already pushed things dangerously close to open conflict with Syria, and tension mounts over Iran.
FAA’s security measures won’t fly
For at least 25 years, the Federal Aviation Administration failed one test after another when it came to airport security. Undercover agents walked through airport checkpoints toting machine guns on their backs and bombs stashed in their carry-on luggage. Agents easily breached security precautions, breezing past locked doors to enter empty planes, mingling behind the scenes with ground crews.
What did the government do? Nothing. Now there are more studies. A so-called confidential report leaked to The New York Times last Sunday reports that air security could be improved with amazingly simple and relatively inexpensive steps to better screen both bags and people. They include such things as making longer tables on which passengers deposit their carry-on luggage while going through security checkpoints and locking exit doors through which deplaning passengers leave and through which any terrorist could walk aboard.
Some suggestions seem obvious, like having a cop with a gun at the checkpoints. “If, say, a handgun were discovered,” the report says, “the terrorist would have ample ability to retain control of it. [S]creeners are neither expecting to encounter a real weapon nor are they trained to gain control of it.”
This confidential study was prepared by Northrop Grumman, the big defense contractor, and the staff of the Department of Homeland Security.
Northrop Grumman has every reason to be making studies like this because it is socked into the potentially large and lucrative homeland security business along with the other major Pentagon contractors. One of the company’s big projects is to develop defense systems that can be put on commercial airliners to protect against heat-seeking, shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles. Named the Guardian, this system is to be tested this year. Northrop Grumman is involved in other ways. The company says its Mission Systems sector “is a premier supplier supporting the spectrum of homeland security initiatives.”
The company is also up to its eyeballs in politics. Within the defense industry, the Center for Responsive Politics reports, Northrop Grumman was the No. 2 contributor to federal candidates and parties in the 2004 election cycle. (No. 1 was Lockheed Martin.) Northrop Grumman contributed $1.688 million, two-thirds of it to Republicans.
As to the studies about airport and airplane security, 17 years after Pan Am 103 went down over Lockerbie, the FAA still lets the airlines tell it what to do. “The facts remain the facts,” says Steve Elson, a former undercover FAA security officer who tried to warn the agency it was on the edge of disaster. “It is still child’s play to knock down 50 airplanes in a few hours’ span with near 100 percent chance of success, and probably quite easy to fly a plane into the White House or Congress.”
Additional reporting: Natalie Wittlin, Halley Bondy, and Christine Lu