As time passes, more details of what happened before and after 9-11 become known. Here are three examples of the government’s outright failure before and after the attacks to take action—including an instance of a startling new policy to defend the capital city of Washington:
ABLE DANGER: The 9-11 Commission ignored reports that lead hijacker Mohammed Atta had been recognized and placed under surveillance long before the attack by a special secret Pentagon unit called Able Danger.
People from Able Danger actually briefed the Joint Chiefs of Staff on what they had discovered in January 2001. Pentagon lawyers prevented them from telling the FBI what they knew, apparently on the theory that it didn’t want anyone to know military intelligence was operating illegally within the U.S. It also happens that the secret unit wanted to surface its findings during the Gore-Bush presidential campaign. The revelation of a secret military intelligence unit operating against the law within the U.S. probably wouldn’t have helped Gore.
During its own investigations, the 9-11 Commission took testimony from a naval officer who described seeing an Able Danger document in 2000 that linked Atta to Al Qaeda. However, commission chair Thomas Kean and vice chair Lee Hamilton claimed that this one bit of testimony was not “sufficiently reliable” and not worth following up. Hamilton later explained, “The 9-11 Commission did not learn of any U.S. government knowledge prior to 9-11 of surveillance of Mohammed Atta or of his cell. Had we learned of it, obviously it would’ve been a major focus of our investigation.”
Recently on CNN, Lou Dobbs asked Slade Gorton, the former Republican senator from Washington State and member of the commission, why it had omitted mention of Able Danger. Gorton explained, “Well, Able Danger worked out very interesting. It didn’t identify Mohammed Atta a year beforehand. Unfortunately, no one identified Mohammed Atta beforehand. Able Danger was simply irrelevant to our report and still is. ”
Last week Dobbs replayed Gorton’s remarks and, turning to Republican congressman Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania—the man who has been haranguing the commission about covering up Able Danger—said, ” ‘Simply irrelevant’ how Slade Gorton describes Able Danger. What’s your reaction?”
“Unbelievable,” replied Weldon, a member of the House Armed Services Committee. “Slade Gorton has never talked to any principal involved with Able Danger. And how he can go off and profess to know something about something that he’s never talked to anyone about is beyond me.”
But Gorton isn’t the only one. Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of defense when the Joint Chiefs were briefed in January 2001, had this to say: “It’s such an interesting story. Of course, it’s something that occurred well before this administration came in. Back in the ’90s, as I understand it, and it’s an interesting story.”
Able Danger ended in 2000, before Rumsfeld took office, but people involved remained in place and knew about the project—including the Joint Chiefs.
In fact, the U.S. knew about Mohammed Atta in 1998. At that time he was living in Hamburg as part of an Al Qaeda cell. There is a possibility Atta might have been known to U.S. intelligence as far back as 1993. In 2004, the German prosecutor overseeing the investigation of the Hamburg cell was scheduled to testify before the 9-11 Commission, but his testimony was unexpectedly canceled.
AIR SECURITY: The theory is that following the attacks, the U.S. beefed up its lax air security, as did other countries whose airlines come and go in the U.S. The Canadian border is of special concern, as are Canadian airports—a recent documentary on Canadian TV’s The Fifth Estate found that airport security was virtually nonexistent. After 9-11 the Canadians put up $9 billion for security measures, $2 billion of which was for airport security. The documentary show ran an undercover operation to test it.
Steve Elson, a member of the FAA’s Red Team, a group of former special-ops personnel employed by the U.S. government to test our air security, was asked by CBC to run the undercover operation on Canadian air security. Arriving in Toronto, the former Navy SEAL deciphered all the Toronto airport-access codes within 20 minutes, and with The Fifth Estate‘s hidden camera in tow, walked through Toronto’s Pearson Airport “opening one door after another.” The doors all seemed to have the same codes. “That means I can get access to airplanes, to the ramp, literally get into a jetway door in a few seconds,” said Elson.
This means that any terrorist could plant a bomb on a plane sitting in Toronto and destined for, say, Washington, and blow it up in the air while it was landing, or just after it landed.
Canadian officials didn’t blink an eye. Mark Duncan, who heads the country’s Air Transport Security Authority, said not to worry. “Our last public-opinion survey showed that 90 percent of the people were satisfied with the security process,” he said. “So we think we’ve delivered on the mandate we were given.”
Elson later told the Voice via e-mail, “The big problem is not that one can get explosives aboard aircraft in Canada or U.S., because there are so many ways to do it. The problem is the absolutely absurd ease with which it can be done, repetitively . . . Billions spent, yet other dimwits besides me could waltz through ‘security’ with 20 pounds of explosive, go aboard, and take down 50 planes in an hour. Yet they wouldn’t have to be aboard when the planes blow. It is so very, very easy—the government makes it that way. That’s the problem.”
Defending D.C.: During the 9-11 attacks, with President George W. Bush holding a bum phone in Air Force One, Dick Cheney in the bunker shouting out orders to take down planes that had already crashed, and Don Rumsfeld AWOL, the job of protecting the capital city fell not to the military, but to the Secret Service, which is responsible for protecting the president.
The Secret Service apparently ordered the D.C. National Guard to scramble fighters into a CAP (combat air patrol) with fire-at-will instructions. The Secret Service is not in the chain of command for defense of the nation and operates on its own authority.
Rumsfeld later told the 9-11 Commission that protecting the U.S. within the nation’s borders was not his responsibility but fell to some other government law enforcement agency. The 9-11 commissioners listened in rapt attention as this novel interpretation of the nation’s laws was explained to them.
Anyhow, the situation is now rectified with the announcement that the Coast Guard will defend the capital. (It takes over from Customs, which has been doing the job since 2003.) On the surface this is a welcome move, since the Coast Guard was the only effective government agency during the recent hurricanes. But the Coast Guard’s fleet of planes and ships is woefully outmoded, and it is not known for its firepower.
But that’s not the real problem. Putting the Coast Guard in charge means putting Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff in permanent charge. Chertoff is not a military man but a former Justice Department lawyer and judge. He ran a feeble, incompetent government hurricane response. Bush has been pressured to get rid of him and install Rudy Giuliani instead. But he survives and now is commander in chief of the nation’s capital.
Additional reporting: Isabel Huacuja and Ali Syed
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 8, 2005